Should You Ever Reconnect With Your Ex to Be Friends?
As a marriage counselor, it is one of the great joys of my life to help people reconnect with their love for each other and repair their relationships. But not every damaged relationship can (or should) be repaired. When the bond that holds a couple together has deteriorated to a certain point, even the world’s greatest marriage counselor can’t help them, because there is simply no relationship to fix
And when this happens, couples counseling often transitions into breakup or divorce recovery work. I’m left with one heartbroken partner, struggling to make peace with the loss of the person they love, and what their new reality will be going forward.
And the one question I reliably hear from people in this emotionally shattered place is… Should I be friends with my ex?
Look, I get it. Losing the person you’re attached to is one of the most painful things any of us can experience, and it makes sense that you would want to hold onto your ex in some capacity, to avoid the pain of losing them all together.
But, many of the things that can make good sense when we’re feeling heightened emotions aren’t actually that good for us in the long run, and being friends with your ex, unfortunately, can fall into that category. There are some yawning relational pitfalls to avoid, at the very least. And even in situations where being friends with your ex is indeed what’s best for all involved , it’s in your best interest to navigate this new friendship with clear eyes and a heaping dose of intention.
That’s what we’re talking about on today’s episode of the podcast: what happens in the brain when we lose an attachment, and how it can make you feel desperate to keep your ex in your life; the drawbacks of maintaining that connection, as tempting as it can feel; and the scenarios where creating a friendship with your ex really is an excellent idea — and some advice for doing that in a healthy way.
That’s because you have lost an attachment bond, which is akin to entering a chemical withdrawal process. [I actually wrote about a book about this called “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to an Ex Love]. In this state, your brain will do what addicts’ brains do: send signals that something is very wrong, and that contact with your ex is the only way to rectify it.
The part of the brain that maintains our attachment bonds is ancient, and it doesn’t always communicate with the newer parts of the brain where conscious thought, long-term planning, or self-control happen. As you begin to release your attachment, you will experience powerful emotional flare ups that can make you feel desperate to hold onto your ex, and your thinking mind will come up with all kinds of reasons why those feelings need to be acted upon.
If this is what’s happening to you, my advice is to endure this (incredibly painful) withdrawal process so that you can release your attachment to your ex and move forward. In the short term, maintaining a friendship can bring you some temporary relief from heartbreak, by helping you avoid the pain of loss and withdrawal. But in the long term, avoiding this process only prolongs the inevitable, and causes you more pain than necessary along the way. Being friends with your ex for the wrong reasons can keep you bonded to them for years, and can prevent you from moving on with your life and your other relationships.
Benefits of Being Friends With an Ex
All of that said, there are some scenarios where trying to have a friendly or at least civil relationship with your ex is essential.
Admittedly, after a nasty divorce, getting to that place can feel impossible. But by grieving your lost relationship, healing from the pain, and working through feelings of anger and resentment toward your ex, you can establish a relationship that is at least civil, if not quite friendly. An individual therapist can help you get there. Many divorcing couples even opt to work with a marriage counselor, not to repair their relationship, but to build a new relationship.
It can also be a good idea to maintain a friendly relationship with your ex if you will have to see each other socially, or if you work together. You don’t have to be close, but it will feel better for you both if you can forgive your ex and reconnect with your positive feelings for who they are as a person. I’m sure those feelings existed at some point.
The Drawbacks of Being Friends with an Ex
BUT! There are some major drawbacks to being friends with an ex that I want you to be fully aware of before you proceed.
First, being friends with an ex can keep you attached for much longer than you need to be after the relationship ends. Maintaining your attachment to a dead relationship keeps you in limbo, where you’re still emotionally invested in your ex, and, often, unable to move forward with someone new. And, imagine how your friendship with your ex could impact any budding new relationships once you do move on. How will your new partner feel about you grabbing lunch with someone you used to cuddle up with every night? They may feel a bit threatened, and they may have some very valid concerns about your true availability.
And, relatedly, imagine how you will feel when your ex moves on into a new relationship. If you’re like most people, that will be difficult for you. Is paying that emotional price down the road worth it, if it means you get to stay in contact with your ex for now?
Finally, know that maintaining a friendship with your ex can be fine for you, while being incredibly damaging to your ex. This is especially true if you were the one who ended the relationship, and released some of your attachment to your ex beforehand (if you had it at all).
Your ex might be hurting, and searching for signs that there is still hope for your relationship. If this is how your ex is feeling, the caring thing for you to do is to help them get clarity that your relationship is indeed over, and that they need to grieve it and move on. Getting an innocent, friendly message from you can derail their entire healing process.
Should You Be Friends With Your Ex?
Only you can decide if being friends with your ex is right for you — there is no universal answer that will fit every person and every relationship. So, get really honest with yourself about why you want a friendship with your ex. Is there a real benefit? Or is it a way to stay bonded to someone who you can’t be with anymore?
Before you can be friends with an ex, something needs to happen first. We cannot move from a deep attachment to a casual friendship overnight. Our brains just don’t work that way. To get there, we have to move through the difficult process of releasing our attachment, and that can take many months, if not years. Before you try to reconnect with your ex as friends, give yourself time to get there, and understand that your ex might not be “getting over it” at the same pace as you are.
How will you know you’re ready? When you’ve released your attachment, you will have pretty neutral feelings about your ex and about the relationship. Not longing, pining, obsessive feelings, and not anger, resentment, hurt, or sadness. You will be able to think about seeing them without having a panic attack. You will be able to imagine meeting their new partner and thinking “good for them!”
The absence of feelings — true emotional neutrality — is what you’re aiming for. And that may or may not ever happen for you, or for your ex.
Boundaries with an Ex
If you do decide to be friends with your ex, no matter the reasons, tread carefully. Even decades down the road, our attachment bonds can be reawakened through exposure to your former person. An ex reaching out just to say “hi” is the beginning of so many stories about marriage-destroying Facebook affairs. If you are connecting with an ex, and you notice old feelings roaring back to life, that is a danger signal you don’t want to ignore.
It can also be tempting to enter a “friends with benefits” scenario or situationship with people you used to date. Avoid sex with your ex — even in normal circumstances, sex is rarely casual, and that is doubly true when you’re “hooking up” with someone you used to have a deeper relationship with.
Get clear with yourself about what a healthy relationship with your ex would look like, and then move forward with intention. How often would you see each other? What are the conversational boundaries you don’t want to cross? What about physical boundaries? How will you know if it’s working out, and how will you know if it’s getting out of hand?
If I could leave you with one piece of advice, it would be to not stumble forward into a friendship with your ex without being deliberate about what you’re doing and why, how you’re going to do it, and what a positive, healthy outcome would look like.
Episode Highlights: Can You Be Friends With Your Ex?
[8:43] Becoming Friends With Your Ex
The desire to stay friends with your ex comes from our human instinct to bond with each other. It is programmed in a part of the brain underneath consciousness and reason.
Attachment bonds can be unilateral, meaning that your ex may still be attached to YOU, even when you’ve moved forward. Be respectful of that.
[18:17] Boundaries for Being Friends With an Ex
Be honest with yourself about whether being friends with your ex is necessary and healthy for you. If you decide to be friends, make your intentions clear to your ex.
Letting go can be similar to withdrawal from an addiction, and it can be your best interest to go cold turkey with this past relationship.
Don’t fall into a “friends with benefits” situation. It can be harmful to yourself and your ex.
[32:15] Is It Okay to Be Friends With Your Ex?
There are circumstances where it is ideal to be friends with your ex, like when you have children together.
The opposite of love is not hatred. Instead, it is neutrality.
If it has come to a point where either party thinks the other is the worst person in the world, work with a competent therapist to resolve the issues between you and your ex.
[38:14] Staying Friends With Your Ex During Divorce
Do not villainize each other in the process of divorce. Keep a collaborative atmosphere with your ex all throughout for the best interest of both parties.
Consult a marriage counselor to figure out the new and different relationship you'll have with your ex post-divorce.
It takes a lot of emotional processing to have a healthy friendship with your ex, so you must put in the work.
Music in this episode is by Lord Huron with their song “Mine Forever.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://lordhuron.bandcamp.com. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to the Love, Happiness, and Success podcast.
We are listening to the legendary Lord Huron together. This is the coolest song. It's from their new album. The album is called Long Lost. The song is Mine Forever, which is very appropriate for our subject today.
Today we are going to be talking about one of the most difficult aspects of a breakup or divorce for many people, which is the conundrum of being friends with your ex. Is it possible? Is it a good idea? If so, how does one achieve it and maintain their sanity? All will be revealed over the course of today's podcast.
Last note about Lord Huron. I feel obligated to mention: this amazing band is currently on tour as I'm recording this. For my friends in Colorado, they're coming to Red Rocks, so get your tickets now. You can learn more about Lord Huron and their travel plans on their website, lordhuron.com.
Okay, now on with our show. If you've listened to this podcast before, you have probably heard me mention the various things that I do, right? I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist; I'm a licensed psychologist; I'm a board-certified coach. I'm the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching. But in my heart of hearts, I have a very special warm place for people struggling in the aftermath of breakups and divorces.
It's really like, if I do have a specialty, I mean, I do a lot of couples counseling and therapy and all the things, but I love working with people around this issue in particular. I always feel a little funny to tell people what I do. I'm a marriage counselor, but I really specialize in breakups and divorces because they're like, “What? Are you like the worst marriage counselor in the history of the world?” Like, no.
Just to be clear, I first and foremost love helping people repair their relationships—often work with people coming in the door who are sometimes feeling legitimately hopeless about their relationship. Like, “How can we ever fix this?” It is the joy of my life to be able to help people find their way back together again, and do a lot of deep important work, and come out the other side of that stronger, happier, and healthier than ever before.
Both their marriages, their relationships, but also, like, personal growth. A lot of personal growth happens in that process, and it's wonderful. I love it. Particularly when it works well, which it often does. It's just so cool to be a part of. It is also true that not all relationships can be repaired. Not all relationships should be repaired.
Sometimes when people come in to the best marriage counselor in the world, if one of them even has gotten sort of past this point of no return emotionally, it's just there's nothing left to put back together. Like, the motivation to be in a relationship just isn't there anymore. Certainly, I've also worked with people that—it is the right thing for everybody involved, it is, like, slow to stop. So, in these situations, what I have then been left with is one person, usually sitting on my couch who is often devastated—they didn't want the relationship to end.
Then, how do they work through it? I think personally, I have such a soft place in my heart for this is because I went through the most horrible breakup experience, as so many of us have, right? When it happened to me, I was in high school. I was still very young. But even, like, I've had a fairly long and interesting life, and I've had a lot of things happen to me, and to this day, that is still one of the worst life experiences I've ever had because of how devastating it was emotionally.
Also, I think combined with this is that there is this mythology in our culture that you should just be able to get over it and move on and, “What's wrong with you?” if you're still crying six months later. What I have learned since is that human beings do not work that way. We cannot flip our attachment to somebody else off like a switch, even if we really, really want to. Like, we just don't work like that.
Also, to be going through a period of intense devastation, it really is all you can think about. It's awful. That is actually the normal experience, it is not abnormal. But especially at the time when I was younger, that was not discussed at all in our culture. In addition to going through this terrible rejection and the pain and everything that went along with it, there's also this awful feeling of like, “What is wrong with me for failing the way that I do?”, right?
Anyway, it has been a real pleasure for me to be able to connect some of those dots and figure out some of the reasons why those things are true for everyone. It turned into a lot of research that I did because prior to that, even as a therapist, and as a marriage counselor, and as a psychologist, and all the things, none of that is taught in counseling school at all. There was nothing around the psychology of a breakup or broken attachment.
I had to go figure that out—did a lot of research. It turned into a book, Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to an Ex Love, but also really turned into a passion of mine. I love using the podcast to talk about all kinds of things and love and happiness and success and helping people repair their relationships, but also dealing with the real stuff like how to cope with a relationship that ended. Anyway, that is why we are here today.
I wanted to talk about a particular facet of this experience that really is difficult and messes people up routinely, which is around how to maintain a friendship with your ex. The reason why this is so complex and worth discussing is that it really has a lot of different variables. I wanted to give you truly helpful and meaningful information about all of this so that you can make informed decisions about what you want to do.
There are many compelling reasons to want to maintain a relationship or a friendship with your ex, right? I mean, one of them could be that you have a reason to. If you have children together, for example, it is really in everybody's best interest to try to have a positive, functional relationship. On the other side of that, if you're running a business together, I mean, if you have other kind of practical things that require you to maintain a relationship on the other side, that's possible. Sometimes it's really necessary.
I'll be providing information about how to achieve that. But the thing that is really tricky about this is that there are a lot of other situations where people really want to maintain a relationship with their ex. They want to be friends with their ex. Sometimes this is possible and healthy and good. People do it, and everybody's happy. But there can be a lot of complex stuff inside of this that can be like, even subconscious or non-conscious, and that's really worthy of discussion, too.
Becoming Friends With Your Ex
Let's just start by talking about that last piece first, right? That many people, when a relationship ends, even if they don't have a good “reason to”, really want to maintain that attachment. The reason why is relating back to the science of attachment, and I've talked about this on previous episodes of the podcast. Human beings are built to bond to each other. It is part of our survival drive system.
