Why Relationships Fail

Why Relationships Fail

Why Relationships Fail

Why Relationships Fail… And How to Protect Yours.

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. 

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Why Relationships Fail

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Why Do Relationships Fail?

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. 

Instead, marriages fail when two people who love each other don’t have the skills to navigate everyday conflict in a healthy, supportive way that helps their relationship grow. Over time, these conflicts turn corrosive, and their relationships become damaged beyond the point of repair until someone calls it quits in the relationship

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.

So with me today, to take a deep dive into what you really need to be noticing and paying attention to differently, is the author, Matthew Fray. His new book is called This Is How Your Marriage Ends: A Hopeful Approach to Saving Relationships. Matthew learned these lessons the hard way and is here with me today to share his hard-earned insight with you for your benefit.

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.

The Glass

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. 

Lisa: Totally.

Matthew: In fact, I used to do it in my youth and I'm so glad that I don't , right?

Lisa: Yeah. 

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. 

Lisa: Absolutely.

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—

Lisa: Yeah.

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 called How 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. 

Lisa: Absolutely

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.

Attachment Styles in Relationships

Attachment Styles in Relationships

Attachment Styles in Relationships

Hey baby. What’s your attachment style? 

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. 

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Attachment Styles in Relationships

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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 hello@growingself.com 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. 

On the other side of this same situation, nice secure relationship and all of a sudden, one of the partners is now experiencing their formerly calm, kind, generally loving partner as being aggravated with them, snappy with them, frustrated with them, and on an emotional level, their attachment becomes threatened. It turns into, “Oh, I am not safe with this person anymore. I need to kind of keep away, move away, distance.”

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.”

It turns into these, like, global kinds of narratives that we hold about each other. That is a serious danger sign in a relationship, and one of the key indicators that it is time to get in front of a competent marriage counselor quickly, because if that goes unchecked, that'll snowball into a lot of disconnection. 

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.

One thing you might do—if you scroll back through my podcast feed, I did a podcast about trust issues in relationships, so you might want to check that out. But also recognizing that the other side, too. 

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.

All right.

Building Confidence in Dating

Building Confidence in Dating

Building Confidence in Dating

If you’ve been swimming around in the dating pool for any time at all, I’m sure you’ve heard this advice: Be more confident. It’s sexy!

And, if you’re someone who struggles to feel confident while dating, that advice probably feels about as helpful as if you’d been told to be taller, or younger, or to have better hair. 

Lacking confidence is a problem that feeds on itself: When we don’t feel good about ourselves, that feeling can contribute to outcomes that make us feel even worse. We might view every rejection as a verdict on who we fundamentally are, and question whether we’re ever going to find the love we’re looking for. 

Unfortunately, none of that is attractive to the kind of partner you want to connect with. They’re looking for someone who’s solid, who knows who they are, and who can show up and be themselves, flaws and all. 

It doesn’t help that the modern dating process itself is a confidence-undermining machine. I constantly hear from therapy and dating coaching clients that the ghosting, breadcrumbing, and rollercoaster of disappointments that accompany online dating make it hard to feel good about themselves, and to persevere through the dating process. 

That’s why I wanted to create this episode of the podcast for you: So you could learn about the roots of true confidence, in dating and elsewhere in life, and show up to every encounter feeling sure of who you are — and fundamentally happy with who that person is. 

My guest is Neha P., a therapist and dating coach here at Growing Self. Neha has helped many clients find self confidence and love, and today she’s sharing some insight that will help you too. 

I hope you’ll tune in, on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. 

Xoxo, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Building Confidence in Dating

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Building Confidence in Dating — Episode Highlights

When you’re struggling with dating, it’s easy to start feeling bad about yourself. Many people wonder if they’re doing something they’re unaware of to turn off potential matches, or even, when things are going really badly, if they’re fundamentally worthy of love and respect

All of this can take a toll on your self confidence, and can make continuing to put yourself out there to face more rejection a challenge. But being able to cope with rejection and bounce back reasonably well is the number-one skill that you need to find love. There are literally billions of people who are not a match for you; you only need to find one who is, and continuing to date is the way to do so. 

Building confidence in dating can help: By building up your self-esteem, you can manage rejection in a healthier way, while becoming more attractive to the right person in the process.

Online Dating Confidence

Online dating can make it especially difficult to hold onto your confidence. Dating apps give us access to more potential partners than we’ve ever had in the past — and every one of those potential partners is also faced with just as many choices. 

When we have more choices, in dating, or shopping, or even in choosing which career we want to pursue, we take longer to settle on a decision. And that means we’re all doing a lot more rejecting, and we’re experiencing a lot more rejection. 

Add to this that communicating through a screen doesn’t always put us on our best behavior, and you have a dating pool that’s full of uncertainty, churn, and unnecessarily harsh rejections from people we don’t know (anyone who’s been ghosted after a few dates knows what I’m talking about). It’s enough to take a toll on anyone’s confidence. 

One way to maintain your confidence in the online dating climate is to keep these realities in mind, and recognize that they’re not just true for you, but for everyone. Online dating is an isolating experience, and when we’re not talking about it, it’s easy to imagine that other people have it easier than we do. But if you do talk with friends about their experiences, you’ll probably hear online dating horror stories that rival your own. 

Remembering that online dating carries some serious downsides, and that they’re not unique to your experience, can help you prevent disappointments from eating away at your confidence. 

What is Confidence in Dating? 

Confidence, in dating and all other areas of life, is about having a basic sense of trust in yourself. When you’re confident, you feel like you deserve good things. You feel like you have the right to take up space, speak your mind, and generally be yourself. 

Confidence isn’t about striving to be better, although we often think we need to improve before we earn the right to feel confident. Real confidence comes from self acceptance, and from valuing and appreciating yourself for who you really are. 

Dealing with Rejection in Dating

No matter how confident you are, rejection hurts. Literally — our brains process social rejection like they process physical pain

When you experience rejection in dating, the first thing you should do is validate that for yourself. It makes sense that you’re feeling sad, disappointed, and maybe even a little hopeless after a string of failed attempts at connecting. It’s totally normal to doubt yourself and to compare yourself to other people. 

Next, practice having a supportive inner narrative. What are you telling yourself about the rejection and what it means about you? Is this how you would talk to someone you love? (Hopefully, you are someone you love). There are likely pieces of your narrative story that aren’t accurate. This is a good time to remember your “wins,” or instances where you weren’t rejected (or, maybe even times that you were the pickier partner who did the rejecting!)

Part of having a supportive inner narrative is taking a realistic view of what rejection is actually about. We tend to personalize it, and assume the other person thought we weren’t good enough. But, in reality, we have no idea what’s going on inside that person, and rejection often has more to do with their own preferences, readiness, and whims than anything essential to us. 

Finally, try approaching your “failures” with a growth mindset. While it’s true that many of our dating disappointments are beyond our control (for example, it’s not really up to you whether someone is attracted, feels chemistry, or is at a point in their life where they’re able to connect on a deep level), you may be able to identify some regrets from your dating experiences. That’s ok — making mistakes and then improving is all part of the process. 

Dating Confidence Tips

Still not sure how to feel more confident while dating? Here are a few tips: 

  • Make a list of things that you like about yourself. You might feel a little silly doing this, but seeing your self-love on paper can help you remember your best qualities. 
  • Remember a time when you felt confident. Were you making someone laugh, taking part in a hobby you love, or maybe just doing your job? When you’re on a date and feeling like a big sweaty pile of nerves, remember you’re also that person, and this potential match may just get to see that, if they’re lucky. 
  • Remind yourself that it’s not (just) about you. Whenever we’re having a relationship, there are at least two people involved. The person you’re dating will bring their own issues, preferences, values, attachment styles, and context to the table, and those things will either line up with what you’re able to offer, or they won’t. Rejection really isn’t as personal as it sometimes feels. 
  • Remember you also deserve to be picky. You deserve to find a healthy, loving relationship with someone you’re genuinely excited about. Don’t approach dating with the mindset that that’s not out there for you, or that you’re going to have to settle. 
  • Treat other people with kindness and compassion. When you treat the people you’re meeting like human beings with emotional lives as complex and important as your own, you can date with integrity, and feel more confident about yourself and about what you deserve from others in the process. 
  • Give yourself time and space to process rejection. If you start to feel down, burned out, or hopeless after dating rejection, give yourself a break. Dating is supposed to be fun — not a grueling exercise or a form of self punishment. Take good care of yourself emotionally, and you’ll be better able to connect with the people you meet. 
  • Get clear about who you are and what you want. You probably have a list of what you’re looking for in a life partner, but have you taken the time to get clear about your own goals for dating, and the kind of relationship you’re trying to form? When you have clarity about your intentions for dating, you have some structure to follow, and you feel more like you know what you’re doing. And that helps you feel confident. 
  • Repair past hurts and heal before moving forward. Finally, before you jump back into the dating pool after a rough breakup or divorce, give yourself the time and space to heal. When you’re fully through with the healing process, you’ll be more open, available, and more attractive to the kind of partner you’re looking for. 

Episode Show Notes

[02:29] Self-Confidence and The Online Dating Experience 

  • Many people struggle with confidence in dating. You’re not alone!
  • The online dating experience is difficult and solitary.

[13:00] Comparing Yourself

  • Comparing yourself to others can affect your confidence.
  • Social media only shows snapshots of happy couples, not the string of rejections that came before.
  • Dating is a numbers game. You need to be strategic, but remember to be kind to yourself and others in the process. 

[14:32] What is Confidence?

  • Confidence comes down to having trust in yourself and your authentic identity.
  • We deserve to trust ourselves instead of thinking we need to earn it.
  • You can feel the most confident when you know who you are and accept it, rather than striving to change.

[22:46] Hang on to Your Authentic Self

  • Remind yourself that rejection is not always about you.
  • When you experience rejection, take your time to heal and feel ok on your own again before entering another relationship.
  • You can potentially hurt others if you are not taking care of yourself emotionally. 

[30:31] Repairing the Damage Done to Self-Worth and Self-Confidence

  • Get clarity about the experiences and red flags you want to avoid.
  • Communicate your needs in new relationships.
  • It comes back to being authentic and finding out early on that you are simply not compatible instead of seeing it as a rejection.

[37:41] Difficult Topics In Dating

  • Avoid difficult and overly personal topics on the first date.
  • Don’t spend the first date trying to figure out if you can be in a long-term relationship. Just figure out if you want to go on a second date. 
  • Talking about difficult topics is a gradual process.
  • Know what you’re looking for and date with intention. 

[42:59] Red Flags in Overconfidence

  • Watch out for people who are not as interested in talking about you as they are in talking about themselves.
  • Overconfidence can be a sign of fragility or something harmful.
  • There should be a balance in your conversations. Are they showing up with authenticity?


Music in this episode is by Redhino with their song Hope.

You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://redinho.bandcamp.com/track/hope. 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: I am so excited about today's episode because today we're discussing a topic that I just know is going to be so helpful for so many people who, like so many, are looking for love and for healthy, new relationships. That means today we're talking about how to date with confidence. Every dating coach or advice columnist out there will tell you, and I think they're largely right in some ways, that confidence is an incredibly important attractive quality when you're out there dating. And I'm sure you've noticed this, in your experience that when you're finding people that, those early stages, their level of confidence is oftentimes an attractor or a turn-off, particularly if it's absent. We understand that we see that and other people said, we gravitate towards that sense of inner security. 

But paradoxically, dating itself is a confidence smasher for many people. I mean, you only need to have been ghosted one time by somebody that you really liked. It makes you question yourself. It's hard to keep putting yourself out there, particularly if you're starting in early relationships going on a few dates, it's not working out. I mean, it's sort of the antithesis of what any of us need in order to feel confident and secure in ourselves. To address this conundrum, and help you find some clarity and direction for how to reconnect with your strength and your self-confidence in this situation, I have invited my dear colleague, Neha, to join our conversation today. 

Neha is a therapist on the team here at Growing Self. She is also a marriage counselor, a couples counselor, relationship coach, who often works with couples who are on a quest to strengthen their relationships or improve their relationships. But she also works with a lot of people as a dating coach. People who are looking for the same thing that you are to have a healthy, happy, high-quality relationship and how to build that from the ground up. So, Neha, thank you so much for spending some time with me today. Thank you. 

Neha P.: Of course, and thank you for that introduction. I am so looking forward to having this conversation with you around a topic that feels so applicable to a huge audience. So I'm looking forward to this conversation. 

Self-Confidence and The Online Dating Experience

Lisa:  Well, it's so relatable I mean, like every single person that I have talked with who is dating, particularly the online dating experience, it is hard. And I think it's very common to have experiences through dating itself that damage self-esteem and self-confidence, quite frankly. I mean, I've known so many people that I've just like, given up after a while, they're like, “I can't handle it anymore”. They take down their profiles, “I don't even want to try.” So it's very real. This can look like a lot of different things for different people. But with your clients, what are some of the things that you've seen around that confidence in dating? What do you hear people talking about?

Neha: I feel like one of the most common things that I hear from my clients around dating, especially in this age in which online dating is so prevalent, it's so accessible to many people. And so a lot of people are maybe venturing more towards online dating is that it's really easy to be ghosted. I think it's really common to be ghosted, unfortunately. I think that in itself can be such a confidence-killer because there's this lack of closure around, “What did I do? Or what didn’t I do that contributed to us not continuing our conversation or to the conversation just ending abruptly?” 

I think that can really get into us examining ourselves, “What did we do wrong?” and ruminating on the fact that it's about us in this moment for being ghosted, as opposed to wondering what might that other person be experiencing, if they're even ready to engage in this type of relationship that is contributing to them ghosting you.

Lisa: It makes you question, 

Neha: It makes you question and makes you really be hard on yourself in a lot of ways, too, and really nitpick around how am I presenting during our brief conversation or even just through the stating profile?

Lisa: Yeah, did I use too many emojis? I use the wrong emoji. I mean, like it can be very nitpicky kinds of that I say the wrong thing. Yeah, wow. And at the same time, I think that should add insult to injury, people are often told that they need to be confident or to present themselves as confident in order to be successful in dating. There's like this weird bind, this chicken or the egg kind of situation and it's so hard. 

Neha:  It is so so tough, and I think in a lot of ways, easier said than done. When it comes to being confident, especially if we've experienced sort of like a string of rejection, through our dating experience. Just as you were mentioning earlier, a lot of people can sort of lose interest or desire to be dating when there has been this sort of not-so-great experience or feeling rejected in those moments. I think one thing to acknowledge is that our brain can process rejection similar to physical pain. It's not only this, like, emotional pain that we're experiencing, but it could be a physical pain as well for feeling overstimulated. 

We might experience headaches or tension in our shoulders, or even nausea to a certain extent. I think at times, we can also underestimate how rejection can impact us not only emotionally, mentally, but also physically at the same time. 

Lisa: That's a really good point. Just thinking about what you're saying, there's like a rejection response that's kind of like hardwired in us in some ways. Like, I don't know, if you've had this experience, but I have where there's a situation that like, in retrospect, I don't even care that much about. It's not a super important situation, or  I'm not deeply invested. But if I feel, rejected by this situation, or like, it's something, I'm losing something, all of a sudden, I get activated in ways that surprised me. And I think it's that very, like human biologically based response to a rejection, even if it's not like a profoundly important thing. It's just like what we do. 

In all these little, tiny micro rejections that everybody experiences with online dating, you're saying that it can really start to take a toll even physically, that is very validating.

Neha:  I feel like giving ourselves to empathy, especially during these moments of rejection can feel so soothing towards ourselves. Not only reminding ourselves that it makes sense that you'd feel hurt during this moment, even if it's, we say you describe like something that doesn't feel profoundly impactful to us. But it still hurts being told no, whether relationally, professionally, in a friendship, to know I can't hang out with you right now. No, I don't have time to discuss this important issue that might feel important for you, that type of thing. I think giving ourselves that initial piece of empathy and validation of it makes sense that you would feel this way in this moment. Doesn't mean that you're wrong, it doesn't mean that you're quote-unquote, overreacting means that you are experiencing something, and we need to sort of honor that experience at the same time. 

