Within Every Crisis, A Profound Opportunity Appears

In times of fear, we return to the simple joys, and to each other.

Yesterday, with all the craziness going on in the news, all the reasons we should avoid each other, not touch anything, not trust anything, not trust each other, I decided to take a walk in the park.  Why not?  It was a beautiful day as mother nature herself seemed to be conspiring (in my narrative) to encourage us back into her embrace. I headed to Central Park, not expecting to find anything particularly surprising, maybe just some fresh air and the normal healing that comes from being in nature.  But I was wrong.  Wow, was I wrong. 

What I found was a park with people.  It seems that everyone in New York City had the same idea.  Everyone was out—playing frisbee, playing catch, playing with their dogs, playing games, playing music, just playing … period.  People were talking, walking, running, singing, laughing, flying kites, conversing, biking, yoga-ing.  It was remarkable, a beautiful thing to behold.  Yesterday in the park reminded me of who we really are as human beings.

When life feels uncertain, in times of instability, we return to what is most basic—the simple pleasures: conversation, walking, nature, making music, being together.  When we are stripped of the ability and opportunity to acquire, avoid, distract, and entertain ourselves in the usual ways, we come back to what is most precious; we come back to each other and to nature.

Yes, there will be suffering that comes with this current health crisis. And, at the same time, perhaps there can also come some profound wisdom, a reminder of what really matters, and what’s always here.  Yesterday was a gift, a kind of shared Sabbath.  It was a day we all took a communal breath, a step back, a beat to assess what really matters.  When we are frightened, when our existence feels threatened, we return to each other.  When everything is in flux, changing from moment to moment, we remember what is unchanging, what cannot be taken away, no matter what is happening in our life situation.  We come home to people, to mother earth, and in a sense, to love.  We return to what truly nourishes us, calms and connects us, and reminds us that we are well—no matter what.

Under all the anxious thoughts, the choppy surface waves of our mind, there is a deep presence within us, an experience of being—a stillness, a silence.  You can feel this presence right now.  Just for a moment, unhook from the thoughts swirling in your mind, the fears and what-if scenarios (you can pick them up when you finish).  Bring your attention out of your head and down into your body.  Take a conscious slow breath.  Invite yourself to relax.  Sense your own presence, feel the experience of just being, the here-ness below the thoughts.  Within each of us, there is a peace, a calm that’s always here.  Now is a time to tap into this presence, this ground in the midst of the groundless. 

This time of uncertainty will pass and our lives will again become stable and reliable, as much as life is ever stable and reliable.  The time will come when we will again feel protected and sheltered by our external system—when the predictability of our world will again lull us into a sense of safety and immortality.  While this health crisis may be temporary, and also extremely challenging, let us not get caught up in just the fearful thoughts and thus lose sight of the profound opportunity that a time like this offers.  It is in times like these, which don’t come often, times when we can no longer rely on our system to ground us, that we have the opportunity to go within, to rethink and reclaim what really matters to us, to reacquaint ourselves with our deepest values. 

Now is a time to keep company with our friends, family, and animals, to convene with nature, be of service, walk, listen to and make music, listen too to silence, and find love where it lives.  This is also a time to cultivate the steady and well place within ourselves, the place that’s here with or without a system.  Now, when the guard rails have temporarily come off our lives, when the structure that provides safety and indeed a sense of who we are, is momentarily dismantled; this is a time to ground ourselves in the present moment, find the steady place inside, and remember what really matters, what cannot be taken away.  Ultimately, this is the moment to remember who we are—no matter what. 

Posted in Blog | Tagged | Leave a comment

Have You Turned Your Partner Into the Villain in Your Inner Movie?

Married for 12 years, Lisa and Cliff were enjoying a fun date night out. Back at home, Cliff wanted to be physically intimate. Lisa, usually game, was exhausted and told Cliff that sex wasn’t in the cards that night as she could barely make it to the bedroom without collapsing. Cliff immediately became angry and sulky. He accused Lisa of being withholding. He then told her that she was emasculating him, making him feel undesirable and inadequate.