It is vital to our survival as a species to have very strong and powerful attachment bonds to other people. When these bonds form, they are biologically based as well as emotional and psychological. Like, there are mechanisms in your brain that exist for the purpose of bonding to other humans. They are operating at a level of your brain that is like pre-human, so they're in a part of your brain that our human minds, our neocortex, like, that newest layer of the brain.
The one that allows for language through rational thought, creativity, envisioning things. It is so far down underneath that that language can't touch it. Reason can't touch it. It is nonverbal. It is non-conscious in many ways. This is why so many weird things happen to humans in the context of attachment stuff, and particularly lost relationships. Because there are—you can't think your way through it.
You're like, “Why am I doing this? Why am I feeling this way? What is wrong with me? You're trying to, like, figure your way out of it. It just exists at a totally different level of our brains. I just wanted to throw that out there to help you understand why this is such a uniquely weird experience for many people because, it's like, neurologically, it's happening at a different level than most other things that impact us to the same degree emotionally. Anyway, there's that.
Because of this phenomenon, we develop these attachment bonds, and the desire to remain friends with your ex can be an artifact of that. That attachment does not turn off like a faucet. Somebody says, “I think we should probably see other people. I don't want to do this anymore.” The attachment doesn't cease to be just because that gauntlet has been thrown down or whatever, right?
You don't work that way. It's not a cut off. It is like a fading kind of thing. If it existed at all, I mean, people can be in relationships and not have that depth of attachment. Frequently, what can happen is that somebody who is initiating the breakup did not impulsively decide to do that. They have been on the off-ramp for a while. Their partner didn't know about it, but they have kind of worked their way through it, and largely released that attachment, if they had it at all.
That might be one of the reasons why they don't want to be in a relationship anymore is because they didn't feel that bond, and that's okay, too. That is not a judgment or a statement of anything about you. If that's the case, it's just—you can't force this to happen. If it wasn't there, it is a good idea to end a relationship because you deserve to have somebody who is really bonded to you.
For somebody to have the wisdom to say, “I'm not feeling it.” They're doing the right thing. Even if it is hurtful to hear that because you wanted it to be different, you are bonded to them. Understanding that these attachment bonds can be unilateral, I think, is really important. But when this happens, our desire to remain attached persists after the relationship is technically over, after the papers have been signed, after we're not seeing each other anymore, right?
This is important to know because it can be exceptionally hard to sort through whether or not your desire to maintain a friendship with someone is due to reasons that are actually healthy, and that make sense for you and that would be a positive thing, or are you essentially in the grips of something that is very analogous to, like, a withdrawal process from a substance?
The thing that I've found through the research I mentioned to be so interesting about attachment and love is that the parts of our brain that exist for the purpose of attaching to other humans are the exact same parts of our brain that can get addicted to, actually, addictive substances. So, heroin, cocaine, those kinds of things.
There are receptors in your brain that when you take those drugs become stimulated, right? That through that repeated process, you get addicted to those drugs. Those exact same parts of your brain are the parts of your brain that get stimulated by romantic love, which uses the same receptors and neurotransmitters that cocaine likes to flare up inside people.
Then, the attachment process uses the same parts of your brain—receptors, neurotransmitters—as an opiate addiction, so it's quiet. It's calm, but man when it gets threatened or broken, it flares up into, like, really intense, intense cravings, obsessive feelings. It's like every part of your being wants to reconnect in order to feel better again. It is very real and is biologically based.
Again, because the stuff is happening in such deep areas of your brain, that your non-conscious, this emotional part of your brain can be sending signals to you that is like, “I need this. I need this. I need this. Where's my person? Where's my person? Where's my person?” Essentially, kind of freaking out.
Your conscious mind, which has only a very loose relationship to this more powerful brain structure, right, is very helpfully sort of interpreting this as, “Yeah. I probably should go pick up my toothbrush from their house and start a conversation.” They begin—your conscious brain can begin rationalizing all the reasons why this makes sense and can be kind of twisting itself into pretzels to bargain, right?
There's stages of loss, stages of withdrawal, and for both people who are going through grieving and other losses and people in recovery from substances, often visit this bargaining stage, right? Where they're like, “Well, if I only have a beer after 5 p.m., and it's only three, then I'm not an alcoholic,” right? It's trying to, like, thread this needle, figuring out some intellectually plausible way to maintain their attachment to something that they really don't want to release.
Consciously, they know it does not have a benefit that should, so your brain can do very interesting things in these moments. When you're having lots of ideas about maintaining friendships with people that you're no longer with, it can be an artifact of that kind of process. It's important to be suspicious of your own thoughts in moments like these, first of all.
Also, I mean, we need to acknowledge the fact that it is more difficult, I think, to actually not be in contact with somebody than it used to be. I mean, you used to have to, like, go to somebody's house, or go through the trouble of writing a letter right to, like, maintain contact. But these days, I mean, with social media, you can see all kinds of things or know all sorts of information about an ex that you didn't ask for, right, but it's just sort of in your face.
That can be very difficult. We can also, I think, feel obligated to maintain friendships with people. Like, again, going back to that mythology, well, we're mature. We're like Gwyneth and Chris, we should be able to be friends on the other side, right? Kind of, sort of self-judgments about what you should do that may or may not be in alignment with what's really helpful or appropriate to you—for you, rather.
Boundaries for Being Friends With an Ex
Again, that maintaining of connection through social media, and maybe, too, if you work together, if you have a social circle that you're both part of, there can be other potential losses or weird things to have to mitigate if you decide to end friendship altogether, right, and avoid seeing somebody—avoid any contact. Well, in some ways, that can be much healthier for you emotionally as you're going through this—the process of releasing an attachment.
It can create other issues, social awkwardness, particularly if you work together. I mean, that can create an objectively difficult situation. Again, there are a lot of reasons why you might try to figure out a way to do this, but my first piece of advice is to really try to get honest with yourself around whether or not this is actually a good idea, or, if this is—what you're experiencing is what it feels like to have an attachment breaking and feeling something very much like withdrawal—a very intense desire to maintain a connection.
Your attachment part of your brain is telling you that, “You're in danger. It's a terrible idea to let go of this person, so you have to stay connected to them no matter what,” and your intellectual brain is trying to rationalize all the reasons why. If that is what is happening, it is probably in your best interest to understand that and to just go cold turkey, and here's why.
Even though, in the short-term, you will be essentially protecting yourself from the pain of withdrawal, because as soon as you say, “Okay. That's it. I'm actually never talking to this person again. They're no longer part of my life.” Once you decide that for yourself, you're going to feel really bad. You're going to have this intense emotion. You're probably going to be crying. You're like, “No!”
If you go to, like, block them from your social app, or block their number, if you feel this, like, huge surge of anxiety and pain, it might even feel like terror, right? That is a good indication that your desire to maintain a friendship with this person is actually your—it's an avoidance mechanism. It's like methadone, basically. You're not feeling the fullness of the withdrawal experience, if you're still kind of in contact with them.
The problem is that if you do that, you will essentially maintain this attachment that is no longer a positive thing for you. I mean, objectively, right? If somebody doesn't want to be in a relationship with you anymore, or if you know intellectually that you should not be in a relationship with this person, if you try to maintain that attachment, you can stay in this weird purgatory place for a long, long time.
I know people. I have worked with people, and I mean, it's been a decade or more that they're still hurting about this past relationship. Because they just could not bring themselves to rip off this Band-Aid, and just decide for themselves that it was over. They're protecting themselves, but they're also harming themselves in the long run.
This can get even more difficult, and I think toxic for you to do, because it's also very commonly true that some people are like, “Why? I still want to be friends.” When you really start to get honest and crack into it and unpack all that, there's still this fantasy that you could get back together again.
That if you maintain this attachment, they'll decide—they'll realize what a terrible mistake they made and come running back to you, or if you—they'll remember or realize how great you are, if you can remind them through your friendship. So, what it can turn into is a lot of pursuing a lot of fantasy.
It's easy to even get into these situationships with people where one person still really kind of wants to get back together. Maybe you're still having sex sometimes. You're kind of in this “friends with benefits” situation that is very convenient for your ex, by the way, but it's really torturing you. It can be hard to work through all this and try to sort through what is good for you and what's, also, you sort of playing games with yourself intellectually in order to maintain this attachment bond.
If you suspect that this is going on in you, my advice would be to connect with a good therapist who understands the biology of attachment. Most don't. I mean, to be complete, like, nobody taught me this stuff, I had to figure it out. I had to do all this research, right? I think that there has been more done since. I think it's more in the consciousness of psychologists and therapists now than it was 10 or 20 years ago.
Ask questions for a prospective therapist before you get involved with one, because if you get connected to a therapist who doesn't understand the things that you and I are talking about today, it can very easily turn into, essentially, your psychopathology. “You have attachment issues. You never got over your parents’ divorce.” It kind of turns into being about you. It is not just not helpful and a waste of time and a waste of your money.
I mean, I don't know, maybe there are old attachment issues that are worth talking about. But, if your therapist doesn't understand the biological basis for this stuff, they're going to try to come up with reasons why it makes sense to them. Psychodynamics, other things that may have nothing to do with the actual path of healing from these kinds of things, which is much more analogous to a recovery process than it is to other things that psychotherapy is very useful for.
Just know that. Anyway, but try to get connected to a good therapist who knows about this stuff, who can help you really get clear around what is going on. “Is it actually helpful, positive in my best interest to try to maintain a relationship with this person, or am I just telling myself stuff to avoid pain?” Anyway, that's kind of option one. Please explore that.
Another situation that does come up related to being friends with one's ex is kind of like on the other side of this equation. Because another thing that is true is that if you are the one that has initiated the breakup, it may be that you would like to maintain a friendship with your ex, right? It's important to know that your ex may be feeling very, very differently than you are.
Like, if you broke up with this person, you released all this attachment stuff before you did that, or, at least, big, big parts of it. Cognitively, you got clarity that you didn't want to do this anymore, and you might feel guilty about that. It's very common to break up with people that you really like—you enjoy. You don't hate them. They're not bad people. You don't want anything bad for them. You would totally be friends with them. They just weren't the right, like, life partner for you, right?
In that case, you might love the idea of being friends with them. You'd feel less guilty. You'd be able to keep the good parts of your relationship but also be free to develop a romantic attachment with somebody else, right? This might be a positive thing for you. But it is important to understand that this may be incredibly toxic and damaging for your ex. I hope that wasn't too blunt. That's okay. It's like we need to be talking about this stuff.
Because if you are wanting to be friends with your ex, and you're reaching out, like, “Hi. How’s work? What are you doing?” and they are still in that terribly painful withdrawal place. Like, they're interpreting your efforts to reach out and and maintain contact probably as your interest in still having a relationship with them, which it is. Just not the kind of relationship that they want to have with you, right?
It's really not fair for them. They need boundaries. They need time to heal. They need clarity. Like, if you're sort of sending mixed signals to them, even if you're saying, “I think we can just be friends,” like, somebody who is in that brokenhearted place does not hear that. They're hearing you say, “Well, yeah. I mean, I still love you, maybe,” right?, which it isn't good for them to be in that space.
Leave them alone, and help them achieve clarity around, “This is over. This is over. This is over.” Work through that withdrawal. Work through all those feelings. Kind of mentally wrap their minds around that. If they're still in contact with you, it will be much, much, much harder for them to do that. So, please have respect for their process. Understand that this idea of being friends is very, very difficult to do for the biological reasons that I have explained to you.
Now, it may also be true that, well, on the other side of this, like once that healing has thoroughly been achieved on both sides. That takes time, like this is often measured in years for people, but at the very least, many, many months, right? We're talking about a much longer timeline than you might realize, so give people room.
Then, sometimes on the other side of it, you can legitimately reconnect on a different level in a different way. The signal that that would be possible is if there aren't feelings anymore. Like, if you can imagine your ex being with somebody else and then think, “Oh, that's awesome for them. I'm so happy for them, like such a great—yeah, that's wonderful.” Right? That if that feels either happy for you, or at the very least neutral, that's a good sign that you may be able to cultivate a friendship with an ex that is fully platonic and and also that has boundaries.
The other thing that is important to understand is that being friends with an ex, cognitively, we can have boundaries, right? We're just friends. We are not sleeping together. We are not XYZ. I can't tell you how many times I have had a front row seat to people getting into affairs many years later with an old flame that they reconnected with on social media, or they're still friends with, right?
Because those attachment bonds are so old and so powerful that they can sort of be like subterranean and then flare back up again, whether or not you want them to. If you have decided to maintain a friendship with an ex, and now one or both of you are securely partnered in different relationships, just keep an eye on that. It's like something simmering on the stove, like don't walk away from it. Don't leave the house.
Just notice that if you start to have feelings again that come up, that is a good indication that you need to really stop that altogether. Because if you don't, it can be a waterslide. Like, whoosh back into the pool of these romantic attachment kinds of feelings that are very powerful, and that have just been the death of many a marriage.
You can check out a podcast called Married With a Crush? for more on this subject. If any of what I'm saying right now feels familiar to you, please, please check it out, so that you don't have the terrible experience of arriving in the office of a therapist like me, a couple years later, like, “I ruined my life. What did I do?” It sneaks up on you, people. Anyway, check that out. Those are all reasons, cautionary tales about being friends with an ex—do's and don'ts.
Is It Okay to Be Friends With Your Ex?
