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A Breakthrough Formula for Connection

“What happens when people open their hearts?…They get better.” – Haruki Murakami

Sam, like many men we’ve worked with, wouldn’t open up. Expressing feelings or being vulnerable was not in his repertoire, so he thought. He reluctantly came to see us.

Ellen, his partner, was feeling unloved; she talked about separating.  He knew he had to do something.  He didn’t want his marriage to end. In couples counseling we talked about what would make Ellen feel loved.

The following week he planned a romantic dinner; got her a card “just because” and cleaned up the dishes while Ellen relaxed. These small acts of love made a big difference.  He found himself feeling closer and more connected to her.

Ellen’s heart opened and for the first time she felt hope. When she effusively expressed her gratitude, Sam felt uncomfortable; it wasn’t natural to feel so close.  His response: “I didn’t really do anything special,” downplaying his efforts. Ellen felt hurt; it was all very special to her.

Can I Trust HimSeveral days passed. Ellen felt Sam withdrawing even more; he was less present, less talkative, disengaged – again. Ellen wondered if she could trust him; he was “there” like never before and then he was gone in a flash.

Ellen began questioning her own feelings for Sam. Did she really love him? Was she setting herself up for another disappointment?

Sam bemoaned opening up in the first place. What was he thinking? What will she expect from me from now on?  I will never be able to keep this up. After all, this is really not me, never was, never will be.

In our next session, we explored just who Sam really was. After all, his desire to connect up in a way that was very different for him came from somewhere. Maybe Sam was a compilation of many different feelings, each competing for expression, some being acted upon, and some more repressed. However, all of them made up the man that we knew as Sam.

understandingWe dug deeper into Sam’s family history and found a scruffy little kid who was not allowed to express his feelings. His father was an angry alcoholic who beat him. His mother was passive and not very affectionate. Sam wasn’t born unemotional; it is who he became.

In service of surviving his childhood he repressed his vulnerable feelings.

Underneath was this little kid who really wanted to get closer. The more Sam shared about his childhood, the more his vulnerability showed. It was the first time Ellen saw him cry. This was the part of Sam that could connect.

Ellen understood more about Sam and focused on her empathy instead of her feelings of disconnection. Her ability to empathize allowed her to persevere while Sam worked this through. Sam’s expression of vulnerability uncovered his reservoir of feelings; Ellen’s empathy was the bridge to connection.

What we witnessed was the breakthrough formula for a couple’s deepest bond:

Vulnerability + Empathy = Connection.

Sharing your deepest feelings with your partner is the path to an intimate love.

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” – Brene Brown

The Quickest Way to Connection – Mutual Empathy

“Empathy lies in our ability to be present without opinion.” – Marshall Rosenberg

Rob sensed the chill. Out of the blue, Sara became distant and snippy. He asked Sara what was wrong. She alleged that Rob was “checking out” a woman standing in line, while they waited to get their tickets for the movie. She felt abandoned, again. What could have been a fun evening out was cut short.

Rob felt defeated. He devoted his life to Sara and their kids and would never betray her. He also understood the impact of Sara’s past, growing up with a narcissistic father who cheated on her mother, for years. When she was 18 her dad left the family in a precarious place, both emotionally and financially.  Her mother struggled working two jobs to keep the family afloat. Sara worked her way through college.

Though Rob was well aware of the trauma Sara and her mother experienced, he was tired of being accused of something he didn’t do. Rob felt he was paying the price for the “crimes” his father-in-law committed.

In counseling, Sara agreed that Rob had never really given her any reason to doubt his fidelity. She acknowledged that even the thought that Rob was looking at another woman was a trigger for her. It unconsciously “hijacked” her emotions; and transported her back to being that little girl who felt betrayed.

Next she would shut down, withdraw from Rob and stereotype him as a narcissistic self-centered man. Rob would respond by becoming critical and defensive.

Sara owned that her anxiety belonged in the past. She realized she actually set up the situation where Rob would repeatedly abandon her. She expressed empathy for Rob’s feelings about being falsely accused. As Sara’s self-awareness grew she was able to tell Rob immediately when she was triggered. She pulled him closer instead of pushing him away.

Rob’s part of the solution was to tap into his empathy and enter Sara’s world when she was momentarily captured by her past. That allowed him avoid his defensive reflex and reassure Sara that he would always be there for her.

Mutual empathy was the tool that brought connection to this couple. It can do the same for you.

Discover the Power of Empathy

When your “significant other” gets angry with you, do respond with anger or defensiveness?

Next time your partner gets heated, try something different. Meet anger with empathy. The outcome will amaze you. Here’s how it works.

Knowing this gives you a powerful choice when temperatures rise in your relationship. You can respond to the outer layer of anger with anger; or you can respond to the deeper, more vulnerable emotions with empathy. What you choose will determine the outcome in any given situation.Think of anger like an onion. Your partner’s angry. On the outside you observe, shall we say, his/her displeasure. But peel away the skin and you’ll find layers of other feelings underneath – most likely sadness, hurt and/or fear.

