Most of the couples who see me for marriage counseling or couples therapy are not in the middle of an acute relationship crisis. They are not lobbing vicious words around the dinner table. No one is sleeping with their boss, or gambling away the kids’ college fund at the casino.
More often, when couples land on my couch, it’s because nothing is happening between them. Over the years, their relationship’s life force has dripped away, so gradually that they didn’t notice it happening. They’re in each other’s presence day after day, but they feel alone, and they don’t know what to do about it.
Feeling lonely in a marriage or a long-term relationship is more common than you might expect. And it’s not an indication that you chose the wrong partner, or that some supernatural “spark” has gone out and can’t ever be reignited. It’s simply what happens to everything we create, without proactive intervention: dust settles on the shelf, weeds overtake the garden, and our strong connections to each other slowly wither away.
The good news is, you do have the power to intervene, and on this episode of the podcast, I’m going to tell you how. You’ll learn all about what makes a relationship feel lonely, and how you can close the gap between yourself and your partner and create a closer, more satisfying connection.
Feeling Lonely in a Relationship: Episode Highlights
Loneliness happens when we don’t have as much felt love and connection as we would like to have. It’s a pain signal that our brains emit, letting us know that we have emotional needs that are not being met. When we’re feeling lonely in a relationship, it doesn’t mean we’re with the wrong person, or that our relationship has died and can’t be revived. It simply means we need to find a way to connect more deeply with our partner.
Reasons for Being Lonely in a Relationship
Most often, feeling lonely in a relationship is a sign that you and your partner are not having a real emotional exchange. You might be having daily conversations about relatively superficial topics, but rarely sharing your deeper feelings with each other.
It’s the difference between informing your partner that you’re starting a new project at work, and sharing with them that you’re feeling worried about performing well on the project, and about what could happen if you don’t. When you’re open about your feelings, your partner has an opportunity to see you, validate you, and offer support, helping you feel more connected and less alone.
When you aren’t having a real emotional exchange with your partner, you feel unheard and unseen. And since your partner is the person you’re counting on more than anyone else to see you and hear you, going without that emotional intimacy will leave you feeling incredibly lonely.
Another possible culprit behind lonely relationships? Speaking a different love language than your partner.
If you feel close and connected when you’re having intimate conversations, and they feel close and connected when you’re doing fun activities together, a relationship that’s full of camping trips and motorcycle excursions, but devoid of deeper conversations, will probably leave you feeling lonely, while your partner feels great. When you broach the topic, they might respond by saying something like, “What do you mean you’re feeling lonely? We had so much fun together this weekend!” You’re simply speaking different love languages.
Finally, feeling lonely in a relationship can mean that there’s a conflict you’ve been unable to resolve, or sources of pain between you that have not been fully addressed. Once you get to the point of disconnection, you’re not constantly fighting with your partner — you probably long ago “agreed to disagree” — but by blocking out the conflict, you’ve also blocked out emotional intimacy and all the joy, love, and connection that comes with it.
Relationships with untreated wounds are more than hollow, they have something painful sitting in their center. Having productive, healing conversations can help you and your partner dislodge it once and for all.
How to Stop Feeling Sad and Lonely in a Relationship
Many couples think that the antidote to disconnection is spending more time together. When they plan elaborate date nights hoping it will bring them closer together, only to sit across from each other chewing in awkward silence and feeling worse than before, they believe they’ve tried everything. Too often, divorce is the next step.
This is a mistake. There is a path to changing a lonely relationship, and it’s restoring emotional intimacy between yourself and your partner, not simply “spending time” together. This requires being vulnerable and authentic about how you’re feeling, and that doesn’t necessarily happen just because you’re physically together.
Restoring Emotional Intimacy
When you’re falling in love, a flood of dopamine and oxytocin make bonding easy. But those feel-good chemicals don’t keep flooding your system forever. To maintain an emotional connection for years, you and your partner have to intentionally cultivate emotional intimacy.
This does not happen automatically; it’s something all couples have to work at. Every long-term couple has periods where they’re feeling less connected, and they need to find their way back together. If they haven’t developed the skills to keep their relationship healthy, things get increasingly disconnected until the relationship feels hollow and lonely.
Start here: What conversation are you avoiding? You might be avoiding an emotionally charged conflict because you’re afraid of damaging the relationship, but not having the conflict has created a block to connection. You might be afraid to express how you’re feeling, because you risk being rejected, dismissed, or invalidated.
At the very least, you and your partner have your feelings of loneliness to discuss. Start by telling them how you’re feeling. Tell them you miss them, that you’re feeling lonely, and that you are longing to feel closer. This can be scary, but if the conversation doesn’t go well the first time, keep trying. This is where working with a marriage counselor can be incredibly helpful.
Often, when we’re feeling hurt or sad, we express those feelings as anger or resentment, because it’s less scary than showing our soft underbelly and risking a painful rejection. You might be having weird little fights about petty stuff, while dancing around the true problems: feelings of emotional abandonment, and the uneasiness that comes with having an attachment bond that you’re not confident is secure.
If you can resist the urge to lead with anger or criticism, which will only provoke defensiveness and anger from your partner, you can have a productive conversation rather than another fight. Tell them how you’ve been feeling, and ask them how they’ve been feeling about your relationship. Then it will be your turn to practice listening non-defensively.
The Risks of a Lonely Relationship
A lonely relationship is not a weird or uncommon occurrence, but it is something you need to address sooner rather than later. Not only because you deserve to have the closeness and connection that every human needs, but because, if you allow this to drift, the disconnection will only get worse, and reconnecting with your partner will only be more difficult.
When people aren’t getting their emotional needs met in their relationships, they’re vulnerable to turning to emotional affairs to meet those needs. They may try to alleviate their loneliness by striking up a Facebook affair, or developing a crush on somebody else. These relationships can easily snowball into full-blown sexual affairs that make salvaging your relationship a thousand times more difficult.
Even couples in healthy relationships have fluctuations in their connections.
Especially in long-term relationships, couples drift apart and then have to find their way back to each other.
Feeling lonely in a can happen even when couples are physically together.
[8:52] Why You Feel Lonely in a Relationship
Loneliness in a relationship stems from a lack of deep, meaningful connection.
This lonely feeling can also be due to differences in love languages.
It's important to understand that what you're feeling is not necessarily the same as what your partner is feeling — people have different needs.
[11:51] What to Do When You're Lonely in a Relationship
Have conversations with your partner where you're both vulnerable and authentic to restore the emotional connection and intimacy.
Restoring this connection doesn't mean spending more time together. Rather, it is putting energy into connecting on a deeper level.
If your partner opens up to you, don't be defensive and dismissive of their side.
[21:06] When You Are Lonely in a Marriage
If discussions with your partner about loneliness turn into arguments, seek help from a couples counselor specializing in marriage and family therapy.
A qualified therapist can help create a safe space for you and your partner to discuss matters and guide you toward conflict resolution.
It's better to acknowledge problems in your marriage rather than to minimize or downplay them. Remember that issues are common in any relationship, but they need to be resolved.
[35:30] Lonely Marriages and Relationships: Conflict Resolution
Buried trauma should be resolved so that it does not resurface in your current relationship.
Avoiding conflict is only a short-term solution. In the end, the problems in your relationship are still there.
If you're fighting and going around in circles with your partner, get professional help. A marriage and family therapist will assist you through difficult times.
Music in this episode is by Idealism with their song “Lonely.”
You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://idealismus.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. Uh-oh. Yeah, we're talking today about loneliness in relationships, and how difficult it can feel if you are with someone that is absent, and you're both kind of floating around wanting more. It's a difficult place to be in, but we're going to tackle it together on today's podcast.
Our intro music today, I think, is a perfect mood setter for our topic. This is the song Lonely by Idealism. Thanks to Chillhop Music. You can check it out, Chillhop—find them on Bandcamp.
All right, so let's turn to our topic today about lonely marriages or lonely relationships, why they happen, and most importantly, what to do to restore the connection in your relationship if you're in one. If this is your first time listening to the show, I'm so glad you're here and that you've found us.
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. But truly, I love working with people around healthy relationships the most. Of all three of those qualifications, I most identify as being a marriage and family therapist, and I'll tell you why.
Our ability to have healthy, secure, positive relationships is just so vital to our lives. I know it is for me personally, for other people I know, certainly for my clients. I also get so many questions from you, my listeners, related to your relationships. Thank you so much, by the way, if you've gotten in touch with me lately on Instagram, @drlisamariebobby, or through our website growingself.com, with your relationship questions.
Lately, many of them have been centering around this topic of lonely marriages and just how painful it is. I just wanted to acknowledge this and how real it is. I mean, so many of the couples that I've worked with throughout the years for couples counseling, that is, at the core, one of the biggest things that drives people into marriage counseling or couples therapy in the first place. It's not screaming, drag-out fights, or some dramatic betrayals of trust—it is this sense of being alone and disconnected in a relationship with your partner.
Like they're there, you're sitting next to them on a couch. But there is not an emotional connection; that’s one you can feel and that is just so fundamentally painful. My hope with today's show is to just help you understand what might be going on, and to offer some ideas for how to potentially resolve this with or without professional support. But first of all, I did want to validate how common this is, and that if you're feeling this way, it is not just you.
Being Lonely in a Relationship
I will also say that even in fundamentally healthy, strong, enduring relationships, there can be an ebb and flow in feelings of connection, right? It's not a straight line. We drift apart. We find ways back towards each other again, over and over again, through a long-term relationship. Just because you're having this experience does not mean your relationship is doomed. Just know that, but it also does need to be resolved, right? I mean, we don't want to stay here.
I think it's also, too, important to address the concept of loneliness, because I think sometimes that word conveys, like, being alone, literally, in our minds. It's not the same thing as social isolation, you know? So, social isolation could be literally alone, like an elderly person who lives alone, and does not have anybody there, doesn't have visitors—could go for weeks or longer without talking to somebody. Single people can sometimes have this experience.
There's a Japanese term, apparently it's becoming an issue in Japan, called hikikomori, where young people completely withdraw from society and become reclusive. They don't talk to anybody, and that is being alone. Being alone is not the same thing as feeling lonely. Feeling lonely—loneliness—can happen even when we aren't literally isolated. It can happen when you're talking to people all day long; it can happen in your friendships; and it can also certainly happen within a relationship.
It can look like a lot of different things. That hypothetical couple, sitting in a restaurant, just sort of chewing your food and not talking about anything. But also not a comfortable silence, because that's different. We can also have comfortable silences. It could also look like just going about life, sitting in the same room night after night, not talking, just kind of watching a program or doing life stuff, taking care of kids, going through the motions, right? Sitting next to each other in bed and sort of flipping through your phones night after night.
But it can even just look like never scratching the surface. I think some people can routinely be talking to their partner about things: schedules for your week, “What are we doing this summer?” But it never kind of gets down to that deeper level where emotional connection happens. Even if you're living with people, you're talking with them, you are interacting, you can still feel very lonely on an attachment kind of core level.
When you're in a relationship that leaves you feeling lonely, and it's felt that way for a while, it can be really hard to know how to fix it, and how to try to get that closeness that you want. I also just want to validate for you the fact that feeling like you need it, like you need connection, you're not wrong, you do actually need it. We know from scientific research, if you want to get all official, that loneliness is bad for you. Like, there are consequences to physical health, mental health, if you experience chronic loneliness.
But also, it is a foundational need of humans to have positive connections to others. If it feels like your connection, particularly with your most important person, is, like, hollow in the center, your really wanting that to be different is not a statement about you. I think we have a myth in our culture that we need to be happy by ourselves. If we love ourselves, we won't need things from other people. This western ideal of independence is very much a myth.
As I've said many times in this podcast, people are born to bond. We need connections with others in order to be well. The fact that you are missing closeness, that you are aware of the deficit, that you're longing for more closeness and connection would tell me that you are a normally functioning healthy human who is experiencing, essentially, a pain signal.
Like your stomach rumbles when you're hungry or like it's too hot in here, so you take off your sweater. Those are physiological and, to a degree, emotional cues that you're supposed to listen to. You're supposed to listen to this one too. If you're feeling lonely in an uncomfortable way, that is a sign that it's time to try to fix it and find a way to move closer again.
Why You Feel Lonely in a Relationship
The experience of a lonely relationship is common. The core, the reason why it happens is when we don't have as much felt love and connection as we would like to have. While you can certainly feel this way while you're spending time with your spouse, it's often an indication that you don't feel seen or heard on a deep level—that you feel that there is a lack of exchange on an emotional level or on a meaningful level.
It can also be related to even, like love languages. If you are in a relationship with somebody who, for them, the pinnacle of connection is running around doing fun things together, doing activities, and you are going on vacations, and going to the vintage coin collectors show, and going to the farmers’ market, and have plans every weekend. They might feel vibrantly happy because you and they in their mind are doing the things and having a fantastic relationship that is exactly what they want it to be.
If you are someone, for him, your love language is related to deep, intense conversations about intimate and personal things. And in all of the farmers’ markets and social nights and happy hours and camping trips, you're not doing that with them. You're going to have a very different experience of connection in that relationship than your partner will. You are going to feel like, disconnected, alone—a lack of intimacy that is very real for you, and that should be understood and respected.
But it is important to understand that it can feel different—just because—what I'm trying to say is that just because you are feeling lonely in your relationship does not mean that your partner is also feeling lonely in a relationship. They could be just fine. When you try to talk about your feelings, they could legitimately and honestly say, “What are you talking about? What? We did all these fun things. We're doing this next week.”
It's just important to know that, and the reason why I want to bring this up, and we're going to be talking about more, related to this is that when people feel lonely, it is a subjective experience that is very much based on their expectations for what should be happening in a relationship—their love languages. People have different needs for closeness and connection. It shows up in many different ways.
What to Do When You're Lonely in a Relationship
While it can look very different, the path to changing this is to restore emotional intimacy, which means a scary thing. It means needing to be vulnerable and authentic in order to restore connection.
Sometimes when I go in this direction, it surprises people because, I think, sometimes people expect to hear that you should be spending more time together, you should be doing mutually enjoyable activities together, or maybe it means you are fundamentally incompatible, you're never going to get your needs met in this relationship, and maybe whatever. I don't think that either of those things are true.
What tends to happen in relationships, particularly when people are together for a long time, is that it's just really easy to go on autopilot. A lot of time can go by where we're not really thinking that much about it. We fall into habits, we fall into patterns, we fall into routines.
If we're not intentionally putting energy back into our relationships in order to maintain and cultivate emotional connection and emotional intimacy with our partner, those things will always atrophy over time.
Like, okay, let's see here. What is one of the laws of thermodynamics? Things fall apart—the entropy, whatever that is. Relationships are very much the same. It doesn't mean that there's something fundamentally wrong because it's happening. It happens to every relationship. If you don't put energy in, things fall apart.
What will also happen—and here's the hard part—when we are experiencing loneliness in a relationship, it means, kind of by definition, that we have gotten out of the habit of connecting on a deep level with our partner. We're not having the conversations that we should be having, and nothing is happening as a result, right? In order to change the situation, it requires you to notice what's happening in the absence of that connection.
Take a chance. Take a risk of being vulnerable, authentic, and courageous, and rocking that damn boat and saying to your partner, “I feel lonely, and I feel disconnected. Here's why,” in a non-accusatory way, by the way. But the reason why this is so hard is because in lonely relationships, nothing is happening, and so nothing is wrong a lot of times.
They're calm. They're quiet. Nothing bad is happening. It is not dramatic. It's just like you're sort of slowly starving to death emotionally. Many times, this is actually perpetuated by rationalizing away your feelings, “Oh, don't make a big deal out of it. It's just going to cause a fight.”
Truly, avoidance of what feels like an emotionally charged, potentially dangerous conversation where you open up about how you're feeling in a vulnerable way and risk saying, “I miss you. I want more of you. I miss what we used to have together. I feel lonely. I like talking to you, and I want to talk to you more. Like, are you still there? Do you still care about me?” in a vulnerable way.
It's very scary. It's very hard to do that. Because when you do, you risk getting into a conflict, but also you risk rejection, right? If you say, “I miss you. I'm lonely. I need you,” and he’s like, “What are you talking about? It's fine.” That is wounding, isn't it? You’re like, “Okay, I'm just going to go back into my box, and we're not going to talk about this again.”
There is the risk, especially going back to that first idea. Like, if you're having a different experience in your relationship with your partner, and you broach the loneliness conversation, and they see things differently, it's very easy to take that as feeling minimized, invalidated, shut down—confirmation of the fact that they don't care and you are emotionally abandoned in this relationship.
It's easy in that moment to give up and to say to yourself, “I tried. I tried talking about it, and they shut me down. They told me I was wrong. I am truly alone.” Like, kind of spin out into this narrative. Nobody would fault you for doing that because that was your experience in that conversation. So that's risk number one. We feel like we're trying to connect, and then we have the experience of being rejected, and then we give up.
When you do that, and it turns into, “I will always be lonely in this relationship. There is nothing here for me. You can't get blood from a stone.” That's where—next stop is the divorce lawyers' office if we keep going down that trajectory. Be very careful of what you're telling yourself and notice what is happening in your mind.
The other risk for broaching these topics and creating more emotional connection in your relationship is that it is very scary to be vulnerable in a relationship. Like, that door number one scenario that we were just talking about. It's much safer and more common, honestly, to be angry in a relationship. Like, if you have been feeling unloved, and uncared for and emotionally lonely in your relationship for a long time, it is likely that you are feeling resentful of your partner.
When we are feeling resentful of our partners, it's also very easy to get annoyed by them and all the things that they're doing or not doing. When we do broach the topic of feeling lonely in a relationship, it can often happen in the context of having lots of little skirmishes or weird fights about bacon, or what day the laundry should be washed on. “You said this,” “No, I didn't.”
I mean, like, when couples start to have weird little fights about weird little things. It is because there is an emotional disconnection at the core of it. I don't know if you caught a recent podcast episode about attachment styles in relationships—is when there is kind of sniping and aggression or withdrawal in relationships, it is often a function of feeling that the attachment is unstable.
If you have been feeling lonely in your relationship, your attachment is no longer stable, and so that's likely been coming out in a variety of ways, right? When we have the conversation about feeling lonely, usually the person who initiates that conversation is feeling upset about it. It's very, very easy and common for that conversation to be very sincere and heartfelt and well-intentioned but to sound like criticism and accusations to the ear of the listener.
Somebody who has been feeling lonely say, “We never do anything. You never talk to me. You don't ask me questions about my day. Let me tell you about all the things you're doing wrong, and why that is making me feel lonely in this relationship,” which will very predictably elicit feelings of defensiveness, “No, I'm not. That didn't happen.” All of a sudden, you're having a fight about what is or is not happening.
So it's not a vulnerable moment where you're making a courageous bid for connection. It is now an actual argument that is also reinforcing this fundamental idea that you are lonely in this relationship, and that it is impossible to talk to your partner, and even when you try, they don't understand anyway. It's really hard to have a productive conversation about feeling lonely in a relationship, I'm not going to lie.
When You Are Lonely in a Marriage
That, I think, is one of the reasons why couples, so often and wisely so, by the way, come to marriage counseling for help with this, is because there are so many weird little, like, emotional and psychological things that can happen in the space in between two people. When there has been emotional disconnection and one person is trying to reconnect, it is vulnerable, there are a lot of emotions there, and it can very easily go sideways.
One of the biggest benefits of working with a couples counselor is that they can prevent you from having a fight in the room and instead help you have a productive conversation where you can say how you're really feeling and what it's really about. So in that vulnerable way, and where the other person is assisted in receiving that information in the way it was intended, and not react in a way that creates a fight.
There are, of course, many other things that good couples counselors do besides supervising couples to play nicely together. But that is one of the most important parts of having a third person in the room: is to facilitate the conversation in such a way that you're talking about the important things without having weird emotional reactions to each other. That when you're out in the wild together, it disintegrates. It just turns into an argument that perpetuates loneliness.
I am not saying this as an infomercial for couples counseling. You can absolutely have a conversation about this on your own, but be very careful that you are addressing this in a courageously vulnerable way. Try to create a lot of emotional safety for your partner when you bring this up, so that reduces the chance that they'll get really defensive and reactive. Also, make space for the fact that your partner may legitimately be experiencing this differently than you are.
So that if they are, like, “What do you mean?” You don't interpret that as invalidation because that might not be what's happening. They might be sincerely surprised that you are experiencing the relationship this way. With those tips, try to talk about it with your partner. If it is consistently not going well, that would be a sign to call a good couples counselor for support. This is because if we just let it go—the easiest thing to do is always to not do something, right?
It takes so much courage to make it a big deal. Like, “No. We need to do something here.” It's much easier to just sort of, like, let it drift, “It's fine. It's not a big deal. I kind of like the show, too. It doesn't matter,” right? When we rationalize that to ourselves for too long, and it goes, couples can drift very, very, very far apart. When that happens, first of all, it's harder to reconnect the longer it goes, right, and weird things can also happen when people are too disconnected for too long.
Again, some of it is just normal long-term relationship stuff. There is ebbs and flows in every relationship, and you will always go through periods with your partner where you feel more connected to them than others. Sometimes, if you are in one of those spaces where you're feeling alone, you want emotional connection, it feels like you've been trying to connect with your partner and they're just not getting it, or maybe you have a good conversation, but nothing is changing. It just sort of goes back to the way it was.
It can create vulnerability to becoming attached or emotionally involved with somebody besides your partner. We haven't talked about emotional affairs in a while on the show, but it is related to the topic of lonely marriages, right? To think about being in this space and feels like you can't talk to your partner. You have stuff going on in your life that you want to share, and you want to connect around and for whatever reason, it's not happening in your relationship.
It can, understandably, feel like a breath of fresh air if you connect with somebody who is interested in what you have to say, who is excited about the same things that you are, it feels like there's a joining energetically—maybe you're into the same stuff or same activities that your partner doesn't seem to understand. It can be very easy to get seduced in some way—not in a sexual seduction sense.
Although if you have listened to my podcast episode of married with a crush, you will understand that having that emotional connection is not infrequently the on-ramp to a more serious, like, a sexual affair. It always starts with a friendship, right? Or an infatuation. That's just one thing to be aware of.
if you begin sort of comparing your partner to somebody else in your mind, or thinking about how you really enjoy your interactions with “Joe in Accounting” so much more than you do your partner—it's not anything bad about you. Nothing to be ashamed of, but it is important to recognize that that is happening. It can also be a sign that there is a significant disconnection in your relationship that really does need to be addressed.
It would be a mistake to downplay it or not take these things seriously. It's easier to do in the moment, but that is also how real problems happen in a relationship when people have been minimizing or downplaying things for a while or not being fully conscious of the things that they're doing in their relationship.
To be lonely in a marriage is very common and normal and needs to be resolved. The path to connection is by extending yourself to connect. I once had an interesting conversation with somebody, and you may be aware, there's a lot of really trite advice that comes from, typically, a couple's—or I should say—therapists who are providing couples counseling but do not have specialized training and education in marriage and family therapy.
One of the things they'll often do is tell couples to go on a date night. So a couple will come in and say, so predictably, “We're feeling disconnected and lonely. We want to find our way back to each other.” So a therapist who does not specialize in couples and family therapy will say, “Great. Go on a date night. That's your homework assignment.”
The couple will dutifully go on the date night and not realize that just because you are spending time with somebody does not mean that you're going to connect on an emotionally meaningful level. In fact, many a date night has been spent in awkward silence with each person wishing something different would be happening than what it is, but neither feeling brave enough to either broach that vulnerably. If anything, it often comes out sideways in snippy comments, right?
That turns into a fight, and they go, “That date sucked. I'm never doing that again,” right? Again, very important not to look for Band-Aid solutions if you're feeling lonely in a relationship. A much more reliably effective way to handle this is to see if you can have an open authentic relationship with your partner and talk about not just how you're feeling but ask them how they are feeling.
Could go one of two ways. They could be like, “What? We're doing this tennis tournament, and we went shopping for whatever. It was great. I love you so much.” That could happen, or you may also have the experience where they tell you, “I've been feeling kind of bored and lonely, too. Let me tell you why.” If your partner is brave enough to go there, then it will be your turn to figure out how to listen to that non-defensively without saying, “No, I didn't,” right?
Just to be open to hearing their thoughts and feelings. Ideally, it can turn into a really nice conversation about things like love languages. I did another podcast on the topic of love languages, if that's helpful for you guys to listen to together, because we feel connected in different ways, and those are important to understand. It could also turn into conversations about practical aspects of your relationship and routines and habits.
