Frustrations wrecking your marriage? Here’s what to do!

Relationship science tells us that frustrations in your marriage that are recurring and that trigger an intense emotional reaction, come from your past, not your partner.

“Wait a minute! It’s not my past, it’s my partner who is frustrating me!”

Ok, I realize you get frustrated by what your partner does or doesn’t do. But if your reaction is intense and it happens three times or more, science says your partner is only the trigger of  a deeper frustration from childhood.

And, let me guess…your partner sees your reaction as an “overreaction” that not justified.

Am I right?

Behind every recurring, emotionally charged frustration is a deep desire to get something you didn’t get in childhood. 

Here’s how you can turn frustrations into requests and keep them from wrecking your marriage.

1. Engage in the Imago Couples Dialogue

The first step is to make your conversation safe.

Laurel was upset because she felt like her husband Ben left her alone at a party. When she brought it up, Ben reacted to her. As you read on, you’ll see how escalated it got!

The Imago Couples Dialogue  helped Ben regulate his reaction so he could listen to Laurel. It also made Laurel feel safe enough to access information buried deep in her subconscious mind.

2. Identify the root issue

When a conversation is safe you can identify how your frustration is connected to childhood.

Laurel discovered that her “overreaction” was because her childhood wound of abandonment was triggered when she felt Ben was leaving her. 

She had grown up as a single child. Her dad left when she was eight and her mom worked long hours. After school she was at daycare until she was old enough to be left alone at home.

3. Turn your frustration into a request

Buried deep within every frustration with your partner is a wish. A wish to finish what was left undone in childhood. If that frustration can be restructured into a request, your partner can give you the healing you’re unconsciously looking for.

Laurel’s frustration: “I feel like you left me at the party and when I passed by you, you didn’t speak to me. You didn’t even look at me!”

Ben’s escalated reaction to Laurel’s frustration: “What do you mean?! It was a networking party for crying out loud! I was there for business! I wanted you to come along, but I can’t even do my job without you complaining like a baby! When are you going to grow up?!

If they continue to talk like this, Laurel’s wound will continue to be reinjured and the frustration will never be resolved.

Here’s how the Couples Dialogue helped Laurel restructure her frustration into a request.

Laurel: “Last night when we were at the party and you were talking to potential clients, I felt really alone, just like when I was little and came home from school every day to an empty house. What I’m really afraid of is that you don’t realize what being alone does to me and that I’ll always have this feeling of being abandoned.”

Ben (Mirroring): “What I hear you saying is that when I was talking to potential clients you felt really alone. It reminded you of the feelings of abandonment you had when your mom was at work and you were alone in the afternoons. And that brings up a deeper fear that you’ll always feel abandoned. Did I get it? Is there more about that?…

Ben (Validating): “You make sense. Anyone would feel that way given your circumstances.”

Ben (Empathizing): “I can imagine it must feel really bad when you have those deep feelings of being abandoned or forgotten.”

Laurel (turning her frustration into a Request): “One thing that would help me the next time we’re at a party is if you will look for me every 30 minutes, touch my hand, look me in the eye and ask how I’m doing.”

Ben (responding): “I will be more than happy to do that.”

(Big hug!)

If Ben follows through, he will experience growth, and  it WILL bring healing to Laurel! 

That’s how you turn a frustration into a request and keep it from wrecking your marriage!

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My goal is to provide free relationship tools and resources delivered to your inbox every week! 

VIDEO BLOG: How being “too nice” is bad for your marriage and what to do about it.

If you are being nice in order to “keep the peace” in your marriage, that probably means you’re not talking about what you’re really feeling or what’s frustrating you.

If that’s the case, there are 7 reasons that show you’re not really being nice to your partner, to yourself, or your relationship.

This video provides a powerful tool that will help you to be honest in a way that will deepen your connection with each other and build a happier marriage. I invite you to watch it, and then use the questions below to discuss it together as a couple.

Discussion Questions

1. Have either of you been guilty of “being nice” as a way of avoiding sharing how you feel about something?

2. Thinking about the 7 bad things that can happen when you don’t share your feelings (see below), which one has affected your relationship?

