How can I stop being so reactive in my marriage relationship?

Is your marriage relationship being sabotaged by outbursts of anger and overreaction?  Does your own reaction drive you to pull away from your partner, causing her or him to feel abandoned?

No marriage relationship can stay connected if one person is highly reactive.

Whenever emotions are out of control, the conversation will never be safe. And feeling connected will not be possible.

Here are three powerful insights that can help us regulate our emotions and help us stay present and connected with our partner.

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1. Our feelings drive our behavior.

Who me? No, never. Not me. I believe you should do what’s right regardless of feelings!

Riiiiight!

I used to be so naive.

But after a few decades of marriage, I discovered this was almost never the case.

Why? Because…

The feelings that drive our actions are almost always unconscious.

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Seems like negativity would always spew out of my mouth whenever my unconscious fear or anger was triggered. And the results were never good.

And this all happened without my even knowing it.

Before I could process anything in the thinking part of my brain (cortex), the critical retort was already out of my mouth and I was in trouble.

Can you relate?

Problem is the neurons triggered from our lower, reactive brain travel 10 time faster than those from the top down. That’s why it so difficult to not be reactive to your partner.

The moment that reaction occurs, the conversation is no longer safe. And the kind of dialogue that leads to connection is not possible.

Here’s how it usually goes down. I learned this from the book, Crucial Conversations.

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The example in the graph is a wife I previously shared about.

She grew up in a home where her father and brothers were engineers, and her mom and sister were nurses. She was the “artistic” one.

Although she was very talented, she always felt “dumb” growing up with all those math and science whizzes.

So now in her marriage,  just a “5-watt” eye-roll from her husband triggers a “1000 watt” reaction.

Ok. I get it. That makes sense. But how do I get control of my emotions and all this overreaction?

The key to controlling our emotions is learning where they come from.

There is something that happens lightening fast between the time we see or hear something and the feelings we create in response.

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We often say, “He made me mad.”  Or, “She upset me.”

The truth is no one can make you mad.

“What? What do you mean no one can make me mad? It happens all the time!”

No, actually, you make yourself mad.

Something happens between what you see and hear and the feeling you create.

“OK. I give up. What is that?”

2. Our “stories” drive our feelings.

The story we tell ourselves, or the meaning we attach to an event is what creates our feelings.

I see or hear something.
Then…I attach meaning to it. I tell a story about it. I interpret it. I judge what motives are behind it. I tell myself whether it’s good or bad, safe or dangerous.

And this all happens in a flash.

That’s what creates my feelings.

So I do create my own feelings after all…hmm.

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The path to action we take begins with what we see and hear.
Then we tell a story about what we saw or heard.
That story then creates feelings.
And finally those feelings drive our behavior.

When we are in a reactive mode, that behavior takes one of two directions: clamming up or blowing up.

Both of these options destroy any chance of a healthy dialogue, and leave us feeling disconnected from each other.

Sandy says, “Do you have to take your phone whenever we go for a walk?”

What story do I tell? “She’s trying to control me.”

That story creates feelings of anger or fear.

Then like a hailstorm I react. Or like a turtle, I withdraw into the safety of my shell. Yes, I can be a hailstorm or a turtle.

Clamming up or blowing up never gets me what I really want. Only safe dialogue can keep us close and connected.

That’s because my reaction is only the beginning.  

My reaction triggers Sandy’s pain and defenses. If she responds in kind, the conflict is on.

How do I know so much? I’ve lived this scene over and over again. “Second verse, same as the first, a little bit louder and a little bit worse”.

But I’m learning that if I can catch my story, and hold it tentatively, I can change the feelings I create before there is a reaction and things go south.

Even if my story is true, even if Sandy IS trying to control me, I can confront the issue in a safe dialogue which brings us closer rather than blowing us apart.

Make sense?

In scientific terms, I have to give time for the neurons that move top down from my thinking brain to my reactive brain.

When I stay in my thinking brain, I can master my story and then tell it in a way that doesn’t trigger hurt and reaction.

So what’s the conclusion of all this?

negative-reactivity-in-marriage

3. If I change my story, I change my emotions, and thus my behavior.

So what does this look like?

Crucial Conversations gives some great sentence stems that help you turn your brain back on, and keep you curious and present rather than critical and reactive.

Here’s the one I used.

I looked at Sandy and asked myself, “Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person like Sandy say that?”

And, as I used this stem to keep my brain turned on, and to become curious about what Sandy was feeling, the answer came.

“Oh yeah, she just wants to spend some uninterrupted time with me. That makes sense. That’s why always being on my phone is a frustration to her. I get it.”

Change my story – change my feelings – bingo! Changed my behavior!

Even with the negative vibes I felt from Sandy’s frustration, this tool kept me from reacting and helped us stay in dialogue.

This is how we can turn a negative feeling into a positive interaction that leads us to deeper connection.

This is how to avoid  spiraling downward into a negative interaction.

And this is how we had a great walk, a great conversation, and ended up feeling closer to each other rather than hurt and angry.

If you change your story, you change your feelings.

Then you can respond in a way that gets you what you want. For yourself, for your partner, and for your relationship.

Try it and let me know how it goes in the reply section below!

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Hindsight is 20/20! What I wish I’d known 38 years ago about mutual purpose

Marriage is supposed to be two people becoming one. Right?

Two people striving for “mutual purpose” in their life together.

But for us it was two self-absorbed individuals both constantly trying to get our own way!

Can you relate?

Our attitude was “You and I are one, AND I’M THE ONE!!”  

And the power struggle began shortly after we said “I do”. 

Today is our 38th wedding anniversary!

As Sandy and I began our anniversary celebration with coffee in bed this morning at 5:40 a.m., she said,

“You should write this week’s blogpost about what we wish we had known 38 years ago.”

“But sweetheart, I’ve almost finished this week’s post. Too late to start over.”

But, as she encouraged me, my thoughts went to one thing.

I really, really, REALLY wish I’d known this 38 years ago.

And so, now I can’t wait to share it with you.

The power of mutual purpose

Before we learned about this tool, we were regularly in conflict over major decisions.

For years, whenever Sandy and I came to cross-purposes, there were three ways we would handle it – none of which resulted in a happy couple.

How not to do it:

1. Compromise

We were told that marriage has to be series of compromises.

What a bunch of bunk!

With compromise you both lose.

Compromise can lead to feelings like, “Being married to you means I have to give up what I really wanted in life.”

Wow. That’s heavy.

But actually, we did it a lot, until we discovered what Mutual Purpose is all about.

Compromise = You both lose. Not good.

2. Bulldozing

This is when one of us wanted something so bad we bulldozed over the other in order to get it.

Guess who did that a lot?

That’s right. I (Chuck) could be the bulldozer. Can you relate?

And what was the result?

The plan would fail and there was a big “I told you so!” Although Sandy never said it out loud.

Or, I would drag Sandy through the mud. Rather than kick and scream about it, she’d become silently resentful.

But either way, as you can imagine, as a couple, YOU LOSE!

You may win the battle, but you end up losing the war!

That’s because, as human beings…

Our feelings of being fully alive come from connection in relationship, not from getting our own way!

Even though I got my way a lot, I often lost that connection.

Big lesson here.

Bulldozing = One person wins and the other loses! Not good.

3. Giving in

Giving in happened when one of us got so tired of the conflict that we said, “OK. Whatever.”

But when you give in, you’re not really vested in the decision forced on you.

The result: Feeling manipulated or coerced. And that means bitter feelings rather than closeness and connection.

Once again we were losing the war.

Giving in = One person loses to let the other one win. Not good!

The turning point

chuck starnes mutual purpose in marriage

We began to experience mutual purpose through Imago Couples Dialogue. The Dialogue helped us begin to see how “other” the other person was.

When you go through that process of differentiation, your relationship is transformed.

And that transformation happens when you make room for the “otherness” of the other person.

That’s when everything changed for us.

Years later the book, Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Granny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler helped us put language to this idea of Mutual Purpose.