Now, this is going to sound like trite advice, I will assure you it's not. It is trite to tell people to go on date nights, whatever. But when it comes to, like, lifestyles and routines, particularly couples who have crossed the threshold into parenthood and have demands of family and jobs and stuff, and are managing a lot of different things, it can become so easy to prioritize other stuff besides a relationship.
It's really important every once in a while to just reassess our routines. What are we doing together as a couple and as a family that prioritizes our needs for authentic connection with each other, as well as with our kids, as well as with our friends? For some couples, it could be establishing a weekly date night or weekly lunch. It could be a new family routine of going for a walk after dinner or having opportunities to connect. It is often—it looks different for every family.
It is a mistake to think that the routine itself, so the habit of spending more time doing something together, is not going to resolve this unless it is coupled with emotionally meaningful activities for one or both partners at the same time. That's where it ties into love languages. If your way of connecting is through deep, emotionally, intimate conversations, whatever routine you build into your life has to include that.
It doesn't have to be a date night at a fancy restaurant. It could be going on a walk and just having a conversation. For other people, it's sexuality—the emotional intimacy is really strongly correlated with physical intimacy. Even if you're talking all day about feelings, it is not really going to change things for you without that physical component. Being aware of specifically what that connection experience is for you and your partner is vital.
If you find out that one of the ways of emotional connection that is super meaningful for one or both of you, but not both of you—I should say that. Wait, back up—the emotional connection through conversation is important. Well, no, actually, that's true for one or both of you, but that is not always easy to do.
There are actually some training wheels to help this be more successful and easier. There are conversation topics. There are card decks. There are 100 questions for couples is an awesome article that I will link to in this podcast post. The Gottmans of the Gottman Research Institute put out an app that actually has open-ended questions for couples, so that you can, like, take turns asking each other questions that elicit authentic conversations about things that you wouldn't ordinarily think to talk about.
That is, for many couples, the on-ramp to connection, so it's not just the time, it's the conversation. Now, it will also be remiss of me not to talk about another important thing that can and does create lonely relationships and also perpetuates lonely relationships. That is more than the drift that always happens, and it is also more than the miscommunication and rupture that happens when people try to address loneliness. Loneliness in relationships can also be a function of having unresolved perpetual problems that are painful and that feel impossible to resolve, but that are real.
Lonely Marriages and Relationships: Conflict Resolution
Conflict in relationships can be difficult to resolve effectively. It's also true that in every couple, there are what we call unresolvable problems. They're just differences in personality, of values, of ways of doing things, or core beliefs that are not resolvable and are also completely okay. We do not have to resolve them in order to have a positive relationship with somebody.
But when there are sources of pain or hurt in a relationship that did not get addressed, or resolved well enough, even if it was finding a way to appreciate and tolerate each other anyway, and really, genuinely move on from it emotionally.
Having unresolved conflict in a relationship can kind of be like that grain of sand in an oyster, right? The original conflict was a grain of sand, and if it wasn't resolved, it starts to become calcified, like it builds up over time. We don't talk about it. We're not doing anything about it. It's still there, and now we're kind of avoiding it.
By proxy, avoiding each other in order to maintain the stability of our relationship because if we did have a serious conversation and try to attain emotional intimacy, whatever that was would come up. It is painful. It feels dangerous. Like on the map, there'd be dragons, we're not going to talk about that. We're not going to talk about anything as a kind of protective mechanism for the relationship.
It sounds weird to think about protecting a relationship by avoiding emotional intimacy. But, people can do a lot and go a long time just going through the motions. We can take care of the kids, we can go to work, we can make nutritious meals, we can have a house, we can have a social life, and we can do all the things. But in the core between us, it is not just hollow, there is a black pearl sitting in the center that is keeping us apart.
Because if we did go there and try to tackle that thing, it might turn into a really dangerous-feeling fight for us. It may feel painful. We do not know how to resolve this conflict. We've tried. We've had 27 fights about it, and none of them have ended well, so let's just agree to disagree. Keep on our own respective sides of the bed and the couch and the dining room table.
Pros and cons, right? You're not having the fight, but you're also having a lot of disconnection. If anything that I am saying right now feels true for you, that would also be an indication that it is really time to get professional help—to get an experienced marriage and family therapist who can help you come together.
All three of you will look at that pearl together, whatever it is, and be able to have emotionally safe and productive conversations that will help you unearth those old, old layers of whatever happened, and be able to have productive healing conversations with each other that do really heal it for once and for all.
Not only will that old conflict or old trauma or old wound be resolved—when it is resolved, it will also make it safe again to reconnect emotionally in the present moment and be emotionally vulnerable with each other, be authentic with each other, tell each other how you're feeling and what's going on. You will have had the opportunity to practice having emotionally safe conversations, so you'll be better able to do it.
But also, there isn't like that old abscess, that old infected thing that if we get down to two or three layers out, there it is again, right? It'll just be emotionally safer to stay connected. I think it was Brené Brown—all fonts of wisdom and good things go back to Brené Brown sooner or later, don't they?
But she has some kind of saying where when we numb ourselves to pain, we also numb ourselves to joy at the same time, unintentionally. The same thing happens in relationships. When we are avoiding things to prevent conflict or unpleasantness in a relationship, we're also blocking ourselves to emotional connection with our partner, and authentic joy, and love. We have to keep it all away. You can't choose one.
Anyway, I hope that those ideas are helpful. Main takeaways. Emotional disconnection and loneliness in marriage is common. It goes in ebbs and flows. If it happens, just say, “Oh, time to reconnect.” That reconnection can happen through authentic and vulnerable conversation with your partner where you tell them how you feel, ask how they're feeling, and stay in the ring emotionally with each other to have a productive conversation that ideally will lead to changes.
Sometimes those changes are based on love languages and doing more of what each of you feels like they need to feel loved and connected. If you cannot do this, and if it turns into a fight that leads to just increased disconnection or sort of reinforces disconnection, that would be one sign to get help.
Another thing to know is that in a space of disconnection, you can be vulnerable to connecting with other people outside of your relationship. If that happens, just notice it and stop that. Cut it right off and come back to center. Focus on reconnecting with your partner. Get help if you need to.
Then, thirdly, emotional disconnection can be a function of unresolved conflict. In order to stop feeling lonely in the here and now, we’re going to have to go back into the past and heal whatever hurt happened however long ago in order to reconnect emotionally with your partner in the present.
I really hope that those ideas are helpful and useful to you. I'll be interested to hear how things go. If you want to try this at home with your partner, resources we talked about were the attachment podcast, attachment styles in relationships. We also talked about the love language quiz. We also talked about married with a crush—that podcast if you think that might be happening.
Then also, I did a few podcasts, just communication techniques. Let's see what would be the best ones for you. Emotional safety in relationships is a really good one, because you're going to have to have a lot of emotional safety in this conversation in order for it to be productive. We also talked about feeling, oh, invalidated. You might want to check out that podcast as well if that is what is happening.
Then, outside resources, check out the Gottman Card Deck for conversation starters and 100 conversation starters, no, 100 questions for couples—the article that I referenced. All will be available for you as links on the post for this podcast on growingself.com/lonelymarriages. It is all there for you. I hope you take advantage of it, and thank you so much for spending this time with me today. This was a good talk, and I will be back in touch with you next time with more love, happiness and success.
We all like to feel in control. When we believe we have the power to shape our own future, we feel motivated to work toward our goals. When we believe that doing everything “right” will prevent bad things from happening to us, or to the people we love, we feel safe.
But, as I’ve told countless therapy and coaching clients, there are many things in life we cannot control, and one of those things is other people. Other people are absolute wild cards, and accepting that is a prerequisite to having a healthy relationship.
Every time we relate to another person, we begin a negotiation, making tradeoffs between their needs, rights, and preferences, and our own. Many of us can dance this dance beautifully, with only the occasional misstep. But some of us cannot. Some people haven’t come around to the idea that they aren’t in control of what others will do. When you’re trying to dance with them, things can get uncomfortable. Fast.
That’s why I created this episode of the podcast for you. It will help you understand where controlling behavior comes from, why it feels so irritating, and how you can deal with a controlling person in a compassionate, assertive way.
When you’re having a relationship with a controlling person, every interaction can feel loaded with meaning — and not in a good way.
Here’s an example: Imagine you have a friend who insists on choosing the restaurant every time you get dinner. It doesn’t matter if you suggest Thai or tacos or pizza — there’s always some reason your choice won’t work.
At first you’re fine with it, but as time goes on, you notice this dynamic creeping into other areas of your friendship, too. When you criticize a movie, they try to change your mind. When you tell them you’re too tired to meet up after work, they bargain with you until you give in.
With each new incident, your internal emotional reaction grows a little stronger. You might feel embarrassed about not standing up for yourself. You might feel angry about being in a position where you feel like you have to stand up for yourself. You might wonder if you’re being too sensitive, considering how little is at stake each time you don’t “get your way.”
If you’ve had an experience like this, with a romantic partner, a friend, a difficult parent, or a coworker, first some validation: There’s nothing abnormal or overblown about how you’re feeling. You’re picking up on the reality that these power struggles are about more than whether you’re eating at the sushi place or the burrito place. They’re about the tension between one person who needs to be in control, and another person who needs to feel like their needs, rights, and preferences matter in the relationship.
Controlling behavior creates conflict, whether it’s addressed openly or left to simmer under the surface. But understanding what’s driving the need for control can help you turn conflict into connection, and respond to the control freak in your life in a way that’s compassionate, productive, and fair to you.
Signs of Control Issues
Controlling behavior exists on a spectrum, from the mildly irksome to the downright abusive.
Here are some signs that control issues might be at play in a relationship:
Having rigid ideas about the “right way” to do things.
Keeping score, or alluding to you “owing them” after they do you a favor.
Before we go any further, let’s note that extremely controlling behavior is a core feature of abusive relationships. This could look like excessive jealousy, threats, accusations, attempts to isolate the other person from their family or friends, harming them physically or emotionally, threatening them, ruining their belongings, controlling their finances, or interfering with their attempts to leave. If you’re experiencing a relationship like this, it’s important that you protect yourself. Visit thehotline.org for a list of free resources that can help.
With that out of the way, let’s build some understanding for the annoying-but-harmless control freaks among us…(or within).
Why Do People Try to Control Others?
Control is almost always about anxiety, and that person’s efforts to manage their anxiety through control — over themselves, over their environment, and over others. When someone is being controlling toward you, chances are they’re feeling anxious, and they have a story playing in their mind about all the terrible things that might happen if they don’t take charge of the situation.
For example, one person in a relationship might be afraid of being abandoned by their partner, either because of past trauma, an anxious attachment style, or, often, both. They may be hypervigilant about where their partner is going and who they’re with, or they might demand a lot of reassurance from their partner, thinking it will make them feel more secure (it won’t). All of this can feel pretty controlling, and it can ultimately lead to the “abandonment” the anxious person fears, if they can’t learn to trust their significant other and soothe their own anxieties.
Other people have codependent tendencies and spend a lot of time trying to fix, manage, or “help” their partner, out of a fear that, if they don’t, their partner (and the relationship) will fall apart. This can get pretty controlling, and can lead to a lot of conflict and frustration for both partners.
Other people simply have generalized anxiety disorder, and their constant worrying about all the things that could go wrong keeps them fixated on the future, making plans and contingencies to those plans so they can assure themselves that everything will be ok. To the people in their lives, it can feel like there’s no space for their plans or preferences in the relationship.
Certain personality types can be a little more controlling than others. People with a strong “J” orientation on the Meyers-Briggs inventory, for example, can have a strong need for order and structure that other people experience as a need for control.
Culture and family of origin can also influence how flexible and tolerant of difference we are. If someone grew up in a strict family where there was one right way to do everything, they might have a hard time accepting that other people don’t do things exactly the way they would.
Finally, there are some “malignant controllers” who draw their sense of self from dominating others. Narcissistic people fall into this category. If you suspect you’re on the other end of this kind of controlling behavior, keep in mind, this isn’t the kind of problem that can be solved with a heart-to-heart conversation. Narcissistic wounds run deep, and even with extensive therapy, narcissists rarely make significant changes.
How to Deal With Controlling People
The first step in dealing with controlling people is getting curious about their inner experience. It might look like they’re just being irritating for the sake of being irritating, but there’s always a “why,” and once you understand it, you can change your story about what’s happening and respond in a compassionate, assertive manner.
Here’s how to approach a controlling person in your life:
Begin with empathy. Remember, the person is probably being controlling because they feel worried and scared.
Try to have an emotionally honest conversation with the person about what you’re noticing and feeling. You might say, “I wonder if you’re feeling stressed out or worried about something. Could we talk about it?” Hopefully, they’ll gain some awareness about how they’re coming across to you, and — maybe — what’s driving their behavior.
As you approach this conversation, remember that controllingpeople are almost never conscious of “being controlling.” They think they’re being proactive, responsible, and helpful by making sure things happen the way they need to happen. They’ll likely be 100% oblivious about how you’re feeling until you tell them.
If they aren’t able to have the conversation with you without shutting you down or growing defensive, your remaining options are to withdraw from the relationship, or to set and maintain boundaries. Having healthy boundaries means setting limits around what you’ll tolerate in your relationships, but it doesn’t mean dictating how other people will treat you — only how you’ll respond. Learn more about healthy boundaries here.
These are courageous conversations that are difficult to have. Many of us would prefer to avoid conflict and “overlook” selfish or unfair treatment from others, especially if we tend to be people pleasers. But ignoring the problem only makes it worse. Your resentment will grow, and the controlling person may escalate their behavior if they get the message you’re ok with it. Eventually, the feelings you’ve been stuffing will likely spill over into a nastier version of the conflict you’re avoiding now.
If the conversation goes well, you’ll gain understanding for the controlling person, and you’ll get the chance to create a relationship together that feels a little more balanced.
Dealing With Control Freaks: Episode Show Notes
[02:11] All About Control Freaks
Understanding the psychology of a control freak can help you deal with them.
[09:23] Controlling People and Their Behavior
Control can be imposing one's will on others by asking them to do certain things. It can also mean preventing other people from doing what they would like to do.
[15:58] The Anxiety Behind Controlling Behavior
Anxiety leads to controlling behavior.
Past trauma often leads to hypervigilance, which feels controlling to others.
Somebody who has a very anxious attachment style will have a lot of fear of abandonment, and will need people to do things to help them feel safe. This can get controlling.
[22:06] Control, Anxiety, and Personality Types
Anxiety and controlling tendencies can be related to personality types.
Personality styles, anxiety, trauma, culture, and family of origin can make people less tolerant of differences, which can feel controlling.
People who have ADHD can lack a filter and can appear controlling others, when in fact they’re impulsive.
[27:20] Controlling and Codependence
A codependent relationship dynamic is where one partner can’t be okay unless their partner is okay or functioning how they think they should be. This often looks controlling.
Try to think beyond what’s happening in the moment. Be curious about the inner experience of the person engaging in controlling behavior — there’s always a “why”.
[33:23] Narcissism in Controlling Behavior
People who are true malignant narcissists have controlling tendencies. They will not change through vulnerable conversations.
Controlling behaviors that can easily turn into abusive relationship dynamics.
Not all narcissists are abusive in the sense of harming you physically. But they will punish you in very real and sometimes dramatic ways for failure to comply.
[37:06] How to Deal With Controlling People
If you are being yourself, different from how the controller wants you to be, it’s creating a “problem” in the relationship.
If you have a history of a parent who had controlling tendencies or was intrusive, you may perceive people in your life as being controlling.
Take an emotional risk and try to have an emotionally honest conversation with the controlling person, if it’s a relationship you value.
[45:40] Not Having the Conversation
It takes a lot of courage to have the conversation.
If you’re not talking about how you feel and what’s going on, they won’t have the opportunity to address it or improve it.
You can have empathy for their feelings and understand them, while maintaining limits over the extent to which they can control you.
[49:02] Setting Healthy Boundaries
Setting healthy boundaries means deciding in advance how you are going to respond in different situations and then communicating that to somebody else.
Boundaries could mean removing yourself from the situation.
Your boundaries prevent people from controlling you.
To have healthy boundaries means having a lot of confidence in yourself and knowing that it is okay for you to have those boundaries.
Music in this episode is by Ski Patrol with their song “Agent Orange.”
You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: [https://skipatrol.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.
If you are a regular listener of this show, you will know that I often try to find a musical introduction for each podcast that ties in with the theme of our topic for that day. Today is not one of those days, we are currently listening to Ski Patrol with their song Agent Orange, which has absolutely nothing to do with anything we're going to be talking about today. But welcome to my world and welcome to The Love, Happiness and Success Podcast. I am your host, Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. And I guess when you think about it, this song, which I am playing because I just happen to enjoy it, is sort of on topic with our theme today. Because today we're talking about how to deal with control freaks.
People who want to have things their way, who are empowered to make sweeping decisions that impact the lives of others. Making you listen to the music they like, just because they can. Okay, I'll stop. And if this is your first time listening to the show, and you're trying to figure out what you have just stumbled into, allow me to orient you as to what's going on. I'm Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, I'm the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. I'm a psychologist, I'm a marriage and family therapist. I'm a board-certified coach, and I am here every week with love, happiness, and success advice for you.
I love doing this. I use it as an opportunity to dig deep and talk about things that are hopefully helpful and important to you. And thank you so much for your questions that have been coming in. We get questions on Instagram at @drlisamariebobby, you can get in touch with me at growingself.com. If you would like to chime in on the conversation or ask your own question, leave comments at the bottom of blog or podcast articles that interest you and you can also just email us firstname.lastname@example.org, they come to me.
All About Control Freaks
Alright, so let's talk about this topic today. Dealing with control freaks is something that we can all relate to for sure we all have them in our lives. We may be one ourselves not mentioning names, but you know it's a thing. And it can really impact relationships. The good news is that understanding the psychology of a control freak can help you disarm them and manage them. If you have controlling tendencies yourself, I hope that just listening to this conversation will help you gain self-awareness, and the ability to understand what's happening, how things may be impacting other people, and how to dial it in, with a goal of having healthy happy relationships which are so fundamentally important and a frequent topic of this podcast.
To begin this conversation, I'd like for you to scroll back through your mind's eye, and I'm going to say this phrase, control freak. Okay, who just popped into your head? Who was it? I know, it’s somebody, right? Maybe your control freak is a friend. The friend who has to be in charge of planning every detail of the trip. And no, we cannot visit the Colosseum on that day. Because that is the day we're going to be at the piazza and I've already decided where we're getting lunch, et cetera, right? Maybe it's your mom, who would really like it if you could date this nice young man who attends her church instead of your boyfriend of two years. “And look, he just happens to be coming over today to do some yard work, because he's such a nice young man. So won't you just meet him? I mean, he's going to be here. Anyway, I made lunch. Let's all just sit down. You’re hungry, right?”
I'm being a little silly, but this is actually tough stuff. When you are trying to have a relationship with somebody who you are experiencing as being intrusive, maybe disrespectful, it might even make you feel a little bit violated when you're with them. Like you're not that important, not compared to whatever they're feeling or wanting — that is more important. You know even if that's not their intention, that's how it can feel and worse, when control is happening. And you try to assert yourself and say “Actually, no I don't want to XYZ.” “I don't want to listen to this song, Dr. Lisa.”
Whatever. If you assert yourself, it can start a fight. It can lead to a conflict, and the conflict is probably going to feel a lot bigger than the particular issue at hand. Because it is bigger, it's not about where we're going for lunch, it's not about whether or not you're hungry, it's not about the song on the radio, it's about the control — that power dynamic underneath — and your desire to feel respected and understood, versus their desire to have their way. It gets big quickly.
Now, I would like to confess that I am a recovering control freak, maybe, but maybe I'm not in recovery, I don't know. But I'm at a point in my career where I need to work with other people. I need to play nicely with others, I am a part of a team. Now I am managing a group private practice, we have all kinds of people running around, we have 50 something counselors on our team and wonderful, wonderful people behind the scenes, like keeping the wheels on the bus, right.
This requires teamwork and it is still a new experience for me because for the longest time, I was doing this all on my own. I was a solo private practitioner. Chief therapist, did insurance submissions with pen and ink, bottle washer, light bulb changer, all the things. I ordered the tissues, when we ran out of tissues. It was a growth curve for me. I think being on my own for a long time and operating independently was a good thing. I can do it, I'm an independent person, but I started bumping into stuff when now I am collaborating as a teammate of others. And having to accept that other things won't always be done exactly the way that I would have done them myself. And I think that that is actually a common thing for people in leadership positions.
Parents, certainly, of children who are getting older and were once you did actually have to do everything yourself. When you just start a business, it is all you. When you're a parent of a brand new little baby, you do have to do all of the things, they cannot put a spoon in their own mouth without your assistance. As things grow and evolve, there is a journey of trust that needs to happen with other people. With your employees, with your kids, with your partner, in order to make space for them, and their feelings, and their needs and rights, and even preferences so that we are collaborating and having positive interactions with other people. As opposed to a unilateral kind of dictatorship situation that maybe, in your perspective, is the most efficient way of doing things not saying you're wrong.
It damages relationships if you can't make space for other people too. Control dynamics, I am aware of them in my own life, but also there's something that comes up a lot in relationships. I have achieved a lot of understanding about where control issues come from. My hope is that is through this episode, you too will understand what is going on when power and control dynamics are at play. That understanding is key because once you understand controlling behavior, either in yourself or others, it becomes much less frustrating, first of all, and also a lot easier to respond to in a way that is both compassionate and productive, but also appropriately assertive too, right? So let's just jump in here.
Controlling People and Their Behavior
When we're talking about controlling behavior, what do I mean, what does controlling behavior look like? So, as I mentioned, some relationships include a level of appropriate control like a parent-child relationship — with a young child, obviously — boss-employee, organizational hierarchies, like there is a time and a place for one person to be sort of generally making decisions on behalf of another. But that is not what we are talking about. Because in relationships where that dynamic is part of it, if you're in the military, for example, your drill sergeant is not being controlling because they're telling you what to do, they're doing their job and the expectation is that you will do yours.
Controlling behaviors, by definition, are something that exist outside the norm of that authority hierarchy. So just move everything that is kind of there needs to be some level of control to a different column in your mind. And so then what's left over is what is related to inappropriate control. When there is not a mutually-agreed upon hierarchy or a basis for one person having say over what the other does, that is starting to be inappropriate, no matter what the circumstance. And inappropriate control can look like a lot of different things, it can look like not tolerating minor differences of opinion or micromanaging. It can also be a need to defy reasonable requests from others for no reason.
Control can be imposing one's will on others by asking them to do certain things. But it can also show up by preventing other people from doing what they would like to do, that is also a form of control. Controlling behaviors can also have a very fun sidekick in the sidecar controlling behaviors are driving the motorcycle, and in the sidecar are punishing behaviors. And so if somebody has controlling tendencies, and you displease them, then they can be kind of punishing in response to that. Silent treatment, passive-aggressive behaviors, I will refer you back to the podcast episode on passive-aggressive behaviors that I did a little while ago.
You can also see keeping score happening and power control dynamics or trying to instill a sense of obligation or indebtedness. “I helped you. Now you owe me and I will remember forever.” There can be some emotional manipulation, perhaps using guilt as a tool or playing the victim. Lots of things that people can do to maintain that control over others — psyops are involved.
Then, when it gets really serious like if there is a problem that like very problematic levels of control happening in a relationship, that can be violating physical boundaries. In abusive relationships, like actually abusive relationships, domestic violence kind of situations, which is beyond the scope of our podcast today, by the way, we are not talking about that. But in abusive relationships, there are always power and control dynamics where there can be physical aggression, blocking people from leaving, going through boundaries, limiting contact with other people, limiting access to resources or money, really like a lot of control. That is actually a core feature of a patently abusive relationship is not just that somebody's getting physically harmed, although that might happen.
It's not just that somebody's getting punched in the face. It is that face punching is also happening in the context of many, many other efforts to maintain power and control over the individual who is being controlled and physical punishment can be part of that. But it is not the whole thing. This is a great opportunity if any of what I just shared makes you think of yourself or someone you love, please go to thehotline.org, it's a website. thehotline.org has tons of free resources, advice, and also access to domestic violence counselors to support you or a loved one through that incredibly difficult situation. So controlling behaviors can definitely come up there.
