How to Respond When Your Partner is Acting “Crazy” (and Being Rational and Reasonable Doesn’t Work)


One of the things that are most difficult for many couples to deal with are those moments when one or both partners just aren’t acting rationally or reasonably.

One person, for example, might be full of rage and accusations about something that leaves the other person perplexed, and at their wits end.

“All I did was to go dance with someone else at a wedding party, and she all of a sudden accused me of cheating and threatened to break up with me”, one person says. “I explained to her she was wrong and that I had no ill intentions but no matter what I said she wouldn’t believe me”. “It ruined our entire evening and we didn’t talk for two days”

This kind of scenario often leaves the accused party feeling totally at a loss. It is as if the gentle person next to them who can be so caring and loving, suddenly has turned into a monster.

Accused of feeling or thinking things that just aren’t true, the accused person often doesn’t know what to do. Without any clear rational response to a seemingly irrational reaction, the accused is often left with no response but anger, or a desire for time away from this person they suddenly feel no affection for.

“When you get like this I just can’t be around you”, the accused might say, or “I just can’t deal with all your emotional b**lshit!”

The couple might now not talk for hours or days, and each time arguments like this happen, the wedge between partners grows bigger and the sensitivities to triggers more acute.

Emerson Eggerichs calls it the “crazy cycle”, and each time you take another spin, you do more damage to the foundation of your relationship, and prepare the ground for the next one.

The accuser walks away feeling that their needs or feelings are too much to deal with, and the accused walks away feeling emotionally exhausted and helpless to do anything about it.

What to Do to Calm the Situation:

The best ally against the crazy cycle is knowledge about what brings it on.

What each partner needs to understand is that reason and rationality does not guide all our actions in a close relationship. In fact far from it.

Reason and rationality only reside in the most recent part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex. This part of our brain is what distinguishes us from other animals and allows us to transcend our animal instincts, but it is by no means always in charge.

As Homo Sapiens, we are still part of the animal realm, and we carry with us both a reptilian brain and a mammalian brain that sometimes override our prefrontal cortex.

What we have in common with reptiles and mammals are our survival instincts and our ability to react quickly to sensory input that alerts our organism that we are in danger.

When we enter into close relationships, we are therefore not just in a relationship with another rational thinking human being, but also with the reptile and mammal that we each carry around inside.

Don’t Dismiss Our Animal Instincts:

The reptilian, mammalian, and prefrontal parts of our brains are often in competition with each other, meaning that a prefrontal understanding can sometimes quiet down a reptilian instinct to freeze and “play dead”, but also that a mammalian instinct to flee can sometimes override and trump our rational perception that our partner in front of us is our friend and not our foe.

Multiple sensory inputs that often contradict each other thus vie for control of our organism and ultimately leads us to respond sometimes based on reason alone, sometimes based on pure emotion, and sometimes based on pure instinct.

Although it might seem like the prefrontal response to what is happening around us should be privileged, we would be severely disabled if we were not designed to sometimes have our mammalian and reptilian brains override our reasoning.

The reptilian and mammalian parts of our brains are able to receive and respond to input much faster than the “cognitive processor” of our prefrontal cortex, and by doing so can save our life.

The limbic system, which is part of our mammalian brain, can for example perceive a snake and interpret it as dangerous, even before we have rationally understood that there is a snake on the ground. In this way it can make us flee or prepare us for fight before any rational decision has been made about what to do.

The reptilian part of our brain can activate a similar response, which is needed when the higher order mammalian response is not effective. The reptilian brain can activate a freeze state in us that makes us go “numb”, causes us to faint, or makes us become separate from our bodies, and this can be highly useful when we feel paralyzed by danger and are in no position to flee or fight. By going numb we can endure great hardship with minimum pain until the situation has changed and we are no longer in danger.

Without these animal responses at our disposal, we would not be able to survive certain situations that we as human can be face with, and our emotional, psychological, and physical survival would be compromised.

How to Respond to “Crazy”:

The reason why so many couples get stumped is that they have not understood that the instinctual and emotional responses of their partner are part and parcel of being in a relationship. When we say “I do” to our partner, we don’t just say “I do” to their prefrontal cortex, but also to their animal instincts and their reptilian ancestry.

For the animal in each of us, getting close to others and depending on others for nurturing, comfort, and safety comes with certain dangers. We can lose the other person which would make us extremely vulnerable and unsafe, and we can feel extremely hurt and rejected, which would compromise our own sense of self and threaten us with our own emotional and psychological annihilation. Our need for a secure attachment bond to our partner and a sense of being valued and respected for who we are, are therefore potential danger triggers for the mammal and reptile within us.

When the reptile or mammal within us perceive a threat to our self-esteem or the strength of our connection to our partner, it reacts faster than our prefrontal cortex, and makes us feel and do things out of instinct and fear. It is in these moments that we can seem irrational and “crazy” to our partner because it is in these moment that we are not our cool, calm, and “rational” selves.

The Key to a Successful Relationship:

In any successful relationship both partners have to come to an understanding of each other’s animal instincts and emotional responses. If your partner’s behavior does not make sense from a prefrontal perspective, you need to ask yourself what the mammal or the reptile in them might be responding to.