Here is what we learned to do when we find ourselves at cross-purposes.

1. Commit to Mutual Purpose

The first step is to make a commitment to Mutual purpose.

One person initiates the commitment and the other agrees.

It could go something like this.

“It seems like we’re both trying to force our view on each other. I commit to stay in this conversation until we find something that works for both of us.”

or…

“Hey, if it’s not good for ‘us’, it’s not good for ‘me’.”

In order to do this you have to be willing to think outside the box. You have to shake off the notion that “I will never be happy unless I get what I want.”

That’s the hard part.

Can I dare to challenge myself that there just mighta be a third choice out there – one that works for both of us?

If you do that, you’re on your way.

So, make a commitment to Mutual Purpose.

Now, if you’re thinking what I thought, you’re feeling like “I don’t want to do this because I’ll end up giving up what I want”.

NO!

It’s about getting what you really want! For yourself, for your partner, and for the relationship. It’s called MUTUAL Purpose.

So go ahead and make the commitment.

Because that’s what we didn’t do.

Especially when it came to career moves (more about that and the pain we experienced later).

2. Let go of conflicting strategies

Notice I said let go of the strategy, not the purpose. Hold on to your purpose.

This is where we sort out the difference between purpose and strategy.

PURPOSE is what I really want. STRATEGY is how I get what I want.

On a Friday night Sandy would say, “Let’s go to the beach tomorrow.”

I already had decided I wanted to stay home and work on my home office.

So there we were – at odds. Or were we?

Odds about strategy but not necessarily about purpose.

Going to the beach is a strategy to get something Sandy really wants (purpose).

Staying home and working on the office is a strategy to get what I really want (purpose).

Going to the beach and staying home on a Saturday morning are mutually exclusive. You can’t do both.

Typically what would happen is that dialogue would shut down, and we’d move into one of the unhealthy strategies listed above – probably bulldozing and giving in.

So here’s how to disrupt that destructive cycle.

I ask Sandy, “Why do you want to go to the beach?”

She says something like, “I want to get away, see some beauty, be inspired and spend some uninterrupted time with you.”

My response: “I am fully on board with that purpose. I really want that for you.”

Then Sandy asks me, “Why do you want to stay home and work on your office?”

I say something like, “I really want to clean out the mess and get everything organized so I can feel good about going to work on Monday.”

Sandy’s response: “I’m totally on board with that! I really want that for you.” And by the way, Sandy is all about home organization and order.

So now we’ve discovered our purpose as separate from our strategy.

And we’re now committed to each other’s purpose

So it’s easier to let go of the strategies that are in conflict, and look for a purpose that’s mutual.

3. Synergize a purpose that satisfies you both

Stephen Covey said, “Synergy is better than my way or your way. It’s our way!”

When you look beyond strategy to your purpose, you find that you’re not as incompatible as you thought. Right?

You’re both more than supportive of each other’s desire than you realized. Isn’t that amazing?

It’s when you react to each other that all this clarity is lost. And the fight continues.

How could I not be excited that Sandy wanted to spend time with me and be inspired?

And Sandy always gets excited about making spaces more beautiful and functional.

One way to synergize a purpose is to simply combine purposes. The other is to look for a higher purpose beyond what you both want. More on this second one later.

For Sandy and me this meant combining purposes to make a Mutual Purpose.

4. Brainstorm new strategies to accomplish Mutual Purpose

Sandy wants to go to the beach and I want to work on my office. But we both share each other’s purpose.

So a new strategy would be…

“How about tomorrow morning we head for the beach and spend the day. On the way back we pick up the hardware supplies I need for the office. And then Sunday afternoon we work on my office?”

Bingo! That worked! And we did it all together!

Happy couple!

But what if your purposes are mutually exclusive?

For example, what if your purpose can’t be achieved except at the expense of your partner’s, or in a way that affects your children.

In this case everyone has to let go and honor the fact that the needs of your relationship and your children come before any other aspirations.

By focusing on higher and longer-term goals, you then seek ways to transcend short-term compromises, build Mutual Purpose, and return to dialogue.

But if done right, the end result is even better that what you wanted in the first place.

Why? Because of the close and connected relationship you gain in the process.

Make sense?

The pain of failure and a lesson learned

Hindsight is 20/20 right? Here’s why I wish I had learned this lesson 38 years ago.

There was a potential career move I was especially excited about. One I saw that would lead me toward my own personal dreams.

When I shared the opportunity, Sandy was…well…underwhelmed.

It involved her leaving her friends and community. It involved changing our daughters’ schools. She saw the plan as disruptive, not in a good way.

And looking back, it wasn’t so much that she opposed the move, it was my insensitivity to what this change meant to her that hurt so much.

No wonder she was ambivalent!

But I was determined that this was the “only strategy” that could fulfill my “purpose”.

So I bulldozed and got my way.

While I got opportunities, Sandy gave up a whole list of them.

She’s an amazing woman, always willing to forgive, but the damage was done.

From her perspective, years were lost. And what was so hard was that I didn’t get it. For years I couldn’t see what this did to her.

When we began using the Couples Dialogue I began to see the light.

If we had known about this tool, we could have synergized a Mutual Purpose. And then  I’m confident we would have found a “third way” that worked for both of us.

When you and your partner value each other, and honor the deep desires you both have, SKY IS THE LIMIT!

So that’s one thing I wish I had known 38 years ago.

Yes, hindsight is 20/20. So after we lamented it and healed a lot, we are happy about how this lesson is working for us today!

mutual purpose in marriage chuck starnes

It’s our hope that this tool called Mutual Purpose will help you NOT make the mistakes we did!

Here’s to a great relationship established on Mutual Purpose!

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How a husband’s destructive anger was transformed into passionate love

“My husband’s destructive anger is wrecking our family! I can’t deal with his abuse any longer!”

Tears filled Gina’s eyes as she explained what her husband Gary’s anger was doing to her.

This began a 7 step journey that transformed Gary’s destructive anger into passionate love.

Recently, in an argument over how to deal with one of their children, Gary blew up at Gina and put his fist through the wall.

Gary had not previously been physically violent toward Gina or their three children. But there were repeated times of yelling and name-calling.

And now Gary had literally hit the wall. Where was it going to end?

Gina was not only concerned for her own safety, but was really afraid of what this anger would do to their kids.

In our first session, we began a structured dialogue that helped Gary and Gina take seven steps toward dealing with abusive anger.

1. Set a boundary against uncontrolled anger.

It was very important for Gina to say to Gary that uncontrolled anger is not ok. Gina must realize she does not have to tolerate it, and must be empowered to leave the abusive situation in any way necessary. This may include getting a restraining order.

There are cases of emotional and physical abuse where the first step is for the victim to separate from the abusive partner and get professional help.

Gina communicated this boundary in a Dialogue where Gary mirrored and validated her concern.

It was very important that this boundary be communicated to Gary in a safe way. The Couples Dialogue helped him receive and accept it rather than feel judged by it.

In Gary’s case, he was ready to get help, and fully accepted Gina’s boundary.

For Gary and Gina, this act of violence was a wake up call to get help.

Both of them were eagerly seeking change.

They invited me to continue to facilitate this process of transforming anger into passionate love.

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2. Commit to “zero negativity”.

After setting a boundary against violence, Gary and Gina agreed to sign the Zero Negativity Challenge.

This is a pledge to stop all negative comments, criticisms, and uncontrolled expressions of anger.

It is something I ask all my clients to sign whether violent anger is an issue or not.

Because nothing can happen in a relationship unless it is safe.

And it will never be safe if the tiniest bit of negativity is allowed in the space between the couple.

Negativity in a relationship is like putting a drop of raw sewage into a glass of pure drinking water.

Would you drink it even if I assured you it contained only a drop of sewage? 🙂

Of course not! Because, even with a drop of bacteria infested sewage, it’s no longer safe to drink.