There's also a wide, wide range of controlling behaviors that can show up in relationships that are not even close to actual like relationship abuse, but they're still very annoying and they're also very common. We need to know how to deal with these when they're coming up in our lives. As I mentioned, to handle this well, it's really important to understand what makes someone controlling in the first place. It's not enough to just look at the behaviors and point your finger and say “You're being controlling.” It requires some insight into what is going on that is making that person behave that way. And so whenever it comes to controlling behaviors, any kind of control, is almost always about anxiety and someone's efforts to manage their anxiety through control — control of themselves or control of the environment or control of others.
The Anxiety Behind Controlling Behavior
A lot of people are walking around with a high degree of anxiety. People can have anxiety in relationships, they can have anxiety about safety, right, that turns into hyper-vigilance about what somebody else is doing or not doing. And the core feature of anxiety is really not feeling safe. Feeling like something bad may happen unless they take action to prevent it, a.k.a. control the situation. So, there are many things, as we all know, that can lead to anxiety. There are such things as genetically inherited predispositions towards mood disorders. Somebody cannot have had any life experiences that were adverse, and yet still be walking around a lot of the time in a state of heightened anxiety where they really do not feel good.
They have a lot of tension. They startle easily, they have trouble falling asleep, they can have heart palpitations, be trembly, but also a ton of future-oriented thinking where they are going far into the future to imagine possible dangerous things, possible problems that could happen. And because we are so good at envisioning things with our powerful and creative brains, especially very smart, intelligent, creative people can visualize all kinds of stuff somewhere out there in the future and scare the heck out of themselves. And it turns into this feedback loop because, unfortunately, the part of your brain that feels feelings cannot tell the difference between things you are thinking about and things that are actually happening.
If you are thinking about potential problems and scary things somewhere in the future, your emotional brain will react to that in exactly the same way if it were really happening. And so you will experience all those anxious feelings and it's hard. And I've done other podcast episodes on the subject of anxiety in its own right and have some advice about how to get out of that, that feedback loop because when you're experiencing anxiety, emotionally, and physiologically, it makes your brain cognitively be more hyper-vigilant for danger. So it can be really difficult to get out of that loop.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy can be very effective and sometimes medications need to be involved and that is okay, too. Check out past podcasts about anxiety management, if you'd like to learn more about that. But irregardless of whether or not a mood disorder is at the root of anxiety in terms of the cause, there can be a lot of other reasons why people feel sort of fundamentally anxious in the world and why it can translate into controlling behaviors.
Past trauma can often lead to hypervigilance. Trauma could be relational trauma, or when somebody's lived through a really scary thing. There's big T traumas, there's little T traumas, but it all leaves a mark, you know, and one of the key features of trauma is hyper vigilance, and a need to control things and to seek safety. So people who have been traumatized don't feel safe. So they're always like trying to make sure that they're safe, and much of it can can turn into controlling their environment controlling themselves or controlling other people. For example, if somebody has a lot of attachment trauma, like real deal attachment trauma — would refer you back to my recent podcast episode about attachment styles and relationships to learn more about that.
Somebody who has like a very, very anxious attachment style, will have a lot of fear of abandonment in relationships will have a high degree for people to do things in order to help them feel safe in relationships, and they won't feel safe anyway, but they try — God bless them. What that often looks like is a lot of controlling behaviors, trying to control their romantic partner. And in sometimes doing testing, pushing people away, “Are you going to leave me? How about now? What if I do this?” That can be problematic, obviously. But in these kinds of relational control situations, people may have a story, even a subconscious story, about if their partner really loved them, then they would do XYZ, and if they did XYZ, then I would feel safe, and I would feel loved, and I would feel better.
“I really need them to do this thing.” And that's where a lot of the controlling behaviors can come from with that. Again, some of this is fairly garden variety and somebody who has an anxious attachment style, this will always come up at the very far extremes. Somebody with a very problematically anxious attachment style. This is what creates abusive relationships. So when domestic violence is actually happening, it's because of these attachments, insecurities, and then it turns into trying to control or punish a partner in order to maintain your, quote, safety, ironically, in the relationship. Again, beyond the scope of this episode, but just wanted to throw that little fun fact out there.
Control, Anxiety, and Personality Types
Anyway, it is also true that sometimes this anxiety and controlling tendencies can be related to personality types, believe it or not. In my psychologist training, did a lot of have education and experience around formal psychological testing, which is often related to, you know, identifying psychopathology and sort of broad personality traits. And I'm actually, though, over the years I have, I have become a big fan of some of the more like pop psychology commercially available personality assessment tools that are out there.
Not so much the Myer-Briggs, I think it can be so general, it's not as useful. But the Enneagram I don’t know if you've heard of the Enneagram, but that is a really fun one because I think it does actually pick up on broad personality traits. So introversion, extraversion, conscientiousness, neuroticism, those kinds of traits and pulls it into, I think it's probably nine different main personality types. Each one having sort of a spectrum of here's what this personality type looks like when it's really healthy and functioning well. And here's what this personality type looks like, on the other end of the spectrum for somebody who isn't actually doing that well, which can be really useful. But psychometrics aside, I think there are fundamentally some personality types that in absence of psychopathology, do just sort of have a higher need for things like order, security, and tend to have more controlling tendencies.
A type one personality of Enneagrams, that sort of has very well-defined ways that things should be, and a function of personality, this can also be a function of family culture. If you grew up in a family that had very strong opinions about the correct way to do certain things, then you are now walking through the world, whether you know it or not, with this little mental yardstick that you're holding and holding up that yardstick to what other people are doing and that is incorrect. And that can feel to them, like criticism or efforts to control them. “That's not how you load a dishwasher” can feel very controlling to other people. But when you have just grown up in a culture where that was instilled in you, you can be doing that to other people and not even realizing that you're doing it because in your mind, you're just trying to be helpful.
That is one other reason why controlling behaviors can sort of happen in the absence of anxiety, although even then still, like, something bad could happen if the dishwasher gets loaded that way, so I need to intercede, right? And really, it's non-conscious, right? But it's this, something's wrong.
Enneagram type sixes are very sort of security-minded, can also get kind of controlling about the way things are done but it's sort of has a different reason why. But that can be interesting to explore if you're interested in checking out the Enneagram. I think it's like 12 bucks to take the full test if you're curious. Again, personality styles, anxiety, trauma, culture, family of origin can make people less tolerant of differences sometimes. And it's also very subtle, I mean, it comes up commonly in relationships, where we all have non-conscious expectations, and then kind of internal programming around the right way to do things or how things should behave.
Sometimes when other people are not behaving correctly, according to our definition, it can be upsetting, and we can seek to rectify the situation by helping other people do things the right way, can't we? Alright. Also, interestingly, people who have ADHD can lack a filter. As you may know, if you or someone you love has ADHD. But what this can look like, is this impulsiveness that can extend to other people. If somebody with ADHD, who is not actively managing it will often have a thought in their head that immediately translates into we should do this and will often say that out loud or want somebody to do whatever they're thinking about right in that moment that is they're not trying to be controlling at all. They're not intentionally doing anything at all. They had a thought now it's coming out of their mouth, but again, it can be experienced as controlling to other people because it can come across as being very intrusive.
Controlling and Codependence
If not somebody really wants us to all do this one thing that wasn't the plan previously. Okay. And then very lastly, and this is actually oftentimes related to trauma is the idea of codependent relationships. I have also discussed codependent relationships on past podcasts but briefly a codependent relationship dynamic is where one partner can't really be okay, unless their partner is okay or functioning in the way that they think their partner should be functioning. And so this can often manifest in very controlling behaviors. Classic codependence comes up in relationships where maybe somebody is struggling with a substance abuse problem. You have the partner with the problem and then you have the codependent partner who is trying to manage the partner with a problem, which generally involves getting the partner with a problem to show up places on time or go to meetings, or did you go to the appointment, or did you call your sponsor have you drunk today — trying to maintain safety. A lot of anxiety happening there.
You can also see codependent relationship dynamics happening when either one person comes into that relationship with very strong opinions about what should be happening and if their partner isn't doing it, they're like, “Oh, I need to make them do it.” Or sometimes if the codependent aka controlling partner has had a parent or family member where they maybe the parent had a substance problem, or where the person was in a parentalfide kind of role in their family of origin. They feel like they need to help and fix and take care of people and manage people's emotions. And so you'll often see them kind of interceding and trying to control if not the behaviors and sometimes even the emotions of their partner is a function of that codependent relationship dynamic.
Anyway, lots of really interesting stuff under the surface. Whenever controlling behaviors are present, I would invite you to think beyond what's happening in the moment and get curious about the inner experience of the person who is engaging in said controlling behavior because there's always a “why”. There's always a why and when you can understand what that is, even if the controlling behavior itself isn't all that different, because of your understanding, and the empathy I think that often comes with understanding the compassion that you can feel for someone by understanding where that anxiety is coming from, or where that drive to help or fix or protect comes from, or even just the fact that they were trained this way by their family. I think it can just add so much compassion to these moments where it changes.
It changes your story. I think about what is happening, you know, it changes a story from “I am being persecuted and victimized by this person who is trying to control me” to a sort of softer “Oh, they feel anxious right now,” or “Yeah, you know, it makes sense why they would behave that way, based on what happened to them?” Or “Yeah, I guess they were raised that way.” Or even like my story that I shared at the very beginning, I was very much alone, like all alone, for — I don't know, the first 10 years of my experience in private practice. And so I think having that be my reality, it sort of trained my brain to figure out, “Oh, what am I going to do? How am I going to solve this problem? What needs to happen next? What —” And it was very functional in that space of being an independent operator, because I really — I needed to be I didn't have anybody else, right?
Then, you know, to be in a different life circumstance, I had to reprogram myself and be like, “Okay, I don't have to do that anymore. I can trust other people to do things. I don't have to do everything.” If I don't know everything that is going on all the time, chances are, it's going to be okay. Because I'm surrounded by smart people who I can trust to do things well and to make good decisions. But like, I have to talk myself through that. But if you didn't know that about me, in the beginning, you might be like, “Why is she asking me if I've done this thing? Of course, I've done this thing, it's like, “How dare she suggest that I would forget to do that thing.”
I think when you understand where it comes from, there can be more empathy. I try not to ask anymore, I can't always restrain myself, but I try. Now, those are kind of garden variety controlling situations. And I think that those are, believe it or not fairly easy to manage, in relationships. These are not just solvable problems, they are often growth moments for relationships. There's a lot that can be done to improve this and to really not just have the behaviors be different, but really turn the relationship into a vehicle for insight, and mutual understanding and growth for all involved. And we're going to talk about that in a second.
Narcissism in Controlling Behavior
Though, before we do, I do just want to mention that there is such a thing as those malignant controllers. People who it would be inadvisable to try to do growth work with and those would be an attachment issue that is showing up in the abusive relational dynamics that we were talking about earlier in this conversation. You need help, if you're in that situation, check out thehotline.org. Educate yourself about it being able to understand what's happening is often the first step and being able to protect yourself or your kids. Do not try to change them, do not try to heal them, get to safety and then figure out the other stuff. So there's that.
It is also true, that people who are true malignant narcissists can often have very controlling tendencies and are also not going to change through relational components. The wounds run very deep here. There is a difference between true malignant narcissists and what I think of as baby narcissists and you can check out a past podcast episode around I think I called it “So You're in Love with a Narcissist?” or something like that. Anyway, to learn more about how to tell the difference between a real narcissist and a baby narcissist.
When somebody has real deal narcissistic tendencies, there's often a lot of controlling behaviors, that can easily turn into abusive relationship dynamics because they need you to behave a certain way in order to maintain their own stable sense of self. And if you do not do that reflect back the self-image that they need you to reflect back to them. If you are not appropriately compliant or pleasing, there can be hell to pay and sometimes you know it. And I think there are also commonly narcissistic features and really abusive relationships where truly bad stuff is happening. Not all narcissists are abusive in the sense of hiding the keys to the car and locking you in the bathroom, and harming you physically. But they will punish you in very real and sometimes dramatic ways for failure to comply.
Again, if that is happening in your relationship, don't tangle with it. Get professional help, to figure out what's going on and to create a plan for safety. Because having heart-to-heart talks is not going to change this dynamic. And I think one of the reasons why people often stay in abusive relationships longer than they should, is because of that myth that “They can change. I can heal them with my love. We can have these super serious heart-to-heart talks, and they'll understand.” Don't tell yourself that story, please, please get help. And please keep yourself safe. Assuming there is nothing like that happening in your life.
How to Deal with Controlling People
Now we can turn our attention to how to deal with controlling people in your life who are annoying, but harmless, generally speaking, annoying but harmless controlling people. First of all, it's really normal and natural to have an angry reaction to somebody who's trying to assert inappropriate control over you. You might feel insulted or condescended to, like they're implying that you're incompetent and that doesn't feel good. Sometimes you can second guess yourself if you feel like somebody's being controlling but “Are they? Am I overreacting?” And it can show up especially in like inconsequential situations, like somebody's trying to get you to agree about who serves the best pizza in town and this is what we should have for dinner because blah, blah, blah. But when it feels like bigger to you, it's not about the topic. It's not about the pizza. It's not about the facts. It's about these subtle power and control dynamics, that if you are being yourself, meaning different than how the controller wants you to be, it's creating a problem in the relationship.
Just pay attention to those kinds of subtle undercurrents in your interactions and understand that this is primal stuff. These things go deep, it's related to those attachment kind of drives that we've talked about in previous conversations. Humans have a fundamental need to be collaborative to be part of a stable group and if every interaction feels like a new fight, it feels unstable, it feels unsafe and it feels like you have to comply in order to maintain a peaceful relationship and that is not good for you. I have talked more about this in people pleasing episodes and your power and not — no, that was people-pleasing and passive aggressive people can definitely come up here. And it is also true and something to be aware of that if you have a life history of perhaps a parent who had really controlling tendencies or intrusive, was sort of more focused on their goals than yours. It is also true that you can experience people in your life as being controlling, when they're not trying to be controlling, that is not their intention there, they would actually be just fine.
If you had a difference of opinion, or what did you do something the other way, everything is not a huge giant power struggle. But because you had so many of those early life experiences consistently, you might feel like you're being controlled, when you're just being in a relationship with another person, who also has opinions that are sometimes different than yours. If you notice that pattern, like if you — well, I mean, it can go both ways. If you can think back in your relationship history and have a long string of relationships with friends, or romantic partners, who were all controlling in some way or another bosses who were inappropriately controlling, that is a sign that you may be primed and have a tendency to perceive threat in that situation and that will be something to work on. Totally okay.
It is important to work on it because if you experience people as having like lots of power and control stuff going on, it can lead to like people pleasing behaviors in you, where you feel unsafe to assert yourself in, in like, healthy relational ways. You're not talking about how you're feeling, you're not checking things out. You're not asserting yourself, or pushing back until you have a lot of feelings about it and then it is actually a big thing. So just just be aware of that. I've seen that happen frequently, so just stick a flag there. And if you sort it out that it is not your stuff it is actually specific to this person who is being inappropriately controlling or intrusive with you, there are a number of different of different ways of handling it. But the best way is to begin with empathy.
Core assumption here is that whoever is being weird and controlling is doing so from a place of usually anxiety puts you in the mental and emotional mindset to have a productive, helpful conversation with them. And then once you're in that space, it's time to take an emotional risk, and try to have an emotionally honest conversation with a person who's feeling inappropriate. It's important to remember that people who are behaving in controlling ways are almost never conscious that they are being controlling their experience is that they are being proactive, they are being thoughtful, they are being responsible, they're being helpful, they are doing the right thing, they are helping you understand something that you don't know, and that you would benefit from knowing right. The intentions are almost always good. They're keeping you safe. They're keeping themselves safe. And so that's their narrative.
Just to understand that they themselves aren't aware that you're feeling the way that you're feeling unless you tell them and they will probably be surprised when you do say “I'm not feeling good right now.” Because that like “Well, I'm trying to help, right.” So understand that you don't probably have the full picture of where they're coming from and they probably don't have a full picture of their own motivations. I mean, it takes a lot of intentional personal growth work to dredge all this stuff up and figure out like, “Yes, I do feel anxious in these situations, because of XYZ. This makes perfect sense.” Like, it takes a long time to get to that place and understand, “Oh, when I'm feeling this way, I need to not do that thing and do this thing instead.” That is that is a hard won victory. People have to earn that snd it takes time and it takes work to do that.
Working with a good therapist can help you get there. But by beginning to have that conversation and not accusing people of doing certain things that say “I wonder if this situation is stressing you out or if you're worrying about something right now. Tell me more about how you're feeling.” That can be one way to crack into it and to have a really good conversation with somebody that you love. I mean, assuming that this is a relationship where it's important enough to invest that kind of effort in. You're not going to do that with everybody but for people that you care about, it's worth asking. Hopefully, the person that you care about will be able to have an honest conversation with you, that will help them gain awareness of how they're coming across, and maybe even gain awareness of how they're feeling. And it can be a really positive growth moment that can be beneficial for both of you.
Not Having The Conversation
Just remember that even though having these kinds of conversations can feel hard, it takes a lot of courage to do that. The alternative is to not have that conversation. And when we don't have those conversations, we then must assume that this person is going to keep being controlling and inappropriate. Sometimes it can feel like we're protecting a relationship, when we avoid having those hard conversations. It is actually harming your relationship to not have those conversations. Because if you're not talking about how you feel, and what's going on, the person that you're having the problem with will not know and will not have the opportunity to address it or improve it.
If you're not talking about it, your only option is then to withdraw from the relationship, because it's not going to change. More on people pleasing and passive aggressive people in previous episodes. If any of this sounded interesting to you, I hope you check out those past topics. Now, assuming that you were brave and courageous, and emotionally safe, and communicated your feelings honestly, and with empathy, and well, and someone shuts you down, and is like, “Nope, I am not having this conversation with you, you are wrong, incorrect.” No, then you tried and what you're left with. Again, you want to maintain the relationship and you don't have to. I mean, if somebody is unwilling to acknowledge your perspective and have real conversations with you about the relationship, you can withdraw, it's fine.
Door number two, if it is a relationship that you want to maintain, while also releasing the hope that the person will behave differently, your other choice is to set and hold boundaries. You can still have empathy for their feelings and understand why a person is behaving the way they are, but has limits over the extent to which they can actually control you. Appeasing people and just going on with things can be tempting, particularly if you're on the passive side. But again, it doesn't work. It damages the relationship because it damages your emotional safety in the relationship. And so short-term, you avoid a fight. Long-term, it is not good for the relationship. And it also I hate to use the word — oh, what is the word — enabling it can enable controlling behavior, if you're kind of going along with things and not saying anything about it.
Setting Healthy Boundaries
It's like an absent type of enabling, you're not providing a controlling person with enough feedback to know if it's a problem or not. But it is your responsibility to set healthy boundaries for yourself whether or not somebody else is willing to go along with that. Remember, you are setting and maintaining boundaries, not expecting that the other person is going to change just because you have decided on a boundary. Otherwise, you'd be controlling them wouldn't you be? Healthy boundaries means deciding in advance how you are going to respond in different situations and then communicating that to somebody else. So to say, “I don't like it when you XYZ. I've tried to tell you how I feel about this, but it seems like we can't have that conversation. So the next time I come over to your house, and you have a blind date, a guy that you like there waiting to meet me, when I find out that that's happened, I'm going to leave. And so I'm just going to tell you about this ahead of time, so you can be prepared, and just know how I'm going to handle the situation.”
There we go. You're communicating what those boundaries are and it could be removing yourself from the situation, it could be, you know, “I am not having this conversation with you. And so we can either talk about something different, or we can end this get-together, and I'm just going to go home.” Your boundaries, prevent people's being able to aggress against you, essentially, or control you. And so, to have healthy boundaries means having a lot of confidence in yourself, and knowing that it is okay for you to have those boundaries and to hold them whether or not somebody else complies and also whether or not somebody else likes it. Part of having healthy boundaries is getting comfy with other people being upset because of your boundaries. And this isn't a bad thing, it's a good thing.
You can check out past podcast episodes on this topic, if you're interested in learning more about that. And very lastly, so I think that with a lot of this, we have been talking about controlling behavior, I think as it extends to sort of friends, family members, parents, siblings, probably to a degree, a partner. But I would also say that if it is difficult to have meaningful and productive conversations, about controlling behaviors with your partner, and if there is like codependent stuff going on, or like a lot of relationship, anxiety and demands going on. Or a inability to make space for a co-created reality, like getting married and moving in and having a home together, it is now your shared home. And one person does not get to decide how we do all the things and the correct way to slice a tomato or whatever like that. We have to make space for each other.
If that is really difficult to do in your primary relationship, that is a very good indication that you might need mediation. To get in front of a good marriage counselor, couples therapist, who specializes in couples and family therapy, remembering that 95 plus percent of therapists who provide couples counseling, do not have specialized training and experience in couples counseling. Scary but true. You want to look for a licensed marriage and family therapist who has specialized education, training, licensure. A lot of knowledge in these dynamics in particular, and be talking about it there. Because in a primary relationship, this stuff has to be resolved. If it isn't, it turns into emotional disconnect. It turns into resentment, it turns into grudges, it turns into avoidance, and all kinds of weird and unpleasant emotional things can happen in that space when controlling behaviors are occurring.
You can't resolve them productively together. So get do get help. Okay, well, I hope this conversation about how to deal with control freaks was helpful and informative and gave you insight into the mind and heart of the control freak that you love or potentially into your own kind of way of being and how it may be experienced by others. You know, and no judgment we all have work to do and it's all good stuff. And I'm so glad that we can do it together here on The Love, Happiness and Success Podcast. Thank you so much for joining me today. Here is more Ski Patrol and Agent Orange to show us out and I'll see you next time another episode.
The last time you fought with someone you loved, who won?
If that sounds like a dumb question, that’s because it is. Our relationships with other people are the most valuable things we have. Without them, our lives have little meaning. So how can being correct, or getting our way, or tipping the balance of power and control in our direction, ever be worth the cost of damaging a connection with someone we care about?
The truth is, it can’t. But as a marriage counselor and a couples therapist, I know that it doesn’t always feel that way. Sometimes, the person you love the most feels like an enemy you need to defeat, rather than a partner on your team. And that can make having a healthy relationship really, really hard.
On today’s episode of the podcast, we’re exploring why that is, and how we can break free from the scared, immature parts of ourselves that keep us chasing hollow victories rather than opening up for deeper connections. My guest is Terry Real, an internationally recognized marriage and family therapist, author, and founder of the Relational Life Institute. In his new book, “Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship,” Terry offers lessons on staying focused on the “we” and shedding the individualistic mindset that keeps us lonely, disconnected, and unhappy.
Getting Past You and Me with Terry Real: Episode Highlights
As human beings, we are born to connect. Feeling connected to others is what makes us happy and healthy, and what gives our lives meaning. But the way our culture values individual status and power over relationships makes it harder for all of us to connect with others. The focus on “me” that serves us so well at work and at school diminishes our capacity for empathy and connection when it creeps into our intimate relationships.
Everyone will tell you that relationships “take work,” but no one tells you exactly what that work entails. According to Terry Real, the real work of having better relationships is shedding the “me, me, me” mindset and embracing the “us,” which means valuing our connections with our partners more than being right, “winning,” or having control.
Staying in Your Wise, Adult Self
The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain where we do all of our conscious thinking. It’s where we coordinate our thoughts and actions to match up with our long-term goals — like creating a loving, healthy relationship with our partner.
But when something happens that causes us to feel threatened, we become emotionally flooded, and we lose access to that wise, adult part of ourselves. Stress hormones begin coursing through our bloodstreams, and we start operating from a deeper, older part of the brain whose only goal is self-preservation. All of our ideals about love, connection, and long-term partnership go out the window, and our focus narrows to “winning” at all costs.
So, when we’re fighting with our partner, concern becomes criticism becomes yelling becomes fleeing. We defend ourselves rather than really listening, and say hurtful things we’ll later regret. We might shut down and withdraw from the conversation entirely, or, if we tend to be a little codependent, try to “fix” whatever is “wrong” with our partner, rather than accepting them as they are in that moment.
This is what it’s like when we’re in the “wounded child” part of ourselves, where we tend to make knee-jerk decisions that feel good in the moment, but that are in no way worth it long-term. Staying in your wise, adult self means remembering that you and your partner are a team, and that if one of you loses, nobody wins. This shift will make a dramatic difference in your relationship. You will be able to be in the moment with your partner, validate their feelings, and show that you care, which will completely disrupt the conflict cycle.