  • Negative feelings I have don’t go away.
  • I internalize negative feelings and become bitter and depressed.
  • I internalize negative feelings and later explode over something insignificant.
  • My partner never gets to know me.
  • I don’t heal my childhood wounds.
  • My partner doesn’t get a chance to grow.
  • We won’t have the connection that gives us passion and full-aliveness.

3. How can you follow Tom and Jennifer’s example and begin using the Couple’s (safe) Dialogue to share how you feel and connect more deeply with your partner?

Click here to download the Couple’s Dialogue.

Here’s to being honest, more connected and happier with each other!

If you haven’t done so already…

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My goal is to provide free relationship tools and resources delivered to your inbox every week! 

3 ways to help your partner overcome anxiety and depression that’s killing your marriage

Mike’s anxiety and depression got so bad he finally hit a wall. Having almost lost his marriage, he can now barely even function at work.

How did he get so stuck? And what can his wife Jen do to help?

This article describes three ways Mike and Jen worked together to transform their marriage into a powerful agent of healing.

The symptoms of anxiety and depression

Mike’s symptoms were: 

  • could not work
  • could not maintain relationships
  • was abusing alcohol
  • felt sad
  • felt tired and slowed down
  • could not complete activities of daily living
  • things that used to interest him no longer had any appeal

Sound familiar? 

If you or your partner are weighed down by anxiety and depression, keep reading to learn three ways Jen and Mike worked together to overcome it. 

The fundamental cause of anxiety and depression: DISCONNECTION

Disconnection triggers anxiety. Anxiety triggers depression. And then depression triggers more anxiety until it becomes a vicious cycle.

I often refer to Dr. Edward Tronick’s Still Face Experiment to demonstrate how disconnection results in anxiety.

Feeling connected with a loved one who is attuned to us makes us feel alive and whole. Our brain triggers happy chemicals like dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin which makes us feel joyfully alive. 

But when that connection is interrupted, the brain triggers the release of cortisol and the sensation of full aliveness is replaced with anxiety.

If anxiety is not relieved, it can increase and become an anxiety disorder which is the most common mental illness in the USA. Anxiety disorders include panic disorder, phobias, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In Mike’s case the anxiety and depression that began in childhood followed him into adulthood and his adult relationships.

And now feelings of disconnection in his relationship with Jen were triggering those old wounds resulting in increased anxiety.

Growing up, Mike’s parents valued intellectual development, but lacked in the emotional skills to help him feel connected. He grew up in a home where success was a high value. The stress at times was unbearable.

If he got an A on a test, the message was you should have gotten an A+. Acceptance was conditional upon his being a good boy and performing well.

Mike dealt with his anxiety by suppressing it and trying harder. Everyone applauded him as a high achiever. No one realized how little value he felt apart from what he did to please people.

Fast forward 20 years. 

Mike was a successful medical doctor. But he was stuck in a career he hated; one that provided the image of success, but had nothing to do what he was passionate about. He felt powerless to change his situation.. “What do you do when you’ve invested 10 years in medical school and another 10 years building your practice? You can’t just walk out on that and start over.”

And yet, now things had taken a turn for the worse. Having taken a toll on his relationship with Jen, Mike could no longer function at work. He was finally forced to deal with it.

He also feared what this would do to their children. Plus, there was a looming fear of what would happen if he were diagnosed with a mental disorder. How would that affect his career as a physician? All of these stresses added to his anxiety.

In an attempt to deal with his depression Mike started drinking more alcohol. This led to increased feelings of isolation and disconnection, which in turn increased his anxiety.

The fundamental cure for anxiety and depression: RECONNECTION

If the fundamental cause of anxiety is the feeling of disconnection, can you guess what the fundamental cure is?

That’s right! 

The fundamental cure for anxiety is found in reconnecting with your marriage partner in a healing relationship.

When Mike and Jen came to counseling, this was our goal through Imago Relationship Therapy.