In the same way, when a drop of criticism or unbridled anger is deposited into the space between a couple, it’s no longer safe to for either partner to open up to each other.

Going forward Gary and Gina weren’t perfect, but this commitment to zero negativity was a good start down the right path.

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3. Avoid assigning labels to each other.

“My partner is abusive!”
“My husband is a narcissist!”
“My wife has Borderline Personality Disorder!”

Labeling like this produces enough negative energy to keep a person permanently bound in the role assigned to them.

People live up to what we say about them.

It’s important to drop the labels.

And here’s another reason why.

Gary and Gina are just two partners doing the best they can to manage their anxiety.

What do you mean?

When couples feel disconnected, the result is always anxiety.

The human mind cannot handle anxiety for more than a few seconds. To cope we turn it into either anger or depression.

So most people are not what we tend to label them. They’re just trying to manage their anxiety the best they can. Obviously some better than others.

Of course there are true narcissists and there are violent aggressors that are unsafe people period.
But in many cases where a someone claims their partner is a narcissist, it is a label unfairly assigned.

During the Dialogue process, we often find that the “so-called narcissist” is perfectly capable of empathizing with his or her partner. It’s just that the relationship had never been safe enough for that to happen.

We are all self-absorbed until we experience differentiation in our relationship.

It’s the growth challenge of marriage that changes us from self-absorbed individuals into differentiated individuals capable of intimate connection.

In many cases people are self-absorbed because they’ve never stepped up to the “growth challenge” that every marriage presents.

Therefore it’s important not to label.

The Couples Dialogue process helps you reimage your partner as someone who is simply trying to manage their own anxiety the best they can.

Some do it by exploding anger outwardly. Others by internalizing anger and becoming depressed.

4. Listen to anger’s “cry for help”.

As Gina mirrored Gary’s angry feelings, she learned that his anger was a cover for deeper emotions he was experiencing.

Usually anger is not about what you say it’s about. It’s a way to protect yourself from your more vulnerable feelings.

Like the tip of an iceberg, anger can be used to cover deeper emotions that we my not be conscious of.

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Gina and Gary’s big blow up was not really about differences over child discipline. It was about Gary not feeling important in the process.

And at the very core was Gary’s hidden fear of losing his connection with Gina.

As a child, Gary experienced feelings of abandonment from his early caretakers. Unknowingly, he had brought these wounds into his marriage.

When he felt Gina withdrawing from him, his deep fear of abandonment was triggered.

In an unconscious reaction he would then use anger to mask these feelings of abandonment.

This in turn caused Gina to move even further from Gary.

But Chuck, that doesn’t make sense. If Gary wanted to be connected with Gina, why would he yell and punch the wall?

Why do kids throw temper tantrums?

To get the attention of the parent they fear won’t be available to them when they need it most.

Gary was doing an “adult version” of this kind of behavior.

So how does Gina “listen to anger’s cry for help” and begin to understand Gary’s real emotion behind anger?

It was through the structured Couples Dialogue that Gina felt safe enough to listen and validate Gary.

And in the context of that safety, Gary got in touch with the fear of abandonment that was driving his explosive anger.

And then, as we’ll see later, things went even deeper…

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5. Stay present rather than retreating.

As Gina stayed present and listened to Gary, this had a powerful calming effect on him.

It was Gina’s withdrawal that triggered the fear and anger in Gary.

Most every day we walk our dog, Brie, in the neighborhood. There is a cat about a block away that Brie loves to chase. It goes like this.

The cat sees Brie and takes off. When Brie sees the cat take off, she begins pursuit until she reaches the end of her leash. And then it’s all we can do to hold her back. We should have gone to dog training school.

One day the cat saw Brie, and instead of running, he sat down in the driveway and began licking his paw.

Brie was really troubled. And stood perfectly still. Why?

We discovered that Brie will only chase if the cat retreats. If the cat doesn’t run, Brie waits.

In the same way, Gina’s running away was one of the triggers for Gary to pursue her in anger.

A dramatic change occurred when she remained present for Gary. His anger was diffused and he was able to express his fear in a safe dialogue.

Gina was able to empathize with Gary’s feeling of abandonment, and that was when everything changed.

Continuing to be curious in the Dialogue, Gina found out Gary’s hidden fear.

Recently she had became more involved in her work as a school teacher. This meant more social engagement with her coworkers as well.

As Gary saw her having fun with people that had more in common with her than he did, Gary feared that one day she wouldn’t need him and would leave him for good.

So the anger wasn’t about the differences they had in parenting. It was about Gary’s deep fear of being left alone.

Very often the problem you’re arguing about is not the problem. It goes much deeper.

Both Gina and Gary got in touch with the real issue which was Gary’s hidden fear.

This happened because Gina stayed present and curious in the process.

6. Use your anger as a signal to stop and dialogue.

The Couples Dialogue slows things down, enabling you to talk about your anger rather than exploding it.

Anger does not have to be unhealthy. It doesn’t have to turn into destructive aggression.

Anger can be an incredibly useful emotion.

Anger serves as a stoplight – a signal that something is not right and you need to STOP.

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Gary learned to recognize when he was angry by noticing the sensations in his body.

Sensations like a tensed body, clenched teeth, restlessness, or increased intensity of speech were the cues that helped him realize he was angry.

If we can recognize anger before it’s expressed, it can be a signal to stop and use our safe conversation skills to talk about it.

If we heed anger’s warning, it’s possible to return to love and connection. If we ignore its warning, our relationship will suffer.

It’s a choice we have to make.

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7. Channel anger’s energy into passionate love.

Anger and passionate love are opposite expressions of the same energy.

When anger’s negative energy gets redirected in a safe conversation it transforms into passionate love.

Gary took steps to moderate his anger, by talking it out rather than acting it out.

Gina stretched in order to be present with Gary rather than withdrawing and triggering his feelings of abandonment.

What happened as a result?

Anger was transformed into passionate love.

I saw evidence of this in the parking lot of my office after our last session as Gary and Gina stood by their car for what seemed like forever in a passionate hug and prolonged kiss.

As people watched them, I thought, “They have no idea what’s behind this. If they only knew…”

Gary and Gina not only learned to deal with destructive anger, but all of their feelings of love and passion returned.

That’s because anger’s negative energy can be channeled in the opposite direction. And passionate love can be reborn.

It can happen for you as well. If you need help, check out my six-week coaching program. I can take you through the same process that Gary and Gina went through.

I’d love it if you’d share your insights and even questions you may have in the reply section below.

Until next week…

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What do I do when my husband is avoiding conflict?

I was that husband avoiding conflict!

Here are three powerful insights that helped me stop avoiding conflict, and start engaging in a way that led us to a deeper connection as a couple.

Last week I wrote a personal account about how “Our fights started on our honeymoon! Is there any hope for us?”

The focus was on Sandy’s feeling of abandonment whenever I (Chuck) would withdraw from conflict.

Today’s focus is on how I felt controlled whenever Sandy would be upset about “being abandoned”.

Can any of you guys relate? No wonder I avoided conflict, right?

Here are some insights that helped me do my part to break this unhealthy pattern.

1. Avoiding conflict can activate the childhood wound of abandonment in your partner.

When I pulled away from Sandy to avoid conflict, I thought I was doing a good thing.

I thought, “Fighting is bad.” “Not fighting is good.” So let’s not fight.

I couldn’t understand why Sandy would get so hurt and upset when I was just “trying to do the right thing”.

It was because I didn’t see how avoiding conflict was affecting her.

My withdrawal triggered her feelings of abandonment at the deepest level.

According to Dr. Herb Tannenbaum, when our childhood wounds are triggered…

A five watt stimulus can produce a 1000 watt reaction.

So the first step for me was to become conscious of how my actions to avoid conflict activated Sandy’s childhood wound of abandonment.

You can read more about that process in last week’ post.

2. Avoiding conflict keeps you from getting the love you want.

Why did I avoid conflict?

Because I feared intimacy.

