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5 Steps to Managing Your Biggest Differences

“Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then.” 
- Katherine Hepburn

Do you and your partner blame each other for your differences?

In practice we hear:

  • You leave the house such a mess -vs- you want the house to look perfect.
  • You make too many plans -vs- you don’t want to do anything.
  • You spend too much money -vs- you don’t save for our retirement.
  • I need more intimacy -vs- I need more space.
  • Let’s relax on vacation -vs- we have to see all the sights on vacation.
  • You always fight when we differ -vs- you always leave when we disagree.

The usual pattern is our differences are overlooked in the beginning when we are in the honeymoon stage. Down the road we begin to blame our partners for not being like us. We fall into the trap of making our way right, and making our partner’s way wrong. Then we judge and criticize them for doing things their way. The result: chronic arguments about these issues.

Most couples have significant differences in their personalities and ways of living. Opposites do attract.

The key to staying together forever is to learn how to accept, respect, and manage these differences, instead of allowing them to become stumbling blocks.

Just how do you do that when your partner’s messiness or overspending drives you crazy? Communicate.

Here are steps you can take to work through these issues:

  1. Acknowledge your differences without making each other wrong. For instance, some people feel better when their house is organized; others would rather relax then straighten up. No one is right or wrong.
  2. Communicate your feelings about the issue to each other, one at a time, and hear your partner’s point of view. For example ask, “Help me understand your need for organization.” “Help me understand how you can leave things disorganized.”
  3. Listen and acknowledge your partner’s feelings, even if it makes no sense to you. You may never understand why your partner needs the house tidy, but believe her strong feelings are real for her.
  4. Agree to respect your differences instead of trying make it about right and wrong. For example, you could say, “I recognize you would rather relax and I want to clean up.”
  5. Figure out action steps as a team to make it work for both of you. For instance, agree you will make sure the house is clean and neat when you have company coming; and on some weeknights. And if you are not finished straightening up by 10PM (or an agreed upon time) you will leave it for the next day and relax.

Following these steps has helped us and many of the couples we have worked with. It is an exercise in putting the relationship above your individual needs. Partners who want to stay together for a lifetime develop the ability to accept each other and love each other despite their different ways. And isn’t that what commitment is all about?

The Key to Lasting Love

Remember the Beatles song, “All You Need is Love”? For a relationship to last a lifetime, nothing could be further from the truth.

Love is defined as an intense feeling of strong affection and attraction; a deep romantic or sexual attachment. It is what initially brings us together. It’s the beginning; it’s the first thing we need in a relationship. But love by itself will not sustain a partnership “till death do us part.” The romantic notion the feeling of love will hold us together forever is a myth.

Why isn’t it enough? Why isn’t romantic love, followed by commitment or marital vows, able to keep us connected for a lifetime? The answer is “falling in love” or “being in love,” though a powerful emotion, is passive. Our culture naively teaches us to believe the feelings of love will never change. We don’t learn how to actively nurture and grow the emotion of love over our lifetimes.

Love is a feeling and feelings are strange things. You can’t see them or touch them; they exist in our minds and our hearts. They are dynamic and always in process. And they are highly subject to change over the years depending on life’s circumstances. We expect the promise we make in our vows, alone, will ensure those powerful feelings will last forever. In reality it takes so much more than that.

Our feelings of love are subject to how much attention we pay to them. If we intentionally feed feelings, they grow; if we starve feelings, they die. And if we do neither, and don’t truly attend to them, they capriciously respond to the happenings in our lives.

When life gets serious, if couples are not consciously aware of working through their feelings together, it’s likely that anger, frustration, sadness and fear will overshadow the feelings of love; and the connection may drift away.

So what is the key to lasting love and a forever relationship?

Consciously and actively love your partner, everyday. Feed the love, listen with empathy, communicate, problem solve, face and embrace difficult feelings, apologize and forgive.

To say in love we need to:

Create love. Build love. Practice love. Nurture love. Grow in love. Every day.

I didn’t marry you because you were perfect. I didn’t even marry you because I loved you. I married you because you gave me a promise. That promise made up for your faults.
And the promise I gave you made up for mine. Two imperfect people got married and it was the promise that made the marriage. And when our children were growing up, it wasn’t a house that protected them; and it wasn’t our love that protected them – it was that promise.
– Thornton Wilder, The Skin of Our Teeth

How to Navigate the Dance of Right and Wrong in Relationships

Ann and Warren had a huge fight right before their session with us. In their previous session we had explored how Warren responded to conflict just like his father; he shut down when difficult feelings arose.