Isabel is a doctor of medieval history. Her partner, Lars, has a Ph.D. in mathematics. Over dinner the couple got into a discussion about a philosopher from the eighth century, Isabel’s area of expertise. At one point, Lars made an interpretation of something the philosopher had said. Believing his analysis to be a misread, she told him that it wasn’t what was meant by the quote. Lars became incensed and accused Isabel of being controlling. He insisted that his wife had called him an idiot and was (intentionally) humiliating him, treating him like he was uneducated.

Finally, let’s consider Kelly and Steven. Kelly was driving when, unexpectedly, she made a turn that took the couple out of their way. Since they were in a hurry, Steven suggested that it would be faster to go the other way. In a flash, Kelly became furious and accused Steven of always having to do things his way. She further complained that he treated her like she was stupid and that her judgment couldn’t be trusted.

These situations may seem extreme, but in truth, they happen all the time—literally, all the time. Small disagreements end up in gigantic, painful impasses. In each example, it starts because one partner experiences negative feelings of some sort. In reaction to these negative feelings, they criticize their partner (you’re controlling, withholding, have to have it your way). But then, more dangerously, they blame their partner for causing their negative feelings. They convince themselves that their partner made them feel this way, did this to them, and ultimately, was the perpetrator of their pain.

We all carry certain beliefs, often from childhood, wounds and memories that we use to define who we are—our sense of self. We carry these forward into our intimate relationships. In the examples above, Cliff had always been the last kid picked for sports teams; he had felt inadequate his whole life, long before he met Lisa. For Lars, having to repeat third grade had caused him to doubt his own intelligence. Even with two graduate degrees, the fear that he was dumb still haunted him. In Kelly’s case, the belief that her judgment couldn’t be trusted was something she’d learned from a dismissive and ridiculing father. 

Our negative self-perceptions are difficult enough on their own, but what makes them excruciating is the way we transform them, through our own narratives, into aggressions our partner is doing to us. We recreate the experience of being shamed or blamed, re-traumatize ourselves with the same pain we’ve lived, all the while believing it’s our partner doing it to us, and making us feel this way.  Worst of all, we believe our partner actually holds these negative perceptions about us. It’s not me who thinks (or fears) I’m dumb, it’s my partner who thinks it. And so I live, still, as the one who is perceived as dumb, even though it’s now me who’s doing it to myself. 

More than anything else, what alleviates this universal problem (which leads to endless other problems) is awareness. We have to develop the ability to observe what’s happening inside ourselves, to become conscious of the feelings arising in the moment, and particularly the most charged moments. But here’s the catch: We have to notice this before we react, before we start looking to our partner to blame, before we start constructing our causal narratives. While our partner’s behavior may have set off these negative feelings, we need to remember that the idea that our partner is the one doing this to us, thinking these negative thoughts about us, is an illusion, a made-up story. Right there, in the eye of the emotional tsunami, we have to be able to detach our experience from our partner’s actions, to stop creating causality and intention where they don’t exist. 

In Lisa and Cliff’s case, Lisa’s exhaustion and subsequent decision to go to sleep rather than have sex was not about Cliff; it was about her own needs. Cliff’s sense of inadequacy may have been awakened by her choice, but she didn’t cause his feelings. Furthermore, she didn’t believe him to be inadequate; that feeling belonged to him. This is the distinction we need to be able to make for ourselves, again and again and again.

We don’t want to have to feel our insecurities, our negative self-perceptions, the insults we hurl at ourselves when the lights are out. And so we make our partners the perpetrators; we tell ourselves that they are the ones making us feel this way, the ones doing this tus. It’s easier to hate our partner for thinking we’re dumb rather than to wrestle with our own fear of being dumb, to blame our partner for humiliating us rather than to feel our own experience of humiliation and its real source. We have to become aware of when we are assigning to our partner what are in fact our own fears and self-criticisms. 

In communicating with a partner, it’s critical that we express our experience as something separate from their actions. We can share what has arisen in us, but also acknowledge that our partner is not to blame for our experience. So too, we need to stay focused on what actually happened in the interaction, specifically what our partner did or said. We have to stay with the reality—not add anything to it, not tie it to everything else that’s ever happened, and not decide what it means about our partner’s perception of us or our self-worth. At the same time, we must separate our experience from our partner’s intentions and remind ourselves that they did not choose to make this happen. 