This strategy of avoidance helped me survive a childhood, where I often felt smothered and controlled.

As a child, connection and attachment was not a pleasurable experience.

So, in my adult relationship, I feared intimacy because it was tantamount to intrusion and absorption and control.

And yet what I craved more than anything was that very intimacy I was missing by avoiding conflict.

Wow! Talking about a dilemma!

I craved connection with Sandy. And yet I avoided the conflict that could lead us to that connection.

If conflict is handled well, it can lead you to a deeper connection and to getting the love you want.

We get married because we have found someone who will help us finish our childhood, by healing and recovering parts of ourselves lost along the way.

We know intuitively that this person is the key to feeling fully alive and whole again.

So marriage makes a lot of sense.

The problem is that conflict is what catalyzes the healing and growth that results in wholeness and full-aliveness.

So, if I’m avoiding conflict, I’m missing out on the whole deal.

I realized that Sandy and I did not feel connected. And by continuing to avoid conflict I was settling for less, willing to live in that disconnected state.

And it doesn’t end there. If you don’t address this it will get worse.

The partner who is avoiding intimacy will look for substitutes for that intimacy in things outside the marriage.

Things that bring a temporary feeling of being alive but it doesn’t last.

In my case, I was first driven to pursue my career with passion.

Nothing wrong with that in itself, but when it’s a replacement for the real intimacy missing in your marriage, it always turns out to be an empty illusion.

The more I would seek my full-aliveness in work…you guessed it.

The more Sandy would feel abandoned.

And although she was careful not to criticize, her negative feelings came through.

I just wasn’t measuring up!

And it was true.

What a wife needs most is to feel connected with her husband. And that feeling of connection was not there.

When the glory my career accomplishments faded, I turned to my lifelong love affair with music and my guitar became the new “mistress”.

Then it was my infatuation with road biking

…all good things, but all empty in the end.

When we’re in a marriage that doesn’t feel connected, we look for exits that we think can fill the emptiness and loneliness.

But they don’t really work. And the pattern continues.

Experts tell us that only 10% of married couples report having a truly satisfying relationship.

We were one of that 90% – staying married, but not happy campers.

The 90% settles for either a “silent divorce” where they remain together in agony and in separate lives…

…or they settle for a “parallel marriage” where they are relatively happy together, but most of their needs are being met outside the relationship through things like work, hobbies, social causes, sports, gaming, etc.

This is where we were.

But thanks to Sandy we didn’t settle there!

What did Sandy do? She talked about it.

And I’m glad she did, rather than settling for less.

I so admire her for that. She was able to identify what was missing in our marriage, and that is the reason we are where we are today.

So speak up. But do it in the context of a Safe Conversation so transformation of your relationship can occur.

Our marriage was transformed the day I realized that full-aliveness doesn’t come through all the things I was seeking outside our relationship.

Full-aliveness comes with safety, connection and passion in my relationship with Sandy.

Like Dorothy of the Wizard of Oz, I realized that everything I needed was right here with me all along.

But how did this change happen?

3. The “Commitment Dialogue” helps the “avoider” stay present and heal the one who feels abandoned.

Nothing happens in a relationship unless it’s safe.

One drop of negativity renders a conversation unsafe and therefore nothing transformational can happen.

Whenever someone withdraws from a conversation, the conversation is unsafe.

Whenever someone criticizes someone (even so called “constructive criticism”), the conversation is unsafe.

And did I say that nothing happens in a relationship unless it’s safe?

Oh yeah.

Ok, so how did you get to a Safe Conversation that brought about this change in you and Sandy?

The most powerful tool we found is called the Commitment Dialogue from Imago Couples Therapy.

Here’s how it went for Sandy and me.

After I integrated the first two insights I’ve shared above, i.e.,

1. My avoidance was hurting Sandy at the deepest level, not because I was evil, but because neither of us were conscious of the childhood wound of abandonment that was so painful.

2. My avoidance was ripping me off from the experience of full-aliveness in my relationship with Sandy.

I was ready to do…

3. The Commitment Dialogue.

Here is a summary of what happened:

Chuck made an appointment to dialogue with Sandy.

Chuck began with the sentence stem, “One activity I use to avoid connecting with you is…” And I talked about how I withdraw when I feel criticized.

Sandy mirrored using the stem, “What I hear you saying is..” She checked for accuracy by asking, “Did I get it?” And then she remained curious by asking, “Is there more about that?”

Chuck continued with more details that went deeper into his childhood.

BTW: Curiosity helped Sandy regulate her reactive emotions, and made it safe for Chuck to access his feelings.

(As a result, several new insights dropped out of  my unconscious mind, helping Sandy to better see and know the real me. And it helped me to see me too :-).

Can you see how it would have shut things down if Sandy had allowed feelings of abandonment to cause her to react rather than remain curious?

Did I say nothing can happen in a relationship that’s not safe?)

Sandy summarized what Chuck said and then VALIDATED it, using the stem “Chuck, what you’re saying makes sense, and what makes sense about it is…

Then she EMPATHIZED with Chuck saying, “I can imagine that it feels…”

Chuck finished the dialogue by saying, “I’m committing today to keep talking about this with words, rather than acting it out and withdrawing from conflict.”

At this point the new paradigm was integrated, a shift occurred, and Chuck transformed fundamentally into an “engager” rather than an “avoider”.

It’s not perfect, but it is truly a fundamental shift that has changed everything.

Now when I feel criticized or controlled, I’m working toward facing it and talking about it rather than avoiding it.

That new area of growth for me is hard. But it enables me to be present with Sandy when she needs it most.

When I do that, it brings healing for her.

The area of growth for her is learning to communicate her feelings in a safe way with zero negativity.

And of course that means healing for me.

And that makes it much easier to stay present with her and deepen our connection.

The old cycle of criticism and withdrawal is being replaced with one of safety and connection.

This new partnership of healing and growth is a “win-win” to say the least.

Share you insights and questions below…and, if you haven’t already, be sure to…

Subscribe to Relationship Resources below and receive my weekly post emailed to your inbox every Saturday morning!

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Why incompatibility is the basis for a great marriage

Marriage incompatibility can be transformed into an intimate partnership for healing and growth!

Ever feel like you’re married to the most incompatible person on the planet?

You’re not alone. Turns out “opposites” DO attract!

And being opposite can feel like you’re incompatible.

But here’s a secret…

Incompatibility is the basis for a great marriage!

“Ok Chuck, I get it that opposites attract. But incompatibility…the basis for a great marriage? Give me a break! Is this going to be another post where you say the opposite of what we’ve always thought? Like ‘Conflict is a sign you married the right person’?”

I could hear your objections already and you’re not alone.

I googled “relationship compatibility” and found many who agree with you. Countless articles warning you NOT to be in a relationship with someone incompatible with you in areas like…

  • Strict punctuality vs. hang loose “I’ll get there when I get there.”
  • Neat-freak vs. slob
  • Spend-thrift vs. stingy-sourpuss
  • And God forbid you get into a relationship with someone who is not “sexually compatible” with you.

“Experts” are saying that differences like these will make life miserable!

“So don’t commit!  Find someone compatible!!” 

But recent neuroscience discoveries are turning what we thought about the marriage relationship on it’s head.

Think about it:

Each of those differences listed above represent opportunities for healing and growth…but only when those two “incompatible” people are together in a relationship!

Get my drift?

Here are two reasons I’m convinced “incompatibility” is the basis for a great marriage.

1. Incompatibility creates opportunities to heal the past.

Case in point: Nate and Susan.

Nate was a very intelligent, but very quiet young man in my premarital counseling group. When I tried to point out traits in Susan, his fiancé, that foreshadow future areas of conflict, he said, “No way! Those are the things I love about her!”

Nate was sincere, but he was also in the Romantic Stage of the relationship, and was seeing Susan through rose-colored glasses.

Isn’t it cute the way she’s so expressive with her emotions! I can listen to her talk all day.

