Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Repeating patterns in relationships: Singing the same sad tune

Q.  I am finding that I am getting into the same type of dysfunctional relationship time after time. The last relationship that I just had ended recently with an out of the blue text message from my partner.  We had dated for 6 months, and each time we were together I felt him growing more and more distant.  We would only communicate by text, and then only to arrange our next meeting, never to just chat or ask about each other's day.  If I send him friendly texts, he either wouldn't answer at all or get back to me the next day.  When we were intimate, he would be the most warm and seductive, but after it was all over, his eyes would grow cold and he would act all matter of fact.  Sometimes I think he couldn't wait to get me out the door.  Somehow, the colder and more distant he acted, the more I wanted to pursue him. I tried to look good for him, fix my hair, be totally interested and focused on him, and not make any demands.  I don't get attracted to very many people as I felt for him, and I didn't want to lose him.  But somehow a part of me is rebelling against being so submissive and I think it would be more healthy to stop this pattern.  I have noticed that most people who are close to me throughout my life also are distant and non affectionate, as was my mother growing up who was very busy going to school and working outside the home.  Is there I way I can break this pattern in relationships?

A.  Your insight into the fact that this pattern may be dysfunctional is the first big step towards change.  This insight means that you can step outside of automatic patterns of thought and behavior and see yourself from an objective perch.  From here, you can use your insight to empower better and healthier choices for yourself.  People who fall into a pursuer role in a relationship often have felt this way in their family of origin. Being with a distant, non affectionate or unavailable parent creates a yearning for connection, any connection at all.  Even the least bit of attention is magnified by the emotionally starved child, and they learn to make a meal out of crumbs of attention. This unfortunate pattern becomes ingrained as a habit, and feels familiar and "at home" in forming relationships with others.  So, even though it is messed up, the individual is compelled to repeat it over and over again.  It feels right even though rationally it is wrong.  And emotional gravitational pulls often trumps rational thought in relationships.

How do you extricate yourself from this painful pattern?   You certainly don't have to have a life sentence of fleeing misters in your life.  The first way out  is developing a belief that there is life out there outside of painful relationships. If the relationship has to end, that is the first step toward finding yourself with someone who has a full emotional tank.  This means surrounding yourself with friends who practice quid pro quo, they give to you as well as take from you in relative equal parts over time.  You must come to believe that there are people who care about you that you don't have to sublimate yourself to just to keep them around, and that never works for long anyway, because relationships with takers only have a limited shelf life.  From the stance of having friends, it is just one step away from finding a partner who also cares about you just as you care for him. He should have a full tank of emotional availability so that he gets joy within himself from showing that he cares about you.  Believe that he is out there for you and you should not accept anything that is disrespectful or oblivious to your needs .  You deserve this just as we all do not because of anything special, but just because it is the right thing.

It is difficult to break the pattern of loving that we leaned early on from parents because they are the first example we have of learning to love another.  But with time and patience your insight and knowledge has the power to shatter the old pattern and you can be free.  Once you know the truth, that in a sense you have been loving your partners the same way you loved your mother, you will never forget it, and you will liberate yourself to find a new pathway, the healthy pathway.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The MIndful Relationship