I also promised you some information on situations where you might—it might be a good idea to attempt to cultivate a friendship with an ex, even if you don't really want to. I mean, we've been talking about people who have been going through breakups or situations where there were still positive feelings. For many people, and not all, but a lot of people going through a divorce, one or both of them is well past that, right?
I mean, there are many regrettable things that happen between two people before they get divorced, right? It is not uncommon if people are divorced or divorcing for one of them to have come to the conclusion over the course of many years that their ex is actually the worst human being that has ever lived. They actually feel trapped by the bonds of children, of business—working together.
They despise their ex—don't want anything to do with them, right? They're just so angry. They're so hurt. They have an emotional scroll that when unfurled is about 1000 feet long, and on it is written all of the terrible, horrible, stupid, insensitive, disgusting, maddening things their ex has ever done. It's like, “Why would I possibly want to be friends with somebody like that?” Right? It's a heavy lift.
If you are in a situation where you hate your ex more than anything in the universe, and you have children together, and you have to have an at least civil, functional relationship, just to make it as easy as possible, but also for your kids, it can be incredibly valuable to figure out a way to find your way back to some kind of positive feelings. Some shred of compassion, gratitude, appreciation, to hold on to and, also, quite frankly, to let go of some other stuff.
We think of hate as being the opposite of love, right? It is actually not true. Love and hate are two sides of the same coin. Again, going back to our neurological meaning-making here. The deep regions of your brain from which feelings of intense love emanate are pretty much exactly the same feelings of your brain that radiate feelings of hatred. It's the same thing. It's like two sides of the same thing.
If you have very intense negative feelings towards your ex, that is also an indication, to me at least, that you have not processed nearly all the things that you need to in order to arrive at true healing, which is not hatred, which can be protective in some ways, but it's not hatred. It is, honestly, the absence of any feeling at all, right? I know it's hard to think about, but the opposite of love is not hate. It is neutrality.
In order to get to this space, it is well worth your time to invest in working through this stuff. Again, usually with the help of a very competent therapist, because it's difficult to crack into on your own. It's very easy to stay in hatred and anger. Finding forgiveness is very difficult. Forgiveness for your acts, maybe even forgiveness for yourself. There can be a lot of grief underneath that.
The first layer might feel like anger, but when people start to work into it, you can discover that there's actually quite a bit of sadness, hurt, fear—that anger has actually been protecting you from. It's weird to think of anger as being protective, but it really is. But, being able to kind of dig into that other stuff in a safe place, process it, do the work will help you cultivate that true neutrality.
That will allow you to then begin to rebuild positive aspects of your relationship with this person because they’re there. They are. Even if the person that you are with wound up being very different than what you hoped, I don't think I've ever met a single human that was completely irredeemable. I'm sure they're out there, and it may be the case that is true with your ex, but might be like one thing, okay?
Now, other situations here. In the absence of intense hatred, you may be in a situation where you have an ex that you work with, you co-parent with, you have a business with, and you do not have the luxury of time and space to really process all this stuff, resolve the attachment, and you keep getting, like, triggered by your interactions with them in the here and now. That is just to acknowledge it's incredibly difficult.
I think, when I was—what I understand now, like, I had such a terrible experience with my own breakup in high school, and largely, I think, now I know, that was due to the fact that I had to see these people every day at school, right? Friends in common lived in the neighborhood; it's like, when you can't get away, it's very difficult to heal.
Staying Friends With Your Ex During Divorce
A couple of pieces of advice: if this is a divorce situation that you're heading into, do everything in your power to not burn it all down in the process of getting divorced. What I mean by that is to avoid divorce lawyers if you can. I've met a few and very nice people, well-meaning, and just the way that the legal system works and the way that lawyers kind of work, it so quickly descends into an adversarial, very like yucky, angry—it's like a war and it is also harrowingly expensive.
If there's any way that you can get through this with a mediator to help you create agreements together throughout this process, and that is focused on, “How can we collaborate? How can we build a bridge to the center? How can we each give a little bit and to go into this whole process with as much—as collaborative intentions as you can?”, will truly be in the best interests of you, them, and your shared children, or your shared business for the next several decades.
If there's any way to do that, try to do that if you're able to, or barring that, if you do have to get lawyers involved, do a lot of careful vetting around which one you choose and make a conscious decision to find one that has a collaborative stance, and that understands some of the psychology involved in all of this, and who is committed to helping you not create a mortal enemy through the divorce process.
Let’s not do “scorched earth”, unless you absolutely have to. So, there's one thing. But the other piece of this is that it can be really, really helpful to have conversations with your ex about creating a different kind of relationship together. In order for these to be productive, you will both probably have had to do at least some personal growth work on each side to just kind of work through some of the big feelings that get triggered otherwise during these conversations.
Because when people are getting all flared up and activated, it's really hard to have a productive conversation. You can do this individually. We also even have people coming into our practice who have decided to get divorced or separate, and who now are working with a marriage counselor, essentially, but in a different role, which is, “Please help us figure out how to create a different kind of relationship together.”
It is talking not—it's no longer appropriate to be, like, processing feelings, or, “You did this,” and all that stuff. We're going to set that aside. You have to do that with individual therapists, but then together, you can come into these meetings with new intentions.
To have mediated conversations with somebody who can be like, “Okay, what is your vision for your relationship 15 years from now on your daughter's wedding day? You're both there. You're both so happy for her. What would you like that to look like for yourselves, and for each other, and for your children?” Coming in it with different sets of goals.
Also, having somebody to help you talk through, like, “What should the boundaries be?” I think accountability can be really important, and also clarity. Even when people are trying really hard to be friends with each other, there are conflicts around visitation or something changed. How do we resolve problems?
The issue here is that if you had been able to resolve conflict together well as a couple, you would probably not have gotten divorced in the first place in most circumstances. This is not a strength of this relationship to begin with. In kind of post-divorce counseling or growth work, it is actually an opportunity to learn how to do this together in a constructive way, not just for your friendship, or co-parenting relationship, or business partnership now.
It will certainly make that easier to do, but it will also probably be to each of your benefit. I mean, to figure out some of these conflict management or emotional intelligence skills that maybe you didn't have the opportunity to do when you were together as a couple, you can still do it on the other side. It's still really valuable work that you can take with you. Apply it to another relationship that you might be in.
There's a lot of growth that can happen—really, really positive things when people can sit down and be like, “Okay. What happened? Why was that so hard? Why did—let's kind of talk about this. What do we need to do now in order to have better experiences with each other?” It's very, very positive and constructive. Certainly, that's also an investment, right?
If it is a more casual situation, and somebody that you just work with or see around where it would be weird to, like, have an official sit down and get a mediator to figure out like, “Okay, how do we be friends?” It can be helpful to get very just clear for yourself around, “What would me being friendly, appropriately friendly with this person, actually look like in a work context? What would be healthy for me?”
Then, really, almost like through a coaching process, figure out, “What are the behaviors that I need to do in order to create that? What are the things I need to tell myself in order to create that? How will I know if it's working or not? What are the obstacles in my path?” and really kind of going through a coaching process in that regard.
There's a lot here, and if nothing else, if you've gotten nothing else from this conversation today, I hope I have imparted some degree of understanding of the very real complexity involved with maintaining a friendship with an ex. In any of the circumstances that I've described, it takes a lot of self-awareness and a high degree of intentionality in order to create a friendship with an ex that is genuinely healthy and positive.
If you are wanting to maintain an attachment and it's like, “Well, we can be friends,” got to get real honest about that. Make sure that it's healthy. If it is, do a lot of very strategic work around making sure, like, damn sure that it is healthy. If it is a need to have a friendship with an ex that you would rather not have, there's also a lot of emotional processing work.
Then lastly, if it's—you have to sort of build a new kind of friendship with somebody in the absence of a lot of hatred, it's still very complex, and it has to be an intentional process. The thing to avoid in any of these cases is maintaining a relationship or “friendship” with an ex without being very, very deliberate about why you're doing it, how you're going to do it.
What a positive outcome, a healthy outcome looks like, if you just sort of like, stay connected and like text with each other, and like their stuff on social media, and get together once in a while, you're not doing what we talked about today. That's also the easiest thing to do. Then, that is just to validate it. That is what most people do, is just kind of maintain an attachment without reflecting on it too much. It is to their detriment because it creates a different set of problems long-term.
Anyway, so much to share. I hope that this discussion was helpful for you. Thank you so much for spending this time with me today. I always like talking about breakup and divorce recovery, so thanks for giving me the opportunity to share some of the things I have learned along the way. That's all for today, but if you would like more on the subject of breakup and divorce recovery, because it is such an interest of mine, there is so much stuff that I have for you.
Of those, I think the one episode, How to Leave a Toxic Relationship with Dignity, is probably one of my favorites, and not least because it gave me an excuse to play The Gun Club on this podcast, but has a lot more information about the nature of attachment there for you, and in particular, why it can be so hard to release an attachment to a toxic relationship.
Interestingly, the worse a relationship actually is, the harder it can be to get out of. If that sounds interesting to you, I hope you check out that episode, How to Leave a Toxic Relationship With Dignity.
Then, of course, on the blog at growingself.com, there is so much more. In addition to these podcasts, we have all kinds of articles that I have written. You can learn about my own horrible breakup story. I'll be sure to link to it in the post for this podcast.
Then, of course, are tons of articles that the therapists that I work with here at Growing Self have written, who are excellent therapists, who are in the trenches of this breakup recovery work every day, divorce recovery work, and they have so much great advice. Parenting after divorce, dealing with divorce after affairs, I mean, there's so much good stuff.
Also, you might want to check out a podcast episode that I did with a really great divorce lawyer, Stephanie Randall. It's called amicable divorce. If you are looking down the barrel of that particular gun, you’ll want to check that out for sure.
Then, of course, the book,Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to an Ex Love. Although I should add, because this came up recently, I wrote this book years ago from my research but also, at the time, did it in a partnership with another organization that goes by the name Exaholics. I do not have any business relationship with that organization. That is not my practice. It is not my website. I do growingself.com, and somebody actually reached out to me the other day asking about that, and I was like, “Oh, no. That is not my thing. I just wrote the book.”
Anyway, so there's that. But anyway, so much for you on this subject. It is all for you—lots of good stuff. Check it out, growingself.com. Thanks for spending this time with me today, and thank you for giving me the opportunity to share this amazing Lord Huron song with you.
Again, you can learn more about Lord Huron on their website, lordhuron.com. You can get albums, concert tickets. They have t-shirts that are super cool to have. All kinds of great stuff, so check that out. Otherwise, I will be back here next week with more love, happiness, and success for you.
Secret bank accounts. Illicit rendezvous with the babysitter. Biweekly fights that end in split lips and phone calls to the police.
We’ve all heard about “those” relationships, haven’t we? And maybe we’ve even witnessed something close to them playing out between people we know. It’s no surprise when unions with such obvious markers of pain and dysfunction go down in flames. They may even make us feel a little better about our own relationships, or the kind of partners we are. Sure, we’re imperfect, but we would never do that.
But, as a longtime marriage counselor and couples therapist, trust me when I say that most relationships that fail don’t go down in a big, dramatic burst of flames that everyone sees coming from a hundred miles away. To paraphrase Hemingway, they tend to end gradually, and then all at once. The little injuries that add up to a divorce or a breakup usually seem insignificant while they’re happening, until their cumulative damage is too much for the couple to bear.
When two people who love each other aren’t able to make their relationship work, it’s sad. Because “making it work” is usually a matter of building certain skills, which anyone can do with knowledge and practice. I created this podcast to illustrate that for you. My hope is that, after this conversation, you’ll have a clear understanding of what really tanks relationships, and how you can avoid that outcome in your own.
My guest is Matthew Fray, a talented writer with some hard-won knowledge in this area. In his new book, “This is How Your Marriage Ends,” Matthew discusses his own marriage’s demise, and the lessons he wishes he’d learned before it was too late. We’re sharing those important lessons with you today, so you can keep your relationship alive for the long haul.
I hope you’ll tune in to hear Matt’s heartfelt relationship advice. Listen here on this page, on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
Many of the moments that destroy relationships look like no big deal while they’re happening. They can take the shape of “petty” disagreements, too insignificant to pose a real threat to something as important as your marriage.
But over time, these minor disagreements certainly can pose a threat. They can carry more emotional weight than you might expect, bringing up questions about love, safety, trust, and respect between yourself and your partner. If they’re not handled with care, these “petty” disagreements will undermine your connection, and can eventually cause you to lose what you value the most in the world.
Here are some hallmarks of the destructive conflict cycle that causes relationships to fail. By breaking these common patterns, you and your partner can begin to navigate conflict in a way that helps you grow together, not apart.
Why Relationships Fail: Defensiveness
Imagine that your partner is furious about something that doesn’t seem particularly important to you. Maybe you wore your shoes in the house when they’ve repeatedly asked you not to, or you were ten minutes late meeting them for dinner.
What’s your reaction to their anger? Do you feel like you’re being punished harshly for something that doesn’t mean much, considering how much you do for your partner every day? Do you remind them of all the sacrifices you’ve made for them or for the relationship, or of all the things they do that you don’t like?
That’s defensiveness, which is a totally normal reaction to feeling criticized or under attack. Unfortunately, when we get defensive, we can’t really hear our partners. We’re too busy arguing them out of their perspective to hear the hurt or the pain underneath their complaints, because what they’re saying feels like a threat to us.