But what if depression, self medication, and lack of motivation are all working to keep them from reconnecting? Shouldn’t Mike work on himself first, and then work on the relationship? 

No.

The commonly held view that you should work on yourself before you can work on your relationship is simply not true.

If the ultimate solution to anxiety and depression is found in connection with your intimate partner, then your therapeutic approach should be to help reconnect you, not separate you.

We decided that Mike and Jen would work together – to use every effort to deepen their connection with each other, rather than having Mike work on himself without Jen.

But you say, “What if Mike is too depressed to work on the relationship? What if his drinking is blocking their ability to reconnect?”

We still have them work on those issues together. We are born in relationship. We were wounded in relationship. And we heal in relationship.

At first this was not an easy sell. Jen was told by another counselor that Mike needed to deal with his “alcoholism” before they could have a healthy relationship. I cautioned Jen about labeling Mike an “alcoholic” because, if we do that prematurely, it can serve to reinforce negative brain pathways.

Of course alcoholism can be a problem. But what if Mike’s increased alcohol use is simply an unconscious attempt to manage his anxiety? The solution would be short sighted if Mike were labeled an alcoholic and sent off by himself to fix that. Everyone could then blame Mike’s “alcoholism” for their problems. On the other hand, if Mike’s deeper anxiety issue can be solved through reconnecting and processing everything with Jen, that might help resolve not only the drinking problem, but their other problems as well. 

So here are the three steps I asked Mike and Jen to take together using Imago Relationship Therapy. 

1. Lower your stress level

“Mike, you gotta take a break.” We’re talking about lowering stress levels by taking time off.

At first Mike said, “But I can’t afford to do that.”

My question was, “How are you going to afford it when you have a complete breakdown?”

Why is taking a break important? To temporarily alleviate unnecessary external stress.

Stress comes from the outside: work deadlines, etc. Anxiety comes from the inside: the body’s reaction to stress.

Anxiety persists even after your stress has been reduced. But if you don’t reduce your stress, it will only create more anxiety which, in Mike’s case, was already overwhelming and debilitating.

So Mike took a medical leave of absence. Jen was committed to this with him. And together they got on a regular program of 

  • physical exercise
  • healthy diet
  • regular sleep
  • relaxation exercises

We also encouraged Mike to avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. Jen was good with all of this except the caffeine part. We all have our limits. 🙂 

2. Balance your brain chemistry

A 50-yr old theory says that chronic depression might result from an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the body. One of those neurotransmitters is called serotonin

Low levels of serotonin are linked to chronic depression. Mike’s serotonin level had become so low that his body could no longer restore it on its own. 

This explained why Mike could not come out of his depression on his own. He needed medication that would help restore his serotonin. 

His low levels of serotonin also helped explain why he started drinking more. Mike learned that alcohol was not a good way to cope, because alcohol decreases the brain’s absorption of serotonin. By raising Mike’s serotonin level through prescribed medication, his need to self-medicate with alcohol diminished. 

SSRIs (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat depression. They are the most commonly prescribed antidepressants.

Examples include fluoxetine (Prozac), citalopram (Celexa), sertraline (Zoloft), Escitalopram (Lexapro), and Paroxetine (Paxil, Pexeva).

If you or your partner are in a similar place, check with your doctor about giving you a prescription, and always be aware of cautions and possible side effects.

There is no reason for embarrassment if you need to take medication. 

It does not mean that you are weak. Sometimes anxiety and depression get bad enough to become a brain chemistry issue rather than a psychological issue. At that point we need to address the biological side of it. 

These medications are essentially food for the brain. They restore serotonin and other chemicals you can’t produce for yourself. 

The good news is that medication can help you return to a point of being able to deal with your issues on a psychological level because the pain isn’t making you dysfunctional. 

That’s what medication is for! 

Medication is not to solve your problem! It’s to get you to a place where YOU can solve your problem. 

Someone said, “It is hard to be a philosopher and have a toothache at the same time.”

Sometimes you need to lower your pain level to a certain point in order to become functional again, so you can work on fixing the real problem.

