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:

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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!

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…

If you haven’t already, subscribe below to Relationship Resources and receive my weekly post emailed to your inbox every Saturday morning!

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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What if my husband is unwilling to work on our marriage?

Every marriage needs work. But what happens when a relationship goes flat and one partner is not willing to work on it? Is there hope for that marriage?

Yes, and here’s why.

One person can change the relationship!

Change happens when one partner starts doing something differently.

One reader told me…

couple_conflict

“Chuck, we are trapped in that cycle of blaming and defensiveness you talk about. I feel stuck, and powerless, and it hurts because my partner doesn’t want to work on our relationship? I feel so alone.”

That’s really hard and can feel hopeless.

But if you will change the way you communciate, the dynamic of the relationship will change, and something will shift.

And your partner will have to change. Not by force, but willingly.

My experience tells me that at least he will become curious, and he’ll probably end up wanting to work with you toward change.

It’s a principle of the universe. If you change, your partner will have to respond differently.

It’s like when you change your tennis serve, your opponent has to change their response.

Quantum physics claims that, in our interconnected universe, anything you do anywhere impacts everything, everywhere. This is no truer than in relationships.

So here are some steps that are in your power to do, no matter how hurt or powerless you feel.

1. Listen before talking

Helen LaKelly Hunt said in an interview that on average we hear about 17% of what is being said in a conversation.

I believe that. Because as soon as my wife says something that triggers my defenses, I start “reloading”. At that point, I’m not listening to her. I’m listening to me! And I doubt if I even hear 17%!

So start listening to your partner.

How do I do that?

Mirror rather than react.

Use the powerful Imago Dialogue sentence stems to regulate your emotions, listen to every sentence, observe every inflection, and be attuned to every non-verbal message.

“What I hear you saying is…

“Did I get it?”

“Is there more about that?”

Mirror rather than react.

Then…

Validate rather than shame.

Be the one who lets go of the need to “be right”.

Validation says…

“While I may see it differently, you make sense; and what makes sense is…”

You don’t have to agree with your partner, but you do have to see that his reality is valid.

“If 6 turns out to be 9, I don’t mind. I don’t mind.” – Jimi Hendrix

If you are looking down at the number 6 and your partner who is across from you is swearing that it’s a 9, you can argue forever about “who’s right”.

Validation says even though I hold my own reality and won’t deny it, I can also see from your perspective why you say it’s a 9. Though I may see it differently, you make sense.

Then…

Empathize rather than villainize.

When you mirror rather than react, validate rather than shame, then you can actually empathize with how your partner feels. This is where your relationship is transformed.

“A first I saw you as a disrespectful person who was nagging me. Now I see that you’re upset because you’re in pain, and fearful of losing your connection with me. That changes everything.”

This will cause a shift in your relationship, draining the negativity that would otherwise fill the space between you.

So listen before talking.

curiosity in marriage relationship

2. Be curious rather than critical

One sure way to keep your partner in that uncooperative state is to criticize him for it.

Very often the reason a husband is not open to getting help is because he fears being railroaded into something that feels unsafe.

“But Chuck, I can’t help it. I just open my mouth and all these things I’m not happy about just come flooding out.”

“How can I not be critical when he’s being so difficult?”

This is where you should make curiosity your best friend.

It’s impossible to be curious and critical at the same time.

Being curious is one of the most powerful and pro-active things you can do for your relationship. That’s because curiosity helps regulate your emotions and makes the conversation safe for your partner.

Plus, when you are curious and stay curious you’ll actually find that your partner is far more interesting than you thought. That happens when you get curious and stay curious.

Still feel like you need to criticize?

Then it may be that you’re more frightened of intimacy than your partner.

Why do I say that?

I believe you when you say you want to work on the relationship, but you may be unconsciously maintaining your distance by criticism. Why? Your own fear of intimacy.

Whenever there is criticism the relationship is not safe. And distance is assured!

“I want to work on our marriage but you don’t.”

“I want to have sex and you don’t!”

Hey, someone is definitely not going to want to have sex with you if you approach it this way.

So what do I do?

Simply drop the criticism and be curious.

This will change the game!

Get curious about what’s going on and what’s making you feel disconnected. Say to your partner…

“I don’t know what’s wrong but I’d like to learn from you. How could I be the kind of person with whom you’d want to be more romantic, make love, spend more time with?”

If I’m interested in you, really interested in you, not interrogating you, but really interested and curious about what’s inside of you, you’ll open up to me.

And when I listen to you and not try to change you, you’ll start liking me and not react to me.

“Chuck, I did all that, but it didn’t work”.

That’s because his defenses were activated. When that happens, nothing will work. So start over with #1 Listen Before Talking. Refuse to come up against his defenses. Once either of you are defensive, the conversation is no longer safe. So start over, make it safe, stay in dialogue.

