Category Archives: Relationships

Ways to Deal with Heartache and Heartbreak

No feeling is so painful as the pain of the human heart…

One client of mine, when asked what it was like to feel shut out and rejected by her partner, used the word “soul-crunching” to describe her pain

In fact heartache and heartbreak are often described by people through metaphors of brokenness.

Heartache and heartbreak literally destroy something inside of us. We feel as if we have fallen to pieces, as if our lives are in ruins, and as if who we are and what we live for is no longer intact.

What Science Says:

Research shows that heart-ache and heart-break are not just painful experiences metaphorically speaking, but that they literally impact the same parts of the brain as physical pain. So when we say our heart is hurting, it literally is.

What You Need to Know about Heartache and Heartbreak:

Heartbreak, which describes the pain of a break-up, and heartache which is a more general description of the pain in the heart we feel when someone we love dies, are similar in many ways to the term “psycheache” which is a term used to describe the pain of being alive often reported by people who are suicidal.

All three terms express a pain of existing which only humans can feel. And there are really only two responses to deal with it. We can shrivel in the face of it and try our best to avoid it, or we can enter into it and become wiser from it.

The Two Ways to Deal with the Pain of a Broken Heart:

Avoiding the Pain:

The pain of heartache and heartbreak is so difficult to tolerate that our natural instinct is to want to run from it.

We run from the pain in different ways:

If we have just broken up with someone who matters a great deal to us, it might be tempting to simply get involved with another person and skip the the painstaking process of grieving the loss. However, a broken heart is not ready to love again before it has healed, and healing takes time. This is why a rebound relationship is never the best way to deal with a broken heart.

Another way we may distract ourselves is to simply keep busy and try to distract ourselves through activities, projects, work, or being social. In this approach, we simply try to never be alone or never fully stay long enough in the moment, to truly feel our pain. Of course, such a flight from ourselves, is bound to fail in the long run. Since we are not really dealing with the pain, the healing process never really begins, and we just end up postponing the inevitable.

A third way to deal with gut-wrenching pain is to shut the grieving process down by numbing ourselves to our emotions and hardening our heart. The pain of living is here dealt with by becoming a little less alive. While this might feel preferable to feeling the pain of existing, the long-term price of this strategy is steep, and we often end up feeling alienated and cut off from everything good life has to offer.

Learning from the Pain:

Because every attempt to simply avoid our pain is destined to fail in the long-run or to come with a heavy price tag, a wiser path to follow is to heed the message of the broken heart itself.

If you do this what you will discover is the following: Your heart is broken because you dared to love and let others matter.

Now in the absence of your loved one, you have lost a piece of yourself and are no longer whole. Your existence, without the other person, no longer feels full or sufficient. Love opened up life’s riches, and now that it has closed these riches down, the pain you feel is the pain of the absence and meaninglessness of a life without such love.

And although your heart is trying to warn you not hurry back into the same kind of vulnerability that left you bereft, it has also just revealed the meaningfulness, joy, and value of a life of mattering to someone and letting someone matter to you.

Its message is therefore not to avoid loving, but to take the time to reflect on the big questions brought about by the encounter with the inevitable pain and joy of an open heart.

  • What has loving and losing revealed to you about what is really important in life?
  • What has it revealed to you about yourself and about others?
  • Did you make mistakes and do you have regrets?
  • What lessons can you carry with you into your next relationship?

Only if you fully go into these often painful and quite dizzying questions about the meaning of your life, do you unlock the wisdom contained within your heartbreak.

Then you will live to love again, and be a little more prepared for the inevitable heartaches and heartbreaks of life.

Empty Hearts and Full Hearts:

 As Jon Fredrickson, a social worker and practicing psychodynamic therapist has said:

The person whose heart has been broken and gives up loving ends up with an empty heart.

The person with a broken heart who continues to love has a full heart, knowing that everyone we love we lose through death or abandonment.

That is why there are only two kinds of hearts: empty hearts and loving hearts.

It takes courage to face the inevitable losses and yet, in spite of it all, to keep on loving and being open to life

(Source: Jon Frederickson: Co-Creating Change)

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., psychologist and psychodynamic therapist in Houston Texas. I help people move through their difficult emotions to find greater peace and comfort with who they are. Visit: www.bettertherapy.com for more information. 

How to Restore Love in Your Relationship

Romantic relationships tend to run a quite predictable course. Initially your partner can do nothing wrong. You are wearing rose-colored glasses. But over time, differences become annoyances and the novelty of your relationship wears off.

Most couples hit an impasse at the 2 or 3 year mark, when many couples end up breaking up or divorcing. Even those partners who stay together, may end up living emotionally disengaged lives and struggling to maintain their love connection.

This raises the question: Can couples really sustain love over time?

The Science of Love:

Couples researcher, Sue Johnson, brings us an optimistic message. She believes that we now understand why love and affection is so difficult to maintain over time, and that we now have the answers that can help us restore love when love begins to wane.

Love she says, is not some mystical feeling that we either feel or don’t feel, and we are not simply at the mercy of serendipity. Instead there is a science behind love and a predictable way to cultivate it.

This science is not new but goes all the way back to the 1950s when a man named John Bowlby began to study the interactions between mother and child.

Its name:  attachment theory.

The Lesson from Attachment Theory:

The science of adult attachment originated in Bowlby’s observations of what happens to children when their primary caregiver leaves them.

Based on these experiments, Bowlby made several observations that have relevance to understanding human motivation and adult relationship distress.

The first conclusion is that it is extremely distressing for a child to lose connection with a caregiver. The child needs the connection to feel safe, and when they lose it, they work hard to get the connection back. Bowlby, in other words, stumbled across a human need to feel connected that is so powerful that any threat to it is a real threat to our survival.

The second conclusion is that babies go through a series of predictable stages when trying to reconnect with a loved one: First they amp up their engagement level and fight for the connection. If this doesn’t work they actively protest by crying or screaming. Finally, if no response is forthcoming, they give up and numb themselves.

Have a look at this more recent experiment called “Still Face”:

Attachment Theory and Your Relationship:

So what does attachment theory help us understand about adult relationships?

Committed relationships are strong attachment bonds. We become interdependent to an extent that mimics the love between caregiver and child.