So Mike, with Jen’s support, took steps to lower his stress levels and balance his brain chemistry.

3. Rewire your neural pathways 

With anxiety and depression, the brain and the heart muscles have cells called neurons that can fire as a group. When this happens, they wire together and form a network, or “groove,” which can become deeper and deeper. Therefore, negative thoughts literally shape the brain structure to form negative neural patterns. These habituated “grooves” in our organs and regions of the body trigger us into feeling and acting in certain ways. These grooves produce habits. So, in part, anxiety and depression become habitual.

How do you change these negative neural pathways related to anxiety and depression? 

Imago therapy provides positive habit-forming behaviors that help reprogram your brain, heart, and nervous system.

Most people underestimate the power of these simple marriage tools.

A regular regimen of tools we use, including Safe Conversations, Appreciations, Caring Behaviors, One-minute Full Body Hugs, Positive Flooding all work to rewire brain pathways and kickstart the release of happy hormones like dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and norepinephrine.

If you engage in these prescribed positive behaviors over and over again, you will “re-groove” the muscle memory or the nervous system patterns, so that instead of automatically triggering self-destructive behavior, these new patterns orient you toward joyful aliveness and feeling connected. 

Analysts have done brain scans showing that these kinds of exercises done over time can shift your default condition back to joyful aliveness rather than negativity, anxiety, and depression.

Because we helped Mike and Jen deepen their connection with each other during the first two steps using Imago Dialogues, we were able to add these exercises that help rewire brain pathways.

So how is this working for Mike and Jen? 

It’s slow, but they are making progress. 

And since their focus through this whole process was to reconnect with each other, they will tell you everything is better.

Many things about their future are uncertain but one thing is for sure – they will face it together.

How about you? 

Please share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.

Until next week…

Subscribe below to receive my weekly post that will come to your email inbox every Saturday morning! 

My goal is to provide free relationship tools and resources delivered to your inbox every week! 

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.

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.

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.

controlling-reactivity-in-marriage

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.

controlling-reaction-in-marriage-2

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.

controlling-reaction-in-marriage-3

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?

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!

My goal is to provide free relationship resources delivered to your email inbox every Saturday morning! To receive my weekly blogpost just subscribe below.

The Art of Caring Confrontation

What happens to my marriage if I choose to be “nice” rather than honest?

…if I go “silent” rather than confront an issue head on?

Usually there’s an ugly consequence.

Today I’m sharing an amazing tool I call “The Art of Caring Confrontation”.

I always assumed that going silent and being nice is better than blowing up into a raging argument.

I’m not advocating blowing up, but clamming up doesn’t work either.

Why?

Because a healthy relationship requires vulnerability.

And vulnerability takes courage, not just being nice.

I’ve learned that I tend to avoid vulnerability like the plague.

I’d much rather hide what I really feel about something than to confront it in a scary conversation.

Can you relate?

I call it “being nice” rather than being honest.

“I know how sensitive she is. I don’t want to get a reaction.”
“Talking about it only brings up the pain of the past.”
“Sharing how I really feel will hurt his feelings. I don’t want to go there.”

I’m so “nice”.

Really?

Sometimes being nice is just a big cover up job for something I’m too afraid to broach.

What a whimp!

It takes COURAGE with a capital C to be vulnerable.

There is a relationship in my family were we have gone silent for 20 years.

There are things that we do not talk about – and have not talked about for two decades. And stuff we will not talk about for another 20 years, unless something changes.

And that big fat elephant shows up and sits there in the room with us every time we’re together. And no one talks about it.

Oh, there are some people who tell me “Just say it because it needs to be said!” If I did that, it would just trigger everyone’s defenses so that no one would really listen.

So, it’s easier to just be “nice”.

Why? Because it’s too painful to open old wounds.

Wait a minute! Too painful!?

Too painful compared to what? (Now I’m talking to myself again.)

Have I even considered the price of silence?

Evidently I’m willing to suffer a slow death over 20 years rather than facing the pain of a brief surgery that might start the healing process.