Listen before you talk, be curious rather than critical, and things will begin to change!

This final step will seal the deal.

sharing appreciation

3. Share appreciations rather than complaints

When you’re grateful rather than complaining, negative energy is replaced by positive energy in the space between you.

This will make your partner want to work with you toward a better relationship.

So no matter how you are feeling about your partner, share with him three things you appreciate about him every day. Tell him some of the many things he’s doing well and what it means to you.

“One thing I really appreciate about you is…”

“When I experience that I feel…”

And if possible, relate it to your childhood.

“When I feel that, it reminds me of when I was little and…

But will this really work???

The power of appreciation

There was a wife who went to counseling alone because her husband wasn’t interested in working on the relationship.

The counselor said, “Just tell him three times a day something you appreciate about him and see what happens.”

She said, “There is no way. There is nothing I appreciate about him. There is not one thing I can honestly say I appreciate about that man.”

“Come on, you can think of something.”

“Nope. There’s nothing.”

“Oh come on think about it. Surely there’s something. One thing.”

“Well…I guess you could say he’s good looking…even though to be honest I can’t stand to look at him right now.”

“Well, just start with that. Just tell him.”

So she did. And, to her amazement, there was a surprising openness she hadn’t felt before. That compliment sat rather well with him.

So the next day she said, “You know, I appreciate the way you are with the kids. In our parenting, you bring to the table things that I don’t have. I appreciate that.”

And in those first few days she began to feel a subtle shift in the relationship.

Over the next couple of weeks, as she continued to express appreciation each day, two things began to happen.

First of all, the more things she shared that she appreciated, the more things she saw that she appreciated.
Second, as she shared things she appreciated about him, she began to notice him trying more and more to live up to those things that were being said about him.
Wow! Amazing!

And, in time, it completely transformed their relationship!

Affirmation and criticism cannot travel the same narrow pathways at the same time.

So push all the negative energy out of the space between you and your partner and watch your partner change and become open to working on the relationship with you!

Please post your questions and insights below.

Also if you’re not on my email list, you can subscribe below and have Relationship Resources delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning!

Until next week!

 

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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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Need a marriage resurrection? How to go from “flatlined” to “fully-alive”

Wendy and Tom’s relationship was as passionate as it gets.

At least it started out that way.

When they were dating, they were crazy in love. At work, the hours dragged on for an eternity until they could finally be together in the evening.

Then, when they were finally together, they honestly didn’t know where the time went.

It didn’t matter what they did, just being together was enough.

They would often stay up till the wee hours talking, never running out of things to say.

Can you relate? Most of us started out very much like this.

But then came the Power Struggle Stage.

After they were married, and after the chemical rush faded, Wendy and Tom felt “the love hangover”.

In the Power Struggle Stage you wake up to the reality that you’ve married someone “different” from you.

That sounds trite, but during the Romantic Stage, you unwittingly gave yourself up for a time, because you were intoxicated and fused with this person who made you feel whole.

They could do no wrong. And it was easy to see things “his way” or “her way”.

When you’re in love, you are enmeshed and under the illusion that “we’re so alike” and “we both like the same things”.

Psychologists call this SYMBIOSIS. In plant life it’s a good thing. But not so in relationships.

SYMBIOSIS is pleasurable during the Romantic Stage, but becomes painful in the Power Struggle Stage.

SYMBIOSIS is where couples get stuck, wound each other, and end up SELF-ABSORBED on both sides.

Thus the Power Struggle.

SYMBIOSIS says,

“You and I are one, and I am the one.”

For a couple to really connect and move from the Power Struggle to Mature Love there must be what experts call DIFFERENTIATION.  

DIFFERENTIATION is what dissolves SYMBIOSIS and enables a couple to connect.

DIFFERENTIATION happens when couples allow space for each partner to be who they are and to be fully embraced in their differences.

Soooo much easier said than done!

Tom was shocked the first time Wendy said she didn’t want to ride with him on his motorcycle one Saturday morning.

Deeply disappointed, he sped off on a long ride by himself. Wendy felt abandoned.

Wendy didn’t know how to respond when Tom wanted to watch sports in the evening instead of talking with her.

Now it felt like he was bored with her. This made her angry, because she did not see herself as a boring person. “Why is he doing this?!”

Wow! What happened?

The SYMBIOSIS that was so PLEASURABLE during the Romantic Stage is now terribly PAINFUL during the Power Struggle Stage.

Can you relate?

This is when many couples either break up or seek help.

Tom and Wendy held out, hoping things would change, but secretly they both wanted out of the relationship.

For months they fought about everything. Things went on and on, unresolved.

Until one day the fighting stopped.

What?

Yes, everything settled down. Emphasis on “settled”.

Like a lot couples Windy and Tom settled.  They came to what you might call a truce. A truce involves a cease fire.

A cease fire is not the end of the war. It only means you’re not shooting at each other right now.