The Toxic Culture of Individualism
Our relationships are our biospheres. We live inside of them. The idea that we can pollute our relationships while somehow living full, happy, healthy lives is a lie. But it’s a lie that our culture of individualism sells us, and many of us have bought into it.
When your partner is upset, they are in the “wounded child” part of themselves, and they’re reaching out for connection or reassurance from you, even if it doesn’t look like it. If you respond by effectively swatting their hand away through defensiveness, you will do damage to your relationship. Your partner will lose their trust that you care about them and about their feelings. They will feel less emotionally safe with you. If this becomes a pattern, you’ll become increasingly disconnected until your relationship eventually fails.
To have a healthy relationship, you do need to stand up for yourself from time to time. Not being able to do that creates its own problems. But when you or your partner are angry or hurting, standing up for yourself should not be the priority. In these moments, ditch the individual mindset and get focused on the “us.” Show compassionate curiosity for your partner’s experience, and trade in your defensiveness for empathy.
Nothing damages the “us” like power imbalances, which often fall along gender lines for heterosexual couples. But the answer to power imbalance is not power struggle, or for women to wrest control from their male partners and begin calling all the shots. Both men and women need to lean into the “soft power” of collectivism, the kind of power we normally associate with femininity.
Getting Past You and Me: Episode Show Notes
[02:49] Terry Real’s Story
Terry is the child of a depressed, violent father who is the son of a depressed, violent father.
He takes pride that his children grew up with a father who is not depressed and violent.
He entered the field of psychotherapy to cure himself.
[04:41] Humans Need Connection
Terry repeated patterns that he grew up with and it did not work out well for his relationships.
His wife, Belinda, also experienced a difficult home life as a child.
The state of connection is what we human beings are born for and is the only thing that truly makes us happy.
[14:53] The Whoosh
“The Whoosh” is a reaction you have during conflict in relationships.
Terry enumerated three ways we behave in conflict, namely, the fighter, the fleer, and the fixer.
It takes practice to contain your feelings and process them, rather than reacting in a way that damages relationships.
[20:37] The Toxic Culture of Individualism
Terry says that the toxic culture of individualism ruins relationships and puts them under consistent conflict.
Once you are able to turn the “me me me me” mindset to an emphasis on “us,” that is when you see progress.
He also says that our culture is rooted in patriarchy, which creates disconnection and disempowerment in relationships between men and women.
[30:29] Soft and Loving Power
Terry asserts that you can take care of yourself and cherish your relationship at the same time.
Sometimes what you demand from your relationship is not actually what you need.
[38:26] Male Depression
Terry explains that male depression often stems from the expectations set on both men and women, set by the patriarchy.
The patriarchy has made it an expectation for men to not show emotion or even feel them.
Music in this episode is by Jenny Wood with their song “The Pearl.”
You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://milescramer-nashville.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.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: I'm so excited for this episode of the podcast because, today, we're covering a topic that is dear to my heart, which is how you and your partner can build a more connected and loving relationship, where you both get to be part of something that is bigger than just yourself. As you know, I am a marriage and family therapist. Naturally, I am obsessed with relationship systems and I know how easy it is for all of us to get caught up in what we need or want, and thinking about what they did or didn't do, or who said what. And it is difficult sometimes to get that big picture perspective to see how we are both doing a complex dance together, that creates the relationship as a whole.
When we are able to do that and understand how we're each contributing to the way we both feel, we can usually see that our partners actions actually do make a lot of sense. We can have empathy for them, compassion for them. And that is what empowers us to change things on our side of the equation, to make the relationship positive for both of us. These are our big ideas and it's talking about how we as individuals work together to create a positive experience. And joining me for this conversation today is a true expert on the building of better relationships.
My guest is Terry Real, he is an internationally-recognized family therapist. He is a speaker and author. He's the founder of the Relational Life Institute or RLI. He wrote the book on male depression called I Don't Want to Talk About It — sound familiar to anyone? He is the marriage counselor Esther Perel turns to, and Bruce Springsteen and Bradley Cooper are among his clients and fans. And today, he's here to talk to us about his wisdom and insight. And particularly, the things that he put together for you in his new book called Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship.
In it, he talks a lot about how individualism and patriarchy essentially poison our most intimate relationships. He also has good news, that warmer, closer, and more passionate relationships are possible if you have the right tools. And that's what Terry is going to be talking about with us today. So I'm so excited about this. And Terry, thank you so much for joining me here today. This is a real pleasure.
Terry Real: Oh, thank you. It's a great joy to be here with you.
Terry Real’s Story
Lisa: Thank you. And so, hey, to start, I always like to enter these conversations by talking about you a little bit. I'm just so curious. I mean, clearly, these issues are your passion, right? I mean, you've put so much of yourself into this. And I'm always curious to know, I mean, what drew you to this work, and marriage and family therapy in particular? Do you mind sharing a little bit about your story?
Terry: No, I don't mind at all. I like to say I started my practice as a family therapist at about the age of four.
Lisa: Didn't we all, Terry?
Terry: For those of you who have read my first book, I Don't Want to Talk About It, which is about 1/3 autobiographical, I talked about my own relationship with my depressed, violent father, and my own depression that I — and trauma that I had to work through. I grew up in a pretty dysfunctional family. I like to say, Lisa, that I am the son of a depressed, angry father, who was the son of a depressed, angry father. And I have two boys now all grown in their 30s. And they do not say that. And the fact that they do not say that is one of the great achievements in my life.
I talk to people about breaking the legacy, changing the multi-generational legacy that was passed on to you and handing to your kids a different future than the one that was handed to you as being one of life's great works. There's an old saying: Therapists are people who need to be in therapy 40 hours a week.
Lisa: Feeling seen right now, Terry.
Connection as Human Beings
Terry: I went into the field of psychotherapy, I think, in order to heal myself and have the conversation with my dad that I needed to have with him in order to not become him, and I did that. And then I went from individual therapy and family therapy and couples therapy to figure out how in the world to have a relationship. And I had to literally make this my profession in order to figure out how to get it done. I've been married 37 years to the wonderful family therapist, Belinda Berman-Real. And one of the distinguishing characteristics about relational life therapy, the work I've created, RLT, is that we don't hide behind a professional mask of neutrality. We're more like 12 step-sponsors than traditional therapists.
We talked about our own journey. And I will say to a couple I'm working with, “Hey, look, if you come from a dysfunctional culture, so do I. And if you come from a dysfunctional family, so did I. And the skills I'm teaching you to use today are the same skills I use in my marriage every day. And on those days when either Belinda or I choose to indulge and not use those skills, we look just as ugly as you two.” But I also say, “If we can do it, you can do it.” And Belinda also comes from a really tough background, a lot of violence and trauma in her background, as is mine.
In a way, we're blessed because people from more “normal families”, if they just did what came naturally to them, if they just did the defaults they learned as kids, they might be able to get by. I'm not saying they’ll be happy, but they’ll be okay. But what we learned as kids was so destructive that if we just repeated the patterns we grew up with, it was going to be a disaster. And so both Belinda and I are what like Belinda likes to call “retreads”, like a tire that's been retreaded. We’re constructed human beings.
One of the things I say is I'm in the personality transplant business. People come to couples therapists, they say, “Oh, I want better communication.” Bullshit, you want a different partner on the other end of the seesaw. You want a more relational, a human being to deal with. And couples therapists routinely shy away from being that ambitious, but in RLT we don't. We transform who people are. And I think the book Us is a very ambitious book. And I literally have as my goal to transform the life of the reader. And what that means is teaching people how to live truly relational lives, lives that are connected to themselves and to those around them, as opposed to lives that are disconnected from yourself and from those around you.
I think that the state of connection is what we human beings are born for — is the only thing that makes us happy. It makes us physically healthy. It’s as important as intimacy, it’s as important as not smoking, or exercise for our bodies. It is the Pearl of Great Price — that is the thing that you can sell all your worldly possessions for in order to achieve. And I speak about what I call “relational joy”. The deep-down pleasure of just being with people you love and feeling that connection. And I believe that relational joy is what we're all craving.
Leave, for example, that intimacy is the cure for addiction. That we self-medicate — when we self-medicate, it’s the pain of not being authentically connected and that bringing the patients that I work with and readers who are reading this book into a state of honest connection. First, of themselves — “What am I feeling?” was one of my physical sensations. “What do I really want?” And then to the people around them. This is the great blessing of our life. It is what cures our ills and it does it better than anything else on the planet.
Lisa: Amen, brother. I love it. No, the gospel of connection and attachment. It really — it is why we're here. And I also love the personal kind of humbleness you are bringing to this mission. I think it's so easy for people, particularly those who have attained the status that you have, is to be “other”. Like, “I have arrived. I know all these things.” And what I hear you saying is, “This is the fight we're all in,” and using that growth, experience, and walking through the fire yourself, really, and then being able to go back and get other people, too, and help them do their work, and on very deep levels. And I love what you're saying, that the Pearl of Great Price. That's just so beautiful in that it's treasure, but you have to earn it.
Terry: You have to earn it! This isn’t more money. This has to be — and maybe I can talk a little bit about what that is. It's funny, everybody and and their brother will tell you that relationships take work, right, but nobody tells you what it is.
Lisa: That's, yeah, that's the hard part.
Terry: After 30-plus years in this business, I have a huge collection of New Yorker cartoons on relationships. And there's a great one with these two middle-aged couples facing each other with cocktails in their hands. And the caption reads, “Now this work on your relationship, are you doing it or having it done?”
Lisa: Can I pay somebody?
Terry: I’d pay somebody if I could, but I want your listeners to get that the work of relationship is not day-by-day. The work of a relationship is minute-to-minute. In this minute, right now, particularly in this heated moment when I'm triggered, am I going to do my same old-same old knee-jerk response? Yell, scream, stonewall, placate, whatever my automatic response is. Am I going to go through Door A the way I've gone 90 million times? Or in this moment, am I going to take a breath, count to 10, take a break — I'm a big fan of breaks — take a walk around the block, splash water on my face, have a little chat with little Terry, put him on my lap and talk to him?
Am I going to do the work either standing there, or in a break to recollect myself so that I can choose a different response? One of my patients talks about the tyranny of a million small decisions. And what I want to say is they're not really decisions, they're automatic responses. And in the book, of course, I go into that in a backbreaking way — but I think interesting — into the neurobiology of it.
Lisa: So important.
Terry: The automatic nervous system scans the body four times a second. Am I safe? Am I safe? Am I safe? Am I safe?” And if the answer is, “Yes, I feel safe,” then we stay seated in the mature part of ourselves. Neurobiologically, it’s the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that develops last in all of us as kids, the part of the brain that came last to us as a species. It’s this thinking, deliberate, here and now, non-triggered, centered — I call it the “wise adult” part of us. Or, “Have I been triggered? Am I flooded?” And I once heard the great Dr. Gabor Matthay saying, “You rarely see the wound, you see the scar.”
If you're triggered, way down deep, you may be flooded with what I call the “wounded child” part. Very young, the part of you that just experienced it. Very young and usually overwhelmed. But between this early child part and the present-based wise adult part is a part that I call the “adaptive child” part of us. And this adaptive child part of us is the you that you cobbled together in those moments in the absence of healthy parenting. It’s a kid's version of what an adult looks like. And the hallmark of the adaptive child part of us isn't as automatic — it’s knee-jerk.
I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I have three basics for the adaptive child part of us. Fight — screw me, screw you. I'm a fighter, believe me, I’m a fighter. Flee — stone wall, shut down, get out of here. And you can flee while sitting six inches away from somebody, that's called stonewalling. Boom, the drawbridge drops. Or fix, which is an interesting one for therapists and women in particular.
Lisa: I totally do that, Terry.
Terry: Yeah, that co-dependent thing. You're upset. I have this compulsive need to get rid of you're upset so that I'm not upset. That is not a mature person working on a relationship. It's a little child who's scared — needs to take the badness away. So, listeners, right now, take a moment and out yourself to yourself. Are you a fighter? Are you a fleer? Or are you a fixer? This has everything to do with your role in your family growing up as a child. Now, that's your knee-jerk. I come home after five days on the road, back when the kids were little, and Belinda is a fighter who also has a full-time private practice, I've been stuck with these little kids for five days a week. And I would come home to a wall of self-righteous indignation, “I can't believe it, you leave me with these kids.” And I thought, Lisa, about what I call whoosh. It's like a wave comes up from the feet. Whoosh.
Your whoosh might be to fix, somebody else's whoosh might be to flee, mine is to fight. Belinda hits me with anger, I get anger. And I like to say what my body wants to do in that moment, bop her in the nose. But being a feminist and educated man, I would relegate myself to verbal abuse. “I can't believe I have to put up with this bullshit from you. I just got home. I just spent five days teaching people how to love each other and I come home to this crap.” And it would be anger meets anger and we'd be off to the races.
Then I started doing this work. I call it relational recovery, not a victim’s recovery, but recovery of that state of connection. And literally, that whoosh would come over me. Every muscle in my body would be screaming to fight and a voice would cut in. And here's what it would say, “Terry, shut up.” That's called a containing boundary. Breathe. We do a lot of breathing in relational work. Breathe into your heart, breathe yourself down from this anchor. Belinda is having a bad day. You don't have to make her bad day, your day. Have a boundary.
Now, from this centered place, talk to your wife, “Honey, I'm sorry, I know you're overwhelmed with the kids. You put your feet up, let me pour your glass of wine. I’ll put the kids to bed and then we'll talk.” That is a moment of grace, that is a moment of health and recovery. And what it is — and this is what the whole book’s about — is the art and practice — and boy, it takes practice — of when you're in that heated moment, taking a breath or thirty and cultivating the muscle of shifting out of that automatic, defensive move into something observational, mature, loving, skilled. I call it relational mindfulness. You attend to the thoughts and feelings that are washing over you. You don't try to control them, but you don't go off with them, either. And it gets yourself — I call it remembering love, that you remember the person that you're talking to is not the enemy, that you love them.
You see, what happens is when we scan our body, “Am I safe? Am I safe?” and it comes out, “No,” we lose that wise adult. We lose the prefrontal cortex, and more primitive parts of the brain, limbic system and amygdala, get stimulated. And that part of the brain does not know about relationship. That part of the brain is you and me, win-lose power, struggle, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me. And the art of this work is coming out of that, me, me, me, me, me back into the remembrance of the “us”. We're a team. And once you remember the us, everything changes. When you think relationally, which is remembering the us, for example, if one of you wins and the other one loses, you both lose, not because of some pie in the sky idealism, but because the loser will make the winner pay for it. Count on it.
Lisa: You’ve lost the pearl soon as you've done that. Yeah.
Terry: That's right. And you can be a bully and get your way in the short run, but you're poisoning the pond that you're in. One of the things that I say is, our relationships are our biospheres; they are what we live inside of. Now, some guy will say to me, “Oh, why should I work so hard to make my wife happy?” And I say, “Well, because you live with her.”
Lisa: I’m thinking of that old saying right now, Terry, and I'll say it more politely, but “don't crap where you sleep”. This is your home you're destroying, your biosphere, your ecosystem, when you make that choice in that moment.
Terry: That's right. And when we get triggered and we go on automatic, we forget that we're in our biosphere. The book is a critique of what I call the toxic culture of individualism.
The Toxic Culture of Individualism and Patriarchy
Lisa: I had wanted to hear more about that. That is a very interesting individualism. You talk about patriarchy and how that sort of influences. I'm fascinated by this.
Terry: Well, it has to do with our relationship to nature itself. And the essential delusion of individualism. And there's a chapter on the history of the idea of the individual — it has a history. The idea of the individual is basically the invention of a bunch of privileged white men, historically. And the delusion of individualism is that we stand apart from nature. That's what it means to be an individual, to be separate. And that fuses with patriarchy, an older tradition, that says not only are we apart from nature, but we control it, whether the nature we control is our partners, or our kids, or our bodies, “I've got to lose these 10 pounds,” or our thinking, “I've got to be less negative.”
The idea is that we stand above nature and we have power over it. God — in King James, anyway, the people who say it's not a good translation — God gives Adam dominion over all the things that walk on this earth — bad idea. We're not the lords and masters of anything. We are not above nature, we are in nature. And once we trade in the hubris, the grandiosity of walking on this earth as if we're gods and goddesses, and remembering that we're human beings inside the biosphere, not of it, and all of the things change.
For example, from this, I call it ecological wisdom or relational wisdom, once you remember that you're a team but question who's right and who's wrong, the answer to that is, who cares? It doesn't matter. What matters is how are you and I are going to work this issue out in a way that's going to work for both of us. We love each other. We're a team. Let's go. For example, something as concrete as a shift from, “I want more sex in our marriage,” to “Honey, we both deserve to have a good sex life. What do we need to do to resurrect this thing?” Two ways of saying the same thing, but one is about the “I” and the other is about the us.
The us is wiser, more loving, and works better. Not only does the book give you a new map, remembering the us, but once you have that us in your head, it kicks out a whole new repertoire of skills that I think work like a knife through butter.
Lisa: Oh, yeah. Well, I'm hearing like, how do you take care of that ecosystem? How do you create an environment of love and emotional safety, as opposed to fighting each other to try to get your needs met and working together to create that?
Terry: That's exactly right. I don't talk about altruism, I talk about enlightened self-interest. Happy spouse, happy house. I was assisting a couple yesterday. Can I tell you a story about it? I was just assisting a couple yesterday, and this is not unusual. Across the board, there's lots of variations, but in heterosexual couples, women carry the dissatisfaction because women want more intimacy than a great many men are socialized to be able to deliver, and so they're mad about it. This one was complaining about her husband's lack of closeness and he was reacting to her criticism and complaints. I don't know if you've ever run across this in your life, but —
Lisa: Maybe once, I don't know.
Terry: I told him this — and this is something for your listeners if they get nothing from the rest of the day — when your partner comes to you in a state of upset, wake up. Keep your wits about you. You have one goal, which is to help them come into a state of closeness with you. If they're upset, your job is to do what you can to help them be less upset. Why? Because you live with them, you fool. Because, how do you want to spend your evening? It's in your interest to help them out. Now, this is a one-way street, everybody gets this wrong. This is not a dialogue. This is not a conversation. If your partner's upset, by and large, you don't say, “Well, I'm upset about —” bad idea.
“Honey, I'm sorry you feel bad. What can I do to help you feel better?” Just that one thing will unlock so many fights in couples. What we do when our partner is upset is, our first reference point is objective reality. “Well, that's true. But that's not true. Well, that's partly true. Well, yeah, that's true, but you have to understand that.” In our head, rebutting, whether we say it out of our mouths or not, we're not listening. And then the second reference that we have is ourselves, “I can't believe I have to listen to this again.”
What I teach people is, when you are faced with an upset partner, keep your eye on repair. Let go of objective reality. It has no place in personal life. We don't care. Let go of yourself. We don't care. And instead, show compassionate curiosity about your partner's subjective experience. “When you stepped on my toe the other day, I want you to know that I felt —” “I didn't step on your toe.” Forget it.
Lisa: Let me tell you what really happened.
Terry: Exactly. “When you stepped on my toe and go, ‘I'm sorry, honey, that sounds like that felt bad. Tell me more about it. Is there anything I could say or do that would help you feel better?’” Lose your ego and be kind to your upset partner. Just do that, those of you who are listening to this, just trade in your normal defensiveness for some kindness and empathy, and see if it doesn't unlock the pattern between the two of you.
Lisa: Absolutely. It's an opportunity for connection in any one of these moments. And I'll stand-in for one of our listeners for a second, because there's probably somebody listening to this right now and is like, “But then what about me? If I always trying to make things nice for them, what about me, Terry?” And I'm guessing that this is part of that central idea of your book, From Me to We, but I think that that's very instinctive for a lot of people. They feel like, “I'm giving more than they are. I'm trying harder. When am I going to get my needs met?” What do you say to that?
Terry: Well, you see, where you're at now, is you're looking at the big pattern. “I'm always. I'm never. He or she is giving less to me than I'm giving to them.” That is a macro-level viewpoint. You're looking at the general pattern of the relationship. There's a place for that. And if it's unbalanced, good — stand up for yourself, be assertive. I like that. That's also part of being related and connected. My pal Carol Gilligan says, “There's no voice without relationship and there's no relationship without voice.”
I want people to stand up for themselves. But don't do it when you're pissed off. Don’t jump — here's a little tip — don't jump from a micro-level disappointment to a macro-level analysis when you're heated. Don't do that from your adaptive child. Wait until you're back in your wise adult. You sit down, you can have come to Jesus with your partner and you can drag your partner to a couples therapist if you think there's a big asymmetry.
In this moment right now, is it really about you and the big pattern or is it about moving into repair in this moment? Do you really have to stand up for yourself at this particular moment because “he always, he never” — stay out of the level of trend and pattern and deal with this particular moment. But there is a place to stand up for yourself. But there's one of the big things I teach in the book, and this is particularly for women. Under patriarchy, you can either be connected or you can be powerful, but you can't be both at the same time.
Lisa: I've never heard it said that way. Under patriarchy, you can either be powerful or connected, but not both at the same time.
Soft and Loving Power
Terry: Right, because power is power over. Power is dominion. And once you step into power over, you break the connection. You can either be connected, accommodating, affiliative, “Okay, let's work this out, ”feminine”, or you can be assertive and “I need to speak my truth and the hell with you” — I'm going to say it this way — “masculine”, but you can't be both at the same time. Now, I'm about moving men and women and nonbinary people beyond the scriptures of patriarchy. What does that look like? I teach people the skill of what I call soft power or loving power.
When you move into loving power, you assert yourself and you cherish your partner in the same breath. And nobody does that. You have to learn how to do that. This culture doesn't teach people how to do that. So when women get fed up and they finally speak, quite often, they speak with the same lack of relational skill that men have always spoken with. “I don't give a damn. I am woman, hear me,” no, no, I want to move beyond that.
Lisa: Taking a sip of tea out of my nasty woman mug as we speak. He's not talking about me, though.
Terry: Listen is the difference between, saying to your partner, “I don't like how you're talking to me. Knock it off,” and saying to your partner, “Hey, honey, I want to hear what you have to say. Could you change your tone so I could listen to it?” Two ways of saying the same thing, but one is about me, me, me, me, me, and the other, even while you're asserting yourself, takes care and cherishes your partner. You can do both at the same time and that is new territory for us [incorrigible]. Being powerful and connected, all in the same breath.
Lisa: That's such a great concept. Because I think you're absolutely right. I mean, in a culture of patriarchy, I think what feminism often historically has turned into is, how do women occupy that patriarchal, powerful space? Do you know? And what you're talking about here is soft power. And so, because I think about, especially some couples really striving for more egalitarian relationships where there are shared roles. But just because we both do the dishes or look after the children, it doesn't really talk about how we are managing the power dynamics…
Terry: That's right.
Lisa: …in each each other. And so this is a wonderful roadmap, it sounds like, for helping people understand a radically new way of being, that the goal is connection, as opposed to dominion if I'm hearing this correctly.
Terry: The great feminist, Riane Eisler, The Chalice and The Blade, talks about power over versus power with, and this is about power with. I'll tell you a story. I like to tell this story about soft power. A young heterosexual couple in my office, typical, she wanted sex none of the time he wanted sex all the time, they were killing each other. Like any good therapist, I get them to talk about what sex means, not just who does what. And like a lot of men, unfortunately, this guy filtered a ton of emotional baggage through sex — he was lovable, they were okay, that she cared about him, blah, blah. We surface all that.
They come back two weeks later, they're beaming, and the woman says, “The sex thing, we got it.” And they did. They had other issues, but they nailed this one. She said, “After the session, about two days later, he comes up and he wants sex. And unlike what I would normally do, which is go to the other side of the room, I walked over to him and I gave him a big kiss. I look him in the eye and I say this, ‘Babe, the first thing I want you to know is I think you're really hot. I think you're so cute. You're so handsome. You're really a sexy guy. You're a nice man. You've got a big heart. You treat me like a million bucks. I just love — oh, by the way, I don't want to have sex tonight. I love you to pieces.’” And the guy, to his amazement, sounded like this, “Uh, okay.”
Lisa: I think you're saying that he got the real need met in that moment.
Terry: She was so loving and so cherishing that the “no” went down without a lot of fuss. And what I'm saying is, we can take care of ourselves and be cherishing of the relationship, both at the same time. When women move into power, quite often, they move from the disempowered, “feminine” side of the seesaw to the overly-empowered, “masculine” side of the seesaw. In family therapy, we talk about first and second-order change.