We need safety in order to risk commitment, and that safety comes from knowing that our partner is going to be there for us if or when we need them.

We need what Bowlby calls a secure attachment: a sense that we matter to our partner, that our partner thinks about us, or that we occupy a special role for our partner.

Only with this felt security, can we feel safe to be ourselves completely, to disagree, to express our needs, to let our guards down, and to show our partner our most tender feelings.

Why Couples Lose their Love Connection:

What happens in most adult relationships is that one or both partners begin to feel insecure about whether or not they really matter to each other. In this fearful state, they begin to react based on wired-in survival mechanisms.

Just like the child fearful of losing a connection with a caregiver, partners first try to fight for the connection, then protest against their partner’s lack of care or concern, and finally begin to withdraw emotionally.

Over time this corrodes the love in the relationship and replaces it with a fear-based struggle for survival.

Instead of risking vulnerability and sharing their more tender sides, partners now begin to see their partner as withholding, emotionally uninterested, demanding, or critical. The relationship becomes filled with dissatisfaction and the risk of being vulnerable becomes too dangerous.

Partners start doing a dance with each other, where one partner’s insecurities fuels the other partners insecurities in a never-ending cycle:

If you protest by complaining that I don’t care enough to do the dishes, I might withdraw emotionally to protect myself from feeling criticized in the relationship. This then fuels more of your angry protests, which makes me withdraw even more. And round and round we go…

How to Restore Love in Your Relationship:

When couples come to couples therapy, they often don’t know that fears have taken hold of their relationship. They are not aware of the underlying feelings of insecurity and lack of safety that are causing them to disengage or feel dissatisfied with their partner.

Couples therapy can help couples get in touch with their underlying vulnerabilities and longings that they have shut out in order to be strong and protect themselves.

It can help them reestablish safety in the relationship so that needs and feelings can be expressed directly without a fear of being “left hanging” or being “shot down”.

Building a Safe Attachment:

Only when safety is restored can love begin to flourish and grow.

As Sue Johnson, would say, we now know the steps needed to build a safer attachment between partners. And with this knowledge we know the recipe for restoring and maintaining a strong love relationship.

If you would like to read more about beginning the conversations that will lead you from an angry and unsafe attachment to a safe and loving attachment, read Sue Johnson’s book: Hold Me Tight. 7 Conversations for a Life-Time of Love.

You can also visit a therapist with training in attachment focused couples therapy. The most well-researched approach is Emotion Focused Couples Therapy or EFT.

Dr. Rune Moelbak

About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., psychologist and couples therapist in Houston, Texas. I have received training in some of the most effective methods of couples therapy, including Gottman Method and EFT.

 

 

Approaches to Couples Counseling: The Gottman Method

Gottman Method Couples Counseling is one of the most popular and contemporary approaches to couples counseling used by couples therapists today. What makes it so unique in the therapeutic landscape is that it is entirely based on research findings from couples researcher John Gottman’s own studies of married couples.

John Gottman and Julie Gottman
John and Julie Gottman: Founders of the Gottman Method, a research based approach to making relationships work better

A Research-Based Approach to Couples Counseling:

John Gottman is a psychologist and researcher who has spent more than 40 years researching couples. Based on his research, he claims to be able to predict which married couples will divorce and which will stay married with 90 % accuracy.

One of the innovations of Gottman’s approach to research was that he observed how couples interacted in a live-in environment just like in the show Big Brother. Through the multiple cameras installed, he was able to see how couples interacted naturally. By studying hundreds of couples this way, he was able to distinguish certain differences in the behaviors of the couples who have successful marriages and the couples who end up getting divorced or separated.

Based on his research Gottman has constructed a theory of all the behaviors successful couples engage in, which today has become known as “The Sound Relationship House”

The Sound Relationship House:

John Gottman's Sound Relationship House

The Sound Relationship House contains all the elements found to predict relationship success in what is now called the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling.

First we have the pillars of the relationship: Trust and Commitment. These are fundamental to creating the boundaries for there to even be a relationship. They involve being faithful to each other and developing the trust needed to be emotionally vulnerable. According to Gottman, without these pillars in place, you cannot build a sound relationship.

Once the boundaries of the relationship have been established, couples can begin to focus on creating a house in which they want to live.

friendship system
The Gottman Method emphasizes the importance of building a strong “friendship system”. Investing energy in building a positive connection and knowledge of each other’s inner worlds will make your relationship more fulfilling, and will also make it more resilient to weathering storms

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Friendship System:

The foundation of a good relationship is what Gottman Method Couples Counselors refer to as “the Friendship System”. The friendship system contains all the elements that make a marriage worthwhile.

One of the building blocks of the friendship system is what Gottman calls “Building Love Maps”. The goal here is for couples to develop a clear and accurate knowledge of what makes each other tick. You have to allocate “room” in you brain for the other person and to truly know who they are. You have to have a “map” of your partner’s world, otherwise, who are you really in a relationship with, but yourself?

In the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling, couples are also advised to build each other up through creating a culture of openly sharing their “fondness and admiration” for each other. Getting in the habit of sharing positive thoughts and feelings rather than withholding them is often a very simple thing do, and can help build a stronger sense of connection that will help partners weather storms much better, since each partner feels appreciated and loved.

An interesting novelty of Gottman’s research is the idea of “turning towards”, which denotes all the little micro interactions we engage in when we drop what we are doing to respond to something our partner is interested in. They are little moments of connection that seem minor and insignificant, but start to wane when couples grow distant or begin to not like each other much.

Finally, Gottman advocates that partners find ways to laugh at disagreements, give their partners the benefit of the doubt, and otherwise adopt a positive and lighthearted perspective. The opposite of “adopting a positive perspective” is what Gottman calls “negative sentiment override” where everything your partner says or does is interpreted through a lens of past hurt and wrong-doings. In this mode of operating, you are often searching for the negative intention in what your partner is saying, and are inclined to choose the worst possible interpretation of their actions.

Together these four elements create a strong friendship filled with love, affection, and intimacy.

Only when couples have a strong friendship as their base is there enough love in the “love tank” to make them endure the more difficult times and the many disagreements in values and preferences that are bound to happen over time.

Managing Conflict and Fulfilling Dreams:

The upper elements of the sound relationship house include conflict management skills, as well as the creation of shared meaning and helping each other fulfill your dreams.