Just prior to seeing them that day, Ann brought up a sensitive issue, and as was customary, Warren withdrew. He was once again “hijacked” by his feelings and reacted the way he learned from his father.  When he became dismissive of Ann, she remarked,  “There you go again – acting just like you Dad!”

Warren came into session extremely angry, stating that if he was going to open up in therapy, it was “wrong” for Ann to attack him in this manner. Ann contended that she was “right” to point this pattern out, and complained that Warren was blaming her for doing so.

Trying to determine who was “right” and who was “wrong” blocked this couple from using this interaction to explore their relationship more deeply with each other.

In session, we helped the couple transition from the simplistic labeling of who was “right” or “wrong,” or ultimately “who was to blame,” and moved them to understanding what actually happened between them in that moment.

Ann presumed it was critical to point out these patterns for Warren if he was ever going to have a chance to change them. It was not her intent to attack Warren, but to work on the relationship. Warren’s first impression was Ann was indeed intending to hurt him because of the angry critical tone in her voice when she spoke to him.

Lori and I helped make them both “right.” Warren agreed Ann should communicate he was withdrawing; Ann agreed she would give him feedback in a way that was not angry or critical so he could receive it.

When they moved beyond the empty labels of “right and wrong” and beyond blame, they found themselves in a place of mutual understanding, and united in their desire to work together toward greater connection.

Focusing on right and wrong or who is to blame:

  • Complicates the issue at hand
  • Signals judgment of your partner’s thoughts and feelings
  • Polarizes the conversation
  • Creates disconnection

Here are some points to consider when the issue of “right and wrong” arises in your relationship.

Thoughts and feelings are not “right” or “wrong;” they just “are.” They exist as thoughts and feelings in their own right. Actually, all thoughts and feelings are “right” in the sense they are genuine representations of what the person is thinking and feeling.

The reason we engage in this labeling is to simplify the issues, which are really not that simple. It is also a way to avoid complications and uncertainty if we dare to look deeper.

Next time you and your partner find yourselves in the right or wrong tug of war, don’t focus on agreement or convincing your partner of the “rightness” of your position, but rather on understanding and clarifying each other’s point of view.

The engagement of contrary thoughts and feelings offers the most promising occasion for connection and for the development of trust and good decision-making. Working through divergent personal perceptions, can make relationships stronger by effectively broadening our understanding of our partners and ourselves.

Validation of our partner’s thoughts and feelings confirms the “actual fact” our partner has these thoughts and feelings, that first need to be embraced if we are to begin meaningful discussion about differences. This does not diminish our own thoughts and feelings, but merely distinguishes them. This now becomes the vital entry point for deeper discussion and increased connection.

Remember the goal is not about our “winning,” but rather about protecting our relationship from “losing.”

Matters of right and wrong and blame should never be the end of discussions but instead the beginning of them.

What Stage is Your Marriage In?

Anyone who has been married more than a couple of years, knows marriage goes through different stages. Psychologist, Rita DeMaria, PhD, wrote about these stages in her book, The 7 Stages of Marriage.

Being aware of the stages will help you understand the feelings, thoughts, challenges and rewards at different periods in your relationship. Couples don’t go through these stages in a straight line, or for a particular amount of time. The stages vary from couple to couple. However, this information will give you an idea of what to expect in the lifetime of your marriage.

Passion is first. We all know about this stage. The honeymoon in the beginning is a time when we don’t have to work to create the feelings of love and romance. You establish your identity as a couple and build the head, heart and hormone connections that we talk about.

Next comes Realization. Reality sets in and your partner comes down off the pedestal. You find out what you like and don’t like about each other. This is where you also start forming an underlying friendship and work on empathic communication. Routines are established with division of labor and financial matters.

Another stage is Rebellion. Rebellion is when individuals pull back from each other and focus on their individuality. They may have conflict and power struggles. In this stage you can learn to compromise, to negotiate, to accept your differences, and to solve problems.

Having children and moving up the career ladder leads to the stage of Cooperation. There is too much to do, not enough time, money, emotional or sexual connection as a couple. It’s vital during this stage every couple remembers to carve out time for the relationship.

When kids leave the home there is the stage of Reunion. The two of you are back together as a couple for the first time in a couple of decades. If you still like each other, it can be a wonderful stage – time to do more together, renew your relationship, focus on being healthy, and develop new interests together.

Some couples go through a difficult stage somewhere along their path called Explosion. Crises such as an illness, losing a job, an affair, family crisis, or aging parents, can bring couples together or pull them apart. The opportunity at this stage is to come together, unite as a team, and deepen your connection.