Oftentimes a response that does not make sense to the reason of the prefrontal cortex, is a response that has been triggered by fear and survival. Only when we understand this and understand how to calm this fear and take away the threat to survival, will we be able to respond in a way that will bring the prefrontal cortex back in charge.

Why Reasoning Will Often Fail:

Oftentimes the response that is required to appease and calm the reptilian and mammalian mind in our partner, is not born out of reason. You cannot simply argue, persuade, or problem-solve your way out of it.

Oftentimes the response you partner requires is of a more emotional or visceral kind. Your partner needs to “feel” safe, or “feel” loved, or “feel” reassured. They need to see it in your eyes, feel it in your touch, or hear it from the emotional tone of your voice.

Accepting the Animal in Me and You:

By no means is it an easy task for a person to respond this way to their partner when they act seemingly irrational and come at you with attacks, for oftentimes the person who needs to respond is caught in their own animal instinct and needs a similarly calming response from the person who just attacked them.

Nevertheless, the first step to winning the battle against the animal insecurities that often create a wedge between partners, is to understand that we are all part reptile, part mammal, and part human, and that reason is not always king.

Once we accept this about ourselves and about our partner, we can begin to understand the seemingly “irrational” and “out-of-control” as part and parcel of an ancient alarm system that perceives and reacts outside of our conscious control and intent and calls for a different kind of response.

Dr. Rune MoelbakI am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., psychologist and emotionally-focused couples therapist in Houston Texas. I can help you defeat the “crazy cycle” and respond to the fear signals that often bring it about. Visit my website to read more about how couples therapy can help you.


Negotiating Different Needs for Closeness and Alone Time in a Romantic Relationship

One of the most common issues that leads couples to break up, separate, or divorce, is the difficulty talking about different needs for closeness and alone time within a relationship.

Whenever one person has a greater need for alone time, it can make the other person feel an absence, longing, or sadness, which when left unexpressed can turn into a permanent dissatisfaction and sense of neglect.

In this blog post we will examine how you can deal with this thorny issue without compromising who you are or what you need.

Why Blaming Your Partner is Not the Solution:

The most frequent mistake couples make when trying to resolve a conflict about how much time to spend together, is to try to elevate one’s own needs beyond those of one’s partner, and to pathologize one’s partner for being either too needy or too distant and cold.

This kind of blame game is natural, but not helpful.

Although blaming the other person temporarily gives you respite from your own guilt, sadness, or sense of deficiency, batting this deficiency over to the other side is only going to lead to more distress in your partner, which is no overall gain for the relationship.

In fact, the more distress that gets placed on your partner, the less available they will be to respond to yours.

It is exceedingly difficult for a husband to lend a sympathetic ear to his wife’s longing for more attention when what he hears from her is the message that he himself is falling short or is the cause of her pain.

Likewise, it is very difficult for a wife to respect her husband’s need for alone time, when she herself is struggling with doubts about how important she really is in her husband’s life.

Most of the time, when both partners feel stressed out by negative feelings about themselves, they cannot be present to the feelings of their partner.

For this reason, couples need to find a different way to negotiate differences between them. They must not resort to blaming the other person or invalidating the other person’s needs.

Why Sucking it Up is Not Your Only Alternative:

This of course does not mean that you just have to suck it up and adjust to an unsatisfactory status quo. The trick is to find a better option than either blaming your partner or accepting the unacceptable.

In order to solve this dilemma, we need to see the problem within a larger perspective.

First of all, we need to realize that people are different in how much they need time away from each other, and how much they need affirmation and closeness.

It is not wrong or bad to want time away from your partner, and it is not wrong or bad to need to feel more connected. It is simply human. There is always going to be a difference between partners on this key dimension, and so the issue of negotiating distance and closeness is going to be part of any relationship.

See Yourself in Your Partner:

It is important to understand that the need for independence and closeness are never just due to individual character traits.

A person may be very independent, but if they get together with a person who doesn’t really seem to need them around that much, it is naturally going to produce a sense of uneasiness and anxiety in them that will propel them to seek reassurance, or will make them withdraw into sadness.

At the same time, a person who currently longs for connection from their partner, may get into another relationship where they find their partner’s need for affirmation overbearing and overwhelming, and feel a need for more personal space themselves.

Once we realize that the need for independence and closeness is largely a barometer of a particular relationship dynamic rather than an indictment of one of the partners, it frees us up to have a new kind of conversation about the issue.

How to Find a Win-Win Solution:

Fortunately, even though we each have different needs for space or connection in our current relationship, we are wired to respond well to each other’s needs if only they are presented in a way that we can hear without feeling bad about ourselves.

Advice for the person who is feeling neglected:

The person in a relationship who is currently feeling rejected, uncertain about how loved they are, or missing a connection, can learn to reach out without blame or criticism, and talk about their needs in a way that naturally elicits compassion and closeness.

Instead of teaching their partner a lesson by shutting them out, or making their loneliness a product of the other person’s failings, they can express a longing that is free of blame.

They can notice the soft underbelly of their frustration, or the fragility underneath the sting of the pain that makes them want to lash out.

They can express themselves from a place of undemanding loneliness, yearning, or affection.

If done straight from the heart this will naturally move their partner into a readiness and willingness to care. That is biology 101.