First-order change is rearranging the furniture. Second-order change is blowing the whole thing up. I want that seesaw gone, I want the division of masculine and feminine to be gone, and I want both men and women to move into cherishing power, where they can speak their truth and empower their partner, both at the same — One of the things I write about is the relational golden rule, I call it, is this, “Honey, what can I give you to help you come through for me?” It sounds like that.
Lisa: That collective —
Terry: “I want you to be more responsible, I want you to be more kind, I want you to be sexier, I want you to be more loving.” “Okay, you will, you're going to work on that? Great. Now, how can I help you?” Who says that? We're a team, let's work together to get this done. If you're with somebody who's completely irresponsible, or a bully, or refusing to be a team, fair enough. I understand that there are people who were raised that way. That means you drag the person into couples therapy and you get a couples therapist who will stand up for you, which most couples therapists won't, and really help you with that difficult person.
One of the things about the work I do, and all the people I've trained to call it relational life therapy, is we take sides. And when we see a power imbalance, we empower the disempowered partner and go after the grandiose partner. And most people won't do that. But if you're faced with somebody who ain't playing fair, that's a kick out to get some help, and get some help that really helps. I invite folks to my website, if you don't mind, terryreal.com. And we have the certified RLT therapists all over the country.
Lisa: Many of them, there are a number of people on our growing self team who have gone through your training and have had marvelous things to say about the experience, Terry, really.
Terry: Oh, thank you, I really appreciate. Hey, if you're a therapist listening to this and you want to get training, our doors are open. If you're part of a couple and you're pulling your hair out, we have therapists for you to turn to.
Lisa: That's so good to know. Because really, this is such a struggle. And I know we're coming up on the end of our time, but I actually have one other curious question. The things that we were talking about just a minute ago, moving into sort of a soft power and a collectivist orientation, but also what you were saying about that there can be kind of individual components that need to be dealt with sort of in a different way. And just going back to your earlier work for a moment. I mean, you wrote a seminal book about male depression. And I can't help but wonder if part of that, what we started talking about, particularly the experiences that — not to point the finger at men, necessarily — but what you've noticed about that being a component when it comes to things where it makes it difficult for people to do the things we're talking about today. That or trauma is a thing too. What would you do about that?
Terry: Yeah. Well, I deal with a lot of high-power guys, and they've lived most of their lives out of their adaptive child. And they're quite successful in the world and they make a hash of their personal lives. And often they're not very happy between their ears either. Their relationships with themselves isn't very good either. The reason for that is that our patriarchal culture mirrors the values of the adaptive child part of us. We don't live in a mature, relationship-cherishing culture. We live in a patriarchal, addictive, narcissistic culture.
A lot of these guys do well in the world but are miserable at home. I talk to them about their children? I talk to them about, what kind of legacy are you going to pass on to the next generation. Because a lot of these guys who will not do the work of reconfiguring for their “miserable wives”, and won't even do it for themselves, will spare their children. And I think this is heroic work for all of us. We don't raise boys and men — to this day, it’s changing some. The younger men are better. The younger the man, the freer he is, generally.
We don't raise boys and men to be relational. We still raise them by the old cloth of strength and independence and blah, blah, blah. The essence of traditional masculinity is invulnerability. The more invulnerable you are, the more manly you are. And the problem is, as Brene Brown has taught us, we humans connect through our vulnerabilities. You've got this boy who has the patriarchal system dumped on him at three, four, or five years old. Whether he wants it or not, learns to be tough, learn to stop expressing his feelings, learns to pretend to not be vulnerable. And he grows up to become a man and his partner, a man or woman, is saying, “I want to be close to you. What are you really feeling?” And it's like, “Screw you. I'm not feeling anything.”
I have to lead these men into the land of vulnerability. It’s good for you. It's good for your body, you will live longer. It’s good for your partner and it's absolutely essential for your child. Be a human. I talk to men about learning to become what I call family man. Real family man. That means opening your heart. Women by-and-large, feminism for 50 years has been dealing with the wound of women's disempowerment. Men are not disempowered. Men are often falsely empowered. The wound to men is disconnection. We disconnect them from their hearts. We disconnect them from others. We disconnect them from their feelings and from nature. And the healing move for men in our culture, in particular, is opening up their hearts, and opening up their ears, and learning how to listen without being defensive, and be big-hearted guys.
I talked about being strong, big-hearted men. It kills me when people who don't really know my work dismiss it by saying I'm trying to feminize men — bullshit. I'm not interested. I'm trying to make whole human beings out of our boys and girls. And I want smart, sexy, feminine women and I want strong, competent, big-hearted, sensitive men. It deserves to be whole on both sides.
Lisa: Well, and I'm hearing how that primary connection and the ability to do that heals, not just individuals and helps them become whole, but also helps the relationship too. I feel like we've kind of come full circle in that, is that what is good for us as individuals is also what creates that priceless pearl.
Terry: Belinda and I will look at each other in a particular moment. And it's a thing I mean, couples have their schtick. And we'll look at each other and in the current moment and smile and say to the other, “Honey, I just want to thank you for giving me this opportunity to work on myself.”
Lisa: I might try that one out, Terry. Oh, well. This has been such a delightful conversation. And on behalf of our listeners here today, thank you so much for being so generous in how much really helpful just information and ideas you shared with all of us today — it's wonderful stuff. And so you mentioned your website, terryreal.com. The new book is officially coming out.
Terry: June 7 Is the pub day. You can preorder it Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship. And also if you go to my website, we're going to be launching us workshops, online workshop, for both individuals and couples from all over the country, indeed all over the world, and how to learn to live this new relational way of being in the world, and what the skills are to pull that off.
Lisa: Wonderful stuff. Okay, workshops and then also that you do therapist trainings as well, and so there are therapists, couples, counselors who are familiar with the ideas that we talked about today and that can be helpful too.
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.
Lisa Marie Bobby: On today's episode of the podcast, we're talking about a topic that is very challenging. One that people don't like to think about, but one that is vitally important for you to know about and to be thinking about really deliberately. That is why marriages fail—why relationships end.
Personally, I'm a marriage counselor; I'm a psychologist; I have sat with so many couples, many of whom very eager and motivated to repair their marriages, repair their relationships. We do great work. Over the years, I have sat with many couples whose relationships were ending. I can tell you that every single one of them went into their relationships with the best of intentions.
On their wedding day, they meant everything they said about sharing the rest of their lives, together, ‘til death do us part, and they meant it. But then their relationships eroded slowly. Over time, it fell apart. They kept falling apart. By the time they got to my office, they were past the point of no return. There wasn't the fabric left to kind of knit things back together again.
The tragedy of—virtually all of these situations and I have felt this many times sitting on the couch in my therapy office with these couples—is if only you had seen what was happening and intervened a little bit sooner. The truth is that so many couples have opportunities to mend their relationships, but they miss the opportunities because, in the moment, they often don't realize how serious things are before it's too late.
The truth is that there are small micro-moments that happen in relationships that are much more damaging than people think they are. By understanding this, really truly appreciating it, you become empowered to make changes sooner rather than later so that your marriage endures. Understanding what failing relationships actually look like and actually feel like is what can help you identify these moments, the ones that you need to take seriously and not minimize them, because that's such a natural tendency to do.
Matthew, thank you so much for being with me today. I'm really excited to have this conversation.
Matthew Fray: Thank you so much. I'm really happy to be here. I really appreciate the invitation.
The Marriage Lesson I Learned Too Late
Lisa: Well, thank you again so much. I have to—I think I mentioned it to you, but I'll share with my audience. I read all the time when I'm not working. Basically, I have my nose either in a book or an article about something. It was just a couple of weeks ago I was browsing around online, and I came across an article that you had written that, for The Atlantic, an excerpt from your book.
I just remember reading your words, and first of all, just being struck by what a beautiful writer you are. I was reading it, it was like, “Wow, I wish I could write that as well.” But also, like, the message that you conveyed in this article was just like dead on. It was like, “This is what I've been trying to tell people for years and years.”
If it's okay with you, I thought maybe we could start with just this little excerpt from what you wrote to kind of orient our listeners to your message, and then we can go from there. Is that okay?
Matthew: Yeah, yeah, that sounds great.
Lisa: The title of the article was The Marriage Lesson That I Learned Too Late with the very intriguing subheading of—you said, “The reason my marriage fell apart seems absurd when I describe it: My wife left me because I sometimes leave dishes by the sink.” Very intriguing, right? But when you go into the article, I mean, you just so beautifully described, I think this phenomenon that's so real and true for so many couples.
You write, “The things that destroy love and marriage often disguise themselves as unimportant. Many dangerous things neither appear nor feel dangerous as they're happening. They're not arms and gunshots. They're pinpricks. They're paper cuts. And that is the danger. When we don't recognize something as threatening, then we're not on guard. These tiny wounds start to bleed and the bleed-out is so gradual that many of us don't recognize the threat until it's too late to stop it.”
You go on to say, “I spent most of my life believing that what ended marriages were behaviors I classify as Major Marriage Crimes. If murder, rape, and armed robbery are major crimes in the criminal justice system, I viewed sexual affairs, physical spousal abuse, and gambling away the family savings as the major crimes in a marriage.
Because I wasn't committing Major Marriage Crimes, when my wife and I were on the opposite sides of an issue, I would suggest that we agree to disagree. I believe that she was wrong—either that she was fundamentally incorrect in her understanding of the situation or that she was treating me unfairly.
It always seemed as if the punishment didn't fit the crime—as if she were charging me with premeditated murder when my infraction was something closer to driving a little bit over the speed limit with a burned-out tail light that I didn't even know was burned out.
Hundreds, maybe thousands, of times, my wife tried to communicate that something was wrong. That something hurt. ‘But that didn't make sense’, I thought. I'm not trying to hurt her; therefore, she shouldn't feel hurt. We didn't go down in a fiery explosion. We bled out from 10,000 paper cuts. Quietly. Slowly.
She knew something was wrong. I insisted everything was fine. This is how my marriage ended. It could be how yours ends too.”
Whoa. What powerful words, Matthew. I mean, I read that and I was like,” Yeah, that's exactly what happens.” Most people have no idea that it's even happening when it's happening.
Matthew: Oh, I was really flattered. Nothing has propelled book sales since launch. The book’s been out six or seven weeks now. March 22 in North America was book launch. Nothing had as significant of an impact on those sales as that Atlantic excerpted, so I was extremely grateful for it. As a former journalist, too, being in a publication that I respect as much as The Atlantic was, like, just personally, like a really cool opportunity to have a byline in it.
As you said, it was an excerpt from the book. It was really more their work than mine to be fair. They took the lion's share of that excerpt from a section of the book, which is based on a blog post that I wrote in 2016, called She Divorced Me Because I Left the Dishes by the Sink. That was far and away the most popular thing that I've ever written. If anybody has ever, like, heard of me or anything like that, it would be almost certainly because of that article.
Millions and millions of times that thing's been read and shared, and I just—nothing else in my world had that level of reach. I've just come to understand that it's a popular conversation for people to have. Although I fear, a great majority of the people miss the point of the conversation because the lion's share of the criticism I receive as either a blogger or now as author of the book, This Is How Your Marriage Ends, is the idea that a dish by the sink.
It's the same argument I made in my actual marriage. The argument that that is such an insignificant thing and our marriage is so important and the idea that “I love you” is so important, “so let's not elevate this dish by the sink to a marriage problem.”
That's more or less the arguments that I'm getting from predominantly men in heterosexual relationships with women who I assume say things similar to the things my wife said in regards to the way the dish by the sink caused her to feel. How like her experience with that dish, her thoughts and feelings about it.
They make the case that their desire to leave it there—that's well thought out, and that their individual experiences should weigh equally. I'm very interested in your take on this idea, and I'm fine with people thinking that. Like, I'm fine. The way that I think about it is that putting a dish in the dishwasher and having to take it out again or having to get a new one from the cupboard or finding some new system that—it was a glass by the way.
I think people imagine, especially because The Atlantic had the sink full of, like, all these dirty dishes, that's not what it was. It was and I still keep it there. It's a clear drinking glass. One glass that I put water in once a day to take vitamins and medicine and things like that. It just bothered her because she liked the kitchen a certain standard and clean.
People take great exception to the idea that my opinion—men who I think identify with me of 10 or 15 years ago feel like we need to defend our position. That our desires, our wants, our “needs” should matter as much as our spouses, and I think they should. I think they should matter the same, but I don't think we're having the same conversation.
I don't feel dishonored, disrespected, not considered small and visible, because of my wife's desire to have me put the dishes in the dishwasher. The alternative is not true, me leaving it there does, in fact, result in pain, and feelings of disrespect and feelings of being unheard.
Instead of having a conversation about the merits of that dish being there, I want to have a conversation about the merits of behaving in such a way, speaking and acting in such a way, where the math result is showing up effectively for our relationship partners. You may very well be married to somebody who does not care about that dish by the sink.
They may share your lack of enthusiasm for that, but there will be a different conversation about something because we're human beings, that will matter to them, that will not, like, resonate intellectually or emotionally with you. You will simply not care the same. I don't know how to say it sort of like more precisely than that—you won't care as much. It's that disagreement that I think is the epicenter of like the common conflict pattern in relationships.
I just think for the person who feels unheard, who feels as if I can never go to my relationship partner and communicate something's wrong because it seems as if they don't agree with me, they will always choose what they think and what they feel over me for the rest of my life. It means I have to deal with that and accept it and voluntarily subject myself to that or have to leave.
Matthew: We leave, in my case, I left my wife with an exceedingly difficult choice, which was keep her son 100% of her life. Like, have him at home and have to deal with that, or leave and give herself a chance for a relationship or not having—regardless whether she was going to be single or whether she's going to see somebody else—not being subjected to the approval of someone to feel a certain way about something because that's essentially what that story is about.
I didn't give her permission to hurt. I didn't give her permission to think that dish by the sink mattered. Go ahead and insert any example from your personal life, dear listener, because it's not always a dish but metaphorically it is. Everybody has their own dish by the sink story in their relationship. Everybody, I think—most people I encounter are savvy enough to recognize it.
I talked to somebody a day or two ago where it's he’d wore shoes in the house all the time, and his wife just repeatedly would ask them not to. Most of the time if he was, like, coming home for the day, he’d take them off.
But what if you, like, went outside really quick to, like, go to the garage for something, and there's like, “Oh, I forgot something in the house. I'm gonna sprint over to the bedroom, but I'm not gonna take the time to take my shoes off.” But those were the moments that, like, drove her really. She got really upset with them. Again, it's not about the relative impact of, like, wearing shoes in the house. It is, “I will always choose me over you whenever we disagree.” That destroys trust in relationships.
The Definition of Love
Lisa: Yeah, you're absolutely right. We could crack into that further. But I love that message of really being able to think about your behaviors, our behaviors in the context of what they mean to other people because it's different for other people than it is for us. In some ways, it can be the definition of love, right? Our partner's needs and rights and feelings are just as important as our own, and how do we show them that?
Matthew: I think it's reasonable for people to not want to accept responsibility for that. It shows up, I think, particularly in, like, sociopolitical conversations and religious differences. It's the idea that “What I believe is right and true, and if that offends another person, that's really their problem.” That mindset, I think, is fine. I don't adopt it. It's how I used to be. It is exactly the mindset I used to have that I think resulted in the worst thing that's ever happened to me, which was the end of my marriage and family.
That's why I'm not in favor of showing up in the world that way anymore. But I don't begrudge people doing that. I don't think it's immoral. I just think if we're not cognizant of what happens to another human when we do that, it's not about you being bad. It's not about that behavior being bad. In my estimation, forgive me, I'm not trying to speak for you or anyone else. But for me, the thing to value is the math results.
The math results of showing up that way in our interpersonal relationships are really probably with anybody, I believe, means that we won't have as much trust. We will not be trusted as much with the hearts and minds of other human beings. People want to trust that being in our sphere, whether that's being close friends or professional colleagues or best friends or whatever.
But certainly, when we share homes and bedrooms and money and children, and our lives are super intertwined, the way they are in marriage or long-term cohabitating relationships, and again, particularly when you're raising children together, the stakes get even higher.
When somebody can't trust you to—what I would sort of, like, say is—act in their best interest on account that we don't think the dish qualifies, right? We know we'll walk with you in the parking garage and that will keep you safe from an intruder or whatever it is that people think about what it means to, like, show up lovingly and caring for someone else. It's this miscalculation that something that doesn't matter to you is somehow not able to matter to somebody else. That is such a significant blind spot, I think in relationships. I think I understand why it is because I've sort of lived both sides of it now.
Lisa: Yeah, it was about the glass on the side of the sink, but it also wasn't. The glass just became a symbol for how your wife felt. It was a symbol for the relationship unraveling because it wasn't about the glass. It was about what the glass meant. It was interpreted as, “Do you care about my feelings? Am I important to you?” That's what we lose sight of when we get into power struggles about where the glass goes, isn't it?
Matthew: Yeah, that's—I mean, I think that's it. I think it's reasonable for somebody to who has successful relationships. This is something that I talk with a lot of. I work as. like, a relationship coach per se. People come to me. Guys that are like, “Wow. You sound exactly like me,” and I'm like, “I understand.” I try to help them understand that there's no judgment and that, in a certain respect, it really makes sense.
When all of your family relationships are solid, when you have a bunch of friends, when you're successful at work, when you're liked and respected and appreciated, it's so frustrating when the only person in your life who like levies charges of like mistreatment is the person that you feel like you love the most and sacrifice the most for. It does not compute.
Then sort of like math data analysis terms, if she's the outlier, she is the statistical outlier. A data scientist eliminates the statistical outlier as the thing that's not like the rest. I just think that is the, like, autopilot thing that so many people do. Again, often men in heterosexual relationships, it would seem that just dismiss these concerns of the other person because they're so unlike any of the feedback that they're getting from any other part of their life.
So I always want to defend these people. There are certainly people with ill intentions that cause a lot of harm. I don't mean to overlook those or trivialize the struggles of being in a relationship with somebody who you feel sort of tricked you or conned you into a life together and then emerged as something really, really awful, and like tyrannical in either subtle or overt ways.
But I think the majority from a math standpoint of these relationships are exactly as you described at the beginning, where two people voluntarily chose one another and absolutely are in this to go the distance and then are fundamentally confused five, seven, 10,15 years later as to how it could have deteriorated and how it can feel so bad. Because all along the way, it just seemed like nothing rose to the level of being important.
I equate it to what the American Cancer Society had to do in the 1950s, the 1960s on their campaign to convince the public of the dangers of tobacco smoking. Because back then the societal norm was to smoke in a car with the windows rolled up and babies in the backseat with no meaningful—
Lisa: “Not a big deal. Everybody does it.” Yeah.
Matthew: Yeah, maybe not even in, like, some sort of, like, safe car seat. Just riding on somebody's lap and it's just—that was how things were. We didn't know. If you don't know smoking is harmful, I think it makes sense to smoke.
Matthew: In fact, I used to do it in my youth and I'm so glad that I don't , right?
Matthew: People, like, make mindful changes once they understand that this thing equals harm. Not all people but many people, and that is to me the mission is, can people understand that this thing they don't calculate to be harmful is in fact harmful. I don't necessarily know how to do it except just keep doing what I'm trying to do. What so many people in the streets are trying to do.
The Danger of Small Things
Lisa: Totally. I mean, even just talking about this, you're exactly right. People literally do not understand that these small things are dangerous. It's the equivalent of smoking a cigarette, they have no idea. One of the things that I've been on such a mission about like, premarital counseling. We do a lot of, like, that preventative stuff, but also just talking about this, so that people can just have that mirror. Because who talks about this? Like nobody teaches you how to have a healthy relationship, right?
We just—our own divorced parents were the role models, and it's, like, somebody has to be talking about this. That's why I'm thrilled for this. To even crack deeper in this, like, in your book, one of the first chapters that you write and I think that this is such a nice idea too. Good people can make bad spouses.
Because we think about people who aren't good at relationships as being uncaring or unloving, and that is not true. Lovely people are unconsciously making these mistakes that they don't even know are mistakes in the moment. But can you say more about that idea? Good people can make bad spouses.
Good People Make Bad Spouses
Matthew: I can. It's one of my favorite things that I ever thought of. Because one of my sort of, like, hallmark traits in my marriage was defensiveness—feeling unfairly criticized, unfairly attacked as if my wife wasn't giving me the benefit of the doubt. Because it's like, “Goodness! I do all these things. It's like, why are you interpreting this in the most negative, cynical way possible?” is often sort of how I responded to whatever was, like, happening in her life.
Just habitually invalidating and dismissive, which is awful when I'm claiming to love ready —again, please understand I didn't. I know you know, but listener.
Lisa: No, no. It happens together.
Matthew: Yeah, I didn't associate how—I just fundamentally thought I was being mistreated, truly, in that moment, even though I really recognized today she was. But it's—that's the danger is, I think it to humans in a shared life together can very honestly believe that they're, like, sort of doing the right thing, that they're on the unfair receiving end of this.
Matthew: So I want to sell people on the idea of—particularly people prone to defensiveness and a relationship from negative feedback from the relationship partner—that it doesn't have to be about good/bad, doesn't even have to be about right/wrong. It is completely disassociated with character. It is good people can be bad partners. I thought it was useful to think about.
I described my grandmother as a person that I think is above reproach from a character standpoint. She's incredible, just the nicest human being, and just, I've never, ever in my 43 years seen my grandmother speak ill of anyone or mistreat anyone. She'll make excuses for, like, the worst people actually. She's like that kind of lady and loves humans.
But I make the case, despite my grandmother's impeccable character, I don't think that’s who you'd want to contract to build a skyscraper to fly an airplane or to fix your watch or whatever. Anything that's difficult in life to do. Developing expertise and mastery of something is about knowledge and about skill building, about practice. So we learn things, and then we practice doing things, trying to execute best practices over and over again.
That's how we develop skills, mastery, knowledge, things like that. I did not know how to associate. I was so busy thinking: because I was a decent human that I was automatically a decent husband, a decent spouse. I just—to me that belief alone creates so many blind spots, so many ways of defending oneself and deflecting responsibilities and things like that.
If I thought of marriage and relationships as something that I needed to develop expertise and mastery about, and this is nobody's fault, this was my responsibility. But I do think we've raised generations of people without some of the building block, knowledge and skills necessary to relate effectively.
The Repair in Harmony-Disharmony
Matthew: Again, I think the most important skill that I didn't understand—I say empathy, I think and I don't necessarily mean that organically feel how others feel. When I say that, I mean, this idea of like intentionally choosing to view a scenario through the experiences of someone else that you love, and then sort of modifying words and actions accordingly because you care about them.
But more to the point and I don't think I talked about this in the book because I don't think I had awareness about the relational cycle of harmony-disharmony-repair is that capacity for repair, like, in that moment was a big, big mess for me in my marriage that I try really hard to encourage people to think about today.
Lisa: Yeah, the repair is so important. But you bring up such another great point—that I think cannot be understated—is also just the power of systems. On this show, something that we talk about a lot is how relationships are a dance. I mean, people aren't just being individuals in the system, right? They're being influenced by each other.
It's very, very easy to perceive your partner as being out to get you or in the wrong, which then allows you to feel entitled to be not very kind to them in return. That the relationship system can kind of take on a cycle of its own. But, also, even those repair attempts, while they are so important, if there's so much—John Gottman calls it negative affect priming—that if it gets to a certain point, repair attempts don't work anymore.
It's just so key to get into this sooner rather than later. I think what I'm hearing you say is that to have had the humility, I think to consider, like we all do, “Maybe I do have some learning and growing to do in order to be a good partner for this specific person,” right? As opposed to that kind of global message around, “I'm a good person. I can have relationships. I know what to do. So there's something wrong with her.” That's like the easy, the easy default to assume. Yeah.
Matthew: I may very well end up in a long-term romantic relationship with somebody that doesn't care about a dish by the sink, that doesn't care about certain, like, idiosyncrasies that my son's mother, like, may have had, or pain points that she'd felt. But there will be new things, there'll be other things, and it is incumbent on me to learn those, to understand them if I am to effectively, like, prevent negative experiences on her pardon and vice versa.
Again, I don't mean to sound like I don't think both partners. If we're talking again, heterosexual relationships, men, I don't mean that their needs are also important. I just only know how to approach this from my side of it—the personal responsibility side of it. I trust that it'll be reciprocated in a healthy relationship.