But hey, we’re not fighting so much now. That’s good. Right?

Well…

What was really going on?

Wendy and Tom were now stuck in symbiosis, locked in a parallel marriage.  They’re still together, but all their needs are now being met outside the relationship.

They’ve settled.

Deep inside the unresolved anger still smoldered, slowly smothering whatever feelings of love were left.

Tom and Wendy began looking elsewhere to find those feelings of full-aliveness that were lost and missing in their relationship.

Human beings are hungry for connection, and all of us long for the feeling of being fully-alive that comes through connection with our intimate partner.

When you are in a relationship that’s not close, the pain of feeling that disconnection will drive you to seek feelings of full-aliveness elsewhere.

You’ll begin looking for that chemical rush in countless “exits” from the relationship. Anything to dull the pain and feel alive again.

Some legit. Some not-so.

Think hobbies, work, friends, extreme sports, gaming, a bit too much wine in the evening, Netflix binging, pornography, an affair.

Tom began spending more time playing sports and hanging out with his motorcycle friends, and Wendy started going on vacations with her girlfriends.

Things were more peaceful outwardly, but underneath this apathy, was a growing, silent contempt for each other.

Contempt of course is the biggest predictor of relationship failure.

In Wendy and Tom’s case, their feelings flatlined.

“I can’t deny my feelings. I don’t love him any more.”

“She’s done everything she can to kill my love. Now I just don’t feel anything for her.”

“I’m not mad any more. I just want out.”

Honestly, I’d rather see couples at each others’ throats than in this place.

Anger is just the “other side” of passionate love.

So, when two angry partners reconnect…bam!!

That anger is transformed into passionate love. I’ve seen that happen more times than I can count.

It’s a process that happens through Dialogue and when it happens, it happens in a flash.

It’s like a combination lock. You keep hitting the right numbers until one finally opens everything up. Breakthrough!

Anger is a sign that someone still wants the relationship. And conflict can be a good indication that you’re with the best person that can help you grow and heal.

Anger is an emotion that occurs when something we value is being violated or lost.

The key word here is “value”.

Both Tom and Wendy were no longer angry, and in their case that meant they no longer valued the relationship.

They were done. Flatlined.

When there’s zero emotion, the relationship may seem more peaceful, but in reality it’s six-feet under.

What if the feelings of love have ceased to exist? Passion has breathed its last? Romance has given up the ghost?

What if the love heartbeat has flatlined and the marriage is six-feet under? Can it be resurrected?

Absolutely!

Through Imago Dialogue, Wendy and Tom began to find the safety needed to reconnect on a deeper level.

Through the process, they began to move from symbiosis and self-absorption to differentiation and connection.

I love the Imago process, because it ALWAYS WORKS. If it doesn’t work, it’s because somewhere we failed to work the process.

Through the Dialogue, Wendy and Tom began to re-image each other as different, as someone in pain, defensive because of wounds from childhood, rather than “an insensitive person trying to hurt me”.

I’ve written in more detail about the Dialogue process here, and here.

Along with the Dialogue, Wendy and Tom also did what Harville Hendrix calls the Caring Behaviors Exercise.

I call it…

THE REKINDLING EXERCISE

And it’s all about…

Hacking your brain chemistry to rekindle your feelings for each other and create a safety zone for a deeper connection.

And here’s how it goes:

1. Both of you, make a list using the phrase, “I feel loved and cared about when you…”

OBJECTIVE: To share with each other specifics about what you want, what pleases you, what your partner could do that will make you feel loved and valued.

Make this list under three categories.

(1) What your partner used to do that pleased you.

(2) What your partner does now that pleases you.

(3) What you’ve always wanted but never asked for.

These may be very private fantasies but should not be a present source of conflict.

Here are some examples:

make me coffee in the morning, call me from work just to check in, tell me I’m doing a good job, help me with my chores around the house, spend quality time talking with me, take a shower with me, compliment me on how I look, give me a back rub, want to have sex with me, bring me an unexpected gift, cuddle without having to have sex.

2. Indicate the importance of each item with an A, B or C, with A being most important.

3. Exchange lists. Put an X by item you are not willing to do right now, making the list conflict free.

4. Commit to do these things for each other randomly at least three times a day over the next two months.

When these “caring behaviors” are done regularly, your lower brain (brain stem and limbic system) gets reprogrammed and begins to see your partner as a source of pleasure rather than a source of pain.

That’s when the chemistry gets rebooted and the romantic feelings revive!

Even when your feelings are COMPLETELY DEAD?

YES! That’s what happened to Tom and Wendy!

They moved from the Power Struggle to the Mature Love Stage.

It was hard but they did it. Because they kept on doing these caring acts.

Tom said, it felt “fake” at first. Because he felt nothing for Wendy.