It's also a great moment for us to sort of briefly examine how might have I contributed to this piece of rejection, whether it be at the very early stages of dating, or whether it be when we are sort of like going on dates, engaging with a certain person. When we are able to examine ourselves for more of a compassionate lens, I feel like we're giving ourselves the space to change, rather than just condemning ourselves for showing up this way. Although we want to own the ways in which we can show up just a little bit differently, I encourage my clients to not let that take up too much of the narrative that we have about ourselves, stories that we tell ourselves. 

Just because in this instance, I might have said the wrong thing, it doesn't mean that that is who I am, it means there are moments in which I can show it this way. And now I'm aware about it. And now I can do something about it. But I think compassion is such an important tool during  the dating process, especially if we've experienced rejection.

Lisa: I love that positive, supportive, inner narrative, growth mindset, learning from the mistakes and with gratitude as opposed to collapsing into self-hatred, yes.

Neha: Again, easier said than done sometimes. And I think with that, it just takes practice to with thinking about how we talk to ourselves, not only when we're dating, but also like, even professionally to within friendships, I think it's really easy sometimes to really hone in on some of that negative self-talk, as opposed to saying, “What can I learn from this? What do I want to do about it?” So I think that can also be a great tool. It's like sometimes challenging some of these thoughts. I always get rejected, versus “Can I think about moments in which I didn't experience rejection, which dating did work out for me”, by reminding ourselves of these moments in which can sort of contradict that really mean voice in our head that can show up. I think it helps also process the rejection that happened and allow us to have a space to try it again.

Lisa: That's a really good point. And I would imagine too, I think for a lot of people, because that online dating experience, in particular, is so fundamentally isolating. It's just you with an app and the avatars and text messages going back and forth. Like it's a very solitary experience in many ways. And I think that it can be common for people to imagine that it's going differently for others. That other people are having an experience that is different from theirs where they may be feeling rejected, or they're interacting with a bunch of people that don't really feel like a good fit for them. There's a sort of imaginary “other” that is having like a great experience and meeting wonderful people online and like finding love immediately. And I wonder if you found that to be true for your clients like they're sort of comparing the experience that they're having with the experience they think they should be having and that in itself is making them feel bad. Do you see that? 

Neha: Absolutely, although dating is fundamentally a way in which we're trying to make relationships and connect with people, you're spot on with especially online dating is an isolating process. It is us behind the screen, and connecting with another person behind the screen, or just going through these profiles, which feels just a little bit disconnected to a certain extent. We can't really get the information that we really want, by just looking at a profile. We need to put ourselves out there and connect, which of course, is scary in its own right. And I think you're spot on too with this comparative mindset of the guy next door who's trying to do this is probably connecting with many people, or she is probably having such a positive experience compared to what I'm having.

And it makes me think about, I'm such a fan of asking yourself the why question: “Why am I feeling like I need to compare myself to someone else's process?” Or “What would it be like if I were to talk to somebody who is also experiencing online dating, to help me normalize this process?” As opposed to feeling ostracized, and that I'm doing something different, or experiencing something differently than the person next door. It's—gosh, dating is really hard right now. During COVID times, we were already feeling a level of isolation in its control, difficult to just going back to that period of like ghosting, where we can't sometimes even get the opportunity to connect with somebody, we don't get the chance.

Lisa: As we're talking, I'm thinking too, about the potential for viewing the lives of other people, friends, and acquaintances through the lens of social media. Because there you see people posting pictures of like, the fun dates they're on or cute selfies, like with together with a cute guy that they met through whatever platform. And people aren't talking about the 150 rejections that they had on the way to creating that. There's this tendency, societally, to amplify the positive things, which can really make people who aren't having that picture-perfect thing to post wonder if they're doing it wrong. If there's like something about—do you see that as being part of the comparison process with you, I mean, you're probably much more tuned in to what's happening with people on social media than I am.

Comparing Yourself

Neha: I think that is such a great point, not only in dating but just like on an everyday basis. When we notice ourselves having comparative thoughts with the individuals or couples that we see on social media. I think social media is a highlight of people's lives, as opposed to the five days that being in a relationship can feel difficult at times. We aren't—we're just showing the Friday night, super intentional date night that we had, and not the conflict that we had right before we left on this date. I think social media can be really deceiving and a lot of ways and it can sort of amplify those comparative thoughts that can lead to us feeling isolated, to us feeling like we're doing something wrong. So it makes me think about when we do notice ourselves, comparing ourselves on social media to other people taking a step back and saying, “What story am I maybe not knowing about at this time?” 

It's not that we wish relationships that we see tend to be negative or to have conflict. And that's the reality, conflict is healthy and normal and expected within relationships and they're not easy—dating is not easy in general. And just as you touched on, we don't get to see the 150 rejections before it leads to that one true connection. Dating is really a numbers game in a lot of ways and so you need to be strategic but you also need to be kind to yourself at the same time.

What is Confidence?

Lisa: That's a really great reminder, is just to not buy into the image creation that is happening and just know that there's more to the story. That's really good. And so we're talking right now about ways that people can just support themselves in the difficult situation with online dating, ways of reminding themselves about the truth of the situations and not compare themselves to others. And going into this idea, more deeply now of, confidence. That can be I think, for many people a very elusive experience. I think many people, most people struggle with self-doubt, and self-esteem. 

Sometimes feeling like they're maybe not quite as amazing as other people. I think it's part of the human condition. Confidence is this state of being that we strive for. We're sort of told we should be confident. And then of course, when we see confidence in others are like, “That's how it's done.” So can you break down in your experience? What is confidence? I mean, people who appear to be confident, what are they doing differently than people who are like, “Yeah, I'm not really all that great.” Can you just like, take us into it?

Neha: That is such a good question and such a big question, too. And so when I try to break down what confidence is or how it can present. I think part of it comes down to trust and self. Trust in our ability, trust in our power, trust in our judgment, especially too. When we notice ourselves feeling we kind of know what we're doing or we feel like we can sort of we're allowed to occupy space in a room. I think is kind of what it gets down to, as well.  We deserve to be in a relationship in which we are treated really well, or we deserve to have good things that happen to us. 

I think when we start reminding ourselves of our trust and self, it can feel connected to increasing our confidence in self. And I think when it comes to trusting self, I think at times, it can feel helpful to understand why maybe there are moments in which we don't feel our most confident self, I think a lot of this can go back to some explorative conversations, either by yourself with a trusted loved one, or even professionally to around. When were these moments in which I started to maybe not trust myself in which I was maybe given messages that I should be thinking a little bit differently than what my gut is telling me. I think when we can start bringing awareness to when this first started, or what maybe patterns we can notice within ourselves, we can start to create new changes in the way that we think or experience ourselves. 

I think when we also believe that we are intrinsically worthy of respect, power, and ability, we're starting to believe that we deserve these things rather than we need to earn these things. We deserve to trust ourselves rather than we need to earn trust in ourselves. One of the ways in which I encourage people to build confidence is — and as cliche or corny as this might sound — listing things that we like about ourselves. I think it's much easier for us to pinpoint the things that we don't like about ourselves, rather than honing in on the skills that we have that make us feel confident. The ways in which we can connect with ourselves or other people that bring us joy and happiness. 

Once we start to acknowledge the ways in which we are showing up in a confident way, we're starting to see them a little bit more often. Someone who might say that I have really low self-esteem or self-confidence and I'll challenge them or encourage them to think about a time in which they did feel confident. And then they might recall a moment that happened a day ago or three days ago or last week. I would encourage you to not only listing things but also pointing them out in the moment when it's happening.

Lisa: That's really good reminder, and just like retraining yourself to focus on the things you are doing right, the things you do know how to do. Because I think it's very easy to just fall into this super focused on the negative aspects of yourself or the issues that there's actually a lot going on. I'm just going to share something I think that our older listeners may resonate with us more because I think that this is something that does come with more age. But I think when I was younger, in my 20s I think that I thought that confident people had their act together.

They looked good, they said the right things, they seemed to just be together in a way that I didn't always feel or they had circumstances in their lives that I didn't have. And I thought that being confident was like creating those things. And I think one thing that has happened as I've gotten older is that really this idea of confidence is more around self-acceptance. Valuing and appreciating yourself for who you are, instead of try feeling like you have to be somebody different and just, “This is who I am and I say weird things and I'm kind of a mess and that is okay.”  

That is almost the definition of confidence in some ways. And I just wanted to mention that because I think especially for some of our maybe very young listeners. Well, I think that that's a hard one insight, I think you probably don't really get that until you get older, but I just wanted to float that so that they know it's coming down the line is that like, self-acceptance.

Neha: That's an important word, acceptance for self. I think there's like a bigger movement around authenticity, which is great. And we're also starting to notice some shifts on social media around this too, which I think is so great.

Lisa: I don't look at social media enough to know that. Tell me what's going on. 

Neha: I am on social media, I can tell you a ton of it.

Lisa: I can tell you, you are a young person. So that makes sense. 

Neha: We noticed Instagram posts of vulnerability of the conversations around mental health that we often don't see. We just see the perfect days, rather than the moments that don't feel so good. I think TikTok has really helped with some of these shifts as well, because they can't get compared to Instagram and please let me know listeners if I'm getting this wrong. But I think TikTok has opened up a level of it doesn't need to be perfect. I think people on TikTok  can feel silly, they can have greater conversations, they build low risks than Instagram, which are just snapshots of our life, but I think this movement towards authenticity is hopefully being introduced to Gen Z a little bit earlier than maybe Millennials or any older generations.

Lisa: That's refreshing. So you're saying that maybe I need a TikTok account, that will be my energetic home on social media? Do I have to learn how to dance because I don't know about that.

Neha: I think it's a prerequisite to be on TikTok that you have to do at least one dance. But I love that idea of self-acceptance and authenticity is sexy. It is confident being confident oneself. And I think we can underestimate the value of accepting ourselves. When we notice the person next door or the person on social media presenting to be so confident we try to recreate something that might not feel authentic to ourselves. Maybe a good question for people to consider is what does confidence for me really look like? When do I feel the most confident?

I know for myself, I feel most confident when I feel knowledgeable about something. When it feels like I can have a conversation and kind of like quote-unquote, know what I'm talking about, that makes me feel really confident. For others it might feel like if they learned a new skill, or if they're able to perform in a certain way like that is feeling confident. Maybe relationally it's when I feel like I can get a laugh out of somebody that makes me feel connected or confident. What does confident look like for someone relationally, professionally, in friendships, I think that's a great way to kind of understand what are we realistically aiming for, rather than trying to recreate something else that doesn't really fit for us?

Hang on to Your Authentic Self

Lisa: Well, that's such good advice. And I think, especially for somebody who's in the midst of the dating experience, there are so many things that can damage confidence. And so what I'm hearing you say is that one of the most important strategies for people to be using and remembering is that authentic clarity around who they and the parts of themselves that they really like and appreciate. And not trying to be different and that self-acceptance, and that it's actually the path to confidence is reminding yourself of who and what you already are, and why that is a good thing. And like finding ways of holding on to that. 

Even though these experiences are intrinsically rejecting a lot of times. Do you have any thoughts or advice for strategies or ideas that you've found that helped people hold on to that fundamental sense of, “I am okay, even if this guy— or whatever— online didn't know me well enough to even give me a chance to find out.” Or I think even harder for people like going on, not just one date but like six dates like it feels like it's you're on the on route to a new relationship and then actually it winds up not working out? Well, what would you advise somebody to do to just hang on to themselves, their authentic selves, through this?

Neha: I think first and foremost… I think it's so important to remind ourselves that sometimes, not all the time, it's not about you. Sometimes it's about the person who is sobbing a relationship or ghosting you they are ready to have the relationship. They realize that this isn't the relationship that they feel super compatible with. That expression of: you can be the sweetest peach on the peach tree but they might like apples instead. It has less to do with you and more to do with that person's preference and somebody really loves peaches. And they're gonna come and they're gonna find you and they're gonna adore you for the ways in which you show up, reminding ourselves that we are someone person and we also deserve to be picky.

We might also notice ourselves, wanting to end a relationship with somebody or not respond to someone's conversation. On the inverse, we know what it feels like to feel rejected. So try not to reject, or ghost people, I should say, in a way that feels unkind. I think also important to give ourselves a little bit of time and space to experience that rejection or to process it just a little bit, we can learn from the ways in which we learn from quote-unquote, mistakes. We can take care of ourselves in order to feel like we are showing up in our next potential relationship in a way that feels authentic to ourselves, rather than feeling like in that phase of rejection. If we aren't, connected back to ourselves, before we engage in, we could ultimately end up hurting someone else in that process. So we definitely want to be mindful of that.

Lisa: Say more about that — if we're not feeling fully like ourselves, we might wind up hurting somebody else. And what did you mean by that?

Neha: Yeah, so I think about experiencing rejection, and I might notice myself having lower confidence, reexamining myself, maybe feeling angry, or frustrated to a certain extent too. And then potentially wanting to hurt someone the way in which I felt hurt. Regardless of what the person did, or anything like that. Or we can show up disconnected in a conversation. We can show up emotionally not curious about the person — guarded is the perfect word — we can feel guarded in our presentation. And then the next person is going to think, “Well, what am I doing wrong in order to cause this person to respond this way?” So it's kind of like this domino effect that we can maybe notice or be contributing to this dynamic that is experienced within the dating world. 

In order for us to feel like we can reengage in a potential conversation with somebody else, I think it's so important to give ourselves some time, and yet time doesn't heal all, it's what we are choosing to do with that time.

How are we reflecting back on our experience in this? What are we doing in order to take care of ourselves? Sometimes compounding rejection can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms, anxiety, and negative self-talk these types of things. I would encourage individuals to potentially if there are dosing themselves in a lower space for an extended period of time, and it feels intense — seek a professional to a therapist or coach, somebody who can help them sort of untangle the meaning that they're making around rejection in order to continue forward.

Lisa: Yeah, well, that's a good point. I think we've all been there, that negative loop starts in your head. The problem is that it feels true and it can be — no matter what you're looking for, you will be able to find evidence of that. I think it can be hard to get out of that kind of mental rut if you've been really like berating yourself or being harsh with yourself. It can get very easy to get tricked into believing the things you think and the things that you feel. They're not all helpful. 

When it comes to the dating process itself — I've heard you talk about some of the things that you try to teach your clients around this. We have our little dating coaching program, and like one of those first foundational steps is really getting clear about who you are, what you want. How do you think that that helps people hold on to their confidence and empowerment just right from the get-go?

Neha: I think when we have clarity around what our intentions for dating are, we can experience dating in a little bit of a more structured or intentional way. And I know I'm using that word left and right, but I really mean it. If we are clear around the type of relationship that we want, or why we're on the app — are we seeking a long-term relationship? Are we wanting a physical relationship with someone? Not only are we being clear with our intentions, but maybe we can also communicate those intentions to someone else. If people were to engage in online dating, and we're noticing transparency, we're noticing honesty, that in itself is confidence building.

I don't need to pretend what my intentions are, I know what my intentions are. I am on this app because I want a long-term relationship, not because I just want to chat with someone endlessly or just go on dates type of thing. I think when we're also exploring what has really helped or what has worked for us in the past, that can help with confidence too, If we reflect back on what relationships have really worked for me in the past, or what traits within certain relationships have worked for me. And maybe if we don't have as much dating experience or relational experience, we can be thinking about, “What type of relationship do I deserve to be in?” 

I intentionally use the word deserve with my clients versus what type of relationship do we want. Because when we think about deserve, I think we're able to notice that we have worth. We have self-worth not only as an individual but as a person as part within a relationship. We're able to examine just a little bit differently of “I deserve to be treated well.” I deserve to have someone who openly communicates. I deserve someone who understands my triggers, rather than I want a relationship that has good communication — which are important — but we're able to just understand a little bit more when we use that word deserve from my experience.

Repairing the Damage Done on Self-Worth and Self-Confidence

Lisa: Well, that's a nice reframe that what you desire compared to what you deserve. Although I'm thinking that — well, and that's probably a topic for another day, Neha. I was thinking about, that it's not uncommon for some of the people that we work with to have had relationships that were really toxic in some ways and where regrettable things happened. And over the course of those relationships, sometimes made to feel like they didn't deserve more. And I know that can take a lot of different forms and again, topic for a different podcast. 

