Unhealthy Relationships: All couples go through a rocky period in their relationship. They may grow distant from each other and encounter problems that seem to be impossible to overcome. It is agonizing to decide whether or not to save a relationship because we never know the possibilities. How will we know when our relationship is worth saving?
In this episode, marriage and family therapist Brittany S., will touch on healthy versus unhealthy relationships. We talk about what a normal distressed relationship looks like and how to deal with it. You will also discover the different markers of an unhealthy relationship. Knowing the difference between the two will help make the big decision whether to save your relationship or knowing when it’s time to let go.
Tune in to the podcast to learn more about the role of attunement, responsiveness, and vulnerability in cultivating an ideal, healthy, and loving relationship!
In This Episode: Unhealthy Relationships
Find out what a distressed healthy relationship is versus an unhealthy one.
Understand the pursue-withdraw cycle in distressed relationships.
Recognize the general markers of an unhealthy relationship.
Know where to start and what steps to undertake in couples counseling.
Identify when growth is and is not possible in a relationship.
Understand the importance of having aligned expectations for the future.
Know the importance of attunement as the fundamental heart of every relationship.
“Is My Relationship Healthy?”
Brittany shares with us today that a “good” relationship ultimately depends on what you think of yourself and your experience within the relationship itself. She suggests asking three main questions when identifying the health of your relationship:
What is the overall quality of the relationship?
Do I feel good about myself in the relationship?
Do I feel like the relationship benefits and serves me well?
How We See Ourselves
How we see ourselves is affected by the people who surround us. Usually, when you begin feeling like you need to change yourself, you are not enough, or you need to be better for your partner to treat you well, is a sign that the relationship may be unhealthy.
When we start to believe we are unworthy of love, connection, and belonging, the foundation of the relationship begins to fall away (if there even was one to start with).
Because of this pessimistic view, we begin to feel more angry, aggressive, and hostile towards ourselves. Brittany shares that most of her clients that are struggling with this dynamic will internalize feeling unworthy, “I have done something that makes me inherently unlovable or unworthy of having this healthy relationship or healing.”
Fixing the Negative Subconscious Belief
The issue here is that people who find themselves in an unhealthy relationship begin to believe they are the sole problem. To address this, we need to be aware of what stories we are telling ourselves. Fixing the negative subconscious belief requires challenging these stories. To do this, challenge these stories by:
Identifying if there is evidence that there is some truth to the story; and
Cracking the narrative and expressing it
When working with couples, Brittany shares that partners often blame each other for their unhappiness or unwillingness to show up for their partner how their partner may need. Partner responses can tell so much about the health of the relationship.
If our partner is willing to comfort us and offer help, it provides some reassurance that we are in a healthy situation. But if the partner lacks comfort and responsiveness, it is a sign to take a deeper look into the relationship.
What does this mean? It means that by challenging the stories that we tell ourselves (I’m unworthy of love…) and getting to the root of why we feel these ways, we can better understand whether or not it is something we can work on and grow through, or if it’s a sign that this relationship really isn’t good for us after all.
Is a Distressed Relationship Normal?
According to Brittany, “When people are in distressed relationships, it impacts each other. Both people are impacted in such a way that they both stop being the best version of themselves.” A distressing situation creates reactions in each person that can be hurtful and support the negative pursue-withdraw cycle.
The pursue-withdraw cycle is characterized by:
One partner who is demanding, critical, and demands reassurance, comfort, or engagement from the other; and
The other partner feeling overwhelmed by these demands and, in turn, withdrawing
The more one partner shuts down, the more the other demands and becomes more aggressive, thus feeding the cycle. The cycle is normal in distressed relationships but requires a path of healing.
Brittany relays that this cycle propagates because “there's usually a need for comfort or safety or connection or a vulnerable attachment—a need that isn't being met, and we're just scared to ask for it in that way.”
The General Markers of an Unhealthy Relationship
It is important to assess early on in counseling if the relationship is in a distressing situation or more problematic. Some questions to ask yourself if you find you are in an unhealthy relationship are:
Is there essential responsiveness?
Can somebody take accountability and responsibility for their actions in the relationship?
Can they identify their part in the distress?
Is there a desire to control or to have power over our partner?
Are there elements of shaming and severe criticism present in the relationship?
Is there manipulation happening?
Is one partner trying to isolate the other?
Is one partner threatening the other?
Is verbal abuse happening?
According to Brittany, it's common to blame each other. However, partners should step back and realize their part in the problem. If one partner is insistent on blaming the other and claiming no-fault, then it becomes unhealthy.
Brittany recommends seeking individual therapy from a trained professional in domestic violence cases, a professional who has the background to help you keep safe. She also advises seeking domestic violence support.
Starting the Process of Healing
When starting the process of healing, Brittany refers to this time between her couples as a dance. Brittany begins by asking her clients to map out their dance and identify their part in the relationship. It is critical to be aware of:
What is happening to your body
What emotions you are feeling; and
Is there any judgment happening
Partners should become intimate with their dance and tell each other about it. The more open and willing to connect with your partner at this time, the higher likelihood of healing taking place.
It is essential to identify emotions, bodily sensations, and the stories we tell ourselves. By learning how to communicate better with your partner, you can begin to break the pursue-withdraw cycle. If you find that your partnership needs help better communicating, Brittany suggests seeking the help of a relationship specialist.
Brittany says that when there is growth possible in the relationship, a healthy couple will be able to engage in their dance, self-reflective, and talk about their emotions.
Is Growth Possible?
Healing is a process; being aware of each other's roles and emotions takes time. It may be more challenging for some people to express themselves due to their previous experiences.
However, having a hard time at first does not mean that the relationship is horrible or will not survive. Brittany emphasizes that her role as a couple's counselor is to help people grow and go through the transformational process. It's normal to have a hard time because the process takes vulnerability.
However, if you cannot establish vulnerability and safety, consider individual counseling to heal from childhood trauma or past relationships.
“Couples can do this work together because I really do believe that we heal best in trusted relationships with others,” Brittany says. If the wounds run too deep that you cannot show up in your relationship, that is a sign to work on yourself.
Keys to a Healthy Relationship: Can This Relationship Be Saved?
If you have been working on fixing your relationship and have been in counseling for months, but nothing has changed, then you can use that valuable information to decide whether the relationship can be saved.
Responsiveness is an essential factor in the survivorship of a relationship. We have to express what we need and see how someone responds to that.
Healing requires vulnerability and baseline safety. If your partner disagrees, you may consider the possibility that they are not suited for you.
“It's okay to mess up and make mistakes, but there has to be a motivation to work on things, grow, and stay in it together,” says Brittany.
Pushing for the Future
It's part of our culture to encounter difficulties in being present and focusing on what's happening now. We often look forward, believing that the future will be better.
However, it’s important to look at your situation and relationship in the present. We must focus on:
What the relationship feels like now
What is and what isn't serving us
What needs work; and
Our willingness to put in that work towards the future we are desiring
Make sure that you and your partner have the same desires and expectations for the future. Evaluate and reflect if a compromise on healthy relationship expectations is needed.
Attunement: The Heart of a Relationship
Attunement is the process of being present with our partner. Attunement is the goal; it is the entire heart of every relationship. It involves engaging in emotional responsiveness and vulnerability.
If you feel disconnected, think about how you can find your way back to each other and if both of you are willing to take part in that process. It's critical to have that responsiveness, reciprocity, and respect in a relationship.
“You won't have attunement in a distressed relationship, but you can intentionally create it if both people are engaged in that process.”, says Brittany.
Brittany has shared invaluable advice on dealing with a distressed relationship and differentiating it from an unhealthy one. What did you connect and relate with the most? Feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment down below.
Did you like this interview? Subscribe to us now to discover how to live a life full of love, success, and happiness!
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The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.
That is The Black Pine with a song The Morning After She Left. When I listened to that song, I think about someone who has belatedly realized that maybe they made some mistakes in a relationship that it is now too late to repair. And that kind of regret is what can happen when people, over time, realize that the relationship that they've been in, or the series of relationships that they've been in, have not always been the healthiest or best for them. I think sometimes their partners feel that regret more than they do.
What we see our clients here at Growing Self describe is this feeling often of newfound liberation, when they decide to stop engaging in relationships that are not good for them, and begin, instead, prioritizing their own health and happiness and well-being. And it's such a joy to be part of.
It's an important topic, and one that I wanted to talk about on today's show because we see a ton of people here at Growing Self. A lot of relational work, we do couples counseling, relationship coaching, but we also help a lot of individual clients who are trying to get clear about their relationships and about themselves. Sometimes they're coming for help fixing a relationship, maybe with a partner who doesn't want to come to couples counseling. So they feel like they have to do it on their own. But sometimes it's from people who aren't quite sure if they're in a relationship, that they should spend a lot of time and energy on fixing. Somebody who's been in a relationship, that for five years, they're not married. It's kind of a mixed bag relationship. There are things that they're not really happy with, and the relationship is stalled. It's not moving forward, and they're coming to us for help around. “How hard should I try to make it work with this person?” And when do I just say, “You know what? I need to let this go, and move on, and find a better situation for myself?” That is a tough situation to be in, but one that I think is worth exploring and so that's what we're doing today on this episode of the podcast is talking about what a healthy relationship is, what a healthy foundation looks like. What is a sign that there's growth and opportunity possible, and what is a sign that there might not be growth and opportunity possible?
To help me with those, I have invited my dear colleague. My colleague, Brittany Stewart, is a marriage and family therapist on our team here at Growing Self. She has a lot of experience working with people around this issue, both individuals and couples. Thank you, Brittany, so much for being here with me today.
Brittany Stewart: Oh, of course. Thank you so much for having me, Lisa. I'm really looking forward to having this conversation with you.
Dr. Lisa: Oh. Well, me too. It's one—I mean, I see you in our consultation groups and in our meetings. This is a topic that is clearly just such a passion for you. And that I see and I've always admired about you because it's not just enough for you to help people, like improve their relationships. You're always sort of listening to “How healthy is this relationship?” “Is this relationship good for both people in the relationship?” because those things really matter a lot. Sometimes, even if we can teach people how to communicate and do the skills, if there's not a healthy relationship structure underneath, we need to have that on our radar.
To jump into this topic, I mean, can you just talk a little bit about what are some of the things that you first notice or listen for? If you're working with—and we could take it one at a time but like a couple or an individual that might make you think, “Is this really a good situation fundamentally?” And we're not talking about capital A abuse. That is a different animal. But just like that sort of what's going on here?
Characteristics of a Healthy Relationship
Brittany: Yeah, that's a great question. I think the first thing that I'm always looking at is, “What is someone's experience of themselves and their partner in a relationship?” Like, what is the overall quality? Do they feel good about themselves in the relationship? Do they feel like the relationship benefits them, and serves them, and functions while in their life? Do they give their partner the benefit of the doubt? Right?
When I start to hear that partners believe that their partner is ill-intentioned, or malicious, or doesn't have their best interests at heart, I can really hear that there's just been a lot of erosion in the relationship. That really affects how we see ourselves too. If we're not trusting our partner to be—to have our best intentions at heart, or to really hold us in their hearts in a positive and meaningful way, then that completely impacts how we see ourselves and how we function in the world.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Well, how we see ourselves—let's talk a little bit more about that. I heard you say that when someone believes that their partner is almost out to get them, or is hostile towards them, or is doing things maliciously, how does that begin to change the way someone feels about themselves?
Brittany: I think that can change a few different things about how we might see ourselves. Right? One might be that we start to believe that we're less worthy of experiencing love, and connection, and belonging. Even though, my hope is always that people know that's just inherent, and that doesn't change even with the status of our relationships or the quality of them. But it does impact that belief around ourselves.
I think the other way it shows up is we might start to experience more anger, or we might start to be more hostile ourselves, or defensive, or aggressive. I think that it kind of forces us to take a look at how we're showing up in the world, and then feel really difficult, and murky to show up with those kinds of behaviors and emotions, and not know what to do with them.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, yeah. Oh, my goodness. The shame of regret that comes when somebody in an unhealthy relationship begins to—themselves show signs of that, like anger, or hostility, or shows up in weird ways. And then they think, “Oh my God, what am I doing? I'm not being a good partner. I'm not being a good mom,” or whatever it is that they internalize that.
But then I've also heard you say, at the same time, they can be internalizing these messages from their partner that—I mean, I think what we both hear a lot is, “If you were better and if I loved you more, then I wouldn't treat you this way.” But it plays into that self-doubt, that “I'm not good enough,” that “The reason my partner is saying these things to me or not giving me the love that I need is because I'm not quite good enough. And if I were better, they would be behaving differently. They would be better to me, if I worked on myself.” Is that the trick that people get sucked into?
Brittany: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I think I see that a lot, especially, I mean, I would say I see it with people of all genders. Right? That they have this belief over time, whether it's through failed relationships, or chronic on again-off again, or just a long term relationship that has a lot of wounds in it that have never been healed. They really internalize this thought of like, “I have done something that makes me inherently unlovable or unworthy of having this healthy relationship or, have this healing.” And it's really difficult to sit in that. And my hope, again, is always that people know that's not true.
Dr. Lisa: Well, I'm glad that we're talking about this, though, because I think that what we're just putting our finger on right here is the—almost like subconscious core belief of people who come—will come in for help with their relationships is like, “Can this be fixed? Should I work on that?” Sometimes I think the place where we need to go to is what they're telling themselves about the relationship. If for example, they believe that their partner could be much different with a different person who was better than them, and if they just worked on themselves and became the person that their partner wants, then they could be loved. To talk about how, what if that isn't actually what is happening? What if this is how the person you're partnered with would show up, whether or not they were with a different person or a better version of you? That can be a big step sometimes, because I think that people really believe that they're the problem.
First of all, let's just say for everybody within the sound of our voice, this is a process. There is not anything that Brittany or I am going to say. There is no piece of advice or wisdom that is going to help you jump over that mountain. But Brittany, when you're working with a client who is stuck in that place, where they've gotten tricked into believing bad things about themselves, where do you even begin? If somebody's listening to this right now who probably needs to do some of that work, where would they start?
Brittany: Yeah. Well, I think that's a complicated question because I would approach it differently, right, if I'm just working with one person or been working with a couple. But I think the first step for any change is always just being really aware of what stories were even telling ourselves. And I love Brené Brown’s work. In her Netflix series, or in her Netflix special, when she says “The story I'm telling myself is…” Right. And so I always encourage clients to identify, “What is that story that we're telling ourselves?”
Dr. Lisa: Yeah.
Brittany: And just to name it, and so if I'm sitting with an individual, can they just get really clear on what is that story they're telling themselves? Or if I'm working with a couple, can they just share with each other in a really disarming way? Like, “This is the story in my head.” Right? It may not be true, but it feels very real. And can they just get it out there and name it so that we can work with it? Then of course, it's really identifying like, “Can we challenge that?” “Is there really evidence that this… that the story you're telling yourself is true?” “Is it based in any sort of fact or reality, or is it just some emotion that's coming up, and we're trying to make sense of it, and the story is the best way that we're doing that?”
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Yeah. I get it. Just kind of cracking into that narrative and bringing it out into the open, and then just sort of looking at it together. Yeah.
Brittany: Yeah, and then I think, if I'm working with a couple, what can be really powerful about this, right, is we often don't share the story that's in our head in a disarming way. Usually, we're sharing it in a blaming way with our partner. We can tell so much about the health of a relationship and the ability of our partner to really be in it with us when we share that story just based on their response. Right?
So if we share this awful story or this painful story we're telling ourselves, and our partner is able to move toward us and comfort us, and say, “Oh, my gosh. That's the story in your head? Let me help you with that. Right. That's not how I see it. That's not what I'm feeling.” That can be really powerful. Right? To help offer that reassurance. Or if there is that lack of comfort and responsiveness. And maybe that story gets reinforced, then that's a—I would say—that's a sign. Right? Or something else to look at deeper. Maybe that story is based in some truth about the relationship. Yeah.
Dr. Lisa: No, that's a great way of looking at this. So on that note too, so you—like all of the marriage counselors on the team here at Growing Self—practice evidence-based forms of couples counseling, and one of the things that the approaches that you've really focused on is one called emotionally-focused couples therapy that takes a closer look at the attachment needs of two people in a relationship. What we know from research into emotionally-focused therapy is that when people are in distressed relationships, it impacts—and because relationships are a system—I mean, people impact each other. Right? But what we see is that both people are impacted in such a way that they both stop—how do I say this?—being the best version of themselves. I mean, being in a distressed relationship creates reactions in each person that can be hurtful, and can sort of support that negative cycle.
I think it's important to talk about that because we expect that in a distressed relationship. Just because that's happening doesn't necessarily mean that it is a fundamentally unhealthy relationship. It's just that we need to do that work of healing. So let's just even start there. I mean, when you're working with a couple who has not been in a great place for a year or three—I mean, for a lot of couples, it takes a while to show up in our office. But what would you expect to see that would be normal?
Brittany: Oh, yeah. So usually, right? EFT, or emotionally-focused couples therapy talks about—we get into this dance with our partner, and every one of us has a dance in our relationship. It's totally normal, and it's part of being in an attachment relationship. So what I might see that is really normal, I would say the most common thing I see is what we call like the pursuer-distancer or the pursuer-withdrawer. This looks like when partners are in distress, and one partner might like protest, as Sue Johnson calls it.And they might start to demand, or criticize, or try to get any sort of engagement from their partner. Right? They're just seeking some sort of reassurance or comfort, but it comes out in a way that might be kind of critical or…
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Angry.
Brittany: …and distressing to their partner. When that happens, their partner then gets overwhelmed, and kind of withdraws, or shuts down. It kind of reinforces the cycle over and over again. The more one person shuts down, the bigger one person gets. The more the other partner shuts down, and so on, and so forth. I would say that's the most common thing I see and it's really, really normal or common. I guess, I would say, it's really, really common.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah.
Brittany: There's a lot we can do with that, because really what we know underneath, right? When there's basic safety there, right? This isn't an abusive relationship. Again, this is a healthy relationship overall, is that we normalize that distress, and we try to identify what's really happening underneath that. Right? There's usually some core attachment need for comfort, or safety, or connection, or anything like that. Just really vulnerable attachment need that isn't being met, and we're just scared to ask for it in that way.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Relationships
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, yeah. I'm so glad that you said all that. I think it's important to put that out there because I think that's part of what can get confusing for people who are like, “Is this a bad relationship? Is this an unhealthy relationship?” Because if you're in a distressed relationship with someone who is engaging with you in a way that makes you sort of feel like withdrawing, and avoiding conversations. The perception from that position is that you're living with somebody who's critical, and judgmental, and never quite happy with you, and always complaining about something, and who wants you to be something that you're not. I mean, that is the inner experience. Right? On the other side of it, the person is experiencing their partner's being withdrawn or avoided. “They never talk to me. They shut me out. They ignore me.” It doesn't matter. They just don't like…
Brittany: They don't care.
Dr. Lisa: They’re emotionally checked out. They don't care. Right. When somebody comes into our office and is like, “This is what's happening at home. They don't care, they're checked out, they'd make me feel like watching ESPN is more important than our marriage.” That's how it feels. We also need to talk about the fact that this is normal in a distressed relationship, and that this—because this is happening doesn't mean that you're in a bad relationship necessarily. But it does require a path of healing, where you can start in a safe place talking about the things that are important. Kind of get reconnected. And I also just want to say, again, that is not a like, “Do these two easy things, and it'll be all better.” This is a process that requires…
Dr. Lisa: …probably months of, “How do we find this?” So there's setting everybody's expectations. Okay, so there's that. That is normal and expected distressed relationship. How would you say that is different from somebody who is in a relationship, that may feel in some ways similarly, but is actually not a healthy relationship? Do you think that there are sort of like markers that we can look at, or think about that would indicate what is this? Or does it really require that assessment process? Do you have to start doing the work to try to fix it, and then see what happens? How do you begin to sort that out?
Brittany: Yeah. I mean, sometimes, I think that we assess very early on so it can kind of become apparent very quickly. If there is just this common distress happening, and we can work with that. Or if it's actually that there's something unhealthy, or problematic, or unsafe happening in the relationship. I think general markers. right? Like the thing I'm always looking for is, “Is there like basic responsiveness?” “Can somebody take accountability and responsibility for their actions in the relationship?” “Can they identify their part and the distress?” And if not, right? I think, again, it's common to experience where we get caught in blaming each other. But usually, we're able to eventually step back and say, “Oh, I can see that I do have a part in this.” If we're just really inherent, or really set on blaming our partner and absolving ourselves of any part of the distress, I think that that's problematic.
Then looking for things like, is there a desire to control or to have power over our partner? Is there—are there elements of shaming, and just really deep criticism present in the relationship? Is there manipulation happening? Is there—is one partner trying to isolate their partner? Are they threatening their partner? Is there verbal abuse happening? Those are some markers that I think are indicative of there being a bigger problem in a relationship, beyond just common distress.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, I get that. Just to say out loud, what you're also talking about are markers that we would associate with domestic violence, or intimate partner violence like the power, and control, the isolation, manipulation. Just to say very, very clearly, it is never appropriate for an ethical couples counselor to attempt any kind of couples counseling in the presence of actual domestic violence or intimate partner violence. It is just a no-go situation. We would not do that because it's not safe ever. That's not what we're talking about here.
In those situations Brittany, if somebody was listening to this and being like, “Oh, no. It's actually violent.” Just for the record, what should they do?
Brittany: Oh, absolutely. I would always recommend they both go seek individual therapy, right? Is there something that can be done to help both partners, or at least a safety plan, or do something that really will establish safety for both partners, especially the victims.
Dr. Lisa: There's a wonderful national resource, it's called thehotline.org. Day and night, you can call or chat with one of their representatives, who can help you either on the spot if it's an emergency or also provide you access to all kinds of resources through community mental health agencies, like safe houses, that kind of thing. So if you're really in trouble, go thehotline.org. Brittany's recommendation is to get involved in individual therapy, ideally with someone who has that background to help you get safe. So that is not what we're talking about.
But Brittany, so what we're talking about is sort of the—if there's a spectrum of basic safety in a relationship, and it's starting to get to this link, I don't know, sort of area. As a couples counselor, if you've determined that it's okay to continue working with a couple, it's not that bad that you are going to pull the plug… what are some of the things that you would want to be talking about with that couple? The things that you're seeing the patterns? Again, it's not a process. It's not information all necessarily. It's a process. But where would you hope to take that process and what would you expect to come from it?
Brittany: Yeah. I always start by helping couples what we call like mapping their dance. Right? So they're each identifying what moves are they both making in the dance? Are they doing different dances with each other? How are they showing up? And will actually map it out and say, “This is what I'm doing.” And part of the things that they're becoming more aware of—are some of the things they're becoming more aware of—are what's happening in their body. Right? Because we know that emotion shows up in our bodies first.
So usually, even if it's subconscious, or even if we're not really aware of it, there's probably some somatic sensation happening in our body that were triggered by, that's telling us that distress is happening, or there's a loss of connection happening. It kind of sets the stance in motion. So I'm asking each partner to identify, “What's happening in your body?” “Can you just check in and notice what's happening?” “What emotions are coming up for you?” Can they name, right? Are they experiencing anger? Are they having… experiencing sadness? Is there judgment happening? What are they thinking right now? What emotions are coming up?
Then I ask them to name a story they're telling themselves, and this includes the story about themselves, about their partners, about their relationship. Right? So these might be the like, “I'm not worthy. They don't love me. Our relationship is broken.” Whatever story they're telling themselves, and they name it, and then identify what do they do with that. Right?
Because usually those three things: the emotions, and the sensations in our body, and the stories we're telling ourselves become too much. And so then we kind of.. we react. How we all handle that distress is going to be different. That's when we might protest, and become critical, or it might become too much, and we might completely shut down and say, “I'm going to go ahead and move into self preservation and shut down.” So it's really important that the couples just become really intimate with what is their dance? Can they map it? Can they tell each other about it? Can they do this together—most importantly, versus… it's me versus you. It's—this is our dance, and we're going to talk about it, and figure it out together. And so the first step is really just naming it, getting really familiar with this.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. So that's what you—what sounds like the place where you would always star. And I think what I'm hearing is that with a couple where there was growth possible, they would be able to engage in that, and be self-reflective, and talk about, “Yeah. This is how I feel. And when you do this, I do that.” And kind of that awareness. How would you contrast that with a couple, maybe that you started working with where you started to think, “Yeah, I don't know if how much growth is possible here.” How would it be different?
Brittany: Yeah. I mean, I always try to give it a little bit of time, right? Because this attachment work can be really deep. And sometimes it's harder for people, depending on experiences they've already had in their life. If they never have experienced a secure attachment, it might take them a little bit of time. We might have to map it over and over and over again, and give them kind of homework to “go and just see what you notice.” If they can't really identify, so that's one thing that might come up.
Dr. Lisa: Thank you for saying that. Yeah. Because that's really important. Because just if that—if it's not easy to do at first, doesn't mean that it's a horrible relationship that needs to end. It means that there is a therapeutic component involved. And that's why we're here is to help people grow, and go through that transformational process.
Dr. Lisa: And so at the beginning, it's normal that it's not easy to do that. Okay. Thank you. Yeah.
Brittany: Oh, yeah. Yeah, this is—it takes vulnerability. This process is really vulnerable. And we have to ease into that. But if beyond that, right? If we're not ever able to kind of establish that safety to feel vulnerable, and to do this work, then there might come a point, right? Where I might suggest that someone does some individual work around some emotional intelligence, or if they maybe have some attachment stuff to heal from their childhoods, or past relationships, or whatever it might be that's coming up for them.
I do—I hope as always, that couples can do this work together because I really do believe that we heal best, and trust that relationships with others. And sometimes we need some individual work just to support us, and identifying what's happening for us, before we share it with our partner, or therapists in the couple setting.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, to work on yourself. If the wounds run so deep, that you're really not able to show up in a healthy way in your relationship, that's a sign that you need to work on yourself a little bit. I would imagine that for someone who will be very unlikely to be able to have a healthy relationship, they would reject that idea, and they would not want to do individual work. So that would be a sign. I would think that it's probably not going to work out, at least in a healthy way for you.