Yesterday Bob forgot to make the bank deposit I’d given him. My reaction? Irritated. Underneath? Fear that we might overdraw our account. I had told Bob we were tight. Instead of Bob being defensive, he responded to my fear and said, “I understand you’re worried about covering the bills.” I replied, “I know you didn’t do it intentionally.” That was the end of it.

Empathy disarms anger.

This is the power of empathy. Try it with your partner and let us know how it turns out!

The Single Most Important Ingredient in Relationships

“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued;
when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
– Brene Brown

Jim: You’re always on my back. I’ll clean up the basement when I get to it. It’s not my priority.

Jan: Exactly, it’s not your priority. The kids and I haven’t been able to use their playroom for two weeks.

Jim: I have to prepare my presentation to the Board of Directors.

Jan: It’s always something. When am I ever your priority? Just because I stay home with the kids and run the house doesn’t mean my job is less important than yours.

Jim: Well, if I’m not ready for my presentation, you won’t be able to stay home anymore.

Jan feels put down and taken for granted as a mom and wife. Jim feels overwhelmed and unappreciated as the provider. When their needs compete, they argue. Their respective lack of empathy creates conflict. After the boxing match, they feel beaten up and retreat – until the next round.

In therapy, Lori and I reflected upon how Jan and Jim’s chronic arguments always wound up at the same dead end. Their unending loop of non-productive and destructive communication kept leading them down a path to “the death of a relationship by a thousands cuts.”

What seemed like chronic bickering about the “little” things led to a “big” sense of alienation between these two partners. For their marriage to survive, they needed to dismantle this dynamic consistently so the small cuts would heal over time.

Empathy is the antidote – - the cure healing disagreements and resentments.

In session we asked Jim to use the tool of empathy by first putting his feelings aside and to validate Jan’s point of view.

Jim asked, “How can I do that when I don’t agree with her point of view?”

This is the most common roadblock to practicing empathy. Partners think understanding the other’s point of view means agreeing with it.

To genuinely feel empathy, you must make the critical distinction between “agreement vs. understanding.” You can understand another’s thoughts and feelings without agreeing. This is not a denial of our own thoughts and feelings. It’s your venture into your partner’s world, separate from your own personal thoughts and feelings.

Empathy is a deep understanding and acknowledgment of the other’s subjective thoughts and feelings, and for the moment, making them your own.

The purpose of the exploration is not to placate, but rather to understand more fully. Uncovering the other’s critical perspective provides a moment of connection vital to the relationship.

Of course, the journey is not complete until next our partner does the same for us.

The result is mutual understanding and validation protecting the relationship and paradoxically creating a stronger bond with our partner. Emotions calm down and connection increases. Our sense of security and trust in the relationship grows.

We connect over the “fact” we have two different perceptions, in an effort to find our way back to the one we love.

Once Jan and Jim learned the art of empathizing with each other, they worked it out!

We, Lori and Bob, are on to our next couple!

How Men Can Develop More Empathy for Women

“When you start to develop your powers of empathy and imagination, the whole world opens up to you.” Susan Sarandon

I, Bob Hollander, have had the occasion to experience many things in the course of my life; but the one I am about to share proved to be a real first. Most of you still don’t know this, but recently I gave birth…to my first kidney stone. There I was writhing on the floor in tremendous agony and shock in the wee hours of the morning, and there was Lori, right beside me, as I certainly imagined she’d be. It was really great; except for the fact I just wanted to die at that moment.

Lori took complete charge and flew into action. She checked to make sure it wasn’t my heart. She made the right calls to the right doctors, and was told to get me to the ER; that it probably was a stone. I really didn’t need an ambulance. So my dear wife packed me neatly into the back of the car and off we went to the hospital.

We experienced a complete role reversal from when Lori gave birth. Thank goodness we remembered our Lamaze lessons. Here was Lori coaching me to breathe, “Come on Bob, breathe in through the nose; now blow it out through your mouth.” I just wanted to scream and tell her to shut up, but actually it did help, and I heartily suggest this method for every guy giving “birth.”

In any case, the thing I will remember most of all, which will remain indelibly and viscerally imprinted upon my psyche and body, was Lori’s caring. Her being fully there. Her concern – wiping my sweaty brow, and doing for me what I could not do for myself.

So guys, it showed me the importance of “being there” for those we love; being completely psychologically present and giving fully of our hearts. It gave me a new experience of empathy.

These are the moments that will define the nature of our relationships – more so than any tangible gifts we could give. These opportunities to fully love and be fully loved mean everything.

I think every man should deliver his own personalized “stone” to get a sense of the pain that an object the length of a millimeter, and maybe the weight of a gram, can cause a human over the course of an hour. Then juxtapose this experience with delivering an eight-pound baby over the course of 24 hours.

Happily, in my circumstance, my delivery was a complete success and I’ve made a complete and full recovery. Daddy and “Rocky” are doing just fine.

But most importantly, I am left with impressions of not being alone as I went through a very difficult time. I was able to experience down to my core who Lori is and how much she truly loves me; and how I so very much love her!

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.