The final stage is Completion. You face aging as a couple and keep your relationship growing. Creating more meaning and purpose can happen in these years, especially if you become grandparents. And you deal with the possibility of losing each other.

Each of these stages has its own opportunities and challenges. Talk with your partner about what stage you are at and how you can build connection by facing the challenges together.

The Secret to Connecting with Your Partner

“Sarah is a great wife; she has sacrificed so much for us, loved us so much; I don’t understand why she’s so unhappy. What is happening to her and to our marriage?”

These were the first words expressed by Tom in session with his wife Sarah. Tom was baffled. He worked hard and provided for their family, so Sarah could stay home and raise their children. Isn’t this the life she always wanted?

Tom loved Sarah from the first day they met in high school. He raved about all she did for him and their 4 boys. His concern was that recently Sarah had a mysterious change of heart; she seemed withdrawn, less devoted to Tom and was doing less for the family.

After several visits, Sarah revealed her deeper feelings. She was so supportive, so loving, so giving to their family that she exhausted herself. She did “everything” and felt she received little back. She believed she was not appreciated for who she was, but more for the tasks she did. No matter how hard she tried to connect emotionally with Tom, it just didn’t happen. The more she invested in their relationship, the more she felt diminished and alone.

These feelings had actually been building from the first day they had met, but neither she, nor Tom was aware of the extent and depth of the challenges it would create. Sarah loved Tom in high school and was drawn to him. They had great sex. Tom was funny, clever, sociable, and admired by people in the community. She had always felt a sense of happiness and completeness when she was with him.

Over the years, these feelings eroded and were replaced with resentment. She recounted how Tom’s priority had always been sports, not their marriage. He played softball two to three evenings a week. Once the kids came along he was involved in coaching the boys’ sports teams. Being an avid Orioles fan, he had season tickets with a buddy.

It had been years since Sarah had taken care of herself. Now at mid-life she realized it was time to think about her needs. Sarah described growing up as the oldest of 8. As a surrogate mom, she was always doing for others and rarely received praise or appreciation from her exhausted mom. Her dad held down numerous jobs. She learned to subjugate her needs to others and expect little back. Closeness was not achieved by sharing feelings; it was the result of the tasks she did for others in the family.

Uncovering this history helped Sarah see how her baggage set her up to recreate the role of “over-giver” in the family she built. Her resentment towards Tom was a fear that he would never love her for who she was; that he would only love her for the tasks she did.

We encouraged Sarah to define what connection meant to her. Sarah said she felt connected to Tom when he…

  • listened to her fully
  • shared intimate thoughts and feelings with her
  • did small thoughtful acts of love

Tom’s effort to work on these specific behaviors over time showed Sarah he valued her. This helped Sarah let go of her resentment and their connection improved.

So the secret to feeling connected in your relationship is for partners to define the concrete actions that create feelings of connection and make a conscious effort to do those very things.If you want to feel connected, do connecting things.

 

Did You Marry Your Mother or Father?

Early on I dated men who were emotionally distant, like my dad. I knew not all men were that way, but the loving, caring, considerate guys who respected women just never seemed to show up. The more I studied psychology, the more I realized this wasn’t just a coincidence.

My favorite professor, Dr. Herbert Strean, from Rutgers University Graduate School of Social Work, drilled into us that:

A client’s chronic complaint is an unconscious wish for that very thing.

I wondered, “How could that apply to me? Did that mean my chronic complaint ’there aren’t any nice guys out there’, was my unconscious wish? Did this mean somehow I was attracted to or choosing emotionally distant men unconsciously? Why would I do that?”

Dr. Strean explained we often choose mates similar to our parents. After all, they are our first and most significant male and female models of love and being loved. That dynamic becomes hardwired into us emotionally. Even when a current relationship is not healthy, it is familiar, and therefore comfortable.

Unconsciously recreating old relationship patterns is a way of bringing our parent, and all that baggage, back into our lives. Why? Because we haven’t worked out the original hurt, so we project it onto our partner. We unconsciously think we can work it out with a significant other.

Individual therapy is the best way to prevent this. Working through old baggage allows us to see our patterns consciously, and recognize what we are repeating.

I feel fortunate I had the opportunity to work through my baggage before I met Bob. If I hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t have picked him. He was, after all, a man who could be emotionally closed.

Does this resonate for you? Reach out and let us know if you’d like relationship support to work through any unresolved issues.