Brittany: Yeah, right. Absolutely. I think that at that point, it's up to everyone to decide, “Is this something that I'm willing to kind of wade out, and hope that my partner changed their mind?” Or yeah, changes their mind? Or, “Do I really have to kind of accept that they're not in a place to do this growth work right now?”
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Completely.
Brittany: “Maybe that's not going to serve either of us or this relationship?”
Is My Relationship Healthy?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Well, this is really clarifying because I think a lot of people that are stuck in this conundrum, are in a place where they're trying to figure out, “Is this relationship healthy?” “Can this relationship be saved?” “How much do I want to invest in this relationship?” before having had the opportunity to do the kind of work that you're talking about Brittany?” So they're attempting to make these major life decisions without having the information that they need because after four months of working with Brittany, and there's no movement, and Brittany is recommending that your partner go to individual therapy, and they're refusing— that is good information upon which you could make a life decision. But before you've done that, it's like you don't even know what's possible or not and that is what feels so paralyzing.
Brittany: Yeah, yeah. I think, something that I see with—even people in the dating-coaching world, right? Who are seeking relationships, and also individuals, and people in relationships, is they're just hoping that they can read the mind of whoever they're dating, or their partner, and just know what's going to be possible, or if it's going to be a functional, healthy relationship. Really, I think that responsiveness is just so important. We have to be able to express what we're needing, what we're wanting, what our core needs are, and see how someone responds to that. Which really does require that vulnerability and baseline safety to do that. But how does somebody respond to us, right? When we say that we really want this type of relationship, we want a secure attachment, we want to be able to express emotions, how does somebody respond to that? And if it's—they're pushing back on it, or that's not what they believe in a relationship, then maybe that partner is not suited for us. Or are they interested in doing that, and they want to do that work, and are we willing to allow space for that growth to happen?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, yeah. Well—and that's, that's a wonderful way, and certainly for people who are maybe single and in that dating coaching realm, because we often work with a lot of individual clients who are interested in creating healthy relationships. I think what I have certainly experienced are, oftentimes, people who have become aware that their last several relationships haven't really been great for them. So they come to us for help with, “Okay, what do I need to do differently this time to connect from the get go with somebody who will be a better fit for me? How am I showing up in relationships?” So that's an important area of growth work.
What I'm hearing you say is that one of the keys to that is, as you're developing a new relationship with someone, just to be really observant. “How is this person responding to me over and over and over again?” And from that, begin to figure out, “Okay, can they respond to me?” But it's so hard, though, because at the same time, if your core narrative is, “But if I were more lovable, they would be nicer to me,” or whatever it was. And if they're saying, “Well, if you were just not X, Y, Z, then I wouldn't be so snappy with you.” It can be so hard as an individual to figure this out and sort it out. It’s complicated.
Brittany: Complicated. Yeah. It really is. Which is why I think responsiveness also includes like, “This is hard for me. I don't know what to do with this. But I want to be in this with you.”
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Right.
Brittany: “I want us to figure it out together.” It's okay not to have the answers. It's okay to mess up and make mistakes and not get it right. We're all not going to get it right sometimes in our relationships. But where's that motivation to work on things, and to grow, and to stay in it together?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. And yeah, so you're saying that in a healthy relationship, you should be hearing some version of that from a partner who has the capacity to be responsive to you?
Dr. Lisa: Could grow with you?
Being Present in Relationships
Dr. Lisa: Okay. So now one last aspect of this I want to run past you. I think another trap that people can fall into, particularly women, although I see this happen with men too. When they've been in a relationship, and maybe for the last couple of years, it's a long distance relationship. Or maybe they've been dating, but they're not living together and one person is, “I really—I want to live with you. I don't want to be long distance anymore. I want to get married.” In their mind, there is the sometimes subconscious core belief that goes, “Because if we weren't long distance, this experience would be different. Or when we get married, this experience will be different than it is right now.”
That is what they're sort of holding—so they're really pushing for this future thing. But that—what they may be missing is like warning signs of an unhealthy relationship that they have interpreted, as well, “When we get married, this won't happen anymore.” Have you noticed that? And could you speak to that?
Brittany: Yeah. I mean, I think I noticed that in both unhealthy relationships and also just relationships that might be healthy but are having some distress.
Dr. Lisa: Okay.
Brittany: I think it's just part of our culture that it's really hard for us to be present and focus on what's happening now. Right? And so we, of course, we create this idea in our head that the future will be better, and there's like that hope which is positive, and the future might be better. The only thing that changes with time is what we do with it. So it's really important that we focus on what does the relationship feel like now? What's serving us? What isn't serving us? What needs work, and are we willing to put in that work so that we can have that ideal future we're thinking of?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah.
Brittany: Or we're thinking, it won’t be present in the future, or this dynamic will be different in the future. What are we both going to do now…
Dr. Lisa: Right.
Brittany: …to help that be a reality? Or is there something actually happening now that is really unhealthy, and i just need to be really aware of it, and name it?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah.
Brittany: And maybe walk away from something that isn't serving me anymore.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. To differentiate, “Will it actually be better once we're married or whatever?” Or “Is this the way this—is this actually the relationship?” And Brittany, what you're saying again is there needs to be effort on both sides to—okay, “How do you imagine it would be once we are married or whatever, and how close to that can we get before this?” Because that's kind of the sign that it would actually be different once you are married, or once you were living in the same town, or whatever, in terms of the emotional responsiveness and the empathy. Is that it?
Brittany: Absolutely. Do you both have the same expectations? Right?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah.
Brittany: What I am—and this is part of like naming that story again—is what I'm naming, “Is that true for you as well?” Right? Or “Do we have the same expectations, the same hope for our future?” “Are we both hoping that this dynamic is different in the future?” Or “Is this maybe uncomfortable, or painful, or difficult for me, and to you it feels fine?”
Dr. Lisa: Yeah.
Brittany: If so, that's a conversation that we need to talk about and see. Are there some—is there a compromise that needs to happen? Is there something that actually does need to be addressed and healed? Or is this something that's going to cause a really big rupture, and maybe the relationship is not going to work long-term?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. What a great point because if this feels intolerable to me and it's perfectly fine for you—how close—how can we close that gap at all? If the answer is no, or there's not willingness on one side to have it be different, that's important information that is worth listening to.
Brittany: Yeah. Absolutely.
Dr. Lisa: Wow. What a great conversation about such an important topic. I know we need to wrap things up here in a second. But do you have anything else to add on that question around healthy relationships versus unhealthy relationships, and how to tell the difference?
Brittany: Yeah. I think, really, what it comes down to—I tell every couple of this that I work with, “My hope is that you can walk away with what we call attunement, and know how to practice attunement.” Attunement is really just like a process of being present with our partners. It's where we engage in that emotional response—responsiveness, where we can turn to our partner, we feel like we can be vulnerable. Even if something is difficult, or painful, or uncomfortable, we really trust that our partner is going to be in it with us.
So I encourage partners, “If you're feeling disconnected, or you're feeling like you're not in attunement, that's okay. But how can you find your way back to each other and do you both take part in that process?” I think it's just so, so critical to have that responsiveness and reciprocity in relationships.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. I love that, especially with the idea that you were talking about earlier, That in a distressed relationship you won't have that attunement because of that pursue-withdraw cycle. Yet it is something that can be intentionally created if both people are engaged in that process. so that that's the goal, though, is that attunement. That's really the fundamental heart of every relationship is that emotional connection, emotional intimacy, feeling of emotional safety. That’s the goal, and that's what is present in healthy relationships and what feels you know fundamentally not possible, even with work in relationships that aren't healthy. Is that a good way to summarize it?
Brittany: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.
Dr. Lisa: Well, Brittany, thank you again so much for your time and meeting with me today. This was wonderful. Thank you.
Brittany: Oh, of course. Thanks so much for having me, Lisa.
Dr. Lisa: You can learn more about Brittany and her work as a marriage counselor, a couples therapist, an online relationship coach at growingself.com. While you're there, you can also take our free, “How Healthy Is Your Relationship?” online quiz. You can take it yourself, you can share it with your partner, and then you can compare results. It's an easy kind of lowkey way to get a snapshot of your relationship with its opportunities for growth, as well as its strength. So you can check all that out and more at growingself.com and I will be back in touch next week with another episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast.
Harness Your Differences for a Stronger Relationship
Mother nature is no dummy.
She knows, for example, that if we chose our mates by soberly assessing their personality traits, comparing them to our own, then calculating whether or not they’re a compatible match for us, the human population would have dwindled beneath the replacement threshold several thousand years ago.
Luckily for us all, that isn’t how people evaluate a love interest. You focus on their dimples, their shoulders, or the funny voice they make when they’re impersonating their dog. Questions about long-term compatibility are a problem for another day, for the newly smitten.
Until the honeymoon period fades. Then, you begin to see the person in front of you more clearly, and to question whether nice shoulders can outweigh their bewildering approach to personal finance, or housekeeping, or their relationship with their mother. You begin to wish the dog would just shut up.
Sometimes, the answer is no. But much more often, the couple is as “right” for each other as anyone else, and the discomfort they’re feeling is the seed of growth. They have woken up from the fever dream of infatuation and arrived on the threshold of a stronger, deeper, and more functional partnership — and they can move into it together by learning to accept their differences and harness the unique strengths they each bring to the table.
On today’s episode of the podcast, I’m going to tell you how to do that. We’re talking about what really makes a couple compatible, and how you can use your differences to build a stronger relationship.
Personality Type Compatibility in Relationships: Episode Highlights
Too often, we think about compatibility in relationships in terms of “sameness.” But the strongest relationships are between people who know how to make good use of their complementary differences, which admittedly is easier said than done. Couples who have major irreconcilable differences often get caught up in power struggles over whose way of being is “right.” One partner is messy, the other is a neat freak. One is a saver, the other is a spender. One wants to party every weekend, the other wants to merge with the sofa. The question becomes, who will get their way?
But rather than getting locked into neverending conflict about who needs to change, they could learn to appreciate each other and allow themselves to be pulled slightly toward the center, and become a more well-rounded unit as a result.
This would ultimately be good for the relationship, and for both of the people in it; we get into trouble when we go to the extremes of our personalities. Partnering with someone who is different from you will tamp down your excesses, and help you lead a more balanced, happy, healthy life.
Shared Interests vs. Compatibility
People who are dating often search for someone who shares a lot of their interests. This makes sense — having things in common gives you something to talk about, and something to do together. But liking dogs, or tennis, or beach vacations is not actually a signal that you’re compatible on a deep level. Neither are similar political or religious views. These labels can be points of connection, but they don’t actually tell us much about who a person is at their core.
Our interests and worldviews change over time, while our deeper personality traits remain relatively stable. Fifteen years from now, it won’t matter whether your partner still enjoys rock climbing, but it will matter how well they attune to other people’s feelings, or follow through on what they say they’re going to do, or consider the long-term impacts of their actions.
If you’re wondering which personality types make a good match, you may be disappointed to learn that there’s no definitive answer. Compatibility is more about what you do in your relationship, and less about who you are.
When an introvert and an extrovert get together, it can be rough. An extremely extroverted partner will want to spend every evening out with a crowd, while an extremely introverted partner will look for any excuse to stay home. They can get pretty frustrated with each other, and they may even call it quits in the relationship over this difference.
But something beautiful happens when an introvert and an extrovert allow themselves to grow toward each other.
The extrovert, who may be used to distributing their energy among a large number of people they don’t know very well, will be forced to go deeper into the pool of a single relationship. They’ll become more introspective, and have a greater tolerance for calm. Their capacity for emotional intimacy will expand.
Meanwhile, the introvert will be forced out of their comfort zone from time to time. They’ll go to parties that they would have skipped if it wasn’t for their partner, and over time, they’ll feel more at-ease socially. Their number of friends and acquaintances will grow, and their life will be richer for it.
But when a spender partners up with a saver, it doesn’t have to be a disaster. The thrifty partner can learn to loosen up a bit and enjoy the money they work so hard to earn. The spender can adopt some of their partner’s healthy financial habits, like keeping a budget and putting money away for retirement.
As long as they are having open, honest, ongoing conversations about money and the role it’s playing in their relationship, they can find a middle ground that allows them both to live more prosperous lives than they otherwise would.
It’s hard for one person to fulfill every need that children have. When you partner with someone who has a different parenting style than you, that can help your children get everything they need — if you and your partner can avoid tearing each other apart over your differences.
For example, kids need structure, rules, and consequences, but they also need grace, patience, and freedom. When someone who leans more authoritative in their parenting style partners with someone who leans more permissive, they can make decisions together about when to use each approach, and give their kids a more well-rounded upbringing as a result.
Many couples find this hard, but working with a parenting coach can help you and your partner learn to appreciate that both styles have merit, and that allowing yourselves to be pulled toward each other is in your children’s best interest. Going to either extreme would be a mistake, but helping each other find a healthy balance can be an incredible gift to your children.
Personality Type Compatibility: Ps Vs. Js
A major difference that couples run into is one that you likely would never consider at the start of a relationship. That’s the difference between “perceivers” and “judgers” (aka Ps and Js) on the Meyers-Briggs personality inventory.
A perceiver is a go-with-the-flow type, who likes to remain open to new information and experiences, and doesn’t enjoy closing off options or making definitive plans. Ps tend to be very rooted in the present moment, which helps them be flexible, adaptable, and spontaneous. They have a deep appreciation for complexity, and they don’t feel a need to categorize things in black-and-white terms. They may have trouble with commitment and planning for the future.
The term “judgers” here is not a synonym for judgmental. Instead, Js are people who like order and the feeling that things are settled and decided. They like to categorize the external world and make firm plans for the future, which gives them a sense of control. They can sometimes be all-or-nothing thinkers, and they can experience a lot of distress when things are up in the air or don’t go as planned.
Both of these types exist on a spectrum. Everyone does some “perceiving” and some “judging” every day. But when someone with a strong P orientation partners with someone with a strong J orientation (which often happens — they both see in each other a way of being that they’d like to embody), power struggles can result.
The J will try to impose more order and structure over their shared life than the P is comfortable with. They may plan a vacation six months in advance, and then feel frustrated when their P partner tries to radically revise those plans 48 hours before the plane boards (after giving it zero thought up until that moment). The P will wish their partner could relax and stop being so uptight, and they may feel a bit infantilized, as if they have a manager rather than a partner.
But, if they can learn to understand, accept, and leverage each other’s unique strengths for the benefit of the relationship, Ps and Js can make an incredibly compatible pairing. For example, Js can run the family calendar, and create a structure in their shared life that the P would never have on their own. Meanwhile, Ps can use their go-with-the-flow superpower to adeptly handle all of the unexpected curveballs that life throws at them. Ran out of ice in the middle of the dinner party? No problem. Just found out your kid needs an owl costume for the school play…tomorrow? P will grab their glue gun and some feathers and handle it, without a lot of stress.
And being around someone with an easygoing inner narrative can offer huge benefits to a J. We attune to our partners not only emotionally but also physiologically. Being around a calm person can literally slow your breathing and your heart rate, which can counteract the negative health impacts of a J’s stress.
Compatible Personality Types
If you’re looking for someone you’ll be compatible with, or questioning whether you and your partner are really a good fit, remember that compatibility isn’t about how alike you are. By embracing the strengths that come along with your partner’s unique personality (and your own), you can create a well-rounded unit together that helps you take on the world.
[1:03] How to Know if You Are Compatible in a Relationship
Couples often think differences create relationship problems. However, compatibility isn't about being alike.
A healthy relationship is about appreciating your partner for who they are and what they bring to the table, not about finding someone who is exactly like you.
[6:48] What Makes a Compatible Relationship
Anxiety over compatibility can last until marriage.
When you're dating or in the early stages of a relationship, it's easy to get a false sense of security because you have common interests and worldviews with your partner.
These initial similarities can change over time in a long-term relationship, so focus on deeper connections rather than labels.
[14:07] Compatibility of Personality Types
Instead of focusing solely on your relationship's similarities, look for complementary differences.
The introversion/extraversion continuum is one example of a compatible pairing.
[23:41] Myers-Briggs Personality Compatibility
Perceivers and Judgers on the Myers-Brigg Personality Test can create a compatible pairing.
They can balance each other out and bring out the best in each other.
It's not about forcing or changing your partner to be more like you; it's about putting your strength into the relationship so that both parties benefit.
[49:36] Resolving Conflicts in Your Relationship
If you're having trouble resolving compatibility issues and recognizing differences on your own, consult a licensed marriage counselor or therapist or even a relationship coach who specializes in the subject.
A counselor, therapist, or coach can provide a safe environment for you to discuss your relationship's problems without getting into an argument.
Music in this episode is by Night Beats with their song “Right-Wrong”. You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://nightbeats.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to the Love, Happiness and Success podcast. On today's show, we're talking about personality types and compatibility in relationships, and why true compatibility might mean something different than you have been conditioned to believe that it does. We're going to be talking about how to create harmony, alignment, and appreciation in your relationships, not in spite of your differences, but because of them.
I'm so pleased to introduce you to my new favorite band. I cannot get enough of Night Beats. This song, Right / Wrong, I chose because it relates to our topic about compatibility, but they have so much good stuff. Check them out: nightbeatsbandcamp.com. They have upcoming tour dates, albums, all kinds of good stuff—Night Beats.
How to Know if You Are Compatible in a Relationship
So let's talk about personality type compatibility in relationships and why it is so important to address this topic directly before it starts to cause trouble in your relationship. When couples start to run into trouble, or if relationships feel difficult, many people are quick to go to the idea that it is a problem having to do with compatibility.
“If we were more alike, if we were more on the same page, if we had a more similar worldview, our relationship would feel easier.” Sometimes that's true, right? Some chasms are wider than others. But at the same time, having a healthy relationship is not about finding somebody who's just like you. It's about knowing how to build bridges to the center and how to appreciate the partner that you have for who and what they are.
It is also true that compatibility, again, is not about sameness. It is about happy and beneficial differences. Believe it or not, the strongest relationships are often not between two people who are very similar. It's people who have compatible strengths, different strengths.
That's what we're going to be talking about on today's show, not just about compatibility, although we'll be talking about that as well. But how you can really understand some of these relationship differences and harness them for a stronger and more satisfying partnership.
Thank you very much for listening today. I'm Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. If you are a longtime listener of the show, you'll know that I'm often tackling tough relationship questions on this podcast. I'm a marriage and family therapist, among other things, and so I really love creating podcasts that offer hopefully helpful relationship advice, so that you can cultivate healthier and stronger relationships in your life.
I often invite listeners to ask me questions about their relationship issues or things that they'd like a little bit of insight into. Thank you, first of all, if you're one of the many who's gotten in touch lately, through Facebook, Instagram: @drlisamariebobby. You can track me down on my website, growingself.com. Send an email. We still do that: email@example.com if you want to reach out directly.
But so many of the times when I get these relationship questions, particularly when people have been struggling for a while in their relationship, it really starts to boil down to, “Are we fundamentally compatible? What's happening right now, Dr. Lisa, does not feel good. I feel like the way we are interacting with each other currently is not sustainable for me or for us.”
Often it is, “Can I get my partner to change? Can I change enough in order to be a good partner for them? Because it seems like they want something or somebody so different than who I fundamentally am.” While, certainly, a lot of what we do in high-quality, evidence-based couples counseling, marriage counseling is exploring opportunities to modify the way you're doing things in order to get better results in your relationship.
Over the years, I have been humbled so many times because, often, the best and most successful marriage counseling, and couples therapy, and relationship coaching outcomes are not necessarily around getting either person to be substantially different. Yes, we can absolutely use skills and strategies in order to help each other feel more love and respect—very worth doing.
But when relationships truly and fundamentally change, when the relationship changes, it's often much less about either person changing in terms of who they are and how they operate. The fundamental change truly often comes from helping people understand and appreciate their complementary strengths. So that what had been a point of annoyance or conflict in a relationship doesn't necessarily change what was happening.
But the way that people view it and experience it and respond to it, is transformed into being a positive thing that is valued, as opposed to a negative thing that we're going to have fights about. This often requires diving into different aspects of compatibility—fundamental compatibility—to understand how people can almost, like, create puzzle pieces that fit together beautifully and kind of become a harmonious whole, as opposed to being in a wrestling match around whose way is right, and who should be more like who and less like the other.
What Makes a Compatible Relationship
That's what we're gonna dive into today. First of all, I always find it so interesting, the degree to which I think people will look for signs of compatibility in quite honestly the wrong places, right? I mean, and I know that we're all vulnerable to doing this. But there's, like, astrology or personality quizzes or palm readers, like all kinds of things. I think good and no judgment about people who are trying to seek kind of confirmation in those areas.
I think that's just the simple fact that they are, speaks to this real anxiety that we so often have around, “Is this person the one? Is this the right person for me?” Certainly, this is very present for people who might be dating or an early stage relationships trying to evaluate a new partner. But I have to tell you, this anxiety also comes up again, further down the line, after people are partnered, after they're married, right?
Maybe things aren't as blissful and easy as they were in the early days. It turns into, “Oh, no. Why doesn't this feel difficult? Is this something that can be resolved? Because it feels like we're just in this gridlock; feels like we just totally want different things.” Again, it can easily transform into this very, very real anxiety around, “Maybe we're just not right for each other. Maybe we're too different. Maybe we're too far apart in terms of the things that we want in life.”
That can be true. I have certainly encountered couples who are on very different ends of the spectrum in terms of their values and their life goals. That again, there's always a middle path. I mean, almost always, you can't have one baby, or I mean, point five babies, right? You have to, it’s either, It's a binary kind of thing.
But with pretty much everything else, when there is the desire to help your partner feel loved and appreciated and understood and that their needs and values are important to you, too, there are always things that you can do to create that shared meaning and shared value in the center.
It starts by understanding people's differences as strengths. That's what I think of when I think of compatibility. Again, people can get into labels as indicators of compatibility, right? Similar interests, we like the same music, we enjoy doing the same things for fun, we agree politically, maybe with the same religion, etc. It's so interesting, too.
While some of those things can broadly be indicators of, like, wide ranging values, for example, people with a similar religious orientation may have some values in common, but what is so interesting to me is that when you dig beneath the surface of even things like religion, politics, different orientations to things, similar interests, there is such a wide variety of difference kind of underneath those big categories. It's really not even helpful, in my opinion, to look at some of those “similarities” as points of connection, especially in relationships.
I'll just share that as a tip for people who might be dating. It's really easy to go through a dating profile and see if that person checks your boxes, right? Maybe they mentioned they are a dog person and not a cat person, and you think, “Check you there.” They mentioned a particular political affiliation or philosophy or a religion. It's very easy to assume that if this person is mentioning those things that are important to you, “Well, then that must be that we have many similarities in these areas.”
What that does is that if you are looking for people who are mentioning these things specifically, and kind of making the assumption that there is compatibility and common values because of those labels. Sometimes it's true, certainly. But you may also find that when you dig under the surface, you're actually interacting with somebody who is quite different from you in pretty fundamental ways.
You may have missed the opportunity to connect with somebody who is really much more compatible with you, even if their labels may be different, right? The things that make people truly compatible are often more around personality, and kind of cognitive orientations, believe it or not. Because here's the other thing, when you get stuck on labels, and I think this is very true for people in long-term relationships.
I mean, even I'm an example, right? When my husband and I first got married so long ago, we had these things in common. We were compatible, and it was shared interests and worldviews and all these things. I feel that we're still very compatible, but it has been interesting as an observer in my own life, as well as a marriage counselor and other people's lives that it's the things that we want to hang our hats on at an earlier stage of our life—we get our 20s—that can be very, very different and change so much over the span of decades.
Again, not get too caught up in these superficial trappings of what you think it means to be compatible, because you might find, well, newsflash, you will find that if you're in a long-term relationship that lasts more than, gosh, five years, much less a decade or two, that you are going to be living with somebody who is very, very different than the person you originally connected with or got married to.
The points of connection and your relationship will also have evolved, but that your ideas about compatibility need to go much deeper. For example, when my husband and I connected, he was super into snowboarding, and so we would go snowboarding together. That was, like, something that we really enjoyed. I still enjoy going snowboarding. Now, sometimes I have to do that with other people because he's not as into it anymore, and it's fine.
He's just—his interests have evolved. He's into other things. But if I was making a—sticking a claim on the fact that we were both outdoor enthusiasts and had shared interests in terms of what we do for fun, that starts to wear thin by about year 15. So just keep that in mind. Then, what is real compatibility then, right?
Compatibility of Personality Types
If we're thinking about things that are points of compatibility for people, we need, again, to move away from similarities and more to complementary differences. A great example of this that I think we can all relate to some degree is the concept of introversion and extraversion, right?
We all fall somewhere on that spectrum. I'm a solid center introvert, right? What that means is that I come to limits when it comes to spending time around other humans, and I need to go read a book or sit by myself and not talk to people.
People who have a high extraversion tendency really feel energized when they are around other people. They like talking to people. They like bopping around and doing things, and they have an active social life. A point of contention for many a couple has been relative to that introversion/extroversion kind of continuum.
The extrovert is like, “Why are you so boring? Let's go do something. Hey, these people want us to come over and visit, let's go.” And the introverted partner is like, “Oh, please. That sounds like the third ring of hell, alright?” Just doesn't enjoy social situations in the same way. Of course, you can see how this could, like, easily disintegrate into conflicts between a couple, right?
Where people are criticizing each other and making value statements around whose way of being is right and all of this. But when you can actually have productive conversations where each person is supported and talking about what it means to them, either to have deeper, fewer more intimate connections and more solitude to have a relationship with yourself, right? Versus an extroverted orientation, which is social.
It's connections; it's talking to people; it's being with people. When people are assisted and really understanding those points of view, and respecting them, and seeing the value in each of them, what can begin to happen is that a couple can start to build a relationship that takes the best of, and is kind of intentionally building a life together that incorporates the best of both worlds, and moves into a space where they are now allowing themselves to be grown by each other.