We are wired to respond well to soft and genuine signals from our partner. By not reaching out in a way that puts their partner into the defensive space of having to deal with a sense of being bad or uncaring, their partner no longer gets stuck in their own feelings of shame and guilt, but are free to simply respond with affection and empathy.

Advice for the person who is feeling stifled:

Likewise, instead of simply taking space away from their partner, the person who needs more time on their own can learn to assert their needs while at the same time reassuring their partner that they need them.

Instead of feeling embarrassed or afraid to share their need for alone time, or feeling wrong or anxious about having certain thoughts or feelings that might trigger a negative reaction in their partner, they can learn to share their longing for more independence in a way that still seems loving and caring.

As they learn to gently and assertively talk about their feelings and needs in a way that that still affirms that their partner is loved and important, they will seem more engaged and present in the relationship. This in turn will increase their partner’s sense of connection which has often become questioned because of the perception that the partner who wants alone time isn’t sharing themselves much anymore, but has become emotionally distant.

The neglected partner is largely responding with fear and anxiety to a lack of perceived reciprocity and a sense of their partner as being withdrawn or not really sharing themselves. It is this that makes the neglected partner question the other person’s interest in them or their availability as someone they can turn to and depend on when the need arises.

Paradoxically, when the person who wants more alone time or space feels they can be more authentically themselves within the relationship, their need to periodically break the connection to preserve their sense of self, or relax and be themselves, greatly lessens.

The Importance of Working Together:

Of course, no one can create this shift in a relationship by themselves. It is truly a team effort to learn to manage negative feelings without blaming one’s partner, and to acknowledge and talk about the fears, the guilt, the sadness, and the shame that all too often has no space to be talked about within the relationship.

Partners often need a little help to not immediately hear what the other person is saying as a threat or criticism and to begin to give each other the benefit of the doubt.

Both partners have to agree to a new beginning and begin to work together to help each other access the softer more vulnerable feelings hidden underneath the anger and resentment, or the anxiety of fully being oneself.

The Struggle for Power and Control in Relationships

One of the most frequent issues in relationships is what I would call the battle for control and power.

When two people get together, their realities often clash. One person may feel unhappy with the level of attention they get from their partner and may express this unhappiness as complaints about their partner or complaints about the relationship. The other person, in turn, may feel that their partner is often “making a mountain out of a mole-hill” and is creating problems where there are none.

Whenever such a clash of realities or perceptions occur, a battle for control often ensues. Most often it gets played out as a battle about who is right and who is wrong.

If I can prove that YOU are wrong, the logic goes, then you are the one with the issue, and the one who needs to change. This also means that I can continue to see the world my way and that I do not need to change anything about myself.

No wonder then that we find many different ways to exercise power and control in our relationships for we are really fighting to maintain a sense of normalcy about how we feel and how we think.

The Fight to be Right:

In relationships there are many both subtle and overt ways that partners can seek to exercise control. Do you recognize any of the following?

1. Exercising control through logical arguments:

control through logical arguments

One frequent way to win the battle of who gets to define reality is by offering the superior logic. Oftentimes this is the strategy deployed by males who have been culturally conditioned to disavow their dependency needs and who tend to focus on problem-solving and task management instead of their relational needs. Such males might try to squash the discrepancy in viewpoints by means of a series of questions intended to establish once and for all that the other person is irrational, has a logical flaw in their argument, or is “the crazy one”. Sometimes they will ask rhetorical questions that tries to catch their partner in a contradiction, and sometimes they will simply seek to undermine the validity of the other person’s emotions by suggesting that there is a rational or logical solution to the complaint the partner is voicing.

In one relationship, for example, the husband would try to quiet his wife’s distress by suggesting that they simply agree to act according to a set of rules about how to interact with each other. If only they always followed the same principles of how to interact, and agreed on rules they would both play by, then the wife could not complain that her needs were not being met. Unfortunately this rational solution did not really address the wife’s underlying issue, which had more to do with wanting a husband who would show her that he cared. She wanted her husband’s emotional presence, not his cool rational logic. Yet her husband’s argument seemed so “reasonable” that his wife could not argue against it. She now felt that her concerns were not really valid, and concluded that she must be the “irrational” one for having them.

2. Exercising control through interrogation:

Control through interrogation

Another strategy often used in the struggle for control is the demand by one person for the other to explain themselves. Accusations shaped as questions such as “why are you late?!”, “where have you been?!”, or “why didn’t you bother to call?!” assume that the accuser is right and that the accused is wrong. The person who asks the questions feels entitled to an explanation, and the person who is accused feels obligated to provide good-enough answers.

The set-up is similar to a court-of-law where one person is the prosecutor, and the other is on the witness stand. The result is often one of inducing fear and anxiety in the accused who either feels the need to appease by agreeing with the other’s point of view, or feels the need to defend by providing a good enough explanation.

Over time these angry self-righteous demands for explanations can make the other person shut down and feel less and less comfortable expressing their opinions or voicing their own needs. The accused may increasingly become docile and go with the flow, but will lose a sense of investment in the relationship and will become increasingly distant or passionless in the relationship.