Locate Your Unclaimed Relationship Baggage

Diana and Elliot were stuck. Every time conflict arose, they became paralyzed with fear and withdrew from each other. They could not face their differences. We coached Diana on ways to express her feelings to Elliot when she was angry and we modeled how Elliot could listen and respond to her empathetically. No matter what Lori and I suggested to open up the way they communicated, they seemed to stay shut down.

When we meet with such overwhelming roadblocks, we know we are dealing with more than what ostensibly appears before us. We have to dig deeper.

Lori and I realized there were not just four of us in the room. Past relationships likely created fears that kept them from being vulnerable and being emotionally close. Their fear fed upon each other and created a powerful dynamic keeping logic and reason just beyond reach.

Diana was aware she controlled her responses to Elliot. She was afraid if she pushed too hard, Elliot would abandon her. This is precisely what her mom did when Diana expressed her genuine feelings as a child. If her mother didn’t like what Diana said, she would give Diana the silent treatment. With her Dad having abandoned the family, mom was all she had.  No wonder she was gun shy to put herself out there. The powerful experiences of her childhood literally controlled much of her interaction with Elliot.

Elliot, on the other hand, had baggage from a more recent relationship. He considered himself a failure. Two serious relationships before his marriage to Diana ended when each woman left him for another man. After marrying Diana, he felt relatively secure, but still harbored an underlying, unconscious fear that it would happen again. It was only a matter of time before Diana would leave him.

The issues Diana and Elliot brought to the relationship interfered with their ability to be close. When Diana tried to express her feelings to Elliot, he responded like a “deer in the headlights.”  He felt unable to engage in the conversation, and felt trapped by the fear.

His withdrawal felt like the silent treatment Diana’s mother gave her in response to Diana’s expression of genuine feelings.

Their “interlocking pasts” unconsciously conspired to keep them from taking on conflict during those most critical times. They couldn’t share each other’s worlds or challenge each other’s perspectives because the fear within their respective baggage shut them down.

As we helped Diana and Elliot understand (claim) their baggage in their present relationship, they became more open and were able to work as a team, and collaborate to achieve greater connection.

The key to claiming your unclaimed baggage is to be aware of it. Ask yourself, “What hidden fears am I lugging around today that don’t belong to my current relationship?”

WARNING: Potential Emotional Hijacking Underway

Roger, the oldest of five children, grew up in a rough part of Baltimore City. Early on, he learned fighting was the only way he could protect himself. Using his loud voice to appear angry and explosive, he developed tools that kept him safe. The volatility characterizing him as a youth actually served to protect him from people who might otherwise have hurt or taken advantage of him.

Eventually his family moved to a safer neighborhood. Though his environment changed, he maintained the “edge” he thought would continue to serve him well. However, his parents often complained he was defensive and hot tempered. Though his tough childhood was long ago, it seemed impossible for him to change his emotional response system.

Even after Roger grew up, married Marti, and had two kids, he could not leave his past behind. Psychologically speaking, one never does. The survival tools of childhood had turned into a hurtful overreaction in his marriage. Marti witnessed him closing down and withdrawing many times when they had conflict. Marti was left confused and hurt. Despite Roger’s most marvelous qualities, there was a very distant part of him she disliked.

Psychologically, our past becomes part of who we are. It defines how we cope. It underlies our fundamental personalities and it shapes our thoughts and feelings. Most often this is unconscious. We may not recognize the impact our history has on how we respond today.

For Roger, any time there was conflict his feelings immediately and instinctively went from zero to sixty. His intense anger and fear from the past were felt in the present. It compromised his ability to think reasonably and self-reflect. To protect Marti from his anger, he would withdraw. This was a formidable barrier between he and Marti and prevented them from being able to resolve conflict.

Anyone can be hijacked by his or her thoughts and feelings. When the past is triggered, we are all subject to being emotionally side-tracked and swept away.

When we get emotionally hijacked, we need a discrete period of time before we are emancipated from such controlling hurt and fear. It is the duty of the partner who has not been hijacked to protect the relationship and not abandon his or her partner.

How to do this? Well, that will be the topic of the next article. Stay tuned.

How Childhood Baggage Impacts Your Relationship

Our family history is revealed in many ways. It has an enormous impact upon the relationship with our partner, whether we realize it or not.

“You don’t respect me, you never have!”

Meet Ann and Ed. In their first session, Ann complained that Ed did not respect her; he didn’t understand or appreciate how hard she had worked to raise their kids and care for their family over the years. She had given up her career to stay home with the children. Though Ann described feelings of resentment towards Ed, she was hard pressed to find specific examples of disrespect; it was more his lack of being effusive when he thanked her for all she did.