For example, somebody with fairly strong extroverted tendencies tends—and this is a generalization—but they tend to have to enjoy many relationships. They like chatting people up and telling anecdotes and stories and laughing and small talk and all that. The risk there—while it's fun, and they know a lot of people and everybody's buddy—the risk is ultimately having shallower, less intimate relationships. That starts to feel hollow for people after a while.
For an introvert to partner with an extrovert, it creates balance in that relationship where the introverted partner is creating kind of a reason to not do quite as much. “Actually, let's stay home. Let's talk to each other rather than go to a party with 27 other people, half of whom we don't even like that much.” Right?
The introverted partner’s kind of drawing a naturally extroverted person kind of deeper into the pool of emotional intimacy, connection, deeper conversations that are not just satisfying and helpful for the introverted partner, but really allow that extroverted partner the opportunity to have some quiet time, reflect on how they feel, invest in more emotionally intimate relationships with fewer people than they might naturally do on their own.
By being able to view it this way, an extroverted partner can over time come to really value the impact that their more introverted partner has on their life instead of struggling against it. Like, “Let me tell you about all the reasons why you're wrong.” It's like, “You know what, this is helping me actually grow in ways that I wouldn't have grown had I not had you in my life.”
Of course, the opposite is very much true for an introverted partner to be with somebody who is more extroverted on that spectrum, they're going more places than they probably would; they're talking to more people; they're making more friends; and they will also benefit because of it. A hardcore introvert has lots of reasons to not want to do stuff, and to want to stay home and actually,”No, I don't feel like going and talking to people.”
While there can be a lot of benefit in that: solitude, reflection, quiet time, we also know that people tend to, over a lifespan, ultimately be healthier and happier when they have a strong community support system. When you are partnered with somebody who helps you get out the door and go talk to other humans, you will benefit because of having that energy in your life. You have somebody helping pull you towards the center when it comes to that. It's really positive.
Yes, you might still be at the party talking to one person for 45 minutes. But that is a person that you probably wouldn't have talked to at all, had your extroverted partner not, basically, kidnapped you and pushed you in the car and driven you to the party. It's really about understanding how those things can go together and appreciating them—appreciating the energy that we wouldn't have in our life.
Otherwise, same is very true of pretty much anything that a couple can become polarized around. Spending versus saving is something that we've talked about on the show in the past—topics of money and marriage, and financial counseling for couples. When people are kind of bringing each other to the center, that's usually a positive thing. When people get in trouble with pretty much everything is when they tend to take it to extremes.
They go to the far end of the spectrum on one side or the other. That is where weird things start to happen is when we overdo it. When you are partnering with somebody who's kind of bringing you back to the center, or helping you create balance around whatever that thing is that you may become naturally sort of polarized towards, ultimately, that's going to be a positive thing, because it's going to help you grow if you allow it.
You can certainly be checked out and permissive to the point where it is really bordering on neglect and indulgence. That is not good for children. Kids need to have warm, loving relationships with parents and also some expectations that they can rise to meet, right? Being too far on the anything goes or certainly neglectful end of the spectrum isn't good for anyone.
But on the other end of this to have an authoritarian kind of home, where it's all about the rules. “You will do what I say,” and structure, and law and order. Everything is micromanaged to the point where children aren't allowed to grow or make mistakes or, God forbid, experience unconditional love, even if they do—aren't performing perfectly. Like, that's not good for anybody either.
Again, it's so easy for parents to fight tooth and nail about how we're treating the children and whose way is right, “You're too permissive,” and, “You're too harsh.” Again, to be able to recognize the value that each partner is bringing to the situation and how we use those differences to create balance for our children, for our family. Yes, they do need warmth and nurturance and compassion and understanding.
They also do need some boundaries, some guidance, some consequences if they're really getting too far out of line, so that we can guide them and teach them and help them develop their own sense of right and wrong and competence in the safe space of our family, as opposed to figuring all this crap out for the first time once they stumble out the door and into college, assuming that they get into college if they've been raised in an exceptionally permissive home.
Myers-Briggs Personality Compatibility
Anyway, all good things. I did also want to talk about another area of compatibility in relationships that I don't think is discussed often and not—enough, rather. I think that it can, more than almost anything else I've seen, create very real relationship issues if people don't understand the reason for these differences. That is related to something that I call Ps versus Js.
If I were to give any one of you a Myers-Briggs Personality Test, which is kind of the pop psych version of this, there are a number of different qualities that are kind of measured on a continuum. But I feel like one of the most important, with the exception of introversion and extraversion, in terms of the dimensions that it assesses, is one around a perceiver versus a judger. Other personality assessments attempt to measure this in different ways.
If you look at the Big Five, like, psychological assessments, there's conscientiousness sort of continuum, and I think perceivers versus judges on the Myers-Briggs kind of taps into it. But speaking broadly, people who are high on the perceiving end of the continuum, they are open; they're flexible; they don't really have the high need to have things settled and decided. They can go with the flow; they can be spontaneous; they can be adaptable.
On the other side of that, people with a very strong and perceiver orientation, can sometimes feel a little anxious or uncomfortable about being locked in to like really firm plans. Because in their mind is like, “Well, what? I don't know how I'm gonna feel three weeks from now. You want me to commit to that.” So committing can be a deal. Making plans can be a deal, and they have a much more kind of, “Let's see how I feel today,” kind of orientation to life.
This can be a really positive thing in terms of psychological flexibility, adaptability. Again, they're resilient; they're responsive; and it's whatever's happening in the moment. That's usually okay, and if it's not okay, we'll deal with it when we need to deal with it. It's a very kind of present moment, flexible, open orientation. I think that sometimes it shows up in a number of different situations. Certainly, planning in advance can come up for people with a perceiving orientation.
But there's also actually a high degree of psychological flexibility with this personality orientation, in that people with a high perceiver orientation have a deep appreciation for the fact that there is very seldom black and white answers to things. There is instead, many, many, many shades of gray. That everything complex in this world is multidimensional. It has many different facets.
Different things can be true that are in complete opposition, but they're also still true depending on your viewpoint, right? When it comes to a perceiving orientation to the world, this flexibility can extend into open-mindedness, tolerance, being able to see things from multiple points of view, being able to hold sort of mutually exclusive ideas in your mind at the same time, and that maybe several things are all true, and really not having to not feeling a need to kind of categorize and like, “This is the answer.”
It's just not something that people with a high P orientation have. In contrast, on the other end of the spectrum, is what the Myers-Briggs refers to as a judger orientation, not in the sense of judgmental, but I think in the sense of, like, decisiveness. Again, you can find this on the conscientiousness scale of the Big Five. These are people who are very thoughtful. They plan things in advance. They tend to appreciate order in their lives—routines can be important.
They have their vacation plans locked in six months from now, if they're on the high side. They, psychologically and mentally, really want to know what is going to happen next. Even if it's not making a plan, like a plan to do something, “We have scheduled the hotel,” it's really thinking a lot about the future, and possible problems and actions they can take now to create good outcomes for themselves in the future.
This is a very positive thing, conscientious, thoughtful, thinking about things in advance is often useful. They will often have long-range plans that can turn into things like saving money, or you're working towards long-term goals, which is very positive. Though psychologically speaking, and this can also be very positive, but psychologically speaking, people with a high judger orientation, they tend to categorize different things.
They compartmentalize things. They sort of evaluate it, and like, they will often have a strong sense around what is good and what is valued. What is something to strive for versus something that goes in a different category. “This is something negative. This is something I want to stay away from.” It can in extreme versions kind of lead to this black white worldview. It can turn into some all-or-nothing thinking.
Like, if somebody does this thing, they're more likely to globally kind of have a negative impression of them, as opposed to the idea that it can be a fundamentally decent human. Why has this person engaged in a behavior as opposed to, like, focusing on the behavior itself, and kind of turning it into a right/wrong, good/bad, black/white kind of generalization stance.
There are always—there's always a spectrum. Some people are more towards the high side of this continuum than others. I think most of us are probably somewhere in the middle, but we tend to trend in one direction or the other. It is really important to be aware of this difference, in particular, when it comes to personality compatibility in relationships.
Because, remember, at the beginning of our conversation, where we were talking about how those broad kind of labels can create a false feeling of security. Sometimes, when people are like, “Oh, we're the same political orientation or the same religious orientation. We both like dogs.” You can find card-carrying Ps and Js under the big top of any of these things.
What happens to couples and relationships is that they can look at the big picture stuff—our values, the things we want out of life are generally in alignment—and miss the fact that they may have very real and pronounced differences in this P versus J continuum, in terms of their personality, in terms of their psychological flexibility, versus a tendency towards rigidity.
In the way they orient themselves to the world in terms of how much they need to think in advance and have things decided, versus how much they value openness and spontaneity and flexibility. I cannot tell you how many couples I have sat with in my years as a marriage counselor, who have gotten into very, very nasty and angry, truly like, power struggles around who is right and who is wrong when it comes to this orientation in particular.
You can apply this difference to literally everything that you can think about in a relationship, from the way we parent to the way we handle money to the way we do things with our social lives with our work to housekeeping. The J wants a plan; wants to know that things are going to be done. If they're not done, and when we're breaking the plan, it causes a great deal of anxiety and stress.
The person on the other side of that is like, “Why is this such a big deal? Why do we have to know what we're doing two weeks from now? Why can't we wake up on Saturday morning and decide then?” Right? And have much less rigidity around things being done a certain way or planning in advance.
I really, really wanted to talk about this because many times when couples come into marriage counseling and they're all twitterpated about “our compatibility,” it is ultimately about this difference, “We're just fundamentally incompatible. We just see the world so differently. Our way of being is so opposite.” Right?
What happens is that they cannot see how to possibly come back to the center. Because here's the secret: they both are so, so firmly convinced that their way of being is the right way of being, and if only their partner was more like them, then, we would be so much happier. So the work here is not getting either of you to change.
It is not getting the perceiver to be more planning and think putting things in boxes, because, like, even if you did make plans cognitively, that's just not who you are. It isn't who you'll ever be. It's not you, right?
Then, on the other side, for the person who has that more of a judger orientation, you might want to go with the flow and be spontaneous and sort of be open-ended and flexible and see all the gray and the light and dark and all things, and naturally it is just it goes against your grain to be that way. Your brain doesn't work that way.
When you try to make your brain work that way, and it often creates a lot of anxiety and tension for you. It doesn't feel liberating. It doesn't feel relaxed. It feels stressful. We don't want to put you in a situation where you are stressed and unhappy either.
What can happen and here that is so, so beautiful is to be able to unpack these differences with your partner in a series of honest and authentic and emotionally safe and emotionally intimate conversations, where you're each able to make space for each other's truth without getting reactive; without getting triggered; and give each other time and space to be talking about what feels real and true for you.
It is difficult sometimes to get on your partner's side of the table and really view the world through their eyes. But so many magical things can happen in a relationship where you're able to do that. Couples who are able to successfully do this work together, are not going to change each other.
There may be some points of compromise, for example, to be able to say, “I know that my partner gets stressed when we don't have the summer camp thing all dialed in. It's March because they're worried about what are we going to be doing with the kids in July. Okay.” It may be that you have to participate in more of those conversations in advance than you would naturally want to, and that's a growth moment for you.
On the other side, there can certainly be opportunities for people that are hardcore Js to be able to be more spontaneous, to be flexible, to have open-ended plans, and experience the fact that it usually is okay, even if it turns out to be different than what you thought it was going to be. It's alright, you still had a nice time. That can be a really positive and important growth moment for you, too.
If you let your P partner take you by the hand into an uncertain reality and experience the fact that it all is okay, generally speaking, in the end, so those are both wonderful. But the real strength of these relationships is by allowing each other the opportunity to actualize these strengths in the partnership, and for the benefit of the partnership in a way that really helps both of you.
For example, sometimes people who have a strong J orientation can feel a lot of stress and anxiety. They feel like they have to have things settled. They need to have plans. They need to know what's happening. Things have to feel under control—”These are the right ways to do things.” If this isn't happening, and then that can feel very uncomfortable for them.
So where a P partner can really be so helpful to you, and really such a gift—such a gift—is the, I think, level of emotional connection that a P partner can offer you is different than you might have if you are partnered with somebody who was a lot more like you in that J end of the continuum.
Because the P person isn't going to try to fix you. They're not going to rush to solve the problems and say, “Okay. Here’s what we’re going to do instead.” That P will have a lot more tolerance for the emotional ambiguity, the shades of gray, the fact that you can have feelings that they're like, “Yeah, I can understand how you would feel that way. It’s different from how I feel, but I understand what you're saying.” Right?
Also, I think, to be able to—because Ps are usually much calmer in terms of that stress and anxiety level than the Js are. The other thing that happens in intimate relationships between two partners is also the same thing that you see happening with parents and very young children, is that we actually, believe it or not, borrow each other's nervous systems.
I know that sounds crazy, but when you are physically in proximity of somebody whose heart rate is lower than yours; who is relaxed physiologically; who's breathing slowly; that they're okay, you will automatically attune to their physiological state. That is just a biological process. It's not something that we make happen.
Why this can be so good for a J partner is that your natural tendency is to get really wound up and like, “Oh, This. This. This,” and like thinking all these things out to the future, and to be partnered with a J or P, rather, who's like, “It's alright. It's gonna be alright, and it doesn't actually matter. It's gonna be alright either way.”
Not only can hearing that, their inner voice, their inner narrative sometimes help calm you down, and get you out of that, like, need to the future orientation that can create so much anxiety. But even just physiologically, to be in the presence of somebody who's much more relaxed than you; are able to go with the flow, it kind of rubs off on you. It's a positive thing to move a little bit more towards the center.
Yes, you will still want to make plans. You will still want to make lists. You will still want to know what's happening. But to be partnered with a P and allowing them to have some influence in your life, and to help you calm down, we'll help you stay more in the center of flexibility. You'll be probably more emotionally okay as a result.
On the other side of this P person, I mean, it can be easy to get annoyed with the J trying to—chasing you around with a calendar, and “What are we going to do?” And wanting you to participate in decision-making and list-making and the doing of the things and all of that. Even though it is not your natural tendency, I think it would be difficult to argue with the idea that to have some of that kind of planning and thoughtfulness in your life is generally a positive thing.
Yes, it is good to be flexible and to be spontaneous and to see many options and to keep your mind open. Nobody is arguing with that. But when it comes to actually getting things done, at some point, somebody does need to make a decision, and then do something most of the time in order to actualize that good intention.
What can happen with P people who are just sort of living free, is that because you don't plan in advance, you actually can't go camping because you can't get a camping reservation. By the time you get around to signing your kids up for the summer camp, “Oh, they're actually all closed,” and now they're on a waiting list. You miss opportunities. If you don't make plans, you don't do things that you would have wanted to do, right?
Showing up at a place and being like, “Oh, if only I had thought to bring this piece of equipment,” or, “You know what, we could have done this thing.” To really allow your J partner to initiate conversations around, “What are we going to do?”—making plans, making decisions, talking through things, and to be able to evaluate pros and cons.
Even though it might not feel natural to you to say, “All things considered, this is probably the best direction for us.” You might be willing to stay in that middle space forever. But to practice being able to make a decision, and then turn that decision into a series of actions that lead to your desired outcome at some point in the future is a very positive and useful life skill.
That may not be totally natural; it may not be totally comfortable, but to be partnered with a J who wants to do that is going to help you come into the center, and your life will benefit for it. Some of these are conversations and things that you can do together and kind of allowing yourselves to be pulled towards the center by each other, right? Allowing influence from your partner.
But this can also be a really beautiful thing where you make space in your life for each person to almost have, like, spheres of responsibility that are in alignment with their core strengths. While a J partner might really want to have a series of discussions, where we talk about the pros and cons, what we're doing this summer, and making all the plans and like, “Okay, you do this, and I'm going to do that. We're going to stuff up the calendar,” like want to have unity in that area.
What may actually be true and more functional for a couple with a J and if P is for the J person to go ahead, and maybe the P can have some input to the degree that they're comfortable. But if it's also true that a P doesn't really have that strong of opinions around what they do or where they end up or where they do it. J you can go ahead and make those decisions for the both of you and tell your partner what time to show up and what to wear.
They'll be there, and it's all going to be alright. Yeah. To have that liberty, that freedom to go ahead and do the things that you want to do. If it is an understanding with your partner, that is kind of your superpower in this relationship, and if they're not participating actively in that with you, they are essentially giving consent for “Okay, I might end up in the middle of Nevada and all right.”
On the other side of this, I think that the P partner can really shine when it comes to dealing with unexpected things. A J person often kind of freezes or feels very anxious or can get very upset when things don't go according to plan. Where a P person shines is being able to show up in the moment no matter what's happening, and be able to deal with it without having to think about it in advance.
With being able to stay relatively calm, and usually in those moments, being able to make excellent decisions. Because they are able to act in the moment quickly without having to think about it for three days, right? Like, “Here's what we need to do, and I'm going to do it.” While the future planning and taking actions for future events aren't as natural or easy for Ps, they're incredibly flexible and effective and take fast action in the moment, and it is a gift.
For a J person to be able to really appreciate this innate wisdom and the ability to kind of just do things on the fly and have things work out with a P; to be partnered with a P can help you just withstand the ups and downs of life and not have to feel like you need to control everything in advance. Because, usually, you don't.
For the P person, for your domain of responsibility to be kind of the catcher for all the things that come up in the moment that maybe nobody anticipated, but that have to be dealt with, you can change on the fly. It's no big deal either way. If that's kind of your job in the relationship is the flexible person who does whatever needs to be done in the moment, “Oh, we have a flat tire. I'll take care of it.”
“Oh, the kids need to be picked up early. Oh, we're out of milk,” whatever it is, to have gratitude and appreciation for your ability to do that, and typically stay calm in the process. When that gift is recognized as the strength it is, is just so hugely important. I know, over the last couple of years, everything created—related, rather, I should say, to the whole COVID pandemic experience, it was awful. I mean, who's kidding for many of us.
But I tell you what, P people who had more of a P orientation and who are able to kind of “Welp, okay. I guess everything shut down, and we're gonna stay in our house for the next two months or whatever,” were typically able to stay much calmer and just kind of, like, ride the waves emotionally of who and what we needed to be in those moments.
Whereas people who had a real need to, like, know what was going to happen next and to have these things worked out had a ton of anxiety because so much of it was unknown. People who were in relationships, where they had a recognition and appreciation for their compatible strengths, their complementary strengths, and were able to kind of lean on each other, to bring that those strengths to the table in different ways, were the ones who really, really prospered and got through it.
Okay. You can do this, too. I hope that this discussion has helped you maybe think about some things in your relationship that you had been feeling annoyed about or even worried about. Like, “Are we really compatible?” to be able to think about these things in some different ways. I hope that you heard some things in here that maybe made you think about your partner's orientation a little bit differently, and maybe a little bit more compassionately.
I know that there are so many other points of potential conflict in a relationship besides the ones that I discussed today. Those points of conflict, if we kind of look at them, any of those things that people fight about are essentially a continuum. There is a polarization of one person is on this side, the other person is on that side—they want things to be their own way. That is why oftentimes, the conflict happens in the center is an effort to get somebody to change and be more like me.
But when you can really crack into these things under the surface, to understand who your partner is, what they're trying to do, the things that are important to them, more often than not, it really does make sense if you can stay calm and listen and appreciate the strengths and the values that your partner is sharing.
Conflict Resolution in Relationship Compatibility
I will say it can be difficult to do this if you have been in a gridlock situation where you're fighting about the right way to be for a while, and particularly if it's created a lot of negative emotions between you, there has been judgment or units turning into a negative story about who the other person is. It can be very easy to fall into an unproductive conflict that just disintegrates into who's right and who's wrong, right? We've all been there. I've done it too.
If you can't do that in your living room, that might be a really good opportunity to take this in front of a good couples counselor, marriage counselor, or I say this with a caveat, a relationship coach who has a legitimate background in couples and family therapy. Most don't, like most therapists.
But somebody who is able to essentially sit down with the both of you, and help hold the container, so that it is an emotionally safe conversation, you will not turn into fighting with each other about who's right and who's wrong.
A really skilled counselor, I have to say, their strength is being able to see the noble intentions of each person, and to be able to see the underlying needs and strengths of each person, and almost be able to decode or translate them for each other.
That when you're sitting with a really skilled couples counselor, they're essentially modeling for you how to understand your partner in a more compassionate, and honestly, more productive way. So it stops turning into a fight about introverts and extroverts, and, “I want to go out, and you never want to go out,” and whose way of being is better, into a much deeper and more helpful conversation that allows you to understand each other.
That gives you the opportunity to begin building bridges to the center, allowing yourselves each to take influence and grow and benefit because of that growth, but also making space for your partner to be more of what they are, as opposed to less of what they are—finding opportunities in your shared life together to unleash their superpowers on certain domains of your shared life for the benefit of both of you and for your family.
This may be a different conversation than the one that you were expecting when you first signed up to listen to a podcast about personality type compatibility in relationships. But I think it is the real one. I think that it's—to me, it's also a much more hopeful one, right?
Because if we move away from this idea that certain personality types are just compatible and some aren't, it gives you a lot more opportunity for movement and for relationship repair than just deciding that you're too far apart. For two people who are both willing to grow and evolve and move towards the center and appreciate different strengths, there's always opportunity for growth and healing. I hope that message resonated.
Thank you so much for spending this time with me today on the podcast. It's always a pleasure to visit with you and I will be back in touch with you next week with more love, happiness and success advice in your ear. In the meantime, please enjoy more Night Beats — nightbeats.bandcamp.com. I hope you check out their music, and spend the rest of your day listening to it. That is what I'm going to be doing. I'll see you guys next time.
Secret bank accounts. Illicit rendezvous with the babysitter. Biweekly fights that end in split lips and phone calls to the police.
We’ve all heard about “those” relationships, haven’t we? And maybe we’ve even witnessed something close to them playing out between people we know. It’s no surprise when unions with such obvious markers of pain and dysfunction go down in flames. They may even make us feel a little better about our own relationships, or the kind of partners we are. Sure, we’re imperfect, but we would never do that.
But, as a longtime marriage counselor and couples therapist, trust me when I say that most relationships that fail don’t go down in a big, dramatic burst of flames that everyone sees coming from a hundred miles away. To paraphrase Hemingway, they tend to end gradually, and then all at once. The little injuries that add up to a divorce or a breakup usually seem insignificant while they’re happening, until their cumulative damage is too much for the couple to bear.
When two people who love each other aren’t able to make their relationship work, it’s sad. Because “making it work” is usually a matter of building certain skills, which anyone can do with knowledge and practice. I created this podcast to illustrate that for you. My hope is that, after this conversation, you’ll have a clear understanding of what really tanks relationships, and how you can avoid that outcome in your own.
My guest is Matthew Fray, a talented writer with some hard-won knowledge in this area. In his new book, “This is How Your Marriage Ends,” Matthew discusses his own marriage’s demise, and the lessons he wishes he’d learned before it was too late. We’re sharing those important lessons with you today, so you can keep your relationship alive for the long haul.
I hope you’ll tune in to hear Matt’s heartfelt relationship advice. Listen here on this page, on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
Many of the moments that destroy relationships look like no big deal while they’re happening. They can take the shape of “petty” disagreements, too insignificant to pose a real threat to something as important as your marriage.
But over time, these minor disagreements certainly can pose a threat. They can carry more emotional weight than you might expect, bringing up questions about love, safety, trust, and respect between yourself and your partner. If they’re not handled with care, these “petty” disagreements will undermine your connection, and can eventually cause you to lose what you value the most in the world.
Here are some hallmarks of the destructive conflict cycle that causes relationships to fail. By breaking these common patterns, you and your partner can begin to navigate conflict in a way that helps you grow together, not apart.
Why Relationships Fail: Defensiveness
Imagine that your partner is furious about something that doesn’t seem particularly important to you. Maybe you wore your shoes in the house when they’ve repeatedly asked you not to, or you were ten minutes late meeting them for dinner.
What’s your reaction to their anger? Do you feel like you’re being punished harshly for something that doesn’t mean much, considering how much you do for your partner every day? Do you remind them of all the sacrifices you’ve made for them or for the relationship, or of all the things they do that you don’t like?
That’s defensiveness, which is a totally normal reaction to feeling criticized or under attack. Unfortunately, when we get defensive, we can’t really hear our partners. We’re too busy arguing them out of their perspective to hear the hurt or the pain underneath their complaints, because what they’re saying feels like a threat to us.
When one partner is angry and the other is defensive, you get stuck. You can’t move forward into repairing the rift that’s opened up between you and deepening your understanding of each other, because you’re locked in a stalemate of “attack” and “counterattack.” Your partner gets the message that, when they’re upset, their feelings will be met with hostility. Eventually, they’ll stop bringing problems to you, and resentments will build.
So, what’s the antidote to defensiveness? Responsibility. When your partner is upset with you, try to take responsibility for your part in the conflict. That doesn’t mean you have to assume blame that isn’t yours, or always let them “win.” But admit where you’re wrong, and take an interest in their feelings about the situation. You’ll find that you’re able to have a real conversation at that point, and to resolve small problems before they grow into something more serious.
Why Relationships Fail: Emotional Invalidation
Emotional invalidation is another common cause in failing relationships. When we emotionally invalidate our partners, we might agree with their perceptions — that we were late, that we did wear our shoes in the house — but disagree with their emotional reaction to what happened. We might tell them they’re overreacting, or that we can’t understand what they’re so upset about.
Invalidation happens all the time. I would bet that, at some point in your relationship, you have invalidated your partner, and that your partner has invalidated you. Invalidation doesn’t make you a terrible person (or a gaslighter, for that matter). Most of us don’t even realize when we’re being invalidating; we usually think we’re being helpful, encouraging our partners to let go of bad feelings or see things from another, more positive perspective.
But chronic emotional invalidation leaves your partner with the impression that you don’t care about their experience, that you don’t take their emotions seriously, and that there’s no point in trying to resolve problems with you, because they’ll only be dismissed. If your partner comes to expect invalidation from you, they’ll likely begin to withdraw from the relationship. Eventually, this will destroy your connection.