One person for example found himself abdicating his own desires and values in order to not upset his wife. He gave up his own first choice for a job in order to move with his wife to a different geographical region and support her career. In order to support his wife’s dream of living an expensive lifestyle, he found himself toiling away at a job that paid well but gave him little meaning and joy. He often acquiesced to wife’s many ideas about where to move the furniture, or when to get a new car. Increasingly he found himself living a life in which he had almost no personal stake. Ironically, his attempt to appease and avoid criticism from his wife led him to become more emotionally absent and disinvested, and this would get him in trouble with his wife who would complain that he was not taking enough initiative and not helping out enough at home.

3. Exercising control through non-verbals:

Control through Non-verbals

Much of the time partners exercise control over each other through non-verbals such as laughter, tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. Withdrawing affection by giving someone the silent treatment is often used as an unconscious power-play to get the other person to apologize or suffer to the point of caving in or making the first move toward reconciliation. At other times, the use of humor can subtly invalidate the other person’s perspective. I have often seen one partner attempt to “laugh-with” the other person when that person is expressing a serious and heart-felt concern, as if to attempt to make them see the humor or silliness in their concerns. Facial expressions are another important way partners can try to exercise control. Showing contempt when the other person is talking can be a way to exert dominance. Contemptuous scoffs, sighs, or grimaces puts the other person down and makes the other person feel small, unworthy of care, and without value.

4. Exercising control through conditions:

Control through Conditions

Sometimes control is not so subtle. It simply is what it is. A partner may be trying to deal with their own fears of abandonment by becoming very rigid about what they require of the other person in order for that person to prove their worth. One person, for example, would ask her partner to prove her commitment by asking her to develop an interest in his hobbies, commit to going to the gym to lose weight, and dress up for him. He would try to change his partner, and would see any sign of change as a proof of love. Of course placing such conditions on another person is not going to be successful. The more you try to change somebody, the more they will resent you in the long run. As was the case in this relationship, the girlfriend would gradually find herself reduced to an empty shell and would need to break free from her partner in order not to lose herself.

5. Exercising control through power:

control through violence

One last way that control can be exercised is of course through overt power or more subtle or overt emotional abuse. Threats or actual displays of physical violence, or outright attempts to belittle the other person and undermine their self-esteem, are the most destructive forms the exercise of control can take. It is never okay to feel threatened or endangered in your relationship, and yet it can be difficult in some cases to find a way out of such a relationship. Oftentimes the other’s dominant view of reality can be so powerfully enforced that the person who is being abused doubts their own worth, opinions, and instincts. They may therefore not just feel trapped physically, but may also doubt their own rights to boundaries, and take on the other person’s diminished view of themselves. “Maybe it was my fault,” they end up saying, or “maybe I really am not a good person”.


Lisa Fonte: Invisible Chains
To learn more about forms of physical and emotional abuse, read Lisa Fonte’s book: Invisible Chains

Understanding the Need for Control and Finding a More Egalitarian Solution:

Whenever we look deeply enough we find that the need for control in a relationship is really an attempt to manage feelings of low self-worth or reduce fears about loss of love.

Although some amount of control and power play is normal in order to fend off threats to our self-interest, in some relationships the need for control is so pervasive and undermining of the other person that it becomes outright unhealthy and destructive.

We cannot force anyone to love us or not to leave us, and we cannot cultivate loving tender feelings in the other person by squashing their self-esteem and invalidating their viewpoints.

In the short term, strategies of power and control may work, but in the long-term they will precipitate the very thing we are afraid of.

A person who does not feel valued, respected, and acknowledged will over time develop hatred for us and will need to escape the tightness of our grip. This is why strategies of control and power are always antithetical to what we really need or want in the long term.

The ability to be in a loving relationship requires of us that we develop greater comfort with talking to our partner about those fears and those vulnerabilities that often lie buried underneath our attempts to control and dominate. Without this ability to turn inward, and let the other person in on our common fears and insecurities, we cannot really love the other person fully, and cannot really let ourselves be loved. Our fears about being left or our shame about not being good enough will then always become the source of a battle for control to secure our own safety and maintain our self-respect.

Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., psychologist and couples therapist in Houston, TX. I help couples get out of negative cycles of power and control. Visit my website for more information.

What Every Couple Should Know about Emotions

Emotions are what relationships are really about.

Emotions are the glue that make people stick together and that bring us all the positive feelings that make us want to spend time together. They give us the spark of passion, the comfort of belonging, the pride of feeling special, and the enjoyment of feeling known and understood.

Unfortunately, emotions are also what make relationships difficult. They can overwhelm us, they can shut us down, and they can make us say and do things that give us a sense of being out of control.

A relationship can bring out the best and can bring out the worst in our human nature. They can lead a president to risk his reputation for a night of passion, and a football player to murder his wife out of jealousy and anger.

No wonder then that many people have an ambivalent relationship with their emotions: They both fear them and like them.

But no matter what your opinion is, it is clear that you need to learn how to understand your emotions and know what to do with them in order to be successful in your relationships with others.

In this article, I will teach you the one thing every couple should know about emotions in order to make their relationship work. 

The Fundamental Thing You Need to Know about Emotions:

One thing that was really helpful to me when I first started to study how emotions really work was the distinction made between primary emotions and secondary emotions. This distinction helped me understand my own emotional reactions much better and it has become one of the key principles of the many forms of emotion focused therapies that are currently being used to help individuals and couples.