But I guess I'm curious to know, I would imagine just because of understanding that and knowing people that in your work as a dating coach, and I use that term sort of loosely, and you say euphemistically because you're really a therapist, right? Like, I'm wondering how often you spent a lot of time with people just working on those like foundational self-worth repairing some of the damage that has been done in previous relationships. Maybe even a long time before we even think about posting a profile on a dating site? I mean, how common is that? Would you say it in your work?

Neha: I could maybe honestly say almost every single person that I work with, in dating coaching has experienced hurt in a relationship before or through a dating experience. So part of what it's like clarity, or working on ourselves is increasing self-awareness within our previous relationships. So what parts of our previous relationships is still very difficult? What types of difficult moments do we not want to experience again in a relationship? By talking this out by processing, we're not only wanting to untangle some of these false narratives that we can have about ourselves or hurtful narratives, I should say. But we're also being mindful of what types of like red flags we need to be mindful of avoiding in the future. 

I think part of a lot of people's experience, especially at the beginning of a relationship, or within dating is having rose-colored glasses on to a certain extent where we're just seeing the really great things in people which is important to acknowledge. And we also want to be mindful of not letting things slide that feel like a deal-breaker to us, just because we're connecting with this person. It might not be that you need to completely dissolve the relationship, but it would be a great cue for you to say something.

“I feel hurt. When you talk to me like this. I'm wondering if you can say it a little bit differently.” Or  “I feel disconnected to you when we go days without talking.” What do you think is a communication strategy or schedule that we can both feel comfortable with? A lot of people that I work with have described themselves as not wanting to present as too needy within relationships. Which I think is such an important word to break down a little bit more. 

I think there's a difference between being “needy” and having needs in a relationship or as an individual, which we all do. Asking your partner for  a scheduled date night is not you being needy, it’s you having a need within a relationship. I think that can also help build up confidence around communicating our needs feeling like we deserve to be in a relationship in which I feel safe enough to express my desires to this person or that I have these thoughts, feelings. What I've noticed with individuals who might notice themselves not verbalizing their needs or desires as much, is resentment can be built up not only for the person but themselves for where the relationship ended up. 

That is something that I also think as we reflect back on previous relationships, were there moments in which you felt like you couldn't communicate what your needs were because you didn't know how partner was going to interpret that. And sort of reworking and building up some of those like healthy communication skills, healthy relationship traits as well.

Lisa: There's so much good work to do. And I'm just thinking about the wisdom of what you're sharing. I mean, really, helping people be very clear and assertive, and feeling able to talk about how they feel and what they need just in that spirit of authenticity and confidence. And this is actually who I am and this is really what I want in a relationship. And just the wisdom of doing that early and often, particularly in a new relationship. Because the alternative is not talking about that, pretending to be somebody that you're not, feel a different way than you actually do. And having this relationship really be built on a foundation of inauthenticity and hiding. 

I'm imagining that that probably turns into a really nice reframe with your clients of somebody who has actually been talking about who they are and how they feel. And the other person is like, “I think I don’t want to date you anymore.” Instead of that being perceived as a rejection, having it feel like a, “Thank God, that that didn't get any further than it could have because that would not have been in a good relationship for me.” I mean, like to really have that be a very positive reframe.

Neha: That really comes back to compatibility rather than you doing something wrong. It is not wrong for you to be authentic, or to communicate, that just might mean that we have different alignment when it comes to how we communicate, or what our long term expectations are in a relationship. We're able to set to communicate those things that we need earlier into the relationship, just as you described. We're able to set the scene for what we hope this relationship can or might not turn it into.

Lisa: I’m thinking right now of some business advice actually, I once received, which is irrelevant, it's this idea that you should fail fast. If something isn't going to work out, you find that out as quickly as you possibly can and just be done with it — fail fast. I'm hearing that that same principle applies to dating really. Your job is to figure out swiftly who is incompatible with you and be done and not like so that it sort of liberates you to continue your search as opposed to doing that thing that people do, which is, well, “If I was different, maybe that would have worked out.”

Neha: So applicable, not only in the business world relationally., professionally, with friendships, too. I love the idea of, “It's okay, that it's not going to work out with this person.” It doesn't mean that something's wrong with you, something's wrong with them, it just means that we try again. Dating is really a numbers game in a lot of ways. We want to filter, and we want to filter fast. 

When it comes to conveying the things that we want, a lot of people will wonder, when do we start having these conversations? When do I start saying, “Yeah, I want to have kids.” This feels important relationship. That is an important thing to consider, too, when it comes to being authentic, but also being mindful of when you're introducing these bigger topics into a relationship.

Difficult Topics in Dating

Lisa: Well, let's talk about that. And I know that this is kind of going into the nuts and bolts of good dating strategies. While we're here together, how do you help your clients kind of figure out that balance? Because on the one hand, we do want to be authentic, and in a confident way, showing up as ourselves. And at the same time, not leading with a weird stuff. So how do you help people sort through that and figure out what the balance is?

Neha: Well, one reminder that I like to share with my couples that I got from you, Lisa, is the goal of a first date is to see if you want to have a second date or not. So when they think—

Lisa: Oh, great, I remember that. But it sounds really good.

Neha: It’s so helpful for people to think about, when we go on a first date, it's not that we need to start planning our life with this person. It's that we need to examine, do I enjoy this person's company? Do I feel like there could be a potential for us to connect again, or to connect one month down the road — something like that — as opposed to feeling like the first date is where I need to know if this is my life partner or not. I think that helps relieve some pressure. That is a lot of pressure to have on yourself to try to figure that out within one date. I think when it comes to introducing some of these conversations, I would encourage very practically to not have some of these conversations on the first date, maybe even on the second date. But maybe as we start to feel comfortable with this person.

And we want to understand like, “Does this person have similar values as me? Does this person have similar lifelong goals? Does this person want to be working for the rest of their lives? Or does this person want to quit their jobs tomorrow and travel the world with me?” Like we do want to understand, do our lifestyles sort of match up? And I think that is a great conversation to have a little bit earlier into the dating process at a very high level.

“What do you see yourself doing 5-10-15 years?” So if you see yourself traveling the world, how do you imagine yourself potentially starting a family if that is part of the conversation. I think there's a way to have these conversations in a way that feel like it flows into the conversation rather than it feeling like a job interview and saying, you want to have this does this feel true for you? That type of thing.

Lisa: That's such great advice and you're really talking about discernment. And, yes, do you like this person enough? Do you enjoy their company in a general sense enough to want to hang out with them again, and then it's, do I like this person enough to be talking about myself and my values and my kind of hopes and dreams for the future, and that it does take a long time to get to know people. And you're sort of advising this stance that I think is extremely appropriate, which is like, “I'm still checking you out. We're getting to know each other,” and this occurs over multiple interactions. But I think so often the case, and particularly when I talk with people who are really struggling with dating, they're not doing that. They are getting swept away by feelings. 

The first date lasts for 72 hours. They are — and not to sound moralistic because it's not about that — but like having sex with people that they've just met. They're not thinking through it. They're basing their responses on highly emotional factors that generally have no bearing on whether or not it's going to be a good relationship. I think that can really obscure a lot of things. Jumping into the deep end can really prevent people from doing what you're suggesting, which is, are our values compatible? What is this person's character? What do I want and deserve and is this person fundamentally capable of doing this with me? Or are they just hot and superficially charming? Because there's a time and a place for that too. Is that what you're describing?,

Neha: Absolutely, going back to that piece of clarity of dating with intention. If I am dating in order to have a long-term relationship, then what subliminal messages am I conveying to this person and very transparent conversations am I also having with this person. Just as you said, there's a time and a place to meet with someone just for a physical relationship, and that is perfectly fine. But if you're wanting to have a long-term relationship, then maybe we want to go into this first date, with some intention, or some boundaries around when we plan on ending the date, when we want to plan on reconnecting with this person. There's a difference between playing the game and feeling like you aren't putting effort into connecting with this person. 

When there are rules around waiting three days before you text somebody. I think, to a certain extent, if you're dating with intention, there isn't really a need to play games, especially if the other person that we're wanting to seek out is also ready for a long-term relationship. We're wanting to feel like we can authentically reach out to this person when we do want to connect with them, rather than feeling like we need to wait X amount of hours or days.

Red Flags in Overconfidence

Lisa: Yeah, that's a really good reminder. And then one last, and I know we're coming up on our time, but one last question on the subject of confidence in dating. I feel we would be doing a disservice to our listeners if we didn't address: is that, you and I both know from our training and our background is as therapists, that sometimes people who seem the most confident, are very charming, they're very witty, they look good, they smell good. They have the trappings of success. There's actually a correlation between those qualities and things like antisocial personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder. Sometimes the people who seem the most confident and attractive early on, are the ones that you should actually work really hard to stay away from. 

Are there any recommendations or pieces of advice that you can give our listeners certainly for them to be more authentically and confident in a healthy way? But being able to sort of discerning, as you said earlier, a potential red flag or warning sign around what antisocial personality disorder can actually look liken on the first date — highly attractive. How do you help people parse through that?

Neha: I encourage people to consider if the person that they're talking to is as interested in learning about you as they are interested in talking about themselves. Sometimes we can experience a person just wanting to talk about themselves or asking you questions in order to just give you their answer. I think that can feel like a red flag when it feels like there is an imbalance in the desire to have this kind of conversation, the desire to get to know one another. I think that is one to definitely look for when it comes to red flags. I think also self-awareness is something that feels so important to have within a relationship. 

People will ask me all the time, like, “How do I know if a person is the one?” And I'll always say,  “Does this person have a desire to grow and change with you? And does it feel like long-term values needs, goals are aligned?”  Thinking about that first one, it's not about them completely over apologizing, or being super hyper-vigilant to the ways in which they show up. But saying, “You know what, just a second ago, I said something, and I wish I could take it back, because I actually meant this”, or “This is what I'm actually trying to convey,” or “I apologize if that hurt your feelings. Here's what I meant to say.”

I think if a person can communicate that level of self-awareness, or maybe if even if that level of authenticity shows up for you, and you say something like, “You know what? Help me understand what you mean by this.” And they're able to examine why you might be answering that question. I think that's a great indicator of having that level of self-awareness. And so the opposite of that lack of self-awareness, lack of accountability is also a red flag.

Lisa: That is great advice that if the other side of the table is similarly confident in an authentic way that is based on self-awareness and personal responsibility, and taking ownership and being vulnerable, that's a good sign that it is genuine, healthy confidence, versus one that feels fragile or potentially harmful. Because people can be very confidently love-bombed and be swept away, and not until a long time later be like, “Wow, that was not what I was looking for.”

Okay, I just wanted to talk about that a little bit. Because, again, the topic of confidence in dating. There are other elements of this for people to be aware of, but thank you for spending this time with me today, Neha, this was such a wonderful conversation. I am so appreciative just of all of the really good insights and also like the actionable ideas you shared with our listeners today. Thank you.

Neha: Absolutely. It was such a pleasure. And as a final reminder that dating is hard and it takes time and it takes confidence and you can do it.

Lisa: What a wonderful — I think people need to be reminded of that, to keep going. Oh, good. Thank you again for doing this with me and we'll have to visit another time. 
Neha: I would love that. Thank you so much, Lisa.

Change Your Story, Change Your Life with John Delony

Change Your Story, Change Your Life with John Delony

Change Your Story, Change Your Life

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby


Music in this episode is by Tess Parks with their song, “Life is But a Dream.” 

Change Your Story, Change Your Life

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate,” — Carl Jung. 

Most of our thoughts happen a few layers beneath the threshold of our awareness. There, they assemble themselves into stories. Stories about the world, our place in it, and what will help us create the outcomes we want — and avoid those we don’t. 

As an experienced therapist and life coach, I know the power of stories, and of taking an active role in rewriting yours. Here’s an example of a story at work: Your friend asks if they can borrow some money. As you decide whether or not to lend it to them, you don’t have to manually consider the kind of person you are and what that person would do, the nature of money and money lending, or what friendship means. You’ll probably just do what feels right, and that feeling will be based on your unconscious stories. 

Your story may sound like, “I’m a generous person, and this is what generous people do for their friends. Money is a renewable resource. I don’t need to worry about the possibility of losing a few hundred bucks when I can always cultivate more.” 

Or, it could sound like, “I’m a wise person, and wise people know that lending money is something to avoid. Money is a limited resource that I have to ration carefully, or I could end up bankrupt or out on the street.” 

You base your decision on the stories you’re telling yourself that you’re probably not even aware you believe. 

Thinking in stories is a handy cognitive shortcut that frees up a lot of your brain’s processing power for other things. But what if your stories are making you feel bad about yourself? Or limiting your potential? Or creating unnecessary stress over things that aren’t even true? 

To make radical, positive changes in your life, you have to become aware of your stories and begin interrogating them. On today’s podcast episode, we’re going to tell you how. My guest is Dr. John Delony, an author, educator, and host of The John Delony Show. In his latest book, “Own Your Past, Change Your Future,” he lays out a clear process for bringing your unconscious stories up to the light and challenging the ones that aren’t helping you. 

I hope you’ll tune in, on this page, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. 

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Change Your Story, Change Your Life

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby


Music in this episode is by Tess Parks with their song, “Life is But a Dream.” 

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Change Your Story, Change Your Life with John Delony — Episode Highlights

We’re all carrying around stories, whether or not we know it. 

If your stories help you feel good about yourself, and worthy of love and respect from others, you’re going to have a greater well of inner resilience to draw upon, and it’s going to be easier for you to have meaningful relationships and make positive changes in your life. 

But if you’re carrying around stories that make you doubt yourself or expect the worst from others, you’ll have a harder time doing the things that make your life better, and you’ll have a hard time creating healthy relationships

So, how can you choose stories that help you build the life you want and rewrite those that aren’t so helpful to you? This episode of the podcast has some helpful insight. 

Stories of Your Life

We inherit many of our stories from our family of origin and culture. Some of these stories will be positive. You might have a story about how you’re capable of anything you’re willing to work for, for example, or that you’re the kind of person who deserves kindness and respect from others. 

But even stories that seem benign can have a powerful influence on the course of your life, especially if they’re left unexamined. I’ve spoken with clients who didn’t pursue the careers they wanted, as teachers, artists, or writers, instead taking jobs they don’t care about in fields they can’t stand, which are now unleashing all kinds of stress, depression, and burnout in their lives. 

When we drill down into the process that led them to this unhappy place, we eventually hit stories from their parents about money and what constitutes success. When they speak these stories out loud, it becomes clear to these clients that these stories aren’t theirs at all. They’ve built lives they don’t want, based on stories they don’t believe. 

These clients often come to see me amid a “quarter-life crisis,” a mini-meltdown that has woken them up (painfully) to the gap between what they have and what they want, or who they are and who they want to be. Believe it or not, these clients are lucky; some force deep inside them is rejecting their inherited stories, giving them an opportunity to start a new chapter that’s more in line with the life they truly want.   

How Vulnerability Helps You Change Your Story

One of the keys to recognizing your stories and changing them is having close, open friendships with people you trust

When there are friends in your life who you know have your best interest at heart, and who will give you their unvarnished feedback, you have a sounding board for your unconscious assumptions, the meaning you’re making from events, and the self-limiting beliefs that you’re not even aware you hold. 

It takes vulnerability to share your stories, remain open to hearing points of view that differ from your own, and to be open to changing your beliefs. You have to let someone see you, flaws and all, and be open to the idea that you might not have it all figured out. But friendships like this make life worthwhile — and help us take control of our stories rather than letting them control us. 

Change Your Story by Tuning Into Your Feelings

One sign that you may be buying into a story that isn’t true for you is having thoughts that don’t match up with your feelings. For example, you might “love your job,” but feel like you’re having a panic attack every Sunday afternoon as you prepare for the week ahead. Or you might be “happily married,” but long for more love and connection with your partner. 

When we disregard our feelings because they don’t match up with our story, we miss out on opportunities to make changes that could make our lives better. If you can approach your emotional states with curiosity, and tune into what they may be trying to tell you, you can use that data to guide your life in the direction you want.

Admittedly, this can be easier said than done. Many of us were raised to wallpaper over our feelings or view them as a sign of weakness (particularly true for men in our culture). If you’re used to shoving your feelings aside, tuning into what they’re trying to tell you may take some practice. But it’s well worth the effort: We need to remain connected to our feelings to be emotionally healthy, have good relationships, and live our best lives

Rewrite Your Story. Literally. 