To avoid invalidating your partner, practice listening to them, without trying to “fix” their problems or argue them out of their perspective. Practice accepting their emotional reality for what it is, rather than trying to convince them that the way they feel isn’t reasonable. I use the word practice deliberately here — validating is a habit that we all must build with intention.
Why Relationships Fail: Broken Trust
Minor conflicts that spin out into defensiveness and invalidation have a damaging effect on your bond to your partner. That’s because they lead to broken trust, which is enough to take down even the most loving relationships.
Over time, if you dismiss your partner’s feelings and concerns as unimportant or overblown, they will stop trusting you. I’m not being dramatic when I say that — they will learn that you’re not an emotionally safe person who will treat their needs, feelings, and perspective as valid and important. And that’s what we need from our partners, more than from anyone else in the world.
What happens when your partner stops trusting you? They stop being vulnerable with you, and they stop leaning on you in times of need. They might give up on trying to connect with you on a deep emotional level, and settle for a superficial relationship that begins to feel lonely and hollow to you both. They won’t assume that your intentions are good, and conflicts in your relationship will become more bitter and more damaging as time goes on. Eventually, if something doesn’t change, your relationship will disintegrate.
So how do you repair broken trust, once it’s been damaged? You can start by listening to your partner, validating their feelings, empathizing with them, and taking responsibility for your part in conflicts, rather than reacting with defensiveness.
This all might sound like I’m telling you to let your partner have their way, or to disregard your own needs, rights, and feelings in favor of your partner’s. That’s not the case — you also deserve to be heard, and to have empathy and validation when you’re upset. But you won’t get that by “winning” the argument or by being the most correct. You’ll get it by extending generosity and kindness toward your partner, which will make them more willing to reciprocate with kindness and generosity in return.
Why Marriages Succeed or Fail
If I could impart one bit of wisdom to every couple, from my many years as both a married person and as a marriage counselor, it would be this: When marriages fail, it’s usually not in a high-drama, crash and burn scenario. The kind of dissolution that makes for an intriguing TV plot line is rarely what I see play out between actual couples who arrive in my office.
But you can build these skills, and your relationship will be stronger and healthier for it. I hope this podcast gave you some good ideas for where to start.
Music in this episode is by Nocturne Blue, covering “Ship of Fools” by World Party.
You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://nocturneblue.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Lisa Marie Bobby: On today's episode of the podcast, we're talking about a topic that is very challenging. One that people don't like to think about, but one that is vitally important for you to know about and to be thinking about really deliberately. That is why marriages fail—why relationships end.
Personally, I'm a marriage counselor; I'm a psychologist; I have sat with so many couples, many of whom very eager and motivated to repair their marriages, repair their relationships. We do great work. Over the years, I have sat with many couples whose relationships were ending. I can tell you that every single one of them went into their relationships with the best of intentions.
On their wedding day, they meant everything they said about sharing the rest of their lives, together, ‘til death do us part, and they meant it. But then their relationships eroded slowly. Over time, it fell apart. They kept falling apart. By the time they got to my office, they were past the point of no return. There wasn't the fabric left to kind of knit things back together again.
The tragedy of—virtually all of these situations and I have felt this many times sitting on the couch in my therapy office with these couples—is if only you had seen what was happening and intervened a little bit sooner. The truth is that so many couples have opportunities to mend their relationships, but they miss the opportunities because, in the moment, they often don't realize how serious things are before it's too late.
The truth is that there are small micro-moments that happen in relationships that are much more damaging than people think they are. By understanding this, really truly appreciating it, you become empowered to make changes sooner rather than later so that your marriage endures. Understanding what failing relationships actually look like and actually feel like is what can help you identify these moments, the ones that you need to take seriously and not minimize them, because that's such a natural tendency to do.
Matthew, thank you so much for being with me today. I'm really excited to have this conversation.
Matthew Fray: Thank you so much. I'm really happy to be here. I really appreciate the invitation.
The Marriage Lesson I Learned Too Late
Lisa: Well, thank you again so much. I have to—I think I mentioned it to you, but I'll share with my audience. I read all the time when I'm not working. Basically, I have my nose either in a book or an article about something. It was just a couple of weeks ago I was browsing around online, and I came across an article that you had written that, for The Atlantic, an excerpt from your book.
I just remember reading your words, and first of all, just being struck by what a beautiful writer you are. I was reading it, it was like, “Wow, I wish I could write that as well.” But also, like, the message that you conveyed in this article was just like dead on. It was like, “This is what I've been trying to tell people for years and years.”
If it's okay with you, I thought maybe we could start with just this little excerpt from what you wrote to kind of orient our listeners to your message, and then we can go from there. Is that okay?
Matthew: Yeah, yeah, that sounds great.
Lisa: The title of the article was The Marriage Lesson That I Learned Too Late with the very intriguing subheading of—you said, “The reason my marriage fell apart seems absurd when I describe it: My wife left me because I sometimes leave dishes by the sink.” Very intriguing, right? But when you go into the article, I mean, you just so beautifully described, I think this phenomenon that's so real and true for so many couples.
You write, “The things that destroy love and marriage often disguise themselves as unimportant. Many dangerous things neither appear nor feel dangerous as they're happening. They're not arms and gunshots. They're pinpricks. They're paper cuts. And that is the danger. When we don't recognize something as threatening, then we're not on guard. These tiny wounds start to bleed and the bleed-out is so gradual that many of us don't recognize the threat until it's too late to stop it.”
You go on to say, “I spent most of my life believing that what ended marriages were behaviors I classify as Major Marriage Crimes. If murder, rape, and armed robbery are major crimes in the criminal justice system, I viewed sexual affairs, physical spousal abuse, and gambling away the family savings as the major crimes in a marriage.
Because I wasn't committing Major Marriage Crimes, when my wife and I were on the opposite sides of an issue, I would suggest that we agree to disagree. I believe that she was wrong—either that she was fundamentally incorrect in her understanding of the situation or that she was treating me unfairly.
It always seemed as if the punishment didn't fit the crime—as if she were charging me with premeditated murder when my infraction was something closer to driving a little bit over the speed limit with a burned-out tail light that I didn't even know was burned out.
Hundreds, maybe thousands, of times, my wife tried to communicate that something was wrong. That something hurt. ‘But that didn't make sense’, I thought. I'm not trying to hurt her; therefore, she shouldn't feel hurt. We didn't go down in a fiery explosion. We bled out from 10,000 paper cuts. Quietly. Slowly.
She knew something was wrong. I insisted everything was fine. This is how my marriage ended. It could be how yours ends too.”
Whoa. What powerful words, Matthew. I mean, I read that and I was like,” Yeah, that's exactly what happens.” Most people have no idea that it's even happening when it's happening.
Matthew: Oh, I was really flattered. Nothing has propelled book sales since launch. The book’s been out six or seven weeks now. March 22 in North America was book launch. Nothing had as significant of an impact on those sales as that Atlantic excerpted, so I was extremely grateful for it. As a former journalist, too, being in a publication that I respect as much as The Atlantic was, like, just personally, like a really cool opportunity to have a byline in it.
As you said, it was an excerpt from the book. It was really more their work than mine to be fair. They took the lion's share of that excerpt from a section of the book, which is based on a blog post that I wrote in 2016, called She Divorced Me Because I Left the Dishes by the Sink. That was far and away the most popular thing that I've ever written. If anybody has ever, like, heard of me or anything like that, it would be almost certainly because of that article.
Millions and millions of times that thing's been read and shared, and I just—nothing else in my world had that level of reach. I've just come to understand that it's a popular conversation for people to have. Although I fear, a great majority of the people miss the point of the conversation because the lion's share of the criticism I receive as either a blogger or now as author of the book, This Is How Your Marriage Ends, is the idea that a dish by the sink.
It's the same argument I made in my actual marriage. The argument that that is such an insignificant thing and our marriage is so important and the idea that “I love you” is so important, “so let's not elevate this dish by the sink to a marriage problem.”
That's more or less the arguments that I'm getting from predominantly men in heterosexual relationships with women who I assume say things similar to the things my wife said in regards to the way the dish by the sink caused her to feel. How like her experience with that dish, her thoughts and feelings about it.
They make the case that their desire to leave it there—that's well thought out, and that their individual experiences should weigh equally. I'm very interested in your take on this idea, and I'm fine with people thinking that. Like, I'm fine. The way that I think about it is that putting a dish in the dishwasher and having to take it out again or having to get a new one from the cupboard or finding some new system that—it was a glass by the way.
I think people imagine, especially because The Atlantic had the sink full of, like, all these dirty dishes, that's not what it was. It was and I still keep it there. It's a clear drinking glass. One glass that I put water in once a day to take vitamins and medicine and things like that. It just bothered her because she liked the kitchen a certain standard and clean.
People take great exception to the idea that my opinion—men who I think identify with me of 10 or 15 years ago feel like we need to defend our position. That our desires, our wants, our “needs” should matter as much as our spouses, and I think they should. I think they should matter the same, but I don't think we're having the same conversation.
I don't feel dishonored, disrespected, not considered small and visible, because of my wife's desire to have me put the dishes in the dishwasher. The alternative is not true, me leaving it there does, in fact, result in pain, and feelings of disrespect and feelings of being unheard.
Instead of having a conversation about the merits of that dish being there, I want to have a conversation about the merits of behaving in such a way, speaking and acting in such a way, where the math result is showing up effectively for our relationship partners. You may very well be married to somebody who does not care about that dish by the sink.
They may share your lack of enthusiasm for that, but there will be a different conversation about something because we're human beings, that will matter to them, that will not, like, resonate intellectually or emotionally with you. You will simply not care the same. I don't know how to say it sort of like more precisely than that—you won't care as much. It's that disagreement that I think is the epicenter of like the common conflict pattern in relationships.
I just think for the person who feels unheard, who feels as if I can never go to my relationship partner and communicate something's wrong because it seems as if they don't agree with me, they will always choose what they think and what they feel over me for the rest of my life. It means I have to deal with that and accept it and voluntarily subject myself to that or have to leave.
Matthew: We leave, in my case, I left my wife with an exceedingly difficult choice, which was keep her son 100% of her life. Like, have him at home and have to deal with that, or leave and give herself a chance for a relationship or not having—regardless whether she was going to be single or whether she's going to see somebody else—not being subjected to the approval of someone to feel a certain way about something because that's essentially what that story is about.
I didn't give her permission to hurt. I didn't give her permission to think that dish by the sink mattered. Go ahead and insert any example from your personal life, dear listener, because it's not always a dish but metaphorically it is. Everybody has their own dish by the sink story in their relationship. Everybody, I think—most people I encounter are savvy enough to recognize it.
I talked to somebody a day or two ago where it's he’d wore shoes in the house all the time, and his wife just repeatedly would ask them not to. Most of the time if he was, like, coming home for the day, he’d take them off.
But what if you, like, went outside really quick to, like, go to the garage for something, and there's like, “Oh, I forgot something in the house. I'm gonna sprint over to the bedroom, but I'm not gonna take the time to take my shoes off.” But those were the moments that, like, drove her really. She got really upset with them. Again, it's not about the relative impact of, like, wearing shoes in the house. It is, “I will always choose me over you whenever we disagree.” That destroys trust in relationships.
The Definition of Love
Lisa: Yeah, you're absolutely right. We could crack into that further. But I love that message of really being able to think about your behaviors, our behaviors in the context of what they mean to other people because it's different for other people than it is for us. In some ways, it can be the definition of love, right? Our partner's needs and rights and feelings are just as important as our own, and how do we show them that?
Matthew: I think it's reasonable for people to not want to accept responsibility for that. It shows up, I think, particularly in, like, sociopolitical conversations and religious differences. It's the idea that “What I believe is right and true, and if that offends another person, that's really their problem.” That mindset, I think, is fine. I don't adopt it. It's how I used to be. It is exactly the mindset I used to have that I think resulted in the worst thing that's ever happened to me, which was the end of my marriage and family.
That's why I'm not in favor of showing up in the world that way anymore. But I don't begrudge people doing that. I don't think it's immoral. I just think if we're not cognizant of what happens to another human when we do that, it's not about you being bad. It's not about that behavior being bad. In my estimation, forgive me, I'm not trying to speak for you or anyone else. But for me, the thing to value is the math results.
The math results of showing up that way in our interpersonal relationships are really probably with anybody, I believe, means that we won't have as much trust. We will not be trusted as much with the hearts and minds of other human beings. People want to trust that being in our sphere, whether that's being close friends or professional colleagues or best friends or whatever.
But certainly, when we share homes and bedrooms and money and children, and our lives are super intertwined, the way they are in marriage or long-term cohabitating relationships, and again, particularly when you're raising children together, the stakes get even higher.
When somebody can't trust you to—what I would sort of, like, say is—act in their best interest on account that we don't think the dish qualifies, right? We know we'll walk with you in the parking garage and that will keep you safe from an intruder or whatever it is that people think about what it means to, like, show up lovingly and caring for someone else. It's this miscalculation that something that doesn't matter to you is somehow not able to matter to somebody else. That is such a significant blind spot, I think in relationships. I think I understand why it is because I've sort of lived both sides of it now.
Lisa: Yeah, it was about the glass on the side of the sink, but it also wasn't. The glass just became a symbol for how your wife felt. It was a symbol for the relationship unraveling because it wasn't about the glass. It was about what the glass meant. It was interpreted as, “Do you care about my feelings? Am I important to you?” That's what we lose sight of when we get into power struggles about where the glass goes, isn't it?
Matthew: Yeah, that's—I mean, I think that's it. I think it's reasonable for somebody to who has successful relationships. This is something that I talk with a lot of. I work as. like, a relationship coach per se. People come to me. Guys that are like, “Wow. You sound exactly like me,” and I'm like, “I understand.” I try to help them understand that there's no judgment and that, in a certain respect, it really makes sense.
When all of your family relationships are solid, when you have a bunch of friends, when you're successful at work, when you're liked and respected and appreciated, it's so frustrating when the only person in your life who like levies charges of like mistreatment is the person that you feel like you love the most and sacrifice the most for. It does not compute.
Then sort of like math data analysis terms, if she's the outlier, she is the statistical outlier. A data scientist eliminates the statistical outlier as the thing that's not like the rest. I just think that is the, like, autopilot thing that so many people do. Again, often men in heterosexual relationships, it would seem that just dismiss these concerns of the other person because they're so unlike any of the feedback that they're getting from any other part of their life.
So I always want to defend these people. There are certainly people with ill intentions that cause a lot of harm. I don't mean to overlook those or trivialize the struggles of being in a relationship with somebody who you feel sort of tricked you or conned you into a life together and then emerged as something really, really awful, and like tyrannical in either subtle or overt ways.
But I think the majority from a math standpoint of these relationships are exactly as you described at the beginning, where two people voluntarily chose one another and absolutely are in this to go the distance and then are fundamentally confused five, seven, 10,15 years later as to how it could have deteriorated and how it can feel so bad. Because all along the way, it just seemed like nothing rose to the level of being important.
I equate it to what the American Cancer Society had to do in the 1950s, the 1960s on their campaign to convince the public of the dangers of tobacco smoking. Because back then the societal norm was to smoke in a car with the windows rolled up and babies in the backseat with no meaningful—
Lisa: “Not a big deal. Everybody does it.” Yeah.
Matthew: Yeah, maybe not even in, like, some sort of, like, safe car seat. Just riding on somebody's lap and it's just—that was how things were. We didn't know. If you don't know smoking is harmful, I think it makes sense to smoke.
Matthew: In fact, I used to do it in my youth and I'm so glad that I don't , right?
Matthew: People, like, make mindful changes once they understand that this thing equals harm. Not all people but many people, and that is to me the mission is, can people understand that this thing they don't calculate to be harmful is in fact harmful. I don't necessarily know how to do it except just keep doing what I'm trying to do. What so many people in the streets are trying to do.
The Danger of Small Things
Lisa: Totally. I mean, even just talking about this, you're exactly right. People literally do not understand that these small things are dangerous. It's the equivalent of smoking a cigarette, they have no idea. One of the things that I've been on such a mission about like, premarital counseling. We do a lot of, like, that preventative stuff, but also just talking about this, so that people can just have that mirror. Because who talks about this? Like nobody teaches you how to have a healthy relationship, right?
We just—our own divorced parents were the role models, and it's, like, somebody has to be talking about this. That's why I'm thrilled for this. To even crack deeper in this, like, in your book, one of the first chapters that you write and I think that this is such a nice idea too. Good people can make bad spouses.
Because we think about people who aren't good at relationships as being uncaring or unloving, and that is not true. Lovely people are unconsciously making these mistakes that they don't even know are mistakes in the moment. But can you say more about that idea? Good people can make bad spouses.
Good People Make Bad Spouses
Matthew: I can. It's one of my favorite things that I ever thought of. Because one of my sort of, like, hallmark traits in my marriage was defensiveness—feeling unfairly criticized, unfairly attacked as if my wife wasn't giving me the benefit of the doubt. Because it's like, “Goodness! I do all these things. It's like, why are you interpreting this in the most negative, cynical way possible?” is often sort of how I responded to whatever was, like, happening in her life.
Just habitually invalidating and dismissive, which is awful when I'm claiming to love ready —again, please understand I didn't. I know you know, but listener.
Lisa: No, no. It happens together.
Matthew: Yeah, I didn't associate how—I just fundamentally thought I was being mistreated, truly, in that moment, even though I really recognized today she was. But it's—that's the danger is, I think it to humans in a shared life together can very honestly believe that they're, like, sort of doing the right thing, that they're on the unfair receiving end of this.
Matthew: So I want to sell people on the idea of—particularly people prone to defensiveness and a relationship from negative feedback from the relationship partner—that it doesn't have to be about good/bad, doesn't even have to be about right/wrong. It is completely disassociated with character. It is good people can be bad partners. I thought it was useful to think about.
I described my grandmother as a person that I think is above reproach from a character standpoint. She's incredible, just the nicest human being, and just, I've never, ever in my 43 years seen my grandmother speak ill of anyone or mistreat anyone. She'll make excuses for, like, the worst people actually. She's like that kind of lady and loves humans.
But I make the case, despite my grandmother's impeccable character, I don't think that’s who you'd want to contract to build a skyscraper to fly an airplane or to fix your watch or whatever. Anything that's difficult in life to do. Developing expertise and mastery of something is about knowledge and about skill building, about practice. So we learn things, and then we practice doing things, trying to execute best practices over and over again.
That's how we develop skills, mastery, knowledge, things like that. I did not know how to associate. I was so busy thinking: because I was a decent human that I was automatically a decent husband, a decent spouse. I just—to me that belief alone creates so many blind spots, so many ways of defending oneself and deflecting responsibilities and things like that.
If I thought of marriage and relationships as something that I needed to develop expertise and mastery about, and this is nobody's fault, this was my responsibility. But I do think we've raised generations of people without some of the building block, knowledge and skills necessary to relate effectively.
The Repair in Harmony-Disharmony
Matthew: Again, I think the most important skill that I didn't understand—I say empathy, I think and I don't necessarily mean that organically feel how others feel. When I say that, I mean, this idea of like intentionally choosing to view a scenario through the experiences of someone else that you love, and then sort of modifying words and actions accordingly because you care about them.
But more to the point and I don't think I talked about this in the book because I don't think I had awareness about the relational cycle of harmony-disharmony-repair is that capacity for repair, like, in that moment was a big, big mess for me in my marriage that I try really hard to encourage people to think about today.
Lisa: Yeah, the repair is so important. But you bring up such another great point—that I think cannot be understated—is also just the power of systems. On this show, something that we talk about a lot is how relationships are a dance. I mean, people aren't just being individuals in the system, right? They're being influenced by each other.
It's very, very easy to perceive your partner as being out to get you or in the wrong, which then allows you to feel entitled to be not very kind to them in return. That the relationship system can kind of take on a cycle of its own. But, also, even those repair attempts, while they are so important, if there's so much—John Gottman calls it negative affect priming—that if it gets to a certain point, repair attempts don't work anymore.
It's just so key to get into this sooner rather than later. I think what I'm hearing you say is that to have had the humility, I think to consider, like we all do, “Maybe I do have some learning and growing to do in order to be a good partner for this specific person,” right? As opposed to that kind of global message around, “I'm a good person. I can have relationships. I know what to do. So there's something wrong with her.” That's like the easy, the easy default to assume. Yeah.
Matthew: I may very well end up in a long-term romantic relationship with somebody that doesn't care about a dish by the sink, that doesn't care about certain, like, idiosyncrasies that my son's mother, like, may have had, or pain points that she'd felt. But there will be new things, there'll be other things, and it is incumbent on me to learn those, to understand them if I am to effectively, like, prevent negative experiences on her pardon and vice versa.
Again, I don't mean to sound like I don't think both partners. If we're talking again, heterosexual relationships, men, I don't mean that their needs are also important. I just only know how to approach this from my side of it—the personal responsibility side of it. I trust that it'll be reciprocated in a healthy relationship.
Like, I don't see how being unhealthy will in any way yield a positive result. Another point of negative feedback is mad. Didn't your—surely your ex-wife was imperfect. Surely she did stuff you didn't like. Don’t you think maybe you're taking all the blame here. I'm like, I don't like the word blame. I don't finger-point. I'm like, I'm for personal responsibility.
I'm like, even if I only did 20% of it, just maybe all of the things that I might not have liked, that my ex-wife was—maybe how can I fairly calculate for what she would have said, done, felt, had I eliminated my portion of, like, the pain that was being caused? I just, I really want people to think about that. It's so critical.
It's not fair to hurt people, and then be angry with them for behaving as a hurt person does, is my take today. Where I used to—that's exactly how I used to act, though. I did things. It hurt my wife. She would say it hurt, and then I would be angry that she was creating a relationship conflict. It was awful. I really see it so clearly today in a way I didn't when I was stuck in it. I hate it for her, I really do, and for everybody who's stuck in like that cycle.
Lisa: Right. Well, you can't see in them. I mean, I can't tell you how many times I've sat with couples, and they're waiting for the other person to change, waiting for the other person to take responsibility. Well, if they stopped doing that, right? To, like, help people wrap their heads around the idea that you actually have to take 100% of the responsibility for whatever happens in your relationship.
Ideally, you'll both be taking 100% of their responsibility, but that's absolutely the only thing that you can do is keep your side of the equation clean. So yeah.
The Invalidation Triple Threat
Lisa: I wonder if that was kind of what you were getting into in the next section of your book where you talked about invalidation triple threat. Can you take us into that idea?
Matthew: Yeah. I'd be curious how you—because I think I value your thoughts and opinions and experiences, frankly, more than mine in the context of the way couples relate to one another.
But I make the claim in the book that I believe this—literally this invisible, it's certainly not invisible to the person who feels invalidated—but I think to the end-validator who genuinely loves the person and wants to live with them for the rest of their lives, I think this is the greatest blind spot, the greatest source of accidental inadvertent trust erosion, and therefore, the greatest threat to relationships, the leading cause of relationship failure.
Since whenever speech started happening between romantic partners—I just perceive this to probably be the thing that's ended more relationships than anything else. I don't mean marriage, there's a million—a million relationships never get to marriage. There's so many that never get there. I still think this is probably at the epicenter of so much of it.
So yes, in the invalidation triple threat, as I call it, are the three distinct ways that I believe somebody with this habit that I had, and I find it's very common in the people that, like, find me and want to work with me. We don't intend to invalidate. As I recently learned from somebody in your line of work from Australia, she said, “Intention does not equal experience.”
That's a more efficient way of saying what I try to say, is that doesn't matter what you're trying to do, pain can still happen on the other side of the equal sign. It disguises itself as harmless disagreement. It disguises itself as a disagreement between two adults. It's reasonable for human beings to feel as if they're allowed to have a difference of opinion, a different experience, a different desire than the other person.
I was so offended that it seemed like my wife needed me to agree with her all the time. But that's not what validation is. It's not about agreeing. It's not about thinking the same things my wife felt. It's not about feeling the same things my wife felt.
Here's what it looked like in my life. She would come to me and she'd say, “Matt, a bad thing happened and I feel bad about it.” Version one of this triple threat is I would disagree with her intellectual experience. The thing that she believed had happened, I would have believed something else happened. So I'd reframe it, and say, “That's actually not what happened. What happened is this.”
But the math result of that exchange is your feelings don't matter because it's based on something that wasn't real. That's version one. Version two is my wife comes to me, she says, “Matt, a bad thing happened. I feel bad about it.” This time, I completely agree with her that the event happened exactly as she says it did.
But this time, I'm confused as to why she's reacting so sensitively or angrily or whatever it is. I'm like, “Okay, that's what happened. But why are you making such a big deal out of it?” So in version one, her brain’s wrong. She's—I don't say this but the implication is that she's dumb—
Lisa: Think about it this way.
Matthew: That she's wrong—
Matthew: That she's crazy. Version two— I don't say this—but the implication is that she's weak, that she's hypersensitive, that she's, she's being dramatic, something like that. Version three is just classic defensiveness, which is why I think that character conversation that good people can be bad spouses idea is so important.
You can be an amazing human and still not be awesome at some function. So think about it like that when somebody's coming at you maybe with some negative feedback or criticism. My wife would say, “Matt, you did something that hurt me.” My instinct was to, like, defend myself to say, “Wait a minute. I did not mean to hurt you. If you understand, like, what I was trying to do, you won't be mad at me anymore. You won't feel bad anymore or something.”
Anyway, all of these response patterns are inherently invalidating to the person who's trying to communicate, “Something's wrong. Something hurts me. I'm trying to let you know because you're not psychic. I'm trying to recruit you to understand it, so that tomorrow and next week, and next month, next year, the same thing won’t keep happening.”
That's the goal of the conversation where person whose hurt comes to the other partner, and just wants to let them know, “Hey, something's wrong. Help me.” But if my brain did not align with my wife's brain, I didn't respond in a manner that suggests that tomorrow I wouldn't do the same thing over again if my feelings didn't align, if my intentions didn't align.
Here's what my wife learned. She learned after 12 years with me that if I didn't agree with what she believed, or I didn't, like, agree that she should feel the way that she felt, that I would always choose what I thought and what I felt over her, even at the expense of her, like, emotional experiences. That's what she learned.
