Can You Be Friends With Your Ex?

Can You Be Friends With Your Ex?

Can You Be Friends With Your Ex?

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. 

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

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Can You Be Friends With Your Ex?

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Can You Be Friends With Your Ex? – Episode Highlights

As anyone who has had their heart mangled by a breakup knows, attachment to an ex does not turn off like a light switch. Instead, our attachment bonds wither away gradually — and quite painfully. 

When you’re going through a breakup, it’s totally normal to not be able to stop thinking about your ex. You may wonder what they’re up to, if they still think of you, or obsess about their new relationship. It can be very easy, in this state, to convince yourself that reaching out to your ex and getting a “friendly” exchange started is the right thing to do. 

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. 

First and foremost, if you and your ex have children together, it is in your family’s best interest to keep your split as amicable as possible, and to have a functional partnership with them that allows you to be good co-parents for your kids. You will have to communicate with your ex, see them occasionally, and you will have to work with them to give your children what they need. All of this will go much more smoothly if you’re on good terms with each other. 

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.

You can scroll back through this podcast feed. I've done so many episodes. In particular, Why You Can't Stop Thinking About Your Ex is always a good one. Let's see, what are some other of my favorites? Why Your Breakup Was a Good Thing is always a positive one to revisit.

If you're feeling like that stuckness, like, can't release an attachment to somebody that you really should, I have a number of podcast episodes around releasing your addiction to a toxic relationship that you might check out.

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. 

Why Relationships Fail

Why Relationships Fail

Why Relationships Fail

Why Relationships Fail… And How to Protect Yours.

Secret bank accounts. Illicit rendezvous with the babysitter. Biweekly fights that end in split lips and phone calls to the police. 

We’ve all heard about “those” relationships, haven’t we? And maybe we’ve even witnessed something close to them playing out between people we know. It’s no surprise when unions with such obvious markers of pain and dysfunction go down in flames. They may even make us feel a little better about our own relationships, or the kind of partners we are. Sure, we’re imperfect, but we would never do that. 

But, as a longtime marriage counselor and couples therapist, trust me when I say that most relationships that fail don’t go down in a big, dramatic burst of flames that everyone sees coming from a hundred miles away. To paraphrase Hemingway, they tend to end gradually, and then all at once. The little injuries that add up to a divorce or a breakup usually seem insignificant while they’re happening, until their cumulative damage is too much for the couple to bear. 

When two people who love each other aren’t able to make their relationship work, it’s sad. Because “making it work” is usually a matter of building certain skills, which anyone can do with knowledge and practice. I created this podcast to illustrate that for you. My hope is that, after this conversation, you’ll have a clear understanding of what really tanks relationships, and how you can avoid that outcome in your own. 

My guest is Matthew Fray, a talented writer with some hard-won knowledge in this area. In his new book, “This is How Your Marriage Ends,” Matthew discusses his own marriage’s demise, and the lessons he wishes he’d learned before it was too late. We’re sharing those important lessons with you today, so you can keep your relationship alive for the long haul. 

I hope you’ll tune in to hear Matt’s heartfelt relationship advice. Listen here on this page, on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. 

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Why Relationships Fail

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Why Do Relationships Fail?

Many of the moments that destroy relationships look like no big deal while they’re happening. They can take the shape of “petty” disagreements, too insignificant to pose a real threat to something as important as your marriage. 

But over time, these minor disagreements certainly can pose a threat. They can carry more emotional weight than you might expect, bringing up questions about love, safety, trust, and respect between yourself and your partner. If they’re not handled with care, these “petty” disagreements will undermine your connection, and can eventually cause you to lose what you value the most in the world. 

Here are some hallmarks of the destructive conflict cycle that causes relationships to fail. By breaking these common patterns, you and your partner can begin to navigate conflict in a way that helps you grow together, not apart

Why Relationships Fail: Defensiveness

Imagine that your partner is furious about something that doesn’t seem particularly important to you. Maybe you wore your shoes in the house when they’ve repeatedly asked you not to, or you were ten minutes late meeting them for dinner. 

What’s your reaction to their anger? Do you feel like you’re being punished harshly for something that doesn’t mean much, considering how much you do for your partner every day? Do you remind them of all the sacrifices you’ve made for them or for the relationship, or of all the things they do that you don’t like? 

That’s defensiveness, which is a totally normal reaction to feeling criticized or under attack. Unfortunately, when we get defensive, we can’t really hear our partners. We’re too busy arguing them out of their perspective to hear the hurt or the pain underneath their complaints, because what they’re saying feels like a threat to us. 

When one partner is angry and the other is defensive, you get stuck. You can’t move forward into repairing the rift that’s opened up between you and deepening your understanding of each other, because you’re locked in a stalemate of “attack” and “counterattack.” Your partner gets the message that, when they’re upset, their feelings will be met with hostility. Eventually, they’ll stop bringing problems to you, and resentments will build. 

So, what’s the antidote to defensiveness? Responsibility. When your partner is upset with you, try to take responsibility for your part in the conflict. That doesn’t mean you have to assume blame that isn’t yours, or always let them “win.” But admit where you’re wrong, and take an interest in their feelings about the situation. You’ll find that you’re able to have a real conversation at that point, and to resolve small problems before they grow into something more serious. 

Why Relationships Fail: Emotional Invalidation

Emotional invalidation is another common cause in failing relationships. When we emotionally invalidate our partners, we might agree with their perceptions — that we were late, that we did wear our shoes in the house — but disagree with their emotional reaction to what happened. We might tell them they’re overreacting, or that we can’t understand what they’re so upset about. 

Invalidation happens all the time. I would bet that, at some point in your relationship, you have invalidated your partner, and that your partner has invalidated you. Invalidation doesn’t make you a terrible person (or a gaslighter, for that matter). Most of us don’t even realize when we’re being invalidating; we usually think we’re being helpful, encouraging our partners to let go of bad feelings or see things from another, more positive perspective.

But chronic emotional invalidation leaves your partner with the impression that you don’t care about their experience, that you don’t take their emotions seriously, and that there’s no point in trying to resolve problems with you, because they’ll only be dismissed. If your partner comes to expect invalidation from you, they’ll likely begin to withdraw from the relationship. Eventually, this will destroy your connection. 

To avoid invalidating your partner, practice listening to them, without trying to “fix” their problems or argue them out of their perspective. Practice accepting their emotional reality for what it is, rather than trying to convince them that the way they feel isn’t reasonable. I use the word practice deliberately here — validating is a habit that we all must build with intention. 

Why Relationships Fail: Broken Trust

Minor conflicts that spin out into defensiveness and invalidation have a damaging effect on your bond to your partner. That’s because they lead to broken trust, which is enough to take down even the most loving relationships. 

Over time, if you dismiss your partner’s feelings and concerns as unimportant or overblown, they will stop trusting you. I’m not being dramatic when I say that — they will learn that you’re not an emotionally safe person who will treat their needs, feelings, and perspective as valid and important. And that’s what we need from our partners, more than from anyone else in the world. 

What happens when your partner stops trusting you? They stop being vulnerable with you, and they stop leaning on you in times of need. They might give up on trying to connect with you on a deep emotional level, and settle for a superficial relationship that begins to feel lonely and hollow to you both. They won’t assume that your intentions are good, and conflicts in your relationship will become more bitter and more damaging as time goes on. Eventually, if something doesn’t change, your relationship will disintegrate. 

So how do you repair broken trust, once it’s been damaged? You can start by listening to your partner, validating their feelings, empathizing with them, and taking responsibility for your part in conflicts, rather than reacting with defensiveness. 

This all might sound like I’m telling you to let your partner have their way, or to disregard your own needs, rights, and feelings in favor of your partner’s. That’s not the case — you also deserve to be heard, and to have empathy and validation when you’re upset. But you won’t get that by “winning” the argument or by being the most correct. You’ll get it by extending generosity and kindness toward your partner, which will make them more willing to reciprocate with kindness and generosity in return. 

Why Marriages Succeed or Fail

If I could impart one bit of wisdom to every couple, from my many years as both a married person and as a marriage counselor, it would be this: When marriages fail, it’s usually not in a high-drama, crash and burn scenario. The kind of dissolution that makes for an intriguing TV plot line is rarely what I see play out between actual couples who arrive in my office. 

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

But you can build these skills, and your relationship will be stronger and healthier for it. I hope this podcast gave you some good ideas for where to start.



Music in this episode is by Nocturne Blue, covering “Ship of Fools” by World Party. 

You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://nocturneblue.bandcamp.com/.  Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.

Attachment Styles in Relationships

Attachment Styles in Relationships

Attachment Styles in Relationships

Hey baby. What’s your attachment style? 

That question is overtaking “what’s your sign?” on dating profiles, and I have to say I think it’s an improvement. When a marriage counseling or relationship coaching client knows their attachment style, I’m thrilled; Becoming aware of your attachment patterns helps you understand how you show up in relationships, and how that impacts the way your partners respond to you. 

Can the Zodiac tell you that? I don’t think so. 

But, as with any psychological concept that gets compressed into 50-second TikTok videos and disseminated widely, confusion about attachment styles is gaining traction as quickly as awareness of them. And that’s too bad, because attachment is both important and fascinating stuff.  

When you become attached to a romantic partner, an invisible machine starts whirring in your brain, monitoring the security of that bond and the availability of your mate. If the relationship feels threatened, attachment prompts you to take action to preserve it, either through bids for more connection, or for more space. 

This machine keeps our relationships alive and in balance, which makes it possible for us to sustain love for a lifetime. So how does it work? And why does attachment look so different from person to person, relationship to relationship, or even from day to day? 

I created this episode of the podcast to answer these questions and more. We’ll be diving into the science of attachment, some popular misconceptions about attachment styles, and common attachment dynamics that may be playing out in your relationship — and how you can handle them. 

I hope this episode helps you to better understand yourself and your partner, and gives you a new appreciation for your brain’s incredible attachment machine. To get the most out of this episode, I recommend taking our attachment styles quiz first. 

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Attachment Styles in Relationships

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Attachment Styles in Relationships — Episode Highlights

Attaching to a romantic partner is a fundamental human drive. It happens without much effort or conscious thought on our part — we simply canoodle with an attractive mate, and before long, find that even the thought of losing that relationship is enough to cause us a full-on freakout. 

Our first attachment is with our primary caregiver when we’re babies. There’s no substitute for this connection; without it, babies can’t develop into happy, healthy kids.  

But the quality of that primary relationship will shape the way we bond with other people for the rest of our lives. This is your attachment style, and it has a major impact on how you show up in your most important relationships. 

Adult Relationship Attachment Styles

The first thing to know about attachment styles is that they exist on a spectrum. Perfectly embodying one attachment style or another is exceedingly rare. Instead, attachment is a bell curve, and most people spend their time hanging out on its hilly center. 

With that caveat out of the way, here are the four identified adult relationship attachment styles: 

Secure attachment — People with a secure attachment style have the core belief that “I am ok and you are ok.” They believe they are worthy of love and respect, and generally trust their romantic partners to treat them that way. Securely attached adults don’t spend too much time worrying about whether their partner loves them, cares about them, or wants to be with them. They tend to recover from breakups and rejection fairly well, and they’re comfortable with both closeness and space in their relationships.  

Anxious attachment — People with an anxious attachment style aren’t so confident that they are ok. They worry that their partner doesn’t really love them, care about them, or want to be with them. They’re afraid of abandonment, and they require a lot of reassurance that their partner isn’t going anywhere. Sometimes their need for reassurance can arise through controlling behavior, and can have the effect of pushing their partner away. They may be labeled “needy” or “clingy.” 

Avoidant attachment — People with an avoidant attachment style don’t feel worthy of love and respect, and they don’t trust other people to meet their needs. They tend to feel it’s safer not to rely on anyone, and they have a core belief that they are on their own. When a partner tries to get close, avoidantly attached people can experience that as a threat. They may avoid commitment and emotional vulnerability, and develop negative narratives about their partners to justify holding them at arm’s length. 

Disorganized attachment style — Also known as anxious-avoidant attachment, people with a disorganized attachment style may display an inconsistent orientation toward their partners. They may want love and closeness, but have trouble trusting their partners, and feel a deep need to protect themselves from abandonment or rejection at all costs. They tend to alternate between pulling their partners close and pushing them away. Disorganized attachment is not the same as having fluctuating feelings about a partner, or a fluctuating desire for closeness; it’s a rare attachment style that’s associated with an abusive environment in childhood. 

Relationship Attachment Styles Aren’t Static

Our attachment styles vary from relationship to relationship, depending on how our partners are oriented. If we’re with an anxious partner, who only feels loved when we’re constantly reassuring them, we’ll naturally feel a little more avoidant. If we’re with an avoidant partner, who seems standoffish and remote, we’ll naturally feel a little more anxious, and a bit more preoccupied about the relationship. 

Even within the same relationship, attachment styles fluctuate. During periods when your partner seems more distant or withdrawn, your anxiety will be piqued; you might find yourself pushing for more affection or attention to alleviate your anxiety about how secure the relationship is, without being conscious that you’re doing so. If your partner starts to seem needy, clingy, or demanding to you, you’ll naturally push for more space, and move a little closer to the avoidant end of the bell curve. 

This is the attachment machine at work, helping your relationship find an equilibrium so that it can be sustained. But sometimes couples can get locked into extreme pursue-withdraw dynamics, particularly when an anxious partner is paired with an avoidant partner. This can cause a lot of conflict, and a lot of stress for both partners. 

If a pursue-withdraw dynamic is happening in your relationship, it can help to understand why you’re either withdrawing from your partner, or pursuing them, and what their predictable reaction to that will be. These cycles can be hard to break, but working with a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, who understands relationship systems, can help. 

Attachment Issues in Adults

When it comes to attachment, there’s a wide range of what’s normal and fundamentally healthy. Just because you tend to lean a little more on the anxious side, or you tend to need a little more space in your relationships, doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong. 

But that doesn’t stop people from armchair diagnosing themselves or their partners with “attachment issues,” which are actually pretty rare. Attachment issues in adults are on the far ends of the attachment style bell curve, and they’re often associated with childhood neglect, abuse, trauma, and abandonment, or with personality disorders that develop independently of those experiences. 

Of course, this happens, to varying degrees. It is possible that your past experiences or your genetic predispositions have led you to develop attachment issues as an adult. But labeling yourself or your partner with attachment issues isn’t helpful; It makes it harder to develop self compassion and understanding, to learn and grow in your relationship, and to develop the trust and emotional safety that a healthy attachment requires. 