Presented to our partner as our own experience, separate from them, without blame, they may even be able to show new compassion and empathy for our hurt. We may find that they even stop doing or saying the things that awaken our pain, because they care for us and don’t want us to suffer.     

The next time you feel triggered by your partner, stop for a moment and take a deep breath.  Smile even though you don’t want to. Relax, just for a moment. Now ask yourself, What am I experiencing right now? What’s happening inside me? Before saying anything to your partner, become aware of the feelings and sensations inside you. Notice any negative self-perception arising. Name it. Ask yourself, Is this is a fear I have about myself or a feeling I’ve experienced in the past? Who or what was its original source?  Pause and offer yourself compassion; tell yourself that this matters. 

If you choose to share this process with your partner, simply let them know what happened for you. You can say what triggered you, but keep the conversation tight to your own experience.  Start your sentences with I: I feel, I experience, as opposed to you are, you think, you do, etc. Don’t turn your experience into something about your partner, something they did to you or feel about you. With this new approach, taking ownership for your own experience, I promise you three things:

  1. You will feel more understood. 
  2. You will be happier. 
  3. You will have a far more peaceful (and better) relationship.

Posted in Blog | Tagged | Leave a comment

What Do You Want in a Relationship? A Partner or Parent?

What happens when we realize our partner is not the parent we wished for?

If we’re very fortunate, we have a parent who is 100% devoted to us, unconditionally.  We experience a caretaker whom we believe (whether true or not), is entirely selfless and exists only to take care of our wants and needs, whose needs are indeed synonymous with our own.

Many of us get some part of this parent: the one who gets up at 3 a.m. to comfort us, even though they have not slept in weeks.  The parent who spends her weekends shuttling us to ice skating and soccer practice, because our wants and needs are also her wants and needs, or at least more important than hers.  This time in our life, when another human being exists only for us, is a time of relationship perfection—a time when we are, ultimately, not alone in the universe.   

As we get older, we start to see our parents more as fleshed-out human beings than invisible need-providers.  Life slowly divvies out the hard truths, including the reality that our parents are individuals who have their own experience, wounds, limitations, and even their own wants and needs, which, shockingly, may be different from our own.  We learn that our parents do not dematerialize when we, their children, leave the room.  This awareness is natural, healthy, and can occur without too much suffering, particularly if we’ve received enough of the first kind of love, in which the relationship is all about and for us. 

But the truth is, for many people, there remains a deep longing — and sometimes even a demand for — our intimate partner to play the part of the selfless parent, to be that person for whom only our needs exist.  Within each of us, there exists a primitive desire to remain at the center of someone else’s universe — to be someone else’s entire universe — as we believed we were for our parent at one time. 

Abby and Ken had been married for about five years.  Abby had always referred to herself as the free spirit in the relationship, the traveler, the one who would always pick up and go at a moment’s notice, the one for whom continual change was required for a good life.  Ken, on the other hand, was someone who was nourished by friends and family, and for whom the simple rhythms of daily life and familiarity were thrilling. 

Abby had just told her husband that, after a long period of struggle and contemplation, she had thankfully found clarity.  What she wanted most for her life was to travel the world, for a year—alone.  And, possibly, for Ken to join her every few months in different locations around the globe.  She was thrilled by this self-discovery.  Upon hearing this, Ken paused and took a long breath.  His face then morphed into a smile that seemed to contain sweetness, pain, and anger, all at once.  After a bit of silence, he said that he was happy Abby now knew what she wanted.  And (or maybe but), he was also hurt, angry, and betrayed.  He wanted a wife who wanted to be with him, physically and emotionally.  Upon hearing her husband’s response to her important discovery, Abby too felt hurt, angry, and betrayed. 

It had been a year since Nina’s father died.  It was a long, slow and painful death, one that ended with three weeks in the ICU, and with the family having to eventually take her father off life support.  It was a huge and difficult loss for Nina, one that she was still processing for sure.  Several months after her father died, I met with Nina and her partner of two years, Andrew.

During that meeting, Andrew said that he wished Nina’s father hadn’t died in the first year of their dating.  At first blush, it sounded like a benign comment, but there was more.  He went on to say that he wished her father hadn’t died because it happened so early in their relationship.  As a result, it made everything heavier, and his girlfriend sadder and less fun than the girl he had first met. The death of her father, for Andrew, had been a damper on the excitement of his new relationship.  Upon hearing Andrew share his experience of her father’s death, Nina decided to end the relationship.