The Mindful Relationship
Dr. Janet Hibel

Question:  I have usually found myself to be an impulsive person, choosing between what my heart says I want rather than what my mind says I should do, whenever I am in a confusing dating situation. This has oftentimes lead to unhappy consequences where I suffer from not thinking though my decisions.  I will most often go with what just feels right, trusting that my emotions indicate my true reality.  An example of this for me is last year I was dating a guy who subsequently broke up with me because he said he did not want to be in a committed relationship.  After about a year, I ran into him in a restaurant and we I was instantly attracted to him again, despite the fact he broke my heart and I spent the better part of the year grieving his loss.  He wanted to go out again, even though he still said he was not ready for a commitment.  I couldn’t help myself, and I accepted a date,  but when it came time to be romantic, I just couldn’t do it, something in me came forward  and I stopped it.  I felt I was making a wrong decision and would just get hurt again because nothing had really changed.   We ended the relationship again, this time mutually as friends.  Could I have somehow developed a capacity now to take care of myself and make better decisions in spite of my still wishing I could be with him?
Answer:  Yes, absolutely, we can grow and change in wonderful ways, cultivating a self care and protective functioning adult identity.  This is certainly an event to rejoice. What you are describing is what many people experience as two  separated parts of their identity, the part of the self that knows what  is right and the part of the self that seeks immediate gratification of wants and needs.
The trouble begins when these two parts are working against each other and not integrated into a whole.  This war within the self arises mostly when we feels we are choosing to do something that is wrong or unhealthy because we are driven to by our emotions.   Or, we want to avoid the suffering the pain of not having our needs met in the moment  .   It is likely that during the year you were grieving his loss, you thought long and hard about what went wrong in the relationship, that part he played as well as the part you played.  You came to believe that it was important to rely on the truth of what your head told you and in this case,  that this relationship was not right for you.  In spite of the fact that your emotions still longed to be with him, you did not let them “put their sticky hands on the steering wheel of your life”.  You made the move from being an impulsive child to having the wisdom of an adult and should be very proud of yourself.  Sometimes these protective forces arise within us like guardian angels and carry us down the healthy path.  Work to cultivate this new part of yourself by making sure you give yourself plenty of time when making important decisions so you can tune in and listen to what that part of you is suggesting.  Often friends will help you in problem solving and remind you of the wiser course since they are not being influenced by a storm of emotions.  In taking the harder path, you are activating higher levels of your brain, most prominently the pre frontal cortex which is the executive function and helps us in making difficult decisions.  All this being said, it is not as if we want to ignore the signals of our emotional self but rather integrate them into the framework of what we know to be ethically and morally right actions for ourselves.  If we listen to our head, and our head tells us that a situation is safe and healthy, then we are able to come out and play and let our emotions loose to enjoy the moment. 
The work you did on yourself brought you to the point where you did not allow yourself to become swept off into a romantic fairly tale about your ex boyfriend ‘s interest in rekindling a relationship.  You make yourself listen to the truth of what he was saying, that he was not ready for a commitment right now in his life.  You didn’t tell yourself other fairly tales about how he would see you now and realize you were the one and only and be ready to give up the single life for you.  You were able to do this without putting yourself down, feeling inadequate or worthless because you couldn’t magically change him mind. Further, you were able to open the door for a future friendly relationship, even though at times trying to be trying friends with an ex-partner is fraught with difficulty.  You don’t have to be apologetic for still feeling hurt, rejected or jealous and sometimes it’s best to avoid the ex partner until these feelings fade, if they ever do.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Q.  My husband and I used to be very loving and caring towards one another at the beginning of our marriage.  Lately, though, we gone through some financial hardships and have had to cut back on our lifestyle, we can’t go out to dinner on the weekends like we used to, and this year have no vacation.  The stress is causing us to argue and fight over every little thing.  He says something cruel to me and I just fight back, reflexively, telling him he’s disgusting, or a loser,  or getting too fat.  I feel bad afterwards but the damage has been done.  The fights seem to getting worse and worse each time.  How can we stop hurting each other?
A.  You both are fighting for your life in this marriage. You feel as though your personal integrity is being violated and you must strike first or become annihilated.  This fighting style unfortunately is all too common in contemporary relationships.  One partner might experience themselves as supremely misunderstood, unloved, or unaccepted.  And really, that is all we yearn for and long for in a relationship, to be accepted and loved just as we are.
 When we experience our partner trying to “get us” to be something we are not we rebel.   In your case, you may be supremely disappointed in your husband’s capability as a provider, and his ability, to bring home a paycheck which allows you to carry on your previous lifestyle.  Because you are struggling to pay your bills at times, you are losing respect for him, and losing the memory of what brought you together to begin with.  All you can see now is that he is causing your family to struggle, and that makes you think of other things you don’t like about him, large and small.  This causes you to be on the lookout or vigilant for more things you don’t like, and with irritation, take a shot at him whenever a frustration or imperfection arises.  Psychologists call this trend the development of  a “global negative perspective” or prejudice against your partner.  
Unbridled expressions of hurt, anger and criticism create defensive counter attacks in an effort at self-protection.  It is as if the couple is saying to one another ,“You hurled an insult at me so I deserve to hurl one at you”. It’s as if the couple are fighting for their life, the life of their own integrity, ego and the very core of their self concept.   Dr. John  Gottman of Washington University calls this phenomenon “The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse” because if left unchecked can lead to the destruction of a marriage. The Four Horsemen include Contempt, Defensiveness, Stonewalling and Criticism.
Once you are mindful of falling down this slippery slope of criticism and contempt for your partner realize it is a result of unmet hopes, dreams and expectations. Now you can certainly team up together to begin to put your strengths and resiliencies up against the Problem of Fighting.  First, you must reflect back upon the marriage in total to recall what makes this relationship worthy of respect, worth fighting for.  Remember the man you fell in love with when you were dating, perhaps his kindness, his companionship, his ability to soothe your hurt feelings in times of trouble. Is that man somewhere still within him?  Can you find that person again by looking for examples of his acts of kindness today?  If you can, recall examples of what you appreciate about one another to bring back the marriage worth fighting for.
Next, remember that you are choosing to be with this person every day.  No one is really forcing you to stay, even though you may have many overwhelming reasons why you stay, it is still your choice.  Accept responsibility for this choice and refrain from blaming others for your decisions.  Third, do you see any sense of entitlement in your frustration, perhaps you believe you are getting a raw deal, and things should be better for you, you deserve more.  If so, what can you do on your own to put against the problem of the raw deal?  Make this happen in some way for yourself rather than wait for someone else to deliver a promised life to you.   Develop interests in a new craft, learn a language, start an exercise program,  get a part time job….Finally, when you must argue, pick and choose your battles.  Not every emotional upset deserves a hearing.  Use mindfulness techniques to stay with your emotions and validate them for yourself, while making a choice whether to act on them or not.  Choose to engage only in battles that mean a great deal to you, and those that have a chance of having a real life solution in the here and now.  Some problems are chronic unsolvable problems and can be dealt with acceptance of the bad with the good, as long as it is not abusive which should never be tolerated.  Team up against your problems, put your minds together, and a solution will be found.