Attachment Styles In Relationships

If you suspect that you and your partner’s attachment patterns are triggering conflict in your relationship, working with a licensed marriage and family therapist with an understanding of attachment can be incredibly helpful. 

And just being part of a healthy relationship can also go a long way toward healing insecure attachment. Through secure relationships, people can recover their sense of trust  and safety with others. [To learn more about how this works, listen to this episode on Healing Relationships.]
I hope you enjoyed this episode on attachment styles in relationships, and that it helped you understand some of the invisible dynamics at work in your relationship. Want to learn more about your own attachment style? Take our attachment styles quiz.

Episode Show Notes

[5:52] Attachment Styles in Relationships

  • Attachment is having an emotional, psychological, and, to an extent, physical bond with someone.
  • There are three main attachment styles—secure, anxious, and avoidant. 
  • None of these attachment styles are “wrong” or abnormal. 

[15:17] Do I Have Attachment Issues?

  • People have a tendency to self-diagnose themselves with specific attachment issues without understanding what’s healthy.
  • Most people fall within the normal spectrum of secure attachment with some behavioral tendencies towards anxious and avoidant attachment styles.
  • There is no one with a perfectly secure attachment style.

[22:35] Biological and Childhood Influences of Attachment Styles

  • Attachment has its roots in basic human survival drives; we need communities and family bonds.
  • Answering an ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) questionnaire can help you understand if you have some difficulty with attachment. 
  • If your attachment style is causing issues in your relationships, it’s best to consult a licensed marriage and family therapist.

[30:04] Attachment Issues in Adults

  • Bonds and attachments happen in every relationship, not just with your romantic partner.
  • Changes in relationship dynamics or responsibilities can cause rifts that may threaten a person’s attachments on an emotional level.
  • Relationship distress can make even the most securely attached people exhibit traits of insecure attachment.

[41:03] Opening Discussions About Attachment.

  • It’s okay to talk about attachment behaviors you or your partner exhibit.
  • Talking to your partner or people can help you both feel more secure with each other.


Music in this episode is by Yuutsu with their song “Attached.”

You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://yuutsu.bandcamp.com/track/attached. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.

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

That's the band Youth Zoo with the song Attached. I think doing a beautiful job of conveying the bond of a strong attachment to another person, and perfect for our topic today because that's what we're talking about—attachment styles in relationships, and how to figure out yours as well as that of your partner. 

This is a super important topic, but I think also one that is very much alive in the zeitgeist right now. There's a lot of talk about attachment issues and what they mean, and not all of it is great information. I hope to dispel some of the myths today and help increase your clarity, and confidence, and understanding about attachment styles in order to be able to use this awareness for positive things in your life and in your relationships.

I'm glad we're here together today. Thank you so much for joining me. If this is your first time listening to the show, I am Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I'm the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching. I'm a licensed psychologist; I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist; I'm a board-certified coach; and I am the host of this podcast. I love doing this show for you.

My intention of every single episode is to make these really, genuinely helpful and valuable for you. I'm always listening to your questions that come through on Instagram. Sometimes people email us hello@growingself.com with your questions, and so that I can be sure that I'm creating podcasts that are genuinely helpful to you. 

If you have questions or things that you would like to learn more about, please get in touch with me. I would love to hear what's on your mind. What I have been hearing a lot of lately is how incredibly important your relationships are to you, and understandably so. I mean, our relationships are truly the most important things in our lives in many ways. 

I mean, having healthy relationships with other people is just so fundamental to having happiness and the life that you want. When things are not well with our relationships, or when we want more closeness with people than we have, or if we're feeling a lack of love and connection in our lives, it really impacts us on every level. There is a reason for this. 

This is not some deficit that you should be happy by yourself and you aren't, so, “What's wrong with me?” It’s not even going to bat that away. The truth is that humans are built to bond. It is why we are here. It is essential to our survival from an evolutionary perspective, and attachment is also fundamental to our wellness. 

That is true for children. Children literally cannot develop properly without secure attachment bonds. Some people experimented with this early in the late 1800s, early 1900s of the powers that be decided that it might be a better idea to take poor children away from their filthy alcoholic parents and put them in hospitals or orphanages. Perfectly clean, nice rows of gorgeous sparkling cribs, fed at regular intervals by clean nurses dressed in white and bundled up in identical little swaddles. 

It all seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately, though, the babies kept dying, and nobody could figure out why. Until the psychologist and researcher John Bowlby showed up and had the gall to say, “Hmm, maybe it has something to do with our lack of attachment to one consistent caregiver.” Everybody sort of scratched their heads and said, “Oh, okay, maybe.” 

They revised that policy, thankfully. Attachment in infancy is crucial to literally growth and survival. It is crucial to our developing of psychological health and wellness in very basic ways in early childhood. It is no less important to us as adults, and the idea that it should be otherwise is very much a myth of Western culture.

I'm just going to take that myth away from you while we're talking. Instead, turn our awareness to what attachment really is and how it really works. My hope for this conversation is to help you understand what is normal and also help you understand when there might be signs of real attachment issues, so that you can manage them effectively because you can. So we're rolling into all of it today. 

This is a huge topic. We have a lot to talk about. We're probably not going to cover all of the everything about attachment during this conversation today, but broadly, I'd love to give you an understanding of all of this. Let's start by just defining our terms. Like, when we talk about attachment styles in relationships, what are we talking about? 

Attachment Styles in Relationships

Attachment is essentially having a bond with someone—an emotional bond, and a psychological bond, and, to a degree, believe it or not, a physical bond with someone. In the sense that when we do bond with another person, we experience neurological changes and even hormonal changes. Attachment happens on very deep levels.

When we're talking about attachment styles, we're referring to your signature ways of relating to others. Broadly speaking, there are several different kinds of attachment styles. There are what we think of as a secure attachment style, which is the ability to have strong, enduring relationships with other people. 

Where the core assumptions and the core kind of emotional experience of that relationship is, “I am fundamentally okay. I am fundamentally worthy of love and respect, and other people are fundamentally okay and trustworthy. I can connect with someone and feel generally sure that they will treat me well and be nice to me. I will get my needs met in this relationship, and we're all alright.”

That is the nonscientific way of describing what it feels like to have a secure attachment style. Not that there aren't ups and downs, but that fundamentally, “I'm okay and you're okay.” It's important to understand that the attachment kind of style, the way of relating, extends to other people as well as to yourself, “I'm okay, you're okay.”

There are other types of attachment styles that can show up when babies, young children, and anyone through our lives have experiences with other important people that teach you otherwise—either, “I am not okay, and I can't trust you,” is where other kinds of attachment issues start to show up.

Broadly speaking, there are two other kinds of attachment styles. There is an anxious attachment style where the core experience with other humans is, “I'm not sure that I am okay. I'm not sure that I am worthy of love and respect, and I'm not sure that I can trust you to meet my needs.” What that turns into is a lot of anxiety about relationships. 

“I don't fundamentally know I'm okay, so I need a lot of reassurance from you that I am okay. I need a lot more like active love than a securely attached person needs in order to feel okay. I don't trust that you're gonna give it to me. Even if you do give it to me, I can't trust it, that it's real, so I need more, more, more, more, more.”

Somebody with a really anxious attachment style never really feel secure in relationships, never really feel loved, and really needs a lot of reassurance and like active love behaviors. “You have to say nice things to me and give me lots of compliments and tell me you love me 75 times a day. If I text you, you have to check me back within five seconds. If you don't, I'm going to be very upset because what does this mean?” So lots of anxiety.

Also, in very anxiously attached people, it turns into a lot of controlling behaviors because they really need this from others in order to feel okay and secure. When they don't get it, they tend to get very escalated and very upset. You see a lot of control happening in relationships from anxiously attached people who are trying to get their partners to do things in order to help them feel better, essentially. That is one far end of this attachment spectrum.

The other end of this attachment spectrum refers to people with avoidant attachment styles. Similarly, early in life, they had experiences with usually caregivers where they learned, “I am not worthy of love and respect, and I cannot trust other people to be safe or meet my needs. Therefore, I am making an executive decision that I no longer need other humans.”

“Other humans are not relevant. They are not important. I am the only person that really exists, that matters, I can only trust myself. I'm not even going to try to connect with others, or think for a moment that my needs will be met by them. Because not only will they not be, if I get too close to them, I will be in danger, so I'm just not going to do it at all.”

An avoidant attachment style turns into a fundamental psychological solitude, essentially. “I am the only being. Other people are sort of around. I may try to utilize them in order to get my needs met. But without an emotional attachment, because that is not going to end well.” People become very much islands with an avoidant attachment style. Other people aren't safe, fundamentally. 

There's also not a desire to attach to other people, commonly with people who have very serious attachment issues on the avoidant side of the spectrum. What this also looks like in practice is that in relationships with people that do begin to develop some closeness, somebody with a very avoidant attachment style, will begin actively rejecting that other person. 

These happen at like deep emotional levels that are nonconscious, but what that bubbles up into is a lot of consciously all of the reasons why somebody isn't good enough. It's a lot of criticism; it's a lot of comparison; it's a lot of focusing on somebody's negative characteristics—all the reasons why they're not going to be a good partner, and really kind of talking themselves out of a relationship, because fundamentally they feel uneasy being close to other people, and so they rationalize it. 

Somebody with an avoidant attachment style will usually have a series of fairly short-lived relationships. They will either find ways to end those relationships—kind of breaking up with people, and it is always the other person's fault, by the way. Or there can be a lot of, like, cheating behaviors because, in their minds, they're not in a relationship anyway. The other person is not that important to them, and there all these other people that they could be hanging out with, so hey, why not?

It can look like the sort of indiscriminate attachment. Superficial kind of bonds with other people that—but nobody is, like, really important is what that can kind of look like. These attachment styles, as you are inferring, can have major issues on the health of your relationships. If you have a very pronounced attachment style in one of these directions or another, it's going to be global. 

If you have an avoidant attachment style, it's going to show up in every relationship with your significant other, with your family, with your boss, and vice versa. It's very powerful stuff. It's important to know this about yourself if you have these tendencies in every single situation, because this stuff has to be managed or you are going to blow out of every relationship, right? Through no fault of your own, like you didn't make this happen, and was the hand you got dealt, and it's crappy, and it's yours to deal with, and again, it can be managed by understanding it.

It is also true that there are attachments, and attachment styles, and attachment experiences that happen in relationships that can feel like these, and to a degree, they are very, very normal behaviors, truly. Again, while the attachment issues are very significant, either if you see them in yourself or if you're trying to have a relationship with somebody who has very significant attachment issues, it's real.

Do I Have Attachment Issues?

But the thing happening right now that I think is so interesting is people are self-diagnosing, or diagnosing their partners with attachment issues, without a full awareness of, like, the normal spectrum of what this looks like and how attachment always works in every relationship. I think a great example of this, I sometimes get asked to provide expert opinions or whatever, with journalists will, like, reach out and ask for commentary.

I had this one very nice girl reach out not too long ago. She was working on a piece for publication about attachment styles and relationships, and could I provide some insight like, “Yeah, sure.” We're talking with each other about attachment and kind of secure versus anxious, avoidant. As we were speaking, she was like, “I'm pretty sure I have disorganized attachment style. Like, I'm anxious and avoidant in relationships.” 

I heard that was like, “Oh, really? Tell me more.” She's like, “Yeah. Sometimes just when I'm with people, sometimes I worry about how they feel about me, but then sometimes I wonder if I really want to be with them anyway. So I don't know, I'm pretty sure I have disorganized attachment styles.” 

Like, “Okay.” In the back of my mind, I was thinking, unless you were raised in an orphanage staffed by Satanists, I don't think you have disorganized attachment style. It's very rare, and it is very profound. It is associated with, like, really serious early childhood and abuse—abuse, and neglect, and abandonment. Certainly, like, that exists, right? 

I mean, people do end up in foster care and live through terrible neglect, and drug addicted parents, like all those things happen. But even then, like, if babies have even just enough, like, somebody in their lives was good enough, they can achieve so much resilience and so much health. 

But—what, anyway, what I came to understand through talking with this journalist, and what has also come out in conversations with clients, is that I think what's happening is that people are learning about attachment styles, anxious attachment styles, and avoidant attachment styles, and doing the same thing that I and the rest of my classmates did in our first year of counseling school, where we read the DSM and basically diagnosed ourselves with everything in it, and started handing out diagnoses liberally to friends and family. 

It's because with things of a psychological nature, we can see instances of these things in ourselves. If you have just enough information to be dangerous, it is very easy to make kind of sweeping statements about yourself and others that are not just inaccurate, they're also not helpful. Here's the irony, doing that too much can also create issues in your relationships.

If both you and your partner are completely fine, have secure attachment styles, but if you are interpreting either your or their behavior as being in some way pathological and then kind of going off to the races in that direction that will also cause problems. 

I want to unpack this a little bit more with you. What ended up happening with this journalist, and also sort of happens usually with clients, at some point during our sessions, I do begin drawing weird pictures. With this journalist, the weird picture that I drew was one of a bell curve. I don't know if you've ever encountered a bell curve in any statistics classes.

But essentially, if you visualize a hill—a hill with it's higher in the middle, and on each side, it kind of slopes down. What we do with these hills, these bell curves is it's kind of a visual representation of normal distributions of things. When it comes to attachment and secure attachment, imagine that the middle of the hill is fairly broad. Everybody in, like, that highest middle part of the hill has a secure attachment style. 

There is no exact center. There is no perfectly, perfectly securely attached human. We can all kind of trend towards one side or the other based on our normal life experiences. But due to the culture of our families or just some things, we can kind of have a natural tendency towards being a little bit more attached or a little more avoidant, and still be very much within that normal spectrum.

Then, when we start to get to the edges of the hill and start to slope down on one side or the other, this is where attachment issues begin to be more pronounced. They're both on a spectrum. You can go from that normal, secure attachment to slightly anxious attachment. As we continue sloping further down the hill, and we kind of get to that tippy end. That is, is where you'll find severe attachment issues. It represents a very small part of the population. 

Most people are somewhere in that secure spectrum. Whatever happened with their caregivers or early life experiences was good enough—does not have to be perfect, it has to be good enough. When we start getting to the sides of the hill, it means that there are some non ideal things that left tendencies either towards avoidance or towards attachment, much more rare in terms of a percentage of the population. 

Then at the very tippy ends of the slopes are those serious attachment issues that I was describing for you earlier on the show, where people fundamentally have serious issues in their relationships where they cannot feel safe and secure with other people. They're very anxious, they become very controlling and demanding, or, on the other side, they are avoidant to the extent that they essentially block any efforts at attachment.