When we share our truth with our partner, there’s a part of us that just wants unconditional support.  It can feel painful and even angering when our partner has their own separate experience of something we want or need or an experience of us that’s different from our experience of ourselves.  At a primitive level, we want our partner to see it our way, to just want what we want — because we want it.  This part of us doesn’t want to know or have to consider our partner’s wants and needs, and sometimes doesn’t want them to exist at all.  In this very young place, which never entirely goes away, we want a relationship with that parent who existed completely and only for us. 

No matter how much we want to be the only person whose experience matters, the reality of this other human being’s separate experience is unavoidable.  In such moments when this reality forces itself into our awareness, we need to step back, pause, and offer ourselves compassion.  It is not okay to shame or attack ourselves for what we feel in these moments, no matter how irrational or whatever else our feelings might be.  It is natural to rationally understand our partner’s experience and at the same time, feel profound loss, betrayal, and even outrage.  How dare our partner have their own experience of something so important to us.

What is happening inside us is that we are discovering, again, that our parent (now represented by our partner) is actually separate from us, not us.  While, of course, we know this on an intellectual level, to realize it on an emotional level can trigger unfathomable grief.  This is the moment when we realize that we are fundamentally alone in the universe, that our experience is not shared by anyone.  In these moments of intense emotion, we want to figuratively (and literally) place our hand on our own heart,  to acknowledge and comfort that part of us that is grieving the loss of the one person who existed only for us (or the one that we wish had existed solely for us). 

On a practical level, what’s most important is that you are careful not to react to your partner from this young place, and not to engage and foment the thoughts that ask how your partner could dare to have (much less express) their own experience.  You can, however, ask your partner to be mindful and sensitive as to how and when they share their own experience.  This is fair.  But you must stay aware of what’s happening inside you at the deepest level, so as to keep from falling into blame, and from attacking your partner for having their own reality. 

What’s called for (difficult though it may be) is that you make space for your own shattered illusions and longing for union, and also, simultaneously, for your partner’s existence.  Ultimately, you might even be able to recognize that your partner faces and struggles with the same existential human aloneness as you.  And therefore, in reality, in the absolute — you are in fact wholly united.

Posted in Blog | Tagged | Leave a comment

Why Our Expectations of Marriage Must Change: A Lasting Marriage Means Learning to Live With Broken Promises

When we get married, we make all sorts of promises.  The marriage contract, by its very nature, is a series of promises.  But, when you really think about it, the institution of marriage, what we assume and expect of each other within a marriage is, if not ridiculous, certainly in conflict with reality.  I say this as a couple’s therapist and also someone who’s been married for many years, and who also deeply respects and enjoys what marriage offers.

I frequently see clients who complain that their partner doesn’t want what they wanted when they got married. “But you said you wanted kids when we talked about it!”  Or, they feel guilty for not wanting what they used to want.  “But I said I wanted to move to the country, so now I have to do it.”  I hear stories all day long from men and women who feel confused and trapped because they don’t want or need what they used to want and need in their life and for themselves.

Sometimes, what changes is what we want in a partner.  We may have been drawn, for example, to our partner’s steadiness and reliability.  Perhaps it soothed our feelings of ungrounded-ness, satisfied our need to feel more rooted.  But now, years later, we no longer need a calming force, but instead, wish for adventure, possibility and change.  We have created our own ground and now need to fly.  Or perhaps we were originally attracted to the differences in our partner. When we married, we needed to feel less connected, less the same; it was emotional space at that time in our evolution that allowed us to not feel judged.  Now, however, we want a soul mate, to feel connected, to be with someone who deeply understands and shares our experience.  As we change, what we need in a partner also changes.  Our emotional holes fill up and we don’t need our partner to satisfy what’s been satisfied or what we can now do for ourselves.  But still, we feel guilty and confused when what drew us to our partner is no longer what we need.  

So, what are we to do then, when marriage means promises and reality means we are going to change and what we promised may no longer be possible?  How can this endeavor called marriage ever work if both people are constantly changing?  To begin with, we must shift our expectations of marriage and what it includes.  We cannot blame our partner and cannot be blamed for becoming someone else as we go through life.  It is not a betrayal when we or our partner feels different than how we felt when we were first married, when we want a different experience and life from what we wanted when we married.  It is not a betrayal when who we are is completely other than who we were in the past.  