Once you understand this distinction, you will have one of the most important tools at your disposal to turn negative interactions in your relationship around.

Primary Emotions and Secondary Emotions:

A primary emotion is the first emotion we feel in response to a particular event in our environment. If we wanted to state it simply they refer to how we really feel.

In many situations, however, our primary emotions get covered over by secondary reactions to our primary emotions.

If I feel hurt or sad about my partner saying that he prefers to spend a night on the town with his guy friends, rather than a relaxing night at home with me, I might have an emotional reaction to feeling sad or hurt.

I might for example feel guilty because I don’t think I should need anyone and have learned that I should never prioritize my own needs over those of others.

However, I could also feel embarrassed or ashamed because I believe it is pathetic and weak for me let someone else have this kind of sway over me.

Another possibility would be that I feel angry that my partner does not want to hang out with me and get resentful because I do not want to feel pushed aside and demand to be a higher priority than his friends.

All of these secondary reactions to my primary emotions transform this emotion into something else than what it initially was.

Secondary Emotions Distort How We Really Feel:

If I feel guilty about wanting more of my partner’s time and attention, I can then no longer express my sadness at not having my need met. The guilt blocks me from expressing my sadness. It may also block me from even admitting to myself that I feel sad, and so I may not even have the ability to comfort myself and deal with my sense of loss or disappointment on my own.

Because the primary feeling gets blocked by the secondary feeling, I end up distorting my own original experience. This means that the original emotion cannot be resolved and can no longer be used to guide my actions.

My primary emotion goes underground, and instead gets replaced by my secondary emotion, which may now lead to a quite different reaction.

Instead of saying “it kind of hurt my feelings when I think you would rather spend time with others than with me”, I now instead end up withdrawing emotionally (guilt: I should not express my needs, I don’t deserve to have my needs met), or reacting with anger (I don’t deserve to be treated this way)

Why Secondary Emotions are Destructive in Relationships:

Les Greenberg, an emotion focused therapist at York University in Canada, illustrates how secondary emotions lead to fights and emotional distance in relationships:

Les Greenberg: Emotion Focused Therapy

The wife (represented by the square) feels sad because she thinks her husband is not really there for her. She also feels shame deep down because she thinks his inattention means he does not find her interesting or attractive, and fear because she worries that he might eventually leave her. What she shows him, however, is her secondary reaction of anger (“why are you never there for me”) and contempt which leads to a personal attack (“You are so selfish”).

The husband (represented by the circle) does not really know about his wife’s primary emotions because she does not show those to him. They are too sensitive and vulnerable, and his wife may either not be fully aware of them, or may have shame, guilt, or fear about expressing them.

Instead, the husband hears criticism from his wife and starts to feel like he is deficient or not really who she wants. This activates his own primary feeling of shame or inadequacy. However, because he does not want to show this wound to his wife, who does not seem compassionate or understanding, he instead feels angry and goes on the attack (“you can never just go with the flow. You are so boring”). Alternatively, he may feel anxious and afraid. This will make him withdraw more from the relationship or simply adopt a strategy of “go along to get along”. If fear wins rather than anger, then he will gradually shut down his real self, and stop expressing his real viewpoints. His wife will then likely feel frustrated that he does not appear to be whole-heartedly in the relationship, and may become even more sad, afraid, and ashamed, which she may express as another round of anger and put-downs.

This couple are now stuck in a vicious cycle of secondary emotions which hide what they really feel. Because no one has ever taught them about the distinction between primary emotions and secondary emotions, they don’t know to stop up and ask themselves: What do I really feel? Instead what they feel and how they react to how they feel become muddled and confused, and they begin to have arguments about their secondary emotions rather than their primary needs.

Here Is One Thing You Can Do Today to Begin to Turn Your Relationship Around:

So, now that you know the distinction between primary emotions and secondary emotions, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What are my primary feelings? Am I really expressing what I truly feel?
  2. What is it that I truly feel? Do I feel sad/ lonely?, shame/ not good enough? fear/ afraid that my partner will leave me or is losing interest in me?
  3. What gets in the way of me expressing how I really feel? Do I feel embarrassed, guilty, afraid, hopeless, sad/ not expecting to be understood
  4. What do I actually express to my partner? Do I complain about all the ways my partner lets me down? Do I shut down or become more distant? Or do I attack my partner’s personality and try to cut my partner down?

Next time try something different. With your new emotional awareness, start a conversation by using the sentence below:

When I (4) ______________, it is because I really feel (2) ___________________, but I hide that from you because (3) ____________________________________.

When we begin to understand ourselves and our own emotional reactions better, we gain the skills to make our emotions work for us rather than against us. Now we can more effectively use our emotions as a guide to what we really want, and can express these emotions in a way that maximizes our chances that our partner can hear us.

Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., psychologist and couples therapist in Houston, TX. Visit my website to read more about emotionally focused couples therapy

5 Characteristics of a Healthy Relationship:

How do you know if your relationship is a healthy one?

The general rule of thumb is that a relationship is as healthy as can be when both partners feel secure and safe with each other.

Both partners need to know that they can turn to each other if they need something and that they can be assured that their partner will be emotionally available and responsive when they express what they need.