If we want to talk about trust in a relationship, and trust in my estimation being the most significant condition required for relationship health and longevity, and I just think a lot of people think love is. I think a lot of people painfully leave a relationship with somebody they love. I just think the absence of trust, the erosion of trust is the greatest predictor of relationships that will end.
We can do this as a decent human who loves his or her relationship partner, but just fails to validate over and over and over and over again. Because the message is simply, “I'll always choose me over you,” even though, like, that's not philosophically how I thought about it. It's the math result of the conversation pattern.
We have to take ownership of that and learn how to eliminate what I've come to believe this is very unhealthy, toxic, conversational dance that we do in our relationships. I coach people to begin a new habit of validating—replacing the habit of invalidation with validating.
I like talking about it as habits, because I'm not smart enough and I'm not good enough as a human being to help somebody make some spiritual change, so to speak, or to grow intensely. I do know how to encourage somebody to change a small behavior and practice it over and over and over again, and the hopes that the math result will be trust restoration and a relationship.
Lisa: Definitely. Well, I mean, at the end of the day, it is ultimately all about that behavior change. I think what you just shared is so important and understanding, helping people understand the why.
It's so significant because I am certain that if I had been in the room with you, and that was happening, and I'm like, “What's going on?” You would—you loved your wife. You had nothing but good intentions. You're probably trying to help her. In that moment, if we had to crack into your point of view, it wasn't—
Matthew: Certainly sometimes.
Lisa: Ill intention. But that result of really understanding the way that people feel, and I think also understanding what the priority is in those conversations, is that emotional intimacy. It's attunement. It's feeling cared about. That's how adults express that and receive that is often through sharing feelings, and feeling important and emotionally safe with others when they do.
To be able to learn how to do that is just such a crucial relationship skill. Unfortunately, not to gender stereotype, but you've mentioned several times in our conversation so far, that can often be men in heterosexual relationships who struggle here.
I firmly believe that this is largely due to just a lack of socialization. That these kinds of skills aren't prioritized in boys and young men as they're growing up, so they literally don't know how, don’t know what's a thing, don't know why it's important. “Why would I do that anyway?” Until they experience the consequences of it and start having these conversations.
The Monster Under the Bed
Matthew: Dr. Bobby, do we have time to talk about this funny little, like, monster under the bed analogy that I like to share?
Lisa: I'd love to hear about the monster under the bed.
Matthew: Do we? Well, it's the thing that helped me. So I went from, like, guy, just like all these other guys, and I now—try to help people not practice this invalidation habit anymore. This is the thought exercise that, like, broke through for me. I honestly don't remember how I even thought of it. It's just the thing I eventually concocted that worked.
My son is thirteen, but he used to be four. When he was four, he was a threat to wake up in the middle of the night—afraid of a monster hiding under his bed. I like to think about how I would have shown up in that scenario ten years ago, fifteen years ago.
The way is, let's pretend I'm watching Monday Night Football, and I hear my son crying. So I'm gonna pause it or just run upstairs or whatever. I'm going to open the door and I'm going to discover that my son is crying and feeling fear, because he thinks there might be a monster under his bed. And my default instinct back then, as his father would be, I know there's no monster. I don't want my son to feel afraid. I want him to stop crying selfishly because I want to go watch football again. And the way I'm going to solve this problem is to sell him on this knowledge that I have that he doesn't have, that there isn't a monster under the bed.
And so I might say something really careless and not very good from a parenting standpoint, in my estimation, but many of us maybe grew up like this. That says, “Dude, there's no monster under the bed. There's no reason to be crying right now. You know, you're afraid for no reason. Settle down. Everything's fine.” I might say something super toxic. Like, “Be my big boy. Toughen up. Everything's okay. You know, this has been your bedroom your whole life, like go to sleep. And you know, I'll see you in the morning.” I don't have time for invisible monsters that might be some like gross, selfish thing that I might have done, you know, ten, twelve years ago.
Anyway, I just think there's like really critical ideas to think about for like the guy that's me in this scenario that didn't grow up with relational skills. Because I understand why we know the harmful, the threat isn't there. And if we can just implant that knowledge in this other human, then problem solved and we get to go back to doing whatever we were doing before. I think that's like the way we're thinking about it. And I think there's like if there was a judge in the room, I'm right, in this instance, right. Not all relationship conflict is so demonstrably provable. That a lot of times, it's more nuanced than that. But in this case, I'm right. And I love my son, and I would never, ever try to hurt him.
Despite those three things, what's the math result of this example? My son's alone in the dark, he's afraid, he's crying. And he just learned that if dad doesn't think the thing that's adversely affecting me, is important. If he doesn't think my sadness, or my fear is worthy of his time, he abandons me, literally or metaphorically to cry alone in the dark after implying that I'm stupid or weak for acting the way that I'm acting right now. And it doesn't mean this child in this example, doesn’t know dad loves them. I think it just means trust eroded, I think it means the quality score of our relationship just took a hit. And that if that's how I always show up when he's suffering through things large or small, over time, I'm going to lose all of the trust that I just earned that I was gifted as his father.
And in the future, when he hurts, he's not going to invite dad to be part of those conversations. So right when he's offered drugs, when he's experiencing bullying, when he's whatever, some really unpleasant things in his life that I as his father really want to be included in, in order to like, be like a decent, connected, loving father, he won't invite me to. I'm no longer I'm no longer a safe person to include when life's hard. And so I’d really like the guys that I'm working with to think about that.
And hopefully, they get that this is like a metaphor, our adult relationships in the way that we respond to people when we don't when we think that they believe something that isn't real, or when we're somehow disagreeing with their emotional reaction to something, because there's a better way. Because it's not about agreeing with your relationship partner. It's not about agreeing that there's a monster under the bed. That's not the thing that makes your relationship better. And in fact, being right, I think in this instance, proves to harm the relationship, increases disconnection, increases mistrust.
There's another way to show up, and it's who I want to be today. And I hear my son crying, I'm going to run up, I'm going to open the door, I'm gonna sit on the bed, I'm gonna hug the kid. I'm going to find out what's going on. And I say to him, “I don't think there's a monster under the bed. But I'm really sorry that you're afraid right now. I have been afraid. And it's just about the worst experience one can have. And I'm so sorry. Let's turn the light on to make sure there's no monster under the bed.” And the idea that I really want the guys I'm working with to like, embrace and latch on to for dear life is the following.
This is me talking to my hypothetical son in this example, is: “When life's hard, when things hurt, when things scare you, I want you to know you can always call mom. You can always call Dad, and we're going to show up for you. And even if we can't fight your battle for you, or fix what's wrong, you never have to feel alone. You never have to feel like you're the only person suffering this bad thing that you're experiencing. That's what you can trust to happen over and over again, when you call dad, when you call mom.”
And that is the lesson that I really want the guys that feel like I did 10-15 years ago, to walk away from this conversation with to set aside feelings of correctness, feelings of certainty, feelings of I gotta fight for what's right. Because I know that I know more about this than she or he or they do value the quality of your relationship. And the way it's done is by communicating that in the future, when bad things happen to them.
You might not be able to fix what's wrong. You can just try to understand, you can care. But most importantly, you're not going to neglect and abandon the people you love to suffer alone. And I think that that really nuanced behavior change, mindset change. And Brene taught me right like that idea. Brene Brown’s work taught me about like the metaphorical idea of sitting with your friend in the dark, so that they didn't feel alone because I hadn't really I was always like, who just sit still and doesn't do anything. You feel so helpless.
But it's not about that. It's not about it at all. It's about communicating that today and tomorrow and always, if you're suffering. I know that I can't fix it's not about that. You're just not alone. I'll give you space if you need it. But if you want to not be alone, you'll never have to be. I wish I'd given that to the people that I loved. My entire life, but nobody had imparted on me like the wisdom of like, right that that behavior that messaging. And so the only person who's ever really truly gotten it's my son, because I know it's a thing that I've learned and he's about to go to high school and I think he is going to trust me.
Lisa: Well now you can teach him differently. But I totally agree. We don't attribute a lot of value to just simple connection. I think we're socialized into doing or fixing or problem solving. And it's really just being there together in those moments. That's the most important thing. But it's so easy to miss.
Hey, can I ask? I don't know if this would be too personal of a question. And if it is, we can scoot over. But I'm thinking right now of people, couples, individuals who might be listening to the show. And in my experience, it is so easy for people to talk themselves out of doing something, getting help for their relationship.”It's not that big of a deal. It'll be okay. It's just we've been stressed.”
Fork In The Road Moments
Lisa: But looking back at your own experience, if you had a time machine, can you identify some of those fork in the road moments that if you had done something or taken action at that time, it could have led to a different outcome? I'm wondering what your advice would be for somebody who's maybe who, for whom that fork in the road is still a little bit ways ahead of them, just to help them see it more clearly than you were able to?
Matthew: I can think of several of them. But the problem is they present small. And so I feel they'll seem so undramatic to everybody. But a quick list would be what I mentioned in the book, and it's one of the things I'm most ashamed of in the world is a couple of these that I mentioned in the book, that some of them that I'm most ashamed of in the world.
But the very beginning of our dating relationship. Early, I was still really interested in autonomy, and not feeling trapped in a relationship because we'd only been dating, I don't know, a couple of months or something. And I would make plans to like, go see friends and things like that. And then I'd get some negative feedback about that. I don't know if you remember this, but she gave up—she was going to move with three of her friends to a different state. And she completely changed her life plans to remain in the city, just so she could pursue a relationship with me.
And then what she got in return was me continuing to fight to be like the single quasi-bachelor guy. And I don't literally mean that. I don't mean like, so I could go date other people, but I mean, I had no—at 21 I had no desire or context for this idea of inclusion of consideration of thinking about, if I make plans on a Thursday, or Friday or Saturday to go to this bar, keg party, or whatever I'm doing, I should absolutely be checking in with my person to see how it might affect her.
It was just not an idea that had fully cemented yet. But anyway, we'd fight about it, and she'd get really upset. And I wish I would have just sat whether I wish I just would have sat with her instead of the like cold, quasi-angry, defensive, “I can't believe this is your reaction to this totally normal thing that I'm doing.” Because it started there. That was like the seed planting for how I was always going to show up in relationships. Man, there's a ton like in our marriage.
Oh my I hope these don't make her sound ridiculous, because she's really not ridiculous. She really wasn't. She liked white gold better than yellow gold. I haven't talked about this very many times. It's not in the book. And I buy her yellow gold jewelry sometimes. We didn't have a lot of money. So they weren't particularly extravagant things. But most of the things I got her, including her engagement ring, were yellow gold, despite her affinity for white gold. And I just was so dismissive of her preference for white gold on the basis that I thought it looked like silver.
And silver is like the inferior precious metal to gold. And so it's like you're gonna get like the thing that is and looks valuable. And I know that might sound so ridiculous, maybe to somebody listening, but it's right. It was another piece of evidence that I will always choose what I think and why I feel over her. It was just another and so you take a beautiful gesture, a gift and you castrate it somehow. You cut it off at the knees, whatever. You make it a negative event.
And then that same guy, and I'm really talking about me, gets defensive at the quasi like negative reaction to it. The lukewarm reaction you're sort of offended by, because it's like, “Goodness, how ungrateful can this human be?” And then you almost get like mad about I mean, stuff like that happened with us, I would fail to consider and fail to validate, and then be angry with her for feeling hurt, for feeling dismissed and unheard. And so I mean, just all these tiny, tiny moments, the vast majority of which I can't remember.
And so we talked about forks in the road, they were the two lines were just like, going by a half degree each time, but over 12 years, you end up out here. And I didn't know how to think about it like that. I kept waiting for her to evolve into somebody that would think and feel about stuff the way that I did, which is really ignorant. But I guess I kind of thought something like that was gonna happen.
Lisa: Very common.
Matthew: So yeah, it's really that the big one that I feel morally obligated to say is that sometime, within a week or two, prior to my son being born, our son being born, a couple of dads had told me, “Listen, she's gonna be so exhausted. If her labor is anything like my wife's was, she's going to be so exhausted. It's critical, it's imperative that you get adequate sleep. So that when you have to make all these decisions about tons of stuff—shots and circumcisions and birth certificate spellings and all the things, you need to be as with it and lucid as possible.”
I had it in my head, that I was gonna go home, we live really close to the hospital. I was eight minutes away, I was gonna go home, and get a decent night's sleep after the baby was born. Well, what actually happened was, there was an induced labor, it lasted more than 24 hours. And then she had to have an emergency C section. And she was a wreck, understandably, a wreck.
And sometime around 1:30 In the morning, about five hours after surgery in the birth of our son, I was like, “Hey, I'm gonna go.” And then boom, all of a sudden, there's this conflict. Imagine not having the conversation ahead of time, by the way, like, imagine not having it. So that everybody's expectations were met, I have no earthly idea why I was the way that I was. But I was insistent that everything was okay, that she had a nursing staff, and they all knew how to do things. And I was worthless. I couldn't help with any of this. And it wasn't about that, right? It was about sitting alone in the dark with somebody.
And that, in my estimation, was my greatest abandonment, and the biggest trust killer, by far. I just really think that's the one that really did me in and I didn't know it at the time. And I don't think I ever recovered from that. And I think any thoughts she might have had about having a second child with me, went out the window. Really if not, then very quickly after bringing our baby home and being the default parent from day one. To all the moms out there. I'm so sorry.
Lisa: Oh no, it's so important for people to hear. It really is. Because there's the little things lie the little snowflakes that kind of pile up into a drift. But what you were talking about after birth, there's actually a technical term for that sort of thing and it is an “Attachment injury.” And there are some of these moments that where people are particularly vulnerable, after birth, they're sick, a parent just died, something major is going on.
And how we respond to our partners in those moments do carry more weight, and they are either opportunities for connection, and you use the word abandonment. That is how it is experienced in those moments, and they can be their traumas, their injuries, they persist long after the event and I hear that that's a hard one.
Matthew: It may still be something she carries. I wouldn't doubt it. She's very kind to me. She doesn't behave in a resentful way with me.
Lisa: Oh, no, yeah, no, I'm understanding but for the relationship.
Matthew: Yes, I would not be surprised if deep down there was still a lot of anger and resentment about that. Despite she lives a very, very near as I can tell, happy, healthy life. She has been in another relationship for like, six, seven years, to an exceedingly decent human being and everything's great. Like her son and I, but that's the one I think, and then we did lose her father.
And I think this is an important idea for people too. We lost her father a few years later. And it was obviously very traumatic. And I think the single greatest like shock, loss, grieving moment of her life and what's interesting about the loss of her father is, I was all in. Like, I felt it too. There was not any disagreement about the severity of this incident, I was fair, present, locked in, supportive. And after the initial sort of wave, the first two-ish weeks, there was a really hard sort of like, shift and pull, pull away that happened. And she was never the same. And it wasn't terribly long after we ended up in separate bedrooms.
And then 18 months after that our marriage officially ended. But when I tried to diagnose my marriage, early, as it was falling apart, I believed wholeheartedly that my wife suffered major shock and trauma and grief from the loss of her father. And that she was allowing those intense and understandable understandably intense emotions to usurp the seriousness, sacredness, importance of our relationship, of our marriage. And so she was allowing an understandably horrible thing to in an unhealthy way, infect, our marriage and not want to participate in it. And that's the reason we fell apart and ended. I truly believed that narrative, and felt like a victim of unfair circumstances back then.
And what I understand today is that through a series of micro infractions, and a couple more major ones, like the hospital incident, I had demonstrated myself to be someone she could simply not trust when life is hard. I treated her the equivalent of the child that I said, “There's no monster under the bed, get over yourself, everything's fine.” So it wasn't about, “he doesn't love me”, it was, “he probably does but his behavior never feels like it. He doesn't feel safe, he doesn't feel like somebody I can count on when life's hard.”
And so I think that is such a common narrative in relationships, where the slow erosion of trust occurs through all these, like tiny betrayals, and all these tiny invalidations, so to speak, but then when the major event hits, the person in suffering, realizes that the other person is not a person that mathematically results in safety, and love and care. It's just not it's not an oasis of peace and togetherness, “It sucks this person is not safe for me. So I'm gonna go seek refuge elsewhere or alone, because it's better.”
And I really want people to become aware of the severity of the micro infractions, because the collection of those is what yields those relationship ending moments down the road.
Doing The Work Early
Lisa: Definitely, you hit the nail right on the head. That's always why relationships end. It’s one person stops believing that it could ever be different, and what is happening is no longer acceptable. Were you surprised at the very end or did you think you had more time? Did you think it could still be better?
Matthew: I slept in the guest room for 18 months. And that's when the work started by the way. I was probably about three ish months before she left, I read a book calledHow to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It. And it was the first book I've ever read, when I think the title is a misnomer. Because I don't think anybody believes you can have a healthy marriage without effective communication.
But it was the first time, that was like less the point then I had for the first time the experience of, “I'm not alone.” If two like longtime therapists can write this book, and tell these stories about random people, whether they were real or concocted scenarios, honestly can't remember. But they look sound and feel so exactly like my life, which is the beautiful thing.
I get the feedback I get today that my stories feel like that for other people. And I'm so delighted that that's the experience people are having. I think it's so powerful if you've not had it before, to experience that I'm not alone, because I don't think most people talk about the scary, vulnerable, sad stuff that's going on in our relationships. I mean, we frequently suffer in silence.
But I think men in particular are afraid to tell people. We’re like afraid to announce it to our parents or our best friends or coworkers. Like we don't look, I don't know if we don't look like failures or why or if we're just not comfortable talking about like the hard scary stuff. But to find out that millions of people have exactly the same dynamics and their relationship was so liberating and empowering because it was like “Wow, we're not this anomaly. We're not these like statistical freaks that we’re just like a lot of people. Then that means the inverse of that is there's a path out .”
You said it already that it was too little too late. The damage was done. So was I surprised? I wasn't surprised intellectually that she left. I was surprised at what my body did when it happened. I was surprised at the loss was really severe for me, the combination of her, and then half of my son, he was only four at the time. Losing the—and I know there's a lot of people that you met, you should be grateful you get to see him half the time, well, probably.
But when you're a dad, and you love your kid, all you can think is I only have 14 years left with them. I've just now, now I have seven. Like, that's how my brain where I'm like, I lost seven years with this little human that I love more than anyone. Anyway, the combo of those two things was brutal. And I know, I didn't like it. But it was the fuel necessary to begin this work. I had to learn how to protect my future self and my son from having things like this happen.
I felt like this sort of great moral responsibility. And the process gave me so much humility, as I slowly uncovered what I believe is the true story of why marriage ended. And it was a series of miscalculations and blind spots. And I very strongly believe that the vast majority of the pain and disconnection and mistrust and the relationship was a result of things that I did. Not because I'm a terrible person, because I did not execute effectively what it means to love somebody in a healthy relationship.
I didn't know better. And my biggest crime was not doing the work, when she was trying to sound the alarm that something was wrong. And just continued to dismiss and invalidate just like all the other things.
Lisa: Did you guys ever think about going to couples counseling at some point along the line?
Matthew: We did a couple of times. But it's—I don't really know, I don't think maybe what a particularly skilled therapists look like, I think that a lot of couples will forgive me, please, if this implies that I—
Lisa: Oh, please speak freely.
Matthew: People use marriage counseling wrong, in my opinion, they wait till things are horrible and then they go to a third party. And it's why I refuse to work with two people at the same time in the same conversation. Because I remember what it felt like to have both of us speak and to have your mis—you're never even having the same conversation. I am arguing about whether the dish should matter. And she's arguing about being seen and heard.
When you're not having the same conversation, everybody hurts and everybody's invalidated. And I just feel like, you drive home and you're more pissed. I remember just how like wound up and awful it felt. And it was not the fault of, of the marriage counselor, the therapist, that was the fault of me allowing this to have built up to where it did. What I really wish people would do. I wish people would go to marriage counseling all the time, as maintenance.
Lisa: Did you know that most marriage counselors—I shouldn't even call it that—most therapists who offer marriage counseling, have no specialized training or experience in couples therapy. 98% of their affiliates who are doing couples counseling, do not have the training and experience to help, what happened to you two sounds like you had the same fight just in their office instead of in your living room. Like why did we go pay for that?
A truly expert marriage and family therapist who knows what to do in those moments would have handled it very differently. And so I am hearing just another layer of tragedy. Not— I don't know, maybe it wouldn't have been different in that moment. But that is really just crappy. And I'm mad for you that your experience
Matthew: Thank you. I don't know, I'm certainly not disparaging the profession. And I think it really matters
Lisa:I feel annoyed about the profession for that reason but people are practicing outside their scope of competence and it has very real consequences for families.
Matthew: I'm not trying to pat myself on the back here. But I want to work with one human on personal responsibility, and habits to show up differently for the other person that is like my charge, if you will, and nothing else because I don't know how to navigate so many of those complexities that occur between two people and right. And there's often, there's traumas.
There's like legitimate traumas that people need to work through as individuals, not just the relationship traumas, but the individual traumas from childhood and things like that. And right that's, I don't even know how to identify or name those things. But in the spirit of consideration, in the spirit of I need to mindfully calculate for my relationship partner, so that I do things that serve their best interests instead of harm them.
If we're unaware of a trauma, of a pain point. Again, you're just you're constantly flying blind. So I think there's a lot of pitfalls for a lot of people out there. And I did not have the wherewithal ten, fifteen years ago, to say any of the things I just said. To think about the way my wife at the time had dynamics with her parents and her older brother, those family dynamics might have contributed to choose the baby.
And the thing I know today that I didn't, that I knew back then but I didn't appreciate what she always felt like not, like she didn't have a voice in the family. She was least likely to have any sort of like power in the family or that if her brother picked on her, her parents would and her brother’s awesome. I get it, but her parents like didn't save her, didn't rescue her. She felt like this, she had this like residual sort of disrespect, mistreatment, cast to the side. And this is like a concept that I understand how I was perpetually triggering that through a series of things that I was doing. And I used to poke fun at her a little bit and she'd ask me not to.
Lisa: But we all have our wounds that we're carrying into our relationships, and that's the work, is understanding what those are and what our partner’s wounds are, so that we can attend to them. And it sounds like you understand things now that you didn't then and, and I know that we probably need to glide to a stop here soon. But I also just want to commend the work that you're doing. Now I'm hearing kind of between the lines that when things finally did come apart, it was, as it is, for so many people, I mean, when you lose your primary attachment, it's in your family, it's incredibly traumatizing.
But that you used this painful experience to to really like become an activist to say, “Okay, what what happened?” and really are so committed to doing good work and communicating things that you didn't know, then but that you do know now to other people so that they can hear and understand, and have the opportunity to do something with this sooner than you did. And not that I'm happy for anything that you went through. But I always admire people who are able to do something so positive, not despite of their adversity, but because of it, and you're doing that.
Matthew: Thank you, I feel the same way. I love the guy that gets out of prison, and then spends the rest of his life helping troubled youth. I love those kinds of stories. And it's almost similar, like sort of metaphorically, sometimes this like regular guy way that I talk about things is useful to another quote unquote, regular guy out there.
Matthew: If there is such a thing, at least what my brain calculates to be, “regular guy” they don't know either they they don't have the awareness and the relational skills, and they love their spouse, and they love their children and can we get to a place. And so the feedback sometimes from guys is “Thank you, because your life sounds like my life. And now I'm able to, like, avoid some of the mistakes that you did.” And I love hearing that.
And then from wives, from girlfriends, I'm frequently hearing, relationship partners, because again, as you know, it doesn't always fall in gender lines. It just sort of statistically commonly does, and but, to feel heard and seen and validated. And it gives me hope that the men in my life might be able to come to some of these realizations. It's just really cool that I get to be like a part of that, considering that the worst thing that's ever happened to me, and in my estimation, the worst things that I've ever done, are rooted in the exact opposite of all of that.
I am frankly proud of it. I don't want to sound like back patty. Like, I think I'm really great. I don't, but I am very proud of what you said, we're trying to, like, leverage pain into something positive. Because that that's very real. And it's a passion project. I don't know if you know that my parents split when I was four. And then I split, my son was four. And it just been this like life-defining thing.
Divorce has been like, in the background, my entire life, making everything a little bit more painful, a little bit more inconvenient. And then to learn that in highly over simplified terms, so much of it is blind spots and misunderstandings, a lack of awareness, a lack of skills that nobody has ever taught anybody to come to believe that it feels like such a crisis tragedy. It's like, can I be part of just—I don't know, I think of myself as somebody who raises awareness.
I just want to raise awareness that things you're not paying attention to are probably the things that could cause you the most harm. So please pay attention. And I'm delighted to be invited to these conversations. Thank you so much.
Lisa: Thank you so much for sharing this message. And I completely agree it's raising awareness, paying attention to things that you might not not think to pay attention to are actually the important ones. Thank you so much for spending this time today and you guys listening so Matthew Fray. His book isThis Is How Your Marriage Ends: A Hopeful Approach to Saving Relationships.
And you have many more stories and personal insights and also a fair number of strategies and tips throughout that book. So thank you so much for consolidating your wisdom into a manual.
Matthew: Thank you so much for reading. It's embarrassing almost when someone like you does it. I just think about all the times you're like, “Oh, I don't know about that.” But it's so nice. It feels really good to have someone like you sort of like, sign off on it as being like a legitimate piece of work in the world. I value that really highly. Thank you.
Lisa: Thank you and you're 100% spot on. It's right on the money. It's that attachment and connection and emotional attunement and how you create it or not. So anyway, I'm so glad that we got to chat today, Matthew, thank you again for taking the time to do this with me and let me know if you'd ever like to come back if you have other other books coming out in the future. No, we'll talk again sometime.
Matthew: Thank you anytime you'd like to, I will be here.
That question is overtaking “what’s your sign?” on dating profiles, and I have to say I think it’s an improvement. When a marriage counseling or relationship coaching client knows their attachment style, I’m thrilled; Becoming aware of your attachment patterns helps you understand how you show up in relationships, and how that impacts the way your partners respond to you.
Can the Zodiac tell you that? I don’t think so.
But, as with any psychological concept that gets compressed into 50-second TikTok videos and disseminated widely, confusion about attachment styles is gaining traction as quickly as awareness of them. And that’s too bad, because attachment is both important and fascinating stuff.