When one partner is angry and the other is defensive, you get stuck. You can’t move forward into repairing the rift that’s opened up between you and deepening your understanding of each other, because you’re locked in a stalemate of “attack” and “counterattack.” Your partner gets the message that, when they’re upset, their feelings will be met with hostility. Eventually, they’ll stop bringing problems to you, and resentments will build.
So, what’s the antidote to defensiveness? Responsibility. When your partner is upset with you, try to take responsibility for your part in the conflict. That doesn’t mean you have to assume blame that isn’t yours, or always let them “win.” But admit where you’re wrong, and take an interest in their feelings about the situation. You’ll find that you’re able to have a real conversation at that point, and to resolve small problems before they grow into something more serious.
Why Relationships Fail: Emotional Invalidation
Emotional invalidation is another common cause in failing relationships. When we emotionally invalidate our partners, we might agree with their perceptions — that we were late, that we did wear our shoes in the house — but disagree with their emotional reaction to what happened. We might tell them they’re overreacting, or that we can’t understand what they’re so upset about.
Invalidation happens all the time. I would bet that, at some point in your relationship, you have invalidated your partner, and that your partner has invalidated you. Invalidation doesn’t make you a terrible person (or a gaslighter, for that matter). Most of us don’t even realize when we’re being invalidating; we usually think we’re being helpful, encouraging our partners to let go of bad feelings or see things from another, more positive perspective.
But chronic emotional invalidation leaves your partner with the impression that you don’t care about their experience, that you don’t take their emotions seriously, and that there’s no point in trying to resolve problems with you, because they’ll only be dismissed. If your partner comes to expect invalidation from you, they’ll likely begin to withdraw from the relationship. Eventually, this will destroy your connection.
To avoid invalidating your partner, practice listening to them, without trying to “fix” their problems or argue them out of their perspective. Practice accepting their emotional reality for what it is, rather than trying to convince them that the way they feel isn’t reasonable. I use the word practice deliberately here — validating is a habit that we all must build with intention.
Why Relationships Fail: Broken Trust
Minor conflicts that spin out into defensiveness and invalidation have a damaging effect on your bond to your partner. That’s because they lead to broken trust, which is enough to take down even the most loving relationships.
Over time, if you dismiss your partner’s feelings and concerns as unimportant or overblown, they will stop trusting you. I’m not being dramatic when I say that — they will learn that you’re not an emotionally safe person who will treat their needs, feelings, and perspective as valid and important. And that’s what we need from our partners, more than from anyone else in the world.
What happens when your partner stops trusting you? They stop being vulnerable with you, and they stop leaning on you in times of need. They might give up on trying to connect with you on a deep emotional level, and settle for a superficial relationship that begins to feel lonely and hollow to you both. They won’t assume that your intentions are good, and conflicts in your relationship will become more bitter and more damaging as time goes on. Eventually, if something doesn’t change, your relationship will disintegrate.
So how do you repair broken trust, once it’s been damaged? You can start by listening to your partner, validating their feelings, empathizing with them, and taking responsibility for your part in conflicts, rather than reacting with defensiveness.
This all might sound like I’m telling you to let your partner have their way, or to disregard your own needs, rights, and feelings in favor of your partner’s. That’s not the case — you also deserve to be heard, and to have empathy and validation when you’re upset. But you won’t get that by “winning” the argument or by being the most correct. You’ll get it by extending generosity and kindness toward your partner, which will make them more willing to reciprocate with kindness and generosity in return.
Why Marriages Succeed or Fail
If I could impart one bit of wisdom to every couple, from my many years as both a married person and as a marriage counselor, it would be this: When marriages fail, it’s usually not in a high-drama, crash and burn scenario. The kind of dissolution that makes for an intriguing TV plot line is rarely what I see play out between actual couples who arrive in my office.
But you can build these skills, and your relationship will be stronger and healthier for it. I hope this podcast gave you some good ideas for where to start.
Music in this episode is by Nocturne Blue, covering “Ship of Fools” by World Party.
You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://nocturneblue.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
That question is overtaking “what’s your sign?” on dating profiles, and I have to say I think it’s an improvement. When a marriage counseling or relationship coaching client knows their attachment style, I’m thrilled; Becoming aware of your attachment patterns helps you understand how you show up in relationships, and how that impacts the way your partners respond to you.
Can the Zodiac tell you that? I don’t think so.
But, as with any psychological concept that gets compressed into 50-second TikTok videos and disseminated widely, confusion about attachment styles is gaining traction as quickly as awareness of them. And that’s too bad, because attachment is both important and fascinating stuff.
When you become attached to a romantic partner, an invisible machine starts whirring in your brain, monitoring the security of that bond and the availability of your mate. If the relationship feels threatened, attachment prompts you to take action to preserve it, either through bids for more connection, or for more space.
This machine keeps our relationships alive and in balance, which makes it possible for us to sustain love for a lifetime. So how does it work? And why does attachment look so different from person to person, relationship to relationship, or even from day to day?
I created this episode of the podcast to answer these questions and more. We’ll be diving into the science of attachment, some popular misconceptions about attachment styles, and common attachment dynamics that may be playing out in your relationship — and how you can handle them.
I hope this episode helps you to better understand yourself and your partner, and gives you a new appreciation for your brain’s incredible attachment machine. To get the most out of this episode, I recommend taking our attachment styles quiz first.
Attachment Styles in Relationships — Episode Highlights
Attaching to a romantic partner is a fundamental human drive. It happens without much effort or conscious thought on our part — we simply canoodle with an attractive mate, and before long, find that even the thought of losing that relationship is enough to cause us a full-on freakout.
Our first attachment is with our primary caregiver when we’re babies. There’s no substitute for this connection; without it, babies can’t develop into happy, healthy kids.
But the quality of that primary relationship will shape the way we bond with other people for the rest of our lives. This is your attachment style, and it has a major impact on how you show up in your most important relationships.
Adult Relationship Attachment Styles
The first thing to know about attachment styles is that they exist on a spectrum. Perfectly embodying one attachment style or another is exceedingly rare. Instead, attachment is a bell curve, and most people spend their time hanging out on its hilly center.
With that caveat out of the way, here are the four identified adult relationship attachment styles:
Secure attachment — People with a secure attachment style have the core belief that “I am ok and you are ok.” They believe they are worthy of love and respect, and generally trust their romantic partners to treat them that way. Securely attached adults don’t spend too much time worrying about whether their partner loves them, cares about them, or wants to be with them. They tend to recover from breakups and rejection fairly well, and they’re comfortable with both closeness and space in their relationships.
Anxious attachment — People with an anxious attachment style aren’t so confident that they are ok. They worry that their partner doesn’t really love them, care about them, or want to be with them. They’re afraid of abandonment, and they require a lot of reassurance that their partner isn’t going anywhere. Sometimes their need for reassurance can arise through controlling behavior, and can have the effect of pushing their partner away. They may be labeled “needy” or “clingy.”
Avoidant attachment — People with an avoidant attachment style don’t feel worthy of love and respect, and they don’t trust other people to meet their needs. They tend to feel it’s safer not to rely on anyone, and they have a core belief that they are on their own. When a partner tries to get close, avoidantly attached people can experience that as a threat. They may avoid commitment and emotional vulnerability, and develop negative narratives about their partners to justify holding them at arm’s length.
Disorganized attachment style — Also known as anxious-avoidant attachment, people with a disorganized attachment style may display an inconsistent orientation toward their partners. They may want love and closeness, but have trouble trusting their partners, and feel a deep need to protect themselves from abandonment or rejection at all costs. They tend to alternate between pulling their partners close and pushing them away. Disorganized attachment is not the same as having fluctuating feelings about a partner, or a fluctuating desire for closeness; it’s a rare attachment style that’s associated with an abusive environment in childhood.
Relationship Attachment Styles Aren’t Static
Our attachment styles vary from relationship to relationship, depending on how our partners are oriented. If we’re with an anxious partner, who only feels loved when we’re constantly reassuring them, we’ll naturally feel a little more avoidant. If we’re with an avoidant partner, who seems standoffish and remote, we’ll naturally feel a little more anxious, and a bit more preoccupied about the relationship.
Even within the same relationship, attachment styles fluctuate. During periods when your partner seems more distant or withdrawn, your anxiety will be piqued; you might find yourself pushing for more affection or attention to alleviate your anxiety about how secure the relationship is, without being conscious that you’re doing so. If your partner starts to seem needy, clingy, or demanding to you, you’ll naturally push for more space, and move a little closer to the avoidant end of the bell curve.
This is the attachment machine at work, helping your relationship find an equilibrium so that it can be sustained. But sometimes couples can get locked into extreme pursue-withdraw dynamics, particularly when an anxious partner is paired with an avoidant partner. This can cause a lot of conflict, and a lot of stress for both partners.
If a pursue-withdraw dynamic is happening in your relationship, it can help to understand why you’re either withdrawing from your partner, or pursuing them, and what their predictable reaction to that will be. These cycles can be hard to break, but working with a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, who understands relationship systems, can help.
Attachment Issues in Adults
When it comes to attachment, there’s a wide range of what’s normal and fundamentally healthy. Just because you tend to lean a little more on the anxious side, or you tend to need a little more space in your relationships, doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong.
But that doesn’t stop people from armchair diagnosing themselves or their partners with “attachment issues,” which are actually pretty rare. Attachment issues in adults are on the far ends of the attachment style bell curve, and they’re often associated with childhood neglect, abuse, trauma, and abandonment, or with personality disorders that develop independently of those experiences.
Of course, this happens, to varying degrees. It is possible that your past experiences or your genetic predispositions have led you to develop attachment issues as an adult. But labeling yourself or your partner with attachment issues isn’t helpful; It makes it harder to develop self compassion and understanding, to learn and grow in your relationship, and to develop the trust and emotional safety that a healthy attachment requires.
Attachment Styles In Relationships
If you suspect that you and your partner’s attachment patterns are triggering conflict in your relationship, working with a licensed marriage and family therapist with an understanding of attachment can be incredibly helpful.
And just being part of a healthy relationship can also go a long way toward healing insecure attachment. Through secure relationships, people can recover their sense of trust and safety with others. [To learn more about how this works, listen to this episode on Healing Relationships.] I hope you enjoyed this episode on attachment styles in relationships, and that it helped you understand some of the invisible dynamics at work in your relationship. Want to learn more about your own attachment style? Take our attachment styles quiz.
Episode Show Notes
[5:52] Attachment Styles in Relationships
Attachment is having an emotional, psychological, and, to an extent, physical bond with someone.
There are three main attachment styles—secure, anxious, and avoidant.
None of these attachment styles are “wrong” or abnormal.
[15:17] Do I Have Attachment Issues?
People have a tendency to self-diagnose themselves with specific attachment issues without understanding what’s healthy.
Most people fall within the normal spectrum of secure attachment with some behavioral tendencies towards anxious and avoidant attachment styles.
There is no one with a perfectly secure attachment style.
[22:35] Biological and Childhood Influences of Attachment Styles
Attachment has its roots in basic human survival drives; we need communities and family bonds.
Answering an ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) questionnaire can help you understand if you have some difficulty with attachment.
If your attachment style is causing issues in your relationships, it’s best to consult a licensed marriage and family therapist.
[30:04] Attachment Issues in Adults
Bonds and attachments happen in every relationship, not just with your romantic partner.
Changes in relationship dynamics or responsibilities can cause rifts that may threaten a person’s attachments on an emotional level.
Relationship distress can make even the most securely attached people exhibit traits of insecure attachment.
[41:03] Opening Discussions About Attachment.
It’s okay to talk about attachment behaviors you or your partner exhibit.
Talking to your partner or people can help you both feel more secure with each other.
Music in this episode is by Yuutsu with their song “Attached.”
You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://yuutsu.bandcamp.com/track/attached. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to the Love, Happiness, and Success podcast.
That's the band Youth Zoo with the song Attached. I think doing a beautiful job of conveying the bond of a strong attachment to another person, and perfect for our topic today because that's what we're talking about—attachment styles in relationships, and how to figure out yours as well as that of your partner.
This is a super important topic, but I think also one that is very much alive in the zeitgeist right now. There's a lot of talk about attachment issues and what they mean, and not all of it is great information. I hope to dispel some of the myths today and help increase your clarity, and confidence, and understanding about attachment styles in order to be able to use this awareness for positive things in your life and in your relationships.
I'm glad we're here together today. Thank you so much for joining me. If this is your first time listening to the show, I am Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I'm the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching. I'm a licensed psychologist; I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist; I'm a board-certified coach; and I am the host of this podcast. I love doing this show for you.
My intention of every single episode is to make these really, genuinely helpful and valuable for you. I'm always listening to your questions that come through on Instagram. Sometimes people email us email@example.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.
That will sometimes turn into disengagement, defensiveness, kind of in our narratives around, “Oh, you're just being ridiculous. It's not that big of a deal.” That is reminiscent of someone with an avoidant attachment style. That is also efforts to kind of maintain equilibrium in a relationship. This is very common.
I would struggle to think of a couple that I've ever seen over my decades-long career as a marriage counselor who was in a distressed relationship and coming in for help, and who was not having an attachment bond kind of flare up as a result of it.The most common combination we see is a pursue-withdraw kind of orientation where one person is aggravated, angry, semi-hostile, accusatory, and the other person is withdrawn or avoidant in response to that.