Those, again, are rare and are associated with serious things. I've had clients who do have those more severe kinds of attachment issues. Every single time it has been associated with things like being in foster care infancy, being raised by addicted or mentally ill parents who were not functional enough to meet children's needs consistently. 

Attachment Style Quiz

If you are curious to know if your life experience is kind of consistent with that serious attachment injuries, you might consider taking the ACEs questionnaire. ACEs stands for Adverse Childhood Experience scale, I think. Anyway, Google it. It has a number of questions, and if you have a relatively high ACEs score, it means that you have had fairly extensive adverse childhood experiences, trauma experiences that would be consistent with those kinds of attachment disorders. 

If that is the case and you're having these consistent issues in relationships, my sincere and heartfelt advice is that you take this to a psychologist—a very good, qualified, licensed therapist. You could see a clinical psychologist. A licensed marriage and family therapist will also have specialized training and education in attachment styles to be able to work with you on some of these things. For the rest of us, we're somewhere on that spectrum, right? 

Why this matters is because the other thing that happens that confuses people is that, again, going back to the very first thing we talked about, because we humans are built to bond, we have hardwired machinery essentially in our brains and in our bodies that create attachments to people. Whether we want them to or not, I mean, we spend a lot of time with a person and kind of have a trajectory towards particularly a romantic relationship, you will develop attachment bonds.

One of the things it's important to know is that these bonds are created and maintained at nonconscious levels. They are related to human survival drives. Our ability to attach and bond to other humans is as fundamental to life. Human life continuing as like feeding yourself and not freezing to death from an evolutionary perspective because humans are a collective species. 

We would not have survived out in the wild without being in tribes, in groups of people who were connected to each other, loyal to each other, and these were often groups based around family bonds, kinship bonds. Then, certainly, when it comes to the attachment bonds that parents have to their children and the partners have to each other, it gets even stronger.

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective because a parent cannot walk away from an infant, that infant would die. Similarly, partners, I mean, if there's a couple that has had a child together, and it's 100,000 years ago, that the female and the infant are going to be highly dependent on the male, or I don't know, maybe, depending on the culture of the tribe, it was the other way around.

But there's so much energy that goes into raising human babies, people literally cannot do it alone. The attachment bonds that people formed with each other held them together, even when things got hard. Even when there's a drought, or a famine, or a war, “I'm not going to leave you.” Because if people were left, people were abandoned, that's it: lights out, right?

These bonds exist in humans the same way that they exist in animals. You're seeing those documentaries of, like, mother bear or little bear cubs, and the mom is trying to, like, take care of the babies; same thing. These are very, very, very old, deep parts of your brain that are older and deeper than the part of your brain that is conscious. It's only the outermost layer of our brains and new parts of our brains that have conscious thoughts. 

They visualize things; they think in words; they think into the future; they can make sort of interpretive associations or have creative ideas. That is the very outermost layer of your brain. That is what separates humans from animals. We have that sitting on the surface, but the rest of our brains, the inside, is still very much that old mammalian brain, and that is the part of your brain where attachments are formed and maintained.

There are some things that are a little bit different with human attachments, obviously, but it's important to understand that these are just so deep and so powerful, and they are baked into the machinery. I don't know how many of you listening have been pregnant before. But I remember when I had my first baby and was pregnant, I was fascinated by all of these things that my body was just kind of automatically doing that I had no idea. 

It could do, like, all this stuff, just sort of like going on autopilot and things happening. It's like, “Oh, I was built for this. My body was designed, and it knows exactly what to do in order to create another human.” There were all these little mysterious, like, architectures and things that sprang into life when it was time to grow a child, right? The same is true for your brain. You have structures in your brain, you have hormones that get activated, neurotransmitters that get activated when we develop attachment bonds. 

Interestingly, and I've shared this in other podcasts, particularly related to why it can be so difficult to end a relationship, like, some of the breakup recovery podcasts I've done, is that there is evidence to suggest that the parts of your brain responsible for those attachment bonds are the same parts of your brain that have opioid receptors and dopamine receptors.

When we think about becoming addicted to, like, illegal substances, or heroin, or cocaine, or whatever, the reason why people can get addicted to those illegal substances is because those drugs use the parts of your brain that nature originally developed to bond to other people. They essentially hijack it. I think that's very interesting and also important to know that bonding process is a natural, healthy, normal, addictive bonding process, but is just as powerful. 

Attachment Issues in Adults

Biology aside, the reason why it's important to understand how fundamentally just human this is, is because attachment bonds happen in every single relationship. Wow. In the example of two securely attached people who get together, and they have a nice relationship, and generally speaking, they feel comfortable being close to each other. They aren't terribly preoccupied about their partner, worried about things. 

They will, if their relationship becomes distressed, have these attachment kind of flare ups, because our attachment bonds mobilize in efforts to restore kind of balance, or equilibrium in a relationship. 

For example, if you are married to a nice person, you're having a nice time and something changes. I don't know, maybe you start⁠—maybe you had a child, and now all of a sudden, you know, who's taking out the trash or getting up with a baby is more fraught than it was, right? The totally normal, unexpected, but what can happen is that people can experience these kinds of relational problems as a threat to their attachment bond.

“You're leaving me with all this housework, you're not getting up with a baby on an emotional level,” that turns into, “Don't you love me? Don't you still care about me?” When these attachment bonds are threatened, all this emotional machinery flares into life.

What happens is that partner will kind of move towards the anxious end of the spectrum and say, “Hey, why aren't you doing this? Where are you? I need you to do these things. Please help me with this.” They become elevated, can sometimes even become aggressive in pursuit of getting their needs met, because they're trying to restore equilibrium into their relationship. 

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

That will sometimes turn into disengagement, defensiveness, kind of in our narratives around, “Oh, you're just being ridiculous. It's not that big of a deal.” That is reminiscent of someone with an avoidant attachment style. That is also efforts to kind of maintain equilibrium in a relationship. This is very common. 

I would struggle to think of a couple that I've ever seen over my decades-long career as a marriage counselor who was in a distressed relationship and coming in for help, and who was not having an attachment bond kind of flare up as a result of it.The most common combination we see is a pursue-withdraw kind of orientation where one person is aggravated, angry, semi-hostile, accusatory, and the other person is withdrawn or avoidant in response to that.

This pursue-withdraw, kind of round and round the thing, not fun, but very normal. Because the pursuing partner is feeling anxious in the relationship and is trying to get their needs met from their partner through outreach, that can often be angry and can often sort of come across as being controlling, right? Nobody starts this, and it's nobody's fault.

The normal behavior is to kind of withdraw in response to somebody who is—you're experiencing is threatening or critical or kind of out to get you, and vice versa. If you are in a relationship with somebody where you aren't getting your needs met, they aren't behaving in ways that make you feel loved and respected, the very normal and natural response to that is to say, “What the heck? Are we still doing this? Are you still there?”

The reason why I wanted to get into this a little bit is because these patterns are very, very common in relationships and have nothing to do with anybody being fundamentally securely or avoidantly attached when they show up. Two people standing at the tippy top center of that hill in any kind of relational distress will always start to fall onto one side or another with each other. 

You can also have different experiences in different relationships. You can be in a relationship with one person who was maybe a little quieter or shut down or did not speak your love language and it made you start to feel a little bit anxious. You will begin to have anxiously attached tendencies in that relationship as a result of your reactions to that particular partner.

In a different relationship, you might be with somebody who's coming on a little strong, who wants to spend more time talking than you do, who maybe wants to have sex more than you do, wants to spend all their time together. You'll be like, “Yeah, I think I need to see some other friends right now,” or “Okay, it's a lot. No more talking.”

It could even be like an introversion-extroversion thing. I mean, there could be all kinds of reasons why there can be these sorts of differences. But in response to that person, you're going to try to regain equilibrium by pulling away a little bit from them. If you think back on your life experience with different people that you've been around, and can observe yourself kind of showing up differently in different relationships. 

That's why our relationships are systems, which means that we react to other people, and then those other people react to us. This is why relationships and and couples counseling honestly can get so complex, is because there's this interplay of attachment, potentially, attachment styles, but also like attachment responses, and understanding these systems, right?, and the way that people relate to each other.  

That is why, like, a marriage and family therapist—a licensed marriage and family therapist will be able to understand all of these systemic pieces. Whereas if you go to couples counseling for a regular therapist, either an LPC or just a psychologist who doesn't have that systemic training, and they will look at both of you sitting in their office and be like, “Oh, well, you're avoidantly attached, and you're anxiously attached, and you guys are not—I can't believe you found each other. What are the odds.” 

There's this tendency to kind of look at individual psychology as opposed to that systems psychology. What winds up happening is that one or both of you gets pathologized. It turns into being about your issues, as opposed to understanding that dance that you two are doing together, so that you can resolve it together, which is what a marriage and family therapist does. As an aside, if you are going to see couples counseling, look for a licensed marriage and family therapist.

But back to the attachment piece. The other thing that can happen here with attachment stuff is that when people don't really understand how significant and severe, very real, like, attachment issues are, they can look at the experiences that they are having in their relationship, either how they are feeling in their relationship currently, or how they are experiencing their partner, and they can also begin to label and pathologize these.

The same way that if you went for couples counseling with a clinical psychologist who may have had one class in couples theory and techniques, there is a tendency to begin pointing the finger. If you are with a partner who is withdrawing, who is uncommunicative, who is not responding to you the way that you want them to, and you read some article or see somebody dancing on TikTok talking about avoidant attachment styles, it's like, “Oh, my partner has an avoidant attachment style.” That's what's wrong. 

Ironically, what that turns into is, first of all, a lack of awareness of how your partner might be experiencing you—that is leading them to kind of avoid, and move away, and experience you as being more hostile and critical because now you're pointing your finger and calling them avoidantly attached and, “You're broken psychologically,” whatever. 

It's really to the detriment of real relationships to pathologize our partners in this way, or vice versa to be in a relationship with somebody who wants more love and affection and attention than you've been giving them. 

If you read a little bit of pop psychology, you might want to label them as having an anxious attachment style, which then gives you permission to basically invalidate everything they say next, because you've already decided that they have broken attachment styles and they're just being ridiculous, so you don't have to change anything about your behavior in this relationship, because it's not your problem, it's their problem, because they have an anxious attachment style.

Again, not helpful. If this is a relationship that you're interested in keeping, it's important to understand systemically what people do in relationships in response to each other. That involves these signature attachment styles in relationships.

Now, of course, it is also possible that you are actually connected to somebody who has adverse childhood experiences that has resulted in nonideal attachment styles. If that's the case, also, just be cautious and understand that these things exist on a spectrum. That nobody is perfectly secure, or avoidant, or anxious. Again, other people might seem different than you based on cultural factors or what was normal in their family, which might be different than yours. 

Also, that there's a wide variety of “secure” in the middle on the top of that hill there, so give people the benefit of the doubt. If you are experiencing somebody as being avoidant, or attached in their interactions with you, it's okay to have a conversation about that. 

I listened to this podcast about attachment styles, and I realized we might be doing this thing together. Listen to—you can get somebody to listen to this podcast with you and say, “I feel like we're doing this. I feel like you might have sort of anxious tendencies with me, and I could feel myself kind of stepping back from you. I wonder what we can do to both help each other feel more stable and secure again.”

Because again, all that means when people start behaving this way is that they're not feeling secure in their relationship. Either they're experiencing danger that they need to move away of, or they're experiencing a lack that they need to pull out of their partner, right? 

Just to be how we'll have a conversation, like, “I feel like we're probably doing this with each other, and I'd like to get back to center again. What would help you feel safer and more secure with me?”, and to have a conversation about that. 

Now, of course, if this has been going on for a while in a relationship, and bad feelings have been happening as a result, what you will also see is that people, their core narratives about each other start to change, it turns into “always/never” kind of language. “She is always complaining. I can never do enough. She's never satisfied. She has unrealistic expectations.” It's fundamental to her character, or “He is just unloving. He's dense. He has zero empathy. I think he might have Asperger's. He's incapable of loving me the way I need to be loved.”

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

The on-ramp to this is often just having those interactions with each other where these attachment styles are being expressed. People don't get to that core narrative without having had experiences with that person over and over and over again that teach you, “He will not understand how I'm feeling. He doesn't have any empathy for me. Why try? I'm just gonna give up right?” There's a long on-ramp to that, so just be aware of that. 

Now very lastly, on the subject of those attachment styles in relationships, I will also say that if you believe that you are in a relationship with somebody or that you yourself are kind of on one side of that hill or another. So either an anxious attachment style as evidenced by consistently worrying about how not just this partner, but all your partners feel about you, whether or not you're loved, looking to specific behaviors to confirm whether or not you're loved. If you aren't getting those behaviors, feeling really bad and upset, needing a lot of reassurance and kind of safety seeking in your relationships.

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

If you or your partner are on the other side of kind of an avoidant attachment style, so the other side of the hill, there's a lot of distancing from people, a lot of criticism of other people, a lot of ambivalence about relationships, like, “Not quite sure I want to be here with you. Are you really good enough for me? I don't know.”, so like hot and cold kinds of things. 

If you or your partner are either of those, the first step is achieving awareness that that's a thing, it's global, and breaking the idea that you're only feeling this way because of the specific person. If you have real attachment issues, it will be global. It will show up in all of your relationships, not just the one that you're in currently, so that's kind of the big sign. 

Then, also, it's important to understand that just like people are harmed in relationships, that attachment machinery can change in response to what we experienced in very early infancy and childhood, and also through relational trauma later in life, I should add, not to the same extent. But okay, probably too much information.

Just like how people are wounded in relationships, people are also healed in relationships. The best thing that you can do if you have an anxious tending attachment style or an avoidant tending attachment style is to be in a healthy relationship with a person who is somewhere in the middle. Somebody who has a secure attachment style will be able to kind of ride the waves and the ups and downs of life with somebody who has anxious or avoidant tendencies and kind of help restore equilibrium.

They will not be as reactive, and it will be an emotionally safer relationship. Although you can take the most securely attached person in the world and put them in a relationship with an anxiously attached person, they will exhibit avoidant tendencies in response and vice versa. 

The most perfectly securely attached person in the world, match them with somebody who has an avoidant attachment style, and they will become anxious in that relationship with that person in efforts to kind of restore that emotional equilibrium. 