Journaling is a powerful tool for rewriting your story. When you feel yourself spiraling into dark feelings over a situation, it can help to pause and write down the thoughts that led you there. 

You might be thinking, “My client hasn’t responded to my email, and that’s because they hate the work I delivered, I’m not cut out for this; I’m doomed to fail.” Most likely, you’re not consciously thinking all of this. It comes to you in a flash that feels like dread, anxiety, or shame. 

Your feelings seem out of proportion with the situation, so you dismiss them. But this is a missed opportunity. If you could drill down into the thoughts causing these feelings and question whether what they’re telling you is accurate, you could replace them with more accurate stories that don’t drain you of motivation and energy. 

Change Your Story, Change Your Life

It’s important to challenge stories that aren’t true. The emotional states that our thoughts produce can be self-reinforcing, coloring your thinking and leading you to see the possibilities in life, or to see nothing but insurmountable obstacles. Rewriting your stories helps you feel better emotionally and build habits of mind that move you forward

By changing your story, you can make peace with the past, feel better about the present, and begin designing a future that reflects your true self.  

————-

Change Your Story, Change Your Life: Episode Show Notes

[03:15] On John Delony’s Book

  • John narrates how he had all the academic and intellectual answers to his experiences, but he still couldn’t see the problem with himself.
  • He wrote this book because it’s not only about him, but it is also about his friends, family, and his community.

[09:35] The Cracks in the House

  • John realized he was seeing something that was not true. He was getting paranoid, thinking that his house had problems.
  • He shares how he was crawling in the mud in the middle of the night, with heavy rain pouring down on him, because he was afraid his house would fall apart. This was the first moment he realized, “Maybe it’s me.”
  • John did not know what he was doing wrong.

[15:13] Are Your Stories True to the T?

  • Sometimes, what you see is not the truth and what you experience is not real. Norms and stereotypes are factors that push the unreal narrative in our brains.
  • Denying and rationalizing your experience is a way for your brain to cope.
  • It took a friend to make John realize that his house was fine and strong, and that it was he who was crumbling.

[22:10] Recognizing a Story from Trauma

  • John says that the best way he recognizes whether his stories are true is by writing them down.
  • Writing these stories allows you to externalize and shift them.
  • Verbalizing your internal conversations can also help you process these stories.

[29:49] How These Stories Develop

  • These stories develop from the moment that we are born.
  • The cultural and societal norms we are all born with push the narratives we tell ourselves.
  • Some people experience big T traumas, while others experience small t traumas that add up over time. We rarely realize that the weight and effect of these two different traumas can be similar.

[36:00] How to Rewrite Your Story

  • Dealing with grief is a big step toward rewriting your story.
  • Society has developed a culture of pathologizing any uncomfortable feeling, including grief.
  • Grief is a core experience everyone must process.

[46:47] Rewrite Your Story with Others

  • Surrounding yourself with people who have the same experiences as you can help you rewrite your story.
  • John notes these people should be outside of your immediate crew (spouse and children).
  • Rewriting your story means you are unearthing your trauma and changing the perceived narratives in your head.


Music in this episode is by Tess Parks with their song “Life is But a Dream.”

You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://tessparks.bandcamp.com/track/life-is-but-a-dream-tess-parks. 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: We all have stories we tell ourselves — stories about who we are, who other people are, what we can expect from ourselves, what we can expect from others. These stories develop over a lifetime of experience, and they develop whether or not we want them to, or whether or not we're conscious of it. And so we are all carrying around stories, whether or not we know it. If you have a set of stories that help you feel good about yourself or feel empowered and strong, you're going to have inner strength and resilience, and it's going to be easier for you to feel good and take positive action. 

If you have stories about yourself and others where you are worthy of love and respect, and you can expect good things from the people around you, your relationships are going to feel easier and happier. On the other side of all this, if you're carrying around stories that make you feel bad or doubt yourself, or see the worst and other people, you're going to struggle sometimes. And that's okay. The good news is that we can all recognize and take ownership of our stories, and we can change them. My guest today is here to tell us how. I'm so pleased to be speaking with Dr. John Delony today. 

He is the author of a new book called Own Your Past, Change Your Future and he's done all kinds of cool stuff. He is a best-selling author, he's the host of the Dr. John Delony Show. And he has two PhDs, one in counseling education and counseling supervision, and the other in higher administration — oh, higher education administration. He's now doing all kinds of fun stuff with Ramsey Solutions. He's been a professor, a crisis responder — which is so interesting — and now he's here today to talk with us and with you about how to see those stories and how to change them. Dr. John, thank you.

John Delony: You are so kind, good grief. You're so kind. Thank you so much for inviting me to be on your show.

Lisa: Well, I'm excited to talk with you because this is good stuff. Okay, question number one: Am I pronouncing your name right?

John: Yes, it rhymes with lunchmeat. It was a rough childhood for sure.

Lisa: Oh my gosh, I didn't even think about that and now I'm not going to be able to not think about that.

John: No it's your — yeah, there's a long line of Delony baloney chanter, so it's all good.

Lisa: I was Lisa pizza. Although —

John: Pizza’s good, refined lunchmeat is —

Lisa: My father's name, though, is Luke, and he was very intentional about giving both my sister and I names that would be difficult to rhyme with because of that.

John: Well done. Luke and puke, huh.

Lisa: Yes.

John: I see that.

Lisa: Delony, bologna. 

John: Delony, bologna. And John, it's a toilet, right, so it is what it is.

On John Delony’s Book

Lisa: I'm sure we'll have plenty of opportunities to talk about childhood trauma. Nice segue into —

John: That’s the crux of the book is people made fun of me and I couldn't handle it, right? 

Lisa: Oh, well. So this is really good stuff and really important stuff. I mean, I've been a therapist for a long time. And honestly, at the core of pretty much every issue on some level is the narrative that people have. The conversation they're having with themselves about themselves, the things they're telling themselves about their partner. I’m a couple's counselor by trade and so that's kind of a big deal. And so it's so important to get your arms around this stuff. So I'm so grateful for your book, and I'm so curious to know how this book came about. Like you could have gone in a lot of different directions with your career. How'd you choose this one?

John: It's 10 years in the making. I walked it and lived it. And the most disorienting part about it was I had all the academic answers. I had all the intellectual answers, and yet I couldn't see it. I was right in the middle of it, and I couldn't see it. And I couldn't understand the effect it was having on my loved ones, on my wife, little kids, on my neighborhood. As I begin to slowly walk through, you got to walk through the ugliness to get to the other side, and started heading off into the darkness flanked by some really lovely people who helped along the way. 

I started realizing, “Man, this isn't just my story. This is my friends’ stories and their marriages and their infidelity problems and their finance problems and they're — like, “Oh, this is my community's issue, this is our country.” So these narratives were much bigger than me. And I had a ringside seat to live it. And at the same time I was experiencing this, my job was in sitting with other people, when the wheels have fallen off, right? And so, in one case, you're able to walk alongside people and help them. And another case, I didn't even see it in my own mirror. So how do you help somebody get from point A to point B, when you don't even — when you're lost at sea as well, right? 

This is just a journey back to how do we get well, and it all came back to, “Why did I think this was the right path? Who told me I had to do this? Where did I get this thought that I'm too unattractive to be loved? Why did I think my wife was leaving her shoes out just to ruin my day? Why does my four-year-old son say, ‘No dad’, and I instantly go to, ‘Because I'm a terrible father’? Where did these stories come from?” And that narrative inquiry really set the stage for “Oh, man, we are all chasing stories.” And then the physiology, our bodies are responding to these stories day in and day out for our entire lives. And you can't fix the body and mind unless you address those stories.

Lisa: Yeah, definitely. So, it's one thing, I totally hear you. Have all the academic knowledge, right? And to intellectually know — and I mean, this is what you get taught in counseling with like, cognitive behavioral therapy, it's a known thing, right? And until we feel it, and live it, and we're like, “Ooh, I'm — am I doing that? Yeah. Oh, I am.” Like, it gives you this different perspective to be able, I think, to teach it.

John: I'm trying to reframe the thought and my body is screaming, “Run! Run!” And so I can have all of the right cognitions in the world, I can look the book up and look it up in the DSM. But I've got to own what's happening inside of me. And my body is saying, “Fight everyone, because everyone's an enemy right now, especially those who are saying they love you. They're the scariest, right? Why?” So it's walking backward, reverse engineering this thing and say, “Why is my body responding?”

Lisa: Yeah, well, I'm feeling like our conversation can go in one of two directions right now. And in door number one, I could ask you about some of the things you have observed with clients who might be struggling with thoughts that are not helpful to them, stories that they want to ultimately reevaluate. Or door number two is that I could ask you to talk about how some of those stories and experiences showed up in your own life in a more detailed way. But I would not want to assume which one of those doors is right for you.

John: Oh, I love having a conversation with a therapist. You're so hospitable. We can have the cheese or… My friends are like, “Hey, we're having pizza, get over it.” I will reverse it and say, we can go — this is your home, so I'm happy to go into any door you'd like to go into.

Lisa: Alright, well, I just want to be sensitive, because you know what, I need to like, check my own boundaries sometimes. I do this with my friends, too. Because I'm a therapist. And so it's like, as my guest on this show in our professional role I wouldn't want to like push you into the pool. 

John: Oh, no, no, That's what I signed up for to get shoved into the pool. And you just made my heart feel good. My wife — I'm just endlessly curious about folks. And when you are walking alongside people in any capacity, particularly in your work as a therapist, it's natural. A natural next question is, “Well, tell me how often y'all are having sex? Tell me what that's like for you?” And my wife has told me over the years, “That's not a great dinnertime question with people we don't know that well,” and I just — it's the next right question. And, anyway, the fact that you just mentioned that makes my heart feel good. And so same team, I love it. No, let's go to the deep end of the pool, we'll go wherever you want to go. 

Lisa: Thank you. We get very weird [inaudible] to of counseling school and like asking weird questions, and people are like, “Why are you looking at me that way?” And then I think professional development, we kind of like figure it out. I think sometimes I err on the other side sometimes, like in personal relationships. I think, “Oh, that's a therapist question. Don't ask that.” When actually it probably would be just fine to ask.

John: My wife would love it if I had that filter. Well, I don't have that filter. Good for you.

The Cracks in the House

Lisa: Anyway. Okay. Well, thank you for being so open here. So with your permission, I mean, I'd love to hear about what was going on for you when you had that first spark of self-awareness and what was going on in your head when you're like, “Maybe this isn't —”

John: Yes. So I think it's important to acknowledge if you're just now listening to this on a podcast. I'm in every privileged cast there is. I'm 6’2”, 195 pounds, white, male, my parents are still married, and grew up in Texas, and my mother and dad had me in Sunday school every Sunday. So I've checked all the boxes. And then there was just a path that we were given, not we in my house, but we in my neighborhood, in my community, you go and you get these type of grades, and then you perform this way on this athletic field, and then you go to these set of schools, and then you — even going to grad school wasn't a question. 

It wasn't, like, “I wonder if I could,” it was an expectation. You just, “Now we're going to go to grad school,” right? And part of going through those — part of this journey is you're going to rack up six figures in student loan debt. You're going to work all hours of the night, grinding it and killing it and dragging all those, whatever words. So really, I just did what was laid out in front of me. And I followed the track as best I could. And I tried to be hospitable and kind, and say I was sorry, and learn and listen.

I had some — my parents have two remarkable, adventurous lives as well. And so I was really given a ringside seat into some really important life lessons early on. But I showed up, and you blink your eyes, and I'm a senior leader at a really nice university. And my wife is a brilliant researcher and professor, and we have been trying to have kids for several years and we finally were fortunate enough to have a young child. We're making a combined income that my granddad couldn't wrap his head around. He worked at Houston Power and Light for 35 years and got the gold watch.

I had all the fancy credentials and the titles, and I just got accepted to a management program, a leadership program at Harvard. I was doing all this stuff, and I was running my full-time job and then I took a faculty role too. I was doing all the stuff and at some point, my body said, “Hey, we're out. We're done.” And it started with a little bit of a paranoia here, like, “Hey, do you notice that everybody's seeing that, and they didn't see it.” And now I know it was off-the-chart clinical anxiety and I lean towards obsessive-compulsive and I didn't know what that was. I just knew that I was seeing things that nobody else was seeing. And when you're in the eye of that hurricane, I would have a contractor come over to my house and say, “Hey, will you look at this, I think this thing's caving in on me.”

They would look at it and measure it, and then come back and say, “Your house is fine.” And he would drive off. And my first thought is, “That guy doesn't know what he's talking about. He's crazy.” And again, I'm — my job is going great. I'm clocking in and clocking out, I'm doing good work. I'm getting good performance reviews. And so, my story is not one of “And then I exploded ended up in rehab.” Mine was more typical of the millions and millions and millions of people who are living life with this low-level hum of dysthymia, this low-level hum of anxiety, and we've just come to believe this is the way life is. And that we all just have to gain weight and become less mobile and you stop having sex the longer you're married because it's — and Netflix is more important than intimacy and connection.

If you just — right, you just follow the path. And it was, during this time, part of my job was getting called in to make the phone call, right? So I would call and let a parent know, “Hey, your son or daughter has just passed away,” or “Hey, your son or daughter is in ICU and you need to quickly get on the plane and come,” or “I'm walking your child into a psychiatric hospital, you need to get her as quick as you can.” So that was part of my job or taking students who are highly intoxicated and making sure they got into EMS and then got to the hospital. So I was trafficking other people's trauma and they called me in when the wheels have fallen off. 

I'll never forget sitting in my backyard in the middle of the night and it was raining. And I was crawling around in the mud with a flashlight in my mouth looking for cracks in the foundation of my home because I was convinced that this was happening. That my house was falling apart and that rain was going to flood in there and split the foundation. Again, saying it out loud is absurd. It just doesn't happen, it's not a thing. But I was convinced it was and there was this moment of lucidity where I sat up and I realized, “Oh, this is when they would call me to come sit with this guy.” And it's me and that was the first moment that I — the first little crack, the light got through the crack and I thought, “Maybe it's me.” 

A few weeks later, we sold our house, we moved into a residence hall, and I got in my car and drove and sat with a buddy who's a medical doctor, an MD, and I said “Hey, brother, I'm not okay.” And that was the first time I ever uttered those words out loud. And that started me on a long journey towards what if we — what is happening? That this is how I'm ending up.

Lisa: I got it. Thank you for telling me that story that like, I think William Burroughs called it “That Naked Lunch Moment” where all of a sudden we're like, “What am I doing?” And how interesting. If there were a Freudian in the room with us right now, which there is not like, fascinatingly symbolic, like, “This house is falling apart.”

John: I mean, it couldn't be more Freudian if I tried. Yeah, it was just silly. 

Are Your Stories True to the T?

Lisa: No, not silly. I mean, I'm sure that's what it felt like on many levels and so but what you're also sharing something that I think is so instructive for everyone, and just I too had those moments of like, “Wait, just a second, a different flavor.” Through the filter of my life experiences and personality, but I think it's that first flash of recognition when we’re like, “Wait a minute, maybe the story I'm telling myself right now, is not true with a capital T.” And that I think, is the hardest thing for all of us. Because, what we think, what we see out of our eyes, what we perceive happening in the world through our filter, what else is there? You know what I mean? Like, I'm looking at a cup, right now, you're going to tell me like, no, but to have that sort of psychological distance around, “What I'm telling myself is perhaps not objective reality,” is so hard.

John: The part that they don't tell you in the movies is when you have that realization, there is no music that swells. And there's no great soundtrack and your supermodel spouse doesn't come outside, your romantic partner, and say, “It's all going to be okay”, and you hug and then the next day, the light, that's not how it works. There was no music, I was covered in mud, and I was getting rained on, and I was laughing and crying at the same time. And I went back inside and went to bed, and I didn't sleep. 

I woke up the next morning, spun up and knowing, “Okay, that might have been me, but maybe not.” And it's a long slog through those stories, through childhood trauma, through big T, little T stuff, through physiological chemical imbalances, through all of it, and it takes a while. And that's just not how Hollywood has drawn it up for us. And so I wish you could say that, “Man, if everyone could just have that moment of, ‘Tada,’ that's —”

Lisa: “I understand now.”