“Conflict management” is about learning to communicate with your partner in ways that do not make them defensive, and yet makes you feel heard. This often entails suspending your desire to heard so you can hear what your partner is saying from their perspective and taking turns to be the listener and the talker.

“Making Life Dreams Come True” is about creating dialogue around each partner’s dreams and growth ambitions, so that each person feels that they have a voice in the relationship and feels that their dreams for the future are not being trampled upon or silenced in the name of getting along.

As the Gottmans write: “The bottom line is this: You don’t want to have the kind of relationship in which you win and are influential in the relationship but wind up crushing your partner’s dream. You want the kind of relationship in which each of you support one another’s dreams”.   

“Creating shared meaning”, refers to creating rituals within the relationship and establishing an agreed upon culture that defines shared practices that make both partners feel connected. This could involve the agreed upon routine of having family dinners together, of praying together, or of never going to bed angry with each other.

How Can Gottman Method Couples Counseling Help You and Your Partner?

The Gottman Method of Couples Counseling is about teaching couples the skills needed to build their own sound relationship house. The assumption is that all couples can learn to emulate the practices that successful couples engage in and can build new habits to replace old ones that have not been working.

The Gottman Method is a skills-based approach to creating a strong relationship. By doing more of the right things, and doing less of the relationship-damaging things, you can make your relationship grow in the direction of greater intimacy and satisfaction.

Does the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling Work?

Man wondering if he has a personality disorderLearning some of the skills of successful couples communication and friendship building can be immensely useful to couples who are struggling to get their needs met when they simply use their automatic gut reactions.

Being more intentional about how to have conversations by learning more skillful ways to approach your partner can definitely lead to significant improvements in the overall happiness in a relationship.

One of the limitations of the Gottman Method is that it works more from the outside-in than from the inside-out. In other words, the approach is about changing your relationship by adopting a set of rules for how to interact. At first these rules can seem unnatural or forced since they are being imposed from without rather than emerging from within.

In my own couples therapy practice I therefore believe in combining multiple approaches to couples counseling. Although I have training in the Gottman Method and frequently teach my clients new skills, I also have a sound understanding of other more emotion-focused approaches that work from the inside out.

In my opinion, couples need more than skills to succeed in their relationships. They also need a deeper understanding of their own needs and desires, and an emotional experience of greater closeness with their partner.

More Couples Therapy Resources:

If you would like to learn some of the techniques utilized by couples therapists to help couples build happier relationships, sign up for my free e-book: The Secrets of Happy Couples (click on image):

Couples Guide

Also, if you are in the mood for more in-depth articles on common issues faced by couples, visit my relationship blog: Couples Insight:

relationship blog

For more information about the Gottman Method, have a look at the following articles:

heart symbolizing intimacy> 5 Easy Ways to Improve Intimacy in Your Marriage

Learn 5 simple Gottman techniques that can help you improve intimacy in your marriage…

Broken heart symbolizing divorce

> 4 Signs that Your Marriage is Headed for Divorce

Learn the 4 behaviors John Gottman has identified as being the most destructive to a relationship…

How to make up after a fight > How to Make Up After a Fight (and Learn From It)

Learn John Gottman’s 5-step method for resolving arguments after a big blow up has happened…

 

Dr. Rune Moelbak

About Me: I am a psychologist and ICEEFT certified couples therapist in Houston Texas. I have received training in the Gottman Method as well as emotionally focused couples therapy. To read more about couples therapy, visit my website: www.bettertherapy.com

How to Communicate with Your Partner without Starting a Fight

A frequent concern couples have is how to express their disagreements without starting a fight.

Learning how to communicate with your partner in a way that minimizes your partner’s defensiveness and makes it possible to have a conversation and not an argument is vital to the success of any relationship.

Having a conversation and having an argument are two very different things…

Argument:

In an argument, we try to convince our partner that we are right and that they are wrong. Oftentimes this leads to an escalation of conflict, because our partner is unlikely to simply agree that we are right, and is more likely to defend themselves or find convincing arguments why we are wrong. Even if our partner agrees with us, we may discover that it is a rather hollow victory: Our partner may simply have agreed with us to keep the peace, and may gradually end up becoming more distant from us, as they increasingly begin to feel that there is no room in the relationship for them to be who they are.

Conversation:

In a conversation, on the other hand, the focus shifts from convincing your partner that you are right to truly understanding your partner’s perspective. Even if you don’t agree about something, you can still attempt to understand what motivates each of your actions, and what feelings, beliefs, and perceptions underlie each of your complaints. The benefit of this approach, is that each partner can then feel heard and understood, and this typically brings partners closer to each other, and increases both partners tolerance and appreciation for each other’s differences.

How to Communicate without Starting a Fight: 

In the Gottman Method of couples therapy, couples are instructed to use the following guidelines in order to learn how to communicate without starting a fight:

Speaker:

  • Initiate a conversation in a soft rather than accusatory manner
  • Focus on your own experience, not on your partner
  • Focus on stating a positive need, instead of complaining about what your partner isn’t doing

Starting a conversation in a soft manner can be done in many ways. It can involve things like acknowledging that “you may or may not be right”, that “it is probably ridiculous to even bring this up, but…”, or that you don’t want to start a fight and you know that your partner is “doing many things right, but…” This is different from a more abrupt start up where you communicate that you feel entitled to your complaint and come across as self-rigtheous and accusatory.

Focusing on your experience means taking the focus off your partner, and sharing your own internal reactions, feelings, and interpretations. Instead of labeling your partner’s actions, or speaking about a situation in absolute terms, you turn the focus inward. Instead of saying things like, “it wasn’t right when you…” or “you were being very inconsiderate when you”, you instead look beneath your self-righteous anger and get in touch with your softer and more vulnerable emotions. Say something like, “I guess when you came home late again tonight (non-judgmental description), I started feeling lonely and started thinking that I wasn’t very important to you” Not something like, “you know you are always late, and I’m getting tired of sitting around waiting for you. It seems like you just don’t care about my feelings”

Focusing on stating a positive need instead of a criticism, means trying to pinpoint what it is you would like the two of you to do more of. In the example of your partner being late, the hidden need might be for the two of you to be closer with each other. Your sense of loneliness and disappointment when your partner is late, might be a clue that you have been feeling distant from your partner for a while. The trick now is to state what you want rather than what you don’t want. Instead of saying, “I’m tired of you being late”, you might instead say, “can we do more things together where we can connect with each other. I have been feeling rather lonely as of late”.