The question is not if we are going to break promises in a marriage—we are.   We must accept this truth. The question is how do we want to dance with the broken promises that will happen, dance with the changes and disappointments, and dance with the continual losing of the partner we used to know? 

In most every marriage, there comes a time when we realize that our partner cannot be, for us, what we had hoped they could be.  We discover that our partner cannot fill our own emptiness or be our reason for living, our purpose, as we had once imagined.  We bump into the reality that our partner is also a human, with limitations, fears, and just trying to find their way.  Our partner is not something to fill our needs and holes.  Sooner or later, the promise that our partner can save us from our own struggle is broken.  This involves a certain degree of heartbreak and disillusionment.  It is the ultimate reality check.  But we need to have our heart broken in this way, in order to fully mature and take ownership of our own life, our own needs, our own unanswered questions.  At some level, a healthy long term relationship should include disappointment; in order to really love our partner, we must give up all hope that our relationship and our partner is the answer, our salvation.  When we give up this hope, we enter the beginning of something real and sustainable.

We take our vows as a proclamation of who we are, how we feel, and what we believe at the moment we stand at that altar (or whatever we stand at).   But we must remember that marriage is not an agreement to stay there, to keep being that person, feeling those feelings.  That’s not possible and not wise.  Marriage might have better odds if we saw it as a commitment that includes broken promises.  It might be more sustainable if we understood it as the promise to meet our partner as they also change, to not assume that they are who we met at an earlier time, and to give them the chance and encouragement to become who they need to become.  And simultaneously, marriage might be more successful if it meant a willingness, not to keep wanting the same things, but to be honest about what we actually want and need as we move through the life cycle, and to communicate those truths, no matter how difficult. 

Although this may sound like heresy, we may even want to give up the idea of marriage as a promise to love each other for all time, and rather to see it as a promise to be loving and honest with each other as we discover where life is leading each of us, and who it’s leading us to become.  As we walk together through a marriage and indeed through life, we can and should be able to continue promising to provide loving support and encouragement for each of our own journeys.  This is a promise we may be able to keep. 

Marriage is a most remarkable endeavor and one worth practicing.  But it won’t survive as an institution if we take the human part out of the equation, if we forget that it’s humans who are doing the marrying and not some imaginary static species.  We cannot and should not expect ourselves to be what we fundamentally are not, just because we say “I do.”  We are going to change as time passes and this includes how we feel about everything, including ourselves, our partner and our relationship.  Change is not a betrayal.  More often, it’s a sign of growth.  This reality needs to be taken into account when we consider the expectations of marriage.  This reality, accepted, begins a conversation about true intimacy and what it means to be partnered with another human being in the dance of life.  When we accept broken and changed promises as part of the dance, we say “I do” to a marriage that’s made of the truth.  And, when we know each other’s truths, no matter what they contain, we begin the dance of real love.  

Posted in Blog | Tagged | Leave a comment

Why Trying to Be Understood Is So Exhausting: Rethinking our Response to Daily Hurts.

Kim came downstairs for breakfast that morning only to find the coffeemaker full of old coffee. Yesterday’s brew sat in the pot, looking stale and dead. Her husband had always woken up earliest and was the designated coffee-maker in the family. 

Kim could count the number of times she’d made coffee on one hand in the nearly two decades of breakfasts together. As she looked at yesterday’s molding coffee, she remembered her husband’s recent announcement that he was swearing off coffee because of acid reflux. The feeling she had standing there, looking at the old brown liquid, listening to her husband chewing his cereal, was of profound hurt, sadness, and anger

“You didn’t make coffee?” she asked, trying to keep her voice and herself calm. “Because you’re not having coffee, you didn’t think you’d make it for me, or didn’t think I was going to have coffee for some reason?”

“I completely forgot, I didn’t even think about it,” he said, oblivious to her feelings. 

Kim, who still had three school lunches to make for her kids, then started to prepare herself a coffee, but soon abandoned the process. 