So why is it that after only a year of marriage he found himself leaving the house because…

She never shuts up!  

hmm??

At some point after the wedding vows, the neurotransmitters that induce the romantic love coma subside.

That’s when we wake up to the fact that we have married someone different from us.

Surprise!

The rose-colored glasses are ripped off. Welcome to the Power Struggle Stage.

So what was going on with Nate and Susan?

Nate had married his “Imago match”.

His what?

Harville Hendrix uses this term, “Imago”, to describe an image you carry in your unconscious “lower brain” (brain stem and limbic system).

And that image consists of…

1) The positive and negative traits of your primary caretakers.

and

2) The disowned, denied, and lost parts of yourself.

Imago Relationship Theory posits that the selection of a romantic partner is partly unconscious, driven by an agenda which is to…guess what?

Finish childhood.

What?

To finish childhood. To resolve the wounds, unmet needs, and frustrations that occurred while growing up.

That’s why we fall in love and marry someone who is like our parents!

Not in just their positive traits, but even more significantly in their NEGATIVE traits.

Now why would I want to do that? That doesn’t make sense.

Did I say that it happens unconsciously?

Those positive and negative traits in your partner feel familiar. This explains in part why you’re drawn to his person and why you fall in love.

But as you encounter the negative traits, old wounds are activated.

Nate had that mysterious quietness that Susan was drawn to.

And when we talked about how his childhood defenses could make her feel abandoned, she was confident that would not happen.

He just won’t. Because we’re in love. He’d never do that.

Don’t you just love the naiveté of the Romantic Stage of a relationship?

But at one point, when Susan felt Nate withdrawing from her, it did activate those feelings of abandonment. And that’s when their conflicts began.

Growing up, Susan’s mom was busy caring for younger twins, while her dad seemed married to his work. And then her dad spent whatever time left over with her brothers.

Her method of coping was to break the rules, act out – anything to get someone’s attention.

frustrated girl

So when Nate activated this same feeling of rejection and abandonment by simply pulling away from her, she would become upset and demand to be heard and recognized.

And the more he withdrew, the louder and more controlling she became.
And the louder she got, the more he withdrew.

At that point, so early in their journey, there was no way that Nate could have understood the pain that was driving her.

But during therapy he was able to empathize with Susan, and to see how his pulling away from her triggered those deep feelings of abandonment from childhood.

He realized he was not the source of her upset. He was only the “trigger”.

In the Imago Dialogue process, Susan began making “change requests” of Nate that involved him being present with her during times of conflict, rather than “abandoning” her.

She asked Nate for things like this…

“The next time you feel like leaving the conversation, can we just stop talking, and will you just take my hand, look into my eyes, and just be silent with me for two minutes?”

As he granted those requests, Susan’s wound from childhood began to heal as her longing for connection was no longer being frustrated by Nate leaving.

Our lower brain holds pain from the past in an unconscious state, and also in the present tense (as if the wound happened yesterday).

And the lower brain does not distinguish between individuals. It only apprehends the traits of a person.

So when that past wound is activated by someone similar to the one who wounded you…BUT this time their behavior gives you what you needed, healing is the result!

And your lower brain doesn’t complain, “Well, you’re about 20 years too late!”

No! The love you’re receiving registers deep in your psyche, “Finally, I’m getting the love I wanted.” And it’s healing.

Do you see how your marriage can be an amazing partnership for healing you never even imagined before?

Incompatibility creates opportunities to heal.

Wow.  Sounds simple enough, right?

Hold on a minute.

It sounds simple, but…it was extremely hard for Nate to grant that request.

Why? Because Nate had spent all his years protecting himself from this kind of vulnerability. A step like this was threatening…actually terrifying!

This leads to the second reason I think incompatibility makes for a great relationship.

2. Incompatibility creates opportunities to grow.

What Susan needed to heal pointed precisely to where Nate need to grow.

Nate had never had to be present and share his emotions until he married Susan.

Incompatibility provides an opportunity to grow and recover parts of youself that were lost and never developed growing up.

Nate was drawn to Susan because she was so effusive and free to share her feelings. Something Nate had never developed growing up.

How did Nate miss out on this?

His mother was controlling. So he discovered early in life that one way to maintain a feeling of autonomy around his intrusive mother was to keep his thoughts and feelings to himself.

Without this information, she was less able to invade his space.

childhood wounds

Nate learned to hide behind a psychic shield he erected as a child to protect himself from an overbearing mother.

He felt smothered by his mom growing up, and now he was feeling smothered by his new wife.

So Nate would respond to Susan’s “intrusions” in the same way – by doing a disappearing act where he could hide his feelings from her.

Susan didn’t realize that when Nate left the conversation, he was only trying to survive his own pain and not trying to “punish” her.

But notice how Susan’s “change request” was a challenge for Nate to begin to learn to stay present and connect emotionally. Something he’d never had to do. Something he’d never developed. But something that he was actually very capable of doing.

Because, in doing this, Nate was recovering a lost part of himself.

So for Nate to provide what Susan needed most (his presence during conflict), required him to stretch. To stretch into behaviors he never learned as a child. And it was not easy.

But through this process Nate began to feel much more “whole” as a person.

So…not only can incompatibility create opportunities to heal, it also creates opportunities to grow.

“But, Chuck,” Nate could have said (he didn’t say it, but many partners do), “That’s just not who I am. I’m not a ‘feelings’ person. I feel like Susan wants to change me into something I’m not.”

I hear that a lot.

This growth challenge is not about changing who you are. It’s about becoming more of who your are.

It’s about recovering those things that are actually in us, but have been walled off by our childhood adaptations and defenses.

That’s why Nate felt more whole as a person after this.

Here’s a super big takeaway:

Your partner’s need for healing will always point to your need for growth. And vice versa.

An amazing thing this thing called marriage!

What about you  today? Does your partner trigger this kind of upset in you? Or do you trigger it in your partner?

Have you felt like giving up on your marriage because you’re “incompatible”?

If what I’m saying is true, the best place for you to be is right where you are.

So stay put. And work toward building this kind of mutual partnership of healing and growth.

And let me help you. I can coach you though through this process online.

Click here for more info about my six-week starter program.

Now let me encourage you to share your responses, thoughts, insights and questions with us in the comment section below.

Go ahead! Don’t be shy! Leave a comment! Others will learn from you! And so will I!

Until next week…

Chuck

Hey if you’re not yet on my mail list, you can subscribe below and receive my weekly posts delivered directly t0 your inbox every Saturday. Actually Sunday if you’re in Australia. 🙂

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What to do when childhood defenses sabotage your relationship

Couples fight for one fundamental reason: they bring their childhood defenses into their relationship.

The way you learned to adapt and survive in childhood can negatively impact your adult relationships…even if you had really good parents.

To one degree or another we all bring our childhood into our relationship…

…and it happens UNCONSCIOUSLY. 

And it usually happens in one of two ways.

Either you’re a “HAILSTORM” or a “TURTLE”.

Recently one of my clients said, “When we argue I blow up! And then he does a disappearing act! It always leaves me mad, and then feeling guilty like I’m the one who screwed everything up!”

This woman is in a relationship with what we call a "MINIMIZER”, represented by the TURTLE, who withdraws into his shell when conflict occurs.
She is what is known as a “MAXIMIZER”, depicted by the HAILSTORM, insistent and intrusive. Often these two marry each other (though not always).

In the Romantic Stage of the relationship, those wonderful pleasure chemicals that cause us to fall madly in love with each other, also blind us to many sobering realities about each other.

And in this intoxicated state, the Hailstorm is drawn to the Turtle and vice versa.

And then after some time together (2 months to 2 years),  the drugs wear off, the Power Struggle Stage begins, and these same two people begin to drive each other crazy!

Can you relate?

(Keep in mind that these roles are not gender stereotypes. Maybe you see yourself in this, but the roles are reversed. In my example, he was a Turtle and she was a Hailstorm. So for that reason I’m using “he” when referring to the Turtle, and “she” when referring to the Hailstorm.)