But recognizing this and working towards achieving a healthy, secure relationship with that person will not just  feel better for everybody, but it will also be very healing. You might want to check a podcast that I recorded a while ago now with one of my colleagues, Dr. Paige, here at Growing Self, who specializes in relational trauma and talking about the power of healing relationships. 

Even if you did have negative experiences early in life, and you might always feel a little anxious or a little ambivalent about people as a result, if you understand that about yourself and create a healthy healing relationship with a partner, you will have corrective emotional experiences that essentially retrain your mind, retrain your body, retrain that really deep attachment, bonding place in your brain that other humans are okay, they can fundamentally be trusted, and that you are fundamentally okay. You are worthy of love and respect. You're good, and you can expect generally good things from other people, too. 

When you have those experiences over and over and over again, no matter what stage of life you're in, it is fundamentally healing. You deserve to have that. Healing relationships are key. I would invite you to go back and check out the podcast on healing relationships. Also, if this is an area where you'd like to work on yourself, I would strongly suggest that you get connected with a really good therapist who can help you unpack all of this, uncover the blind spots, and help you gain the self-awareness that we talked about so much during this episode. 

Very lastly, there is another resource that I have for you on a previous podcast where we addressed attachment styles and relationships. I did a attachment style quiz that is really more of like a self-assessment and almost like a mini workbook. It's totally free. But if you want to check it out, you can text 55444 and then text the word “attach”. Wait, I’m embarrassing myself now⁠—“attach” to 55444. 

Anyway, you'll get an email with this activity that I created for you. It is a series of questions that isn't, like, some trite true/false, “Oh, this is your attachment score.” It's really more complex. It'll invite you to walk through, like, some journaling questions. You'll have some prompts to like reflect on your experiences growing up, some of those core assumptions, and I designed it to help you gain some awareness around those old patterns in yourself, so it's a useful tool. 

If you have a therapist, you could certainly show it with them and do it with them. It might even be something interesting for you and your partner to do together if this is something that you're working on together as a couple, provided that you can have emotionally safe conversations about it together. 

But anyway, it's a nice set of activities that can help you get clarity, but also even, I don't want to oversell it. You're not going to resolve attachment issues just by participating in the activity, but it will get the ball rolling, so there's that. 

Again, you can text 55444—to text that number and then just type in the word “attach” and you'll get the link to the activity. Okay, that is all for now. Thank you so much for spending this time with me today. I hope it was helpful to you and I will talk to you soon on another episode. I'll be back next week.

All right.

Why You Keep Dating Jerks

Why You Keep Dating Jerks

Why You Keep Dating Jerks

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


Music in this episode is from “Automatic” with “Damage.”

Why You Keep Dating Jerks

“Why am I attracting the wrong people?” 

“How can I avoid dating ‘players?’” 

“Why do I keep dating jerks?” 

I can’t tell you how many times a therapy or dating coaching client has asked me questions like these, usually through tears. They’re often reeling in the aftermath of a traumatic breakup, reflecting on a painful dating history, and feeling bleak about their odds of ever finding a healthy, loving relationship in the future. 

When you fall for partners who cheat, who mistreat you, who don’t value you, or who just aren’t capable of being in a healthy relationship, it’s painful. When this becomes a pattern, dating can feel like a carousel of heartbreak and disappointment, where the only choices are between toxic connections and being alone

But if you’re reading this, I’m here to tell you that you have other, better choices. You still have time to get off this ride, stop accepting relationships with jerks, and go find real love

On today’s episode of the podcast, I’m going to tell you how. Joining me for this conversation is Sarah, a “Love, Happiness and Success” listener who graciously volunteered to share her difficult dating history, and to discuss how she broke free from a pattern of dating jerks to find a healthy, loving relationship

We’re talking about why jerks can seem so darn datable, the romantic myths that keep you stuck, and the deep work you can begin today to banish jerks from your love life, once and for all. 

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

Xoxo, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Why You Keep Dating Jerks

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


Music in this episode is from “Automatic” with “Damage.”

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Why You Keep Dating Jerks: Episode Highlights

No one deserves to be lied to, cheated on, used, neglected, strung along, ghosted, or gaslit. Unfortunately, many people experience a toxic relationship with a jerk at some point. And for some, dating jerks is the norm. 

If you have a history of choosing partners who don’t treat you with love and respect, it’s time to examine your dating patterns, get curious about where they’re coming from, and start shifting them in a healthy new direction. 

This is deep, fundamental, important work. It can improve your relationships across the board — not just in your dating life. 

The Myth of the “Right Person” 

Step one in breaking through a pattern of dating jerks is to let go of a story that’s pervasive in our culture: that you just haven’t met the right person yet, and that once you do, everything will fall into place. 

Of course, meeting a kind, available, and trustworthy person (who’s also crazy about you) is a wonderful thing. But if you have a longstanding pattern of dating partners who don’t treat you well, you have some barriers to healthy relationships to dismantle first. Until you begin the dismantling, you’re likely to repel the “right person” when you meet them or to reject them yourself. 

Your real work isn’t to continue sifting through potential partners and hoping for the best. It’s to heal and grow until a healthy, loving relationship is the only relationship that fits. 

Attachment Issues and Dating Jerks

When I have a client — often a woman — sitting on my couch after yet another painful breakup, asking, “Why do I keep attracting the wrong man?,” I start with a few questions about her childhood. 

Did you experience abuse, neglect, or abandonment as a child? Was trauma a feature of your early years? Do you have a difficult or painful relationship with one or both of your parents? 

If your early childhood attachments weren’t safe, secure, and loving, this is the likely root of any unhealthy romantic attachments you’re experiencing as an adult. It’s very common for people to be drawn to partners who remind them of an early attachment figure and try to get the love and care from these partners that they didn’t get as kids. 

These relationships often lead to heartbreak, and repeating them, again and again, is like injuring the same body part over and over. If you suspect attachment issues are at the root of your painful romantic patterns, book an appointment with an attachment-oriented therapist or divorce recovery specialist who can help you break the cycle. 

To learn more about how you attach to partners, take our attachment styles quiz.  

Stop Over-Focusing on “Chemistry”

Some of the biggest jerks in the dating pool initially present as attractive, fun, wildly successful types. These sparkly people make your brain dispense pleasure chemicals in their presence — a sensation that can be confused with compatibility or love. 

But like most highs, the hangover is usually close behind. You may discover that this exciting person is all charm and no substance, or that their intense interest in you peters out shortly after they get you into bed. 

Meanwhile, many non-jerks aren’t so sparkly at first blush. They may downplay their accomplishments, rather than highlight them. It may take some time to discover the best parts of their personality. They may not lavish you with attention or flattery right off the bat, instead, they may take the time to actually get to know you. 

All of this can feel a bit… boring. Especially if you’re accustomed to “love” feeling like a quick dopamine hit. 

Of course, there are some sparkly, charming people who also happen to be excellent partners (and some less sparkly people who also happen to be jerks). But if you’re overfocusing on chemistry — on how you feel in another person’s presence — you might be choosing a short-term high over genuine, enduring love. 

Are You Actually Dating Jerks? 

Sometimes we believe we’re dating jerks, when in fact our love lives are unfolding in the natural, sometimes difficult way that love lives tend to unfold — and yes, that includes the occasional breakup that’s difficult to recover from.

You may think your partner’s a jerk when you realize they’re not who you wanted them to be, and you’re feeling hurt or disappointed about that. This is a sign that you need to move slower and take more time to get to know people, before getting deeply attached. 

It could also be that the person you’re dating just doesn’t have the same level of interest in you that you have in them, and is communicating this in various ways that feel a little jerky. They may be slow to respond to your messages, unmotivated to make plans, or unwilling to commit to your relationship. This kind of rejection hurts, and it can be hard to get over it. But it doesn’t make them a jerk unless they’ve deceived you in some way about your relationship (which happens!). To avoid situations like this, learn to judge potential partners by the effort they’re putting into your relationship. If you’re not seeing effort, that’s your cue to move on. 

Finally, we sometimes think we’re dating jerks, when in fact our own unresolved issues are introducing unhealthy elements into the relationship mix. The way you show up in relationships will affect the feedback you receive from partners, and if you’re getting a lot of the same, unpleasant feedback, that could be a sign that your own style of relating needs to change. 

And if you do need to work on how you show up in relationships, you’re in great company. Relationships are an opportunity for all of us to learn and grow into better versions of ourselves, and to develop essential relationship skills like empathy, communication, listening, and emotional intelligence

How to Stop Dating Jerks

There could be a number of reasons for your pattern of dating jerks, and many of those reasons are best worked through with the help of a good dating coach or therapist

But there is one thing you can do all on your own, that can change your dating life for the better: Get clear about who you are and what you’re looking for in a relationship. 

Do you know what your values are? Do you know where you’re headed in life? Do you know where your boundaries are in relationships, what you’ll accept and what you’ll walk away from? If you’re looking for someone to spend your life with, what qualities will that person have? 
Once you’re clear on the answers to these questions, dating will feel a lot easier. You’ll find yourself drawn toward emotionally healthy partners who fit into the life you’re committed to building, and the jerks will lose their sparkle.

Episode Show Notes:

[02:33] A Harmful Dating Pattern

  • Gaining self-awareness can help you understand and recognize toxicity in your relationships.
  • Being stuck in a harmful pattern can be traumatizing and prevent you from finding the real, healthy love you want and deserve.
  • It’s ultimately your power — and your responsibility — to make things better for yourself.
  • Clear the deck for new ideas! It’s not luck or chance that will help you — it will be you and your growth.

[06:29] Jerks And Attachment Styles

  • You may have unresolved attachment issues from your childhood.
  • You might never feel safe or secure in relationships, requiring plenty of validation. On the other hand, you might be keeping people at a distance.
  • Involving yourself with someone with an unhealthy attachment style can cause you to act in unhealthy ways, too, even if you were secure before the relationship.

[12:57] Why Do I Attract Jerks? Jerks Are Attractive!

  • Jerks tend to be superficially charming — they’re often good-looking, fun, and successful.
  • It’s easy to get swept off your feet when you first meet them.
  • Jerks may have narcissistic or sociopathic traits or have highly avoidant attachment styles.
  • Nice, kind, and securely attached people are not that flashy. Developing a real relationship often feels like growing a friendship.

[16:15] Not Everyone Is A Jerk

  • Emotionally healthy people will get to know you over a period of time. It won’t be as exciting and will usually feel calm and peaceful.
  • If you’ve been dating a lot of jerks, a healthy person might seem boring.
  • Some people may realize they’re incompatible with you and reject you. This doesn’t mean either of you are bad people.

[22:16] Dating People Who Aren’t Jerks

  • Being a good partner is a learned skill.
  • If you can’t show up well in a relationship, your partner might pull away.
  • It’s critical to face yourself as well. What are you doing to create these outcomes? Are you bringing harmful patterns to the relationship?
  • Take time to understand yourself and your values.

[33:16] Unrealistic Expectations of Dating

  • A good beginning doesn’t guarantee a happy ending.
  • Some people might only show negative behaviors later in a relationship.

[41:51] Dating A Jerk Advice: “Red Flags”

  • Red flags can get buried by powerful feelings at the start of a relationship.
  • They also come in waves — you may have a great day, followed by multiple arguments.
  • Heeding the “red flags” in a relationship is a valuable lesson to learn.

[48:51] Attracting the Wrong People

  • Attempting to “fix” someone tends to backfire.
  • It pays off to introspect and understand yourself. 
  • You deserve better; be with someone who builds you up.

[57:09] How to Date a Nice Guy After Dating Jerks

  • Focus on a potential partner’s demeanor before jumping to conclusions.
  • Cultivate mutual commitment, honesty, and authenticity in a relationship.
  • Take your time getting to know someone.


Music in this episode is from “Automatic” with “Damage.”

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: On today's show, we are exploring a question. I know many of you have been asking yourselves at some point or another, which is, “Why do I keep dating jerks?” I know that this has been on your mind because I've had a lot of you reach out to me through our website — growingself.com, through Instagram. With these situations, you're like, “You know what? I did it again. Why do I keep getting myself in these relationships, in these situationships, wind up not being a good fit for me? I don't like it, I don't want to do it anymore, but I also don't know how to stop.” And that's valid. 

Today, we are devoting a whole episode into unpeeling this onion and answering some of these questions for you. I have something exciting planned for us today. I am going to be doing a couple of things. I am an information person, as you probably figured out now if you've listened to the show before. I am going to be providing information and insight — just things that I have learned over the years in my role as a therapist, a dating coach, a counselor here at Growing Self. 

Then, I also am going to be speaking with one of my listeners, one of your compadres, one of our community has raised her hand. We actually put a call out on Instagram recently around, “Have you had a pattern of dating jerks? Do you want to talk about it with Dr. Lisa?” Our friend, Sarah, raised her hand and said that she has been working on this for a long time, and she also had this pattern and has some very special and hard-won insights to share with you about her process in this area. Lots of fun stuff in store for us today.

If this is your first time listening — hello, welcome. I'll make this quick. Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby — founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. I'm a Marriage and Family Therapist, I'm a psychologist, I'm a life coach. This show is all about love, happiness, and success, and your love, happiness, and success specifically. If you have questions, or topics you would like me to talk about on the show, if you have a question for me and would like to discuss it with me on the show, I hope you raise your hand and get in touch. hello@growingself.com is how you can email. You can also get in touch on Instagram, @drlisamariebobby

A Harmful Dating Pattern

First of all, let's just talk about this pattern, which is so common. I know that many people who come to our practice, Growing Self, we do a number of different things here. We do couples counseling, we do career stuff — even our individual clients that we work with, the work that we do is often very relational in nature. I've done a lot of research and writing on the topic of breakup recovery, and I think is an extension of that when people heal and grow. It can turn into dating coaching, which is wonderful. 

That can also be a difficult experience for people, particularly if they haven't done a lot of this deeper work around patterns and subconscious motivations. Without that insight, without that self-awareness, dating can often be extremely discouraging and disappointing, I should say. The hope of this podcast today is to arm you with some new ideas to help make it more positive and productive for you. Again, as with all these podcasts, this is information. Information is not the same thing as having a growth experience. But hopefully, you'll hear some things today that you can put to use in your own life that would be helpful for you. 

You deserve to have help with this because it's an awful experience of feeling like you try to have relationships with these people. Just over and over again, you're getting involved with people who treat you badly or they're untrustworthy — maybe they've cheated on you, maybe they weren't emotionally available, or maybe you just leave this experience feeling like they're not valued, and that is terrible.