John: Right? And it's all better. That's the moment it starts, right? And then the heavy lifting takes years, and you got to invite people with you along the way because we can't all do it ourselves. That's the part that nobody told me. Right? That, “Oh, that’s it. Maybe it's just me. Alright, now we can begin.” And I thought that was the end of a journey. That was just that was the prologue.

Lisa: Well, and too, that the experience, I think, if I put myself in those shoes, and in my own life, it doesn't actually feel good. 

John: No, it’s the worst!

Lisa: It’s sort of terrifying and it's very easy, I think, to avoid or deny or rationalize things that we tell us. So it would have been, I mean, it's a real credit to you, I think, and your, your strength and your health that in that moment, because it would have been easy to say, “Or there could actually be a crack in the foundation. I'm going to keep looking until I find it because —” but you didn't do that.

John: Can I tell you this? I can take the strength of that moment. But let me tell you, I had called over contractors, I called over professionals, I called over work colleagues who had some experience in construction. It was when I call over a college roommate, who at that time had been my friend for 10 or 15 years, and someone who I trusted dearly, and I trust with my kids and my family. I called him and his father was an architect that he'd grown up on construction sites. And I said, “Hey, I haven't got to meet your new son, you haven’t got to meet my son. Let's get him together and take some photos. And by the way, when you're down here —” 

He drove three hours, him and his family. And he walked me out, looked around the house, I was given him my rigamarole that I gave everybody and it sounded like A Beautiful Mind. I was like it was, it sounded like one of those YouTube conspiracy theory guys who takes this and then this and then this and draws a straight line is like, look, and you're like, “What are you talking about?” That's what I sounded like, right? But it all made sense. And he took me out and we were looking at it. And he's a quiet West Texas, stoic, and he just said, he's a banker by trade, if that gives you anything of his personality. And he said, “John, your house is fine. It's strong and it's firm.” Then he said this. “I don't want to hear this anymore.”

What I didn't know is that my wife had called him and said, “I'm scared. Not that John's going to do anything or hurt anybody. But something's not right and I don't understand.” And then it was I could say that the light came on because I had this moment of strength and bravery. You know what I did? I reached out to somebody and said, “I'm not seeing this. I know I'm not seeing something”. And he was the first guy that I thought, okay, maybe I trust him. I trust him with my family. Maybe it's not me. And even when he left I thought, “He didn't see it.” But that was the seed that was planted, right? So I think most healing starts — almost all healing starts with human connection and a real relationship, right?

Lisa: Absolutely. You have to be vulnerable enough with somebody to allow them into your experience and be open to their feedback, their assessment, that trust, I totally get it. That makes a lot of sense to me. And was also very brave to do. And I also hear you saying that you had to do that. I'm thinking right now that there's things, and I'm sure you know this, but like get diagnostic labels, but they're just sort of like different iterations of the similar things sometimes, like hypochondriasis, right? It's like going to doctor after doctor like, “No, something's wrong. Look, again, I need another test.” And it's like, but that same sort of, not the diagnosis itself, but just what anxiety can look like, in different ways. There's different stories, and it's very similar. That even though it's like information doesn't make us feel better.

John: In fact, it was a revolution to me to frame something like anxiety, as complex yet as simple as anxiety. What if anxiety’s not the problem? What if anxiety is just the alarm, letting me know, “Hey, you're disconnected, you're out of touch with your relationships,” or “You're not safe? Or you're in a situation where you don't have any control?” What if anxiety was like the smoke alarm in our kitchen, that just letting us know, “Hey, something's on fire,” and I can climb up on a ladder and pull the batteries out of that thing. Or I can duct tape a pillow around it in silence it. My house is still burning down.

What I stopped doing was going to war with my body. When I started counting corners, which is a tic I have when I start ruminating. I now am curious about what my body's trying to protect me from. I don't go to war with trying to stop the thing, because that's like duct taping over my gas gauge on my car. Instead, I'm going to say, “Oh, man, I'm getting low on gas, I need to write fill in the blank.” What are the healthy behaviors that I know for me, I go back to over and over again, that let me know that I'm safe and connected, right?

Recognizing a Story from Trauma

Lisa: I love that analogy, like, take the batteries out of a smoke alarm or… But now also, though, I'm sure that there was a big piece between having that moment in your backyard and then getting to the place where you have all of these, you know, how to manage those stories really effectively, obviously. Actually, right before it before we met, I was in a meeting with another one of my colleagues who's been on the show with me before — Anastasia. She's another couples counselor on our team but she was like, “What are you up to today?” And I told her about my interview with you. And she was like, “Oh, this is going to be a good one. And I'm already thinking about clients. I'm going to send this one too.”

I was like, “Well, what, what questions would you have for Dr. John?” And the first thing that she said, because I think that this is a real hard one, is “How to recognize the difference between you telling yourself a story that is a construct of something that you've lived through historically?” And may not be the most helpful way of viewing a situation? How do you keep that awareness in your mind? Because I heard you say that there was that flash of recognition. But that's in many ways when it just begun. So it's like, beginning to unearth part of that story. How did you get your arms all the way around the whole of it? There was a process there.

John: If I were to distill down the last 10 or 15 years, I really don't know a way. And you're a seasoned therapist, right? I just play one on the radio, you do it for real. And you may have different tools that I can learn from. But the two things that I've distilled down is one: I have to write these stories down and get them out of my head so that I can look at them and this is very cognitive-behavioral. No, but I have to demand evidence for that. 

Here's an example: I was walking out of the house recently, a few months ago, and I kissed my five-year-old daughter on the head. And she just — this like 5:45 in the morning before anybody's thinking rational, by the way, she's five, she doesn't get a vote into my day or my life. We don't let her buy guns or alcohol ‘cause she's five. But I kissed her on the head and she shook that little beautiful blonde hair of hers and she said, “I wish you never existed.”

My wife came across the table like, “Mo ma’am, we treat each other with respect. We talk to each other with respect in this house. We don't talk to each other like that way.” And my daughter went on to say, “All he ever says is you're so beautiful and you're so gritty and strong and brilliant. I can't live like this, and I'm not going to take it anymore.” To which, she's five, right? She is five. And I'm pathological about screens. I don't even know where this comes from. This came from her soul, right? 

I smile and I looked at my wife and I was like, “I didn't have this class in grad school, right?” And so we crack up and I walked out on the front porch. But here's the thing, if I'm being honest, the first thing that went into my mind as I walked out on the front porch, in the dark, out in the car — I live out in the woods out here — was, “Of course, because you suck at being a dad, you're never here.” And it was a season I'd been on the road, I travel a lot speaking all over the country. I've been on the road for weeks on end and that was the first story. And when I think of that story, there is a biochemical consequence. My body floods itself with adrenaline and cortisol to protect itself from that shame and that not-enoughness, right, and that failure. And, “Oh, yeah, remember you’re a dad.” 

All those stories come flooding back in and there's a physiological consequence to it. My heart beats faster. And I had to stop and write that — I either write it down — in that moment, I'd been doing it so long — and catch myself and say, “No, it's not true.” And I'm talking to myself as I'm heading down the porch to the gym, “But it's not true. I'm a great dad, she's five, and it's 5:45 in the morning,” right? And I'm going, my brain is going to go, “Oh, he's back in the driver's seat. We're good,” right? So the first one is, I'm going to write these things down and it's annoying and I've been doing this forever. And I still carry a small little journal with me in my cool GORUCK backpack designed to carry heavy weights and do like cool, tough stuff. And I'm a Texas May — whatever.

I still have a little journal that I write stories down in when they get stuck on loop in my head, and I can look at them at arm's length and demand evidence. The second one, the only other way I have learned to deal with these stories, is I think this is the chief enemy of our time is I have to have cultivated trust in intimate relationships with other people, especially other tough guy boys like me, and to be able to say, “Hey, am I seeing this, right?” And we have a deadly crisis of loneliness and disconnection in this in this culture. And I have to have people in my life that say, “Hey, I get really fu —” Like, I had this conversation with my wife, “Am I hearing this right?” And my buddies will be like, “No, you moron, don't say that.” 

Because one of them's a banker, and one of them runs an HVAC company. And you're they're not therapists, and they're not gentle. But they tell me the truth and so it's sometimes I have to go see a therapist, I have a coach, right? It depends, I got to have people in my life. And so those are the two ways that I've learned to get down into the stories, get through my biochemistry, and try to get to the truth — is this real? And if you may have other ways to do it, but those are the two that have been most effective for me.

Lisa: I would not add anything else — externalizing it, saying it out loud to another trusted person, that you have the kind of relationship with, to accept their feedback or perspective. And it could be a counselor, it could be a coach, it could be a very good friend that you've cultivated that relationship with. And then also certainly, writing — I do that to this day. I write down things, I journal, and it helps me shift. And I do think that with a lot of practice, I find myself even doing this. I'll say something, maybe I haven't, I'm having a day when I'll feel discouraged. And I'll say, something negative about something that's happening to my husband and I will say out loud, “Stop that.” I will say a different thing. There was an, “I'm the worst mom in the world.” And then I'll be like, “You know what, I'm not actually the worst mom in the world.” And I'll do that like out loud with people. So there's like a whole nother level of self embarrassment right there. But that’s another strategy.

John: My wife thinks it’s hilarious. I'll be walking through the living room. And I'll, that goes back to helping control my thoughts. But I'll be walking through the living room and my wife will hear I'll just be like, “No!” And because I've started having an imaginary conversation with my boss and of course, I always win with the last witty statement, right? And I showed them. I'm never going to have that conversation ever. That will never take place. And by the way, it'd be disrespectful if I did. That's not even who I am as a character. But it just feels so good in our bodies. This is the thing I didn't know; our bodies get addicted to the chemicals of winning, they get addicted to the chemicals of engagement and of stress. And so I literally have to stop. I will walk into the living room and I'll go, “Nope.” And my wife will just roll her eyes because she knows I'm stopping that thing before it gets off the tracks, right? I'm not going to go down that road. I'm going to have a different conversation with a real person in the real room with me, right?

How These Stories Develop

Lisa: I get it. Oh, that's awesome. Well, and you bring up such a great point. And this is actually another question that I wanted to ask you about because you had written about this in your book, and you just brought up something that is so important, and I think is very helpful for people to understand is that we have physiological reactions to things that we think about. Your feeling mind cannot tell the difference between things you're thinking about, and things that are actually happening. And so we have responses to whatever we're telling ourselves. And you talk in your book about how a lot of those old stories or kind of automatic responses can be rooted in trauma — big T trauma, little T trauma, and also just life experiences. So I'm so curious to hear your perspective on how these stories develop, and just what you've seen with that.

John: I think we're launched out of the gate. And so I think the first set of stories are the ones you're born into, right? This is just how we do Christmas. We aren't those kind of people that buy cars like that, whether nice cars or cheap cars. I would never take a job in an office like that. We are here — we're a long line of fill in the blank, right? And so you are born into this is just the way we do life, like so I'm always running my mouth in my house about how stupid screens are. “I can't believe people would give their children smartphones.” But well, now I have a 12-year-old and a six-year-old that are parroting me. Like they'll see their friends and be like, “I can't believe that.” I'm like, “Dude, you're going to get beat up. Don't say that. Right? Don't be that kid.”

That's just the world they know. And we have the same thing about you've grown up in a family where God's not real, or you grew up in a family where God loves you, he's your best friend, and he wants the best for you. Or we grew up in a family where God has just watching you and if you get a step once, he can't wait to torture you for eternity, right? And then I hand that off to a seven-year-old and expect them to carry that cosmic weight. So we're born into these stories, and they're cultural and they are local, they are national. We're born into these stories. 

Then there's the stories that were told, either explicitly or implicitly. You're never going to be able to fill in the blank. Or, “Hey, if you wear that shirt, you look makes you look pudgy, and the boys won't think you're pretty and you want them to like you, right? Yeah, yeah.” That those become stories that become a part of us. And, unfortunately, and fortunately, depending on the stories you grew up with, the stories you're born into, and the stories you are told, become the stories you tell yourself. And all of them have a biochemical consequence, with our stress response, with our love response — all of those come at a cost. And often the story of a little girl saying, “Hey, Mom, look at this picture! Hey, Mom, look, look, look!” And mom's just scrolling and scrolling on her Instagram or Pinterest or whatever. And the little girl say, “Hey, mom”, and mom's just going, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, it looks great, honey.” 

That little girl doesn't know, “Man, mom's obsessed with the stupid phone, I'm your daughter.” That little girl's body tells her, “Something about that little machine is more lovable and important than you, figure that out.” And that little girl will solve that problem forever and ever and ever. And then she's going to become 34 and someone's going to call her in the office and say, “Hey, we've identified you. We think you’re vice president-material.” And her first thought is, “I can't do that. I can —” That's a story that has continued to rattle around in her heart and mind. Literally, you know, you've heard the old saying, “Our childhood biography becomes our adult biology.”

This thing rattles through forever and it's got real-life consequences. And until she can pause and say, “Why was my first response that I can't be a vice president? I made the grades, I got the degrees, I've kicked butt in this job. Why is it was my first thought that I can't do this?” That's where true healing begins.

Lisa: Yeah. Well, and that's so interesting to think about, too, because it's I think that we can think about trauma and damaging life experiences as being big and dramatic and obvious. And sometimes, they can be. And I think that certain life paths are just inherently more difficult than others if you're dealing with cultural oppression or discrimination. And there are also subtle kinds of trauma that are very easy to miss. They feel almost just like part of life, but they can still leave an impact.

John: The analogy I love to use is this. We're all born with a backpack. And as I said earlier, I was born with very few rocks or bricks in my backpack. Friends of mine were born into abusive homes or homes that one of the parents has left, or into poverty, or they're the wrong color in the wrong neighborhood. They were born with weight already in that backpack, and then you throw in abuse or the divorce or the car wreck or the heart attack. And that's like a big cinderblock of trauma getting put in that backpack. Most of us won't experience that. Most of us will experience what I didn't know about trauma until recently, several years ago.

That said, it can be acute or can be cumulative, it can add up on you. And it's the mom passing you off, it's the little boy banging his head and dad saying that didn't hurt, suck it up. And the little boy says, “It did hurt,” but he's big, and he's smart. And so I can't trust my own body. I can't trust my own feelings. And I won't have trust in that forever, right? And so those little micro-traumas, they're small, and they add up and they add up and they add up as little T traumas. And suddenly, over time, the weight in that backpack is the same. It’s a pebble a day, a pebble a day, a pebble a day of, “Oh, honey, yeah, let’s not wear that shirt. You're not pretty in that shirt.” That adds up over time to where, when you're 35, you're 23, that weight in that backpack is the same. And we didn't even know we were carrying it.

How to Rewrite Your Story

Lisa: Yeah. Well, and how hard to excavate these things and create that awareness. Because if it's stories that you've always had, and the way that you've always felt, just how to, again, get that awareness that maybe those things aren't true, maybe you do have ways of shifting those stories. And in your book, you mentioned that in your experience, it can be very helpful to grieve as part of that process. Can you tell me more about that?

John: We have a culture that's just pathologized any uncomfortable feeling. And this is going to sound like a strange thing for a guy that's an optimist and who believes in hope and laughs a lot. But I want to bring us back into connection with sadness, and frustration, and annoyance, and boredom. And these are core biological responses, they’re core feelings. And we have a culture that's just wallpapered over them, either with pharmaceuticals, or with distraction, or with Netflix, or with — dude, now Amazon just tells me what I — it knows what I want to buy, before I even do. It just tells me, “Hey, you're going to like this, right? Here's your next book to buy, okay?” And Netflix, just, “You're going to really like this show.” It's automated our everything. 

Grief is a core experience that every culture throughout history has had and that we have overnight, dissolved it, we've done away with it. Your spouse dies, you get three days off, and then we're going to have you back in the office. If an extended family, if a cousin or grandparent dies, “I'm so sorry, if you've got some vacation time, you can take it.” And if you're an hourly employee, “You just have to see if you can afford the grief, right? And then we're going to have you back at the office.” That's the world we're in now. We have pathologized discomfort. Why? Because it makes us uncomfortable when people around us are uncomfortable. We don't have any skills, we don't have any tools to lean into somebody else's grief with them. 

All grief is — my definition of it is — it's the gap between what you hoped for or what you thought would happen, and what actually happened, that's it. And it can be as big as, “I thought my dad was going to be around forever and he died.” “I thought this relationship was it. I went all in on this and she cheated on me, she left me. I went all—” like there's grief there, right, that is deep and it's the black hole that therapists and coaches have dealt with forever.