But as he went against what he felt, and did these caring acts day after day, the flame in his heart for Wendy reignited. Before long the feelings of love he had for her returned.

For Wendy it took longer because she had a hard time trusting, not really believing that Tom would keep it up.

When Tom was asked what motivated him to keep it up, he said,

“The more I did these things for Wendy, the better I felt. The better I felt, the more I wanted to even outdo what I had done before. It was like a snowball effect growing stronger each week.

Why is this?

Modern brain science tells us this amazing fact:

Whenever you do a kind act for someone else, your lower brain thinks you’re doing it for YOU!

What?! That’s right.

And that’s why it feels so good!

Tom is living proof of this!

Not only does it rekindle your love, it will snap you out your depression.

The famous psychologist Alfred Adler of the early 1900’s prescribed his “14-day cure plan” to a woman who was depressed assuring her it would work if she just followed the plan.

“So what’s the plan?” She asked.

He told her it was very simple.

“Just do one thing for someone else every day for 14 days. At the end of that time your depression will be gone.”

She said,”Why should I do something for someone else? No one ever does anything for me.”

With a smile Dr. Adler responded, “Well, maybe it will take you 21 days.”:-)

Modern relationship science affirms that Adler was on to something.

Doing these caring acts for your partner will change you own brain chemistry, helping you to rise up out of the dumps and experience new hope for your relationship.

It will do the same for your partner, resurrecting feelings of love and creating a safety zone in the relationship where you can connect like never before.

 

That’s what happened to Tom and Wendy.

What about you? Are you in a relationship that has flatlined? In need of a resurrection?

Get to a place where you can have Safe Dialogue and implement this Rekindling Exercise.

And, like Tom and Wendy, watch your relationship be resurrected – from “flatlined to fully-alive”.

Until next week,
Chuck

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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. 

Oh no! Wait a minute. That might offend someone. 

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

Maybe share it discretely. 

But encourage your friends to sign up for my weekly post below.

And if you haven’t done it yet, please subscribe yourself using the form.

It’s my desire to give everyone free tools that will help them in their most important relationships!

Subscribe to Relationship Resources

And every Saturday morning I’ll send you more posts like this one, filled with Relationship Resources

MIRRORING - VALIDATION - EMPATHY

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

4 warning signs that your marriage is in trouble (and what to do about it)

Perplexed about problems in your marriage? Looking for solutions?

“I didn’t know we had marriage troubles, but then, without any warning, she left!”

“I felt a little strain in the relationship, but didn’t think it was a problem until I saw a text message revealing his affair!”

Marriages blow up! And sometimes it happens unexpectedly!

If you’re reading this and thinking “Who me? No, we’re doing fine.”

Good. I hope so.

…but read on, just in case.

Because some couples don’t see the signs of the end until it’s too late.

What are the signs that my marriage is in trouble?

John Gottman researched it, and what he found was this:

Four communication styles that predict the end of a relationship with over 90% accuracy.

Gottman calls them, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”.

 

As I briefly describe these warning signs, ask yourself, "Are any of these present in my relationship?"

And if so, consider the answer I provide at the end, and let’s head off the horsemen before it’s too late!

THE WARNING SIGNS THAT YOUR RELATIONSHIP IS IN TROUBLE:

1. CRITICISM

Instead of dealing with the problem, you attack your partner’s character.

It looks something like this.

“You’re so selfish!”

When a conflict happens are you prone to attack your partner?

But Chuck my partner IS selfish!

Sure it feels that way, but can I let you in on a little secret?

It’s because he’s only seeing his reality and not yours. 

But guess what?  The same is true for you! 

You’re only seeing your reality and not his.

Hmm.

You say he’s selfish. And what is he saying (or thinking)?

"You're selfish!"

"No! You're selfish!"

Am I close?

It’s that limited, one-sided view of your relationship, that makes you seem selfish to each other. The psychological term for this is symbiosis.

So what do we do? How do we stop the mudslinging?

The answer is differentiation. The ability to hold your reality and his at the same time.

Differentiation can happen through the Couples Dialogue.

The Imago Couples Dialogue will help you begin to see your partner not just as someone who is “selfish”, but someone who is actually trying making a legitimate need known. 

Harville Hendrix said

Every criticism is a wish in disguise!

You just didn’t know there was actually something very legitimate behind that expression of “self”. 

But perhaps this was the real problem:

Your partner expressed it in a way that didn’t acknowledge your reality, making you feel stepped on.

Well that makes sense!

This is what causes us to be defensive and see our partner as selfish.

We both have the idea, 

“You and I are one. And I am the one.”

And there’s this power struggle.

Right?

The Couples Dialogue can help you transform a conflict into an awesome opportunity for growth and healing. More on that later.

Let’s look at the second of the signs of demise.

2. CONTEMPT

Contempt is when you assume a position of moral superiority.

Like…

“What an idiot!”