Like, I don't see how being unhealthy will in any way yield a positive result. Another point of negative feedback is mad. Didn't your—surely your ex-wife was imperfect. Surely she did stuff you didn't like. Don’t you think maybe you're taking all the blame here. I'm like, I don't like the word blame. I don't finger-point. I'm like, I'm for personal responsibility.
I'm like, even if I only did 20% of it, just maybe all of the things that I might not have liked, that my ex-wife was—maybe how can I fairly calculate for what she would have said, done, felt, had I eliminated my portion of, like, the pain that was being caused? I just, I really want people to think about that. It's so critical.
It's not fair to hurt people, and then be angry with them for behaving as a hurt person does, is my take today. Where I used to—that's exactly how I used to act, though. I did things. It hurt my wife. She would say it hurt, and then I would be angry that she was creating a relationship conflict. It was awful. I really see it so clearly today in a way I didn't when I was stuck in it. I hate it for her, I really do, and for everybody who's stuck in like that cycle.
Lisa: Right. Well, you can't see in them. I mean, I can't tell you how many times I've sat with couples, and they're waiting for the other person to change, waiting for the other person to take responsibility. Well, if they stopped doing that, right? To, like, help people wrap their heads around the idea that you actually have to take 100% of the responsibility for whatever happens in your relationship.
Ideally, you'll both be taking 100% of their responsibility, but that's absolutely the only thing that you can do is keep your side of the equation clean. So yeah.
The Invalidation Triple Threat
Lisa: I wonder if that was kind of what you were getting into in the next section of your book where you talked about invalidation triple threat. Can you take us into that idea?
Matthew: Yeah. I'd be curious how you—because I think I value your thoughts and opinions and experiences, frankly, more than mine in the context of the way couples relate to one another.
But I make the claim in the book that I believe this—literally this invisible, it's certainly not invisible to the person who feels invalidated—but I think to the end-validator who genuinely loves the person and wants to live with them for the rest of their lives, I think this is the greatest blind spot, the greatest source of accidental inadvertent trust erosion, and therefore, the greatest threat to relationships, the leading cause of relationship failure.
Since whenever speech started happening between romantic partners—I just perceive this to probably be the thing that's ended more relationships than anything else. I don't mean marriage, there's a million—a million relationships never get to marriage. There's so many that never get there. I still think this is probably at the epicenter of so much of it.
So yes, in the invalidation triple threat, as I call it, are the three distinct ways that I believe somebody with this habit that I had, and I find it's very common in the people that, like, find me and want to work with me. We don't intend to invalidate. As I recently learned from somebody in your line of work from Australia, she said, “Intention does not equal experience.”
That's a more efficient way of saying what I try to say, is that doesn't matter what you're trying to do, pain can still happen on the other side of the equal sign. It disguises itself as harmless disagreement. It disguises itself as a disagreement between two adults. It's reasonable for human beings to feel as if they're allowed to have a difference of opinion, a different experience, a different desire than the other person.
I was so offended that it seemed like my wife needed me to agree with her all the time. But that's not what validation is. It's not about agreeing. It's not about thinking the same things my wife felt. It's not about feeling the same things my wife felt.
Here's what it looked like in my life. She would come to me and she'd say, “Matt, a bad thing happened and I feel bad about it.” Version one of this triple threat is I would disagree with her intellectual experience. The thing that she believed had happened, I would have believed something else happened. So I'd reframe it, and say, “That's actually not what happened. What happened is this.”
But the math result of that exchange is your feelings don't matter because it's based on something that wasn't real. That's version one. Version two is my wife comes to me, she says, “Matt, a bad thing happened. I feel bad about it.” This time, I completely agree with her that the event happened exactly as she says it did.
But this time, I'm confused as to why she's reacting so sensitively or angrily or whatever it is. I'm like, “Okay, that's what happened. But why are you making such a big deal out of it?” So in version one, her brain’s wrong. She's—I don't say this but the implication is that she's dumb—
Lisa: Think about it this way.
Matthew: That she's wrong—
Matthew: That she's crazy. Version two— I don't say this—but the implication is that she's weak, that she's hypersensitive, that she's, she's being dramatic, something like that. Version three is just classic defensiveness, which is why I think that character conversation that good people can be bad spouses idea is so important.
You can be an amazing human and still not be awesome at some function. So think about it like that when somebody's coming at you maybe with some negative feedback or criticism. My wife would say, “Matt, you did something that hurt me.” My instinct was to, like, defend myself to say, “Wait a minute. I did not mean to hurt you. If you understand, like, what I was trying to do, you won't be mad at me anymore. You won't feel bad anymore or something.”
Anyway, all of these response patterns are inherently invalidating to the person who's trying to communicate, “Something's wrong. Something hurts me. I'm trying to let you know because you're not psychic. I'm trying to recruit you to understand it, so that tomorrow and next week, and next month, next year, the same thing won’t keep happening.”
That's the goal of the conversation where person whose hurt comes to the other partner, and just wants to let them know, “Hey, something's wrong. Help me.” But if my brain did not align with my wife's brain, I didn't respond in a manner that suggests that tomorrow I wouldn't do the same thing over again if my feelings didn't align, if my intentions didn't align.
Here's what my wife learned. She learned after 12 years with me that if I didn't agree with what she believed, or I didn't, like, agree that she should feel the way that she felt, that I would always choose what I thought and what I felt over her, even at the expense of her, like, emotional experiences. That's what she learned.
If we want to talk about trust in a relationship, and trust in my estimation being the most significant condition required for relationship health and longevity, and I just think a lot of people think love is. I think a lot of people painfully leave a relationship with somebody they love. I just think the absence of trust, the erosion of trust is the greatest predictor of relationships that will end.
We can do this as a decent human who loves his or her relationship partner, but just fails to validate over and over and over and over again. Because the message is simply, “I'll always choose me over you,” even though, like, that's not philosophically how I thought about it. It's the math result of the conversation pattern.
We have to take ownership of that and learn how to eliminate what I've come to believe this is very unhealthy, toxic, conversational dance that we do in our relationships. I coach people to begin a new habit of validating—replacing the habit of invalidation with validating.
I like talking about it as habits, because I'm not smart enough and I'm not good enough as a human being to help somebody make some spiritual change, so to speak, or to grow intensely. I do know how to encourage somebody to change a small behavior and practice it over and over and over again, and the hopes that the math result will be trust restoration and a relationship.
Lisa: Definitely. Well, I mean, at the end of the day, it is ultimately all about that behavior change. I think what you just shared is so important and understanding, helping people understand the why.
It's so significant because I am certain that if I had been in the room with you, and that was happening, and I'm like, “What's going on?” You would—you loved your wife. You had nothing but good intentions. You're probably trying to help her. In that moment, if we had to crack into your point of view, it wasn't—
Matthew: Certainly sometimes.
Lisa: Ill intention. But that result of really understanding the way that people feel, and I think also understanding what the priority is in those conversations, is that emotional intimacy. It's attunement. It's feeling cared about. That's how adults express that and receive that is often through sharing feelings, and feeling important and emotionally safe with others when they do.
To be able to learn how to do that is just such a crucial relationship skill. Unfortunately, not to gender stereotype, but you've mentioned several times in our conversation so far, that can often be men in heterosexual relationships who struggle here.
I firmly believe that this is largely due to just a lack of socialization. That these kinds of skills aren't prioritized in boys and young men as they're growing up, so they literally don't know how, don’t know what's a thing, don't know why it's important. “Why would I do that anyway?” Until they experience the consequences of it and start having these conversations.
The Monster Under the Bed
Matthew: Dr. Bobby, do we have time to talk about this funny little, like, monster under the bed analogy that I like to share?
Lisa: I'd love to hear about the monster under the bed.
Matthew: Do we? Well, it's the thing that helped me. So I went from, like, guy, just like all these other guys, and I now—try to help people not practice this invalidation habit anymore. This is the thought exercise that, like, broke through for me. I honestly don't remember how I even thought of it. It's just the thing I eventually concocted that worked.
My son is thirteen, but he used to be four. When he was four, he was a threat to wake up in the middle of the night—afraid of a monster hiding under his bed. I like to think about how I would have shown up in that scenario ten years ago, fifteen years ago.
The way is, let's pretend I'm watching Monday Night Football, and I hear my son crying. So I'm gonna pause it or just run upstairs or whatever. I'm going to open the door and I'm going to discover that my son is crying and feeling fear, because he thinks there might be a monster under his bed. And my default instinct back then, as his father would be, I know there's no monster. I don't want my son to feel afraid. I want him to stop crying selfishly because I want to go watch football again. And the way I'm going to solve this problem is to sell him on this knowledge that I have that he doesn't have, that there isn't a monster under the bed.
And so I might say something really careless and not very good from a parenting standpoint, in my estimation, but many of us maybe grew up like this. That says, “Dude, there's no monster under the bed. There's no reason to be crying right now. You know, you're afraid for no reason. Settle down. Everything's fine.” I might say something super toxic. Like, “Be my big boy. Toughen up. Everything's okay. You know, this has been your bedroom your whole life, like go to sleep. And you know, I'll see you in the morning.” I don't have time for invisible monsters that might be some like gross, selfish thing that I might have done, you know, ten, twelve years ago.
Anyway, I just think there's like really critical ideas to think about for like the guy that's me in this scenario that didn't grow up with relational skills. Because I understand why we know the harmful, the threat isn't there. And if we can just implant that knowledge in this other human, then problem solved and we get to go back to doing whatever we were doing before. I think that's like the way we're thinking about it. And I think there's like if there was a judge in the room, I'm right, in this instance, right. Not all relationship conflict is so demonstrably provable. That a lot of times, it's more nuanced than that. But in this case, I'm right. And I love my son, and I would never, ever try to hurt him.
Despite those three things, what's the math result of this example? My son's alone in the dark, he's afraid, he's crying. And he just learned that if dad doesn't think the thing that's adversely affecting me, is important. If he doesn't think my sadness, or my fear is worthy of his time, he abandons me, literally or metaphorically to cry alone in the dark after implying that I'm stupid or weak for acting the way that I'm acting right now. And it doesn't mean this child in this example, doesn’t know dad loves them. I think it just means trust eroded, I think it means the quality score of our relationship just took a hit. And that if that's how I always show up when he's suffering through things large or small, over time, I'm going to lose all of the trust that I just earned that I was gifted as his father.
And in the future, when he hurts, he's not going to invite dad to be part of those conversations. So right when he's offered drugs, when he's experiencing bullying, when he's whatever, some really unpleasant things in his life that I as his father really want to be included in, in order to like, be like a decent, connected, loving father, he won't invite me to. I'm no longer I'm no longer a safe person to include when life's hard. And so I’d really like the guys that I'm working with to think about that.
And hopefully, they get that this is like a metaphor, our adult relationships in the way that we respond to people when we don't when we think that they believe something that isn't real, or when we're somehow disagreeing with their emotional reaction to something, because there's a better way. Because it's not about agreeing with your relationship partner. It's not about agreeing that there's a monster under the bed. That's not the thing that makes your relationship better. And in fact, being right, I think in this instance, proves to harm the relationship, increases disconnection, increases mistrust.
There's another way to show up, and it's who I want to be today. And I hear my son crying, I'm going to run up, I'm going to open the door, I'm gonna sit on the bed, I'm gonna hug the kid. I'm going to find out what's going on. And I say to him, “I don't think there's a monster under the bed. But I'm really sorry that you're afraid right now. I have been afraid. And it's just about the worst experience one can have. And I'm so sorry. Let's turn the light on to make sure there's no monster under the bed.” And the idea that I really want the guys I'm working with to like, embrace and latch on to for dear life is the following.
This is me talking to my hypothetical son in this example, is: “When life's hard, when things hurt, when things scare you, I want you to know you can always call mom. You can always call Dad, and we're going to show up for you. And even if we can't fight your battle for you, or fix what's wrong, you never have to feel alone. You never have to feel like you're the only person suffering this bad thing that you're experiencing. That's what you can trust to happen over and over again, when you call dad, when you call mom.”
And that is the lesson that I really want the guys that feel like I did 10-15 years ago, to walk away from this conversation with to set aside feelings of correctness, feelings of certainty, feelings of I gotta fight for what's right. Because I know that I know more about this than she or he or they do value the quality of your relationship. And the way it's done is by communicating that in the future, when bad things happen to them.
You might not be able to fix what's wrong. You can just try to understand, you can care. But most importantly, you're not going to neglect and abandon the people you love to suffer alone. And I think that that really nuanced behavior change, mindset change. And Brene taught me right like that idea. Brene Brown’s work taught me about like the metaphorical idea of sitting with your friend in the dark, so that they didn't feel alone because I hadn't really I was always like, who just sit still and doesn't do anything. You feel so helpless.
But it's not about that. It's not about it at all. It's about communicating that today and tomorrow and always, if you're suffering. I know that I can't fix it's not about that. You're just not alone. I'll give you space if you need it. But if you want to not be alone, you'll never have to be. I wish I'd given that to the people that I loved. My entire life, but nobody had imparted on me like the wisdom of like, right that that behavior that messaging. And so the only person who's ever really truly gotten it's my son, because I know it's a thing that I've learned and he's about to go to high school and I think he is going to trust me.
Lisa: Well now you can teach him differently. But I totally agree. We don't attribute a lot of value to just simple connection. I think we're socialized into doing or fixing or problem solving. And it's really just being there together in those moments. That's the most important thing. But it's so easy to miss.
Hey, can I ask? I don't know if this would be too personal of a question. And if it is, we can scoot over. But I'm thinking right now of people, couples, individuals who might be listening to the show. And in my experience, it is so easy for people to talk themselves out of doing something, getting help for their relationship.”It's not that big of a deal. It'll be okay. It's just we've been stressed.”
Fork In The Road Moments
Lisa: But looking back at your own experience, if you had a time machine, can you identify some of those fork in the road moments that if you had done something or taken action at that time, it could have led to a different outcome? I'm wondering what your advice would be for somebody who's maybe who, for whom that fork in the road is still a little bit ways ahead of them, just to help them see it more clearly than you were able to?
Matthew: I can think of several of them. But the problem is they present small. And so I feel they'll seem so undramatic to everybody. But a quick list would be what I mentioned in the book, and it's one of the things I'm most ashamed of in the world is a couple of these that I mentioned in the book, that some of them that I'm most ashamed of in the world.
But the very beginning of our dating relationship. Early, I was still really interested in autonomy, and not feeling trapped in a relationship because we'd only been dating, I don't know, a couple of months or something. And I would make plans to like, go see friends and things like that. And then I'd get some negative feedback about that. I don't know if you remember this, but she gave up—she was going to move with three of her friends to a different state. And she completely changed her life plans to remain in the city, just so she could pursue a relationship with me.
And then what she got in return was me continuing to fight to be like the single quasi-bachelor guy. And I don't literally mean that. I don't mean like, so I could go date other people, but I mean, I had no—at 21 I had no desire or context for this idea of inclusion of consideration of thinking about, if I make plans on a Thursday, or Friday or Saturday to go to this bar, keg party, or whatever I'm doing, I should absolutely be checking in with my person to see how it might affect her.
It was just not an idea that had fully cemented yet. But anyway, we'd fight about it, and she'd get really upset. And I wish I would have just sat whether I wish I just would have sat with her instead of the like cold, quasi-angry, defensive, “I can't believe this is your reaction to this totally normal thing that I'm doing.” Because it started there. That was like the seed planting for how I was always going to show up in relationships. Man, there's a ton like in our marriage.
Oh my I hope these don't make her sound ridiculous, because she's really not ridiculous. She really wasn't. She liked white gold better than yellow gold. I haven't talked about this very many times. It's not in the book. And I buy her yellow gold jewelry sometimes. We didn't have a lot of money. So they weren't particularly extravagant things. But most of the things I got her, including her engagement ring, were yellow gold, despite her affinity for white gold. And I just was so dismissive of her preference for white gold on the basis that I thought it looked like silver.
And silver is like the inferior precious metal to gold. And so it's like you're gonna get like the thing that is and looks valuable. And I know that might sound so ridiculous, maybe to somebody listening, but it's right. It was another piece of evidence that I will always choose what I think and why I feel over her. It was just another and so you take a beautiful gesture, a gift and you castrate it somehow. You cut it off at the knees, whatever. You make it a negative event.
And then that same guy, and I'm really talking about me, gets defensive at the quasi like negative reaction to it. The lukewarm reaction you're sort of offended by, because it's like, “Goodness, how ungrateful can this human be?” And then you almost get like mad about I mean, stuff like that happened with us, I would fail to consider and fail to validate, and then be angry with her for feeling hurt, for feeling dismissed and unheard. And so I mean, just all these tiny, tiny moments, the vast majority of which I can't remember.
And so we talked about forks in the road, they were the two lines were just like, going by a half degree each time, but over 12 years, you end up out here. And I didn't know how to think about it like that. I kept waiting for her to evolve into somebody that would think and feel about stuff the way that I did, which is really ignorant. But I guess I kind of thought something like that was gonna happen.
Lisa: Very common.
Matthew: So yeah, it's really that the big one that I feel morally obligated to say is that sometime, within a week or two, prior to my son being born, our son being born, a couple of dads had told me, “Listen, she's gonna be so exhausted. If her labor is anything like my wife's was, she's going to be so exhausted. It's critical, it's imperative that you get adequate sleep. So that when you have to make all these decisions about tons of stuff—shots and circumcisions and birth certificate spellings and all the things, you need to be as with it and lucid as possible.”
I had it in my head, that I was gonna go home, we live really close to the hospital. I was eight minutes away, I was gonna go home, and get a decent night's sleep after the baby was born. Well, what actually happened was, there was an induced labor, it lasted more than 24 hours. And then she had to have an emergency C section. And she was a wreck, understandably, a wreck.
And sometime around 1:30 In the morning, about five hours after surgery in the birth of our son, I was like, “Hey, I'm gonna go.” And then boom, all of a sudden, there's this conflict. Imagine not having the conversation ahead of time, by the way, like, imagine not having it. So that everybody's expectations were met, I have no earthly idea why I was the way that I was. But I was insistent that everything was okay, that she had a nursing staff, and they all knew how to do things. And I was worthless. I couldn't help with any of this. And it wasn't about that, right? It was about sitting alone in the dark with somebody.
And that, in my estimation, was my greatest abandonment, and the biggest trust killer, by far. I just really think that's the one that really did me in and I didn't know it at the time. And I don't think I ever recovered from that. And I think any thoughts she might have had about having a second child with me, went out the window. Really if not, then very quickly after bringing our baby home and being the default parent from day one. To all the moms out there. I'm so sorry.
Lisa: Oh no, it's so important for people to hear. It really is. Because there's the little things lie the little snowflakes that kind of pile up into a drift. But what you were talking about after birth, there's actually a technical term for that sort of thing and it is an “Attachment injury.” And there are some of these moments that where people are particularly vulnerable, after birth, they're sick, a parent just died, something major is going on.
And how we respond to our partners in those moments do carry more weight, and they are either opportunities for connection, and you use the word abandonment. That is how it is experienced in those moments, and they can be their traumas, their injuries, they persist long after the event and I hear that that's a hard one.
Matthew: It may still be something she carries. I wouldn't doubt it. She's very kind to me. She doesn't behave in a resentful way with me.
Lisa: Oh, no, yeah, no, I'm understanding but for the relationship.
Matthew: Yes, I would not be surprised if deep down there was still a lot of anger and resentment about that. Despite she lives a very, very near as I can tell, happy, healthy life. She has been in another relationship for like, six, seven years, to an exceedingly decent human being and everything's great. Like her son and I, but that's the one I think, and then we did lose her father.
And I think this is an important idea for people too. We lost her father a few years later. And it was obviously very traumatic. And I think the single greatest like shock, loss, grieving moment of her life and what's interesting about the loss of her father is, I was all in. Like, I felt it too. There was not any disagreement about the severity of this incident, I was fair, present, locked in, supportive. And after the initial sort of wave, the first two-ish weeks, there was a really hard sort of like, shift and pull, pull away that happened. And she was never the same. And it wasn't terribly long after we ended up in separate bedrooms.
And then 18 months after that our marriage officially ended. But when I tried to diagnose my marriage, early, as it was falling apart, I believed wholeheartedly that my wife suffered major shock and trauma and grief from the loss of her father. And that she was allowing those intense and understandable understandably intense emotions to usurp the seriousness, sacredness, importance of our relationship, of our marriage. And so she was allowing an understandably horrible thing to in an unhealthy way, infect, our marriage and not want to participate in it. And that's the reason we fell apart and ended. I truly believed that narrative, and felt like a victim of unfair circumstances back then.
And what I understand today is that through a series of micro infractions, and a couple more major ones, like the hospital incident, I had demonstrated myself to be someone she could simply not trust when life is hard. I treated her the equivalent of the child that I said, “There's no monster under the bed, get over yourself, everything's fine.” So it wasn't about, “he doesn't love me”, it was, “he probably does but his behavior never feels like it. He doesn't feel safe, he doesn't feel like somebody I can count on when life's hard.”
And so I think that is such a common narrative in relationships, where the slow erosion of trust occurs through all these, like tiny betrayals, and all these tiny invalidations, so to speak, but then when the major event hits, the person in suffering, realizes that the other person is not a person that mathematically results in safety, and love and care. It's just not it's not an oasis of peace and togetherness, “It sucks this person is not safe for me. So I'm gonna go seek refuge elsewhere or alone, because it's better.”
And I really want people to become aware of the severity of the micro infractions, because the collection of those is what yields those relationship ending moments down the road.
Doing The Work Early
Lisa: Definitely, you hit the nail right on the head. That's always why relationships end. It’s one person stops believing that it could ever be different, and what is happening is no longer acceptable. Were you surprised at the very end or did you think you had more time? Did you think it could still be better?
Matthew: I slept in the guest room for 18 months. And that's when the work started by the way. I was probably about three ish months before she left, I read a book calledHow to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It. And it was the first book I've ever read, when I think the title is a misnomer. Because I don't think anybody believes you can have a healthy marriage without effective communication.
But it was the first time, that was like less the point then I had for the first time the experience of, “I'm not alone.” If two like longtime therapists can write this book, and tell these stories about random people, whether they were real or concocted scenarios, honestly can't remember. But they look sound and feel so exactly like my life, which is the beautiful thing.
I get the feedback I get today that my stories feel like that for other people. And I'm so delighted that that's the experience people are having. I think it's so powerful if you've not had it before, to experience that I'm not alone, because I don't think most people talk about the scary, vulnerable, sad stuff that's going on in our relationships. I mean, we frequently suffer in silence.
But I think men in particular are afraid to tell people. We’re like afraid to announce it to our parents or our best friends or coworkers. Like we don't look, I don't know if we don't look like failures or why or if we're just not comfortable talking about like the hard scary stuff. But to find out that millions of people have exactly the same dynamics and their relationship was so liberating and empowering because it was like “Wow, we're not this anomaly. We're not these like statistical freaks that we’re just like a lot of people. Then that means the inverse of that is there's a path out .”
You said it already that it was too little too late. The damage was done. So was I surprised? I wasn't surprised intellectually that she left. I was surprised at what my body did when it happened. I was surprised at the loss was really severe for me, the combination of her, and then half of my son, he was only four at the time. Losing the—and I know there's a lot of people that you met, you should be grateful you get to see him half the time, well, probably.
But when you're a dad, and you love your kid, all you can think is I only have 14 years left with them. I've just now, now I have seven. Like, that's how my brain where I'm like, I lost seven years with this little human that I love more than anyone. Anyway, the combo of those two things was brutal. And I know, I didn't like it. But it was the fuel necessary to begin this work. I had to learn how to protect my future self and my son from having things like this happen.
I felt like this sort of great moral responsibility. And the process gave me so much humility, as I slowly uncovered what I believe is the true story of why marriage ended. And it was a series of miscalculations and blind spots. And I very strongly believe that the vast majority of the pain and disconnection and mistrust and the relationship was a result of things that I did. Not because I'm a terrible person, because I did not execute effectively what it means to love somebody in a healthy relationship.
I didn't know better. And my biggest crime was not doing the work, when she was trying to sound the alarm that something was wrong. And just continued to dismiss and invalidate just like all the other things.
Lisa: Did you guys ever think about going to couples counseling at some point along the line?