It's hurtful to experience, but also, if we don't figure out ways to break these patterns, it can be traumatizing and can really hold you back in some ways from trying again, daring to trust again, and put yourself out there again, and finding the real, healthy love that you want and deserve. I am here to tell you — the good news is that these patterns are 100% within your power to change, and it is your power to change it. Meaning, that it is also ultimately your responsibility to change it.

Tip number one: one of the biggest things I found that can be a huge barrier for people on this path of growth is this idea that, “I just haven't met the right person yet. When I do, this will be completely different. I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing, I'm talking to all these different people, and sooner or later, I will meet the right person, and then I will have a different experience, and this will all be better.” I am here to tell you that certainly, meeting the right person can be glorious and leads all good things. 

Unless you've done deeper levels of growth work, you will have a really hard time meeting that person. Here's the fun part: if you do meet that person, you will reject them. There's a lot to unpack here today. The first thing that I would like to request, as we do this work together today, is that you release that old narrative of I just haven't found the right person, and I'm just going to put it over here next to me while we're talking. I will hand it back to you the end of today's broadcast. 

But in the meantime, just clear the decks for some new ideas that will have more impact on your life ultimately because it's not luck, it's not chance — it's you. It's you learning, and growing, and gaining self-awareness and clarity, and being able to understand your patterns so that you can ultimately find freedom from them.

Jerks And Attachment Styles

One of the reasons that people have jerks in their life — a string of jerks going back for decades, different shapes and sizes, but jerk-wise nonetheless, and this one is hard to wrap your arms around. 

If this is true for you, it is likely that you will need some professional support in order to work through this. But if you emerged from childhood as many people have with damaging experiences in your very early primary relationships with one or both of your parents, it may have left you with what we call “attachment issues”. 

You may be on either side of the spectrum, you may have a tendency towards anxious attachment where you never quite feel safe or secure in relationships, and you need a lot of validation and people telling you that they love you, and showing you that they love you, or you start to feel really anxious, and that can lead to controlling behaviors in relationships sometimes that makes it difficult to have the kind of relationship that you want. 

You may also have come out of that with what we call an “avoidant attachment style”, which is that you, from a very early age, became heavily defended and even are now subconsciously really protecting yourself from getting too close to other people, which in practice typically looks like being extremely perfectionistic and critical of the people that you date and get to know. 

You can start to get to know somebody, and it seems good so far. Then sooner or later, they're not perfect anymore, you have all these reasons why they're not your person, and you will withdraw from relationships — even if you don't want to. I've talked to so many people, and it's like a physical — like they feel grossed out by a person almost, it's like on a physiological level

It is very common for people who have anxious attachment styles and avoidant attachment styles to come together in a non-blissful union, and essentially torture each other for several months before breaking up, and then oftentimes repeating that with a different person with a same kind of complementary attachment style. 

I also want to say that any of us in a certain type of relational system can exhibit an attachment style on one side of the spectrum or the other. If you are in a relation with somebody, for example, if you have a secure attachment style fundamentally, and if you are in a relationship with an avoidant person, you will become anxious and you will start looking like an anxiously attached person in that relationship. 

If you are a securely attached person, and you start dating somebody who has an anxious attachment style, you will very predictably move into this avoidant relational style with them because of their kind of way of showing up in the relationship. One way to dig into this and to see if it's deeper attachment things going on at a much deeper level is to ask yourself, and it could be with the help of a therapist or you unpack this, “Did I essentially grow up, from the ages of zero to five, in a highly emotionally unsafe or physically unsafe environment?” 

Not that you needed to have perfect parents. Everybody's parent is a weirdo in one way or the other. This is not parent-bashing, but patently unsafe. It was bad, you are suspect that it was left with traumas, left with scars, and it has persisted and been in these kinds of stable patterns in every relationship over time. But that would be a sign that there's some deeper work to do. 

I just wanted to say that first because I think what these kinds of questions like, “Why do I date jerks?” We think that there's some simple answer, and if you've lived through awful things in your early childhood, I want to be a better friend to you than that by suggesting that there's some simple amp answer and do these three things, and it will be better. There is a longer road ahead, and it's okay, and it can be healed, and it's going to be an intentional process, and it's also difficult to do alone. 

But until you do that, it's going to be hard to break out of those patterns because not only do you have your own attachment style that will interfere with healthy relationships anyway, but it's almost like your antenna is a little bit bent. You're going to be fundamentally more attracted to people who are going to be nothing but trouble for you. 

Herr Freud, back in the day, noticed this in some of his patients, and it would show up in different places, but he termed it “repetition compulsion”, and observed the fact that people who had very traumatic experiences, particularly with their parents, particularly in early childhood, would try to heal it, close the gap, have a healing experience with a person in their adult life who was very similar to one of those abusive parents like, “I couldn't get the love and care that I needed from my abusive father, so I'm going to find this guy who's very similar to my abusive father, actually, and try to do this with him. In that way, have that healing experience”, and it doesn't work, and it is also highly subconscious. People don't even realize that they're doing it. 

If any of this is ringing a bell for you, you can just stop listening to the “How to Not Date Jerks” podcast, and just make an appointment with a good therapist who has an attachment-based orientation to help you dig through some of this, and do a deeper level of more meaningful work. Just invest in it, and trust that through this deeper work, you will be ready to heal, and grow, and find a wonderful person. But until you do the work, that time that you spend dating will not be helpful to you. That's my first piece of advice, for better or for worse.

Jerks Are Attractive

Another reason that I often see why people have a pattern of dating jerks when we unpack this is because jerks are often incredibly attractive humans — they really are. When we think about the stereotypical jerk, they don't say terrible things, and act in horrific and shocking ways when you first meet them. No — they are often superficially charming. They are smooth talkers. They look good, they smell good, they often have admirable careers, and they can be really fun to talk to. 

They’ll sweep you off your feet, an experience that I think a lot of people are craving. They are subconsciously, when they're going out and thinking about who they're attracted to — or feeling attracted to, I should say, is people with a lot of sex appeal who have established good careers and these kind of admirable lives, and who are again, good talkers. Sometimes, there are certainly wonderful humans in the world that can be all of those things — they're talented, they're fun, they're smart, they're charming, they're accomplished, and they're also kind. That happens, it's a thing. 

But oftentimes people who are not all that kind, who may actually have narcissistic or sociopathic personality traits, or who have highly avoidant attachment style, which is can be associated with sociopathic or narcissistic personality traits, often present as all that and a bag of chips when you first meet them. That is actually something that I have — part of my spidey sense that I've developed with other humans over the years is if somebody seems too good to be true, and is flattering you, and love bombing you, and talking about all these amazing things, wants to fly you somewhere on their private plane, that makes my narcissist alarm start flaring. 

Just pay attention to that and think about who you are attracted to, what those patterns are, and whether or not you might have a proclivity to sexy-hot chicks or the suave-debonair guys because again, there can be a pattern there. I think if you are prioritizing that charming experience, that butterfly experience, that exciting experience, that super sexy experience with people that you're just getting to know. 

If that is what you're looking for, and that's what you're vibing in the direction of when you are seeking partners — if you're looking through online dating apps, or starting to text with people, or go first dates, you are going to be, by definition, rejecting people who are non-jerks, because most of the time, very nice, kind, decent, securely attached people are not that flashy. They're not trying to impress you, they're not trying to lovebomb you — they are just going about their life and looking for somebody nice to connect with, and go and do fun things with, and develop a real relationship with which often feels like developing a friendship with somebody.

Not Everyone Is A Jerk

A secure, emotionally healthy person is going to want to get to know you over a period of time, and it's going to feel relatively calm and peaceful. They don't want to have a 72-hour first date with you, so they often have healthy boundaries, they're being appropriate. If you have a pattern of being attracted to the feeling, if you're looking for that feeling, you're going to encounter non-jerks and think, “Hmm, they’re boring”, or, “This doesn't feel like it should”, because there isn't that sizzle sort of feeling. 

Sometimes I'm sorry to say, people can even take this a step further. They have criteria that very nice, decent potential partners might not meet in terms of career aspirations, how much money they make, how much they weigh, how tall they are. If you are looking for superficial characteristics to guide your dating life, and not paying a lot of attention to things like values, and character, and who this person fundamentally is — you have a much higher likelihood of connecting with a superficial person because that's the energy that you're coming into this with. 

I'm not saying that to be critical towards you, but just to bring it into your consciousness because this is a mistake that a lot of people are making and not even realizing that they're doing it. Again, knowledge is power, self-awareness is power, and if this is something that could be true for you, it's really important to get clear and reflective around this so that you can break the pattern and do something different. 

Now, another reason why you may feel like you are dating jerks and have a pattern of taking jerks — you might not actually be dating jerky people, you might be dating people that, over time, you come to realize are fundamentally incompatible with you. It's not a good fit, and it doesn't necessarily mean that they're a bad person. 

But if you are feeling angry, or disappointed, or let down by them because they are not who you wanted to be, that would be a good sign that one of the reasons why you feel like you're dating jerks is that you are getting involved with people on a more intimate level too quickly that if you had given yourself the time to slow down and get to know them a little bit better over time, you would have come to the realization that is not a good fit just in terms of who you are, what you want, personalities, the way that you communicate, values. It takes time to do that.

If you find yourself being really disappointed or surprised that people aren't who you thought they were, it's a good sign that you're probably moving too fast — and a fix for this would be to slow it down, and really understand dating as a process of getting to know someone. You're evaluating each other, “Is this somebody that I can have a nice long-term relationship with?” It is normal and expected that you would be getting to know people sometimes and saying, “Actually, no. Now that I've gotten to know you a little bit better, I'm not sure that this does feel like a good fit — not sure how much I like you anymore.” Totally fine. 

It doesn't mean that person is a jerk, it means that you've done a good job and you're both free to go. Now, there's also a corollary to this. You could be, again, not dating jerks, but dating people who are not that interested in having a relationship with you. When you are trying to have an attachment and you're all excited about somebody, and they're not that into you, you are not their person, you are not what they're looking for — you're going to feel that, and it's going to show up in the way that they're behaving towards you. 

They won't be committed to you, they may not be thoughtful about you, they may not be saying nice things, they might not be working that hard to try to make you feel good because this isn't a relationship that feels like something they want to build with you. In these cases, I think it can be easy to look at these patterns of behavior and think, “Oh, that is a bad person because they're not treating me kindly”, or “they're not being respectful”, or “they're not following through”, when in reality, maybe they're not like a fundamentally horrible human being, they're not a monster — they're communicating that this isn't a good relationship for you to be in with them. They don't want to do this with you. 

What is also horrible, but it is true and it is common is that many people don't like to be alone, and they will happily date a good enough person that can get strung along and can be like a placeholder in their life while they're waiting for the right person to come along. If you're with somebody who has a pattern of being checked out, or isn't working that hard to be with you, there is a possibility that you might be occupying that space in somebody else's life. It is so crappy and horrible to think about this — it really is. 

I feel like you deserve to know the truth so that you can make informed decisions on your own behalf into not try to make somebody treat you better or feel differently about you, that it's okay to just be done — and it doesn't mean anything about you either. I think we can all reflect, scrolling back through our minds about people that we connected with for a little while. For whatever reason, they weren't bad people. They were fine, They were attractive, they were nice in their own way, but they just weren't our person. I think we've all been in those brief relationships.

Dating People Who Are Not Jerks

I think that can help manage some of the self-esteem, “Oh, if I had done something different or better or whatever, then they would have liked me more.” Let's just not do that and accept the fact that there are people that you're not compatible with, and they're not compatible with you, and that can just be okay. They're not a jerk, you're not a jerk, and we can all move on. There's no need to demonize people in that space. 

Then, the other situation that we do need to talk about — there are two pieces of this. There are situations where you can get into a pattern of dating people who are not jerks. If you are bringing unresolved stuff into a relationship with you — like going back to exhibit A when we were talking about attachment issues. If you have work to do in those areas, and you haven't, and you are dating people anyway, and you are engaging with them in some of those either avoidant or anxious attachment styles, people will begin to feel an act and be jerky-er than they were when you first met them. 

Because relationships are systems, and I think it's important for all of us to be aware of how we are engaging with other people and the impact that is having on them. It might not even be due to attachment styles. If you haven't done work around like emotional intelligence, and maybe communication skills are not something that you've taken time to develop in yourself, and maybe if you haven't had a lot of relationships and haven't done some work around, “How do I be a good partner for someone else?” 

Even simple things like learning how to be emotionally validating, being intentional about showing love and respect to other people — these are learned skills. If you are showing up in relationships, and you don't know how to do these things, and other people are having not-so-great experiences with you as a result, they're going to pull away from you, and they're going to decide — like what we talked about — that you're not their person, and they're going to be less responsive to you, they're going to be less interested in making you happy, and it's going to start feeling to you like they're being mean to you, they're being a jerk. 

When in reality, they're having reactions to the things that maybe you're bringing to the relationship. Again, I am not saying these things to be harsh, or mean, or scary — but I think that there's a lot of somewhat questionable dating advice around social media and other platforms. What I'm here to do on this podcast is to help you gain insight and awareness into yourself. I think it can be very difficult to identify some of these things. 

It is much easier to demonize others, to blame them for the experiences that we're having in relationships. It's difficult emotionally to look into the mirror and be like, “Okay, what am I doing to create these outcomes? What are the patterns that I'm bringing in? And what are the things that may be difficult to look at, but that I really need to look at because I want something better for myself?” 

The path of growth is often one of reality-based, authentic, sometimes darkness. We need to grapple with things that are real and true and sometimes challenging on the path of growth. I just wanted to mention these things because I've seen them come up so often in my clients and with other people, and I wouldn't be doing you any favors if I weren't honest with you. For what it's worth, those are some of the reasons why you may feel like you are dating jerks. 

Very lastly, and then we will shift gears, another thing that I have seen in addition to all of the above is, I think of what I've shared probably the most easily solvable of problems if you will, which is not that there's an attraction issue or rejection of good partners, or a way of showing up in relationships that's not ideal. But rather, that you haven't yet put the time and effort into getting really clear about who you are, your values — like the things that are most important to you to getting clarity about how you want a relationship to feel, the kind of partnership and life that you'd like to have with another person. 

I'm not talking about like that extremely specific, “Okay, she needs to be 5’8”, and she needs to have sandy blonde hair.” Those kinds of things are not what I'm talking about. But it's more around, “I really want to be with an emotionally safe person that I can talk to about real things. I want to feel valued by this person, I want to feel fundamentally respected by this person, I want to feel like we're going on in the same direction in life. By the way, what is that direction that I want to go in? I have to get clear about that before I can figure out if somebody is going in the same direction as me or not.” 