This pursue-withdraw, kind of round and round the thing, not fun, but very normal. Because the pursuing partner is feeling anxious in the relationship and is trying to get their needs met from their partner through outreach, that can often be angry and can often sort of come across as being controlling, right? Nobody starts this, and it's nobody's fault.
The normal behavior is to kind of withdraw in response to somebody who is—you're experiencing is threatening or critical or kind of out to get you, and vice versa. If you are in a relationship with somebody where you aren't getting your needs met, they aren't behaving in ways that make you feel loved and respected, the very normal and natural response to that is to say, “What the heck? Are we still doing this? Are you still there?”
The reason why I wanted to get into this a little bit is because these patterns are very, very common in relationships and have nothing to do with anybody being fundamentally securely or avoidantly attached when they show up. Two people standing at the tippy top center of that hill in any kind of relational distress will always start to fall onto one side or another with each other.
You can also have different experiences in different relationships. You can be in a relationship with one person who was maybe a little quieter or shut down or did not speak your love language and it made you start to feel a little bit anxious. You will begin to have anxiously attached tendencies in that relationship as a result of your reactions to that particular partner.
In a different relationship, you might be with somebody who's coming on a little strong, who wants to spend more time talking than you do, who maybe wants to have sex more than you do, wants to spend all their time together. You'll be like, “Yeah, I think I need to see some other friends right now,” or “Okay, it's a lot. No more talking.”
It could even be like an introversion-extroversion thing. I mean, there could be all kinds of reasons why there can be these sorts of differences. But in response to that person, you're going to try to regain equilibrium by pulling away a little bit from them. If you think back on your life experience with different people that you've been around, and can observe yourself kind of showing up differently in different relationships.
That's why our relationships are systems, which means that we react to other people, and then those other people react to us. This is why relationships and and couples counseling honestly can get so complex, is because there's this interplay of attachment, potentially, attachment styles, but also like attachment responses, and understanding these systems, right?, and the way that people relate to each other.
That is why, like, a marriage and family therapist—a licensed marriage and family therapist will be able to understand all of these systemic pieces. Whereas if you go to couples counseling for a regular therapist, either an LPC or just a psychologist who doesn't have that systemic training, and they will look at both of you sitting in their office and be like, “Oh, well, you're avoidantly attached, and you're anxiously attached, and you guys are not—I can't believe you found each other. What are the odds.”
There's this tendency to kind of look at individual psychology as opposed to that systems psychology. What winds up happening is that one or both of you gets pathologized. It turns into being about your issues, as opposed to understanding that dance that you two are doing together, so that you can resolve it together, which is what a marriage and family therapist does. As an aside, if you are going to see couples counseling, look for a licensed marriage and family therapist.
But back to the attachment piece. The other thing that can happen here with attachment stuff is that when people don't really understand how significant and severe, very real, like, attachment issues are, they can look at the experiences that they are having in their relationship, either how they are feeling in their relationship currently, or how they are experiencing their partner, and they can also begin to label and pathologize these.
The same way that if you went for couples counseling with a clinical psychologist who may have had one class in couples theory and techniques, there is a tendency to begin pointing the finger. If you are with a partner who is withdrawing, who is uncommunicative, who is not responding to you the way that you want them to, and you read some article or see somebody dancing on TikTok talking about avoidant attachment styles, it's like, “Oh, my partner has an avoidant attachment style.” That's what's wrong.
Ironically, what that turns into is, first of all, a lack of awareness of how your partner might be experiencing you—that is leading them to kind of avoid, and move away, and experience you as being more hostile and critical because now you're pointing your finger and calling them avoidantly attached and, “You're broken psychologically,” whatever.
It's really to the detriment of real relationships to pathologize our partners in this way, or vice versa to be in a relationship with somebody who wants more love and affection and attention than you've been giving them.
If you read a little bit of pop psychology, you might want to label them as having an anxious attachment style, which then gives you permission to basically invalidate everything they say next, because you've already decided that they have broken attachment styles and they're just being ridiculous, so you don't have to change anything about your behavior in this relationship, because it's not your problem, it's their problem, because they have an anxious attachment style.
Again, not helpful. If this is a relationship that you're interested in keeping, it's important to understand systemically what people do in relationships in response to each other. That involves these signature attachment styles in relationships.
Now, of course, it is also possible that you are actually connected to somebody who has adverse childhood experiences that has resulted in nonideal attachment styles. If that's the case, also, just be cautious and understand that these things exist on a spectrum. That nobody is perfectly secure, or avoidant, or anxious. Again, other people might seem different than you based on cultural factors or what was normal in their family, which might be different than yours.
Also, that there's a wide variety of “secure” in the middle on the top of that hill there, so give people the benefit of the doubt. If you are experiencing somebody as being avoidant, or attached in their interactions with you, it's okay to have a conversation about that.
I listened to this podcast about attachment styles, and I realized we might be doing this thing together. Listen to—you can get somebody to listen to this podcast with you and say, “I feel like we're doing this. I feel like you might have sort of anxious tendencies with me, and I could feel myself kind of stepping back from you. I wonder what we can do to both help each other feel more stable and secure again.”
Because again, all that means when people start behaving this way is that they're not feeling secure in their relationship. Either they're experiencing danger that they need to move away of, or they're experiencing a lack that they need to pull out of their partner, right?
Just to be how we'll have a conversation, like, “I feel like we're probably doing this with each other, and I'd like to get back to center again. What would help you feel safer and more secure with me?”, and to have a conversation about that.
Now, of course, if this has been going on for a while in a relationship, and bad feelings have been happening as a result, what you will also see is that people, their core narratives about each other start to change, it turns into “always/never” kind of language. “She is always complaining. I can never do enough. She's never satisfied. She has unrealistic expectations.” It's fundamental to her character, or “He is just unloving. He's dense. He has zero empathy. I think he might have Asperger's. He's incapable of loving me the way I need to be loved.”
The on-ramp to this is often just having those interactions with each other where these attachment styles are being expressed. People don't get to that core narrative without having had experiences with that person over and over and over again that teach you, “He will not understand how I'm feeling. He doesn't have any empathy for me. Why try? I'm just gonna give up right?” There's a long on-ramp to that, so just be aware of that.
Now very lastly, on the subject of those attachment styles in relationships, I will also say that if you believe that you are in a relationship with somebody or that you yourself are kind of on one side of that hill or another. So either an anxious attachment style as evidenced by consistently worrying about how not just this partner, but all your partners feel about you, whether or not you're loved, looking to specific behaviors to confirm whether or not you're loved. If you aren't getting those behaviors, feeling really bad and upset, needing a lot of reassurance and kind of safety seeking in your relationships.
If you or your partner are on the other side of kind of an avoidant attachment style, so the other side of the hill, there's a lot of distancing from people, a lot of criticism of other people, a lot of ambivalence about relationships, like, “Not quite sure I want to be here with you. Are you really good enough for me? I don't know.”, so like hot and cold kinds of things.
If you or your partner are either of those, the first step is achieving awareness that that's a thing, it's global, and breaking the idea that you're only feeling this way because of the specific person. If you have real attachment issues, it will be global. It will show up in all of your relationships, not just the one that you're in currently, so that's kind of the big sign.
Then, also, it's important to understand that just like people are harmed in relationships, that attachment machinery can change in response to what we experienced in very early infancy and childhood, and also through relational trauma later in life, I should add, not to the same extent. But okay, probably too much information.
Just like how people are wounded in relationships, people are also healed in relationships. The best thing that you can do if you have an anxious tending attachment style or an avoidant tending attachment style is to be in a healthy relationship with a person who is somewhere in the middle. Somebody who has a secure attachment style will be able to kind of ride the waves and the ups and downs of life with somebody who has anxious or avoidant tendencies and kind of help restore equilibrium.
They will not be as reactive, and it will be an emotionally safer relationship. Although you can take the most securely attached person in the world and put them in a relationship with an anxiously attached person, they will exhibit avoidant tendencies in response and vice versa.
The most perfectly securely attached person in the world, match them with somebody who has an avoidant attachment style, and they will become anxious in that relationship with that person in efforts to kind of restore that emotional equilibrium.
But recognizing this and working towards achieving a healthy, secure relationship with that person will not just feel better for everybody, but it will also be very healing. You might want to check a podcast that I recorded a while ago now with one of my colleagues, Dr. Paige, here at Growing Self, who specializes in relational trauma and talking about the power of healing relationships.
Even if you did have negative experiences early in life, and you might always feel a little anxious or a little ambivalent about people as a result, if you understand that about yourself and create a healthy healing relationship with a partner, you will have corrective emotional experiences that essentially retrain your mind, retrain your body, retrain that really deep attachment, bonding place in your brain that other humans are okay, they can fundamentally be trusted, and that you are fundamentally okay. You are worthy of love and respect. You're good, and you can expect generally good things from other people, too.
When you have those experiences over and over and over again, no matter what stage of life you're in, it is fundamentally healing. You deserve to have that. Healing relationships are key. I would invite you to go back and check out the podcast on healing relationships. Also, if this is an area where you'd like to work on yourself, I would strongly suggest that you get connected with a really good therapist who can help you unpack all of this, uncover the blind spots, and help you gain the self-awareness that we talked about so much during this episode.
Very lastly, there is another resource that I have for you on a previous podcast where we addressed attachment styles and relationships. I did a attachment style quiz that is really more of like a self-assessment and almost like a mini workbook. It's totally free. But if you want to check it out, you can text 55444 and then text the word “attach”. Wait, I’m embarrassing myself now—“attach” to 55444.
Anyway, you'll get an email with this activity that I created for you. It is a series of questions that isn't, like, some trite true/false, “Oh, this is your attachment score.” It's really more complex. It'll invite you to walk through, like, some journaling questions. You'll have some prompts to like reflect on your experiences growing up, some of those core assumptions, and I designed it to help you gain some awareness around those old patterns in yourself, so it's a useful tool.
If you have a therapist, you could certainly show it with them and do it with them. It might even be something interesting for you and your partner to do together if this is something that you're working on together as a couple, provided that you can have emotionally safe conversations about it together.
But anyway, it's a nice set of activities that can help you get clarity, but also even, I don't want to oversell it. You're not going to resolve attachment issues just by participating in the activity, but it will get the ball rolling, so there's that.
Again, you can text 55444—to text that number and then just type in the word “attach” and you'll get the link to the activity. Okay, that is all for now. Thank you so much for spending this time with me today. I hope it was helpful to you and I will talk to you soon on another episode. I'll be back next week.
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.
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.
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 noticedInstagram 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.
“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 TheJohn 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.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Change Your Story, Change Your Life
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
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.”
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.
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.
Did you know that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell?
I’m guessing you did, because it’s one of those things that every high schooler learns and probably never uses, unless they go on to become a biochemist. Which, to be fair, is a pretty awesome career choice. But there are many things that are essential to becoming a functional adult, that I’m betting no teacher ever devoted a single unit of a single class to teaching you.
How to do your taxes is one of them. How to have healthy relationships is another.
Of all the things we learn in school, we get zero education about how to have healthy, loving, meaningful adult relationships. If you were lucky, a Geometry teacher doing double duty as a Sex Ed instructor may have mentioned something about consent.
But constructive conflict? Healthy boundaries? Attachment theory? We’re on our own!
As an experienced marriage counselor, I know that healthy relationships are essential to a happy life. Without loving, close, enduring connections with others, the rest of life has little meaning. I also know that we’re not born knowing this stuff, and not everyone grows up watching a healthy relationship unfold between their parents.
How are you supposed to know what’s normal, and what’s cause for concern? How can you improve your relationship without a vision for what “better” would look like?
That’s why I created this episode of the podcast for you: so you could learn about the basics of healthy relationships, and give yours some care and attention when it’s sending out distress signals. You’ll learn how to evaluate the health of your relationship, and the steps you can take to make it even better.
Signs of a Healthy Relationship — Episode Highlights
As a marriage and family therapist, I know that most people have a hard time distinguishing between normal relational turbulence, and surefire signals that their plane is about to drop out of the sky.
Without understanding what healthy relationships look like, you’re vulnerable to two major dangers, and either of them can destroy your relationship.
The first is:
Believing something is very wrong when everything is fine.
I often meet people who believe they should never argue with their partner, or that minor differences are a sign their relationship is doomed. Adult children of divorce are prone to this kind of thinking, as are people who witnessed an unhappy but enduring relationship between their parents when they were kids.
These clients are determined to avoid the same outcome, but they’re not sure what a healthy alternative would actually look like. They may refuse to commit to their relationship because it’s (inevitably) imperfect, see catastrophe looming after every fight, or expect too much and become overly critical, eventually wearing their partner down.
Seeing problems everywhere creates new problems. Both for the partner of the person with unrealistic expectations for the relationship, and for the unrealistic partner, who is prone to reject fundamentally healthy relationships until they learn about what’s normal and what’s not.
And the second danger:
Believing everything is fine when something is very wrong.
Without an understanding of healthy relationships, you’re likely to be oblivious or unconcerned about serious issues that are present.
This often happens like this: Sara is always telling Mike he doesn’t listen. “I’ll work on it,” Mike says, but he doesn’t step back and assess his listening skills, learn about the fundamentals of good listening, and then practice applying those listening skills with Sara. Instead, he thinks this is just something people say when they’re mad. He’s certainly heard it before.