The Turtle and Hailstorm represent two common childhood defense strategies. 

Growing up, these two may have experienced similar kinds of wounding, frustrations, or unmet needs, but each learned a different way of coping. 

Each developed a strategy that helped them survive childhood.

Problem is, that same strategy is now sabotaging their adult relationship.

Are you seeing yourself in this?

If you find yourself living with a Turtle or a Hailstorm, you can overcome barriers to intimacy by taking time to identify the unconscious childhood wounds driving your reactions, and by consciously choosing to respond differently.

The best way I’ve found to do that is through the Imago Dialogue process. If you’ve read my posts, you are probably familiar with the process.

But if you’re not familiar with Imago Dialogue, I’ve embedded a video below with a great explanation by the founder of Imago Therapy himself, Harville Hendrix.

But before you watch it, please read on…

If you are a “Turtle”, you are driven by an unconscious fear of conflict that causes you to disconnect emotionally.

Even though you crave connection with your partner, at the same time you resist that very connection, because deep down you fear the pain of losing that connection.

What??! What are you saying, Chuck?

I’m guessing you learned to avoid intimacy very early on, rather than facing your fear of losing it through rejection or abandonment.

Does that describe you?  There are very good and logical reasons for that, and I don’t have time to go into detail about it. But here are some general insights.

If you grew up in a home where anger was not allowed, or you had to shut down when people got angry, you probably still tend to check out when there is conflict. 

That’s how you survived in the past. 

And no one should feel judged for that!

Problem is…and I’ll say it again…

…that strategy will not work in your relationship today!

Did I say that already?

Withdrawing from conflict is like using a gun with a silencer – killing the relationship without detection.

You say, “Hey, I’m just trying to be nice and avoid a conflict.”

I get it. 

But your withdrawal not only frustrates your partner, it triggers her deeper childhood pain

That is why you are probably seeing an even greater “Hailstorm” effect when you pull away.

Am I close?

Alright, hold that thought about the Turtle. 

What about the Hailstorm?

If you are a “Hailstorm”, your unconscious fear drives you to explode outwardly in an attempt to get what you need.

You may have grown up in a household where you had to “get louder” in order to get others’ attention, and you probably learned to face conflict and push and shove, so to speak, until you got what you needed.

Is that you? Generally speaking?

Again, this helped you survive then. So no one should judge you.

But, in case I haven’t said this before:-) it doesn’t work today!

It doesn’t make your Turtle partner feel loved and safe.

Trying to force your partner to be present with you will only cause him to withdraw further into his shell.

Ok, so what we’re doing doesn’t work. I get that. 

How do we deal with these defenses and reconnect with each other?

I’m glad you asked that question!

Here are FOUR STEPS that will help you get beyond your defenses and reconnect with your partner in a close relationship of mutual healing and growth.

To keep this post from becoming a book in itself, I’ll take you through the Dialogue process with the Hailstorm mirroring the Turtle. 

But in real life there should be ANOTHER ROUND OF DIALOGUE where the Turtle then mirrors the Hailstorm.

Got it? Ok? Is that fair?

My hope is that you’ll get the idea and can go further on your own with both you and your partner talking and mirroring through each step with each other.

1. Mirror the frustration.

As a Turtle, when you check out emotionally, it triggers her feelings of rejection or abandonment. That withdrawal on your part energizes her as a hailstorm.

As a Hailstorm, when you crowd your partner, it triggers his feelings of being smothered. That aggression on your part energizes his retreat into the shell.

Mirroring can help you disrupt this pattern.

As a Turtle, you will have to regulate your emotions in order stretch forward and be present with your partner.

As a Hailstorm, you will have to regulate your emotions in order to dial it back and make it safe for your partner to stay present.

Together agree to an “appointment” where you both will take turns, one talking the other mirroring

Mirroring is simply repeating back in your own words what you heard your partner say.
Mirroring helps you stay out of your "reactive brain" by turning on your "curious brain".
Mirroring says to your partner, "You matter, and what you think and feel matters to me."

Here’s an example of what the whole dialogue process might look like with the Turtle talking and the Hailstorm mirroring. 

TURTLE: “When I was asked three times about fixing the front gate, I got really frustrated.”

(Notice how he didn’t use “you” language. As in, “You’re always nagging me.” or “You’re so demanding.” He used non-accusatory “I” statements.)

HAILSTORM: “What I heard you say is that when I asked you three times about fixing the front gate you got really frustrated.”

“Did I get that?” (check to be sure. If not, keep mirroring.)

Then ask,

“It there more about that?”

TURTLE:Yes. I felt like I was being controlled, and I felt like nothing I do is ever good enough, so I just avoided you and did something else for the rest of the day.

HAILSTORM: “What I hear you saying is you felt controlled and like nothing you ever do is good enough. So you didn’t work on the gate, but avoided me and did something else.

“Did I get it?

“Is there more about that?”

Staying curious and making it safe for your partner like this allows him to begin to access what’s going on in his unconscious mind. 

Seriously, things you have never seen, and things that even he has not been in touch with, begin to surface when dialogue makes the conversation safe.

Suddenly he’s conscious of something…

TURTLE: “Yes there is more. This reminds me of when I was little and my mother would force me to play the piano for her guests. And even though I would do it, I never felt it was good enough.”

Now you’re both in touch with something not seen before.  You’re seeing the SOURCE of your partner’s reaction.

And as the one mirroring, you naturally begin to “re-image” your partner, to see him, not as someone intentionaly trying to hurt you and abandon you…

… but rather, you see him as someone who, is himself, hurting and scared of being shamed and controlled.

You mean a strong, grown up man like him can feel scared of being shamed and controlled by the woman in his life?

Before the dialogue brought them to this place, I’m confident if you had asked him about his fear, he would have reacted and said something like,

“Who me? I’m not afraid of anything.”

So many people say that at first, but when you use the dialogue process to “check under the hood” you’ll find that his whole life is being driven by fear.

Fear he’s not conscious of.

The dialogue helps uncover this so that you both understand each other at a deeper level.

This process of seeing your partner’s reality transforms the relationship.

Remember you can't be curious and critical at the same time. Stay curious and your emotions will stay regulated.

It’s haarrrrrd! but you can do it!

Now go to the next step with the Turtle continuing to talk and the Hailstorm now VALIDATING.

2. Validate the feelings behind the frustration.

After summarizing what you partner said, validate him by saying something like this.

“You make sense. And what make sense about what you said is…”

Finish that sentence so that your partner will feel heard and validated.

It might look like this.

HAILSTORM: “You make sense. And what makes sense is that when you experience that feeling of being controlled, and when you feel like what you do is not good enough, you pull away from me. That makes sense.

“Especially because when you tell me how your mother demanded from you and you never felt good enough, it’s easy to see how you would feel the same thing when I become anxious and demanding.”

Then ask,

“Does that validate your perspective?”

Wait for an affirmative answer.

Validation says to your partner, "Although I may see it differently, you make sense."

This will help your partner feel safe…

…while, at the same time establish that the two of you are different. 

Different needs, different experiences, different ways of dealing with conflict.

This differentiation is an essential process if you two are going to connect.

Now the third step.

3. Empathize with your partner's fear, anger, pain or joy.

After validating your partner, EMPATHIZE with him by looking past what he did, and focusing on what he felt

In our example it would go something like this.

HAILSTORM: “I can imagine how you would be angry when you feel controlled and unappreciated, like nothing you do is good enough. That must really hurt and feel bad.”

Then ask,

HAILSTORM: “Is that what you felt?”

Wait for the affirmation and amplification he gives.

Empathizing says to your partner, “I know what it’s like to experience your pain or fear or joy. I’m present with you in that feeling.”

When you have validated your partner, then and only then will you be ready for the final step. It won’t work without the transformation that occurs with empathy.

4. Grant your partner's deep desire buried underneath the frustration.

Now we ask the Turtle to make a “change request”.  