When you become attached to a romantic partner, an invisible machine starts whirring in your brain, monitoring the security of that bond and the availability of your mate. If the relationship feels threatened, attachment prompts you to take action to preserve it, either through bids for more connection, or for more space.
This machine keeps our relationships alive and in balance, which makes it possible for us to sustain love for a lifetime. So how does it work? And why does attachment look so different from person to person, relationship to relationship, or even from day to day?
I created this episode of the podcast to answer these questions and more. We’ll be diving into the science of attachment, some popular misconceptions about attachment styles, and common attachment dynamics that may be playing out in your relationship — and how you can handle them.
I hope this episode helps you to better understand yourself and your partner, and gives you a new appreciation for your brain’s incredible attachment machine. To get the most out of this episode, I recommend taking our attachment styles quiz first.
Attachment Styles in Relationships — Episode Highlights
Attaching to a romantic partner is a fundamental human drive. It happens without much effort or conscious thought on our part — we simply canoodle with an attractive mate, and before long, find that even the thought of losing that relationship is enough to cause us a full-on freakout.
Our first attachment is with our primary caregiver when we’re babies. There’s no substitute for this connection; without it, babies can’t develop into happy, healthy kids.
But the quality of that primary relationship will shape the way we bond with other people for the rest of our lives. This is your attachment style, and it has a major impact on how you show up in your most important relationships.
Adult Relationship Attachment Styles
The first thing to know about attachment styles is that they exist on a spectrum. Perfectly embodying one attachment style or another is exceedingly rare. Instead, attachment is a bell curve, and most people spend their time hanging out on its hilly center.
With that caveat out of the way, here are the four identified adult relationship attachment styles:
Secure attachment — People with a secure attachment style have the core belief that “I am ok and you are ok.” They believe they are worthy of love and respect, and generally trust their romantic partners to treat them that way. Securely attached adults don’t spend too much time worrying about whether their partner loves them, cares about them, or wants to be with them. They tend to recover from breakups and rejection fairly well, and they’re comfortable with both closeness and space in their relationships.
Anxious attachment — People with an anxious attachment style aren’t so confident that they are ok. They worry that their partner doesn’t really love them, care about them, or want to be with them. They’re afraid of abandonment, and they require a lot of reassurance that their partner isn’t going anywhere. Sometimes their need for reassurance can arise through controlling behavior, and can have the effect of pushing their partner away. They may be labeled “needy” or “clingy.”
Avoidant attachment — People with an avoidant attachment style don’t feel worthy of love and respect, and they don’t trust other people to meet their needs. They tend to feel it’s safer not to rely on anyone, and they have a core belief that they are on their own. When a partner tries to get close, avoidantly attached people can experience that as a threat. They may avoid commitment and emotional vulnerability, and develop negative narratives about their partners to justify holding them at arm’s length.
Disorganized attachment style — Also known as anxious-avoidant attachment, people with a disorganized attachment style may display an inconsistent orientation toward their partners. They may want love and closeness, but have trouble trusting their partners, and feel a deep need to protect themselves from abandonment or rejection at all costs. They tend to alternate between pulling their partners close and pushing them away. Disorganized attachment is not the same as having fluctuating feelings about a partner, or a fluctuating desire for closeness; it’s a rare attachment style that’s associated with an abusive environment in childhood.
Relationship Attachment Styles Aren’t Static
Our attachment styles vary from relationship to relationship, depending on how our partners are oriented. If we’re with an anxious partner, who only feels loved when we’re constantly reassuring them, we’ll naturally feel a little more avoidant. If we’re with an avoidant partner, who seems standoffish and remote, we’ll naturally feel a little more anxious, and a bit more preoccupied about the relationship.
Even within the same relationship, attachment styles fluctuate. During periods when your partner seems more distant or withdrawn, your anxiety will be piqued; you might find yourself pushing for more affection or attention to alleviate your anxiety about how secure the relationship is, without being conscious that you’re doing so. If your partner starts to seem needy, clingy, or demanding to you, you’ll naturally push for more space, and move a little closer to the avoidant end of the bell curve.
This is the attachment machine at work, helping your relationship find an equilibrium so that it can be sustained. But sometimes couples can get locked into extreme pursue-withdraw dynamics, particularly when an anxious partner is paired with an avoidant partner. This can cause a lot of conflict, and a lot of stress for both partners.
If a pursue-withdraw dynamic is happening in your relationship, it can help to understand why you’re either withdrawing from your partner, or pursuing them, and what their predictable reaction to that will be. These cycles can be hard to break, but working with a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, who understands relationship systems, can help.
Attachment Issues in Adults
When it comes to attachment, there’s a wide range of what’s normal and fundamentally healthy. Just because you tend to lean a little more on the anxious side, or you tend to need a little more space in your relationships, doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong.
But that doesn’t stop people from armchair diagnosing themselves or their partners with “attachment issues,” which are actually pretty rare. Attachment issues in adults are on the far ends of the attachment style bell curve, and they’re often associated with childhood neglect, abuse, trauma, and abandonment, or with personality disorders that develop independently of those experiences.
Of course, this happens, to varying degrees. It is possible that your past experiences or your genetic predispositions have led you to develop attachment issues as an adult. But labeling yourself or your partner with attachment issues isn’t helpful; It makes it harder to develop self compassion and understanding, to learn and grow in your relationship, and to develop the trust and emotional safety that a healthy attachment requires.
Attachment Styles In Relationships
If you suspect that you and your partner’s attachment patterns are triggering conflict in your relationship, working with a licensed marriage and family therapist with an understanding of attachment can be incredibly helpful.
And just being part of a healthy relationship can also go a long way toward healing insecure attachment. Through secure relationships, people can recover their sense of trust and safety with others. [To learn more about how this works, listen to this episode on Healing Relationships.] I hope you enjoyed this episode on attachment styles in relationships, and that it helped you understand some of the invisible dynamics at work in your relationship. Want to learn more about your own attachment style? Take our attachment styles quiz.
Episode Show Notes
[5:52] Attachment Styles in Relationships
Attachment is having an emotional, psychological, and, to an extent, physical bond with someone.
There are three main attachment styles—secure, anxious, and avoidant.
None of these attachment styles are “wrong” or abnormal.
[15:17] Do I Have Attachment Issues?
People have a tendency to self-diagnose themselves with specific attachment issues without understanding what’s healthy.
Most people fall within the normal spectrum of secure attachment with some behavioral tendencies towards anxious and avoidant attachment styles.
There is no one with a perfectly secure attachment style.
[22:35] Biological and Childhood Influences of Attachment Styles
Attachment has its roots in basic human survival drives; we need communities and family bonds.
Answering an ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) questionnaire can help you understand if you have some difficulty with attachment.
If your attachment style is causing issues in your relationships, it’s best to consult a licensed marriage and family therapist.
[30:04] Attachment Issues in Adults
Bonds and attachments happen in every relationship, not just with your romantic partner.
Changes in relationship dynamics or responsibilities can cause rifts that may threaten a person’s attachments on an emotional level.
Relationship distress can make even the most securely attached people exhibit traits of insecure attachment.
[41:03] Opening Discussions About Attachment.
It’s okay to talk about attachment behaviors you or your partner exhibit.
Talking to your partner or people can help you both feel more secure with each other.
Music in this episode is by Yuutsu with their song “Attached.”
You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://yuutsu.bandcamp.com/track/attached. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to the Love, Happiness, and Success podcast.
That's the band Youth Zoo with the song Attached. I think doing a beautiful job of conveying the bond of a strong attachment to another person, and perfect for our topic today because that's what we're talking about—attachment styles in relationships, and how to figure out yours as well as that of your partner.
This is a super important topic, but I think also one that is very much alive in the zeitgeist right now. There's a lot of talk about attachment issues and what they mean, and not all of it is great information. I hope to dispel some of the myths today and help increase your clarity, and confidence, and understanding about attachment styles in order to be able to use this awareness for positive things in your life and in your relationships.
I'm glad we're here together today. Thank you so much for joining me. If this is your first time listening to the show, I am Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I'm the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching. I'm a licensed psychologist; I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist; I'm a board-certified coach; and I am the host of this podcast. I love doing this show for you.
My intention of every single episode is to make these really, genuinely helpful and valuable for you. I'm always listening to your questions that come through on Instagram. Sometimes people email us firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions, and so that I can be sure that I'm creating podcasts that are genuinely helpful to you.
If you have questions or things that you would like to learn more about, please get in touch with me. I would love to hear what's on your mind. What I have been hearing a lot of lately is how incredibly important your relationships are to you, and understandably so. I mean, our relationships are truly the most important things in our lives in many ways.
I mean, having healthy relationships with other people is just so fundamental to having happiness and the life that you want. When things are not well with our relationships, or when we want more closeness with people than we have, or if we're feeling a lack of love and connection in our lives, it really impacts us on every level. There is a reason for this.
This is not some deficit that you should be happy by yourself and you aren't, so, “What's wrong with me?” It’s not even going to bat that away. The truth is that humans are built to bond. It is why we are here. It is essential to our survival from an evolutionary perspective, and attachment is also fundamental to our wellness.
That is true for children. Children literally cannot develop properly without secure attachment bonds. Some people experimented with this early in the late 1800s, early 1900s of the powers that be decided that it might be a better idea to take poor children away from their filthy alcoholic parents and put them in hospitals or orphanages. Perfectly clean, nice rows of gorgeous sparkling cribs, fed at regular intervals by clean nurses dressed in white and bundled up in identical little swaddles.
It all seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately, though, the babies kept dying, and nobody could figure out why. Until the psychologist and researcher John Bowlby showed up and had the gall to say, “Hmm, maybe it has something to do with our lack of attachment to one consistent caregiver.” Everybody sort of scratched their heads and said, “Oh, okay, maybe.”
They revised that policy, thankfully. Attachment in infancy is crucial to literally growth and survival. It is crucial to our developing of psychological health and wellness in very basic ways in early childhood. It is no less important to us as adults, and the idea that it should be otherwise is very much a myth of Western culture.
I'm just going to take that myth away from you while we're talking. Instead, turn our awareness to what attachment really is and how it really works. My hope for this conversation is to help you understand what is normal and also help you understand when there might be signs of real attachment issues, so that you can manage them effectively because you can. So we're rolling into all of it today.
This is a huge topic. We have a lot to talk about. We're probably not going to cover all of the everything about attachment during this conversation today, but broadly, I'd love to give you an understanding of all of this. Let's start by just defining our terms. Like, when we talk about attachment styles in relationships, what are we talking about?
Attachment Styles in Relationships
Attachment is essentially having a bond with someone—an emotional bond, and a psychological bond, and, to a degree, believe it or not, a physical bond with someone. In the sense that when we do bond with another person, we experience neurological changes and even hormonal changes. Attachment happens on very deep levels.
When we're talking about attachment styles, we're referring to your signature ways of relating to others. Broadly speaking, there are several different kinds of attachment styles. There are what we think of as a secure attachment style, which is the ability to have strong, enduring relationships with other people.
Where the core assumptions and the core kind of emotional experience of that relationship is, “I am fundamentally okay. I am fundamentally worthy of love and respect, and other people are fundamentally okay and trustworthy. I can connect with someone and feel generally sure that they will treat me well and be nice to me. I will get my needs met in this relationship, and we're all alright.”
That is the nonscientific way of describing what it feels like to have a secure attachment style. Not that there aren't ups and downs, but that fundamentally, “I'm okay and you're okay.” It's important to understand that the attachment kind of style, the way of relating, extends to other people as well as to yourself, “I'm okay, you're okay.”
There are other types of attachment styles that can show up when babies, young children, and anyone through our lives have experiences with other important people that teach you otherwise—either, “I am not okay, and I can't trust you,” is where other kinds of attachment issues start to show up.
Broadly speaking, there are two other kinds of attachment styles. There is an anxious attachment style where the core experience with other humans is, “I'm not sure that I am okay. I'm not sure that I am worthy of love and respect, and I'm not sure that I can trust you to meet my needs.” What that turns into is a lot of anxiety about relationships.
“I don't fundamentally know I'm okay, so I need a lot of reassurance from you that I am okay. I need a lot more like active love than a securely attached person needs in order to feel okay. I don't trust that you're gonna give it to me. Even if you do give it to me, I can't trust it, that it's real, so I need more, more, more, more, more.”
Somebody with a really anxious attachment style never really feel secure in relationships, never really feel loved, and really needs a lot of reassurance and like active love behaviors. “You have to say nice things to me and give me lots of compliments and tell me you love me 75 times a day. If I text you, you have to check me back within five seconds. If you don't, I'm going to be very upset because what does this mean?” So lots of anxiety.
Also, in very anxiously attached people, it turns into a lot of controlling behaviors because they really need this from others in order to feel okay and secure. When they don't get it, they tend to get very escalated and very upset. You see a lot of control happening in relationships from anxiously attached people who are trying to get their partners to do things in order to help them feel better, essentially. That is one far end of this attachment spectrum.
The other end of this attachment spectrum refers to people with avoidant attachment styles. Similarly, early in life, they had experiences with usually caregivers where they learned, “I am not worthy of love and respect, and I cannot trust other people to be safe or meet my needs. Therefore, I am making an executive decision that I no longer need other humans.”
“Other humans are not relevant. They are not important. I am the only person that really exists, that matters, I can only trust myself. I'm not even going to try to connect with others, or think for a moment that my needs will be met by them. Because not only will they not be, if I get too close to them, I will be in danger, so I'm just not going to do it at all.”
An avoidant attachment style turns into a fundamental psychological solitude, essentially. “I am the only being. Other people are sort of around. I may try to utilize them in order to get my needs met. But without an emotional attachment, because that is not going to end well.” People become very much islands with an avoidant attachment style. Other people aren't safe, fundamentally.
There's also not a desire to attach to other people, commonly with people who have very serious attachment issues on the avoidant side of the spectrum. What this also looks like in practice is that in relationships with people that do begin to develop some closeness, somebody with a very avoidant attachment style, will begin actively rejecting that other person.
These happen at like deep emotional levels that are nonconscious, but what that bubbles up into is a lot of consciously all of the reasons why somebody isn't good enough. It's a lot of criticism; it's a lot of comparison; it's a lot of focusing on somebody's negative characteristics—all the reasons why they're not going to be a good partner, and really kind of talking themselves out of a relationship, because fundamentally they feel uneasy being close to other people, and so they rationalize it.
Somebody with an avoidant attachment style will usually have a series of fairly short-lived relationships. They will either find ways to end those relationships—kind of breaking up with people, and it is always the other person's fault, by the way. Or there can be a lot of, like, cheating behaviors because, in their minds, they're not in a relationship anyway. The other person is not that important to them, and there all these other people that they could be hanging out with, so hey, why not?
It can look like the sort of indiscriminate attachment. Superficial kind of bonds with other people that—but nobody is, like, really important is what that can kind of look like. These attachment styles, as you are inferring, can have major issues on the health of your relationships. If you have a very pronounced attachment style in one of these directions or another, it's going to be global.
If you have an avoidant attachment style, it's going to show up in every relationship with your significant other, with your family, with your boss, and vice versa. It's very powerful stuff. It's important to know this about yourself if you have these tendencies in every single situation, because this stuff has to be managed or you are going to blow out of every relationship, right? Through no fault of your own, like you didn't make this happen, and was the hand you got dealt, and it's crappy, and it's yours to deal with, and again, it can be managed by understanding it.
It is also true that there are attachments, and attachment styles, and attachment experiences that happen in relationships that can feel like these, and to a degree, they are very, very normal behaviors, truly. Again, while the attachment issues are very significant, either if you see them in yourself or if you're trying to have a relationship with somebody who has very significant attachment issues, it's real.
Do I Have Attachment Issues?
But the thing happening right now that I think is so interesting is people are self-diagnosing, or diagnosing their partners with attachment issues, without a full awareness of, like, the normal spectrum of what this looks like and how attachment always works in every relationship. I think a great example of this, I sometimes get asked to provide expert opinions or whatever, with journalists will, like, reach out and ask for commentary.
I had this one very nice girl reach out not too long ago. She was working on a piece for publication about attachment styles and relationships, and could I provide some insight like, “Yeah, sure.” We're talking with each other about attachment and kind of secure versus anxious, avoidant. As we were speaking, she was like, “I'm pretty sure I have disorganized attachment style. Like, I'm anxious and avoidant in relationships.”
I heard that was like, “Oh, really? Tell me more.” She's like, “Yeah. Sometimes just when I'm with people, sometimes I worry about how they feel about me, but then sometimes I wonder if I really want to be with them anyway. So I don't know, I'm pretty sure I have disorganized attachment styles.”
Like, “Okay.” In the back of my mind, I was thinking, unless you were raised in an orphanage staffed by Satanists, I don't think you have disorganized attachment style. It's very rare, and it is very profound. It is associated with, like, really serious early childhood and abuse—abuse, and neglect, and abandonment. Certainly, like, that exists, right?
I mean, people do end up in foster care and live through terrible neglect, and drug addicted parents, like all those things happen. But even then, like, if babies have even just enough, like, somebody in their lives was good enough, they can achieve so much resilience and so much health.
But—what, anyway, what I came to understand through talking with this journalist, and what has also come out in conversations with clients, is that I think what's happening is that people are learning about attachment styles, anxious attachment styles, and avoidant attachment styles, and doing the same thing that I and the rest of my classmates did in our first year of counseling school, where we read the DSM and basically diagnosed ourselves with everything in it, and started handing out diagnoses liberally to friends and family.
It's because with things of a psychological nature, we can see instances of these things in ourselves. If you have just enough information to be dangerous, it is very easy to make kind of sweeping statements about yourself and others that are not just inaccurate, they're also not helpful. Here's the irony, doing that too much can also create issues in your relationships.
If both you and your partner are completely fine, have secure attachment styles, but if you are interpreting either your or their behavior as being in some way pathological and then kind of going off to the races in that direction that will also cause problems.
I want to unpack this a little bit more with you. What ended up happening with this journalist, and also sort of happens usually with clients, at some point during our sessions, I do begin drawing weird pictures. With this journalist, the weird picture that I drew was one of a bell curve. I don't know if you've ever encountered a bell curve in any statistics classes.
But essentially, if you visualize a hill—a hill with it's higher in the middle, and on each side, it kind of slopes down. What we do with these hills, these bell curves is it's kind of a visual representation of normal distributions of things. When it comes to attachment and secure attachment, imagine that the middle of the hill is fairly broad. Everybody in, like, that highest middle part of the hill has a secure attachment style.
There is no exact center. There is no perfectly, perfectly securely attached human. We can all kind of trend towards one side or the other based on our normal life experiences. But due to the culture of our families or just some things, we can kind of have a natural tendency towards being a little bit more attached or a little more avoidant, and still be very much within that normal spectrum.
Then, when we start to get to the edges of the hill and start to slope down on one side or the other, this is where attachment issues begin to be more pronounced. They're both on a spectrum. You can go from that normal, secure attachment to slightly anxious attachment. As we continue sloping further down the hill, and we kind of get to that tippy end. That is, is where you'll find severe attachment issues. It represents a very small part of the population.
Most people are somewhere in that secure spectrum. Whatever happened with their caregivers or early life experiences was good enough—does not have to be perfect, it has to be good enough. When we start getting to the sides of the hill, it means that there are some non ideal things that left tendencies either towards avoidance or towards attachment, much more rare in terms of a percentage of the population.
Then at the very tippy ends of the slopes are those serious attachment issues that I was describing for you earlier on the show, where people fundamentally have serious issues in their relationships where they cannot feel safe and secure with other people. They're very anxious, they become very controlling and demanding, or, on the other side, they are avoidant to the extent that they essentially block any efforts at attachment.
Those, again, are rare and are associated with serious things. I've had clients who do have those more severe kinds of attachment issues. Every single time it has been associated with things like being in foster care infancy, being raised by addicted or mentally ill parents who were not functional enough to meet children's needs consistently.
Attachment Style Quiz
If you are curious to know if your life experience is kind of consistent with that serious attachment injuries, you might consider taking the ACEs questionnaire. ACEs stands for Adverse Childhood Experience scale, I think. Anyway, Google it. It has a number of questions, and if you have a relatively high ACEs score, it means that you have had fairly extensive adverse childhood experiences, trauma experiences that would be consistent with those kinds of attachment disorders.
If that is the case and you're having these consistent issues in relationships, my sincere and heartfelt advice is that you take this to a psychologist—a very good, qualified, licensed therapist. You could see a clinical psychologist. A licensed marriage and family therapist will also have specialized training and education in attachment styles to be able to work with you on some of these things. For the rest of us, we're somewhere on that spectrum, right?
Why this matters is because the other thing that happens that confuses people is that, again, going back to the very first thing we talked about, because we humans are built to bond, we have hardwired machinery essentially in our brains and in our bodies that create attachments to people. Whether we want them to or not, I mean, we spend a lot of time with a person and kind of have a trajectory towards particularly a romantic relationship, you will develop attachment bonds.
One of the things it's important to know is that these bonds are created and maintained at nonconscious levels. They are related to human survival drives. Our ability to attach and bond to other humans is as fundamental to life. Human life continuing as like feeding yourself and not freezing to death from an evolutionary perspective because humans are a collective species.
We would not have survived out in the wild without being in tribes, in groups of people who were connected to each other, loyal to each other, and these were often groups based around family bonds, kinship bonds. Then, certainly, when it comes to the attachment bonds that parents have to their children and the partners have to each other, it gets even stronger.
When you think about it, it makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective because a parent cannot walk away from an infant, that infant would die. Similarly, partners, I mean, if there's a couple that has had a child together, and it's 100,000 years ago, that the female and the infant are going to be highly dependent on the male, or I don't know, maybe, depending on the culture of the tribe, it was the other way around.
But there's so much energy that goes into raising human babies, people literally cannot do it alone. The attachment bonds that people formed with each other held them together, even when things got hard. Even when there's a drought, or a famine, or a war, “I'm not going to leave you.” Because if people were left, people were abandoned, that's it: lights out, right?
These bonds exist in humans the same way that they exist in animals. You're seeing those documentaries of, like, mother bear or little bear cubs, and the mom is trying to, like, take care of the babies; same thing. These are very, very, very old, deep parts of your brain that are older and deeper than the part of your brain that is conscious. It's only the outermost layer of our brains and new parts of our brains that have conscious thoughts.
They visualize things; they think in words; they think into the future; they can make sort of interpretive associations or have creative ideas. That is the very outermost layer of your brain. That is what separates humans from animals. We have that sitting on the surface, but the rest of our brains, the inside, is still very much that old mammalian brain, and that is the part of your brain where attachments are formed and maintained.
There are some things that are a little bit different with human attachments, obviously, but it's important to understand that these are just so deep and so powerful, and they are baked into the machinery. I don't know how many of you listening have been pregnant before. But I remember when I had my first baby and was pregnant, I was fascinated by all of these things that my body was just kind of automatically doing that I had no idea.
It could do, like, all this stuff, just sort of like going on autopilot and things happening. It's like, “Oh, I was built for this. My body was designed, and it knows exactly what to do in order to create another human.” There were all these little mysterious, like, architectures and things that sprang into life when it was time to grow a child, right? The same is true for your brain. You have structures in your brain, you have hormones that get activated, neurotransmitters that get activated when we develop attachment bonds.
Interestingly, and I've shared this in other podcasts, particularly related to why it can be so difficult to end a relationship, like, some of the breakup recovery podcasts I've done, is that there is evidence to suggest that the parts of your brain responsible for those attachment bonds are the same parts of your brain that have opioid receptors and dopamine receptors.
When we think about becoming addicted to, like, illegal substances, or heroin, or cocaine, or whatever, the reason why people can get addicted to those illegal substances is because those drugs use the parts of your brain that nature originally developed to bond to other people. They essentially hijack it. I think that's very interesting and also important to know that bonding process is a natural, healthy, normal, addictive bonding process, but is just as powerful.
Attachment Issues in Adults
Biology aside, the reason why it's important to understand how fundamentally just human this is, is because attachment bonds happen in every single relationship. Wow. In the example of two securely attached people who get together, and they have a nice relationship, and generally speaking, they feel comfortable being close to each other. They aren't terribly preoccupied about their partner, worried about things.
They will, if their relationship becomes distressed, have these attachment kind of flare ups, because our attachment bonds mobilize in efforts to restore kind of balance, or equilibrium in a relationship.
For example, if you are married to a nice person, you're having a nice time and something changes. I don't know, maybe you start—maybe you had a child, and now all of a sudden, you know, who's taking out the trash or getting up with a baby is more fraught than it was, right? The totally normal, unexpected, but what can happen is that people can experience these kinds of relational problems as a threat to their attachment bond.
“You're leaving me with all this housework, you're not getting up with a baby on an emotional level,” that turns into, “Don't you love me? Don't you still care about me?” When these attachment bonds are threatened, all this emotional machinery flares into life.
What happens is that partner will kind of move towards the anxious end of the spectrum and say, “Hey, why aren't you doing this? Where are you? I need you to do these things. Please help me with this.” They become elevated, can sometimes even become aggressive in pursuit of getting their needs met, because they're trying to restore equilibrium into their relationship.
That will sometimes turn into disengagement, defensiveness, kind of in our narratives around, “Oh, you're just being ridiculous. It's not that big of a deal.” That is reminiscent of someone with an avoidant attachment style. That is also efforts to kind of maintain equilibrium in a relationship. This is very common.
I would struggle to think of a couple that I've ever seen over my decades-long career as a marriage counselor who was in a distressed relationship and coming in for help, and who was not having an attachment bond kind of flare up as a result of it.The most common combination we see is a pursue-withdraw kind of orientation where one person is aggravated, angry, semi-hostile, accusatory, and the other person is withdrawn or avoidant in response to that.
This pursue-withdraw, kind of round and round the thing, not fun, but very normal. Because the pursuing partner is feeling anxious in the relationship and is trying to get their needs met from their partner through outreach, that can often be angry and can often sort of come across as being controlling, right? Nobody starts this, and it's nobody's fault.