Then there's the little stuff, the teeny tiny stuff that goes like this, “Hey, honey, you wanna go grab dinner tonight?” “Yeah, that'd be awesome.” And I'm all excited because it's Taco Tuesday. And can't wait because I love eating too many tacos and they're only $1 so I don't feel bad about it. And my wife hops in the car, and she's like, “Let's do this. And by the way, we're not going to that nasty Mexican food restaurant, we're getting burgers.” I can stop right there. And instantly my body goes on defense. 

I'm going to do one of two things. I'm going to not address it. I'm going to turn the radio up a little bit louder because I'm kind of ticked off. I'm going to sit about an inch, a little bit more leaning the other way, and I'm going to be really violent with my silence — fine. My wife's going to say, “What's wrong with you?” And I'm going to act indignant, “What do you mean what's wrong with me? What's wrong with you? Why?” I can go down that road. I'm going to drive a little bit too fast.

Or I can do this really quickly, I can think in my head, “I wanted to have Mexican food.” This is small G grief. I've never said it like that. But this is saying, “I really wanted Mexican food, but I'm going to honor my wife and burgers are good too.” And now I'm onto the next, now I can re-engage in this relationship. She didn't even know she had unplugged from it and so I get to own my response to these things. And it goes back to the stories I choose to tell myself and you have to sit in grief, whether it's tiny, or whether it's big, and if you avoid it, your body will solve for it year after year after year.

Lisa: Yeah, this is great. And I'm so glad that we're talking about it. Because what you're saying is really acknowledging grief and sitting with grief and making space for all of those dark feelings that are —

John: A common question I'm getting is “Alright what — let's — how do we get back to normal?” And I want us to stop and say, “Hey, however you believe in it, a million people just passed away. A million. And we're livestreaming a war that's never happened in human history, like that's happening right this second. And by the way, right? Our kids have missed this, and you missed weddings, and our loved ones had to go to funerals with no people in attendance, or our grandparents had to die. We need to stop for a second.”

Yes, we have to keep going to work. Yes, we have to keep eating and paying our bills. But we need a collective season of grief for a minute, we went through a hard, hard thing. And what happens next is going to be hard, too, and we need to do with intentionality, not just sprinting off to the next flashy, exciting thing and the loudest music, right? It's how our bodies are designed to operate. And the more we go against nature, the more we run from our bodies, and the more — we'll pay that toll at some point.

Lisa: Yeah. Again, I'm so glad you're talking about this, because the goal of wellness is not necessarily feeling good, although that can be a happy byproduct. But it's really, that core piece of emotional intelligence is being very comfortable with all of your feelings and being able to not, you know, push them away, but rather even use them to say, “Oh, I'm telling myself a story right now.” And that you have to have this information, and you have to have time and space for the harder parts. And part of the reason I think I'm feeling so glad that you, specifically, are talking about this right now is because — and I do not want to gender stereotype —

John: Oh, come on with it. I love it. 

Lisa: No, really, I think that particularly to have male role models, talking about this kind of vulnerability and how to make space and recognize and sit with these kinds of dark emotions. I mean, men in particular, I think, are socialized to believe that it's not okay to not be okay. And here you are saying this is actually the path forward and talking about how to do that. I'm so glad you are because I wish there were more of that in our culture. It's usually, the counseling field is dominated by women and —

John: Well, I'm grateful for that. I had a ringside seat. My dad is a wonderful man. He's a college professor now, but for my childhood, was a homicide detective in Houston, a major city. And he was a SWAT hostage negotiator. So when someone was going to blow something up, or someone was going to kill somebody or themselves, they called my dad in, and he would walk in and sit with people in the biggest messes and reconnect humanity to them.

I had a ringside seat to what happens when there is no ecosystem of how to be well. And that didn't exist in the 70s and 80s, for cops. It didn't exist in the 70s, or 80s, or 60s, or 40s for our veterans, for guys who are just getting out of the mines and then go to bed and then clean off and get back in the mine in the morning. 

We've created this myth almost overnight, just a few 100 years old, that just simply isn't isn't accurate — it's not right. I do have a responsibility, I think, to give people a picture, here's what I believe and here's what I know. Most men that I interact with, and I worked with a lot of tough guys, I spent years as an MMA guy, all that stuff is great. I spent a lot of years with a lot of tough guys, still do. Most of them are desperate for that level of connection. There's just not a picture of what it looks like. Because their dad didn't know that, didn't have those tools in their kit. Their granddad sure didn't have those tools in their kit and their granddad was off in World War Two and they didn't — right? 

I feel a keen responsibility to say, “Hey, I look like you. And I like the same things you like. And I promise I'm a better hunter than you are. And I drive a Prius because — I wrecked it the other day, so that's fine too. And here's what hugging your son looks like. Here's what looking in your 11-year-old son in the eye and kissing them on the face and telling them, ‘I love you and I'm proud of you,’ looks like. And here's what accountability looks at. Here's what connecting with your wife and your daughter. Here's what listening and not trying to solve everybody looks like.” So, yeah, I feel that responsibility because we can look around at our world that was mostly created by men. And it's not going well, and so we've got to do something different and to do the old thing just faster, and louder, and harder is not the way forward, right? So we got to do some things differently.

Lisa: That's a good perspective, and you've offered so much actionable advice and guidance here in our conversation today. I know that your book has even more, but what I heard you say is, I think, to almost adopt a curiosity about what you're thinking, why you're telling yourself this story, and being open to considering other possibilities. And also kind of running your ideas past others. We talked about, certainly, therapy or counseling as being an avenue for that.

But you've also talked a lot about having the kind of relationships that you can be that vulnerable in because, I mean, it's very easy to have a lot of social friends where we talk about stuff, and nobody ever talks about, “Am I crazy?” Or do you like — that's a pejorative word, but like, “Here's what happened, am I thinking about this right?” Maybe as a final note, in addition to people reading your book, what advice would you have for our listeners who really are struggling with that? Or maybe even they have a therapist but I can't be the only person in their lives, right? But is it to develop that kind of community, that kind of emotional intimacy in relationships.

Rewrite Your Story With Others

John: I think it's important to step back and recognize that we are in a very strange, weird moment in history. We have found ourselves profoundly lonely and it's happened. Anyone who says it's because of this, they're just selling you snake oil. There's a hundred reasons why, there's a thousand reasons why. Some of it is architectural. We didn't have air conditioners until a few years ago, and so we had to have front porches and screening porches, and we had to wave to our neighbors because they walked by. And we lived in tribes before that and so we had small communities that we just did life with. And some of it is the technology. 

We used to go to the movies, and go to concerts, and go to church, and go to wherever, and go bowling. And why in the world would I do that when I can have the movie pumped into my living room on my 80-inch flat screen that I bought for $200? That's how much it goes to the movies, the cost to go to the movies? And so why would I do that? And by the way, Netflix knows me better than AMC does. They have a million movies, and AMC has got 14, why would I do that? Why would I go stand up for three hours at a concert when I can have it pumped right into my living room in 4G? And why would I go bowling when I can play Fortnite with Oculus Rift on and like, you know what I mean? 

Like, why would — we've just overnight — why would I go have an uncomfortable conversation in person to person, when I can just thumbs down you on the internet and feel good about myself for a second. And so we've outsourced our friendships to the digital world, which is great, we are super, super informed. I know that my friends love me and they all wish me happy birthday, but I am highly disconnected from them. And so all of this plays a part where we find ourselves profoundly lonely. And so here's as bold a statement as I can make. In 2019, right before COVID, all the mess, I think it was in November, JAMA, the Journal of American Medical Association, came out with a study that I thought was going to send shockwaves through the country, particularly through mental health and medical practitioners. It was the third year in a row that the average lifespan of US citizen had gone down. We were dying younger. 

The first thought, it was a highly political season. First thoughts, murder and crime — it's not. It was what they called diseases of despair. It was suicide, addiction, and organ disease failure like heart disease, liver disease, and things like that. We were lonely-ing ourselves to death. The study got buried because COVID kicked off, and then we had more acute things to deal with. But really quickly, the data is showing us if you are doing life alone, you're going to die sooner, you're going to die more miserable, and the people around you will pay a price too.

You are worth more and the people you love are worth more. So what does that mean that we find ourselves in this weird no man's land? Because none of us know how, we don't have tools, we don't have — we don't know how to make friends. When we were kids, they just dropped us on the same classroom or put us on the same kickball team together and said, “Go get them.”

What do we have to do? We have to find new tools. We got to figure things out. We have to risk, we have to go first, we have to be hospitable, even to people we think who vote differently than we do, and think differently than we do, and worship differently. We got to just go be brave, we got to be a little bit courageous. And we have to know, “I have to have other people in my life.” And for most of us, that means go first. And you're going to get hurt, people are going to burn you, people are going to say no, and that's on them, not on us. And we've got to continue to move forward and make close intimate relationships. 

The one caveat I have is that, usually, it’s not your spouse, and God help us, it's especially not our kids. I know you've experienced this, the number of people who are like, “No, no, my 14-year-old is my best friend.” And I just stop and say, “Your 14-year-old cannot carry the weight of your adult needs. They can't — don't drown your kid that way.” And our spouses become trash bins, right? We just put all the bad stuff onto it, don't do it. You’ve got to go get a group of people.

Often, I've worked with high performers behind closed — that sounds so cheesy and dumb. I've worked with people who are successful behind closed doors and single moms too. But I tell often tell the high performers, you're going to have a group, it's either going to be a court-ordered group, or it's going to be a group of people that you choose. You get to pick, but you're going to have a group at some point. 

It's something that we just have to get over. It's not for debate, it's not for discussion. The question now is, “Alright, great. I don't know how to do this. I have social anxiety. I get worried. I was traumatized by relationships, so every time I get close, my body sounds the alarms.” Whatever is your particular story, know that the end goal has to be, “I'm loved and known in the same breath that I am knowing and loving others.” And that is the cornerstone, whether you're a Navy Seal, or a single mom with four kids. That's the cornerstone of a well.

Lisa: Well, and that's, that's sometimes the hardest and first story to shift, isn't it? Because I know it's very easy to do this: “I could call a friend — I'm busy, oh no.” I'm not going to send the text. That's dumb, right? But the first story is, this is actually fundamentally important for me to be investing in relationships and in friendships, specifically, that's the kind of relationship that you're talking about. It's very easy for us to tell ourselves a story that's not important.

John: So here's the brass text, sign your kids up for fewer things, so that you have time to hang out with your friends. And if you can't bring yourself to not play this baseball, and that soccer league, and his horse riding lessons, and the math club, then skip a game once a week. I promise, in the long run, your relationship with your children and with your spouse is going to be deeper, and more healthy, and more whole if you will take time to be with other people who are just like you, who are doing life together, that you're doing life with, separate and apart from your immediate crew, right? It will pay dividends; you're worth that time.

Lisa: That's wonderful advice. Well, this has been such a great conversation. Any last words of advice for our listeners? Or where should they find you if they would like to learn more about you and your work?

John: The one thing that I will say about this book that I feel good about is this. It's fun to have. I've got some, academician friends and we love to spiral over ideas and this and that. One thing I feel really great about this book is this — there is a lot and you've read up, there's a lot of extraordinary books, thousands of them, about marriages, and mental health, and relationships, and partnerships, and all those things. Most of those books are informative, they talk to me, they talk at me. And one of the things I've really tried to do with this book is to walk with people. And so some of the most exciting feedback I've received so far is, “I felt like you're sitting with me having this conversation,” and that's the goal

If you're tired of getting preached at if you're tired of people just trying to jab more info into your head, hopefully with this book, I've done it differently. This is me with you, I've got two little kids. I'm trying to figure this out, too. As we go and rock — I'm trying to change the oil in this car while I'm driving down the highway. So this is a story of somebody who's been there and walk alongside a lot of people. But he's also figured it out himself. So thank you so, so much for your hospitality. And you can find me on the internet at John Delony, or at johndelony.com and that's where you can go order the book.

Lisa: Okay, wonderful. Well, that's great to know and I also, I love that perspective. And from what I understand your book is very experiential, and there's like activities and journaling prompts and things. And I think that's so valuable because you're giving people opportunities to kind of go deeper into their own experience, as opposed to like, learning yet another thing.

John: Thank you so, so much. I'm grateful for you.

Lisa: All right, so johndelony.com and thank you again so much for your time. This has been a wonderful conversation. And yeah, keep me posted if you have more stuff coming out in the near future that we should talk about. This is great.
John: You are the best and I will join you anytime. You are so kind and hospitable. I'm just grateful for you.

Signs of a Healthy Relationship

Signs of a Healthy Relationship

Signs of a Healthy Relationship

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby


Music in this episode is from
Bedouine with the song, “One Of These Days.”

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. 

I hope you’ll join me, on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. And while you’re here, be sure to take our “How Healthy Is Your Relationship” quiz

Xoxo, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Signs of a Healthy Relationship 

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby


Music in this episode is from
Bedouine with the song, “One Of These Days.”

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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:

  1. 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:

  1. 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

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

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. 

Another hallmark of healthy conflict is that it’s productive. When you fight in a healthy relationship, the objective is to find a solution and then to come back together, better than before. It’s like a seasonal wildfire that prevents a forest-engulfing inferno, fertilizing the soil for new growth in the process.   

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. 

Teamwork

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. 

Positive Engagement 

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. 

Still wondering about how healthy your relationship is? Take our healthy relationship quiz

Episode Highlights

[05:23] Is My Relationship Healthy?

  • Consider some areas that need improvement in the relationship.
  • Sometimes, there is a general lack of awareness about what is healthy and normal in a relationship or a marriage.
  • Take the quiz at growingself.com/relationship-quiz to assess the relative strengths and improvements of different parts of your relationship.

[13:16] Unrealistic Expectations of Relationships

  • The irrationality comes when you assume that the relationship is problematic when there aren’t any issues in the first place.
  • Our source of information about an ideal relationship is through movies.
  • We also learn about relationships from our family of origin. However, they also didn’t receive any knowledge about relationships prior to their partnership.

[23:11] Domains of Relationship Health

  • The domains of relationship health are emotional safety, communication, sense of teamwork, level of positive engagement, and supporting each other’s goals.
  • The most important domain is emotional safety.

[26:25] Characteristics of an Unhealthy Relationship

  • Reacting negatively and violently when you’re feeling emotionally unwell.
  • An argument either doesn’t lead to any resolution or worse, triggers a bigger fight.
  • Invalidating and judging a partner’s interest that’s different from their own.

[54:33] The Makings of a Healthy Relationship 

  • A relationship can grow when exploring each domain.
  • Both partners should pay attention to the warning signs in their relationship.
  • Chances are, if the relationship doesn’t feel good for them on some level, it doesn’t feel good for you either.


Music in this episode is from Bedouine with the song, “One Of These Days.”

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 — hello@growingself.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.

Dealing With Commitment Issues

Dealing With Commitment Issues

Dealing With Commitment Issues

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby


Music in this episode is from
Raccoon, with the song, “Bloody You”

Dealing With Commitment Issues

Commitment issues: They plague so many relationships, and they can be so difficult to navigate. 

When you want a deeper commitment and your partner doesn’t, it’s hurtful. You’re feeling sure about your future together — ready to move in, ready to get engaged, ready to welcome a child into the world. But they have reservations, and it’s hard not to experience those reservations as rejection. Even worse, you might wonder if you’re wasting time with someone who will never come around, and day by day missing your chance to find a life partner or have a family. 

Of course, for the partner with “commitment issues,” it’s not easy either. If marriage is your goal, you’re trying to choose the person you’ll spend the rest of your life with. Really, have you ever made a bigger decision? 

Commitment issues can leave your relationship in a state of gridlock, with no easy route forward. How can you know what’s causing this hesitation? If your partner won’t commit, when should you be patient and work through it, and when should you move on? 

But help is here. I’ve put together this episode of the podcast for you to answer these questions and many more. As a couples therapist and a relationship coach, I know that commitment issues come up for so many couples, and that they can be more complex than they seem at first blush. The good news is, working through commitment issues together gives you an opportunity to build a better relationship, that you can both feel good about committing to. 

I hope this episode gives you some actionable advice to escape from commitment gridlock and begin moving forward. Tune in on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. 