Buried underneath every frustration is a desire not expressed.

By MIRRORING, VALIDATING, and EMPATHIZING, your goal is to make it safe enough for your partner to get in touch with the unconscious desire that lies buried beneath the frustration.

And then to form it into a request.

A request that, when granted, will bring HEALING to him, and GROWTH to you.

Healing, because it represents for him what he’s always longed for but never received.

And growth because, in granting it, it will stretch you, and cause you to grow and discover a part of yourself you lost along the way.

Make change requests specific and measurable. 

Don’t ask for your partner to do something from now until eternity. 

Just ask regarding the “next time” you encounter another potentially frustration experience.

So when the Turtle is invited to make a request, it might look like this:

TURTLE: “The next time you ask me to do something, would you first tell me two or three things I’m already doing that you appreciate?”

Embedded in this kind of change request is a powerful formula for healing (for the Turtle) and growth (for the Hailstorm).

And it sets the whole trajectory of their relationship toward wholeness.

But remember it won’t work unless you effectively process steps 1-3 first.

Does this make sense?

I hope so. If not, put your questions in the reply section below.

Wait a minute!

WHAT ABOUT THE HAILSTORM?

Doesn’t she get to talk and have her Turtle mirror, etc.?

Well yes of course!

So…

Why don’t you sit down right now with your partner and try this out.

And begin with the HAILSTORM talking and the TURTLE listening!

Then let us know below how it goes in the reply section below.

And of course if you get into trouble contact me and I’ll help you. Check out my coaching program here.

No matter where you are in the world I can help you through a powerful video conferencing platform.

But for now it’s ok to “try this at home”. 

Go for it! Begin this powerful dialogue asap!

Don’t let childhood defenses sabotage your relationship!

You can do this!

Until next week,
Chuck

Here is the video of Harville Hendrix’ brief explanation of Imago Dialogue. Watch it and learn more about its power to transform a relationship.

Comments please! Let me know your thoughts. Post them below!

Thanks!

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Feel trapped in a sexless marriage? Here’s how to change that!

What if you could transform your sexless marriage into one where you "make love" all the time?

“Not possible, Chuck!”

But it IS possible, when you understand what it means to truly make love.

Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt wrote a book entitled

Click on link at bottom of page to request your free copy

I LOVE THIS TITLE!

It’s brimming with hope, isn’t it?

(By the way click on the link at the bottom of this page to go where Harville and Helen are offering this book free. This book is “required reading” for my clients.)

The title implies what we all know intuitively. That there’s more to making love than having sex.

Sex is the “icing on the cake”.  And of course what is a cake without the icing?

But then again, what is the icing without the cake? 

The point is - there’s a whole lot more to making love than just sex.

What are you talking about?

Making love involves building a safe and connected relationship, 

– where open communication happens, 

– where you embrace the differences of your partner, 

– where anxiety evaporates, 

– where defenses come down, 

– and you experience feelings of being fully alive.

And all this happens before you have sex.

If you want to transform your sexless marriage, here’s where it starts!

Sex is that fantastic thing that results from this kind of close and connected relationship. 

Sex is what celebrates a relationship like this.

If you have a close and intimate connection with your partner, sex will not only be awesome…

it will be regular.

And you don’t build this kind of relationship, sex will be…well, 

not so regular.

Result: Sexless marriage.

Are you in a sexless marriage?

What is the definition of a sexless marriage?

Experts define a sexless marriage as having sex no more than 10 times in any given year, or less than once per month.

That includes 20% of couples married today.

But 40% of couples report being unsatisfied with their sex life.

I don’t see how they can define it that way because everyone is different.

So for our purposes, let’s stretch the definition a bit. 
Then take a look and see if you fit. (rhyme intended).

For example, if you want sex daily and you get it less than once a week, some experts say you fit the “sexless marriage” category.

I guess it’s all relative.

So what’s so bad about a sexless marriage?

1. A sexless marriage is A painful disappointment

This certainly was NOT what I was expecting in my marriage.

And it hurts to think about all I’m missing.

Sometimes the disappointment is so painful the marriage doesn’t survive. 

In one study 50% of men surveyed said that they would not have married their partner had they known their marriage would have been sexless.

My bet is, if you asked the wives of those men, you’d get the same answer.

2. A sexless marriage misses all those wonderful health benefits

Medical studies show that frequent sex helps us maintain youth, because it triggers more human growth hormone.

It also reduces the risk of prostate cancer, burns calories, boosts immune and cardiovascular systems, and relieves stress.

That’s great. But if you aren’t getting it, this just adds to the pain of all I’m missing.

3. A sexless marriage misses out on the closeness That makes us feel fully alive

Sex promotes the flow of oxytocin, the chemical that promotes the feeling of bonding.

And that bonding is what helps us feel fully alive.

When sex is regularly experienced as a special activity shared only with each other, this bonding enhances the relationship, keeping it monogamous, loving and strong.

4. A sexless marriage makes my marriage vulnerable

When I’m not experiencing intimacy, I become vulnerable to substitutes that aren’t so healthy.

There are plenty of “illusions of intimacy” I may fall prey to. Anger and disappointment over a sexless marriage can drive us into cheating, sex addictions, and other unhealthy exits we use to try and fill that huge vacuum that exists.

One husband said that after years of being rejected on a regular basis, and after begging his wife to change with no result, he started signing up on dating sites online. 

He said, “I no longer feel anything for her, and I don’t even care if she finds out.”

Imagine the pain of living in this “silent divorce”.

 

OK, Chuck I get it. What can I do?

Learning how to truly make love is the key to enjoyable sex.

Making love involves two people, with two separate realities, coming together in an intimate connection.

Making love means making the relationship safe, regulating your defenses, and listening to each other, so that every pain is shared, every fear is understood, and every desire is expressed.

Making love results in all the happy chemicals flowing, creating passion, connection, and a feeling of being fully alive.

Making love like this prepares the way for the best sex possible.

So, for a moment, remove your focus from just sex and put your focus on this fuller idea of making love.

Here are some things you can do to bring sex back into your marriage.

Use the Imago Dialogue process to communicate four things to your partner. 

And then listen as your partner communicates these four things to you.

(I’ve included guides along the way.)

1. Communicate your appreciation

Break the power of the negativity that your sexual dissatisfaction has produced.

“Why are you so cold and resistant to sex?”

“Why is it that every time we cuddle you have to have sex?”

“I feel like you only need me when you want sex. It makes me feel used.”

“I’m tired of your rejecting me.”

Our brains are biased toward negativity. And criticism activates this bias so that everything positive is lost.

Dr. Herb Tannenbaum says, “Our brains are Velcro for negatives and Teflon for positives.” We naturally dwell on the negatives. 

It’s like the little girl who was enjoying a day at the beach. As she walks in the soft sand, she notices the warm sun, the gentle sound of the waves, the color of the clouds in the sky, the way the light shimmers in the water. 

She’s taking it all in and feeling fully alive.

But then she steps on a razor sharp shell that cuts deeply into her foot.

The pain floods her psyche, and everything else but that pain disappears. 

The beauty around her is now irrelevant. The pain is all she can see and feel from that moment on.

In the same way many of us are stuck in the pain we experienced with our partner, and have lost sight of everything else. 

In our pain, all we see is negative. The pain eclipses anything positive.

But, I promise, if you look past the pain, the beauty is still there.

All the reasons you fell in love with your partner are still there.

And if you’ll take time to see it, and express it in the form of an appreciation on a daily basis, you’ll both be transformed.

Take turns using the guide below to share and mirror your appreciations.

As the sender completes the first sentence, “One thing I appreciate about you is…”

The receiver says, “What I hear you saying is…” “Did I get that right?”  “Is there more about that?

Then the sender completes the second sentence and the receiver mirrors, and so on.

It may feel awkward at first, but using this tool to slow things down can unlock the unconscious, and allow the sender to go deeper into feelings, uncovering things not previously known by both of you.