The normal behavior is to kind of withdraw in response to somebody who is—you're experiencing is threatening or critical or kind of out to get you, and vice versa. If you are in a relationship with somebody where you aren't getting your needs met, they aren't behaving in ways that make you feel loved and respected, the very normal and natural response to that is to say, “What the heck? Are we still doing this? Are you still there?”
The reason why I wanted to get into this a little bit is because these patterns are very, very common in relationships and have nothing to do with anybody being fundamentally securely or avoidantly attached when they show up. Two people standing at the tippy top center of that hill in any kind of relational distress will always start to fall onto one side or another with each other.
You can also have different experiences in different relationships. You can be in a relationship with one person who was maybe a little quieter or shut down or did not speak your love language and it made you start to feel a little bit anxious. You will begin to have anxiously attached tendencies in that relationship as a result of your reactions to that particular partner.
In a different relationship, you might be with somebody who's coming on a little strong, who wants to spend more time talking than you do, who maybe wants to have sex more than you do, wants to spend all their time together. You'll be like, “Yeah, I think I need to see some other friends right now,” or “Okay, it's a lot. No more talking.”
It could even be like an introversion-extroversion thing. I mean, there could be all kinds of reasons why there can be these sorts of differences. But in response to that person, you're going to try to regain equilibrium by pulling away a little bit from them. If you think back on your life experience with different people that you've been around, and can observe yourself kind of showing up differently in different relationships.
That's why our relationships are systems, which means that we react to other people, and then those other people react to us. This is why relationships and and couples counseling honestly can get so complex, is because there's this interplay of attachment, potentially, attachment styles, but also like attachment responses, and understanding these systems, right?, and the way that people relate to each other.
That is why, like, a marriage and family therapist—a licensed marriage and family therapist will be able to understand all of these systemic pieces. Whereas if you go to couples counseling for a regular therapist, either an LPC or just a psychologist who doesn't have that systemic training, and they will look at both of you sitting in their office and be like, “Oh, well, you're avoidantly attached, and you're anxiously attached, and you guys are not—I can't believe you found each other. What are the odds.”
There's this tendency to kind of look at individual psychology as opposed to that systems psychology. What winds up happening is that one or both of you gets pathologized. It turns into being about your issues, as opposed to understanding that dance that you two are doing together, so that you can resolve it together, which is what a marriage and family therapist does. As an aside, if you are going to see couples counseling, look for a licensed marriage and family therapist.
But back to the attachment piece. The other thing that can happen here with attachment stuff is that when people don't really understand how significant and severe, very real, like, attachment issues are, they can look at the experiences that they are having in their relationship, either how they are feeling in their relationship currently, or how they are experiencing their partner, and they can also begin to label and pathologize these.
The same way that if you went for couples counseling with a clinical psychologist who may have had one class in couples theory and techniques, there is a tendency to begin pointing the finger. If you are with a partner who is withdrawing, who is uncommunicative, who is not responding to you the way that you want them to, and you read some article or see somebody dancing on TikTok talking about avoidant attachment styles, it's like, “Oh, my partner has an avoidant attachment style.” That's what's wrong.
Ironically, what that turns into is, first of all, a lack of awareness of how your partner might be experiencing you—that is leading them to kind of avoid, and move away, and experience you as being more hostile and critical because now you're pointing your finger and calling them avoidantly attached and, “You're broken psychologically,” whatever.
It's really to the detriment of real relationships to pathologize our partners in this way, or vice versa to be in a relationship with somebody who wants more love and affection and attention than you've been giving them.
If you read a little bit of pop psychology, you might want to label them as having an anxious attachment style, which then gives you permission to basically invalidate everything they say next, because you've already decided that they have broken attachment styles and they're just being ridiculous, so you don't have to change anything about your behavior in this relationship, because it's not your problem, it's their problem, because they have an anxious attachment style.
Again, not helpful. If this is a relationship that you're interested in keeping, it's important to understand systemically what people do in relationships in response to each other. That involves these signature attachment styles in relationships.
Now, of course, it is also possible that you are actually connected to somebody who has adverse childhood experiences that has resulted in nonideal attachment styles. If that's the case, also, just be cautious and understand that these things exist on a spectrum. That nobody is perfectly secure, or avoidant, or anxious. Again, other people might seem different than you based on cultural factors or what was normal in their family, which might be different than yours.
Also, that there's a wide variety of “secure” in the middle on the top of that hill there, so give people the benefit of the doubt. If you are experiencing somebody as being avoidant, or attached in their interactions with you, it's okay to have a conversation about that.
I listened to this podcast about attachment styles, and I realized we might be doing this thing together. Listen to—you can get somebody to listen to this podcast with you and say, “I feel like we're doing this. I feel like you might have sort of anxious tendencies with me, and I could feel myself kind of stepping back from you. I wonder what we can do to both help each other feel more stable and secure again.”
Because again, all that means when people start behaving this way is that they're not feeling secure in their relationship. Either they're experiencing danger that they need to move away of, or they're experiencing a lack that they need to pull out of their partner, right?
Just to be how we'll have a conversation, like, “I feel like we're probably doing this with each other, and I'd like to get back to center again. What would help you feel safer and more secure with me?”, and to have a conversation about that.
Now, of course, if this has been going on for a while in a relationship, and bad feelings have been happening as a result, what you will also see is that people, their core narratives about each other start to change, it turns into “always/never” kind of language. “She is always complaining. I can never do enough. She's never satisfied. She has unrealistic expectations.” It's fundamental to her character, or “He is just unloving. He's dense. He has zero empathy. I think he might have Asperger's. He's incapable of loving me the way I need to be loved.”
The on-ramp to this is often just having those interactions with each other where these attachment styles are being expressed. People don't get to that core narrative without having had experiences with that person over and over and over again that teach you, “He will not understand how I'm feeling. He doesn't have any empathy for me. Why try? I'm just gonna give up right?” There's a long on-ramp to that, so just be aware of that.
Now very lastly, on the subject of those attachment styles in relationships, I will also say that if you believe that you are in a relationship with somebody or that you yourself are kind of on one side of that hill or another. So either an anxious attachment style as evidenced by consistently worrying about how not just this partner, but all your partners feel about you, whether or not you're loved, looking to specific behaviors to confirm whether or not you're loved. If you aren't getting those behaviors, feeling really bad and upset, needing a lot of reassurance and kind of safety seeking in your relationships.
If you or your partner are on the other side of kind of an avoidant attachment style, so the other side of the hill, there's a lot of distancing from people, a lot of criticism of other people, a lot of ambivalence about relationships, like, “Not quite sure I want to be here with you. Are you really good enough for me? I don't know.”, so like hot and cold kinds of things.
If you or your partner are either of those, the first step is achieving awareness that that's a thing, it's global, and breaking the idea that you're only feeling this way because of the specific person. If you have real attachment issues, it will be global. It will show up in all of your relationships, not just the one that you're in currently, so that's kind of the big sign.
Then, also, it's important to understand that just like people are harmed in relationships, that attachment machinery can change in response to what we experienced in very early infancy and childhood, and also through relational trauma later in life, I should add, not to the same extent. But okay, probably too much information.
Just like how people are wounded in relationships, people are also healed in relationships. The best thing that you can do if you have an anxious tending attachment style or an avoidant tending attachment style is to be in a healthy relationship with a person who is somewhere in the middle. Somebody who has a secure attachment style will be able to kind of ride the waves and the ups and downs of life with somebody who has anxious or avoidant tendencies and kind of help restore equilibrium.
They will not be as reactive, and it will be an emotionally safer relationship. Although you can take the most securely attached person in the world and put them in a relationship with an anxiously attached person, they will exhibit avoidant tendencies in response and vice versa.
The most perfectly securely attached person in the world, match them with somebody who has an avoidant attachment style, and they will become anxious in that relationship with that person in efforts to kind of restore that emotional equilibrium.
But recognizing this and working towards achieving a healthy, secure relationship with that person will not just feel better for everybody, but it will also be very healing. You might want to check a podcast that I recorded a while ago now with one of my colleagues, Dr. Paige, here at Growing Self, who specializes in relational trauma and talking about the power of healing relationships.
Even if you did have negative experiences early in life, and you might always feel a little anxious or a little ambivalent about people as a result, if you understand that about yourself and create a healthy healing relationship with a partner, you will have corrective emotional experiences that essentially retrain your mind, retrain your body, retrain that really deep attachment, bonding place in your brain that other humans are okay, they can fundamentally be trusted, and that you are fundamentally okay. You are worthy of love and respect. You're good, and you can expect generally good things from other people, too.
When you have those experiences over and over and over again, no matter what stage of life you're in, it is fundamentally healing. You deserve to have that. Healing relationships are key. I would invite you to go back and check out the podcast on healing relationships. Also, if this is an area where you'd like to work on yourself, I would strongly suggest that you get connected with a really good therapist who can help you unpack all of this, uncover the blind spots, and help you gain the self-awareness that we talked about so much during this episode.
Very lastly, there is another resource that I have for you on a previous podcast where we addressed attachment styles and relationships. I did a attachment style quiz that is really more of like a self-assessment and almost like a mini workbook. It's totally free. But if you want to check it out, you can text 55444 and then text the word “attach”. Wait, I’m embarrassing myself now—“attach” to 55444.
Anyway, you'll get an email with this activity that I created for you. It is a series of questions that isn't, like, some trite true/false, “Oh, this is your attachment score.” It's really more complex. It'll invite you to walk through, like, some journaling questions. You'll have some prompts to like reflect on your experiences growing up, some of those core assumptions, and I designed it to help you gain some awareness around those old patterns in yourself, so it's a useful tool.
If you have a therapist, you could certainly show it with them and do it with them. It might even be something interesting for you and your partner to do together if this is something that you're working on together as a couple, provided that you can have emotionally safe conversations about it together.
But anyway, it's a nice set of activities that can help you get clarity, but also even, I don't want to oversell it. You're not going to resolve attachment issues just by participating in the activity, but it will get the ball rolling, so there's that.
Again, you can text 55444—to text that number and then just type in the word “attach” and you'll get the link to the activity. Okay, that is all for now. Thank you so much for spending this time with me today. I hope it was helpful to you and I will talk to you soon on another episode. I'll be back next week.
Did you know that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell?
I’m guessing you did, because it’s one of those things that every high schooler learns and probably never uses, unless they go on to become a biochemist. Which, to be fair, is a pretty awesome career choice. But there are many things that are essential to becoming a functional adult, that I’m betting no teacher ever devoted a single unit of a single class to teaching you.
How to do your taxes is one of them. How to have healthy relationships is another.
Of all the things we learn in school, we get zero education about how to have healthy, loving, meaningful adult relationships. If you were lucky, a Geometry teacher doing double duty as a Sex Ed instructor may have mentioned something about consent.
But constructive conflict? Healthy boundaries? Attachment theory? We’re on our own!
As an experienced marriage counselor, I know that healthy relationships are essential to a happy life. Without loving, close, enduring connections with others, the rest of life has little meaning. I also know that we’re not born knowing this stuff, and not everyone grows up watching a healthy relationship unfold between their parents.
How are you supposed to know what’s normal, and what’s cause for concern? How can you improve your relationship without a vision for what “better” would look like?
That’s why I created this episode of the podcast for you: so you could learn about the basics of healthy relationships, and give yours some care and attention when it’s sending out distress signals. You’ll learn how to evaluate the health of your relationship, and the steps you can take to make it even better.
Signs of a Healthy Relationship — Episode Highlights
As a marriage and family therapist, I know that most people have a hard time distinguishing between normal relational turbulence, and surefire signals that their plane is about to drop out of the sky.
Without understanding what healthy relationships look like, you’re vulnerable to two major dangers, and either of them can destroy your relationship.
The first is:
Believing something is very wrong when everything is fine.
I often meet people who believe they should never argue with their partner, or that minor differences are a sign their relationship is doomed. Adult children of divorce are prone to this kind of thinking, as are people who witnessed an unhappy but enduring relationship between their parents when they were kids.
These clients are determined to avoid the same outcome, but they’re not sure what a healthy alternative would actually look like. They may refuse to commit to their relationship because it’s (inevitably) imperfect, see catastrophe looming after every fight, or expect too much and become overly critical, eventually wearing their partner down.
Seeing problems everywhere creates new problems. Both for the partner of the person with unrealistic expectations for the relationship, and for the unrealistic partner, who is prone to reject fundamentally healthy relationships until they learn about what’s normal and what’s not.
And the second danger:
Believing everything is fine when something is very wrong.
Without an understanding of healthy relationships, you’re likely to be oblivious or unconcerned about serious issues that are present.
This often happens like this: Sara is always telling Mike he doesn’t listen. “I’ll work on it,” Mike says, but he doesn’t step back and assess his listening skills, learn about the fundamentals of good listening, and then practice applying those listening skills with Sara. Instead, he thinks this is just something people say when they’re mad. He’s certainly heard it before.
So Mike stays the course, and Sara gets progressively more fed up. Eventually, she stops trying to be heard and starts withdrawing from the relationship. “Why does Sara seem so distant?” Mike wonders. “Better not ask. I don’t want to start a fight.” Eventually, Sara calls it quits, and Mike feels genuinely blindsided.
I’ve seen this play out between many couples, and it’s always sad. Mike loved Sara and he would have taken action, if he had understood that his relationship depended on it.
Characteristics of a Healthy Relationship
To avoid either of these bad outcomes, there are a few characteristics of healthy relationships that you should know. When I’m assessing a couple’s relationship, these are the components I’m looking for. Get these elements right, and your relationship will fundamentally work.
Emotional safety is the most important component of healthy relationships. Returning to our plane metaphor, emotional safety is your relationship’s engine. Without it, none of the other doodads even turn on.
So what is emotional safety? It’s the basic, felt sense of being loved and respected by your partner. It goes beyond hearing your partner say, “I love and respect you,” although this is nice. It ecompasses actually being shown through your partner's actions day after day that your needs, rights, and feelings are important to them. So much so that you can feel it.
In an emotionally safe relationship, you know your partner is committed to you, and that you’re not going to be abandoned if you have a disagreement or a bad day. You don’t feel judged by your partner, and so you feel comfortable being your true self with them. You know that they care about you and your wellbeing.
Emotional safety does not mean never having a fight. All couples have conflict, and yes, all couples hurt each other’s feelings occasionally. But when your relationship is emotionally safe, you trust that your partner doesn’t want to hurt you, not emotionally and certainly not physically. Fights are unpleasant, but they’re not threatening to you, or to your relationship. In conflict, you both manage your own emotional reactions and respond with compassion to each other.
This makes it possible to address problems as they arise and work through them together; when your relationship is emotionally safe, you’re not walking on eggshells.
Communication is about how you talk to each other, but also how you behave toward each other. You’re always communicating something, as the saying goes.
Healthy relationships have a lot of positive communication. This can look like words of affirmation, which is one of the five love languages. But it can also look like showing your partner curiosity or affection.
Thoughtful gestures are another form of positive communication. When you know your partner had a hard day, so you take care of the dishes without being asked, that communicates that you understand their experience and want to help. It doesn’t involve words, but it says a lot.
Of course, we also communicate when we’re not feeling so happy with our partners, and how you approach those conversations is even more important. When you have problems, how do you resolve them? In a healthy relationship, things may get heated and passionate, but it’s always respectful. Name calling, aggression, and abandonment are signs of destructive conflict.
On the flip side, if you’re not talking about problems, that’s an issue. Conflict happens in relationships, whether it’s out in the open or not. When you can’t address issues without the conversation becoming a catastrophic fight, things tend to get passive aggressive, resentful, and eventually, disconnected.
Unproductive conflict is more like a volcano: erupting periodically when the pressure is right, destroying a few villages, and then entering a dormant phase where things seem basically ok…until next time.
Every relationship involves teamwork. I call this the “functional partnership” aspect of your relationship. Who picks up the kids? Who mows the lawn? Who pays the bills?
In a healthy relationship, you’re able to work together in an effective, balanced way. You have dozens of little agreements, many of them explicit, around “how we get stuff done” as a couple. You may argue from time to time about who is or isn’t doing what, especially as circumstances change and these roles need to be rebalanced, but you’re ultimately able to find resolutions that feel good to you both, and that make you a better team.
When the “teamwork” component is missing, one or both partners will likely feel resentful. One partner may feel like they have to do everything, or it either won’t be done, or won’t be done properly. The other partner may feel their efforts aren’t recognized, or that they can’t do anything to their partner’s satisfaction, so they might as well stop trying. These couples often get stuck in a state of gridlock, where even talking about how they are or aren’t working together feels difficult.
Without good communication, teamwork is hard. When we feel criticized or taken for granted, we’re not eager to step up our efforts, or to cut our partner some slack. If you’re struggling with teamwork in your relationship, try working on communication first.
In healthy relationships, we enjoy each other’s company in basic ways. That doesn’t mean planning elaborate date nights or expensive vacations. Healthy couples can have a nice time chatting over dinner, or perusing the aisles of a hardware store.
You can have a lot of positive engagement in your relationship even if you don’t share a lot of interests with your partner. If you’re married to a birdwatcher, you don’t have to grab your binoculars and join them in the fields every Saturday morning. But when they come home gushing about the red-flanked bluetail they just spotted, give them your attention, and better yet, your curiosity. Showing interest in your partner’s passions shows your interest in them.
The opposite of this is judging your partner, or wishing that their personality or interests were different than they are. In an unhealthy relationship, the non-birding partner rolls her eyes when her mate gushes about the bluetail. Eventually he stops sharing this part of his life with her, and they grow a little bit further apart.
Shared Hopes and Dreams
Finally, healthy couples share hopes, dreams, and goals for the future.
You can do this in a million different ways, depending on what feels meaningful to you both. Many couples connect around their children, and the values they want to instill in them. Others connect around their home, or shared financial goals, or a particular community or cause that they both care about deeply.
Working together toward shared goals is what gives couples a sense of “us.” Together, you both get to become a part of something bigger than yourselves, and create a life that reflects your love.
If this is all sounding a bit ambitious, since you’re currently arguing about, say, who should take out the trash, don’t fret. Once you have the more fundamental healthy relationship components in place — like emotional safety, communication, and teamwork — your big vision for the future will come together more easily.
Healthy Relationship Quiz
I hope this podcast gives you a clear sense of which parts of your relationship are working well, and which parts could use a little work. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your partner. You may inspire a productive conversation.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to The Love, Happiness and Success podcast.
That beautiful song is called One Of These Days. It's by Bedouine. I thought it was the perfect song for our show today because she does such a gorgeous job of capturing the hope of somebody who really wants a relationship to work and believes that it can, and also an awareness of the realities of a relationship — and also to add another layer of complexity, her intention to create the kind of relationship that she wants to have with her partner.
That is perfect for us because we're going to be talking about all of those things on today's show. In today's episode, I am going to be helping you identify some realities of your relationship. In particular, what are things that signify that you have a healthy, strong relationship with a lot of potential and a lot of opportunities? Even if it's not perfect all the time, what's a keeper?
On the other side of that, what is really danger/warning signs for a relationship, and things that might be going on in your relationship that indicate there probably are bigger problems that are worth taking seriously. I wanted to offer this because so many people that we talked to in my practice or right into the show, their number one concern are their relationships and what's going on in their relationship.
A lot of times it's, “What do I do with this? How do I solve this problem? Or, is this a solvable problem? Is this a sign that maybe this relationship isn't what I want it to be, and maybe it isn't ever going to be what I want it to be? Then, on the other side, I think some people really, relationships are a mixed bag — all of them are. All relationships have some conflict and have some turbulence, and it can be really confusing because some people really in great and fundamentally solid relationships still wonder, “Is this okay?”
That's what we're talking about on today's episode of The Love, Happiness and Success podcast. If this is your first time tuning into the podcast — first of all, hello and thank you for being here. I'm so glad you're here. This show if you haven't listened before, this is all about you and my efforts to help you have better relationships, feel good about yourself and your life, and also do more good things in the world. This is all about empowerment.
In every episode of this show, I am attempting to step into the gap between where you are and where you want to be to help you just get direction and guidance that will help move you forward. What my sort of place is and why I'm presumptuous enough to think that I might be helpful to you — I am a marriage counselor, a therapist, and a life coach. By trade, I am the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching.
I spend a lot of time talking to people just like you — the therapy or counseling room across from me on my couch about stuff that's going on in their lives, things they can do to fix it. And you too deserve the benefit of good advice and some professional recommendations that can help you move forward. On this show every week, I'm attempting to answer the questions that you are telling me are important to you.
People get in touch with me and with us all the time with things that are on their mind — things about relationships, or personal issues that are coming up, or how to deal with different things. If you would like to do that, you are so welcome to. The easiest ways to get in touch, you can cruise over to our website — growingself.com.
We have a very active kind of comment/question community on those posts on our blog and podcast page. You can also send a general email to us — email@example.com, and also a great way to connect is through Facebook — facebook.com/drlisabobby. Let me know what's on your mind and you just might hear your question answered on an upcoming episode.
Is My Relationship Healthy?
Again, today, I am here to support you with your relationship. We're going to be talking about how to assess the strength and the health of your primary relationship that you have with your partner. This is really intended to be about your primary romantic relationship with your partner, your spouse. But I think that a lot of what we're talking about really applies to any kind of relationship in your life and how healthy it is.
As you're listening to this, you might consider how do my relationships with some of my friends feel when I apply these criteria to them, or even with family members — so that you can decide, “Are there areas of my life — relationships in my life — that could maybe use some extra TLC and/or maybe worth working at to improve? Or even do I set boundaries with some people if it's consistently not feeling good, and the evidence is indicating that it's probably not going to get better? So you can listen for that.
But before we jump into the criteria — how healthy is your relationship, things to look for — let me first tell you why this is so important. Because I think that this really matters and it's something for you to just keep in back of your mind as you're listening to the rest of this.
Many people who come into our practice for help, they're coming in because they are really in distress about their relationships. Either they're coming in the context of couples counseling, or even individuals — they're coming in because they're worried about their relationships, and they want to talk about their relationships.
What I see is that many people coming in, they feel genuinely confused about their relationships, and how they're going. Sometimes, best-case scenario, it's for seeing a couple and it's for couples counseling, and they're both in agreement that, “We have so many strengths and our relationship and so many things we want to build on, and we care about each other so much that we really want to invest in our relationship and make it the best it can be. We're here to get your help and just tweaking a few things and getting back on the same page, and making sure that this is just really feeling good for both of us.”
They're very proactive, and they're very focused on wellness. They're almost using couples counseling as a preventative kind of thing — coming in at the first sign of trouble. That is the absolutely best-case scenario. We love working with and helping those clients. We do great work.
Now, there are two other types of couples or people that come in with concerns about their relationships. Sometimes, there is just a general lack of awareness about what is healthy and normal in a relationship or a marriage, and what's not. That can create huge problems, and actually cause issues in a relationship. Let me explain.
Because I know that sounds really dramatic to say that a lack of awareness or almost education about healthy relationships can cause problems. But I'm not really talking in a hyperbolic fashion here. It's really because I sit with people who maybe have just had their families shattered by a divorce, or it's impossible to not sit with a couple that's like breaking up because of relationship issues and not walk away from that feeling really sobered by the experience.
Or, also working with people who come in, and they look back at the last 10 years of their lives and it has been a string of failed relationships that never even made it that far to marriage, but just over and over again with these patterns where they're feeling dissatisfied. They're ending relationships or they're connecting with people that aren't good for them, and the relationships sputter out.
That is really sad for a lot of people and it creates consequences that impact them, potentially for their whole lives is around the way they're handling their relationships. This is really big stuff. As I've mentioned before in articles and other shows, I think it's ridiculous that we spend so much of our lives learning in school about everything else.
We learn about Math, we learn about Science and Literature, but we get zero education about how to have a happy, healthy, functional relationship with another person. Nobody tells you explicitly how to do that. The ironic tragedy, of course, is that the quality of your relationships has much more to do with the overall quality of your life than your ability to write a coherent paragraph around Lord of the Flies or something like that. This is really important stuff.
Again, this is why I've been working so hard in other podcasts, and then the work in my group. Also, on this podcast today again is to try to fill that gap and give you information that can really help you and help you avoid the fate of some of the people who do ultimately show up for help in a space where it's pretty far gone — and they've been struggling for a long time.
This podcast is one way of doing that, and other kinds of educational things that we're doing is to try to correct this educational imbalance. We're overeducated with regards to so many things in life, and not educated enough I think when it comes to life skills around — again, relationships or how we manage ourselves as people. That's what I'm doing here.
Also, I created a little tool to help you get clarity about your relationship and how healthy it is. I actually created a quiz that is available on my website. You might consider taking this quiz before I launch into all of the information that I'm going to be giving you today because if you listen to everything first, and have an idea of what your answers should be, it may impact your results if you take the quiz before learning about what it all means.
If you are interested in getting a score on a measurement that can help you assess the relative strengths and “growth areas” of different parts of your relationship, I will invite you to pause this podcast for a second and come take the quiz. It's at growingself.com/relationship-quiz, relationship-quiz, and take the quiz. Then, come back to this podcast when you're done, and we will talk about what it means. However, obviously, don't do this if it's not a good time or if you're driving or something. But you can still just listen and take the quiz later.
Or, if you want to get really some interesting data, you might send your partner the quiz and see what their answers are. That could be very illuminating. It could potentially launch some really productive conversations between the two of you. That is something to consider as well. If you have the time and energy, take the quiz. But otherwise, I'm going to continue on here.
Unrealistic Expectations of Relationships
First of all, let me explain the dangers on two different extremes of what can happen when people really don't understand what normal healthy relationships look like and feel like, and why it can be so problematic on both sides of this spectrum. On the one hand, when people have unrealistic expectations about what good authentic relationships look like or feel like, they can perceive that they're good, happy, healthy, solid relationship is actually having problems when there aren't problems.
It's so that they begin to believe that something is wrong with their relationship when it isn't. Then, that belief, in turn, creates actual problems in a relationship. They may overreact to small issues or they might catastrophize and feel really hopeless about the relationship, become disillusioned with a relationship, or perhaps even become really critical or overly demanding of their partner, and the partner starts to feel diminished and like they can never make them happy. Then, that actually does cause real problems over time.