So Mike stays the course, and Sara gets progressively more fed up. Eventually, she stops trying to be heard and starts withdrawing from the relationship. “Why does Sara seem so distant?” Mike wonders. “Better not ask. I don’t want to start a fight.” Eventually, Sara calls it quits, and Mike feels genuinely blindsided.
I’ve seen this play out between many couples, and it’s always sad. Mike loved Sara and he would have taken action, if he had understood that his relationship depended on it.
Characteristics of a Healthy Relationship
To avoid either of these bad outcomes, there are a few characteristics of healthy relationships that you should know. When I’m assessing a couple’s relationship, these are the components I’m looking for. Get these elements right, and your relationship will fundamentally work.
Emotional safety is the most important component of healthy relationships. Returning to our plane metaphor, emotional safety is your relationship’s engine. Without it, none of the other doodads even turn on.
So what is emotional safety? It’s the basic, felt sense of being loved and respected by your partner. It goes beyond hearing your partner say, “I love and respect you,” although this is nice. It ecompasses actually being shown through your partner's actions day after day that your needs, rights, and feelings are important to them. So much so that you can feel it.
In an emotionally safe relationship, you know your partner is committed to you, and that you’re not going to be abandoned if you have a disagreement or a bad day. You don’t feel judged by your partner, and so you feel comfortable being your true self with them. You know that they care about you and your wellbeing.
Emotional safety does not mean never having a fight. All couples have conflict, and yes, all couples hurt each other’s feelings occasionally. But when your relationship is emotionally safe, you trust that your partner doesn’t want to hurt you, not emotionally and certainly not physically. Fights are unpleasant, but they’re not threatening to you, or to your relationship. In conflict, you both manage your own emotional reactions and respond with compassion to each other.
This makes it possible to address problems as they arise and work through them together; when your relationship is emotionally safe, you’re not walking on eggshells.
Communication is about how you talk to each other, but also how you behave toward each other. You’re always communicating something, as the saying goes.
Healthy relationships have a lot of positive communication. This can look like words of affirmation, which is one of the five love languages. But it can also look like showing your partner curiosity or affection.
Thoughtful gestures are another form of positive communication. When you know your partner had a hard day, so you take care of the dishes without being asked, that communicates that you understand their experience and want to help. It doesn’t involve words, but it says a lot.
Of course, we also communicate when we’re not feeling so happy with our partners, and how you approach those conversations is even more important. When you have problems, how do you resolve them? In a healthy relationship, things may get heated and passionate, but it’s always respectful. Name calling, aggression, and abandonment are signs of destructive conflict.
On the flip side, if you’re not talking about problems, that’s an issue. Conflict happens in relationships, whether it’s out in the open or not. When you can’t address issues without the conversation becoming a catastrophic fight, things tend to get passive aggressive, resentful, and eventually, disconnected.
Unproductive conflict is more like a volcano: erupting periodically when the pressure is right, destroying a few villages, and then entering a dormant phase where things seem basically ok…until next time.
Every relationship involves teamwork. I call this the “functional partnership” aspect of your relationship. Who picks up the kids? Who mows the lawn? Who pays the bills?
In a healthy relationship, you’re able to work together in an effective, balanced way. You have dozens of little agreements, many of them explicit, around “how we get stuff done” as a couple. You may argue from time to time about who is or isn’t doing what, especially as circumstances change and these roles need to be rebalanced, but you’re ultimately able to find resolutions that feel good to you both, and that make you a better team.
When the “teamwork” component is missing, one or both partners will likely feel resentful. One partner may feel like they have to do everything, or it either won’t be done, or won’t be done properly. The other partner may feel their efforts aren’t recognized, or that they can’t do anything to their partner’s satisfaction, so they might as well stop trying. These couples often get stuck in a state of gridlock, where even talking about how they are or aren’t working together feels difficult.
Without good communication, teamwork is hard. When we feel criticized or taken for granted, we’re not eager to step up our efforts, or to cut our partner some slack. If you’re struggling with teamwork in your relationship, try working on communication first.
In healthy relationships, we enjoy each other’s company in basic ways. That doesn’t mean planning elaborate date nights or expensive vacations. Healthy couples can have a nice time chatting over dinner, or perusing the aisles of a hardware store.
You can have a lot of positive engagement in your relationship even if you don’t share a lot of interests with your partner. If you’re married to a birdwatcher, you don’t have to grab your binoculars and join them in the fields every Saturday morning. But when they come home gushing about the red-flanked bluetail they just spotted, give them your attention, and better yet, your curiosity. Showing interest in your partner’s passions shows your interest in them.
The opposite of this is judging your partner, or wishing that their personality or interests were different than they are. In an unhealthy relationship, the non-birding partner rolls her eyes when her mate gushes about the bluetail. Eventually he stops sharing this part of his life with her, and they grow a little bit further apart.
Shared Hopes and Dreams
Finally, healthy couples share hopes, dreams, and goals for the future.
You can do this in a million different ways, depending on what feels meaningful to you both. Many couples connect around their children, and the values they want to instill in them. Others connect around their home, or shared financial goals, or a particular community or cause that they both care about deeply.
Working together toward shared goals is what gives couples a sense of “us.” Together, you both get to become a part of something bigger than yourselves, and create a life that reflects your love.
If this is all sounding a bit ambitious, since you’re currently arguing about, say, who should take out the trash, don’t fret. Once you have the more fundamental healthy relationship components in place — like emotional safety, communication, and teamwork — your big vision for the future will come together more easily.
Healthy Relationship Quiz
I hope this podcast gives you a clear sense of which parts of your relationship are working well, and which parts could use a little work. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your partner. You may inspire a productive conversation.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to The Love, Happiness and Success podcast.
That beautiful song is called One Of These Days. It's by Bedouine. I thought it was the perfect song for our show today because she does such a gorgeous job of capturing the hope of somebody who really wants a relationship to work and believes that it can, and also an awareness of the realities of a relationship — and also to add another layer of complexity, her intention to create the kind of relationship that she wants to have with her partner.
That is perfect for us because we're going to be talking about all of those things on today's show. In today's episode, I am going to be helping you identify some realities of your relationship. In particular, what are things that signify that you have a healthy, strong relationship with a lot of potential and a lot of opportunities? Even if it's not perfect all the time, what's a keeper?
On the other side of that, what is really danger/warning signs for a relationship, and things that might be going on in your relationship that indicate there probably are bigger problems that are worth taking seriously. I wanted to offer this because so many people that we talked to in my practice or right into the show, their number one concern are their relationships and what's going on in their relationship.
A lot of times it's, “What do I do with this? How do I solve this problem? Or, is this a solvable problem? Is this a sign that maybe this relationship isn't what I want it to be, and maybe it isn't ever going to be what I want it to be? Then, on the other side, I think some people really, relationships are a mixed bag — all of them are. All relationships have some conflict and have some turbulence, and it can be really confusing because some people really in great and fundamentally solid relationships still wonder, “Is this okay?”
That's what we're talking about on today's episode of The Love, Happiness and Success podcast. If this is your first time tuning into the podcast — first of all, hello and thank you for being here. I'm so glad you're here. This show if you haven't listened before, this is all about you and my efforts to help you have better relationships, feel good about yourself and your life, and also do more good things in the world. This is all about empowerment.
In every episode of this show, I am attempting to step into the gap between where you are and where you want to be to help you just get direction and guidance that will help move you forward. What my sort of place is and why I'm presumptuous enough to think that I might be helpful to you — I am a marriage counselor, a therapist, and a life coach. By trade, I am the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching.
I spend a lot of time talking to people just like you — the therapy or counseling room across from me on my couch about stuff that's going on in their lives, things they can do to fix it. And you too deserve the benefit of good advice and some professional recommendations that can help you move forward. On this show every week, I'm attempting to answer the questions that you are telling me are important to you.
People get in touch with me and with us all the time with things that are on their mind — things about relationships, or personal issues that are coming up, or how to deal with different things. If you would like to do that, you are so welcome to. The easiest ways to get in touch, you can cruise over to our website — growingself.com.
We have a very active kind of comment/question community on those posts on our blog and podcast page. You can also send a general email to us — firstname.lastname@example.org, and also a great way to connect is through Facebook — facebook.com/drlisabobby. Let me know what's on your mind and you just might hear your question answered on an upcoming episode.
Is My Relationship Healthy?
Again, today, I am here to support you with your relationship. We're going to be talking about how to assess the strength and the health of your primary relationship that you have with your partner. This is really intended to be about your primary romantic relationship with your partner, your spouse. But I think that a lot of what we're talking about really applies to any kind of relationship in your life and how healthy it is.
As you're listening to this, you might consider how do my relationships with some of my friends feel when I apply these criteria to them, or even with family members — so that you can decide, “Are there areas of my life — relationships in my life — that could maybe use some extra TLC and/or maybe worth working at to improve? Or even do I set boundaries with some people if it's consistently not feeling good, and the evidence is indicating that it's probably not going to get better? So you can listen for that.
But before we jump into the criteria — how healthy is your relationship, things to look for — let me first tell you why this is so important. Because I think that this really matters and it's something for you to just keep in back of your mind as you're listening to the rest of this.
Many people who come into our practice for help, they're coming in because they are really in distress about their relationships. Either they're coming in the context of couples counseling, or even individuals — they're coming in because they're worried about their relationships, and they want to talk about their relationships.
What I see is that many people coming in, they feel genuinely confused about their relationships, and how they're going. Sometimes, best-case scenario, it's for seeing a couple and it's for couples counseling, and they're both in agreement that, “We have so many strengths and our relationship and so many things we want to build on, and we care about each other so much that we really want to invest in our relationship and make it the best it can be. We're here to get your help and just tweaking a few things and getting back on the same page, and making sure that this is just really feeling good for both of us.”
They're very proactive, and they're very focused on wellness. They're almost using couples counseling as a preventative kind of thing — coming in at the first sign of trouble. That is the absolutely best-case scenario. We love working with and helping those clients. We do great work.
Now, there are two other types of couples or people that come in with concerns about their relationships. Sometimes, there is just a general lack of awareness about what is healthy and normal in a relationship or a marriage, and what's not. That can create huge problems, and actually cause issues in a relationship. Let me explain.
Because I know that sounds really dramatic to say that a lack of awareness or almost education about healthy relationships can cause problems. But I'm not really talking in a hyperbolic fashion here. It's really because I sit with people who maybe have just had their families shattered by a divorce, or it's impossible to not sit with a couple that's like breaking up because of relationship issues and not walk away from that feeling really sobered by the experience.
Or, also working with people who come in, and they look back at the last 10 years of their lives and it has been a string of failed relationships that never even made it that far to marriage, but just over and over again with these patterns where they're feeling dissatisfied. They're ending relationships or they're connecting with people that aren't good for them, and the relationships sputter out.
That is really sad for a lot of people and it creates consequences that impact them, potentially for their whole lives is around the way they're handling their relationships. This is really big stuff. As I've mentioned before in articles and other shows, I think it's ridiculous that we spend so much of our lives learning in school about everything else.
We learn about Math, we learn about Science and Literature, but we get zero education about how to have a happy, healthy, functional relationship with another person. Nobody tells you explicitly how to do that. The ironic tragedy, of course, is that the quality of your relationships has much more to do with the overall quality of your life than your ability to write a coherent paragraph around Lord of the Flies or something like that. This is really important stuff.
Again, this is why I've been working so hard in other podcasts, and then the work in my group. Also, on this podcast today again is to try to fill that gap and give you information that can really help you and help you avoid the fate of some of the people who do ultimately show up for help in a space where it's pretty far gone — and they've been struggling for a long time.
This podcast is one way of doing that, and other kinds of educational things that we're doing is to try to correct this educational imbalance. We're overeducated with regards to so many things in life, and not educated enough I think when it comes to life skills around — again, relationships or how we manage ourselves as people. That's what I'm doing here.
Also, I created a little tool to help you get clarity about your relationship and how healthy it is. I actually created a quiz that is available on my website. You might consider taking this quiz before I launch into all of the information that I'm going to be giving you today because if you listen to everything first, and have an idea of what your answers should be, it may impact your results if you take the quiz before learning about what it all means.
If you are interested in getting a score on a measurement that can help you assess the relative strengths and “growth areas” of different parts of your relationship, I will invite you to pause this podcast for a second and come take the quiz. It's at growingself.com/relationship-quiz, relationship-quiz, and take the quiz. Then, come back to this podcast when you're done, and we will talk about what it means. However, obviously, don't do this if it's not a good time or if you're driving or something. But you can still just listen and take the quiz later.
Or, if you want to get really some interesting data, you might send your partner the quiz and see what their answers are. That could be very illuminating. It could potentially launch some really productive conversations between the two of you. That is something to consider as well. If you have the time and energy, take the quiz. But otherwise, I'm going to continue on here.
Unrealistic Expectations of Relationships
First of all, let me explain the dangers on two different extremes of what can happen when people really don't understand what normal healthy relationships look like and feel like, and why it can be so problematic on both sides of this spectrum. On the one hand, when people have unrealistic expectations about what good authentic relationships look like or feel like, they can perceive that they're good, happy, healthy, solid relationship is actually having problems when there aren't problems.