For me that’s been the price of silence. And it’s a heavy price.

OK, whew…! I hope there’s some value in that catharsis I just went through.

Now I want to lighten up, and apply this amazing tool to our marriages. It’s a skill you and I can use every day.

I call it…

THE ART OF CARING CONFRONTATION

This is how I’m working against that forceful tendency to go silent in a conflict.

This is how I’m learning to say what I need to say in a healthy way that leads to dialogue.

It’s a skill I adapted from the book Crucial Conversations. It’s a way to be honest while being nice.

It goes like this:

caring-confrontation-2

1. State the FACTS

Start with the facts because facts are less controversial.

Facts are the basis of the story I’m telling that is creating my emotions.

So start with what happened. “This is what I saw or heard.”Facts are what a video camera with sound would have recorded about the event.

2. Tell your STORY

This is my interpretation of the facts. The meaning I’m adding to the facts. The story I’m telling myself about what happened.

Use a sentence stem that goes something like this. “This makes me wonder if…”

3. Ask the QUESTION

A question that invites dialogue. Something like, “Is that what’s happening, or am I missing something?”

Here’s a real life example from Chuck and Sandy’s experience.

CHUCK:

FACTS: “You asked me if I’d be willing to tear out the old tomato vines and I said I would. But then you went and did it.”

STORY: “That makes me wonder if you don’t trust me to do something when I say I will.”

QUESTION: “Is that what you’re thinking?”

At this point I was in control of my emotions because I’m not leading with my “story”. Rather than judging Sandy’s intent I used this process to turn on my curiosity.

And this actually made it safe and got us into a healthy dialogue.

SANDY:

“Sometimes I’m afraid you’ll forget, or you’ll think I’m nagging you. So I went silent and just did it myself.”

CHUCK:

“That makes sense.”

Then we try to be open to a Behavior Change Request.

SANDY:

“Is there a request you’d like to make?”

And this is how Dialogue becomes the means to a real change in the relationship.

CHUCK:

“Yes. It would be help me if you would use your Caring Confrontation skills and talk about it rather going silent and then not trust me. That feels bad.”

SANDY:

“Can we have a do-over?”

Now Sandy is in the game. She’s not going silent. She’s choosing to be honest rather than “nice”. (But honest in a nice way.)

And she’s willing to practice it by going back over it. (We notice our skills get better when we practice them.)

SANDY:

FACTS: “Chuck, when I mentioned the dead tomato plants needed to be removed, you said you’d take them out. After a few days I noticed it wasn’t done.”

STORY: “That makes me wonder if you forgot or you’d changed your mind. And I started feeling frustrated.”

QUESTION: “Can you help me know what’s going on?”

CHUCK:

“Oh yeah. I was planning to do that this weekend. It did slip my mind, but I thought about it the other day and figured I could do it Saturday morning. Thanks for the nudge and reminder.”

Right on, Chuck and Sandy! Issue resolved!

But…in that first round, why did Sandy go silent?

Fear…fear that I would get upset.

But which is harder? Doing the surgery now and having the hard conversation, or letting it fester and become a disease in the relationship?

Can we see how avoiding conflict keeps you in conflict? I’m starting to get it.

Using a skill like The Art of Caring Confrontation opens things up so that we can stay connected and grow and heal together.

Try this out the next time you’re tempted to be “nice” rather than honest.

And share with us the results in the reply section below!

Until next week…

My goal is to provide free relationship resources delivered to your email inbox every Saturday morning! To receive my weekly blogpost just subscribe below.

What to do when your marriage partner keeps “leaving the relationship”

I’m not talking about moving out. I’m talking about taking  seemingly innocent “exits” that rob your relationship. 

“Exits” are places where you go to get your needs met outside your relationship.

Things like hobbies, sports, computer games, the kids, work…

or pornography, an affair, etc.

Some “legitimate”, some not so.

Whenever anything becomes a substitute for intimacy with your partner, it can drain your relationship of the energy it needs to flourish.

Does this touch a nerve? Please read on.