If this simple expectation can be felt as a certainty for both partners, the relationship will be secure, and subsequently strong.

Secure couples show the following characteristics, which we can take as the signs that your relationship is healthy:

1. They are better able to retain their emotional balance

Because they feel secure with each other, partners in a strong relationship are less prone to become flooded with anxiety or anger when they feel disconnected from each other. Because they know they can ask for what they need and feel certain that they will reconnect in the future, secure partners are less likely to feel threatened by the absence of each other, and are less likely to pick fights. They are also better able to listen to each other without becoming defensive, because they don’t fear that their partner bringing up issues, might mean that they could leave each other or stop loving each other.

2. They are better able to tune into emotions and express what they need

Strong couples are good communicators. They don’t believe that no communication is a sign that everything is fine. They realize that a relationship is a bond that needs frequent attention and care, and that it is enhanced, not threatened, by talking about needs and wants. Because communication is frequent, partners don’t bottle up their feelings, and don’t explode in anger when they have finally reached their limit. Knowing that they can always come to each other with their concerns, makes them better able to tune into what they are really feeling, and better able to express what they feel without feeling anxious, or doing it in such a way that it comes across as critical or accusatory.

3. They are better able to remain open and flexible

Because secure couples give each other the benefit of the doubt, they don’t immediately jump to negative conclusions about their partner’s intentions. Instead of simply getting swept away by catastrophic thinking and mistaking their own emotional reactions for accurate reflections of reality, they are able to push the pause button, and reflect on their interactions more. Instead of simply getting back into an old argument, they are able to step back to look at the big picture and take a “meta-perspective” on the situation. A meta-perspective is a perspective on one’s perspective. It is like stepping back to watch one’s interactions with one’s partner like a third person who is watching what is going on. When couples can do this, they are better able to talk to each other about their relationship patterns without assigning blame to the other person.

4. They are better able to maintain a positive view of themselves

When partners feel secure with each other, the are less likely to feel bad about themselves and to lose their sense of worth or esteem in moments when they feel disconnected. They are not as likely to worry that they are unlovable or that their partner is going to leave them, or to feel that they are failures because their partner is angry at them. Because they maintain a basic sense of self-esteem and worth even in moments of disagreements, they are less likely to feel threatened by their partners reactions, and better able to stay engaged without becoming angry, sad, or withdrawn.

5. They are better able to be alone and focus on other things

When partners are unsafe or insecure in their relationships, the relationship becomes their predominant concern at all times. However, when you know that your partner can always be reached when you need them, you can feel much more comfortable being away from each other and engaged in other things. You are no longer threatened by your partner’s individuality and are able to enjoy the time you spend alone. When you don’t have to doubt your importance to your partner, you no longer need to cling to each other, but can venture out into the world as someone who feels assured that they are loved and know that they can always return for comfort and support when they need it.

So there you have it: my list of signs that your relationship is secure. The good news is that if you are not quite there yet, it is never too late to begin to build a stronger and more secure connection. With some concerted effort, even couples who have felt disconnected for a long time, can regain their sense of security and begin to build a stronger and more fulfilling relationship.

Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a couples therapist in Houston, TX who helps couple restore safety and trust in their relationships. To read more about my approach to couples therapy, please visit my website.

How to Save Your Relationship from Failing

For a long time we have been thinking mistakenly about couples issues. We have thought that if one partner is unhappy, the solution lies in either changing their own expectations, or asking for a change in their partner. We have thought that relationships are essentially about compromises between two people who ultimately have to change something about themselves in order to make their relationship work.

Imagine the surprise then when couples researcher John Gottman makes the claim that 2 out of 3 issues couples fight about are fundamentally irresolvable. They are not quick fixes, such as taking out the trash, or remembering to call, but value differences. They are often the very same qualities we fell in love with in our partner because they were different or complementary, but which have now become annoyances: a little too much of a good thing.

Unfortunately, nobody responds well to being asked to change who they are, and a relationship where both partners are compromising who they are to please each other, is not a happy one.

Don’t Fight the Wrong Battle:

The problem all these years is that couples and therapists alike have been adopting too narrow a perspective on couples issues.

We thought there were only two elements to a relationship: Partner A, and Partner B. We also thought that what that meant is that to change anything in the relationship, either Partner A or Partner B would have to change. In fact what couples often fight about is WHO really needs to change, or WHO is really to blame for why things aren’t going right.

Fortunately we have now realized that relationships are systems that tend to be self-reinforcing:

  • I ask you to take out the trash in a critical voice
  • You reluctantly do so but feel scolded and mentally withdraw
  • Your withdrawing makes me feel more alone in the relationship and eventually more critical of you
  • As you begin to feel that you are being criticized a lot of the time you are around me, you withdraw even more
  • This only makes me feel more alone and more critical
  • … and round and round we go

This cycle is not the doing of one person. It is at the same time created by us, as we respond to our partner based on how they respond to us. But it is also creating us, as we feel caught or stuck in a certain role in our relationship that we did not ask for and that we are not happy with.

Identify the Problem Correctly:

The problem is that when we are caught in the system and try to get out of it or change it, we seem to only make things worse. The husband who thinks “I better leave the situation to let my wife simmer down” is really trying to protect the relationship from further damage, and get out of a situation that he does not know how to solve. However, his wife perceives this as another instance of her husband being indifferent to her feelings, and this only increases her overall dissatisfaction, and increases her angry protests for her husband to become more engaged in the marriage.