Doing that kind of self-exploration work can build the foundation of clarity. Then, when you do start dating again, you can be looking for people who are much more than just attractive or fun to talk to. It's more around, “What kind of experience would I have with this person as a long-term partner?” 

Off the bat getting to know people for who they are, and deciding as you're dating whether or not this feels good for you, this feels compatible, “Am I experiencing greenlights with this person, and I want to keep getting to know them and getting deeper into the pool of a relationship?” Or, “Am I having experiences that don't feel really good for me, or making me worry that we’re not that compatible?” And, “Am I overriding my own good judgment here because I'm excited about this person because they feel attractive to me. I feel butterflies — they're sexy.” 

Remembering that they're very different parts of our mind, and that the part of your mind that feels, the part of your mind that experiences, excitement, and attraction is not the same part of your mind that has the ability to think critically and make good decisions, and that's really the part of your mind that you need to stay engaged with when you're dating. Okay, so this was a quick crash course in things to think about when you're dating. 

If you are interested in more on the subject, there's a lot more on this on previous podcasts. You can scroll back through, or certainly, hop over to the blog at growingself.com, and check out some of our good dating advice over there. We do also have a little dating coaching program. If you want to dig into some of this work, there are activities and worksheets, and things that you can do to gain insight. But I tell you, there's not, I think, a substitute for, in some ways, talking to somebody about this because that's where you really get help in uncovering those blind spots and developing the kind of self-awareness that we all need to make different choices and to get different outcomes. 

This concludes the informational part of our broadcasts. Now, though, I really wanted to do something to make this more — not like real, but I'm a big believer in understanding, gaining wisdom, and understanding the depth of awareness by not just reflecting on our own experiences and taking in information, but really hearing about the stories of others. 

For this reason, I have invited Sarah to join us on the show. Sarah is actually a listener of the podcast, and we began doing a new thing recently where we thought it would be fun instead of just talking abstractly and from a distance about your questions and the topics that were most important to you guys, “Hey, let's start bringing people on the show and actually having real conversations that I'm sure you'll be able to relate to.” 

We put a little post out on Instagram who says, “Hey, who has had the experience of dating jerks?” Sarah was kind enough to raise her hand and share that — you're intimately familiar with those. I thought it would be so fun just to, maybe if it's okay with you, get some insight into your story, and the things that you learned along the way for the benefit of our community here on the podcast. So, thank you. 

We do not have to go into all the details, of course. But when I'm working with somebody in the capacity of a therapist, or a dating coach, one of the most important places that we will start is with your relationship history because that's when we can start to see patterns. I think that when we're living in the moment, it's hard, sometimes, to know why we do what we're doing. But I'm curious to know you've shared that you over time noticed a pattern of dating jerks. Would you give us the short version of your dating history to the degree that you're comfortable? And when did you begin to notice that this was a pattern for you? 

Sarah: I have only really ever been in two long-term relationships that were actually established relationships where it wasn't just talking or getting to know one another — those stages that are very popularized now. One of which I'm in right now, the other one was with a previous partner. We've been almost broken up for an entire year now, and my boyfriend and I currently have been together for — it'll be six months in four days.

Lisa: Congratulations.

Sarah: Yes — and he is wonderful. He's definitely not a jerk. Definitely not any of the things that I've experienced with previous parties. But out of everyone who wasn't in either of these two relationships with me who I did, myself, being attracted to and attracting, the qualities that I noticed, it was initially — I was expecting a spark. Dating coaches will say certain things like that — and it depends on the dating coach and their expertise, of course. 

But the way that so many things are mainstream nowadays, it felt like I was supposed to be, “Okay, I know I have a chance with someone like this. Or maybe I feel like, “I feel a connection there. I feel like there could be something that can grow and transpire from this.” When really, I was giving my I was getting my own hopes up and give myself a way to easily, allowing myself to become vulnerably and emotionally attached and tethered to this person. 

Any of these people, very quickly — with how much time we would spend together, what we would talk about, how I felt like they might have been different quote-unquote, “from the last person”, and it's kind of like whenever I noticed a pattern. That’s what I found myself doing most often.

Unrealistic Expectations of Dating

Lisa: That is so relatable. I see that so often in my clients. I'm hearing that they're these two pieces of it. First of all, it’s one that is so common — it’s looking for this feeling and expecting to feel a certain way that ultimately wound up not being a reliable indicator that this was actually a good person in our relationship. But can we unpack this for a second? Because I think especially with women — sometimes with men, but like I see people do this so often. What was that feeling that you thought you should have? 

Sarah: I, now, can recognize it as an unsteady and unstable — dare I say like insecurity-ridden feeling, “Wow, this person will complete me. I'm only half of a person. I'm looking for someone to make me whole”, have nearly unrealistic expectations of how the relationship will pan out whenever you don't even know them for that long, whenever you are unsure of one another's moral compass — or if you guys want the same things, are they thinking of you the same way that you're thinking of them. 

But that spark, that feeling is just butterflies — it's the nervousness, newness of it all, the magic of meeting someone new. It can't rely on a single spark. I know that I'm listing a bunch of different things aside from dating. 

Lisa: Oh no, it's wonderful. I appreciate you unpacking all this perspective. I'm hearing that there's that spark, that kind of chemistry feeling. Then, I think I'm hearing that it bloomed into a lot of fantasy. You talked about having a hope that you found the person that could “complete you” potentially. 

Can you say a little bit more about that? I know that you have a different perspective now because you've worked on yourself, obviously. But what can you take us back to that time of what would be some of the things that you would be imagining or telling yourself about one of these people who wound up not being a good partner for you? 

Sarah: One person I can think of in particular would be my ex. He immediately swept me off my feet. At first, I felt, “Wow, he has a good head on his shoulders. He seems like he knows what he wants in life.” He seems very sure of himself — and it wasn't so much a confidence thing. It was more like, “Wow, he seems like sure about me”, at the very beginning. It made me feel wanted, and I deserve someone who's very loving, and caring, and compassionate about me. 

But the way that someone appears to you at first is all you know of them. It doesn't give you much time to really make a good educated guess on how the rest of the relationship will transpire. It is easy to fantasize. But a lot of times, I found that I was let down by the discussions that we'd have and where I thought, “He was everything I wasn't”, or “He was super similar to me in certain ways.”

I thought that, “Oh, well — maybe he could very well complete me. Maybe, he could be that one piece of my jigsaw puzzle that has been missing and arrived for so long.” Struggling to figure out how to fit him in was where a lot of conflict arose. 

Lisa: No, I get that. Then, to understand, there's so many people who are creative, and intelligent, and conscientious is that you used the word “fantasy”, but imagine these things, imagine qualities that you had and qualities that he had, especially in the early stages of the relationship where he was making you feel really good. He came on strong, he said all the things, you're like, “Wow, I am loved! This is it! I'm having this experience.” 

But then, you're saying that there were ideas about what should be happening, expectations that you wanted him to fit into, and then that is when it started feeling hard sometimes. Is that it? What would be an example of that? 

Sarah: An example would be, I think, whenever he was so chivalrous and charismatic at the very beginning, but then maybe there'll be an instance where I found that, “Oh, he didn't do that thing that he did once before. Why isn't that happening anymore? Why am I not getting a good morning text? Was that just at the beginning? Should I keep on expecting that?” I dug myself into a deeper hole because I was not as communicative as I am proud to say that I am now. 

I was not as upfront in saying — just sitting down, having a one-on-one with him, and having a very intimate, serious discussion on, “Hey, I feel like these are some of my needs.” But then, there'll be instances where that didn't happen anymore, where it didn't happen all over again. To make matters worse, there would also be some fights that came out of those things where we would have disagreements. It didn't start off at the biggest problems, possibly. 

It would also be various things such as we had a huge difference of opinion on certain civil rights movements, or I was very proactive, and I want everyone to be with who they love and for all the reasons that they can provide. As long as you're not hurting yourself or anyone or anything else around you, I think you're living your life. That's like my philosophy. He didn't like that. 

He didn't like that I didn't have enough structure in my life. He didn't like that I would try and be communicative, but then it felt like attacking and accusatory to him — even if I would try and phrase it as civilized, and as diplomatically, and as heartfelt as possible. Truthfully, sometimes it wouldn't be enough to avoid the bigger confrontations and to try and see past the differences. I was a little bit more optimistic about our relationship. Honestly, I can admit now that I saw a lot of red flags, and I completely bypassed them. It was like — I saw a red light, ran it every time. 

Lisa: Get swept away by those big feelings in the beginning. What I think I'm hearing in your story is that there was that first kind of relational piece that just felt so good like, “This is the way it should be.” Then, I think I'm hearing that he has stopped saying or doing some of the things that had felt nice to you in the beginning, and you were trying to get him to do that again. Then, that was leading to tension. Maybe, that went the other way, as well. 

But I'm also hearing that as you two got to know each other better over time, that there were some fundamental differences and four defining values that started bumping up against each other. We never know what those are really until we get into the pool with somebody and have opportunity. That takes months, sometimes years, to really understand what those pieces are. Is that what I'm hearing? 

Sarah: 110% accurate. You're right. If you were to go on a date and be like, “Okay, so what's your stance on religion?”

Lisa: Holding a clipboard. Right. 

Sarah: I can be like, “Are you really a potential suitor?” I guess that's one way to do it. You'd be a very forward person and much more ballsy than I am.

Lisa: It's sort of like an assessment before the first date, “Here are 200 questions — true or false?”

Sarah: “We’ll get to you in a month.” Exactly. But it's not always like that. Maybe what he really meant to say was this, maybe what he really meant to do was this over here, maybe he's trying to show me that he loves me even though we had that disagreement that made me feel unheard and unseen — maybe there is hope for us. I would just keep on holding to that little bit of hope that I kept on trying to… 

Lisa: That's also really common. As we've talked about on this podcast in the past — early-stage romantic love has a very intoxicating quality. It actually changes the way that people think, and part of what it does to our brains is idealize that other person. I think I'm hearing that there was that disconnect — that you were seeing things and observing things, and things like, “I don't really like that.” 

But there was this other part of your brain that was in that space of hoping. But it sounded over time, you didn't really like the person that you were getting to know. You wanted him to be different than what he was. Is that the right way of saying it? 

Sarah: Very true — it totally became that. I had fallen in love with a version of him that he was only going to be for so long — why not look past some of these things? 

Dating A Jerk Advice: Red Flags

Lisa: But the feelings are so powerful in the beginning. I think that we're also trained by the culture to follow our feelings, and it's like hard insight and life experience. That is not always really helpful. We need to not follow some feelings — but it's so hard to do, especially when they feel so powerful, like in that early stage relationship. 

But a moment ago, you mentioned that, as things went on, you were noticing, what you described as “red flags”, and you were like, “Oh, maybe it will be better.” But what were the red flags? 

Sarah: Red flags, they came in waves sometimes. Sometimes, it would be like we had a great day, and there was no fighting, there were virtually no disagreements whatsoever. Then, there'll be other days where we had a ton of disagreements, red flags. He began to start to say some things that were borderline very questionable to my moral compass and the way that I view individuals on a worldwide global scale, saying things like, “Women don't have an opinion on that.” 

Yes, I was flummoxed whenever he would say some of these things. I figured I really hope that we can come together and bridge the gaps because of our differences — not have to break up in spite of them. But certain things kept on rolling around. But anytime that we couldn't talk it out, it would turn into him screaming at me, yelling at me that my opinions were inadequate, that I didn't have the right to think certain ways. I wish I was making this up. I wish… 

Lisa: Wow. No, I don't want to make you relive all of that on a public forum here. It got really nasty and really abusive. 

Sarah: These are the most tumultuous relationship of my life. 

Lisa: Definitely. Then, I think you're also describing something, though, that is so common, which is the old idea of the frog in the pot of boiling water. Have you heard that? If you turn it up slowly, the frog doesn't know when it's hot enough to jump out? Like doing that with yourself, “Okay, I don't like this — but can we work through this? Is it something that can be repaired?” And legitimately not knowing in some ways, which I think is really valid. 

Especially for a younger person, it can be hard to see this stuff come in — even in an abusive relationship. It's not like somebody just punches you in the face on the second date. Any of us can be like, “I think…” at that point. But that's not what happens. The heat goes up slowly, and then you're emotionally entwined with somebody who is officially being really damaging and toxic. At what point were you finally, “I’m not doing this with you anymore, buddy.” 

Sarah: Even while I was still in the relationship, I wasn't looking for better. I was trying to really stick with it no matter what. But to really put myself through so much turmoil, and emotional abuse and neglect, and everything else possible that could have gone wrong in the relationship, I kept on thinking to myself, “Maybe it's best if we end this, and I hope you find who or what you're looking for because I could never make you happy, I could never be enough for you in this.” 

Because even if I didn't subconsciously or even verbalize it to myself, I wasn't enough for myself in that moment because I didn't choose myself right from the beginning. I didn't verbalize the way what he was saying was making me feel. He didn't take any of it into consideration to begin with. There was going to be no resolve ever that we were going to reach. Some people like that simply, as sad as it is, you cannot reach. 

Lisa: Oh, I absolutely hear you. I'm so glad that you arrived in that space, as painful as it must have been, to get out there, Sarah. But it just says so much about you, and just what a fundamentally healthy person you are. No, really! You'd be like, “Ah, this does not feel good”, “I had hoped it would be one way, but this is not good for me”, recognizing, “That isn't good for me”, and also I think recognizing — this is the hard part for a lot of people, but there's like a self-betrayal component in a lot of these. 

There was a lot of learning that happened through this experience, and not that anybody would have signed up for — but valuable, nonetheless, to be on the other side. Then, I'm curious to know, because you had mentioned that this was a significant relationship. But then there were other people that you sort of started to do this with is what I got the impression of, that same sort of pattern of that attraction and fantasizing, and then feeling really disappointed by people. 

Were there others after this relationship, or going through that one relationship where you’re like, “I don’t learn enough about what not to do again, but I'm done with you people.” 

Sarah: A really good question between my ex and my current significant other, there was nobody. I really took a lot of time to reflect on — I was wondering and questioning my worth for weeks, if not months on end, and it took a decent amount of soul searching for me to be able to say, “Even if there is no one out there for me, that is not the end-all-be-all of Sarah. That is not my composition.” 

Lisa: Totally. Really spent some time stopping, and really spending some time connecting with yourself, “Who am I? What are my values? What do I care about? What do I want in my life? How can I serve the world?”, and these anchors to bigger things. I'm so glad that you did that. I see, so often, people are just jumping right back into a very similar feeling situation. I just think that says so much about you that you really slowed down, and just got really clear and okay with like yourself — like rebuilding yourself. Is that the sense I hear? 