If you learn how to communicate with your partner using the three rules above, likelihood is that your partner will not feel attacked and will be able to actually listen and respond to your concern…

Listener:

If you are not the person voicing the complaint, but instead the one having to respond to your partner’s criticism, try to apply one of the following skills:

  • Don’t defend yourself or counter-attack
  • Validate your partner’s experience

Don’t defend yourself when your partner brings up a concern. Even if your partner may bring up an issue in an accusatory way, realize that underneath the anger, your partner likely feels hurt, rejected, or wounded in some way. Even if you notice yourself getting angry and ready to counter-attack, try to bite your tongue. Make a conscious decision to set your own issues to the side for the time being, and begin to listen for what your partner is really feeling and experiencing.

Validate your partner’s experience. You may not agree with how your partner interprets or sees things, and your partner’s feelings may seem quite irrational to you. This, however, is when you must make an effort to ask clarifying question to understand how your partner has arrived at his or her conclusions. You must try to find the logic in your partner’s perspective, so you can repeat your understanding back to them. Try to acknowledge and validate that if you were in their shoes, made the same kinds of interpretations, and had the same kind of values, you too would feel the way they do. Realize that by validating and saying that you understand, you are not saying that you agree, nor are you saying that your own feelings are invalid. In a relationship there is room for two valid perspectives on the same situation. The important thing is that both of you can feel that your perspectives are heard.

A Small Change Can Have a Large Effect:

Whether you are “the speaker” or “the listener”, it is important to realize that you can change an interaction by doing any of these 5 suggestions at any point in an interaction. Maybe your partner brings up a concern in an accusatory manner, and you decide to not respond in a defensive way, thus breaking the typical cycle of attack-defend. Or maybe you correct yourself in the middle of voicing your own complaint by making an effort to focus more on your own feelings than on labeling your partner’s. Each time you stop reacting to your partner and make a conscious decision to take control of the interaction, you increase the likelihood of turning an argument into a conversation. The benefits of learning how to communicate with your partner can be profound, so the next time you find yourself itching to let something off your chest, try using one of the five rules.

About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D. a couples therapist in Houston, Texas. I use a variety of proven methods to help couples get their relationships back on track. Visit my website to read more about my approach to couples therapy or to schedule an appointment.

Relationships: How to Make Up After a Fight (and Learn From It)

A sign of a strong relationship is not that you never fight or argue. Disagreements and arguments are inevitable when we are emotionally invested in someone. Contrary to popular wisdom, however, fights do not have to tear us apart, but can actually serve as pathways to greater intimacy… 

Couples who don’t fight can only avoid doing so by suppressing their feelings and withdrawing emotionally, and this is not a sign of a healthy relationship.

The secret to a fulfilling relationship is therefore not to avoid saying or doing things that will lead to a fight, but to be able to recover from  fights when they DO happen and to learn from them.

Unfortunately some couples never revisit each person’s complaints after the fight is over. Happy to be done with the disagreement, they table their concerns, not wanting to start another argument. The result is that the issues leading to the fight never really get resolved. Instead they will simmer in the background and become the cause of new fights in the future…

The Cause of Most Fights

Most couples think that what causes them to fight is the expression of their needs and feelings (saying what they really think and feel). In most cases, however, this is not true. Fights usually happen because needs and feelings have NOT been expressed. The fight often erupts because one partner has finally had it and can’t stuff their emotions anymore.

What many couples fail to see is that having an argument is not the same as having a conversation.

When we argue we hurl out accusations. We are tired and fed up. We want our partner to feel sorry. We say things out of anger.

Of course this rarely works to our advantage, because our partner now feels attacked and stops listening to what we are saying.

Having a conversation, on the other hand, is about expressing yourself in a non-accusatory manner that will allow your partner to listen, and for both of you to feel understood.

Most couples fear revisiting the fight they had yesterday because they are afraid that it will simply restart the fight. They don’t know HOW to have a conversation about their issues that doesn’t turn into a fight.

But issues don’t go away just because we don’t talk about them. This is why it is important for any couple to have the skills to have the conversation that never took place.

The Aftermath of a Fight:

Couples therapist and researcher John Gottman has developed a step-by-step exercise couples can use to revisit their fight when they are calm and address the real issues that fuelled the fight. When these conversations happen they can strengthen a relationship and even be a source of greater intimacy between partners. They also tend to decrease the build-up of frustrations that will otherwise lead to fights in the future.

5 Steps to How to Make Up After a Fight:

 Here is my own modified version of Gottman’s method for how to make up after a fight and use disagreements as a source of greater connection: Sit down when you have both calmed down and are not busy or distracted and agree to revisit what happened the day before. Each person will take turn expressing their side of the story and will follow each of the 5 steps below:

1. Identify and Share How You Felt

Yesterday you were angry, but did you really stop to think what emotions fuelled the anger or why you reacted so strongly to certain things your partner did or said? It is often the case that softer and more uncomfortable emotions are hidden underneath our self-righteous anger. Have a look at the following list of feelings, to see if any of them might have been true for you:

I felt…

  1. defensive
  2. not listened to
  3. feelings got hurt
  4. totally glooded
  5. angry
  6. sad
  7. unloved
  8. misunderstood
  9. criticized
  10. took a complaint personally
  11. like you didn’t even like me
  12. not cared about
  13. worried
  14. afraid
  15. unsafe
  16. tense
  17. I was right and you were wrong
  18. Both of us were partly right
  19. Out of control
  20. Frustrated
  21. Righteously indignant
  22. Morally justified
  23. Unfairly picked on
  24. Unappreciated
  25. Disliked
  26. Unattractive
  27. Stupid
  28. Morally outraged
  29. Taken for granted
  30. Like leaving
  31. Like staying and talking things through
  32. I was overwhelmed with emotion
  33. Not calm
  34. Stubborn
  35. Powerless
  36. I had no influence
  37. I wanted to win this one
  38. My opinion didn’t even matter
  39. There was a lot of give and take
  40. I had no feelings at all
  41. I had no idea what I was feeling
  42. Lonely
  43. Alienated
  44. Ashamed
  45. Guilty
  46. Culpable
  47. Abandoned
  48. Disloyal
  49. Exhausted
  50. Foolish
  51. Overwhelmed
  52. Remorseful
  53. Shocked
  54. Tired