Ed was a hard worker, helped around the house, cared for and loved Ann. He was very proud of Ann being a wonderful mother and admired her desire to return to a career she had put on hold for years. Ann’s anger and resentment were a mystery to Ed. He often felt attacked and couldn’t understand where Ann’s feelings came from.

Ann and Ed had twin boys who would soon be leaving for college. They were looking forward to the empty nest and spending more time together; but Ann knew if she didn’t work through these feelings towards Ed, she wouldn’t be able to be close to him.

In reviewing Ann’s history it was revealed she was the oldest of four. Since her parents struggled financially and both worked, Ann was left to be the surrogate parent for her three siblings. Though Ann was a dutiful daughter and took on this role without question, she felt her parents never truly understood the burden put upon her as a child. They lacked respect for all she’d done. And she was still angry about it.

In a flash the light bulb appeared. The connection between past and present was clear. Ann’s sensitivity about having sacrificed her desires to stay home with their children meant her needs were once again last on the list. Ann recognized most of her resentful feelings hearkened back to her past and didn’t belong to Ed. Unconsciously she felt her past was being repeated. Ed’s lack of expressiveness triggered those feelings.

Once Ann became aware her strong feelings about Ed’s “lack of respect” were fueled by her anger and sadness about her history, she was able to let go of her resentment toward Ed. She took ownership of the decision to stay home with the children and postpone her career.

When Ed understood Ann’s complaints were in large part related to her unfulfilled childhood, he stopped feeling attacked and made more of an effort to show his gratitude and deeper feelings of appreciation about all Ann did.

To plan for the future, since this could come up again, here is what we suggested:

When Ann expressed resentment, Ed’s role is to:

  • Not take it personally
  • Draw her thoughts out
  • Listen to her feelings and
  • Provide verbal reassurance he did appreciate and respect her

Ann’s role is to:

  • Be aware of her history
  • Ask herself how much of her feeling belonged to Ed
  • State specifically and behaviorally what bothered her
  • Talk in a more factual and less critical way

Can you see how the exploration of a person’s feelings about the past can explain responses in the present? A discovery such as Ann and Ed’s could set your relationship on a completely different track and bring you and your partner closer together.

Please share your comments here or on our Facebook page. We’re here to help!

How Baggage Wreaks Havoc on Relationships (And what to do about it)

It was a terrible year. After his car accident, John couldn’t stop taking the pain pills. He was unable to function at work and lost his job. For 12 grueling months Karen struggled to keep them and their three young kids afloat. She worked two jobs, did laundry, food shopping, and drove the children to daycare. It was as if she was a single parent. John had essentially abandoned her.

Finally, John agreed to enter a drug treatment center. He stopped using pills and had been clean for 8 months when they came to see us. John was diligently looking for a job and took over all the tasks overwhelming Karen.

Yet, Karen was extremely angry and resentful. If something was not done to her satisfaction or he was forgetful, she blasted him. John felt unjustly treated and hurt. He had worked so hard to complete his program successfully and was doing everything he could to re-engage with their life. No matter how hard he tried it was never “good enough.”

In Couple to Couple® Coaching we helped Karen and John accept and embrace the concept of “the past as present.” This means the past is still in the present when resentments are repressed and unprocessed. The way we respond to our partners are filtered through our previous experiences with them.

Karen’s feelings of resentment for John’s addiction were never addressed; so she repressed them, not realizing they were very much alive within her unconscious mind. They would arise and hijack her when triggered by a circumstance that seemed similar to the fearful and hurtful experience she had just lived through with John. We helped Karen and John integrate this idea into their everyday interactions, especially when they found themselves in conflict.

First, we helped them understand and accept the psychological perspective of how their current thoughts and feelings about each other were the product of a “stacking” and gradual synthesis of all of their life experiences, their biological nature and predispositions; and most profoundly influenced by the years of struggle with John’s drug addiction and rehabilitation.

Then, we identified the unprocessed thoughts and feelings of their past which were interfering in the present. Deep issues of trust, security, hurt, abandonment and fear were discussed. It was this experience that proved to be the driving force for Karen in this relationship. These feelings had profoundly shaped and contoured Karen’s view of the world, of John and of her future. Gradually we “deconstructed” these views about John so their relationship would have a chance.

As Karen spoke about her fears of losing everything, and processed these feelings over and over, she was able to extricate herself and remove the filter through which she saw John. It was only when they could identify the past, and work “back to the future,” to the “here and now,” that she could finally let go.

We must always work hard to achieve this awareness and have a plan in place, if we are to reach for a better relationship and one that will grow to another level.