Sharing an appreciation immediately pushes the negative energy out of the space between you and opens your eyes back up to see the positive things about each other.

Plus it feels good:-)

2. Communicate (and embrace) your differences

Let’s say you are one who needs to feel an emotional connection before you can be open to sex.

Normal.

But, for your partner, sex is the way he or she gets to that emotional connection.

Normal.

So you and your partner are different.

Normal.

Sex for your partner is an event. But for you, sex is an experience that includes an event.

There are many reasons we are different. Some of those reasons go back to our childhood experiences where our adaptations limited our growth in some way.

Imago Dialogue can help you communicate and embrace your differences.

When you MIRROR, VALIDATE, and EMPATHIZE with your partner, you experience differentiation, which transforms your relationship and makes it possible to connect on a deep level.

What is differentiation? 

Differentiation is what it sounds like: seeing that your partner is different from you!

Differentiation enables you to fully hold your reality while holding your partner’s reality at the same time.

Differentiation means you don’t have to always be right. That your partner can be validated even though you may not agree with the way they see things.

Without this differentiation couples cannot feel connected.

A breakthrough comes when you stop expecting your partner to be like you.

When you give up those romantic projections and expectations that have nothing to do with who your partner really is.

When you make a commitment to listen and really know your partner and embrace your differences, that’s when the breakthrough comes.

3. Communicate your frustrations

Frustrations happen and if you don’t talk it out you’ll act it out.

Most people act it out by either withdrawing or becoming outwardly explosive. Both strategies make the relationship unsafe.

The key is being able to communicate your frustrations in a way that results in connection rather than conflict.

Use the guide below to share and mirror frustations with your partner.

I encourage couples to share three things, just to get the ball rolling.

– What happened (the trigger for my upset)

– What I felt (my emotional reaction)

– What I did (my defense mechanism)

 

For example...

“When you passed by me at the party twice without speaking or even looking at me, I felt abandoned, so I didn’t speak to you during the whole next day.”

The dialogue process will uncover the fact that most of our upset comes from history. 

What my partner did was only the trigger for some much deeper pain I wasn’t aware of.

And my reaction usually points to a defense strategy I learned in childhood.

In this example the wife who felt abandoned was able to relate it to one particular pattern in childhood that resulted in her feeling abandoned. 

This helps your partner to “see you”, and helps your partner realize they are not to blame for most of what’s going on with you. 

Powerful stuff!

Here’s a guide to help you share your frustrations in a productive way.

4. Communicate your desires

Harville Hendrix says that behind every frustration there lies a hidden desire (a deep, unmet need).

If you are learning how to have safe dialogues like I’m prescribing, then you can use that process to communicate your frustrations in a safe way that unlocks your hidden desires.

When the conversation is safe, you can uncover your hidden desires and communicate them to your partner in the form of "change requests".

This is where healing and growth occur in the relationship. 

Healing for the person expressing the desire, and change and growth for the person granting the change request as a gift to their partner.

In the example above, the wife who felt abandoned uncovered a desire to feel connected with her husband, even when they are in a crowd.

The request she made was, "The next time we are at a social event, would you find me every 30 minutes, touch my hand, look into my eyes and ask how I am?"

If this husband had not seen how the source of her pain was rooted in childhood, he might have laughed it off as a “silly request”.

But, after not only mirroring her, but validating, and empathizing with her, he was MORE than happy to do this for her, although it was a stretch for him.

And it brought real healing to her.

That kind of sensitivity is what she had been longing for all her life.

This is an example of how our relationship can be an amazing partnership for healing (as she experienced) and growth (as he experienced).

Not to mention the way it swings the door wide open to the best sex we've ever had.

Once you have established safety in the relationship where your deepest desires can be shared and honored…

…well you can imagine what effect that could have in the bedroom!

It’s my desire that each one of you would see your relationship come to a point where you are…

Making love all the time!

Here’s to making love all the time – and enjoying sex too!

Until next week,
Chuck

P.S. Don't forget to share this post with your friends. 

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Even if they are in a sexless marriage, they probably don’t want you bringing it up.

Maybe share it discretely. 

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MIRRORING - VALIDATION - EMPATHY

3 steps to getting past the all the blaming and defensiveness.

Conflict is a sign you married the right person!

Marriage conflict is not only normal, it opens the door to your healing and wholeness!

Today’s relationship experts tell us that compatibility with your partner is the recipe for boredom. 

And that incompatibility (which results in conflict) is the recipe for a transformative relationship! One that is dynamic, powerful, growing and exciting.

Jessica burst into tears as she shared the pain and disappointment she felt after only a few weeks of marriage.

“I thought Ron would be there for me, but now I feel like I’ve married my dad who was never there for me!”

Jessica realized that her new husband was triggering pain from her childhood that she didn’t even know was there.

This happens to some degree with all of us, because recent relationship research shows that… 

...couples fight because they bring their childhood into their current relationship.

It’s not something we try to do, or we’re even conscious of, but our childhood adaptations and defenses continue in their “adult versions”, wreaking havoc in our present intimate relationships.

And that’s why we have conflict.

According to relationship expert, Harville Hendrix,

“Romantic Love delivers us into the passionate arms of someone who will ultimately trigger the same frustrations we had with our parents, but for the best possible reason! Doing so brings our childhood wounds to the surface so they can be healed.”

I’ve heard pain like Jessica’s expressed in so many different ways by so many frustrated partners, but underneath, the message is always the same:

“This dream I married has become my worst nightmare!”

This happens after the “romantic stage” when a couple enters what we call the “power struggle stage” of the relationship. 

It happens sometime between a few weeks and a couple of years after saying “I do.”

In the Romantic Stage you’re high on drugs!

What?  That’s right. Your brain releases pleasure chemicals called dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin that cause you to fall madly in love and see your partner through rose-colored glasses.  

And the events that occur in the brain when we fall in love have similarities to mental illness (smile).

That’s no joke! 

And yet romantic love is wonderful, and if we understand it, it’s a foretaste of what is to come – healing, wholeness, mature love, passion and full aliveness. 

But soon after a commitment is made guess what happens?

The drugs wear off.

And like Jessica, you feel like, “Oh no. What have I done? I think I’ve made a huge mistake.”

That’s why many Millennials today aren’t too keen on marriage. They see what a commitment leads to and they are reticent.

But like most of us they miss the point. 

It’s just the power struggle stage folks. 

It’s normal, and though it may be hard to fathom at the moment…

…it’s simply a sign that you’re with the right person!

It’s confirmation that you’re in the best place on the planet to heal, and grow and recover the wholeness you lost along the way.

Not every case is as extreme as Jessica and Ron’s,  but most couples admit that at some point they wonder if they may have married the wrong person.

Tragically, almost half of all marriages fail and most fail at this point. 

Many of us have relationships that failed because we  didn’t know how normal the power struggle is, and  how conflicts provide  such great opportunities to grow.

Some of you understood it, but your partner didn’t and wouldn’t, and because it takes two, the marriage died. 

No matter where your are it’s never too late to change your paradigm about conflict and get on the journey of healing, growth and transformation.

Somehow we got the idea that when romantic love fades, it’s time to move on. 

Some of us are in love with being in love. So when the the feelings of love leave, so do we.

Others of us are so committed that we’re determined we won’t move on (at least for now), but we’re stuck in the power struggle and we’re wondering if we’re going to be sentenced to a life of unhappiness, or mediocrity in our marriage.

With your permission I’d like to challenge those ideas.

I see couples every week experiencing transformation in their relationship and that shift begins when they start to see their conflicts as opportunities.

romantic-love

You can move through the power struggle stage to mature love and experience healing and wholeness!

And not only that, after Mature Love comes the next stage which I call World Impact where your partnership for healing and growth becomes a positive force that begins to transform your family and the world you live in.

If marriages are transformed, our communities will be transformed as well. 

I’m so happy to be a part of your life and I really care about your marriage. So please let me hear from you in the comments below.

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