Dr. Janet Hibel is a Board Certified Psychologist and Certified Addiction Professional practicing in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Website:

Friday, October 3, 2014

Feeling Stuck

Your Mindful Marriage October 1, 2014

Question:  I have been married for 14 years to the same woman but I am embarrassed to admit that we very rarely are intimate with each other.  We have both had affairs outside the marriage in the past but have stayed together for the sake of our four children, who are now grown.  I love her deeply as a partner, friend, confidant and I feel responsible to take care of her because she has devoted her life to me and raising our children.  Recently, she has discovered a six year affair I was in by checking my text messages and is furious with me.  When she gets emotionally upset with me I just want to escape and contact my ex affair partner for comforting. Nonetheless, I have broken off the affair but still am not motivated to be intimate with her, even though I see she is a very beautiful, successful and interesting woman.  What should I do?


Marriages that harbor affairs can fall into a pattern therapists call “Stable Ambiguity”.  That is to say that, neither partner is happy with the functioning of the marriage but their drive to change things is suppressed by a myriad of emotional conflicts and obligations.  The most common emotion that suppresses confronting habitual affairs and their aftermath is the fear of going it alone. One or both partners realizes that the grass is not always greener and does not want to take the leap of living life in an empty apartment, looking for something to do on a Saturday night, and joining the pool of fish in the dating world.  Other reasons people cite for feeling stuck in stable ambiguity is guilt for hurting their partner, or embarrassment about being a failure in the eyes of family, friends and coworkers.  For some, it becomes an extended adolescence.  Not only do they have a a surprising sense of contentment and safety with with having a stable home with  a “mommy” figure but also the  freedom to date and have exciting encounters with partners under the radar screen of their spouses’ awareness.  Once they are busted and the illusion of having their cake and eating it too dissolves in a maelstrom of their partner’s rage, they are at a loss with where to go next.

The solution may involve what some marriage therapists call “joining through the truth” if you are ready for it.  The upside of seeing an honest rendering of both of your needs and feelings is that it allows you to make an informed choice about where to go from here.  This would involve each one of you individually taking time aside, perhaps with the help of a psychologist who specializes in marriage counseling to determine what exactly are your values for this marriage and your life in the future.  What is more important to you, financial stability, the community of friends and family who see you as a couple, avoiding the trauma of divorce and attorneys, emotional connection and friendship with your spouse, avoiding hurting your spouse, or  having a passionate love connection in your life?  Usually people want all of the above and are not willing to give up anything so they use lies and dishonesty to perpetuate the illusion of having a functional marriage.  The downside of joining through the truth is that if the couple is not ready to make any changes to the dysfunctional marital system, then the marriage can carry on just as it is, only worse now with the added fuel of enhanced fury of the spouse who realizes she is stuck in a passionless marriage and yet feels helpless to undertake the changes necessary to fix it.

However, the good news is that positive change in this type of emotionally paralyzed system is quite possible.  The foundation of love, affection, respect, responsibility, friendship and caring already exists.  Sometimes in remembering past memories of passionate connection can help revive a stalled intimacy.  Some have lost the ability to be mindful of their body’s physical state and sense of longing or desire and need to work to tune into to sexual responses in their own and their partner’s body.  For others, sex and marital therapy can uncover these roadblocks to passionate connection.  In any case, if the relationship goes forward, each partner will need to develop a holding place for the other’s emotional experiences, the good the bad and the ugly of it.  That is to say, development of deep empathy for your partner’s emotional experience means validating intense and profound feelings of loss, fear, abandonment and hurt as well as the joyful emotions of play and sharing of common experiences.  However, these emotions need to be discussed and mirrored, not acted out in any hurtful manner as it is never justified to physically or verbally hurt or assault your partner.  The closeness generated in knowing your partner more fully and honesty can often create a road back to the trust necessary to unlock the passionate marriage within.

The fact that you are asking these questions is the start of a quest of find the answers for yourself. You are showing courage and curiosity, important elements of finding a solution to this dilemma.  Stay with it, the answer for you is just around the bend.