Matthew: We did a couple of times. But it's—I don't really know, I don't think maybe what a particularly skilled therapists look like, I think that a lot of couples will forgive me, please, if this implies that I—
Lisa: Oh, please speak freely.
Matthew: People use marriage counseling wrong, in my opinion, they wait till things are horrible and then they go to a third party. And it's why I refuse to work with two people at the same time in the same conversation. Because I remember what it felt like to have both of us speak and to have your mis—you're never even having the same conversation. I am arguing about whether the dish should matter. And she's arguing about being seen and heard.
When you're not having the same conversation, everybody hurts and everybody's invalidated. And I just feel like, you drive home and you're more pissed. I remember just how like wound up and awful it felt. And it was not the fault of, of the marriage counselor, the therapist, that was the fault of me allowing this to have built up to where it did. What I really wish people would do. I wish people would go to marriage counseling all the time, as maintenance.
Lisa: Did you know that most marriage counselors—I shouldn't even call it that—most therapists who offer marriage counseling, have no specialized training or experience in couples therapy. 98% of their affiliates who are doing couples counseling, do not have the training and experience to help, what happened to you two sounds like you had the same fight just in their office instead of in your living room. Like why did we go pay for that?
A truly expert marriage and family therapist who knows what to do in those moments would have handled it very differently. And so I am hearing just another layer of tragedy. Not— I don't know, maybe it wouldn't have been different in that moment. But that is really just crappy. And I'm mad for you that your experience
Matthew: Thank you. I don't know, I'm certainly not disparaging the profession. And I think it really matters
Lisa:I feel annoyed about the profession for that reason but people are practicing outside their scope of competence and it has very real consequences for families.
Matthew: I'm not trying to pat myself on the back here. But I want to work with one human on personal responsibility, and habits to show up differently for the other person that is like my charge, if you will, and nothing else because I don't know how to navigate so many of those complexities that occur between two people and right. And there's often, there's traumas.
There's like legitimate traumas that people need to work through as individuals, not just the relationship traumas, but the individual traumas from childhood and things like that. And right that's, I don't even know how to identify or name those things. But in the spirit of consideration, in the spirit of I need to mindfully calculate for my relationship partner, so that I do things that serve their best interests instead of harm them.
If we're unaware of a trauma, of a pain point. Again, you're just you're constantly flying blind. So I think there's a lot of pitfalls for a lot of people out there. And I did not have the wherewithal ten, fifteen years ago, to say any of the things I just said. To think about the way my wife at the time had dynamics with her parents and her older brother, those family dynamics might have contributed to choose the baby.
And the thing I know today that I didn't, that I knew back then but I didn't appreciate what she always felt like not, like she didn't have a voice in the family. She was least likely to have any sort of like power in the family or that if her brother picked on her, her parents would and her brother’s awesome. I get it, but her parents like didn't save her, didn't rescue her. She felt like this, she had this like residual sort of disrespect, mistreatment, cast to the side. And this is like a concept that I understand how I was perpetually triggering that through a series of things that I was doing. And I used to poke fun at her a little bit and she'd ask me not to.
Lisa: But we all have our wounds that we're carrying into our relationships, and that's the work, is understanding what those are and what our partner’s wounds are, so that we can attend to them. And it sounds like you understand things now that you didn't then and, and I know that we probably need to glide to a stop here soon. But I also just want to commend the work that you're doing. Now I'm hearing kind of between the lines that when things finally did come apart, it was, as it is, for so many people, I mean, when you lose your primary attachment, it's in your family, it's incredibly traumatizing.
But that you used this painful experience to to really like become an activist to say, “Okay, what what happened?” and really are so committed to doing good work and communicating things that you didn't know, then but that you do know now to other people so that they can hear and understand, and have the opportunity to do something with this sooner than you did. And not that I'm happy for anything that you went through. But I always admire people who are able to do something so positive, not despite of their adversity, but because of it, and you're doing that.
Matthew: Thank you, I feel the same way. I love the guy that gets out of prison, and then spends the rest of his life helping troubled youth. I love those kinds of stories. And it's almost similar, like sort of metaphorically, sometimes this like regular guy way that I talk about things is useful to another quote unquote, regular guy out there.
Matthew: If there is such a thing, at least what my brain calculates to be, “regular guy” they don't know either they they don't have the awareness and the relational skills, and they love their spouse, and they love their children and can we get to a place. And so the feedback sometimes from guys is “Thank you, because your life sounds like my life. And now I'm able to, like, avoid some of the mistakes that you did.” And I love hearing that.
And then from wives, from girlfriends, I'm frequently hearing, relationship partners, because again, as you know, it doesn't always fall in gender lines. It just sort of statistically commonly does, and but, to feel heard and seen and validated. And it gives me hope that the men in my life might be able to come to some of these realizations. It's just really cool that I get to be like a part of that, considering that the worst thing that's ever happened to me, and in my estimation, the worst things that I've ever done, are rooted in the exact opposite of all of that.
I am frankly proud of it. I don't want to sound like back patty. Like, I think I'm really great. I don't, but I am very proud of what you said, we're trying to, like, leverage pain into something positive. Because that that's very real. And it's a passion project. I don't know if you know that my parents split when I was four. And then I split, my son was four. And it just been this like life-defining thing.
Divorce has been like, in the background, my entire life, making everything a little bit more painful, a little bit more inconvenient. And then to learn that in highly over simplified terms, so much of it is blind spots and misunderstandings, a lack of awareness, a lack of skills that nobody has ever taught anybody to come to believe that it feels like such a crisis tragedy. It's like, can I be part of just—I don't know, I think of myself as somebody who raises awareness.
I just want to raise awareness that things you're not paying attention to are probably the things that could cause you the most harm. So please pay attention. And I'm delighted to be invited to these conversations. Thank you so much.
Lisa: Thank you so much for sharing this message. And I completely agree it's raising awareness, paying attention to things that you might not not think to pay attention to are actually the important ones. Thank you so much for spending this time today and you guys listening so Matthew Fray. His book isThis Is How Your Marriage Ends: A Hopeful Approach to Saving Relationships.
And you have many more stories and personal insights and also a fair number of strategies and tips throughout that book. So thank you so much for consolidating your wisdom into a manual.
Matthew: Thank you so much for reading. It's embarrassing almost when someone like you does it. I just think about all the times you're like, “Oh, I don't know about that.” But it's so nice. It feels really good to have someone like you sort of like, sign off on it as being like a legitimate piece of work in the world. I value that really highly. Thank you.
Lisa: Thank you and you're 100% spot on. It's right on the money. It's that attachment and connection and emotional attunement and how you create it or not. So anyway, I'm so glad that we got to chat today, Matthew, thank you again for taking the time to do this with me and let me know if you'd ever like to come back if you have other other books coming out in the future. No, we'll talk again sometime.
Matthew: Thank you anytime you'd like to, I will be here.
Did you know that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell?
I’m guessing you did, because it’s one of those things that every high schooler learns and probably never uses, unless they go on to become a biochemist. Which, to be fair, is a pretty awesome career choice. But there are many things that are essential to becoming a functional adult, that I’m betting no teacher ever devoted a single unit of a single class to teaching you.
How to do your taxes is one of them. How to have healthy relationships is another.
Of all the things we learn in school, we get zero education about how to have healthy, loving, meaningful adult relationships. If you were lucky, a Geometry teacher doing double duty as a Sex Ed instructor may have mentioned something about consent.
But constructive conflict? Healthy boundaries? Attachment theory? We’re on our own!
As an experienced marriage counselor, I know that healthy relationships are essential to a happy life. Without loving, close, enduring connections with others, the rest of life has little meaning. I also know that we’re not born knowing this stuff, and not everyone grows up watching a healthy relationship unfold between their parents.
How are you supposed to know what’s normal, and what’s cause for concern? How can you improve your relationship without a vision for what “better” would look like?
That’s why I created this episode of the podcast for you: so you could learn about the basics of healthy relationships, and give yours some care and attention when it’s sending out distress signals. You’ll learn how to evaluate the health of your relationship, and the steps you can take to make it even better.
Signs of a Healthy Relationship — Episode Highlights
As a marriage and family therapist, I know that most people have a hard time distinguishing between normal relational turbulence, and surefire signals that their plane is about to drop out of the sky.
Without understanding what healthy relationships look like, you’re vulnerable to two major dangers, and either of them can destroy your relationship.
The first is:
Believing something is very wrong when everything is fine.
I often meet people who believe they should never argue with their partner, or that minor differences are a sign their relationship is doomed. Adult children of divorce are prone to this kind of thinking, as are people who witnessed an unhappy but enduring relationship between their parents when they were kids.
These clients are determined to avoid the same outcome, but they’re not sure what a healthy alternative would actually look like. They may refuse to commit to their relationship because it’s (inevitably) imperfect, see catastrophe looming after every fight, or expect too much and become overly critical, eventually wearing their partner down.
Seeing problems everywhere creates new problems. Both for the partner of the person with unrealistic expectations for the relationship, and for the unrealistic partner, who is prone to reject fundamentally healthy relationships until they learn about what’s normal and what’s not.
And the second danger:
Believing everything is fine when something is very wrong.
Without an understanding of healthy relationships, you’re likely to be oblivious or unconcerned about serious issues that are present.
This often happens like this: Sara is always telling Mike he doesn’t listen. “I’ll work on it,” Mike says, but he doesn’t step back and assess his listening skills, learn about the fundamentals of good listening, and then practice applying those listening skills with Sara. Instead, he thinks this is just something people say when they’re mad. He’s certainly heard it before.
So Mike stays the course, and Sara gets progressively more fed up. Eventually, she stops trying to be heard and starts withdrawing from the relationship. “Why does Sara seem so distant?” Mike wonders. “Better not ask. I don’t want to start a fight.” Eventually, Sara calls it quits, and Mike feels genuinely blindsided.
I’ve seen this play out between many couples, and it’s always sad. Mike loved Sara and he would have taken action, if he had understood that his relationship depended on it.
Characteristics of a Healthy Relationship
To avoid either of these bad outcomes, there are a few characteristics of healthy relationships that you should know. When I’m assessing a couple’s relationship, these are the components I’m looking for. Get these elements right, and your relationship will fundamentally work.
Emotional safety is the most important component of healthy relationships. Returning to our plane metaphor, emotional safety is your relationship’s engine. Without it, none of the other doodads even turn on.
So what is emotional safety? It’s the basic, felt sense of being loved and respected by your partner. It goes beyond hearing your partner say, “I love and respect you,” although this is nice. It ecompasses actually being shown through your partner's actions day after day that your needs, rights, and feelings are important to them. So much so that you can feel it.
In an emotionally safe relationship, you know your partner is committed to you, and that you’re not going to be abandoned if you have a disagreement or a bad day. You don’t feel judged by your partner, and so you feel comfortable being your true self with them. You know that they care about you and your wellbeing.
Emotional safety does not mean never having a fight. All couples have conflict, and yes, all couples hurt each other’s feelings occasionally. But when your relationship is emotionally safe, you trust that your partner doesn’t want to hurt you, not emotionally and certainly not physically. Fights are unpleasant, but they’re not threatening to you, or to your relationship. In conflict, you both manage your own emotional reactions and respond with compassion to each other.
This makes it possible to address problems as they arise and work through them together; when your relationship is emotionally safe, you’re not walking on eggshells.
Communication is about how you talk to each other, but also how you behave toward each other. You’re always communicating something, as the saying goes.
Healthy relationships have a lot of positive communication. This can look like words of affirmation, which is one of the five love languages. But it can also look like showing your partner curiosity or affection.
Thoughtful gestures are another form of positive communication. When you know your partner had a hard day, so you take care of the dishes without being asked, that communicates that you understand their experience and want to help. It doesn’t involve words, but it says a lot.
Of course, we also communicate when we’re not feeling so happy with our partners, and how you approach those conversations is even more important. When you have problems, how do you resolve them? In a healthy relationship, things may get heated and passionate, but it’s always respectful. Name calling, aggression, and abandonment are signs of destructive conflict.
On the flip side, if you’re not talking about problems, that’s an issue. Conflict happens in relationships, whether it’s out in the open or not. When you can’t address issues without the conversation becoming a catastrophic fight, things tend to get passive aggressive, resentful, and eventually, disconnected.
Unproductive conflict is more like a volcano: erupting periodically when the pressure is right, destroying a few villages, and then entering a dormant phase where things seem basically ok…until next time.
Every relationship involves teamwork. I call this the “functional partnership” aspect of your relationship. Who picks up the kids? Who mows the lawn? Who pays the bills?
In a healthy relationship, you’re able to work together in an effective, balanced way. You have dozens of little agreements, many of them explicit, around “how we get stuff done” as a couple. You may argue from time to time about who is or isn’t doing what, especially as circumstances change and these roles need to be rebalanced, but you’re ultimately able to find resolutions that feel good to you both, and that make you a better team.
When the “teamwork” component is missing, one or both partners will likely feel resentful. One partner may feel like they have to do everything, or it either won’t be done, or won’t be done properly. The other partner may feel their efforts aren’t recognized, or that they can’t do anything to their partner’s satisfaction, so they might as well stop trying. These couples often get stuck in a state of gridlock, where even talking about how they are or aren’t working together feels difficult.
Without good communication, teamwork is hard. When we feel criticized or taken for granted, we’re not eager to step up our efforts, or to cut our partner some slack. If you’re struggling with teamwork in your relationship, try working on communication first.
In healthy relationships, we enjoy each other’s company in basic ways. That doesn’t mean planning elaborate date nights or expensive vacations. Healthy couples can have a nice time chatting over dinner, or perusing the aisles of a hardware store.
You can have a lot of positive engagement in your relationship even if you don’t share a lot of interests with your partner. If you’re married to a birdwatcher, you don’t have to grab your binoculars and join them in the fields every Saturday morning. But when they come home gushing about the red-flanked bluetail they just spotted, give them your attention, and better yet, your curiosity. Showing interest in your partner’s passions shows your interest in them.
The opposite of this is judging your partner, or wishing that their personality or interests were different than they are. In an unhealthy relationship, the non-birding partner rolls her eyes when her mate gushes about the bluetail. Eventually he stops sharing this part of his life with her, and they grow a little bit further apart.
Shared Hopes and Dreams
Finally, healthy couples share hopes, dreams, and goals for the future.
You can do this in a million different ways, depending on what feels meaningful to you both. Many couples connect around their children, and the values they want to instill in them. Others connect around their home, or shared financial goals, or a particular community or cause that they both care about deeply.
Working together toward shared goals is what gives couples a sense of “us.” Together, you both get to become a part of something bigger than yourselves, and create a life that reflects your love.
If this is all sounding a bit ambitious, since you’re currently arguing about, say, who should take out the trash, don’t fret. Once you have the more fundamental healthy relationship components in place — like emotional safety, communication, and teamwork — your big vision for the future will come together more easily.
Healthy Relationship Quiz
I hope this podcast gives you a clear sense of which parts of your relationship are working well, and which parts could use a little work. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your partner. You may inspire a productive conversation.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to The Love, Happiness and Success podcast.
That beautiful song is called One Of These Days. It's by Bedouine. I thought it was the perfect song for our show today because she does such a gorgeous job of capturing the hope of somebody who really wants a relationship to work and believes that it can, and also an awareness of the realities of a relationship — and also to add another layer of complexity, her intention to create the kind of relationship that she wants to have with her partner.
That is perfect for us because we're going to be talking about all of those things on today's show. In today's episode, I am going to be helping you identify some realities of your relationship. In particular, what are things that signify that you have a healthy, strong relationship with a lot of potential and a lot of opportunities? Even if it's not perfect all the time, what's a keeper?
On the other side of that, what is really danger/warning signs for a relationship, and things that might be going on in your relationship that indicate there probably are bigger problems that are worth taking seriously. I wanted to offer this because so many people that we talked to in my practice or right into the show, their number one concern are their relationships and what's going on in their relationship.
A lot of times it's, “What do I do with this? How do I solve this problem? Or, is this a solvable problem? Is this a sign that maybe this relationship isn't what I want it to be, and maybe it isn't ever going to be what I want it to be? Then, on the other side, I think some people really, relationships are a mixed bag — all of them are. All relationships have some conflict and have some turbulence, and it can be really confusing because some people really in great and fundamentally solid relationships still wonder, “Is this okay?”
That's what we're talking about on today's episode of The Love, Happiness and Success podcast. If this is your first time tuning into the podcast — first of all, hello and thank you for being here. I'm so glad you're here. This show if you haven't listened before, this is all about you and my efforts to help you have better relationships, feel good about yourself and your life, and also do more good things in the world. This is all about empowerment.
In every episode of this show, I am attempting to step into the gap between where you are and where you want to be to help you just get direction and guidance that will help move you forward. What my sort of place is and why I'm presumptuous enough to think that I might be helpful to you — I am a marriage counselor, a therapist, and a life coach. By trade, I am the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching.
I spend a lot of time talking to people just like you — the therapy or counseling room across from me on my couch about stuff that's going on in their lives, things they can do to fix it. And you too deserve the benefit of good advice and some professional recommendations that can help you move forward. On this show every week, I'm attempting to answer the questions that you are telling me are important to you.
People get in touch with me and with us all the time with things that are on their mind — things about relationships, or personal issues that are coming up, or how to deal with different things. If you would like to do that, you are so welcome to. The easiest ways to get in touch, you can cruise over to our website — growingself.com.
We have a very active kind of comment/question community on those posts on our blog and podcast page. You can also send a general email to us — email@example.com, and also a great way to connect is through Facebook — facebook.com/drlisabobby. Let me know what's on your mind and you just might hear your question answered on an upcoming episode.
Is My Relationship Healthy?
Again, today, I am here to support you with your relationship. We're going to be talking about how to assess the strength and the health of your primary relationship that you have with your partner. This is really intended to be about your primary romantic relationship with your partner, your spouse. But I think that a lot of what we're talking about really applies to any kind of relationship in your life and how healthy it is.
As you're listening to this, you might consider how do my relationships with some of my friends feel when I apply these criteria to them, or even with family members — so that you can decide, “Are there areas of my life — relationships in my life — that could maybe use some extra TLC and/or maybe worth working at to improve? Or even do I set boundaries with some people if it's consistently not feeling good, and the evidence is indicating that it's probably not going to get better? So you can listen for that.
But before we jump into the criteria — how healthy is your relationship, things to look for — let me first tell you why this is so important. Because I think that this really matters and it's something for you to just keep in back of your mind as you're listening to the rest of this.
Many people who come into our practice for help, they're coming in because they are really in distress about their relationships. Either they're coming in the context of couples counseling, or even individuals — they're coming in because they're worried about their relationships, and they want to talk about their relationships.
What I see is that many people coming in, they feel genuinely confused about their relationships, and how they're going. Sometimes, best-case scenario, it's for seeing a couple and it's for couples counseling, and they're both in agreement that, “We have so many strengths and our relationship and so many things we want to build on, and we care about each other so much that we really want to invest in our relationship and make it the best it can be. We're here to get your help and just tweaking a few things and getting back on the same page, and making sure that this is just really feeling good for both of us.”
They're very proactive, and they're very focused on wellness. They're almost using couples counseling as a preventative kind of thing — coming in at the first sign of trouble. That is the absolutely best-case scenario. We love working with and helping those clients. We do great work.
Now, there are two other types of couples or people that come in with concerns about their relationships. Sometimes, there is just a general lack of awareness about what is healthy and normal in a relationship or a marriage, and what's not. That can create huge problems, and actually cause issues in a relationship. Let me explain.
Because I know that sounds really dramatic to say that a lack of awareness or almost education about healthy relationships can cause problems. But I'm not really talking in a hyperbolic fashion here. It's really because I sit with people who maybe have just had their families shattered by a divorce, or it's impossible to not sit with a couple that's like breaking up because of relationship issues and not walk away from that feeling really sobered by the experience.
Or, also working with people who come in, and they look back at the last 10 years of their lives and it has been a string of failed relationships that never even made it that far to marriage, but just over and over again with these patterns where they're feeling dissatisfied. They're ending relationships or they're connecting with people that aren't good for them, and the relationships sputter out.
That is really sad for a lot of people and it creates consequences that impact them, potentially for their whole lives is around the way they're handling their relationships. This is really big stuff. As I've mentioned before in articles and other shows, I think it's ridiculous that we spend so much of our lives learning in school about everything else.
We learn about Math, we learn about Science and Literature, but we get zero education about how to have a happy, healthy, functional relationship with another person. Nobody tells you explicitly how to do that. The ironic tragedy, of course, is that the quality of your relationships has much more to do with the overall quality of your life than your ability to write a coherent paragraph around Lord of the Flies or something like that. This is really important stuff.
Again, this is why I've been working so hard in other podcasts, and then the work in my group. Also, on this podcast today again is to try to fill that gap and give you information that can really help you and help you avoid the fate of some of the people who do ultimately show up for help in a space where it's pretty far gone — and they've been struggling for a long time.
This podcast is one way of doing that, and other kinds of educational things that we're doing is to try to correct this educational imbalance. We're overeducated with regards to so many things in life, and not educated enough I think when it comes to life skills around — again, relationships or how we manage ourselves as people. That's what I'm doing here.
Also, I created a little tool to help you get clarity about your relationship and how healthy it is. I actually created a quiz that is available on my website. You might consider taking this quiz before I launch into all of the information that I'm going to be giving you today because if you listen to everything first, and have an idea of what your answers should be, it may impact your results if you take the quiz before learning about what it all means.
If you are interested in getting a score on a measurement that can help you assess the relative strengths and “growth areas” of different parts of your relationship, I will invite you to pause this podcast for a second and come take the quiz. It's at growingself.com/relationship-quiz, relationship-quiz, and take the quiz. Then, come back to this podcast when you're done, and we will talk about what it means. However, obviously, don't do this if it's not a good time or if you're driving or something. But you can still just listen and take the quiz later.
Or, if you want to get really some interesting data, you might send your partner the quiz and see what their answers are. That could be very illuminating. It could potentially launch some really productive conversations between the two of you. That is something to consider as well. If you have the time and energy, take the quiz. But otherwise, I'm going to continue on here.
Unrealistic Expectations of Relationships
First of all, let me explain the dangers on two different extremes of what can happen when people really don't understand what normal healthy relationships look like and feel like, and why it can be so problematic on both sides of this spectrum. On the one hand, when people have unrealistic expectations about what good authentic relationships look like or feel like, they can perceive that they're good, happy, healthy, solid relationship is actually having problems when there aren't problems.
It's so that they begin to believe that something is wrong with their relationship when it isn't. Then, that belief, in turn, creates actual problems in a relationship. They may overreact to small issues or they might catastrophize and feel really hopeless about the relationship, become disillusioned with a relationship, or perhaps even become really critical or overly demanding of their partner, and the partner starts to feel diminished and like they can never make them happy. Then, that actually does cause real problems over time.
You might be thinking to yourself, “That's silly. Who would believe that there's an actual relationship problem when there isn't one? It doesn't make sense.” But think about it for a second, because most people, again, in the broader societal context of zero relationship education — where do we learn about our relationships? We learn about it from the movies and television, or we learn from whatever we saw our parents doing, typically, or the people around us doing.
On one extreme, we have what the media shows us about the relationship ideal, which often has very little basis in reality. Most rom-com certainly, and many other movies, they end when two people have just become over all kinds of obstacles and discovered how much they love each other, and they're the pinnacle of their romantic bliss. Then, the movie fades out, and they're in love forever.
It doesn't continue on and follow that rom-com couple for the next five years through the evolution of what happens next in the months and the years that follow after the excitement of a courtship. It doesn't portray a realistic picture of what a normal marriage looks like, and what is normal and expected for people as they transition into having a family or dealing with the ups and downs that life brings. People — we move, we change jobs, we have stuff to deal with, and our relationships can change and evolve in response to all of that. We don't have good models for that.
Then, on the other side, the other models that we do have are our parents, our family of origin, and the people around us. A lot of us had parents who did not know what they were doing when it came to relationships either. Being a child of divorce, or seeing your parents rotate through a couple of different partners as you were growing up, or even having parents who as so many do, found a kind of stable happiness where maybe they're not really engaging with each other, communicating well or enjoying their relationship, but they're able to have enduring partnership nonetheless. But maybe not one that any of us would aspire to.
For all of these reasons, we didn't learn how to do relationships. Either we have this romantic ideal for what relationships should be, and also if we saw our parents fighting with each other, and then they got divorced. A lot of people take that as fighting means divorce or unhappiness. There's a lot of fear if people do see things happening in their own relationship that are reminiscent of things that they experienced in their family of origin that their parents weren't able to successfully deal with or overcome.