2. Describe the series of events that led you to feel this way

Help your partner understand how you perceived the events unfolding the day before (what led up to the fight? what made you react? and how did the fight unfold?). It is important in this step to speak from your own point of view: Describe yourself and your perceptions from an objective and detached perspective, like a witness giving an account of what they observed on a crime scene. Don’t guess your partner’s intentions and don’t assign blame. Simply focus on your interactions and how you perceived or interpreted what you heard or what your partner did. Instead of saying “when you didn’t care how I felt”, say “when you walked out during our fight, it made me think you didn’t care”. In other words, focus on how YOU made sense of the events, acknowledging that another person might not have interpreted events the way you did or assigned the same meaning to them.

3. Identify and talk about sensitivities that might have been evoked and where these sensitivities might come from

This is your chance to reflect a little bit about why you might be particularly sensitive to certain feelings, fears, or beliefs. Did feeling unloved remind you of something in your childhood? Did your fear of your partner leaving, remind you of how lonely you felt as a child? Are there times in the past when you have felt similarly to how you felt in the fight? If so, why do think you react so strongly to this particular feeling? What memories do you have involving that feeling? Is there a particular story you can you tell of a time in the past when you felt that way? Help your partner understand the underlying meaning or importance of a particular thought or feeling that you are very sensitive to.

4. Validate you partner’s perspective

When one partner goes through these 3-steps, the other partner’s job is to listen, ask open-ended questions, and clarify to make sure they understand. The listener should not defend themselves, or argue against the other person, but simply try to “get” why the other person reacted how they did. Validating means conveying to your partner that you understand why they reacted the way they did. To validate your partner is not to agree that your partner is right, and you are wrong. It is simply to convey that given a similar set of circumstances, and a similar way of interpreting events, you too would feel the way your partner does. It is important for your partner to hear that you get them, even if you don’t see things their way.

5. What can You do to be Sensitive to Your partner’s Needs and Feelings in the Future?

A final step, which isn’t always necessary, is to have a conversation about what each of you might be able to do differently so as to take each other’s sensitivities and needs into account. I say it is not always necessary because when you truly understand your partner’s reactions and experiences, it naturally follows that you will be more caring towards your partner and more sensitive to their needs.

Next time you have a fight, try to follow this 5-step model of how to make up after a fight. You might discover that disagreements do not have to threaten your relationship, but can actually be a source of greater intimacy and connection. 

About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a couples therapist in Houston, Texas. If you would like more insight into how to communicate more effectively with your partner, click here to get your FREE copy of “The Secrets of Happy Couples: A User’s Guide to a More Fulfilling Relationship”

Book cover for Free couples guide

Extra-Marital Affairs: Why Do People Cheat?

Infidelity and Cheating is Widespread:

Statistics show that between 35-50% of all women or men in a relationship have had an affair. With such widespread occurrence of infidelity, affairs cannot only be attributed to some act of deviance or amorality, but must be looked at as a normal fact of life.

This begs the question “why do so many people cheat?” And, “What are the challenges to staying faithful and monogamous in a relationship?”

Is There Something Wrong with Cheating?

Over the years psychologists and sociologists have advanced many viewpoints on this matter. The current stance of many couples therapists seems almost naively moralistic and judgmental, focusing mostly on the “victim’s” right to feel angry and the perpetrator’s need to atone. They implicitly turn cheating into a simple selfish act, a violation of social norms, and a sign of immaturity.

And yet, aren’t we all fascinated by the forbidden? Doesn’t the forbidden actually enhance our eroticism? Have we not all been tempted by the lure of what might exist on the other side of the fence?

If we dig deeper into our unconscious we will find that most people, whether they admit to it or not, have been tempted to cheat, have fantasized about somebody else than their spouse, and have found secret emotional fulfillment with others without wanting their spouses to know.

Judging Our Desires Can Lead to Cheating

Oftentimes what propels a person into an affair is ironically their lack of ability to talk to their spouse about their deepest darkest fantasies. The prohibition against having an affair is thus often what makes it happen. The affair becomes the actual outlet, for what cannot be talked about within the existing relationship. What gets denied, goes underground, only to become expressed through actions and impulses in another setting.

A chronic problem in intimate relationships is the inability to openly admit to and share fantasies and urges that are not considered “right” or “proper”, and that one does not feel a decent human being “should” have. Because there is then no room for it within the relationship, there is also no room for a part of the person. This part is then forced to exist in secret and to be siphoned off to a parallel reality, whether it be internet porn, a secret lover, or a clandestine emotional encounter. People’s fears of confessing and being a 100% themselves within a relationship thus leads to a pressing need for more than one relationship to contain all parts of oneself.

In some relationships, this fact of life is openly embraced. Hence we have communities of swingers, people who agree to have open relationships, or people who agree to have threesomes. Some report that this greatly spices up their life and reduces the need for their partner to secretly cheat, but others suggest it comes with its own dangers, and leads to unmanageable jealousy that tends to ultimately break people apart.

Why Do People Have Affairs?

People who have been cheated on and have felt the betrayal of an extra-marital affair, may end up blaming themselves, thinking that they were deficient in some way. Oftentimes, however, partners who cheat are struggling with their own issues (like all of us), which make it difficult for them to get all their needs met with one partner, no matter who that partner is.

A common problem encountered by men is the “Madonna – Whore” complex, by which tender feelings originally felt toward a person’s mother, cannot be reconciled with a person’s “dirty” sexual desires. In this case, a person will thus have a need to relate to their spouse as a good friend and revered mother, and live out their sexual fantasies with a “lover” whose only function is to serve as a sexual outlet for these unaccepted desires. It is for example not uncommon for someone to not be able to have great sex with a person they respect, and to have great sex with someone whom they don’t really respect much as a person.