Sarah: Kind of what you were saying, this is another pattern that I noticed throughout my dating and up until the ex. I was not only attracting, but attracted to, and giving all my time, attention, effort, energy, even too emotionally unstable, if not entirely unavailable individuals. These were people who had — in more than one way and maybe not entirely verbally at that, they had said, “Hey, I'm not looking for anything long-term.” 

But maybe it was with their body language, with their actions — because actions really speak louder than words. Just the way that no one really ever cared about what I was needing and what was best for, not just themselves, but for myself as well in and out of the relationship until I was to be single, and to really reflect on everything that had happened, and how much turmoil I'd experienced and to reflect.

Attracting the Wrong People

Lisa: There was a recognition of this pattern over time that you had been attracted to, as you say, most emotionally unavailable or unstable people. Can I ask you the zillion-dollar question here? I'm hearing that once you became aware of that, “I can't do that anymore”, that things change for you. But the zillion dollar question that I think so many people struggle with to define and articulate for themselves — can you say, “What if it was about those people in the beginning that was actually so attractive?” 

Sarah: This is going to be a bajillion, bazillion dollar answer for you because as we're talking more about this, the more I'm able to be more specific. At first, I thought that they were very mysterious — and mysterious can always come off as attractive. But mysterious, in a dark, “I probably need help”, and I thought that I could help them kind of way. But first off, they did not act like men. They acted like children, and they most often had troubles and experienced something early on in their childhood with their parents, specifically their mother. 

I wanted to swoop in, and make them my build-a-boy project — that's how I coined it. It's very — oh my gosh, this is not build-a-bear, but this is like the revamping and the refurbishing of someone who has been broken before, or rather bent. In order to get them back into shape, I figured maybe I could help them with that. I didn’t think about the fact that, “I'm not a therapist.” 

Lisa: No, I totally get it. But how much insight? Because I think there's like an archetype for that — the wounded bad boy who's saying, “I'm not really emotionally available, I don't want to be in a relationship.” This can happen with men, too. I've seen this happen all the time with men who have wonderful values around helping and service, and who really are fundamentally nurturing people. 

It's almost like that becomes a way to express those values, and get to be this person that you want to be — like the helper, the empathetic, the compassionate person, like, “I can help you grow and heal in that space. That was that attractor factor, it sounds like. 

It's very intoxicating, isn't it? There's power, there's value — and I think all of us have been vulnerable to that. We can almost get trapped sometimes by our most noble virtues and gifts when they're in directions that are ultimately not good for us. Does that sound familiar? 

Sarah: I couldn't have phrased it any better. That sounds 100% accurate to me. 

Lisa: And everybody because there are a lot of people listening to this right now. I don't want to suggest that everybody's hook would be the same as the one that you've described. But I think the point is that you are able to do this marvelous reflection around, “What was it that was leading me to be attracted to that kind of person, and gain that insight and self-awareness?” 

Because when things are happening subconsciously and automatically, we don't get a chance to do, “Oh yeah, there's that thing again, I'm going to do a manual override because I know that is going to not take me in a good direction.” But you were able to do that, and I would like to encourage anybody listening to this — that's how we break out of these patterns, is not being angry with yourself that, “Yes, I date these kinds of guys, and I need to stop doing that”, but really, with compassion, visiting with that question, “Yes, but why does this make sense?” And you did that. 

Sarah: I feel like a lot of this pattern that had developed for me in my romantic relationships, more specifically, had been something that was not always in place, but was the majority of my time as a young woman actually dating — not just stating my kindergarten crush or anything. 

To actually see people who had lived and experienced things, and to try and make sense of why they felt like they could treat me the way that they could, I felt like I'm such a giver. I so rarely in life feel like I want to actually take from people. I say that to totally not sound like self-centered, but I really do think that's like… 

Lisa: Aware of your worth. 

Sarah: But it took a lot of learning for me to be able to say and realize, “Maybe I need to really look deeper and wonder, ‘Why am I going after these specific kinds of guys? What is it about them that makes them mysterious, toxic — I'm willing to overlook all of your red flags and your stop lights just to be with you? What is it about that makes me attracted and that I'm attracting them?’” 

Lisa: It's marvelous. I think, again, such a common element of these situations is that I think we can look to the other person as like this seductive force. But I think that there's less awareness that we are seducing ourselves in some ways by our own internal narratives and becoming intoxicated. Exactly. This is good stuff. 

I know our time together is limited, so I also want to pivot because you had all of these marvelous awarenesses. I'm sure that we could unpack so many other things with additional time together — I know there's more to the story. But over time and after having a particularly bad experience, you're like, “I do not want to do that again.” You spent some reflective time. It sounds like you became more deeply connected with yourself, and I'm guessing kind of your internal values. 

This is a question — did you find yourself being more intentional when you felt like maybe you were ready to try again? If so, how was that experience different in — not so much in terms of the person that you dated, but in terms of your process, like who you were attracted to? How you connected with them? What parts of your feelings were you listening to? And what parts of your feelings were like, “That's actually not as important as I used to think it was?” How would you describe that? 

Sarah: I want to say, first and foremost, I love this question. It's one that I don't really think about — I think about, but I don't think about it. I don't think about how I'm going to answer it, but I'm very grateful for the way I'm dating after the really nasty breakup I experienced. I wanted to really take some time, after reflecting, to make a list of all the qualities in someone who I really do want to have. I want to share my time with someone who builds me up. 

I want to share my time, and my love, and my energy, my body even — everything — with someone who is willing to try to get to understand me. Not have just a one-line response to what I have to say, but to really try and understand where I'm coming from and to build a connection with me that goes beyond the physical appearance. That will fade one day — I will not look the same that I look right now. 

In 10 years, even much less 50, I feel like I'm so thankful for having the time to really reflect and be more intentional about dating. That way, I wasn't just going to put myself right back out there and not know what I wanted. I wanted to make a list — not based on the physical appearance, but to make a list of the qualities that I want to work on finding in someone else, see for myself, not have to dig it out of them, and then really try and work on those same things on myself. Why would you ask of certain qualities and someone else, and not have them yourself? 

Lisa: Absolutely. “I want somebody who's compassionate, and trustworthy, and fun”, but then you turn it into, “So how do I be compassionate, and trustworthy, and fun”, of whatever those things were. 

Sarah: Yes. There were all these — I was building a better version of myself, not for someone else to love, but for me. That way, I knew the most important relationship in my life is always going to be with myself. 

How to Date a Nice Guy After Dating Jerks

Lisa: Ironically, having a better relationship with yourself is also the pathway to being a better partner — they're the same thing. I just wanted to mention that because I think when we hear people say, “Oh, focusing on me, my needs”,  I think that it's easy to interpret that as being self-centered — and that is not how I took what you said, by the way. But it's a very generous act because that is how you become a better partner, and that's what you were doing. 

Sarah: Precisely. 

Lisa: How would you describe the difference in your process when you finally met the person that you're dating now that you described it as being a really positive relationship? I'm curious to know — if it's okay to say — did you feel the same kind of attractions with other people, or was it different for you? Were you looking for different things? How long did it take to get to that pool? 

Sarah: I love this question so much. I'm so thankful for him. I wanted to experiment with myself, if you will, and I put myself out there. But I would only ever swipe right on people who I thought had a nicer, kinder demeanor about them. Even if I felt like, “Oh, man, maybe we were two different people, but I want to not just jump to the assumption or the conclusion of that. But I want to actually make good conversation with them, and see how they interact with me in just trying to get to know me.” 

Lisa: You were prioritizing kindness — your perceptions of kindness over other things. 

Sarah: Another big one is — I swiped right on my boyfriend specifically because I just thought that something about him was different. Then, when we started talking, he was very kind, very positive, optimistic, career-driven, and he was very slick too. A day or two into talking, he was like, “Wow, this is so great. I love your career interest. We can talk about it more on Friday or something.” I was like, “Ooh, slick.” 

Lisa: Just out of curiosity — do you think that you would have been attracted to him prior to having done all this work on yourself?

Sarah: No, because I wouldn't have been attracted to who I am today. I wouldn't have loved her first. I wouldn't have gone through all the mess, all the heartbreak, the turmoil — everything. I needed the turbulence to be able to show me and appreciate what was good when I had it good. 

Lisa: What would you say was different about the way that early stages of your relationship unfolded compared to the experience you had in a relationship that wound up not being a good thing for you? 

Sarah: Wonderful question. I told him right from the start, “I do not feel comfortable with us making open-ended promises. It really makes me get my hopes up. If we don't follow through, if no actions are done to set those parameters in place, I don't feel comfortable following through on actions if I know that the other person isn't. Blanket statement — please don't make me any promises, and I won't make you any promises. 

Lisa: That we're just getting to know each other. Any promises made are incredibly premature — “I don't know you yet.” 

Sarah: Exactly, “I can't rely on you, I cannot trust you because I can't trust myself in this just yet.” But we both talked about was that in our previous relationships, we did not verbalize. We both had breakups right around the same time — so ended up working out. But through everything we had gone through in our previous relationships, we came to the conclusion that, “Oh, a pattern that we're noticing with one another is much more healthy than these previous relationships.” 

We want to keep up the good behavior and continue to have open discussions — just laying it all there out on the table. It's not to say that we say ugly things to one another. That is not the way that we discuss things, but to allow for the conversation. For all cards on the table, it's always up for discussion. If you set a boundary in place, and you're thinking about maybe changing that boundary or revisiting it to say, “Hey, here's what I'm now feeling comfortable with.” 

Anything that we can discuss, it's not like we have to approach it with fear or an insecurity of, “Oh my God, my partner might leave me. What if I say this, and the whole world comes crashing, comes tumbling down?” 

Lisa: That's so wise — let this sort of mutual commitment to being honest and authentic, and really talking about how you feel because that is, I think, always one of the most important things any of us could do to avoid getting into a relationship with a jerk. Because as soon as you do that with a jerk, you'll know quickly that this person isn't going to be a good partner for you. 

If you're authentic and talk about how you feel, and it is met with hostility or defensiveness, or minimization and reset, you can be done. That's what dating is for. I think that idea — let's fail as quickly as possible by being authentic, and you guys did that from the beginning. You took those chances. You're like, “How does he act when I say this about how I actually feel?” And it was a positive experience, which is a green light — we keep going. 

Sarah: I love the way that you phrase that beginning because we do have the most genuine, honest, and respectful relationship I've ever been in — will probably ever be in because of the way that we talk to one another, and the way that I feel so revered, and he will clarify with what I've said. Very similar to you actually, “I'm understanding what I'm hearing — the whole nine yards, right here. I'm like, “Yes…” 

Lisa: Emotional intelligence, communication skills. But you gave yourself the time to get to know that those things were true about him. I think what is very easy to do, and what I hope some of our listeners take away, is that we can have that flash — like exciting feeling, and skip over that whole getting to know who you actually are part, and develop a very serious attachment to somebody. 

Oftentimes, there's like a sexual component, which not in a morality-based way, but because we have a physiological attachment to people with whom we're sexually intimate and can get emotionally welded to people, and then start to find out that, “Oh, I can't communicate with this person in a healthy way. We don't have values that are in alignment”, “This person is not a good friend to me. I don't actually like this person, but there's this emotional thing that's already happened that's very difficult to get out of.” 

I think what I'm hearing you say is that it was a more gradual process, more akin to building a friendship where you are getting to know who he was as your emotional connection was beginning to build. Is that how you would describe it? 

Sarah: I would. There was a moment where I wasn't too sure because he had asked me to be his girlfriend, and I was still newly out of my last relationship, and still trying to figure some things out even though I did really like him. I love his personality, and I liked his friends. He just asked me and I was like, “I don't really know. Maybe we should just take a little bit slower than that.” But I remember specifically… 

Lisa: But how did he react to that? 

Sarah: He was like, “Okay, I don't see how things could go wrong.” But I said myself, “I don't want to mess this up. I really do want to take our time because there's no due date on this. There's no expiration date either. There's nothing telling us that we cannot take as much time as we can. I feel like we should just get to know each other better.”

I got to know a decent amount of him, and the way that he follows through on his actions with the way that he would treat me in the first month or so like us even knowing each other — very appreciative of that. Before we even established what we even were, he wanted to hear about what my day was like, and wanted to try and see what the future could look like together. 

I love that we've taken the time to do some of the dirty work. I feel so much better with him. He doesn't complete me, but he's definitely something that complements my life, and I love that about him. 

Lisa: Well, that's wonderful. Sarah. I'm so happy for you. Thank you so much for coming and just sharing your story with our community here today. I think it's one thing to have somebody like me — they like, “Okay, here are things to think about, and tips”, or whatever. But I think there's something so relatable in your story. I think so many people that have struggled with this just — I could imagine them nodding their heads and being like, “Yes!” 

But I think it can be difficult to identify things in ourselves because we have blind spots. It's hard to see ourselves. But I think when we do hear other stories and insights of others, and we can resonate with them, it's such a powerful experience because then you can say, “Yeah, me too”, and start connecting some of those dots. 

That is 90% of the work — is just bringing this stuff into awareness. I think that you helped a lot of people do that today. I heard you mentioned earlier that some of your core values were around kindness, and generosity, and helping others. I just want you to know that I think you probably helped a lot of people today. 
Sarah: Thank you.

How to Save Your Marriage After Financial Infidelity

How to Save Your Marriage After Financial Infidelity

How to Save Your Marriage After Financial Infidelity

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

How to Save Your Marriage After Financial Infidelity

Does this sound familiar? You’re out shopping, and something catches your eye. The cost is a little steep, but you know you’re going to get a lot of enjoyment out of this purchase. It’s worth it.  

But then there’s your partner. They probably won’t see the value in your new $180 sunglasses, chic as they may be. So you don’t mention the price tag, and you hope they don’t ask. You may feel totally justified in this — after all, they spent how much on (expensive hobby / frivolous item that brings them joy)? 

If you’ve been here before, you’ve engaged in a degree of financial infidelity — and you’re far from alone. It’s surprisingly common for people to hide purchases, price tags, and even whole lines of credit from their spouses, to the detriment to their relationships and their long-term financial health. 

Serious financial infidelity carries the sting of betrayal and the breaking of trust that sexual infidelity carries, along with real-world financial consequences for both partners. It can be difficult to repair a relationship in the wake of financial infidelity, and many couples need support from a qualified marriage counselor to heal and move forward. 