Each partner sees only part of the cycle they are stuck in. Their gaze is directed outward toward the other person who is a source of frustration, criticism, or danger. They are not able to step outside the pattern in which they are caught to look at the system as a whole.

Sadly this also means that they don’t really understand that they are both victims of a negative relationship cycle and that they are both hurting and dealing with their hurt in a way that only ends up making things worse.

How to Save Your Relationship:

What needs to happen to save a relationship that has been usurped by a self-reinforcing negative interaction cycle is that the cycle needs to be pointed out as the shared enemy. Instead of fighting each other, both partners need to join forces to slay the dragon that has gotten between them.

This dragon feeds itself on unacknowledged emotions.

Couples in relationships that are caught in the negative cycle of the dragon, have learned to protect themselves from hurt by withdrawing their most tender and vulnerable emotions, and leading the way with their anger and their coldness.

Being in a relationship has almost become an exercise in survival, and of course, when we think we need to protect ourselves against hurt from our partner, we are not going to open up to them, acknowledge our insecurities and fears, and count on them to safeguard our most vulnerable emotions.

The downside to wearing a protective armor in our relationship is of course that our partner does not get to see who we really are. They don’t get access to our longing to feel closer to the person we love and our fear of losing them. Or they don’t get access to our fear of messing things up, and the sadness we feel about ourselves and our relationship when we wander off on our own thinking that we are not who our partner wants.

Winning the Battle:

When couples are able to realize that they are not fighting each other, but fighting the dragon that has come between them, and when they are able to then take off their protective armor and show each other their pain, their confusion, their fears, their sadness, the dragon cannot survive.

It is through accessing these hidden sides of a suffering couple that the negative cycle that has been running the show for quite a while, can be replaced by a positive one, and that couples can once again regain control of their relationship.

It requires help and practice, but as long as you don’t wait until there is no passion or desire left, the dragon can be slain, and your relationship can be reclaimed from the vicious cycle that has been driving a wedge between you.

Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: I am a psychologist and couples therapist in Houston, Texas. I work with couples to get unstuck from negative patterns and feel more connected and fulfilled in their relationships. To read more about my approach to couples therapy, visit my website.

How to Stop Your Spouse from Nagging

It is one of the most common occurrences in couples therapy: a nagging, complaining wife, and a husband who feels criticized and can’t seem to please his wife.

These are of course gender stereotypes, but they are stereotypes for a reason. Statistically, it is often the woman who complains about not getting enough attention or consideration in the relationship, and the man who feels perplexed about how he can really please his wife.

From the male perspective, the dilemma of the “nagging wife” is a well known cultural fact. It is the butt of many a joke about who “wears the pants” in the family, and gets expressed in sayings such as “happy wife, happy life”. In a recent episode of Bravo’s hit series “The Million Dollar Listing”, a husband called up his real estate broker demanding to move back in to his apartment, because, as he said, “my wife wants it”. “I have to go to bed with her”, he told his broker, “you don’t”.

Crass as that may sound, many men, and of course also quite a few women, find themselves on the defense in their marriages or relationships. They get frequent complaints or demands from their partner, and feel like they are often trying to avert the next argument, or that they are always waiting for the next shoe to drop.

Of course, the roles can be reversed, and it might as well occur in same sex couples as in heterosexual relationships. The important point is that one partner often becomes the “nagger”, while the other becomes the “appeaser”.

How Can We Understand Nagging?

In relationships, nagging is rarely about the content that gets nagged about. Yes, of course it is aggravating when the trash does not get taken out, or the household chores are not shared equally, but these frustrations are really just cover-ups for underlying feelings that are rarely discussed.

A wife who nags is often missing something in her relationship. She feels a hole or emptiness in her relationship, and she is trying to fill this hole, by asking her partner to change. The hole, however, is not really filled by concrete demands. When we look a little deeper we often find that it is rooted in doubts about being valued or loved. The nagging is like a “protest” that one is not feeling prioritized or special, and does not feel like one can depend on one’s partner.

According to attachment theory this kind of doubt activates primal instincts in all human beings. At a biological level, we are all wired to react when we feel that the dependability and commitment from a loved one is threatened. Nagging is often simply an attempt to reach out and say “I need more from you”, “my secure attachment to you feels threatened”, “I need to know that you will be there for me, that I can depend on you”.

The Negative Consequences of Nagging:

In couples therapy, it is well known that couples tend to get stuck in negative patterns based on the activation of such attachment fears. When the wife or husband starts nagging, their partner may initially respond to their call for more closeness, but over time they are more likely to retreat.

As the wife or husband criticizes or complains, their partner goes into self-protection mode. They often start feeling bad about themselves or to feel like they are always falling short of what their spouse or partner wants. Nobody likes to feel they are not doing things right, and it is easy to mistake angry complaints for criticisms of one’s personality and character. Prolonged nagging from an unhappy spouse can often lead to depression and low self-esteem and can create even more distance in the relationship as the criticized spouse retreats inward or begins focus more on their hobbies, going out with friends, or retreating to the garage.

How to Stop the Nagging?