You might be thinking to yourself, “That's silly. Who would believe that there's an actual relationship problem when there isn't one? It doesn't make sense.” But think about it for a second, because most people, again, in the broader societal context of zero relationship education — where do we learn about our relationships? We learn about it from the movies and television, or we learn from whatever we saw our parents doing, typically, or the people around us doing.
On one extreme, we have what the media shows us about the relationship ideal, which often has very little basis in reality. Most rom-com certainly, and many other movies, they end when two people have just become over all kinds of obstacles and discovered how much they love each other, and they're the pinnacle of their romantic bliss. Then, the movie fades out, and they're in love forever.
It doesn't continue on and follow that rom-com couple for the next five years through the evolution of what happens next in the months and the years that follow after the excitement of a courtship. It doesn't portray a realistic picture of what a normal marriage looks like, and what is normal and expected for people as they transition into having a family or dealing with the ups and downs that life brings. People — we move, we change jobs, we have stuff to deal with, and our relationships can change and evolve in response to all of that. We don't have good models for that.
Then, on the other side, the other models that we do have are our parents, our family of origin, and the people around us. A lot of us had parents who did not know what they were doing when it came to relationships either. Being a child of divorce, or seeing your parents rotate through a couple of different partners as you were growing up, or even having parents who as so many do, found a kind of stable happiness where maybe they're not really engaging with each other, communicating well or enjoying their relationship, but they're able to have enduring partnership nonetheless. But maybe not one that any of us would aspire to.
For all of these reasons, we didn't learn how to do relationships. Either we have this romantic ideal for what relationships should be, and also if we saw our parents fighting with each other, and then they got divorced. A lot of people take that as fighting means divorce or unhappiness. There's a lot of fear if people do see things happening in their own relationship that are reminiscent of things that they experienced in their family of origin that their parents weren't able to successfully deal with or overcome.
Then, when they have normal conflict or disagreement or transitional times in their own marriage, it can become very easy and understandable, honestly, that they might take that to mean that they're about to get divorced, or that something really terrible is about to happen in their relationship because that's what they saw happen play out in the lives of other people, and they don't know how else to navigate through it.
Again, very understandable, but I hope that helps you understand why some people who have good healthy relationships can almost like misread the signals like the normal relationship turbulence and come away from that thinking that there's something really wrong when. Maybe, there isn't.
Part of my hope for today's podcast is to help you understand if maybe you lean that way, what is normal so that when you have normal ups and downs in your relationship, or maybe you and your partner do have a fight, you might think back to what we talked about today and say, “You know what? This is okay. We are okay, we can get through this.” And hopefully, have some tools to help you get through that in a productive way instead of getting scared. That is one thing we're going to be talking about today.
Then, the other side of the spectrum that is at least as problematic if not more so, is the sad side where people are not aware of relationship issues, and what are things that they really do need to be paying attention to and actively working to correct because there are things that people experience in day-to-day relationships that from a marriage counselor's perspective, it’s like, “Buddy, your relationship is about to drive off a cliff six months from now. Do you not see this?”
It's so hard because if people aren't paying attention to those signals, or if they're ignoring the warning signs, or minimizing them or blowing them off, or saying, “Oh, this isn't a big deal. My partner just needs to get over that. This isn't anything.” Or maybe, they avoid difficult conversations, or they get defensive, or just essentially refusing to acknowledge the issues that their partner is trying to bring up.
These are the people who wind up getting blindsided by a divorce or a breakup. When I say “blindsided”, I'm using my air quotes right now because as we autopsy of these relationships, there were all kinds of signs that this was coming, but they didn't know. They didn't understand that the whole time, they were wanting to avoid or not deal with, or not participate in finding solutions to their problems.
Their partner's needs and feelings were going unmet for a long time. Their partners were month by month, year by year really emotionally distancing themselves and losing respect for them, and losing hope for the relationship. In those cases, what we too frequently see is that for years, sometimes one person wasn't taking the problem seriously and their partner was really fighting for their relationship in a lot of ways.
Over time, the partner who had been complaining and saying, “Hey, we need to work on this”, will eventually stop. They'll give up hoping that change is possible. Then, they decide eventually that it's time to go.
Then, the person who hadn't realized how big of a deal these issues actually were, or who thought they could handle it on their own and that things will just get better — those are the people who are like hysterically calling us for next day marriage counseling appointment because their partner is like packing their car and begging their about-to-be ex to go to marriage counseling with them. Sometimes, it's too late.
The other side there, I also hope to offer today some realistic information that you could use, or even if you are with a person who isn't taking things seriously, put this information in front of them to perhaps help them understand that some of the things that are going on really are problematic and that you guys need to work together to improve it because it's not sustainable, the way that it's going. That's my other hope and intention for today.
So, it’s just to help you stay out of trouble, basically, on both sides of this. Let's now run down some of the basic foundational things that are either solid and in a good place, and the other stuff that can happen from time to time is just noise. If they're not in a good place, that fighting and conflict is really indicative of a much larger problem.
Domains of Relationship Health
In general, there are five different categories or domains of relationship health that we look at. One of them can be thought of — academically, it's referred to as attachment, but I think of it as emotional safety. That is the number one most important thing is how safe does your relationship feel to you. By safe, I'm not in addition to physical safety. Things like trust and commitment, and just feeling generally loved and respected by your partner. That all falls into the emotional safety domain.
The second really important domain that ties in with emotional safety is communication. How do you guys communicate with each other? And when there are problems, how do you solve those problems? Looking at communication can give you also a lot of information about how healthy a relationship is overall.
Another tremendously important aspect of relationship health is around your sense of teamwork, or the kind of functional partnership that you have with each other — the nuts and bolts of how you do things together day-to-day, and how good that is currently feeling for both of you.
When that isn't a good space, or if you have good processes in place to help you work through those issues as a couple, your relationship is really very strong. Also, if you are having fights all the time about teamwork, and who's doing what, and how that's supposed to happen — that is also something to pay attention to. It can be easy to blow off is just potato-potato stuff, but over time, it can really take a toll. We're going to be talking about that.
Another incredibly important domain of relationship is the level of positive engagement and enjoyment that you have with each other because even if there is other stuff going on that might feel challenging in other domains of your relationship, if you're still genuinely enjoying each other's company and feeling good with each other, and finding and intentionally cultivating those experiences to share — that is another huge point of resilience for your partnership. We'll be talking more about that.
Lastly, but not leastly, we are also going to be talking about the aspect of your relationship that has to do with your shared life — like how do you support each other's hopes and dreams, and have also a set of shared meaning and value. The sense that you guys are both working together for something that's bigger than both of you — that is also a huge strength for a couple. Without it, the foundation of a couple can really be damaged. We'll be touching on that too.
Characteristics of an Unhealthy Relationship
Those are our five basic domains. Let's just start by talking about the first one. The first domain is emotional safety. If you have solid emotional safety in your relationship, in my opinion as a marriage counselor, almost everything else is a solvable problem. If your basic sense of emotional safety feels more fragile or doesn't feel as strong, it is going to cascade down and negatively impact so many other aspects of your relationship. We're going to be talking about this one first and at most length.
If you are getting the sense that your partnership is struggling in a major way as you're listening to this, I would advise you to focus on building up this area of your relationship first because other things will begin to fall into place if you guys have emotional safety together.
Okay, what do I mean by emotional safety? Emotional safety is this sense, this basic sense, this felt sense of being loved and respected by your partner. It is beyond somebody saying, “I love you” or doing nice things for you. It's really feeling that your feelings, and needs, and rights are important to your partner. They show you that in lots of different ways that you fundamentally know that they are committed to you, they're not threatening to abandon you if you do something that upsets them, you don't feel judged by them.
You feel safe with them. You can be yourself and they like you. They like who you are. You also trust them to not hurt you physically, of course, but also in other ways. There are lots of different ways to hurt in a relationship and to damage trust and relationship. How does your partner respond to you when you come to them with — I don't know.
Maybe, you're going through a hard time emotionally, do you feel cared for by them in those moments? Do you feel like they're emotionally available for you? If there is a problem that you need to solve in your relationship, is it okay to say that and say, “I wonder if we could work on this.” Or, do they say, “Babe, what's going on?” Or, do they start screaming at you and throw a chair out the window? Or, do they get immediately angry and refuse to talk, and slam the door and walk out?
That is not emotional safety. That is a lot of real insecurity emotionally. Emotional safety is really about the basic trust in, “I'm loved, I’m cared for, I'm respected”, and that you're with somebody who is able to conduct themselves in such a way that they can manage their emotions so they're not scary or they're not rejecting. They are also able to be responsive to you — they can listen to you, they can talk to you, they can meet your needs and just basic ways, or work with you to solve problems.
It's just you don't feel like you're walking on eggshells all the time, or that if you're about to do something wrong, there will be consequences — those things are the opposite of emotional safety. With that in mind, I would like to say that all couples fight, all couples have conflict — spoken or unspoken. It can show up in a lot of different ways. You didn't marry yourself, you're not partnered with yourself. It is natural, and normal, and expected that as people are coming together and trying to do a relationship together, there are going to be times when you don't see eye to eye or that one of you hurts the other person's feelings — that maybe that wasn’t intentional, or maybe it was intentional.
But these are just sort of normal things that can happen across the lifespan of a relationship. The fact that those things might be happening doesn't really mean that much. What matters much more is that, in general, even though you do get into it with each other from time to time — that most of the time, when you do have conflict, it is done in a way that isn't scary. It's not threatening to you or your relationship. Also, the kind of unspoken truth that you're both aware of while conflict is happening is that:
“We're going to get through this. It's going to be fine. We are not seeing eye to eye right now. We need to make some changes in the way we do things and we are willing to work with each other to create that. Fundamentally, at the end of the day, I know that you love me and care about me, and don't want to hurt me or want me to be in any kind of pain. And I feel the same way about you.”
If that sort of emotional safety is present, the other stuff is turbulence that can be worked through. Consider how your relationship feels when it comes to emotional safety. Again, if you want item by item, “Are these things happening? Check ‘yes’ or ‘no’.” The quiz might be helpful for you to differentiate what is indicative of emotional safety and what isn't. Again, you might want to check that out at the relationship quiz — growingself.com/relationship-quiz.
Okay. Now, let's talk about the next domain which is the communication domain. Communication refers to a lot of different things. It does refer to the way that you talk to each other. But communication also refers to the way that you behave towards each other and what you show each other both verbally and nonverbally. Healthy communication has two aspects.
First of all, there's a lot of positive communication in a healthy relationship. There are words of affirmation like, “Oh, hey! I'm happy to see you and I love you, and you look nice today.” Or, “You smell good”, or whatever it is. Or, “Wow! This is a great dinner. Thank you.” Words of kindness, and appreciation, and positivity.
Also, caring is communicated through things like curiosity, “How is your day? What's going on with you?” Communicating like, “I care about you and I want to be your friend. I want to know what's going on with your life.” Positive communication — just enjoying each other, and some people are more verbal than others.
If you're — I hate to gender stereotype because there are plenty of women who tend to be more introverted, and are partnered with men who are just dying to talk about stuff, believe it or not. In many relationships, it can also be true that the woman — the female partner if it's a heterosexual relationship — might desire that more kind of verbal communication, positive communication than their male partners.
When I'm talking about communication, that kind of verbal engagement can be a piece of that. But also, we need to recognize and value the other ways that our partners might show us they care about us through the things that they do for us through physical communication. Certainly, physical affection and sexuality can be a part of this too.
Also, just the thoughtful gestures that people can make — doing the dishes without saying anything can be part of it because they know you've had a hard day or spending 45 minutes helping you find your car keys because you're stressed out and don't know where they are. All of these things can be meaningful forms of communication that say, “I care about you. You're important to me. I'm here for you.” In healthy relationships, there's a lot of that going on.
The other side of good communication is that, while all couples have disagreements, and all couples have misunderstandings, and all couples have growth moments where something isn't working for one or both of them and they need to work through it — that communication, while it can be passionate, or heated, or, “No, you really don't understand. This is really important to me.”
That even though it can get intense emotionally sometimes, it is also done fairly respectfully. There's not name-calling, it's not screaming, and being scary and hostile — going back to that idea of emotional safety — and it's not rejecting. It's not defensiveness, “I don’t know what you're talking about. You're crazy. I don't want to talk about that. That's stupid.” That is really just as hostile and destructive as somebody who's very critical and attacking.
Or, again, going back to that emotional unsafety idea that you're walking on eggshells, or that you can't bring up things that are important to you, that it isn't safe to talk openly about potential problems without it turning into a big fight or a big catastrophe. Those would be evidence that in the communication domain. There are more serious problems happening where as long as everybody is like on best behavior and says “please” and “thank you”, and “pass the salt”.
It doesn't bring up any big deal if you guys can have a good time, but you can't talk about other more authentic things. Those are indications that you really need to take a look at what's happening in the communication in your relationship and work on improving that because those are problems that are going to get bigger over time, particularly if those communication problems result in one or both of you feeling fundamentally uncared for, or emotionally unsafe with each other.
Now, again, with communication, all couples fight, and those conflicts can get heated and passionate — but in a healthy relationship, that happens. But the difference between a healthy relationship is that in a healthy relationship, two people can have a disagreement. They can be upset with each other. They can feel frustrated and, “No, you're not understanding me.”
But what happens too is that they are able to either stay in the ring with each other and have that eventually become a productive conversation where they learn something new about the other person, or where they're able to identify some improvement that can prevent that misunderstanding or that hurt from happening again in the future, and then are willing to follow through. There's a certain sense that their conflict is productive in a healthy relationship.
Whereas in an unhealthy relationship, even though the beginning stages of an argument might look exactly the same, there isn't that ultimate resolution. It's like a big fight, and somebody slams the door, and the other person drives off. Whatever that fight was about doesn't really get resolved on a deeper level. That is evidence of, again, a much bigger problem if communication doesn't allow the two of you to ultimately come back together again, and find a solution.
The goal here is not to avoid conflict or not to ever be frustrated with each other. That happens in healthy relationships. But the difference, again, is that it's not productive at the end in an unhealthy relationship. Okay, hope that makes sense.
When it comes to the teamwork domain of a relationship — again, this also ties into communication and to emotional safety. But teamwork refers to the way that you guys do things together as a couple.
All couples, over time, in order to be happy and healthy and satisfied with each other, need to come together and create a preferably explicit set of agreements around, “This is how we do things as a couple.” It could be tied to housework, “I do the cooking, you do the dishes. You mow the lawn, I clean the bathrooms”, “We are intimate with each other on Tuesdays and Saturdays because that's the only realistic times we really have to be together.”
Or, we don't make plans with each other's family before first consulting the other person. There are all kinds of little — I hate to use the word “rules to live by”, but they kind of are. Not rules, but really guidelines around, “This is what I know you need in order to feel like our relationship is in balance. There is a balanced division of labor that we both feel good about. Neither of us is feeling resentful at the other for maybe carrying more than their share of the burden for keeping the wheels on this bus that we're doing together.
Also, agreements and understandings around, “This is how we do show each other love. This is the time that we connect together as a couple. I'm going to set boundaries around this time because this is our time to be together. We do Family Day on Saturday, so I'm not going to book myself up with a mani-pedi with my girlfriend on Saturday because I know that you're counting on that time to hang out with me. This is our time.”
It's all dozens of these really small little agreements in a healthy relationship. The health of a relationship fundamentally, I think in many ways, it can be assessed by — how many of those agreements do you have? Are they working for both of you? In couples that are really distressed or when communication isn't good enough to allow two people to continue a conversation long enough to come into a compromise around, “Okay, I'm going to do my yoga class on Sundays, and that'll be your time to hang out with the kids. You can go do your thing on Saturdays, and I’ll do the kids.”
Couples who are fighting all the time and who don't have good communication, it turns into a crap-show argument around attacks and defensiveness so that they cannot arrive at a productive conclusion where they're like, “Okay, I know what my job is.” Again, the presence or absence of those agreements can indicate one of two things. If you have a lot of these that are working really well, I think that's a really positive indicator that your relationship is fundamentally happy and healthy.
I would say that any conflicts that you might be having are just opportunities for you guys to arrive at new agreements that there may be areas of your relationship that have not been agreed upon yet. It may be, as happens with many couples, that life changes. As couples go through transitional periods — maybe you have a child, maybe one person takes a new job, maybe you move to a new community — for whatever reason, the agreements that you had in the past no longer totally applied to your life as it is currently.
All conflict means is that you guys need to come together and figure out this stuff. Again, that is normal, healthy work that all couples need to do. If you're having those kinds of conflicts, that doesn't mean that anything bad is happening. If you do not have a lot of these agreements around your partnership, if one of you is persistently feeling resentful towards the other, and if you are not able to have productive conversations that help you come to resolution, that to me would be a strong indicator that you have serious work to do.
If you leave these undone, or if you ignore them, what will happen is that the resentments will continue to pile up — and that it will become harder and harder to talk about this stuff productively without it turning into a big yucky fight. Take a look at what's happening with regards to your teamwork.
Now, the next important domain of relationship health goes back to your enjoyment of each other. To say very clearly, healthy couples that have a lot of strength and resilience, they enjoy each other's company in just basic ways. That does not necessarily mean that they are superficially — air quote again — “compatible”, or that they share a lot of common interests, or that they like to do the same things.
You would be surprised at how many couples I've worked with that are really worried that they are not good together, or that their relationship isn't going to be happy long term because they don't like to do the same things, or they don't feel like they have a lot of shared interests. The actual truth is that enjoying each other's company and having a good time doesn't have that much to do with whether or not you both like to do the same things.
What is much more related to is how flexible, and generous, and tolerant you can be with each other. Also, how much you just enjoy each other as a person. At the same time, there are all kinds of couples that are both really going to music festivals, or really all the stuff that one would put in an online dating profile, “I like walking on the beach. I like to travel.”
They like doing those same things, but they're still fundamentally not that compatible because when they go to the music festival or go travel to Tahiti, they're fighting the whole time because
they're not enjoying each other's company. I just want to reframe your idea around what a good solid healthy relationship means in terms of that fundamental enjoyment piece.
Again, when it comes to enjoying each other, what I'm talking about is, “Do you like your partner's personality and fundamental ways? Do you have a good time together when you're just doing regular stuff? It's nobody's idea of a good time to go to Costco for half a day on Saturday. But when you do that, are you having a good time? Are you just enjoying that? Do you have just a basic interest in your partner?
A huge area of health and strength for a relationship is that even if you are not personally that interested in something that is important to your partner, you are still willing to be generous and genuinely curious about their interests in it and what it means to them. Are you willing to join with them from time to time in the things that are meaningful, and valuable, and important to them? Or, can you support them in doing their thing even if it's not something that you can directly participate in for whatever reason?
Again, think about the health of your relationship. Do you typically feel good? Does your partner make you laugh? Do you think they're interesting? Or, if they're telling you about some obscure hobby that they're into that you're like, “Oh, really?”, can you extend the graciousness of being interested in them and what they care about, and communicating that care.
Likewise, maybe you're into some really obscure like baseball card… I don't know, whatever — statistics, and your partner isn't. But you feel that your partner is at least willing to talk to you if you came home, and you're all excited because you just found some rare Collector's Edition baseball card and whatever. Do they get excited with you? And are they willing to, every once in a while, go with you to the garage sale to go look for baseball cards, or whatever it is, even though it's not their first choice?
It's just the feeling that your partner is being generous with you, and that they could care less about baseball cards, but they are still enjoying just driving around on a Saturday with you and going to different places because they like your company, and vice versa.
Now, on the other side of this, what I would look for as a sign that a relationship does have more serious issues has nothing to do with whether or not people like the same things. But it is:
Are they judging their partner for liking the things that they like? Are they contemptuous of their partner's interests? Are they refusing to participate in things that are really genuinely important to their partner? Do they ridicule things that are genuinely important to their partner? And are they just day-to-day just having conversations? Do you feel like your partner doesn't like you and thinks that you're dumb, and the stuff that you're into is lame and feels like they're always rolling their eyes when they talk to you? Or do you feel that way towards your partner?
Those behaviors or those feelings to me would be indicative that there's a much deeper problem, and it is not about finding hobbies that you guys can both do together. It's about figuring out what's going on that's feeling so abrasive to both of you and really working on how do you cultivate a feeling of tolerance and acceptance for who your partner really is.
How do you learn how to appreciate them for who they really are and have gratitude for who they really are as being individual and distinct from you? Because if you're in a relationship that's colored by a lot of judgment where one person is really feeling like the other person should be more like they are, or vice versa — that is problematic, and that is also going to lead to… Over time, it will erode your sense of emotional safety and the foundation of your relationship.
Lastly, joined to that but different is the sense of shared hopes and dreams that a partnership has. In our last category, we were talking about that enjoyment, and that is really around appreciating and respecting each other and enjoying each other as individuals so that you both have space to be yourselves and that you like each other anyway even if you're different.
The other piece of this is — do you have shared hopes and dreams for your partnership and your family? Are there things that you can connect around that do feel meaningful to both of you, whether it's your kids or your home, or if you have financial goals, or if you have things that you're working towards — like in 10 years, we would like to be retired and buy a house in Vail, and whatever it is.
It could be other kinds of things. Maybe there is work that you both feel is meaningful and important to both of you. Or, maybe it is volunteer work, or maybe it's a particular cause that you guys both feel really good about. I could look like anything. But there is this sense of shared meaning and shared purpose, and like you're working together to create something or that you have values in common that both of you are working together to express jointly in your lives.
In healthy relationships, there is at least an element of that. There is at least some sense of “us”, of “we”, “This is what ‘we’ are doing with our lives. This is what ‘we’ want ‘our’ home to be like and ‘our’ family to be like. These are the values that we'd like to instill in our children, and this is how we are working together to create this future reality that we’ll share.
Then, strong couples, strong partnerships are talking about those things explicitly, “What are our five-year goals? What are our 10-year goals? Are we saving money for our kids to go to college? What are we doing with our lives?” Having open conversations about that — again, going back to that last category is also making space for the things that might be individually important for each of you, but that you're working together as a couple to make those things happen.
Maybe, the goal for you guys is that one of you could go back to school, and this is what the other person will do in the meantime. Or, that one of you has always had a dream for staying home and nurturing children, and this is how the other person is going to make it happen. Again, it's not that you guys are both doing the same thing, but that you are working together to create a life that both of you feel good about and having conversations around that.
On the opposite side of that couples that I worry about don't have that sense of “we”. They don't have that sense of future, they don't have that same sense of shared meaning and shared purpose. It's not to say that couples can't create that because I tell you what —
To people who don't have emotional safety, who their communication is going off the rails and are still struggling about the right way to load the dishwasher, they have kind of prerequisite work to do in the foundational aspects of their partnership before they can have those headier kinds of conversations around, “What are we doing with our lives?”, kind of thing.
Just because you might not be in that space now, that doesn't mean that if you can't do some repair work around those more foundational aspects of your relationship that you couldn't build a beautiful life together that's really based on your shared dreams and your shared goals, and feel like you're both working together to create that.
The Makings of a Healthy Relationship
Those are the different relationship domains that signify health in a relationship, or that signify growth opportunities in a relationship. Me talking through these, I hope that the number one thing that was conveyed to you is that every couple can grow. By working together on specific areas of their relationship, it can improve. Just because some of this warning sign stuff is happening, all that means is that you need to pay attention to it and work together to make it better.
That is the only thing that it means. It does not mean that your relationship is doomed. What is more concerning is if you're coming to your partner and saying, “This is a problem. We need to work on this.” And they are saying “no” — that may eventually spell doom. But we're not there yet. Because you're listening to this podcast, you're educating yourself and you're going to work on this with your partner. It can be okay.
If you have been listening to this podcast under duress, if your partner has you trapped in a moving car and is playing this podcast for you, so you'll listen — I hope that what you heard is that your partner really cares about your relationship and wants it to be better, and has wanted you to listen to this podcast so that you could learn about what areas of your relationship are feeling problematic for them and what healthy relationships look. Because chances are, if it isn't feeling good for them on some level, it isn't feeling good for you either.
I hope that this has put together a roadmap in your mind around goals that both of you can work towards, around what a happy, healthy relationship can look like for both of you. To my other listeners on the other side, if you have been worried about your relationship or having anxiety about certain aspects of it, the fact that your partner does disappoint you sometimes, or that you do have conflict every once in a while, or that you don't have a lot of things in common, or whatever —
I hope that you have also learned that those things don't always really matter that much and that you can have normal relational, turbulence, and friction and things can not always feel perfect. You can still have a really fundamentally happy, healthy, strong relationship; that this is just the experience of being in a long-term relationship as this kind of stuff happens sometimes, and I hope that it's helped you gain a deeper awareness and appreciation for all the strengths in your relationship.
As always, I hope that this podcast was meaningful to you and helpful to you. It is my labor of love and just my way of giving back to the world. I will ask, though, that if you feel like you've benefited from this podcast, or any others — if you could pay it forward to other people by leaving a review for this podcast, preferably favorable, but on iTunes or Stitcher or wherever you listen to this, it only will help other people find this podcast or stumble upon it in their own times of need.
They've just gotten into a fight and are trying to figure out what the heck is going on and what does this mean about their relationship — they can also hear this and get information that could help them. They won't unless you leave a review about this podcast because when you do that, it will make the podcast more available for them. Again, this is a totally free — I consider it to be a community resource more than anything else. This is a resource that only exists because listeners just like you have put it in front of other people.
We don't do any advertising or this isn't a financial thing. This is just free help. Anyway, that is my request of you. Also, I'd like to invite you to take advantage of the other resources. Again, if you want to take that quiz come to my website — growingself.com/relationship-quiz. That too is free.
If you have questions that you'd like me to answer on an upcoming episode rather, get in touch with me through my website. Again, through Facebook — facebook.com/drlisabobby. I love all of your questions. I read every single one, and I am compiling a list of things to discuss on the podcast based on the questions you're asking me, so keep them coming.
Alright, thank you again for listening and I'll be back in touch in a couple of weeks with another episode. Until then, take care.
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