It's so that they begin to believe that something is wrong with their relationship when it isn't. Then, that belief, in turn, creates actual problems in a relationship. They may overreact to small issues or they might catastrophize and feel really hopeless about the relationship, become disillusioned with a relationship, or perhaps even become really critical or overly demanding of their partner, and the partner starts to feel diminished and like they can never make them happy. Then, that actually does cause real problems over time.
You might be thinking to yourself, “That's silly. Who would believe that there's an actual relationship problem when there isn't one? It doesn't make sense.” But think about it for a second, because most people, again, in the broader societal context of zero relationship education — where do we learn about our relationships? We learn about it from the movies and television, or we learn from whatever we saw our parents doing, typically, or the people around us doing.
On one extreme, we have what the media shows us about the relationship ideal, which often has very little basis in reality. Most rom-com certainly, and many other movies, they end when two people have just become over all kinds of obstacles and discovered how much they love each other, and they're the pinnacle of their romantic bliss. Then, the movie fades out, and they're in love forever.
It doesn't continue on and follow that rom-com couple for the next five years through the evolution of what happens next in the months and the years that follow after the excitement of a courtship. It doesn't portray a realistic picture of what a normal marriage looks like, and what is normal and expected for people as they transition into having a family or dealing with the ups and downs that life brings. People — we move, we change jobs, we have stuff to deal with, and our relationships can change and evolve in response to all of that. We don't have good models for that.
Then, on the other side, the other models that we do have are our parents, our family of origin, and the people around us. A lot of us had parents who did not know what they were doing when it came to relationships either. Being a child of divorce, or seeing your parents rotate through a couple of different partners as you were growing up, or even having parents who as so many do, found a kind of stable happiness where maybe they're not really engaging with each other, communicating well or enjoying their relationship, but they're able to have enduring partnership nonetheless. But maybe not one that any of us would aspire to.
For all of these reasons, we didn't learn how to do relationships. Either we have this romantic ideal for what relationships should be, and also if we saw our parents fighting with each other, and then they got divorced. A lot of people take that as fighting means divorce or unhappiness. There's a lot of fear if people do see things happening in their own relationship that are reminiscent of things that they experienced in their family of origin that their parents weren't able to successfully deal with or overcome.
Then, when they have normal conflict or disagreement or transitional times in their own marriage, it can become very easy and understandable, honestly, that they might take that to mean that they're about to get divorced, or that something really terrible is about to happen in their relationship because that's what they saw happen play out in the lives of other people, and they don't know how else to navigate through it.
Again, very understandable, but I hope that helps you understand why some people who have good healthy relationships can almost like misread the signals like the normal relationship turbulence and come away from that thinking that there's something really wrong when. Maybe, there isn't.
Part of my hope for today's podcast is to help you understand if maybe you lean that way, what is normal so that when you have normal ups and downs in your relationship, or maybe you and your partner do have a fight, you might think back to what we talked about today and say, “You know what? This is okay. We are okay, we can get through this.” And hopefully, have some tools to help you get through that in a productive way instead of getting scared. That is one thing we're going to be talking about today.
Then, the other side of the spectrum that is at least as problematic if not more so, is the sad side where people are not aware of relationship issues, and what are things that they really do need to be paying attention to and actively working to correct because there are things that people experience in day-to-day relationships that from a marriage counselor's perspective, it’s like, “Buddy, your relationship is about to drive off a cliff six months from now. Do you not see this?”
It's so hard because if people aren't paying attention to those signals, or if they're ignoring the warning signs, or minimizing them or blowing them off, or saying, “Oh, this isn't a big deal. My partner just needs to get over that. This isn't anything.” Or maybe, they avoid difficult conversations, or they get defensive, or just essentially refusing to acknowledge the issues that their partner is trying to bring up.
These are the people who wind up getting blindsided by a divorce or a breakup. When I say “blindsided”, I'm using my air quotes right now because as we autopsy of these relationships, there were all kinds of signs that this was coming, but they didn't know. They didn't understand that the whole time, they were wanting to avoid or not deal with, or not participate in finding solutions to their problems.
Their partner's needs and feelings were going unmet for a long time. Their partners were month by month, year by year really emotionally distancing themselves and losing respect for them, and losing hope for the relationship. In those cases, what we too frequently see is that for years, sometimes one person wasn't taking the problem seriously and their partner was really fighting for their relationship in a lot of ways.
Over time, the partner who had been complaining and saying, “Hey, we need to work on this”, will eventually stop. They'll give up hoping that change is possible. Then, they decide eventually that it's time to go.
Then, the person who hadn't realized how big of a deal these issues actually were, or who thought they could handle it on their own and that things will just get better — those are the people who are like hysterically calling us for next day marriage counseling appointment because their partner is like packing their car and begging their about-to-be ex to go to marriage counseling with them. Sometimes, it's too late.
The other side there, I also hope to offer today some realistic information that you could use, or even if you are with a person who isn't taking things seriously, put this information in front of them to perhaps help them understand that some of the things that are going on really are problematic and that you guys need to work together to improve it because it's not sustainable, the way that it's going. That's my other hope and intention for today.
So, it’s just to help you stay out of trouble, basically, on both sides of this. Let's now run down some of the basic foundational things that are either solid and in a good place, and the other stuff that can happen from time to time is just noise. If they're not in a good place, that fighting and conflict is really indicative of a much larger problem.
Domains of Relationship Health
In general, there are five different categories or domains of relationship health that we look at. One of them can be thought of — academically, it's referred to as attachment, but I think of it as emotional safety. That is the number one most important thing is how safe does your relationship feel to you. By safe, I'm not in addition to physical safety. Things like trust and commitment, and just feeling generally loved and respected by your partner. That all falls into the emotional safety domain.
The second really important domain that ties in with emotional safety is communication. How do you guys communicate with each other? And when there are problems, how do you solve those problems? Looking at communication can give you also a lot of information about how healthy a relationship is overall.
Another tremendously important aspect of relationship health is around your sense of teamwork, or the kind of functional partnership that you have with each other — the nuts and bolts of how you do things together day-to-day, and how good that is currently feeling for both of you.
When that isn't a good space, or if you have good processes in place to help you work through those issues as a couple, your relationship is really very strong. Also, if you are having fights all the time about teamwork, and who's doing what, and how that's supposed to happen — that is also something to pay attention to. It can be easy to blow off is just potato-potato stuff, but over time, it can really take a toll. We're going to be talking about that.
Another incredibly important domain of relationship is the level of positive engagement and enjoyment that you have with each other because even if there is other stuff going on that might feel challenging in other domains of your relationship, if you're still genuinely enjoying each other's company and feeling good with each other, and finding and intentionally cultivating those experiences to share — that is another huge point of resilience for your partnership. We'll be talking more about that.
Lastly, but not leastly, we are also going to be talking about the aspect of your relationship that has to do with your shared life — like how do you support each other's hopes and dreams, and have also a set of shared meaning and value. The sense that you guys are both working together for something that's bigger than both of you — that is also a huge strength for a couple. Without it, the foundation of a couple can really be damaged. We'll be touching on that too.
Characteristics of an Unhealthy Relationship
Those are our five basic domains. Let's just start by talking about the first one. The first domain is emotional safety. If you have solid emotional safety in your relationship, in my opinion as a marriage counselor, almost everything else is a solvable problem. If your basic sense of emotional safety feels more fragile or doesn't feel as strong, it is going to cascade down and negatively impact so many other aspects of your relationship. We're going to be talking about this one first and at most length.
If you are getting the sense that your partnership is struggling in a major way as you're listening to this, I would advise you to focus on building up this area of your relationship first because other things will begin to fall into place if you guys have emotional safety together.
Okay, what do I mean by emotional safety? Emotional safety is this sense, this basic sense, this felt sense of being loved and respected by your partner. It is beyond somebody saying, “I love you” or doing nice things for you. It's really feeling that your feelings, and needs, and rights are important to your partner. They show you that in lots of different ways that you fundamentally know that they are committed to you, they're not threatening to abandon you if you do something that upsets them, you don't feel judged by them.
You feel safe with them. You can be yourself and they like you. They like who you are. You also trust them to not hurt you physically, of course, but also in other ways. There are lots of different ways to hurt in a relationship and to damage trust and relationship. How does your partner respond to you when you come to them with — I don't know.
Maybe, you're going through a hard time emotionally, do you feel cared for by them in those moments? Do you feel like they're emotionally available for you? If there is a problem that you need to solve in your relationship, is it okay to say that and say, “I wonder if we could work on this.” Or, do they say, “Babe, what's going on?” Or, do they start screaming at you and throw a chair out the window? Or, do they get immediately angry and refuse to talk, and slam the door and walk out?
That is not emotional safety. That is a lot of real insecurity emotionally. Emotional safety is really about the basic trust in, “I'm loved, I’m cared for, I'm respected”, and that you're with somebody who is able to conduct themselves in such a way that they can manage their emotions so they're not scary or they're not rejecting. They are also able to be responsive to you — they can listen to you, they can talk to you, they can meet your needs and just basic ways, or work with you to solve problems.
It's just you don't feel like you're walking on eggshells all the time, or that if you're about to do something wrong, there will be consequences — those things are the opposite of emotional safety. With that in mind, I would like to say that all couples fight, all couples have conflict — spoken or unspoken. It can show up in a lot of different ways. You didn't marry yourself, you're not partnered with yourself. It is natural, and normal, and expected that as people are coming together and trying to do a relationship together, there are going to be times when you don't see eye to eye or that one of you hurts the other person's feelings — that maybe that wasn’t intentional, or maybe it was intentional.
But these are just sort of normal things that can happen across the lifespan of a relationship. The fact that those things might be happening doesn't really mean that much. What matters much more is that, in general, even though you do get into it with each other from time to time — that most of the time, when you do have conflict, it is done in a way that isn't scary. It's not threatening to you or your relationship. Also, the kind of unspoken truth that you're both aware of while conflict is happening is that:
“We're going to get through this. It's going to be fine. We are not seeing eye to eye right now. We need to make some changes in the way we do things and we are willing to work with each other to create that. Fundamentally, at the end of the day, I know that you love me and care about me, and don't want to hurt me or want me to be in any kind of pain. And I feel the same way about you.”
If that sort of emotional safety is present, the other stuff is turbulence that can be worked through. Consider how your relationship feels when it comes to emotional safety. Again, if you want item by item, “Are these things happening? Check ‘yes’ or ‘no’.” The quiz might be helpful for you to differentiate what is indicative of emotional safety and what isn't. Again, you might want to check that out at the relationship quiz — growingself.com/relationship-quiz.
Okay. Now, let's talk about the next domain which is the communication domain. Communication refers to a lot of different things. It does refer to the way that you talk to each other. But communication also refers to the way that you behave towards each other and what you show each other both verbally and nonverbally. Healthy communication has two aspects.
First of all, there's a lot of positive communication in a healthy relationship. There are words of affirmation like, “Oh, hey! I'm happy to see you and I love you, and you look nice today.” Or, “You smell good”, or whatever it is. Or, “Wow! This is a great dinner. Thank you.” Words of kindness, and appreciation, and positivity.
Also, caring is communicated through things like curiosity, “How is your day? What's going on with you?” Communicating like, “I care about you and I want to be your friend. I want to know what's going on with your life.” Positive communication — just enjoying each other, and some people are more verbal than others.
If you're — I hate to gender stereotype because there are plenty of women who tend to be more introverted, and are partnered with men who are just dying to talk about stuff, believe it or not. In many relationships, it can also be true that the woman — the female partner if it's a heterosexual relationship — might desire that more kind of verbal communication, positive communication than their male partners.
When I'm talking about communication, that kind of verbal engagement can be a piece of that. But also, we need to recognize and value the other ways that our partners might show us they care about us through the things that they do for us through physical communication. Certainly, physical affection and sexuality can be a part of this too.
Also, just the thoughtful gestures that people can make — doing the dishes without saying anything can be part of it because they know you've had a hard day or spending 45 minutes helping you find your car keys because you're stressed out and don't know where they are. All of these things can be meaningful forms of communication that say, “I care about you. You're important to me. I'm here for you.” In healthy relationships, there's a lot of that going on.
The other side of good communication is that, while all couples have disagreements, and all couples have misunderstandings, and all couples have growth moments where something isn't working for one or both of them and they need to work through it — that communication, while it can be passionate, or heated, or, “No, you really don't understand. This is really important to me.”
That even though it can get intense emotionally sometimes, it is also done fairly respectfully. There's not name-calling, it's not screaming, and being scary and hostile — going back to that idea of emotional safety — and it's not rejecting. It's not defensiveness, “I don’t know what you're talking about. You're crazy. I don't want to talk about that. That's stupid.” That is really just as hostile and destructive as somebody who's very critical and attacking.
Or, again, going back to that emotional unsafety idea that you're walking on eggshells, or that you can't bring up things that are important to you, that it isn't safe to talk openly about potential problems without it turning into a big fight or a big catastrophe. Those would be evidence that in the communication domain. There are more serious problems happening where as long as everybody is like on best behavior and says “please” and “thank you”, and “pass the salt”.
It doesn't bring up any big deal if you guys can have a good time, but you can't talk about other more authentic things. Those are indications that you really need to take a look at what's happening in the communication in your relationship and work on improving that because those are problems that are going to get bigger over time, particularly if those communication problems result in one or both of you feeling fundamentally uncared for, or emotionally unsafe with each other.