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Dealing with Commitment Issues 

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby


Music in this episode is from
Raccoon, with the song, “Bloody You”

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Dealing with Commitment Issues: Episode Highlights

Our culture doesn’t always value commitment. But, love it or hate it, commitment is the key to long-term healthy relationships. If you and your partner aren’t on the same page about commitment in your relationship, you need to find the root of the “commitment issues” you’re experiencing. 

Admittedly, that’s a big task — and the possibilities are just about limitless! But here, in the broadest categories, are the most common culprits: 

Fear of Commitment 

Fear of commitment is a real thing, and it’s usually caused by past relational trauma. 

For children of divorce, or anyone who witnessed serious turmoil in their parents’ relationship, like infidelity or abuse, it may be difficult to trust on a deep level that any relationship can be safe and healthy long term. Toxic relationships with past partners, or having been cheated on could also cause someone to mistrust relationships. 

When someone has this fundamental anxiety about commitment, normal relationship turbulence feels incredibly threatening. They may see minor issues as a definitive sign that the relationship will fail, and cause a lot of pain along the way. Keeping one foot out the door becomes a way for the noncommittal partner to feel safe, although, sadly, they’re likely to create the relationship destruction they fear if they can’t commit. 

The good news is, of all the root causes of commitment issues, this one has the clearest path forward. Your partner can soothe their anxiety about commitment by learning about the reality of healthy relationships — which are always a mixed bag, and always involve some push and pull between the people involved. Understanding this can help your partner create more reasonable expectations for your relationship, and more clarity about what is a totally normal and workable issue, and what is cause for concern.

If they didn’t witness a healthy relationship growing up, they may also need to build some relationship skills that were never modeled for them, like constructive conflict, or emotionally safe communication. Once they do so, they’ll feel more capable of handling relationship issues as they arise, and they’ll probably feel more confident about moving forward with you. 

Ambivalence About the Relationship

Here’s another possibility: Your noncommittal partner might not feel ambivalent about relationships in general, but about yours in particular. 

It may be that your partner is concerned about certain problems in your relationship, doesn’t know how to fix them, and isn’t comfortable tying the proverbial knot until something changes. If this is the case, my hope is that your partner has identified the problem(s) so you can work on them together, with the goal of improving your relationship and continuing to grow as a couple

And what issues might need resolving? There are as many possibilities as there are relationships! It could be that there are old wounds that need to be healed and forgiven before your relationship can move forward. You may be having the same fight over and over, and need to find a way to move past it. You may both need to work on certain relationship skills to make your relationship healthier, more functional, and more sustainable for you both. A good marriage counselor or couples therapist can help you navigate any of these possibilities. 

If your partner is unwilling to commit because of specific problems with your relationship, this is ultimately a good thing. As long as you’re both willing to work on your challenges, you can improve your relationship before things get worse, and become a stronger couple, ready for a deeper commitment. 

Ambivalence About You

There’s a final possibility, which is not as easily fixed as the others, and far more upsetting to experience. 

It could be that your partner won’t commit because they’re not so sure about their feelings for you — and they may never be. They may be having a relationship with you, without an authentic interest in growing that relationship. They don’t want to break up, but they don’t want to close off other possibilities either. When you ask for deeper levels of commitment, like moving in together, getting engaged, or even just planning a trip a few months in advance, they drag their feet or make excuses.  

I know this is selfish, and hurtful, and probably difficult to even consider. But as an experienced therapist, I also know that it happens. I’ve listened to many people sit on my couch and say things like, “She’s great, and smart, and fun…for now. But I’m not sure if there’s a future. I imagine my life partner being more successful, or better looking, or more (fill in the blank).” 

So, they spend time with a good-enough partner without fully investing in the relationship, while waiting to see if someone who meets their criteria comes along. Meanwhile, you’re attaching more deeply, and your expectations for the future are growing. 

This kind of non-commital behavior is associated with an avoidant attachment style. At their core, avoidantly attached people fear intimacy, closeness, and dependence, so they find fault with perfectly nice partners to justify holding them at arm’s length. 

Of course, all of this would be fine, if your partner was open with you about their true feelings. But that’s likely not what’s happening. If it was, you would probably be breaking up with them, not furiously searching for answers about why they won’t commit to you. More likely, your partner is citing vague reasons for their unwillingness to move forward. These reasons may not make a lot of sense, and you may notice they’re constantly shifting. 

If this is what’s happening in your relationship, I’m sorry. I know it’s incredibly hurtful. I also know it’s unlikely to change. As the author Cheryl Strayed once wrote: “You cannot convince people to love you. This is an absolute rule. No one will ever give you love because you want him or her to give it. Real love moves freely in both directions. Don’t waste your time on anything else.”

If your partner doesn’t have the feelings for you that they want or expect to have for a life partner, flushing this information out into the open sooner rather than later can only be a good thing. If you want real love, or a family, you are wasting your time and possibly your fertility on someone who’s treating you like a placeholder. And you, my dear, deserve better than that. 

When Your Partner Won’t Commit

“Commitment issues” in a relationship can have many different causes, and the problem is often more complex than it seems once you crack open the relational hood and begin poking around. Most commitment issues can be worked through, and doing that work together will lead to a stronger, happier relationship that can carry you both forward. 

Even if you don’t find a tidy resolution, you’ll have more information to make the choice that’s right for you. I wish you the best of luck.

Episode Show Notes:

[01:49] What are Commitment Issues? 

  • Commitment issues arise in a relationship when both partners are not on the same page about their desired level of commitment. 
  • It hurts when your partner doesn’t demonstrate the same level of certainty about you that you feel toward them.
  • Fear of commitment is a complex issue, and the root of the problem can go incredibly deep. 

[09:39] Signs of Commitment Issues

  • A partner may seem anxious about the idea of trusting and committing to other people. 
  • They may attribute a lot of negative meaning to normal relationship issues.

[13:49] How Can I Address Commitment Issues?

  • Have open and honest conversations on common areas of conflict.
  • Learning constructive communication and problem-solving skills can instill confidence in a relationship.
  • High quality couples counseling helps partners see “commitment issues” as an opportunity for growth. 

[20:55] Does My Partner Have Commitment Issues?

  • Ambivalence toward a partner may be an indication of them having commitment issues.
  • Some people may remain in a relationship because they fear they won’t find anyone better, but they’re not eager to close off that possibility. 

[28:05] Counseling and Commitment Issues

  • An experienced marriage counselor can guide you through commitment issues.
  • Commitment issues are solvable when you agree to work them out with your partner.
  • Some avoidant partners fear couples counseling because it may reveal emotions and intentions they would rather keep hidden. 

[35:12] How to Get Over the Fear of Commitment?

  • Resolving fear of commitment requires a combination of personal growth and relational work.
  • The healing path would more likely be experiential to familiarize than informational.
  • Communicate and externalize the presence of commitment issues. Then, figure out a common ground to work together against the problem.
  • Accept your difficult past, and commit to building a happy and healthy relationship now.


Music in this episode is from Raccoon, with the song, “Bloody You”

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to The Love, Happiness and Success podcast.

That little slice of sonic gorgeousness is the band, Raccoon, with the song, “Bloody You”. A poignant start to our episode together today because we are talking, yet again, about a tough topic. Today, we are tackling commitment issues — issues y'all. A lot of couples struggle with us. It can be incredibly painful on both sides when you're going through it. My hope today is that, if this has been a thing for you or somebody in your life is struggling with this, you will leave our time together today with some new ideas, and hopefully actionable ideas, that can help you find your way through this. Let's just dive right in. Let's dispense with all formalities. We've been through this together. 

If you've listened to this show at all before, you'll know I'm Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I am the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. I'm a licensed psychologist, I'm a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I'm a board-certified life coach, and I love making these podcasts for you. I have the best time doing this, and I love, especially, having the opportunity to address topics that I know are on your mind, and also to answer your questions. And this topic in particular is one that many of you are struggling with. I know this because I get a lot of questions about it through Instagram, through our website, growingself.com. So here we are today — we are tackling this together.

What are Commitment Issues? 

To set ourselves up for this, let's just define our terms here for a second. What do I mean when I'm talking about “commitment issues”? There are probably different iterations of this. But the one that I hear about most of the time is a situation like couples, individuals trying to figure out how to handle it when maybe you want to move your relationship forward — you want to get married, move in together, or even become an exclusive couple, everybody take down their dating profiles. I mean, it can look like a lot of different things. 

Even a facet of this can be related to whether or not to start a family like to have children together or not, to have another child can have tinges of commitment issues as well. It has tentacles that can kind of sneak into different areas of life and have a relationship.

But it all kind of boils down to people being in different places with their readiness or willingness to move into that stage of relationship. If you're the partner who wants a deeper commitment, you already know how difficult this is. I mean, it's so frustrating, but also, it hurts. It can feel like a really deep and painful rejection, even, to be with somebody who you feel very sure about, but who isn't demonstrating that same level of certainty about you — like that hurts, right? And it can also trigger a lot of anxiety about the future, particularly if you are at a stage in your life where you're ready to find your person — get engaged, move in, do the stuff, talk about starting a family — and the person that you would like to do this with is like, “I don't know.” I mean, that that's hard, right? 

Also, though, on the other side of this — and I want to speak to this too because it's super real. It's also not easy to be the person who isn't ready to commit either — there's a ton of anxiety. Choosing who you are going to spend the rest of your life with is truly one of the most important decisions you'll ever make, and it is totally valid to be overwhelmed and uncertain when you're faced with that decision. Also, I think that there's a lot to be said for attempting to make a very thoughtful and informed decision. But given the fact that all relationships are, to a degree, a mixed bag, and there is no perfect person, there is no perfect relationship, that can be so confusing to try to figure out, “What is good enough?”, like when would you know that this is a very nice relationship that could have a wonderful future compared to signs that it isn't, given the variability of any relationship. That's not easy to do. 

I want to talk with you about this and how to navigate it when you're not on the same page as your partner. Again, my hope is that after this episode, you will have some ideas and some takeaways about what to do with this, how to handle commitment issues in your relationship, and how to find a way forward that respects your needs, as well as your partners’. I have to tell you — so I'm certainly going to share my ideas and recommendations, and things that I've seen, and one of my original hopes for this podcast was to actually speak with somebody on the show who was dealing with this. If you've listened to recent episodes, this is an idea that we're experimenting with a little bit more as actually inviting selected listeners, like yourself — Lisa waggles her eyebrows — onto the show to actually talk with me about what's going on in your life, and we can kind of hash it out a little bit. 

On this topic, we actually put a call out on my Instagram — @drlisamariebobby, in case you're interested — but to say, “Hey, who's dealing with this? Would you like to come talk to us about it?” And I got some amazing responses. If you are one of the people who responded about that question, thank you so much for getting in touch. As I read through what you were going with, dealing with, and how it was feeling for you, I actually decided to abandon that idea because this is not an informational kind of answer. 

The last thing in the world I want to do to you is to put anybody in a situation where we open up a bunch of stuff that is actually quite painful and complex, and that requires a growth process to get all the way through to the other side, and to invite people to be starting to have that first conversation with me in this kind of scenario on a podcast that will be heard by others. I'm not your therapist, I am not your coach — and so we would start having this conversation, start talking about hard things and be like, “Alright, well, that's a wrap, but good luck with that!” I don't want to do that.

I decided, instead, to tackle some written questions that people have sent to me so that we can still kind of accomplish the same thing, but not potentially damage someone or their relationship in the process of making this podcast. I will certainly put out other opportunities to come and talk about questions with me on the show — I'm still excited about doing that, but may just have to kind of make that decision on a case-by-case basis so that I'm fairly certain that it can be a positive experience for you if we do that together, and not a potentially a negative one.

As I was reflecting on what I wanted to share about this podcast and the information that would help you is — we're going to dig into this together, but the idea of commitment issues is quite complex. On the surface, it often seems like a gridlock situation, a yes or no, black or white, “Should we move in together?”, “Should we get engaged?”. We can just make a decision, and in reality, it is not that at all. The roots of this go incredibly deep. In order to work through it and arrive at a place of clarity, and confidence, and certainty about what to do, what's right for you, it is often a growth process that takes at least a few months of regular attention to get all the way through in an authentic way. 

I just wanted to say that out loud and prepare you in advance that I am not going to give you trite  advice. You are not going to listen to this and be like, “Okay, well, let's get engaged. We have it all figured out now.” It's going to go deeper. That is a good thing, and I hope it provides you direction on what might be true and how to begin going through the process of peeling that onion, doing the work, and coming out the other side, using it as a growth experience that benefits both you and your relationship. That is my sincere hope for you because you deserve that — you deserve that. You don't deserve trite basic advice — not from me or anybody else.

Signs of Commitment Issues

Alright, climbing down from my soapbox. Let's talk about some of the things that I have seen and experienced in my role as a therapist, as a marriage counselor, as a psychologist related to these commitment issues. One — and here's probably the most common thing that I see that leads to a real vexation when it comes to, people trying to figure out what to do with their relationships. Sometimes, one or both partners can have quite a bit of anxiety around trusting other people and trusting the idea of commitment itself. This, again, can have very deep roots — not infrequently. 

It's due to their having life experiences where they've seen not so great outcomes for other people — their parents, family members, culturally even — that relationships last. They've been exposed to a lot of divorces or relational trauma, affairs, addictions, betrayals — they might be children of divorce, and it was hard for them. Because of all that, they have a really high degree of need of certainty that, “This relationship is a good one. It's not going to end badly.” But again, because all relationships, every single relationship has elements to it that are not perfect. They may experience normal relationship issues — people getting into conflict about things, having to get on the same page about how we're handling things. 

All relationships have a certain degree of unsolvable problems — just differences between people that will always exist. They aren’t a bad thing, but because they have this need, I think, for certainty, they experience these normal relationship issues as a potential sign that there's something wrong. They're attributing a lot of negative meaning to a fairly normal relational turbulence, but it makes them feel really worried. 

The path of growth I see here is when people are actually able to do some work, often with a trained professional such as myself, but even reading some books or educating themselves about healthy relationships, and understanding that it is not a one-dimensional love fest — there's light and dark in all things. What does a real-life fundamentally healthy, emotionally safe relationship look like in practice in all of its imperfect glory? They can relax. 

In these situations, it can honestly be a little bit hard sometimes to get a partner struggling with commitment, even in the door of like a couples counselor's office, because part of that core narrative is if we have to talk to, somebody about our relationship, that's a sign that there's something wrong with this relationship, which is so not true. But that can be this huge barrier. It's almost these perfectionistic ideas of what a healthy relationship should be. 

What they don't know — but what I want you to know — is that the strongest, healthiest relationships are created intentionally by people working on their relationship and doing the things to make it strong, and healthy, and good, like going to couples counseling, going to relationship coaching, reading the books, taking the classes, investing in learning because nobody teaches you how to do this. Couples who have magnificent relationships are actually more likely to go to couples counseling. It's not a sign that something is wrong with the relationship; it's a sign of commitment, it's a sign of, “I care enough about you that I want to work on this.” 

How Can I Address Commitment Issues?

Again, it's so what happens in the room is a series of conversations. We're exploring different facets of the relationship, and really helping people understand what is genuinely problematic, and that we do need to work on and improve so that you can have a better experience, also, what is normal. But I think, too, arming people with almost like a toolbox or a roadmap — kind of how we do in premarital counseling, like not if but when you encounter conflict in this area, here's how to resolve it constructively, or here are common areas of conflict that most couples face sooner or later. Let's go ahead and talk through those now, and it could be around finances, sexuality, values, hopes, and dreams — all this stuff. 

But I think even just by having a conversation about those, it takes some of the fear out of it and people leave that being like, “Yeah, we either figured this out and came into agreement, and are fundamentally on the same page”, and/or, “I feel confident in what we're going to do if we do encounter problems in this area.” We just require some work, and people doing some exploring in order to be able to have like a thoughtful experience. In doing so, their anxiety calms way down, and they find that confidence and that sense of security and trust that they've been looking for once they learn how to deal with those normal unexpected issues. 

That's kind of door number one, and what is really at the root of commitment issues for many couples, and this is a very solvable problem — learning what's going on, beefing up some skills. Also, I will add to this that part of this could be — yes, a lot of what is happening is sort of normal relational issues. It is also true — and I just need to add this — that if one or both partners are coming out of family of origin experiences, whether their parents went through one or multiple divorces, and their parents never really figured out how to have a healthy relationship, they didn't have good models for how to do it. 