Then, when they have normal conflict or disagreement or transitional times in their own marriage, it can become very easy and understandable, honestly, that they might take that to mean that they're about to get divorced, or that something really terrible is about to happen in their relationship because that's what they saw happen play out in the lives of other people, and they don't know how else to navigate through it.
Again, very understandable, but I hope that helps you understand why some people who have good healthy relationships can almost like misread the signals like the normal relationship turbulence and come away from that thinking that there's something really wrong when. Maybe, there isn't.
Part of my hope for today's podcast is to help you understand if maybe you lean that way, what is normal so that when you have normal ups and downs in your relationship, or maybe you and your partner do have a fight, you might think back to what we talked about today and say, “You know what? This is okay. We are okay, we can get through this.” And hopefully, have some tools to help you get through that in a productive way instead of getting scared. That is one thing we're going to be talking about today.
Then, the other side of the spectrum that is at least as problematic if not more so, is the sad side where people are not aware of relationship issues, and what are things that they really do need to be paying attention to and actively working to correct because there are things that people experience in day-to-day relationships that from a marriage counselor's perspective, it’s like, “Buddy, your relationship is about to drive off a cliff six months from now. Do you not see this?”
It's so hard because if people aren't paying attention to those signals, or if they're ignoring the warning signs, or minimizing them or blowing them off, or saying, “Oh, this isn't a big deal. My partner just needs to get over that. This isn't anything.” Or maybe, they avoid difficult conversations, or they get defensive, or just essentially refusing to acknowledge the issues that their partner is trying to bring up.
These are the people who wind up getting blindsided by a divorce or a breakup. When I say “blindsided”, I'm using my air quotes right now because as we autopsy of these relationships, there were all kinds of signs that this was coming, but they didn't know. They didn't understand that the whole time, they were wanting to avoid or not deal with, or not participate in finding solutions to their problems.
Their partner's needs and feelings were going unmet for a long time. Their partners were month by month, year by year really emotionally distancing themselves and losing respect for them, and losing hope for the relationship. In those cases, what we too frequently see is that for years, sometimes one person wasn't taking the problem seriously and their partner was really fighting for their relationship in a lot of ways.
Over time, the partner who had been complaining and saying, “Hey, we need to work on this”, will eventually stop. They'll give up hoping that change is possible. Then, they decide eventually that it's time to go.
Then, the person who hadn't realized how big of a deal these issues actually were, or who thought they could handle it on their own and that things will just get better — those are the people who are like hysterically calling us for next day marriage counseling appointment because their partner is like packing their car and begging their about-to-be ex to go to marriage counseling with them. Sometimes, it's too late.
The other side there, I also hope to offer today some realistic information that you could use, or even if you are with a person who isn't taking things seriously, put this information in front of them to perhaps help them understand that some of the things that are going on really are problematic and that you guys need to work together to improve it because it's not sustainable, the way that it's going. That's my other hope and intention for today.
So, it’s just to help you stay out of trouble, basically, on both sides of this. Let's now run down some of the basic foundational things that are either solid and in a good place, and the other stuff that can happen from time to time is just noise. If they're not in a good place, that fighting and conflict is really indicative of a much larger problem.
Domains of Relationship Health
In general, there are five different categories or domains of relationship health that we look at. One of them can be thought of — academically, it's referred to as attachment, but I think of it as emotional safety. That is the number one most important thing is how safe does your relationship feel to you. By safe, I'm not in addition to physical safety. Things like trust and commitment, and just feeling generally loved and respected by your partner. That all falls into the emotional safety domain.
The second really important domain that ties in with emotional safety is communication. How do you guys communicate with each other? And when there are problems, how do you solve those problems? Looking at communication can give you also a lot of information about how healthy a relationship is overall.
Another tremendously important aspect of relationship health is around your sense of teamwork, or the kind of functional partnership that you have with each other — the nuts and bolts of how you do things together day-to-day, and how good that is currently feeling for both of you.
When that isn't a good space, or if you have good processes in place to help you work through those issues as a couple, your relationship is really very strong. Also, if you are having fights all the time about teamwork, and who's doing what, and how that's supposed to happen — that is also something to pay attention to. It can be easy to blow off is just potato-potato stuff, but over time, it can really take a toll. We're going to be talking about that.
Another incredibly important domain of relationship is the level of positive engagement and enjoyment that you have with each other because even if there is other stuff going on that might feel challenging in other domains of your relationship, if you're still genuinely enjoying each other's company and feeling good with each other, and finding and intentionally cultivating those experiences to share — that is another huge point of resilience for your partnership. We'll be talking more about that.
Lastly, but not leastly, we are also going to be talking about the aspect of your relationship that has to do with your shared life — like how do you support each other's hopes and dreams, and have also a set of shared meaning and value. The sense that you guys are both working together for something that's bigger than both of you — that is also a huge strength for a couple. Without it, the foundation of a couple can really be damaged. We'll be touching on that too.
Characteristics of an Unhealthy Relationship
Those are our five basic domains. Let's just start by talking about the first one. The first domain is emotional safety. If you have solid emotional safety in your relationship, in my opinion as a marriage counselor, almost everything else is a solvable problem. If your basic sense of emotional safety feels more fragile or doesn't feel as strong, it is going to cascade down and negatively impact so many other aspects of your relationship. We're going to be talking about this one first and at most length.
If you are getting the sense that your partnership is struggling in a major way as you're listening to this, I would advise you to focus on building up this area of your relationship first because other things will begin to fall into place if you guys have emotional safety together.
Okay, what do I mean by emotional safety? Emotional safety is this sense, this basic sense, this felt sense of being loved and respected by your partner. It is beyond somebody saying, “I love you” or doing nice things for you. It's really feeling that your feelings, and needs, and rights are important to your partner. They show you that in lots of different ways that you fundamentally know that they are committed to you, they're not threatening to abandon you if you do something that upsets them, you don't feel judged by them.
You feel safe with them. You can be yourself and they like you. They like who you are. You also trust them to not hurt you physically, of course, but also in other ways. There are lots of different ways to hurt in a relationship and to damage trust and relationship. How does your partner respond to you when you come to them with — I don't know.
Maybe, you're going through a hard time emotionally, do you feel cared for by them in those moments? Do you feel like they're emotionally available for you? If there is a problem that you need to solve in your relationship, is it okay to say that and say, “I wonder if we could work on this.” Or, do they say, “Babe, what's going on?” Or, do they start screaming at you and throw a chair out the window? Or, do they get immediately angry and refuse to talk, and slam the door and walk out?
That is not emotional safety. That is a lot of real insecurity emotionally. Emotional safety is really about the basic trust in, “I'm loved, I’m cared for, I'm respected”, and that you're with somebody who is able to conduct themselves in such a way that they can manage their emotions so they're not scary or they're not rejecting. They are also able to be responsive to you — they can listen to you, they can talk to you, they can meet your needs and just basic ways, or work with you to solve problems.
It's just you don't feel like you're walking on eggshells all the time, or that if you're about to do something wrong, there will be consequences — those things are the opposite of emotional safety. With that in mind, I would like to say that all couples fight, all couples have conflict — spoken or unspoken. It can show up in a lot of different ways. You didn't marry yourself, you're not partnered with yourself. It is natural, and normal, and expected that as people are coming together and trying to do a relationship together, there are going to be times when you don't see eye to eye or that one of you hurts the other person's feelings — that maybe that wasn’t intentional, or maybe it was intentional.
But these are just sort of normal things that can happen across the lifespan of a relationship. The fact that those things might be happening doesn't really mean that much. What matters much more is that, in general, even though you do get into it with each other from time to time — that most of the time, when you do have conflict, it is done in a way that isn't scary. It's not threatening to you or your relationship. Also, the kind of unspoken truth that you're both aware of while conflict is happening is that:
“We're going to get through this. It's going to be fine. We are not seeing eye to eye right now. We need to make some changes in the way we do things and we are willing to work with each other to create that. Fundamentally, at the end of the day, I know that you love me and care about me, and don't want to hurt me or want me to be in any kind of pain. And I feel the same way about you.”
If that sort of emotional safety is present, the other stuff is turbulence that can be worked through. Consider how your relationship feels when it comes to emotional safety. Again, if you want item by item, “Are these things happening? Check ‘yes’ or ‘no’.” The quiz might be helpful for you to differentiate what is indicative of emotional safety and what isn't. Again, you might want to check that out at the relationship quiz — growingself.com/relationship-quiz.
Okay. Now, let's talk about the next domain which is the communication domain. Communication refers to a lot of different things. It does refer to the way that you talk to each other. But communication also refers to the way that you behave towards each other and what you show each other both verbally and nonverbally. Healthy communication has two aspects.
First of all, there's a lot of positive communication in a healthy relationship. There are words of affirmation like, “Oh, hey! I'm happy to see you and I love you, and you look nice today.” Or, “You smell good”, or whatever it is. Or, “Wow! This is a great dinner. Thank you.” Words of kindness, and appreciation, and positivity.
Also, caring is communicated through things like curiosity, “How is your day? What's going on with you?” Communicating like, “I care about you and I want to be your friend. I want to know what's going on with your life.” Positive communication — just enjoying each other, and some people are more verbal than others.
If you're — I hate to gender stereotype because there are plenty of women who tend to be more introverted, and are partnered with men who are just dying to talk about stuff, believe it or not. In many relationships, it can also be true that the woman — the female partner if it's a heterosexual relationship — might desire that more kind of verbal communication, positive communication than their male partners.
When I'm talking about communication, that kind of verbal engagement can be a piece of that. But also, we need to recognize and value the other ways that our partners might show us they care about us through the things that they do for us through physical communication. Certainly, physical affection and sexuality can be a part of this too.
Also, just the thoughtful gestures that people can make — doing the dishes without saying anything can be part of it because they know you've had a hard day or spending 45 minutes helping you find your car keys because you're stressed out and don't know where they are. All of these things can be meaningful forms of communication that say, “I care about you. You're important to me. I'm here for you.” In healthy relationships, there's a lot of that going on.
The other side of good communication is that, while all couples have disagreements, and all couples have misunderstandings, and all couples have growth moments where something isn't working for one or both of them and they need to work through it — that communication, while it can be passionate, or heated, or, “No, you really don't understand. This is really important to me.”
That even though it can get intense emotionally sometimes, it is also done fairly respectfully. There's not name-calling, it's not screaming, and being scary and hostile — going back to that idea of emotional safety — and it's not rejecting. It's not defensiveness, “I don’t know what you're talking about. You're crazy. I don't want to talk about that. That's stupid.” That is really just as hostile and destructive as somebody who's very critical and attacking.
Or, again, going back to that emotional unsafety idea that you're walking on eggshells, or that you can't bring up things that are important to you, that it isn't safe to talk openly about potential problems without it turning into a big fight or a big catastrophe. Those would be evidence that in the communication domain. There are more serious problems happening where as long as everybody is like on best behavior and says “please” and “thank you”, and “pass the salt”.
It doesn't bring up any big deal if you guys can have a good time, but you can't talk about other more authentic things. Those are indications that you really need to take a look at what's happening in the communication in your relationship and work on improving that because those are problems that are going to get bigger over time, particularly if those communication problems result in one or both of you feeling fundamentally uncared for, or emotionally unsafe with each other.
Now, again, with communication, all couples fight, and those conflicts can get heated and passionate — but in a healthy relationship, that happens. But the difference between a healthy relationship is that in a healthy relationship, two people can have a disagreement. They can be upset with each other. They can feel frustrated and, “No, you're not understanding me.”
But what happens too is that they are able to either stay in the ring with each other and have that eventually become a productive conversation where they learn something new about the other person, or where they're able to identify some improvement that can prevent that misunderstanding or that hurt from happening again in the future, and then are willing to follow through. There's a certain sense that their conflict is productive in a healthy relationship.
Whereas in an unhealthy relationship, even though the beginning stages of an argument might look exactly the same, there isn't that ultimate resolution. It's like a big fight, and somebody slams the door, and the other person drives off. Whatever that fight was about doesn't really get resolved on a deeper level. That is evidence of, again, a much bigger problem if communication doesn't allow the two of you to ultimately come back together again, and find a solution.
The goal here is not to avoid conflict or not to ever be frustrated with each other. That happens in healthy relationships. But the difference, again, is that it's not productive at the end in an unhealthy relationship. Okay, hope that makes sense.
When it comes to the teamwork domain of a relationship — again, this also ties into communication and to emotional safety. But teamwork refers to the way that you guys do things together as a couple.
All couples, over time, in order to be happy and healthy and satisfied with each other, need to come together and create a preferably explicit set of agreements around, “This is how we do things as a couple.” It could be tied to housework, “I do the cooking, you do the dishes. You mow the lawn, I clean the bathrooms”, “We are intimate with each other on Tuesdays and Saturdays because that's the only realistic times we really have to be together.”
Or, we don't make plans with each other's family before first consulting the other person. There are all kinds of little — I hate to use the word “rules to live by”, but they kind of are. Not rules, but really guidelines around, “This is what I know you need in order to feel like our relationship is in balance. There is a balanced division of labor that we both feel good about. Neither of us is feeling resentful at the other for maybe carrying more than their share of the burden for keeping the wheels on this bus that we're doing together.
Also, agreements and understandings around, “This is how we do show each other love. This is the time that we connect together as a couple. I'm going to set boundaries around this time because this is our time to be together. We do Family Day on Saturday, so I'm not going to book myself up with a mani-pedi with my girlfriend on Saturday because I know that you're counting on that time to hang out with me. This is our time.”
It's all dozens of these really small little agreements in a healthy relationship. The health of a relationship fundamentally, I think in many ways, it can be assessed by — how many of those agreements do you have? Are they working for both of you? In couples that are really distressed or when communication isn't good enough to allow two people to continue a conversation long enough to come into a compromise around, “Okay, I'm going to do my yoga class on Sundays, and that'll be your time to hang out with the kids. You can go do your thing on Saturdays, and I’ll do the kids.”
Couples who are fighting all the time and who don't have good communication, it turns into a crap-show argument around attacks and defensiveness so that they cannot arrive at a productive conclusion where they're like, “Okay, I know what my job is.” Again, the presence or absence of those agreements can indicate one of two things. If you have a lot of these that are working really well, I think that's a really positive indicator that your relationship is fundamentally happy and healthy.
I would say that any conflicts that you might be having are just opportunities for you guys to arrive at new agreements that there may be areas of your relationship that have not been agreed upon yet. It may be, as happens with many couples, that life changes. As couples go through transitional periods — maybe you have a child, maybe one person takes a new job, maybe you move to a new community — for whatever reason, the agreements that you had in the past no longer totally applied to your life as it is currently.
All conflict means is that you guys need to come together and figure out this stuff. Again, that is normal, healthy work that all couples need to do. If you're having those kinds of conflicts, that doesn't mean that anything bad is happening. If you do not have a lot of these agreements around your partnership, if one of you is persistently feeling resentful towards the other, and if you are not able to have productive conversations that help you come to resolution, that to me would be a strong indicator that you have serious work to do.
If you leave these undone, or if you ignore them, what will happen is that the resentments will continue to pile up — and that it will become harder and harder to talk about this stuff productively without it turning into a big yucky fight. Take a look at what's happening with regards to your teamwork.
Now, the next important domain of relationship health goes back to your enjoyment of each other. To say very clearly, healthy couples that have a lot of strength and resilience, they enjoy each other's company in just basic ways. That does not necessarily mean that they are superficially — air quote again — “compatible”, or that they share a lot of common interests, or that they like to do the same things.
You would be surprised at how many couples I've worked with that are really worried that they are not good together, or that their relationship isn't going to be happy long term because they don't like to do the same things, or they don't feel like they have a lot of shared interests. The actual truth is that enjoying each other's company and having a good time doesn't have that much to do with whether or not you both like to do the same things.
What is much more related to is how flexible, and generous, and tolerant you can be with each other. Also, how much you just enjoy each other as a person. At the same time, there are all kinds of couples that are both really going to music festivals, or really all the stuff that one would put in an online dating profile, “I like walking on the beach. I like to travel.”
They like doing those same things, but they're still fundamentally not that compatible because when they go to the music festival or go travel to Tahiti, they're fighting the whole time because
they're not enjoying each other's company. I just want to reframe your idea around what a good solid healthy relationship means in terms of that fundamental enjoyment piece.
Again, when it comes to enjoying each other, what I'm talking about is, “Do you like your partner's personality and fundamental ways? Do you have a good time together when you're just doing regular stuff? It's nobody's idea of a good time to go to Costco for half a day on Saturday. But when you do that, are you having a good time? Are you just enjoying that? Do you have just a basic interest in your partner?
A huge area of health and strength for a relationship is that even if you are not personally that interested in something that is important to your partner, you are still willing to be generous and genuinely curious about their interests in it and what it means to them. Are you willing to join with them from time to time in the things that are meaningful, and valuable, and important to them? Or, can you support them in doing their thing even if it's not something that you can directly participate in for whatever reason?
Again, think about the health of your relationship. Do you typically feel good? Does your partner make you laugh? Do you think they're interesting? Or, if they're telling you about some obscure hobby that they're into that you're like, “Oh, really?”, can you extend the graciousness of being interested in them and what they care about, and communicating that care.
Likewise, maybe you're into some really obscure like baseball card… I don't know, whatever — statistics, and your partner isn't. But you feel that your partner is at least willing to talk to you if you came home, and you're all excited because you just found some rare Collector's Edition baseball card and whatever. Do they get excited with you? And are they willing to, every once in a while, go with you to the garage sale to go look for baseball cards, or whatever it is, even though it's not their first choice?
It's just the feeling that your partner is being generous with you, and that they could care less about baseball cards, but they are still enjoying just driving around on a Saturday with you and going to different places because they like your company, and vice versa.
Now, on the other side of this, what I would look for as a sign that a relationship does have more serious issues has nothing to do with whether or not people like the same things. But it is:
Are they judging their partner for liking the things that they like? Are they contemptuous of their partner's interests? Are they refusing to participate in things that are really genuinely important to their partner? Do they ridicule things that are genuinely important to their partner? And are they just day-to-day just having conversations? Do you feel like your partner doesn't like you and thinks that you're dumb, and the stuff that you're into is lame and feels like they're always rolling their eyes when they talk to you? Or do you feel that way towards your partner?
Those behaviors or those feelings to me would be indicative that there's a much deeper problem, and it is not about finding hobbies that you guys can both do together. It's about figuring out what's going on that's feeling so abrasive to both of you and really working on how do you cultivate a feeling of tolerance and acceptance for who your partner really is.
How do you learn how to appreciate them for who they really are and have gratitude for who they really are as being individual and distinct from you? Because if you're in a relationship that's colored by a lot of judgment where one person is really feeling like the other person should be more like they are, or vice versa — that is problematic, and that is also going to lead to… Over time, it will erode your sense of emotional safety and the foundation of your relationship.
Lastly, joined to that but different is the sense of shared hopes and dreams that a partnership has. In our last category, we were talking about that enjoyment, and that is really around appreciating and respecting each other and enjoying each other as individuals so that you both have space to be yourselves and that you like each other anyway even if you're different.
The other piece of this is — do you have shared hopes and dreams for your partnership and your family? Are there things that you can connect around that do feel meaningful to both of you, whether it's your kids or your home, or if you have financial goals, or if you have things that you're working towards — like in 10 years, we would like to be retired and buy a house in Vail, and whatever it is.
It could be other kinds of things. Maybe there is work that you both feel is meaningful and important to both of you. Or, maybe it is volunteer work, or maybe it's a particular cause that you guys both feel really good about. I could look like anything. But there is this sense of shared meaning and shared purpose, and like you're working together to create something or that you have values in common that both of you are working together to express jointly in your lives.
In healthy relationships, there is at least an element of that. There is at least some sense of “us”, of “we”, “This is what ‘we’ are doing with our lives. This is what ‘we’ want ‘our’ home to be like and ‘our’ family to be like. These are the values that we'd like to instill in our children, and this is how we are working together to create this future reality that we’ll share.
Then, strong couples, strong partnerships are talking about those things explicitly, “What are our five-year goals? What are our 10-year goals? Are we saving money for our kids to go to college? What are we doing with our lives?” Having open conversations about that — again, going back to that last category is also making space for the things that might be individually important for each of you, but that you're working together as a couple to make those things happen.
Maybe, the goal for you guys is that one of you could go back to school, and this is what the other person will do in the meantime. Or, that one of you has always had a dream for staying home and nurturing children, and this is how the other person is going to make it happen. Again, it's not that you guys are both doing the same thing, but that you are working together to create a life that both of you feel good about and having conversations around that.
On the opposite side of that couples that I worry about don't have that sense of “we”. They don't have that sense of future, they don't have that same sense of shared meaning and shared purpose. It's not to say that couples can't create that because I tell you what —
To people who don't have emotional safety, who their communication is going off the rails and are still struggling about the right way to load the dishwasher, they have kind of prerequisite work to do in the foundational aspects of their partnership before they can have those headier kinds of conversations around, “What are we doing with our lives?”, kind of thing.
Just because you might not be in that space now, that doesn't mean that if you can't do some repair work around those more foundational aspects of your relationship that you couldn't build a beautiful life together that's really based on your shared dreams and your shared goals, and feel like you're both working together to create that.
The Makings of a Healthy Relationship
Those are the different relationship domains that signify health in a relationship, or that signify growth opportunities in a relationship. Me talking through these, I hope that the number one thing that was conveyed to you is that every couple can grow. By working together on specific areas of their relationship, it can improve. Just because some of this warning sign stuff is happening, all that means is that you need to pay attention to it and work together to make it better.
That is the only thing that it means. It does not mean that your relationship is doomed. What is more concerning is if you're coming to your partner and saying, “This is a problem. We need to work on this.” And they are saying “no” — that may eventually spell doom. But we're not there yet. Because you're listening to this podcast, you're educating yourself and you're going to work on this with your partner. It can be okay.
If you have been listening to this podcast under duress, if your partner has you trapped in a moving car and is playing this podcast for you, so you'll listen — I hope that what you heard is that your partner really cares about your relationship and wants it to be better, and has wanted you to listen to this podcast so that you could learn about what areas of your relationship are feeling problematic for them and what healthy relationships look. Because chances are, if it isn't feeling good for them on some level, it isn't feeling good for you either.
I hope that this has put together a roadmap in your mind around goals that both of you can work towards, around what a happy, healthy relationship can look like for both of you. To my other listeners on the other side, if you have been worried about your relationship or having anxiety about certain aspects of it, the fact that your partner does disappoint you sometimes, or that you do have conflict every once in a while, or that you don't have a lot of things in common, or whatever —
I hope that you have also learned that those things don't always really matter that much and that you can have normal relational, turbulence, and friction and things can not always feel perfect. You can still have a really fundamentally happy, healthy, strong relationship; that this is just the experience of being in a long-term relationship as this kind of stuff happens sometimes, and I hope that it's helped you gain a deeper awareness and appreciation for all the strengths in your relationship.
As always, I hope that this podcast was meaningful to you and helpful to you. It is my labor of love and just my way of giving back to the world. I will ask, though, that if you feel like you've benefited from this podcast, or any others — if you could pay it forward to other people by leaving a review for this podcast, preferably favorable, but on iTunes or Stitcher or wherever you listen to this, it only will help other people find this podcast or stumble upon it in their own times of need.
They've just gotten into a fight and are trying to figure out what the heck is going on and what does this mean about their relationship — they can also hear this and get information that could help them. They won't unless you leave a review about this podcast because when you do that, it will make the podcast more available for them. Again, this is a totally free — I consider it to be a community resource more than anything else. This is a resource that only exists because listeners just like you have put it in front of other people.
We don't do any advertising or this isn't a financial thing. This is just free help. Anyway, that is my request of you. Also, I'd like to invite you to take advantage of the other resources. Again, if you want to take that quiz come to my website — growingself.com/relationship-quiz. That too is free.
If you have questions that you'd like me to answer on an upcoming episode rather, get in touch with me through my website. Again, through Facebook — facebook.com/drlisabobby. I love all of your questions. I read every single one, and I am compiling a list of things to discuss on the podcast based on the questions you're asking me, so keep them coming.
Alright, thank you again for listening and I'll be back in touch in a couple of weeks with another episode. Until then, take care.
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