“Because you aren’t drinking coffee, what about the coffee I drink?” she asked, trying to hold back tears as she moved away from the coffee maker. 

Her husband said nothing, but soon got up and started brewing a pot. Kim continued on with breakfast as if everything was normal, but inside she was struggling with strong feelings. Her chest felt tight, and tears were brimming behind her eyes. 

She felt trapped, knowing there was little she could say about what had happened that wouldn’t set off her husband’s anger and turn her into the “crazy” person who felt so much about something so small and meaningless. Fifteen minutes later, unable to hold her feelings in check, she cracked.

After her husband mentioned his acid reflux yet again, Kim responded with the following: “Yes, your symptoms sound really bad, and, my stomach is actually very different from your stomach. So, the fact that you have acid reflux doesn’t mean I do. 

Her husband once again said nothing in response and nothing for the remainder of the meal.

Interactions like this one, profound but small hurts, happen all the time in couples, at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and every moment between. And usually, they’re not addressed or healed; they just fade away into the giant cauldron that is an intimate relationship. 

In picking apart this experience, Kim and I discovered something surprising and significant: During that breakfast, she had felt guilty for saying something about the coffee. By making those comments, she felt like she had become the aggressor in the situation. She was now to blame; she was the problem. And consequently, she was now at risk of being judged and criticized. What was most painful for Kim was the feeling of having nowhere to go with her feelings of hurt. And, simultaneously, feeling that if she expressed her anger and sadness directly, she would be blamed for having those feelings—she would become the bad guy. article continues after advertisement

While this case may sound extreme, it’s entirely commonplace. These sorts of deep, wounding moments happen all the time. Kim is not different from most of the men and women I see who are in a relationship. We get hurt all the time, and yet, so often, it doesn’t feel safe to express what we actually feel, and so we don’t, or we do it in a distorted way. Or we immediately start trying to fix the problem before it’s even known.     

Kim was hurt when she saw the old coffee. She immediately went into a story in her head about her husband, namely, that he’s self-involved and doesn’t notice what’s happening for anyone but himself. That was her narrative, but under that narrative were big feelings, specifically, feelings of not being taken care of. That little gesture of his making coffee each morning, seemingly meaningless, was, for Kim, a way that her husband took care of her and, ultimately, made her feel loved. 

As we unpacked the experience together, it became clear that Kim did not feel emotionally taken care of in the relationship and had been making do with being taken care of on a practical level. Her husband’s thoughtlessness and disregard for her needs (since his needs had changed) made her feel even less taken care of. She would now have to give up one of the crumbs she received in the caretaking desert she inhabited. The feelings that the stale coffee awaiting her that morning evoked were thick with pain. 

It was also important to notice that when Kim’s strong feelings and physical sensations arose that morning, she immediately shifted her attention away from herself and towards getting her husband to understand how she felt (which she herself didn’t know just yet). Her husband was now the focus of her attention; he had to get how he had hurt her and the meaning of his choice. And when he couldn’t or wouldn’t offer this to her, she felt even more heartbroken.  article continues after advertisement

Our feelings of hurt too often and too quickly morph into a need to get our feelings understood and validated. We start searching to be understood before we even understand our own experience. Consequently, our feelings don’t have the space to exist, don’t get to deliver the truths they hold, and most certainly don’t get taken care of—not by the other from whom we seek understanding and not through our own self-compassion. 

We get hurt and then end up feeling guilty for chasing after the other person’s understanding. In our efforts to be known, we land in the role of the desperate aggressor, the one who’s demanding to have our experience understood, clawing for empathy, and yet suffering deeply throughout the process. It’s a far too common occurrence in a relationship: feeling hurt, guilty, and not understood—all at once.

Just as an experiment, the next time strong feelings arise, see what it’s like to simply experience what you’re experiencing, feel the feelings in your body. Just for that moment, give yourself permission to not have to get your feelings understood by whoever you believe caused them or must understand them.  See what’s underneath the feelings, what deeper hurt has been triggered.article continues after advertisement

When we interrupt our urge to be immediately understood—when we surrender our chase for the other’s empathy and validation—we have a chance to be with ourselves in a loving way, to understand our own experience and be our own container. In so doing, we can take care of ourselves in a profoundly new and powerful way, a way that genuinely helps us heal.

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , | Leave a comment