There might be some things that have been happening in the relationship related to constructive communication, constructive problem-solving skills that people do really need to learn how to do in order to begin having more positive experiences with each other in their relationship. Also, exploring that, doing that work, growing in that area can lead to an enormous amount of confidence about the relationship itself once that feels more solid, and perhaps some of the issues that had been happening because those skills weren't in place have ameliorated through that work. It's easy, and people can happily skip forward together into a bright future. That is the first situation. 

Now, another situation that is much less common that results in one partner thinking that the other might have commitment issues is, again, left less common, and it's crappier, to be completely honest with you — it's simpler. It's because one person — the person with the a.k.a commitment issues — is actually quite ambivalent about the relationship. This can happen for a couple of reasons, and potentially, in the best-case scenario, their ambivalence is related to things that they have been experiencing in the relationship that they do not like, they do not want to keep doing for the next 40 years of their lives, and they don't know how to fix it. 

They don't want to move forward into the relationship with you because there are aspects of the relationship that they are quite concerned about. I say that this is the best-case scenario because this is also potentially a solvable problem. This could be an indication that we need to get into more substantial couples counseling, not — what I talked about previously, it might be sort of premarital counseling, relationship coaching, “Let's take a look at what's going on”, “Let's talk about all the things that are going well”, like almost psychoeducation around normal relational aspects. 

But in the second situation, there are actually problematic things that have been happening that we need to use couples counseling, to see if they can be resolved. Sometimes, it is communication skills — we need a different set of agreements. Sometimes, there are emotional wounds between people that need to be healed, and couples counseling can absolutely help you do that. 

If couples counseling is successful, and these things are improved and mended, on the other side of that, people can say with confidence, “You know what? I feel so much better now, and I feel like we're so much stronger as a couple, I feel so much more secure with you. Yes, given the work that we did, I'm confident that — again, not that our relationship will be perfect forever, but the stuff that I felt really worried about feels handled enough for me to not feel as worried. And without the presence of that big problem, I feel a lot more comfortable committing to do this with you.” 

Again, it can be relational issues — things that are happening in the space in between you. There can be values discrepancies that can feel kind of bad for people, there can be untreated mental health stuff, substance abuse issues that until that is resolved, it makes it very difficult for a partner to keep doing this. Anyway, solvable problems — and they do require a lot of honesty and open conversations around, “I can't move forward because of this. Once we have this figured out, then we can work on that.” 

In the hands of really competent couples counseling, or associated treatment if that winds up being required, I would say nine times out of ten, people who are committed to doing this work with each other can come out the other side in a space of deep commitment and alignment, and with a stronger relationship than they had prior to doing that. Again, that is a very positive outcome, in my opinion, and a sign that — air quote, “commitment issues”, are just an opportunity for growth, which is fabulous. 

Does My Partner Have Commitment Issues?

Now, there is yet another situation that is even crappier, and it happens. This is much more rare, I would say it is the rarest. It is also very real, and you need to know about it — that commitment issues can be present in a relationship because one person is genuinely ambivalent about you. They like you, they care about you, there is nothing dramatically wrong about this relationship, they might like many parts of this relationship — like it so much, they keep doing it, and they aren't feeling the way they think they should feel about their life partner with you, and they're probably not going to. 

Again, super crappy. But I have personally talked to so many people who have literally said to me, in words, they have said, “She's an awesome girl, we have a good relationship, we have so much in common, we have a good time together, my parents like her, she likes my parents — I mean, it's all lining up or going in the same direction, and she'd be a great mom. But I just feel like I should see who else is out there. She's not the hottest girl I've ever dated, but I don't want to break up with her because I wouldn't necessarily want to lose her. What if I don't find somebody that I like better than her? I want to make sure.” They're kind of spending time with you while they're sort of half waiting around to see what else comes along. 

I am probably enraging some of you right now to the point of tears by saying this out loud, but people have said this to me in therapy sessions, and it's just awful. I mean, because my role, obviously, is to help them to kind of resolve ambivalence. But also my role is to help them come back into a place of integrity, which is, “What do you think it feels like for the person you're dating to be with you, given the way that you feel?” opening the door to having honest conversations about that. But it's a hard thing on both sides. 

What is also really hard is that if you are in a relationship with somebody for whom this is true, they're not going to be saying this out loud to you because if they did, you would say, understandably, “Screw this! Screw you! You go find something better.” It would end the relationship essentially, so people aren't talking about this. It's that authentic piece isn't part of it.

What is happening is that the person on the other side is trying to figure out what the hell is going on. When they ask their partner, it's like some form of gaslighting, to be honest. It's like, “Well, I'm just not ready yet”, or, “If we had more money saved”, or, “Maybe after next summer after we go on this vacation”, I mean, it's just like stuff that doesn't make sense because it doesn't make sense. 

This is an incredibly difficult situation to be with. One of the clues that this is going on is that if it's your partner's commitment issues aren't really attached to anything specific, they aren't expressing concerns about the relationship, they aren’t expressing concerns about kind of long-term like, “How do I know we won't get divorced?”, like it's not sort of anxiety-based, and it's sort of vague, and it's difficult to talk about. 

If you suspect that this might be going on, that you just have a half-assed partner with a “what's in it for me” sort of attitude towards this relationship, who you think might be wasting your time, potentially — you're a placeholder in their life, we have to flush this out into the open sooner rather than later so that you have all the information that you need in order to make informed decisions about what is best for you. 

Knowledge is power, and it's incredibly important because many times, especially women, can get roped into believing this idea that, even subconsciously like, once their partner chooses them and is committed to them, they will finally become more loving, or caring, or emotionally supported, or aligned with long-term goals, and if this commitment switch gets flipped, and then their partner would magically poof into this loving person they've always wanted them to be. They don't understand that it's their partner's ambivalence that what they have been experiencing is kind of a manifestation of self-absorption that even if they do marry you, it probably isn't going to be that different. 

If you ask a woman in their 40s or 50s coming out of the other side of a 20-year marriage that started this way, she would tell you, “I've had these conversations too about some of the early warning signs — there were, looking back.” I have heard, again, so many times that this person really wanted to get married, and kind of forced the issue a little bit, and that this person was always a little bit self-absorbed and never quite sure about her. In retrospect, that was an indication that there were going to be so many problems along the way, and that it was going to end badly. 

With only hindsight is she aware that maybe she was fabricating ideas about what the relationship could be if it was a committed relationship, rather than grappling with the truth and really understanding who and what her eventually ex-husband actually was all along. So cautionary tale — and I would encourage you to spend some time trying to figure out the difference. 

Again, it can be a tough differential like, “How do you know if you're in a relationship where the “commitment issues” are really due to needing to feel more confident about the relationship, managing family of origin anxiety, building skills in the relationship in addressing issues in the relationship and coming out the other side?” or, “When our commitment issues an indication that you're partnered with a selfish person who is probably never going to be a good partner for you.” 

Counseling and Commitment Issues

Maybe they are fundamentally not a selfish person, maybe they just aren't completely sold on the idea of being with you specifically — and you deserve to be committed to somebody who is just as excited about you as you are about them. If they're not feeling that way about you, I would advise that you not try to build a life with that person because what if it doesn't change? So how to figure this out? 

Step one, I would strongly encourage a professional assessment — sitting down with a good, experienced marriage counselor and not a therapist who offers couples counseling. 95% of therapists who offer couples counseling do not have specialized education and training in marriage and family therapy, and they will not be prepared to help you. Choose an MFT, a Marriage and Family Therapist, who has an evidence-based approach to couples counseling. They will be able to sit down with you and do a relationship assessment to figure out what is going on. 

A competent marriage counselor, through a variety of assessments and having the opportunity to kind of talk with each of you about your family history, maybe do some breakout sessions with each of you — something that I commonly do — and really coming in with an investigative curious spirit, will ask you a zillion questions and will be able to fairly quickly map out what the “problem” is. With that insight, will then be able to help you chart a path forward — maybe talking about what you both learned about committed relationships growing up, how are you currently communicating, how are you solving problems, what are the unresolved issues in your relationship that need to be fixed. If your partner has a drinking problem, this would be a good time to talk about how you feel about that. 

Also, they’ll be cracking into some of the harder stuff. For people on each side, what's the inner narrative that takes hold when you do have an issue? Does it go into, “Yeah, we'll work through it”, or does it go into a catastrophe kind of language? Because that's, again, a solvable problem of talking about what your expectations about relationships should be, what might need to be different in this relationship in order for you to feel more confident about it, and really getting very clear about what is holding you back from moving forward together. 

Over a number of sessions with a really good couples therapist, again, with specialized training and experience, they’ll be able to map out what's going on, and then be having open conversations about that with you because it turns into a roadmap for, “Okay, now we know what is creating the disconnect that’s contributing to these commitment issues. Here's how we can fix this”, and giving you the opportunity to do that work together, or at least presenting to you, “Here's what needs to happen in order to get to the other side of this.” Then, giving you the option, “Do you want to do that work together?” 

If the answer is “yes”, that's a sign that the commitment issues you've been dealing with are in fact solvable. If you do the work and make the changes, it's highly likely that you're going to have a fully committed relationship that you've been wanting where your partner is just as excited about you as you are to them, or where you are feeling this genuine certainty for yourself that makes it easy to move forward — it's a healthy, happy relationship, which is awesome. 

Now, if, on the other hand, you are unknowingly currently partnered with somebody who has these avoidant tendencies, who is fundamentally ambivalent about you, and who's probably not going to ever be a good partner for you whether or not you are married to them, whether or not you're living with them. It's probably always going to feel kind of the way that it feels now. That person will either really not want to do couples counseling with you, or if they do, they are going to feel super annoyed — they're going to reject the couples therapist, they would give

me a hard time with all my darn questions if I start trying to do this assessment with them because their truth is quite uncomfortable to have dragged out into the light. 

They would strongly prefer to have their true feelings and motivations remain hidden and have you dangling on the end of that string for as long as they wish you to remain there. They don't want to end the relationship with you because it's good enough — not good enough to move forward, but good enough for now. If they talk about how they really felt, you would break up with them. When somebody like me glides in, and starts asking hard questions and shining a flashlight into their nooks and crannies — bones and bats flying out of the closet — they don't want to do that. 

But occasionally, they will have a “come to Jesus” moment where they will have the opportunity to do some very important personal growth work. But more often, they will just not want to go to couples counseling with you or they will get really annoyed and angry, and withdraw from me if I was a couples counselor, possibly from you because they need to keep you at arm's length emotionally in order to maintain the relationship. Again, this is a good thing when you see this happening because then you have the information you need. 

It's so good for you to know this because you can understand what's going on, and then you can make informed decisions when you see it for what it is. Again, if somebody is working hard to gaslight you, you can't see it, particularly if you are a kind and empathetic person who believes the stories they're telling you. Years can go by in that space — and it's a stereotype, I know. I've also seen it so many times, women in their 20s and early 30s in these weird purgatory situationships for years to the point where it does actually begin to impact their fertility. 

Unless you are freezing eggs now and it's alright either way, you're going to want to figure this out sooner rather than later because it can have long-term consequences for your life. I say that as a woman who has struggled with infertility — the struggle is real. Anyway, those are the different aspects of this commitment issue. 

How to Get Over Fear of Commitment?

As you're probably intuiting now, this is why I didn't even want to start this conversation with one of you, my listeners, in the podcast episode because in any direction, no matter what it is, it is a long-term process to find the real answer and to arrive at the authentic solution. But, as promised, I will read you one of the questions that came up. So one question — and we had a number of these that were similar that came through on Instagram. But this, I thought, was a wonderful representation: 

“I need advice about how to have a successful relationship after witnessing divorce as a child. So many of my problems in my relationship, go back to this, I believe. I have done so much — deal with my childhood trauma caused by my parents, multiple divorces, but the trust issues and commitment issues follow me around. I constantly find myself wondering why I create problems that are nonexistent within my relationship. I feel like it's because I truly believe long-term commitments never work.” 

Obviously, just hearing this question, this is somebody who has a phenomenal insight into themselves, who has clearly done a lot of work on themselves individually, and who's now ready to think, “Okay, I think this is happening in my relationships. How do I deal with it?” If you think back to our different reasons why people can have commitment issues in relationships, this is a very clear example of that first one, that it goes back to old family of origin stuff and just sort of this deep underlying fear that, “All marriages end and I don't want to do that to myself.”

This can be the answer, can be a combination of individual personal growth work and also relational work. If you resonated with this question personally, I would advise you to go back and listen to a past podcast episode that I created about trust issues, and also another recent one about healing relationships because it can kind of just crack into the experience of what it feels like. This is also one of the reasons why I feel uncomfortable. Sometimes when I get questions like these — they're fantastic questions, but the answer is not like a chip, like, “Here's advice. Here's the three things that you do”, that could be summarized in a list or a podcast that are going to change this for you. 

If you have these kinds of commitment issues, and you're aware that they're caused by your family of origin experiences, the path of healing is going to be an experiential process to get very familiar with this anxiety, and also be able to understand what triggers it to do what you can to minimize some of these triggers in your relationship, but also understanding and accepting the fact that you are always going to feel this way to a degree. 

It sort of moves into this “acceptance and commitment” model like, “This is who I am because of the things that I have lived through, and I am deeply committed to having a healthy, happy, high-quality relationship with a fantastic person. What do I need to be doing to manage these feelings in a constructive way so that I can not have them damage my relationship, so I can not sabotage my relationships?” That's a lot of personal growth work, which is not following your feelings — figuring out what feelings are helpful for you and which aren't, and figuring out how to do a manual override so that you can stay in the relational ring with someone even if you're feeling anxious, and having that be okay. That's the individual space of this. 

But also relationally, if this is true, it’s often not just helpful but vital for a couple to be having very open and authentic conversations about the presence of this historical anxiety and what they can do together as a couple to manage it that doesn't turn into the anxious partner essentially controlling the other person in efforts to make themselves feel better because that's not fair either. So talking as a couple, really externalizing the presence of this anxiety, and figuring out how the two of you can be aligned against it, and what the two of you can do together to have a magnificent and committed relationship in spite of this historical artifact of anxiety. 

See, this is why I don't like to give three, three simple steps kind of advice because it's not true, it's not helpful. The actual path of growth and creating change is a long-term process — and it also doesn't end. Like the person who wrote in with this question, they are going to feel that way to some degree for the rest of their lives — thanks, mom and dad. It sucks, but it's true. 

The path of healing isn't making it all go away; it's learning how to be happy and healthy in having enduring relationships in spite of it, and how can our relationships even be better because of the gift of empathy, and insight, and intuition, and the need for more open and transparent communication because of these, it can actually turn into a real strength for a relationship. 

I would also guess that when this person who wrote in does figure that out, and is able to create a relationship that is based on this kind of health and authenticity because of her or their historical life experiences, that person is going to be incredibly committed to doing everything that their parents didn't do in order to prevent having a similar outcome for themselves or for their children. 

It turns into a ton of motivation — like it can get channeled into really, really positive and helpful activities that are just wonderful, and that people who had an easier time of it, their parents didn't get divorced, they come out of like, “Oh, it's fine. We don't have to do anything. Relationships just work if you're with the right person.” It crashes to smithereens on the rocks because they didn't see it coming the way that another person would have. 

There can be a lot of strength in adversity, and I just wanted to say that too. Okay, I don't know if this was what you were expecting, but I hope it was helpful. Thank you so much for taking the time to listen to this, and to think about how to apply it in your life. Send it to your partner, send it to a family member or a friend who might be struggling with this and who might need some honest advice that steers them on the right path. 

Of course, if you would like to do this kind of personal growth work or relational work with somebody at my organization, Growing Self Counseling and Coaching, the door's always open. You can schedule a free consultation to meet with a counselor in our team just to talk about what's going on, and see if we might be the right fit for you. 

Or if you choose to work with somebody in your community, please look for a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, ideally one that has an attachment lens. I think that they will be particularly helpful for you in unpeeling this onion and really getting to the meaningful and true bottom of this because you deserve that. 

Alright, thanks for spending this time with me today and I will see you next time on another episode of The Love, Happiness, and Success podcast.

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