In last week’s post, Katie felt like her husband, Frank, was playing way too much golf.

But through the Couples Dialogue, they got to the real issue in their relationship.

Golf wasn’t the problem it was Katie’s hidden fear.

Katie’s hidden fear was  that something would always take her place in Frank’s life.

Their marriage experienced a breakthrough when Frank began to understand this.

Frank began to see all Katie’s “nagging” as simply a hidden desire for more closeness with him. When he finally got that, Katie’s nagging stopped. Fantastic!

But what about Frank? What was Frank’s issue, and how did he contribute to this relationship problem?

Turns out, playing golf was an “exit” from the relationship. It was one of many ways Frank would “leave” Katie when he felt unsafe.

In the counseling process, while Katie learned to turn her criticism into a spoken desire, Frank learned to close the exits that were robbing their relationship.

He began to channel that energy into building an intimate partnership with Katie.

And you can do that too.

Here’s how  to close the “exits” that are robbing your marriage.

1. Identify your unconscious defenses

If you met Frank you would not see any indication there was a problem. He is funny, and outgoing, and well-loved by all their friends.

But as the Dialogue process went deeper, Frank discovered a secret about himself.

Although Frank was super outgoing and a real “people person”, he was terrified of intimacy.

Abuse suffered early in life from his father, and neglect from his mother led to a deeply ingrained belief that intimacy is painful.

The message was, “If you get close to someone, you’ll end up getting hurt.”

Frank learned to survive childhood by keeping a safe distance from everyone.

The first step for Frank was to identify his unconscious defense strategy:

Frank was an “isolator” who would take a convenient “exit” anytime Katie would get “too close”.

2. Identify ways you avoid your relationship

Katie complained that “golf was the problem”, but we saw that golf wasn’t really the problem.

It was that Katie felt like Frank was “leaving the relationship”. Golf was one way he did that.

When Frank quit playing golf on the weekends, Katie was still not happy. Why?

Frank’s “exit” switched to computer games. Again, Katie felt him leaving her.

It wasn’t until these exits were identified that a plan for change could happen.

Katie longed for closeness, but from the very beginning of their relationship whenever she would get too close, Frank would exit.

It was Frank’s  fear of intimacy that kept him on the run.

And there was always an exit to be found!

What about you? What are your exits?

Take time to look at your activities and ask yourself, “Am I doing any of these things in order to avoid my relationship?”

One husband realized that he was staying late at work, because when he would walk through the front door, a wave of depression would come over him. It was real easy to stay at work.

When we are disconnected from our partner, anxiety can make our relationship a real downer. That’s when it’s easy to exit.

So take time to identify your exits.

3. Redirect energy into your relationship

It’s important to not just close the exit. We must also find a way to redirect that energy into the relationship.

The best way I’ve found to do that is by using “Caring Behaviors”.

A “Caring Behavior” is something your partner has expressed to you that makes her or him feel loved.

In last week’s post, Katie made a “Behavior Change Request” of Frank. That request  pointed to a “Caring Behavior” – something that, when done, makes Katie feel loved.

Her request was, “Next month, will you choose one weekend and plan something for us to do together?”

When Frank gave up his weekend golf to plan a suprise weekend with Katie, it was a positive experience for them both.

Katie felt loved, and her response made Frank feel like he could move closer to her.

It doesn’t help to just close your exits. You must redirect that energy into the relationship in a way that works for you both. That’s when reconnection can occur.

How about you in your relationship? Perhaps you can relate to Frank?

Is it scary for you to think about giving up something you love on a slim chance that you might be able to make your partner feel loved?

I can relate!

So begin with small steps.

There was wife who would go jogging every day at lunch, and then again after work. She learned that jogging was an exit – a way she was avoiding intimacy.

A small step for her was to continue jogging during her lunch break, but stop jogging in the evening in order to spend that time with her husband. 

She didn’t give up jogging altogether. She just turned some of that energy back into the relationship. They spent time using some of the Dialogue tools they were learning in therapy. It was a step in the right direction.