Another common situation is for a person to recreate a relationship with their spouse that makes them feel trapped, stifled, and in need of an escape. A person may for example unknowingly contribute to a relationship where they feel lonely and unloved, and find themselves in need of getting those needs met elsewhere. It is thus not uncommon to find that the person feeling lonely has withdrawn themselves and stopped sharing the personal thoughts and feelings that would have made them feel more loved and intimate. At the end of the day, we therefore sometimes unconsciously create the very types of relationships, which we then find insufferable. A true test of this is whether or not the next relationship tends to end in the same situation, making break-ups and infidelity a sort of coping mechanism that substitutes for dealing with one’s own barriers to establishing a fulfilling intimate partnership with someone.

A Common Factor that Leads to Infidelity:

The list of why we cheat is long and often involves complicated personal and interpersonal dynamics. But one thing seems to be true across the board: Cheating seems to happen when a part of the person cannot be expressed within the confines of a single relationship. There are many reasons why this cannot happen, but the root cause is often the lack of ability to create, and tolerate, intimacy, and the inability to be completely oneself within one’s existing relationship…

About Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist in Houston, Texas. I use a non-shaming and non-blaming approach to working with individuals who feel guilty about having an affair, and couples who are struggling with issues of infidelity. Click on this link to read more about my approach to couples therapy…

5 Easy Ways to Improve Intimacy in Your Marriage

Do you sometimes feel you have very little in common with your partner or spouse? Do you often feel lonely in your relationship or marriage? Do you silently ask yourself if you and your partner are slowly growing apart?

If so, you are not alone. Many couples struggle to maintain intimacy and stay emotionally connected over time. The good news is, connection and intimacy in your marriage or relationship is something you can build. Here are five ways to improve intimacy in your marriage or relationship:

1. Empathize – Don’t Problem-Solve:

When your partner opens up to you about a concern they are having at work or elsewhere, don’t try to solve their problem. Instead, try to connect with their feelings. Show that you understand what your partner must be going through, how difficult it must be to be in their shoes. Encourage your partner to tell you more about what bothers them; show interest. Have your partner tell you enough about their feelings, opinions, and thoughts so that if your friend asked you to tell them why your partner is upset, you would be able to give them an accurate summary. Sometimes, all we want from each other is someone who will hear us out without being judgmental, without siding with “the enemy”, and without giving us advise based on their own perspective. Feeling understood rather than evaluated, can greatly increase our sense of intimacy and connection with our partner.

2. Create Rituals of Connection:

Do you really know what is going on with your partner at work? Do you know what worries are on their mind? Instead of leaving these kinds of questions unanswered, why not build in a ritual of sitting down for dinner or for late evening tea, to check in about each other’s day? Turn off the TV and cell phone and make this your daily together-time. Maybe set aside 15 minutes for each person to share about their day. When focus is on your partner, make it all about them, and don’t redirect the conversation to yourself. The goal is not to bring up concerns about each other, but to discuss all the external stressors and successes that are going on at work or with other people. The goal is to strengthen the conviction that you have an ally in each other and are facing the world together. This sense of togetherness and support is one of the best ways to improve intimacy in your marriage over time.

3. Share Your Spontaneous Reactions:

Famous couples researcher, John Gottman, discovered that healthy couples share many more of their spontaneous reactions with each other than couples who are disconnected. Couples who complain that they just don’t have anything to talk to each other about anymore, forget that connection is not always about depth of conversation. Get in the habit of sharing your reactions to even mundane things. Did you like your cup of coffee this morning? Share it. Did you laugh at a Facebook post? Let your partner know. These little invitations to connect are important to the health and intimacy of your relationship. In relationships where partners feel disconnected, Gottman found that not only are these little “bids for connection” few and far between, they are also often met with lack of interest from the partner. If your partner makes a bid for connection, be sure not to turn them down or ignore them. If you routinely do, they will soon stop sharing and your level of intimacy will slowly wither away.

4. Invite Deeper Conversations:

Sometimes when couples get into the doldrum of things, they may interact with each other in routine-like ways that can become  deadening or boring and can decrease the sense of intimacy. Couples may start to feel like they are out of things to talk about or that they already know their partners position on different topics. In such cases, it usually pays to ask more philosophical or personal questions, to get at your partner’s deeper underlying thoughts and feelings. Your partner likes to travel: Why is this so important to them? How might this relate to their background or childhood history in some way? It’s important to your partner to be on time: Why do they attach importance to punctuality? Where does that value stem from? What feelings do they have about this issue? Learn to become interested in the deeper motivations, desires, and values of your partner. It is one of the best ways to improve intimacy in your marriage and have more meaningful conversations with your partner.

5. Get Away from the Everyday:

Sometimes what couples really need to rediscover their connection and improve their intimacy is to create new experiences and memories together. It often pays to plan a trip or take time away from the everyday routine. If you always go for dinner and a movie on Fridays, shake it up a little. Try something new. Stay overnight at a hotel in a different city. Take turns planning an outing, by looking up events in the local newspaper. Agree to be open-minded about your partner’s suggestions and try out an event your partner is interested in without judging or dragging your feet. A relationship is a living thing, and new experiences can help give new life to your shared existence and improve intimacy in your marriage.

About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D. a couples therapist in Houston, Texas. I help couples reconnect and improve intimacy in their relationship or marriage. Read more about my approach to couples therapy.

Borderline Personality Disorder and the Fear of Becoming Oneself

The concept of Borderline Personality Disorder is often understood as being synonymous with an impossible individual who acts out in the most ostentatious ways. The concept conjures up images of suicidal threats and acts, as well as intense anger and aggression. However, there is a more subtle kind of borderline anxiety that is less “in your face” and yet quite widespread in many romantic relationships. This kind of borderline phenomenon is not the kind that would require hospitalization, but it nevertheless has its own insidious and very destructive effects on the health of a relationship…

The kind of borderline anxiety I am talking about is different from your common garden-variety of anxiety. It is not related to the fear we can all feel sometimes of messing up an important presentation at work, or the existential fear that comes naturally when having to make an important decision about our life direction. Nor is it related to the everyday anxieties of getting a parking ticket in an area with unclear signage, or the worries about things going wrong that are outside of our control.

These kinds of anxieties are adaptive in the sense that they help us prepare better and consider risks, so that we may make better decisions. Even when these anxieties and worries become excessive and unrealistic, they are still in some sense about external things, and in this sense never pose a danger or threat so fundamental as to reach the level of the anxiety of someone with a borderline personality.