Now, again, with communication, all couples fight, and those conflicts can get heated and passionate — but in a healthy relationship, that happens. But the difference between a healthy relationship is that in a healthy relationship, two people can have a disagreement. They can be upset with each other. They can feel frustrated and, “No, you're not understanding me.”
But what happens too is that they are able to either stay in the ring with each other and have that eventually become a productive conversation where they learn something new about the other person, or where they're able to identify some improvement that can prevent that misunderstanding or that hurt from happening again in the future, and then are willing to follow through. There's a certain sense that their conflict is productive in a healthy relationship.
Whereas in an unhealthy relationship, even though the beginning stages of an argument might look exactly the same, there isn't that ultimate resolution. It's like a big fight, and somebody slams the door, and the other person drives off. Whatever that fight was about doesn't really get resolved on a deeper level. That is evidence of, again, a much bigger problem if communication doesn't allow the two of you to ultimately come back together again, and find a solution.
The goal here is not to avoid conflict or not to ever be frustrated with each other. That happens in healthy relationships. But the difference, again, is that it's not productive at the end in an unhealthy relationship. Okay, hope that makes sense.
When it comes to the teamwork domain of a relationship — again, this also ties into communication and to emotional safety. But teamwork refers to the way that you guys do things together as a couple.
All couples, over time, in order to be happy and healthy and satisfied with each other, need to come together and create a preferably explicit set of agreements around, “This is how we do things as a couple.” It could be tied to housework, “I do the cooking, you do the dishes. You mow the lawn, I clean the bathrooms”, “We are intimate with each other on Tuesdays and Saturdays because that's the only realistic times we really have to be together.”
Or, we don't make plans with each other's family before first consulting the other person. There are all kinds of little — I hate to use the word “rules to live by”, but they kind of are. Not rules, but really guidelines around, “This is what I know you need in order to feel like our relationship is in balance. There is a balanced division of labor that we both feel good about. Neither of us is feeling resentful at the other for maybe carrying more than their share of the burden for keeping the wheels on this bus that we're doing together.
Also, agreements and understandings around, “This is how we do show each other love. This is the time that we connect together as a couple. I'm going to set boundaries around this time because this is our time to be together. We do Family Day on Saturday, so I'm not going to book myself up with a mani-pedi with my girlfriend on Saturday because I know that you're counting on that time to hang out with me. This is our time.”
It's all dozens of these really small little agreements in a healthy relationship. The health of a relationship fundamentally, I think in many ways, it can be assessed by — how many of those agreements do you have? Are they working for both of you? In couples that are really distressed or when communication isn't good enough to allow two people to continue a conversation long enough to come into a compromise around, “Okay, I'm going to do my yoga class on Sundays, and that'll be your time to hang out with the kids. You can go do your thing on Saturdays, and I’ll do the kids.”
Couples who are fighting all the time and who don't have good communication, it turns into a crap-show argument around attacks and defensiveness so that they cannot arrive at a productive conclusion where they're like, “Okay, I know what my job is.” Again, the presence or absence of those agreements can indicate one of two things. If you have a lot of these that are working really well, I think that's a really positive indicator that your relationship is fundamentally happy and healthy.
I would say that any conflicts that you might be having are just opportunities for you guys to arrive at new agreements that there may be areas of your relationship that have not been agreed upon yet. It may be, as happens with many couples, that life changes. As couples go through transitional periods — maybe you have a child, maybe one person takes a new job, maybe you move to a new community — for whatever reason, the agreements that you had in the past no longer totally applied to your life as it is currently.
All conflict means is that you guys need to come together and figure out this stuff. Again, that is normal, healthy work that all couples need to do. If you're having those kinds of conflicts, that doesn't mean that anything bad is happening. If you do not have a lot of these agreements around your partnership, if one of you is persistently feeling resentful towards the other, and if you are not able to have productive conversations that help you come to resolution, that to me would be a strong indicator that you have serious work to do.
If you leave these undone, or if you ignore them, what will happen is that the resentments will continue to pile up — and that it will become harder and harder to talk about this stuff productively without it turning into a big yucky fight. Take a look at what's happening with regards to your teamwork.
Now, the next important domain of relationship health goes back to your enjoyment of each other. To say very clearly, healthy couples that have a lot of strength and resilience, they enjoy each other's company in just basic ways. That does not necessarily mean that they are superficially — air quote again — “compatible”, or that they share a lot of common interests, or that they like to do the same things.
You would be surprised at how many couples I've worked with that are really worried that they are not good together, or that their relationship isn't going to be happy long term because they don't like to do the same things, or they don't feel like they have a lot of shared interests. The actual truth is that enjoying each other's company and having a good time doesn't have that much to do with whether or not you both like to do the same things.
What is much more related to is how flexible, and generous, and tolerant you can be with each other. Also, how much you just enjoy each other as a person. At the same time, there are all kinds of couples that are both really going to music festivals, or really all the stuff that one would put in an online dating profile, “I like walking on the beach. I like to travel.”
They like doing those same things, but they're still fundamentally not that compatible because when they go to the music festival or go travel to Tahiti, they're fighting the whole time because
they're not enjoying each other's company. I just want to reframe your idea around what a good solid healthy relationship means in terms of that fundamental enjoyment piece.
Again, when it comes to enjoying each other, what I'm talking about is, “Do you like your partner's personality and fundamental ways? Do you have a good time together when you're just doing regular stuff? It's nobody's idea of a good time to go to Costco for half a day on Saturday. But when you do that, are you having a good time? Are you just enjoying that? Do you have just a basic interest in your partner?
A huge area of health and strength for a relationship is that even if you are not personally that interested in something that is important to your partner, you are still willing to be generous and genuinely curious about their interests in it and what it means to them. Are you willing to join with them from time to time in the things that are meaningful, and valuable, and important to them? Or, can you support them in doing their thing even if it's not something that you can directly participate in for whatever reason?
Again, think about the health of your relationship. Do you typically feel good? Does your partner make you laugh? Do you think they're interesting? Or, if they're telling you about some obscure hobby that they're into that you're like, “Oh, really?”, can you extend the graciousness of being interested in them and what they care about, and communicating that care.
Likewise, maybe you're into some really obscure like baseball card… I don't know, whatever — statistics, and your partner isn't. But you feel that your partner is at least willing to talk to you if you came home, and you're all excited because you just found some rare Collector's Edition baseball card and whatever. Do they get excited with you? And are they willing to, every once in a while, go with you to the garage sale to go look for baseball cards, or whatever it is, even though it's not their first choice?
It's just the feeling that your partner is being generous with you, and that they could care less about baseball cards, but they are still enjoying just driving around on a Saturday with you and going to different places because they like your company, and vice versa.
Now, on the other side of this, what I would look for as a sign that a relationship does have more serious issues has nothing to do with whether or not people like the same things. But it is:
Are they judging their partner for liking the things that they like? Are they contemptuous of their partner's interests? Are they refusing to participate in things that are really genuinely important to their partner? Do they ridicule things that are genuinely important to their partner? And are they just day-to-day just having conversations? Do you feel like your partner doesn't like you and thinks that you're dumb, and the stuff that you're into is lame and feels like they're always rolling their eyes when they talk to you? Or do you feel that way towards your partner?
Those behaviors or those feelings to me would be indicative that there's a much deeper problem, and it is not about finding hobbies that you guys can both do together. It's about figuring out what's going on that's feeling so abrasive to both of you and really working on how do you cultivate a feeling of tolerance and acceptance for who your partner really is.
How do you learn how to appreciate them for who they really are and have gratitude for who they really are as being individual and distinct from you? Because if you're in a relationship that's colored by a lot of judgment where one person is really feeling like the other person should be more like they are, or vice versa — that is problematic, and that is also going to lead to… Over time, it will erode your sense of emotional safety and the foundation of your relationship.
Lastly, joined to that but different is the sense of shared hopes and dreams that a partnership has. In our last category, we were talking about that enjoyment, and that is really around appreciating and respecting each other and enjoying each other as individuals so that you both have space to be yourselves and that you like each other anyway even if you're different.
The other piece of this is — do you have shared hopes and dreams for your partnership and your family? Are there things that you can connect around that do feel meaningful to both of you, whether it's your kids or your home, or if you have financial goals, or if you have things that you're working towards — like in 10 years, we would like to be retired and buy a house in Vail, and whatever it is.
It could be other kinds of things. Maybe there is work that you both feel is meaningful and important to both of you. Or, maybe it is volunteer work, or maybe it's a particular cause that you guys both feel really good about. I could look like anything. But there is this sense of shared meaning and shared purpose, and like you're working together to create something or that you have values in common that both of you are working together to express jointly in your lives.
In healthy relationships, there is at least an element of that. There is at least some sense of “us”, of “we”, “This is what ‘we’ are doing with our lives. This is what ‘we’ want ‘our’ home to be like and ‘our’ family to be like. These are the values that we'd like to instill in our children, and this is how we are working together to create this future reality that we’ll share.
Then, strong couples, strong partnerships are talking about those things explicitly, “What are our five-year goals? What are our 10-year goals? Are we saving money for our kids to go to college? What are we doing with our lives?” Having open conversations about that — again, going back to that last category is also making space for the things that might be individually important for each of you, but that you're working together as a couple to make those things happen.
Maybe, the goal for you guys is that one of you could go back to school, and this is what the other person will do in the meantime. Or, that one of you has always had a dream for staying home and nurturing children, and this is how the other person is going to make it happen. Again, it's not that you guys are both doing the same thing, but that you are working together to create a life that both of you feel good about and having conversations around that.
On the opposite side of that couples that I worry about don't have that sense of “we”. They don't have that sense of future, they don't have that same sense of shared meaning and shared purpose. It's not to say that couples can't create that because I tell you what —
To people who don't have emotional safety, who their communication is going off the rails and are still struggling about the right way to load the dishwasher, they have kind of prerequisite work to do in the foundational aspects of their partnership before they can have those headier kinds of conversations around, “What are we doing with our lives?”, kind of thing.
Just because you might not be in that space now, that doesn't mean that if you can't do some repair work around those more foundational aspects of your relationship that you couldn't build a beautiful life together that's really based on your shared dreams and your shared goals, and feel like you're both working together to create that.
The Makings of a Healthy Relationship
Those are the different relationship domains that signify health in a relationship, or that signify growth opportunities in a relationship. Me talking through these, I hope that the number one thing that was conveyed to you is that every couple can grow. By working together on specific areas of their relationship, it can improve. Just because some of this warning sign stuff is happening, all that means is that you need to pay attention to it and work together to make it better.
That is the only thing that it means. It does not mean that your relationship is doomed. What is more concerning is if you're coming to your partner and saying, “This is a problem. We need to work on this.” And they are saying “no” — that may eventually spell doom. But we're not there yet. Because you're listening to this podcast, you're educating yourself and you're going to work on this with your partner. It can be okay.
If you have been listening to this podcast under duress, if your partner has you trapped in a moving car and is playing this podcast for you, so you'll listen — I hope that what you heard is that your partner really cares about your relationship and wants it to be better, and has wanted you to listen to this podcast so that you could learn about what areas of your relationship are feeling problematic for them and what healthy relationships look. Because chances are, if it isn't feeling good for them on some level, it isn't feeling good for you either.
I hope that this has put together a roadmap in your mind around goals that both of you can work towards, around what a happy, healthy relationship can look like for both of you. To my other listeners on the other side, if you have been worried about your relationship or having anxiety about certain aspects of it, the fact that your partner does disappoint you sometimes, or that you do have conflict every once in a while, or that you don't have a lot of things in common, or whatever —
I hope that you have also learned that those things don't always really matter that much and that you can have normal relational, turbulence, and friction and things can not always feel perfect. You can still have a really fundamentally happy, healthy, strong relationship; that this is just the experience of being in a long-term relationship as this kind of stuff happens sometimes, and I hope that it's helped you gain a deeper awareness and appreciation for all the strengths in your relationship.
As always, I hope that this podcast was meaningful to you and helpful to you. It is my labor of love and just my way of giving back to the world. I will ask, though, that if you feel like you've benefited from this podcast, or any others — if you could pay it forward to other people by leaving a review for this podcast, preferably favorable, but on iTunes or Stitcher or wherever you listen to this, it only will help other people find this podcast or stumble upon it in their own times of need.
They've just gotten into a fight and are trying to figure out what the heck is going on and what does this mean about their relationship — they can also hear this and get information that could help them. They won't unless you leave a review about this podcast because when you do that, it will make the podcast more available for them. Again, this is a totally free — I consider it to be a community resource more than anything else. This is a resource that only exists because listeners just like you have put it in front of other people.
We don't do any advertising or this isn't a financial thing. This is just free help. Anyway, that is my request of you. Also, I'd like to invite you to take advantage of the other resources. Again, if you want to take that quiz come to my website — growingself.com/relationship-quiz. That too is free.
If you have questions that you'd like me to answer on an upcoming episode rather, get in touch with me through my website. Again, through Facebook — facebook.com/drlisabobby. I love all of your questions. I read every single one, and I am compiling a list of things to discuss on the podcast based on the questions you're asking me, so keep them coming.
Alright, thank you again for listening and I'll be back in touch in a couple of weeks with another episode. Until then, take care.
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