Small steps…

So closing the exits is not about giving up something. It’s about getting the love you’ve always wanted!

Instead of leaving the relationship, identify your defenses, call your exits what they are, close them, and redirect all that good energy into your relationship.

You’ll be glad you did!

Need help? Reach out to me. I do coaching with couples all over the world through video conferencing.

Also…

If you haven’t already, please subscribe to my weekly post in the form below. My goal is to provide free relationship resources delivered to your email inbox every Saturday morning!

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.

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.

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.

husbands-destructive-anger-transformed-4

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…

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.

husbands-destructive-anger-transformed-6

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.

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…

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Our marriage fights began on the honeymoon! Is there any hope for us?

This was our story!

But we learned that with the right skills you can turn a marriage with conflicts into a relationship with a deeper connection!

That’s because conflict is a sign that something new wants to emerge in your relationship.

Something that will bring healing, wholeness and deeper connection.

And sometimes that sign shows up as early as the honeymoon!

That’s what happened to me – and my wife Sandy!

Recently someone said, “Chuck, your posts are pretty good, but have all these insights worked for you in your own marriage?”

Wow! Did you have to go there?

I admit it’s always easier to talk about something than to do it.

So can I just brush this question under the rug? As my readers, you’ll never know. 🙂

Except that I just told you!

Maybe this is an opportunity.

An opportunity to go where I wouldn’t go otherwise. And open up and share some things I wouldn’t otherwise.

Ok, let’s do this!

For years, Sandy and I have been on a journey in our own marriage.

That journey is from an unconscious and reactive relationship to a conscious and connected relationship.

For us this means…

– Moving from blaming and defensiveness to empathy and connection.

– Realizing that behind every criticism is a desire not expressed.

– Realizing behind every angry outburst is a desire being expressed but not heard because of the way it’s delivered.

– Realizing that behind every withdrawal from conflict is a fear of being controlled or smothered.

We are still working on it, moving from the Romantic Stage – through the Power Struggle Stage – into the Mature Love Stage and World Impact Stage.

The Romantic Stage

It all began with two people madly in love – Chuck and Sandy.

I’ll save you the sappy details but we were IN LOVE.

I took her to Ernie’s in San Francisco for dinner.

Then to the “Top of the Mark”, Mark Hopkins Hotel for drinks.

And while looking out over that beautiful city, I asked her to be my wife.

She said “yes”! And I was the luckiest guy on the planet.

The Power Struggle

Most couples see signs of the Power Struggle anywhere from two months to two years after the wedding vows.

Our power struggle began on the honeymoon. That’s right.

As a matter of fact on the day after the wedding.

Sandy had given me a beautiful watch as a wedding gift – a battery powered, electronic watch.

One of the first of it’s kind. I’d never had one before.

Problem is, there was no instruction manual.

So I spent the first couple of hours “the morning after” (yes, the first day of our honeymoon) trying to set it up (yeah, I know.).

To me this was normal. Not doing anything wrong here.

Except for one detail. I was married now. Not alone. And we were on our honeymoon for cryin’ out loud!

Now that I’m married, it’s not really cool to just do what I want, without any consideration for the other person in the room.

But how was I to know?

As Sandy tried to communicate her disappointment to me, I immediately felt attacked.

Feelings of inadequacy overwhelmed me.

So I pulled away from her – literally withdrew from the conversation.

This really upset her and I had no idea why or what to do.

It was horrible!

Even though we “coped” and moved on, this tragic episode began a pattern that would last for years.

I’d get lost in my world (work, hobbies, whatever). Sandy would feel abandoned.

She’d express disappointment. I’d pull away further.

That would trigger more feelings of abandonment, resulting in more expression of disappointment, which would cause me to…well you get the idea.

Not good!

Welcome to the Power Struggle!

All she wanted was a close connection with me. That’s what marriage is supposed to be, right?

Like many couples we struggled to cope with this pattern.

But it always costs when you merely cope with a problem rather than dealing with it.

The price we paid for years was the insecurity of an unstable connection that could be easily ruptured.