Losing Oneself to Gain Love:

Borderline Personality is in my opinion a fear of being oneself. Not the kind of fear experienced by someone with social anxiety, who may in many instances like themselves when alone and even develop a preference to spend time by themselves.

Unlike the socially phobic individual, the borderline fear of being oneself is paired with a need for others that is as fundamental as the need for oxygen.

This conflict between the need to be close and the fear of being oneself plays itself out in very destructive ways that involve not just the person who experiences these anxieties, but also their partner, who may in many instances end up suffering just as much.

For the person with borderline personality disorder or borderline anxieties, individual expression or being oneself equals loss of love and affection. The fundamental belief here is that “I am unlovable” as myself, therefore to attract and keep the love I need, I must become the object the other person needs or desires. I must obtain love by becoming a chameleon who changes and adapts to become exactly what the other person wants.

Unfortunately, this strategy, although temporarily eliminating the anxiety of being rejected, also leads to built-up of anger and resentment. The person with borderline anxiety soon starts to get annoyed, angry, and frustrated with the lack of love they ultimately receive. They feel loved not for who they are, but for who they have become to please their partner. Although their partner might enjoy having found someone who likes the very things they like or who always wants to go to the restaurants they themselves enjoy eating at, they will soon experience the anger and frustration of their partner who feels chronically love deprived.

Borderline Personality and the Fear of Choosing:

The dilemma, however, is often an impossible one, for if one were to ask the person with borderline anxieties to make a choice about where to go for dinner or where they would like to go on a day retreat, you would soon bump up against the fear of self-expression. To the person with borderline anxieties, making a decision means being exposed and risking rejection. Afterall, we are defined as people by the choices we make, and it is in the freedom of choosing that we cease being an object for another person and start to become a subject or a person in our own right.

The outcome of this dilemma is usually as follows: The person with a borderline personality makes a tentative choice, but now becomes acutely aware of any sign of disapproval. He or she scans the facial expressions and actions of their partner for signs of the loss of love, just like a person who was just robbed, would scan the environment for suspicious people.

The partner is thus often up against a certain paranoia that leads the person with borderline anxieties to attribute motivations, thoughts, and feelings to them on the basis of unfounded fears rather than facts. The borderline is always ready with interpretations such as: he’s just doing it to please me, or she really doesn’t want to be here. And ultimately jumps to the conclusion: He doesn’t care about me! OR she doesn’t love me!

The Impossible Dilemma of the Borderline’s Partner:

A movie night where the person with borderline anxieties has chosen which movie to watch might thus quickly turn into a fight: The anxious person who is already feeling guilty and bad for having made the “choice”, might quickly find a reason to think that the partner is not enjoying the movie, is not paying enough attention, or is using a tone of voice that indicates annoyance with the movie. When accused of this, however, the non-borderline partner cannot persuade their borderline partner otherwise. The conclusion has already been made in the mind of the borderline who now walks up and turns off the video, furious at the partner for the lack of interest shown.

The non-borderline partner is now left with his or her own impossible choice: to insist on watching the movie is to be accused of just humoring the other person, while to do nothing is to prove that every time the other person chooses something, the partner shows no interest.

This kind of scenario where the partner is accused and sentenced on the basis of borderline fears, and feels damned if I do and damned if I don’t, gradually conditions the partner to become fearful or anxious him or herself. He or she may now start to limit their own choices and fear their own self-expression, since it is quite unpredictable when they will incur the wrath of their borderline partner for saying the wrong thing, or making the wrong decision. It is as if by living with someone with borderline anxieties, one has to always walk on eggshells, which by the way, is the title of a popular self-help book for partners who find themselves in these dilemmas:

Stop Walking on Eggshells Book Cover
Click on book cover to read description of book

Borderline Personality and the Fight to Exist:

These kinds of impossible dilemmas, which are now transmitted to the partner, exactly mirror the impossible dilemmas at the heart of borderline pathology: I can’t be myself (without losing love) and I can’t not be myself (without feeling that I don’t exist and am not loved for who I am). I am stuck in the borderland where no choice can be made. My life is an impossible existence, where I am always teetering on the edge of disaster no matter what choice I make.

Borderline personality is thus in most cases a fight to exist, and the emotion that is most symbolic of this fight is: Anger. The person with borderline personality is angry at having to always accommodate others, and angry at having the right to their own existence stolen from them. But they are also angry that if they dare to assert themselves, make choices, and be themselves, the other person likely will lose interest in them or stop loving them.

Anger is here in some sense a sign of health, even if the situation one is angry about is created on the basis of anxiety rather than facts. The anger is a protest. It communicates a desire to be oneself, to have one’s own needs met, and to come into existence as an individual in one’s own right.

About Me: I am Rune Moelbak, a psychologist in Houston, Texas. I provide psychodynamic therapy for people who want to get to the root of their problems.

5 Easy Ways to Improve Communication in Your Relationship

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How to Stop Arguing and Start Communicating:

Most couples arguments are like rituals. Every now and then when each partner has bottled things up long enough, a fight will erupt and fury will be unleashed. These kinds of fights can often be cathartic, but they rarely if ever solve anything.

Why? Because when one partner is dishing out, the other is busy preparing a come-back. The result is that aggression by the one, leads to aggression by the other. Insult gets rebutted with insult, and no real constructive change comes out of it.

Wouldn’t it be great, however, if the things you complain about could actually get resolved? And wouldn’t it be nice if your partner would feel understood to the point where he or she no longer keeps criticizing you about the same old issues?

Here are my 5 easy to implement communication skills that will help you get your point across and improve your relationship…

1.    Stick with the Facts

One of the surest ways to get your partner’s anger boiling is to label their actions using your own choice phrases. Nouns and adjectives used to describe the other person will often make them feel judged and ready to rebuff. Calling someone “inconsiderate” is different from pointing out what the other person did that felt inconsiderate to YOU. You will usually obtain a much better response from your loved one, if you simply describe the situation at hand. Recount  the other person’s actions without attributing evil motivations or categorizing these actions as good or bad.  “When you took 30 minutes to get ready this morning, it made us late for work” is quite different from saying “You are always late in the morning and it’s very inconsiderate”.