When couples come to therapy they are often stuck in this pattern of nagging and withdrawing, or complaining and retreating. With each demand for change, the accused partner takes a step back, or agrees just to appease, leaving the nagging partner feeling more dissatisfied and wanting. This then sets in motion more demands or protests, which in turn leads to less safety for the other spouse, and an increased need to withdraw.

The first step to stopping this pattern is to recognize that both partners are stuck in a negative cycle and that each are trying to meet their own attachment needs in ways that are not working. The nagging spouse is really asking to feel more wanted, desired, special, or loved, and the retreating spouse is really trying to protect the relationship from harm or destruction, fearing that the barrage of criticisms might eventually lead their partner to leave them.

Once partners understand that there is more at stake in this dynamic than simply whether or not one person comes home late for dinner, or the other feels constantly in the wrong, they can begin to address the real issues that underlie the attachments protests and fears. One common error in most couples is that they get stuck in fighting about concrete situations, rather than addressing their underlying universal human need to feel safe, liked, and cherished by their partner.

Simply beginning to let your partner know what you really feel underneath your angry complaints or your emotional withdrawing, can go a long way to break the negative cycle and reestablish a more secure connection with your partner.

Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., couples therapist and marriage counselor in Houston, Texas. To learn more about my approach to couples therapy, or to schedule an appointment, please visit my website. You can also sign up to get a FREE guide to making relationships work.

The Three Games Couples Play

If you ask couples what brings them to couples therapy, they will usually bring up one or the other issue that is problematic to them: My husband does not want to have sex with me anymore, my wife looks at other men, my partner and I disagree about how we should raise our children. However, if we dig a little deeper, we will see that many of these disagreements are rooted in one of three fundamental interaction styles.

Couples researcher Sue Johnson have called these the “demon dialogues”. She believes we get caught up in these interaction patterns and can’t find our way out of them.

Being in a relationship is really to be involved in a very fine-tuned dance, where one partner reacts or responds to the moves of the other partner in an ongoing cycle that defines their dance. No matter what the content is that couples fight about, it is thus often the dance itself that is the issue. Helping couples identify their patterns of interaction shifts focus from blaming one of the partners and empowers couples to understand their relationship in a new way.

So what are the patterns couples therapists most often see?

Let’s go through them one at a time:

Pattern 1: Find the Bad Guy

The first dance couples get caught in is one of mutual attack and hostility. You criticize me. I feel hurt and criticize you back. Each time we undercut each other, we leave bruises on our relationship. Over time our guards remain up as we are constantly waiting for the next time our partner will attack. Sue Johnson refers to this dance as Find the Bad Guy because it is really about disowning one’s own responsibility and blaming one’s partner for the poor state of the relationship. Many couples who first come to therapy think that the problem is squarely in their partner. If only she would be more attentive, or he would be less needy, everything would be great, they say. And yet trying to find the moral fault or character flaw in your partner is ultimately ineffective because the only way you can win this argument is at the expense of valuing and respecting your partner.

Pattern 2: The Protest Polka

In the second dance couples do, the mutual fighting has ceased and a different power balance has taken its place. Now one partner is constantly finding fault, while the other is retreating from the relationship. In many cases we know this pattern as the nagging wife and aloof husband syndrome, although the roles can certainly be reversed. Sue Johnson refers to this dance as the Protest Polka because it develops because one partner feels alone in the relationship and is protesting the perceived abandonment. Because the protesting partner is not aware of the reason for the dance, they often focus on picking fights about small issues that belie that underlying sense of feeling lonely and longing for more affection and attention. The partner in turn, thinking that they are inadequate or always messing something up, begin to numb themselves and check out of the relationship as a protective measure. This of course only makes the protester feel more alone and triggers another barrage of complaints.

Pattern 3: Freeze and Flee

The deadliest pattern couples present with is the freeze and flee pattern. Here partners simply live parallel existences. They are roommates, not lovers. They have stopped expecting affection and attention and have both withdrawn emotionally from the relationship. This pattern often develops once the protester realizes that their basic call for companionship is not going to be met. At this point the protester starts to grieve the loss of their dream partner and accept a deadly status quo of silent dissatisfaction. If possible, couples should seek therapy before the dance changes into this pattern of mutual distancing. It can be hard to revive love between partners once this pattern of Freeze and Flee is set in motion. Far too many couples never seek couples therapy before it is too late and end up living lives where only material comfort or shared parenting keeps them together.

How to Change the Dance:

One of the first tasks of couples therapy is often to get couples to shift their mindset from a zero-sum game of you are right or I am right. Instead they need to be able to identify the ways in which they participate in the couples dance. This will involve becoming aware of the patterns of their interactions and the emotional signals that fuel each partners step. Emotion Focused Couples Therapy or EFT helps couples understand their dance and change the music. You can find an EFT therapist in your area by clicking on the link to International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (ICEEFT)

Sue Johnson: Hold Me TightIf you want to start by reading more about the topic, I recommend you read Sue Johnson’s Book: Hold Me Tight. This book has practical exercises to help you break free from negative patterns that are pulling you and your partner apart.

Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout Me: I am a psychologist and couples therapist in Houston, Texas. I have received training in Emotion Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) and the Gottman Method, two of the most effective couples therapy approaches.