Two precious daughters were born, as we continued to do the best we could.

What we didn’t realize is that both of us had brought our childhood wounds and defenses into our marriage.

Unconscious pain from childhood that drove me to abandon ship when criticized,

and that drove Sandy to criticize when abandoned.

The Breakthrough

I’ll save you all the gory details. But it was fight after fight. Silent-standoff after silent-standoff.

Literally “second verse same as the first – a little bit louder and a little bit worse.”

over and over…and over again.

But a breakthrough came when we began practicing Imago Couples Dialogue. The therapy I now use with couples every week.

The process slowed us down in a way that helped regulate our emotional reactions.

And that gave us a chance to see each other – things about each other we’d never seen before because of all the defenses.

Then we began to embrace our differences, and empathize with each other.

And we began to see how our childhood dramatically affected our relationship.

Sandy grew up in an amazing home. She was SO attractive. And so was her family. It was like the family I never had.

Her parents did a great job.

But even with great parents, all children experience wounding at some level.

It’s inevitable.

When Sandy was 2 ½ years old her mom had twins. Both infants suffered with colic. And both mom and dad were consumed by the need to care for them.

Some of what Sandy needed was lost in the process.

Her mom was amazing. And dad too.

But no matter how good you are as parents, wounds happen to our children in ways we’re not aware of.

This feeling of abandonment surfaced many times later growing up.

Once when her older brother got to stay out much later with his friends on Halloween. And got SO much more candy.

And she remembers another time waving goodbye to her older brother as he and his friends drove away for a ski weekend at Tahoe.

Once again she felt left behind. And left out.

Experts say that approximately 90% of our upset comes from history. 10% is related to the present.

The Dialogue help me see that the pain that Sandy felt on our honeymoon was not just because of me.

I was not the source of her pain, only the trigger.

chuck starnes relationship coach
Chuck and Sandy at Waikiki Beach

The Mature Love Stage

Here’s what we learned that helped us move from the Power Struggle to Mature Love.

1. A childhood wound of abandonment can be activated when your partner disconnects from you.

For me to “leave her” for a watch brought back all that pain from childhood.

Am I worth being taken care of? Am I worth pursuing? Am I more important than a watch?

2. Healing comes when you finally get what you needed in childhood from your intimate adult partner.

Sandy wanted me to choose her. To be close to her. To be enamored with her, not a watch (even thought she gave it to me.).

Even though that didn’t happen then, it happened later.

During one of the Dialogue’s she made a change request.

In a moment of safety and empathy she made this request.

“The next time you feel like pulling away from me will you make an appointment with me to dialogue and tell me about the feelings that make you want to withdraw.”

It was a stretch for me. But when I did it, it brought healing.

It was amazing how granting this change request helped me overcome the force of my own adaptations and stay present with her.

And when a change request like this is granted, your lower brain, where all your memories and pain and defenses reside, is not going to say in that moment,

“We’ll you’re about 20 years too late!”

No! It’s going to say,

“Finally I’m getting the love I always wanted!”

And healing is the result.

3. Growth comes to the one bringing healing.

That would be me.

I can’t tell you the feelings of wholeness I experienced as I stretched and grew in to this kind of behavior Sandy was asking for.

Staying present with her was VERY hard because all I felt was anger and fear and wanting to run!

My strategy from childhood, which helped me stay alive, was not going down easily (I’ll talk more about this next week).

It literally called me to access a part of myself that I had lost and never developed growing up.

And the feeling of wholeness was something wonderful like I’d never felt before.

So what about you?

Did your fights start early on like us?

Is it hard to understand why you fight?

Does your partner’s reaction seem extreme?

Join us on this journey toward healing and wholeness.

Get the skills you need to turn marriage conflicts into a deeper connection and passion together.

If you haven’t already…

Subscribe to Relationship Resources by entering your name and email below, and receive my posts with free resources delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning.

Also, in the reply section below, would you tell your story of when the power struggle began in your relationship and what you did about it?

Until next week,

Chuck (for Sandy too!)

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

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