2.    Use “I feel…”

It is  common nowadays to make fun of the therapist who helps couples communicate better by having each partner rephrase their criticism with the opening statement: “I feel…” Nevertheless, when done right, it is exceedingly difficult to argue against another person’s feelings. Rephrasing your criticism in terms of how something made you feel, removes the focus from the wrong-doings of your partner, and puts focus instead on your own perceptions and experiences. For example, saying “When you entered the house without saying hello to me, I felt disappointed and started to think that you don’t really care about me”, invites a quite different response than: “Why did you not say hello when you came home today; you obviously don’t care!” The focus here is really not so much on using the phrase “I feel”, as it is about qualifying your annoyance as a result of how you viewed the situation rather than the objective wrongness of the other person.

3.    Ask for what you want – not for what you don’t want

One thing that is exceedingly difficult for people in relationships is to express what they want rather than what they don’t want. It is quite easy to notice what we don’t want. Our feelings often alert us when someone has overstepped a boundary or acted in a way that we consider unacceptable. However, underneath every complaint lies an unexpressed wish. Instead of saying, “I don’t want you to stay out late with your friends all the time: When are you ever going to spend time with me?”, it might be better to say: “I really wish we could spend more time together. What do you say we arrange a date night?” In the first example, it is easy for your partner to think they are being criticized and being told what to do. In the second example, it is a lot more difficult to feel defensive. Here what you are really expressing is that you value something about your partner, and who can really get annoyed about that?

4.    Be Fair in Your Assessment

When you get angry or upset, it is easy to build a case in your mind for why you are justified in being angry or upset. Oftentimes this can lead you to make totalitarian statements that are almost always wrong. Saying things like “you ALWAYS go and watch TV without helping me with dinner”, is probably not entirely accurate. Because terms like ALWAYS and NEVER are almost always NOT true, your partner is likely to feel misjudged when you use them. Now instead of addressing the real issue, the conversation will more than likely become about the fairness of your judgment. “Don’t you remember that I cooked dinner for you the other day?!” So BE fair. It is the best way to make sure your partner will be able to hear your issue.

5.    Become a Good Listener

When your partner brings up a concern they have about you, it is easy to become defensive. Instead of hearing what your partner’s concern is, it is tempting to instead think of a reason why your partner is wrong, or to return the insult by blaming your partner for something as well. Instead of doing this, try to really understand what your partner is feeling unhappy about. Set aside your own complaints for a moment and become curious about how your partner really views the world. Why is going out more often important to him? Why does spending money on frivolous things annoy her? Do you really know what meaning he or she attributes to these events? Try to ask questions until you can repeat back to your partner exactly why it is they feel dissatisfied. If you model this behavior, likelihood is that your partner will feel really understood, and will return the favor next time… 

About me: I am a couples therapist in Houston, Texas. For more information about couples therapy, please visit my website.

Couples Therapy: Why Arguing Might Help Your Relationship…

Why Couples May Not Argue Enough…

At first glance it might seem that one of the major reasons couples decide to pursue couples counseling is that they fight too much. Ironically, however, the fights couples engage in are often the result of a determination by both partners not to fight. In fact, many couples do not feel completely safe to express their complaints, and feel rather timid, guilty, or ashamed about stating their own needs and desires. Rather than voicing their complaints to each other, they therefore instead try to suppress them.

When both partners have held in their private desires and wishes for too long, however, a fight eventually erupts, but these kinds of fights are the “symptoms” and not the “problem”. In fact, we might say that couples need to fight more – not less – or that they need to develop greater comfort expressing their complaints to each other on an on-going basis.

The Double Bind of the Unhappy Couple…

Let’s look at an example of a typical couples interaction to illustrate the point:

Jane dislikes her neediness and tries to curtail her natural desire to spend more time with Tom. She really wants to ask Tom to take her out more often and spend more time talking with her. However, knowing that Tom feels threatened by such demands, and questioning her own right to feel this way, Jane tries her best to give Tom his alone time. Yet the more Jane suppresses her feelings, the more resentful she starts to feel, and she now instead picks fights with Tom about not doing his part of the household chores, or makes belittling remarks about his work projects.

In the mean time, Jane gets absolutely no credit for her effort to give Tom his space. Because of her periodic outbursts and her subtle criticisms, Tom knows her encouragement of his alone time is really just pretense, and so all her good efforts are ultimately in vain.

Tom on the other hand feels guilty for his desire to spend time alone so he forces himself to spend more time with Jane. Jane, however, notices the forced nature of Tom’s half-hearted invitations to go out for dinner, or the rote manner in which he brings her flowers, so Tom gets no credit for this either. Instead, he ends up feeling that he is “damned if I do, and damned if I don’t”. This impossible bind is bound to lead to anxiety and ultimately result in an angry demand for more alone time. However, Jane now feels pushed away and has confirmation of her greatest fear which is that “Tom really doesn’t care…”

Compromising is Not the Solution…

In the name of compromise, and in order to please each other, both Tom and Jane are stuck in a lose-lose cycle. They settle for less than what they really want. And yet in exchange for their plea deal, they do not really get the peace they bargained for. Instead they end up feeling both unsatisfied and unappreciated.

The problem is not Jane’s desire to spend more time with Tom or Tom’s desire for more time alone. The problem is that both Jane and Tom are too timid and too inhibited to express their immediate desires to each other and to examine what is really underneath them.

Instead of arguing about roses that are two days too late, or acceptance of independence that is always only temporary, Tom and Jane need to be able to have a talk about what they really want. They need to develop a relationship where there is room for all their feelings, also the one’s that at first glance seem irrational, childish, shameful, or vulnerable. If they are able to talk about their differences in such a mutually accepting way, both Tom and Jane can feel more secure with each other, and more known for who they really are.

And then, as it so often happens in the absurd theatre of life, they may discover that the conflict between them loses its stronghold. Tom, now free to be himself and to express his true feelings, discovers that he actually likes to spend more time with Jane, and Jane, now feeling understood at a deeper level, discovers that she no longer needs to cling to Tom in order to feel connected.

And so it is that when we stop trying to force a solution to our problems, and instead focus on understanding what the problem is really about, the problem is free to morph into something else and to bring about its own resolution…

About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a couples therapist in Houston, Texas. If you would like to read more about this topic, I warmly recommend this classic couples therapy book by Dan Wile. You can also visit my own website for more information about the couples therapy process.