But I do have some good news for you: There is a proven road to repair after financial infidelity, and that’s what we’re discussing on this episode of the podcast. 

My guest is Meagan T., a marriage and family therapist here at Growing Self, trained by the Federal Reserve in financial counseling for couples. Meagan understands the roots of financial infidelity, how to prevent it, and how to repair the damage it causes. Even if you haven’t run into big problems with financial infidelity in your marriage, I hope you’ll listen to this conversation — this is truly a scenario where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. 

You and your spouse are a team, and it’s important that you take an intentional, transparent, compassionate approach to managing your money together. I hope this episode will help you do just that, so you can have a healthy, happy marriage and a bright financial future.  

Xoxo, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

How to Save Your Marriage After Financial Infidelity

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

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How to Save Your Marriage After Financial Infidelity: Episode Highlights

In the wake of financial infidelity, couples need to work through an infidelity healing process together. It can be emotionally difficult, but couples can and do heal from financial infidelity and create stronger, more balanced relationships in the wake of it. 

What Is Financial Infidelity? 

When one partner conceals important financial activity from the other, they’re engaging in financial infidelity. Like sexual infidelity, financial infidelity can destroy trust and leave one partner feeling hurt and betrayed. It can also wreak havoc on your relationship, and your shared financial goals

Financial infidelity comes in all shapes and sizes. It can look like a minor omission (like ‘forgetting’ to mention that you went a bit over-budget booking your vacation), or a major transgression (like draining the kids’ college fund to cover secret credit card bills). 

Examples of Financial Infidelity: 

  • Not telling your partner about your $80,000 in student debt before getting married. 
  • Putting large purchases on an Amex your spouse doesn’t know about. 
  • Borrowing money in your partner’s name. 
  • Lying to your partner about an item’s price tag. 
  • Stashing large sums of money away without your spouse’s knowledge. 

Financial infidelity is surprisingly common. Over 30 percent of couples say they’ve experienced some level of financial infidelity in their relationship over the past year, either as the secretive spender or the unsuspecting spouse, according to a recent survey from U.S. News and World Report.  

The Reason for Financial Infidelity

Often, financial infidelity starts innocently enough and gradually accelerates into a major problem. It typically stems from a discomfort with open, honest communication about money

Many couples are either fighting about money, or not mentioning it at all, with no periods of healthy communication in between. In this dynamic, each partner’s natural impulse is to avoid conflict and the bad feelings that come along with it, and money is a reliable source of conflict. 

This is a ripe ecosystem for financial infidelity. When couples can't have comfortable, honest conversations about their finances and how they want to manage money together, hiding things can feel a little too natural. 

The Effects of Financial Infidelity

Financial infidelity can create long-term trust issues, leaving the betrayed partner questioning what else their partner has lied to them about. The betrayed partner often feels angry and deeply hurt, while the partner who engaged in financial infidelity often feels a complicated mix of guilt, shame, and resentment. 

Aside from the emotional consequences, financial infidelity can carry some serious external consequences, depending on the severity, like significant debt, loss of future financial goals, or damaged credit that can follow both partners for decades. 

Given all this, it’s no surprise that couples can struggle to repair their bond after financial infidelity, and many wonder whether their relationships can survive. Repairing trust is a gradual process, but with the right support, couples can heal from financial infidelity.

Preventing Financial Infidelity

Your relationship is less vulnerable to financial infidelity when you have open, honest communication about money, early and often. Discuss your budget, your financial goals, your financial health, as well as your values and your priorities. Start these conversations as soon as you can, and keep them going as your relationship grows. 

By doing so, you’ll lay a foundation of trust and understanding in your relationship. You’ll feel more comfortable being transparent with each other about financial issues in the future, and negotiating financial boundaries together as the need arises. 

How to Save Your Marriage After Financial Infidelity

If you’re dealing with financial infidelity — or emotional infidelity or sexual infidelity, for that matter — you’re dealing with a lot of heavy, difficult emotions, and sometimes those emotions can be too much for your relationship to bear. Many couples need help from a counselor to put their relationship back together after financial infidelity, and it’s important that they get it. 

Look for a marriage and family therapist with experience in financial counseling for couples. These relationship experts are trained systemic thinkers, who understand relationship dynamics and how to shift them. They can help you heal after financial infidelity, repair trust, and restore love and respect

How to Save Your Marriage After Financial Infidelity: Episode Show Notes

[2:37] What Is Financial Infidelity?

  • Financial infidelity can range from withholding small purchase information to taking out large sums of money and loans in a marriage.
  • Like other forms of infidelity, it carries a sense of betrayal.

[12:01] How To Deal with Financial Infidelity?

  • Have an upfront discussion about your financial situation.
  • Transparency is one of the most important elements in building trust.
  • Be open about the values you grew up with surrounding your financial habits.

[21:02] Signs of Financial Infidelity

  • Feeling fearful of communicating about your purchases.
  • Conflicting financial beliefs, values, and future ideals.

[28:39] The Right Advisor for Financial Infidelity

  • A systemic therapist is an ideal person to resolve financial infidelity in a relationship.
  • Look for an experienced therapist who addresses financial betrayals and infidelity. 

[35:25] How To Be Financially Transparent? 

  • Have regular money meetings with your partner.
  • Support your partner when they make financial mistakes.
  • Transparency cultivates freedom, trust, and closeness in your relationship.

Music in this episode is by Blue in the Face, with their song “Love and Money.”

You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page: Blue in the Face. 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: On today's episode of the podcast, we are covering a topic that so many couples have dealt with at some point in their relationships — and that is financial infidelity. This is not something that is often talked about, but it is a very real situation in the lives of many couples. 

Financial infidelity is a situation where one partner has lied to the other about money, perhaps concealing debt, omitting financial information — things that their partner really should know. It can create a lot of mistrust, betrayal, hurt, anger in a relationship when this happens. Many couples really need a guidance to figure out how to mend this very unique kind of betrayal, and ideally, prevent it from happening in the first place, or certainly in the future. 

To give you some guidance and a good roadmap for what to do if you are dealing with a situation, I have invited my dear friend and colleague, Meagan Terry, to join us on the show today. Meagan is a highly experienced Marriage and Family Therapist on our team here at Growing Self. She is an MFT, supervisor, and trains early career counselors, among other things. She is also trained in financial counseling for couples by the Federal Reserve. She is a true expert on this subject, and she's here today to share her wisdom with you. 

Thank you, Meagan, for being here.

Meagan T.: Thank you for having me. I'm excited we can have this conversation together.

Lisa: Well, it's an important conversation because this is common, and there are not many good resources for couples who are dealing with this.

Meagan: It is really common and also unique, which is why I think those resources aren't out there. Whereas I think we could probably find book after book on sexual infidelity, but not financial infidelity. It is interesting because I was looking at some stats before we started talking today. It was something like over 30% of couples admit that this has been something that's happened in their relationship. I would guess that many more have experienced it.

What Is Financial Infidelity?

Lisa: Well, let's just start at the beginning. Obviously, many of our listeners are intimately familiar with the experience of financial infidelity, but to both kind of honor and illuminate what they might be going through and create awareness about this topic for others who haven't lived through it themselves. How would you describe financial infidelity? What are the forms that you have seen it take in your work with couples over the years?

Meagan: There's a real spectrum of it. I think that it can be as small of a single transaction of maybe purchasing something when you're out shopping, and withholding that from your partner and not telling them — maybe, what you bought or how much it was — to significant, profound impacts like taking out large sums of money and loans in a marriage, and those loans being in a partner's name, and having a profound long-term impact on somebody's finances for the rest of their lives. 

It ranges, and I think that it all stems from this idea of betrayal. When it comes to finances, I always say nobody sits us down in school and says, “This is how you talk about money.” It's such a rare time to have that education of not just like, “What do you do with your money?” But this is how you can have a healthy relationship with your partner and talk about money. I haven’t met anybody who had experience in their life.

Lisa: I didn't. 

Meagan: Neither did I.

Lisa: We either fight about money, or we don't talk about it at all, Meagan. Only two options right there.

Meagan: Could there be a healthy way? I think there is. I think that that's what's really led people to struggle so much because they haven't had this safe platform of talking about, “What's normal? What's okay? Is it normal to feel like I'm afraid to tell my partner something about what I'm spending, and how can we give them a space to do that openly?”

Lisa: Well, this is kind of going into that next question that I had for you. Financial infidelity can take many forms. It feels like concealment, it feels like betrayal. Where does it come from? Are you saying that sort of the root of this is people just simply not knowing how to have overt conversations about money? Well, maybe there are a number of reasons why these outcomes can come into being. But where do you think it comes from?

Meagan: My guess is a majority of the smaller infidelities are coming from an inability and a lack of knowledge of how to talk about it, “How do we build trust? How do we start our relationship from the beginning when we're in a long-term committed relationship? How do we talk about it? If we're different?” If we're the same, it's a lot easier. But if we're different, what do we do? 

I think on the other end of the spectrum when we have more serious things happening, there's a lot of power dynamics, “Who has the power in the relationship? What does that mean? How does that impact decisions around money?” Also privilege comes into play as well, “How much privileges one person compared to another bringing into a relationship? How does that privilege impact their access to money? How can that impact the couple's ability to come together and talk about their needs?”

Lisa: That is so interesting. Can we just dig into the… So there's the communication piece, certainly, there are differences that are very real we should talk about. But I was not expecting you to talk about power and privilege. Can you give us some examples of what this can look like, and how you've seen this come up as part of the cause of financial infidelity?

Meagan: I often think like financial literacy and understanding money, budgeting, and access to money is a privilege. 

Lisa: Like drafting?

Meagan: Absolutely. If you have access to understanding those things and knowing those things, you're more financially literate. If you have a partner who hasn't had that experience and isn't able to understand that, that can cause a real impact in your ability to come together and make some decisions, and feel like there's equity in the relationship around decision-making. There's a power differential there.

Lisa: You're saying that some people by virtue of their life experience or maybe their family of origin come into a relationship with a different understanding of financial literacy, how money works, how you manage it. If their other partner maybe comes from a different class background, or family background, or circumstantial background, and they don't know the same things, it creates a power differential, a privileged differential around money, is that it? 

Meagan: Yeah.

Lisa: Wow. That's interesting because I could see how that could very quickly turn into that emotional dynamic that we're both so familiar with where one person has a spreadsheet and a lot of very well-developed ideas about what we should or shouldn't be doing with our money. The other person is like, “Stop trying to control me.” Is that where that comes from?

Meagan: It absolutely can. It can also just look like having different values because of different experiences with money growing up. There's nothing wrong with those differences in values. They're very important, and they can often provide a couple with a wide breadth of understanding of how to look at decisions and what to do. 

But because of different values around maybe having things feels like very important for someone, or having a full bank account feels very important to someone else. Those are different values, and those can come from different experiences with money and different privileges that they've experienced as well. That can create some friction in the relationship.

Lisa: Like just these fundamental, value-based ideas around, “What is the purpose of money?” I mean, basic kinds of… So interesting.

Meagan: There's a lot of different things that I think can really cause what lands a couple in a place where they are uncovering financial infidelity in the relationship. Part of addressing that is typically going back in time and being able to say, “Okay, maybe we're uncovering a betrayal here, and how money has been spent.” Or maybe hiding a credit card, or doing something that is withheld from the other partner, so there's that breach that betrayal. 

But we don't just look at that in just that incident. We have to go way back in the relationship and understand, “What has trust looked like? What are their backgrounds around money? What are their values associated with that money? What motivated some of this hiding in the relationship? Was it self-preservation? Was it a need for independence? How are they looking at this in the relationship?” Then, we can usually start to understand what impact this is going to have on the couple and how they can start to navigate through the experience.

Lisa: You're saying that it really requires a sort of like peeling that onion of going back and trying to compassionately understand what was the motivation, what was like the function of the financial infidelity, the hiding of the whatever it was. That can look different for different people. In your experience, are there kind of common themes? What are the usual suspects? Is it somebody feeling…? 

Meagan: Controlled. 

Lisa: Controlled.

Meagan: That's a very common scenario I see where maybe one partner has a lot of anxiety or maybe more controlling behaviors, and that's coming from a need to have some stability and consistency of value of maybe needing to save or have certain ways that they're spending money, which is very understandable. 

But that's coming across to their partner as they're being controlled, or restricted, or parented, or like they can't make their own decisions. Oftentimes, that leads to some hiding, or withdrawing, and pulling out loans or credit cards to feel some of that independence. Probably the most common scenario, I think.

How To Deal with Financial Infidelity?

Lisa: I could see that. I'm glad you're talking about this because I think anytime we use the word “infidelity”, it can be very easy to immediately vilify the partner who has done the betrayal, and create a very negative narrative. Certainly, you're responsible for your hate behavior no matter what the circumstances are — we all have choices. 

But at the same time, I like the way you're illuminating kind of the systemic nature of that, that what the couple is sort of creating together is this perception of power and control that the partner who winds up engaging in like hiding behaviors feels like they can't talk to their partner directly, their priorities, or needs, or feelings aren't honored or valued. They have to let go around them to get their needs met because they can't feel heard and understood directly.

Meagan: Lisa, as you're saying that, I just think of that couple, and how they must feel so disconnected, and how they are really looking at trust in the relationship. They're saying, “Can I trust you?”, to each other? “Can I trust you to trust me to spend money in an appropriate way? Can I trust you to not be controlling?” 

How can we help that couple come together so that they can see that they have a committed relationship and they're devoted, and what are things that they can align on so that they can have that emotional intimacy back in the relationship because any time there is that betrayal, or that withholding that couples being pulled apart, they're disconnected in that experience?

Lisa: I'm guessing that that must be one of the biggest fears that you would have to deal with in the beginning of that work is like, “Okay, so you're lying to me or concealing things about money, what else are you potentially hiding?” It just calls into question many different facets of trust. Or is it different? Is it usually sort of more localized into just financial mistrust?

Meagan: In my experience, I've really only seen it in finances specifically — though, I'm sure there are outliers. It's similar to sexual infidelity in where, oftentimes, more can come out as it's discussed, which is very difficult because it's like, “Oh, yes, there was this one purchase. But Then there were these others too.” Then, there were, “Oh, maybe there was this credit in it that can really build.” 

That's part of… It can be re-traumatizing in that way for the couple to have to relive some of that coming out. Then, in other cases, it's more benign, and a misalignment, and differences. What I noticed is it's very preventable if a couple is able to sit down and say, “Okay, we have to talk about money. We know that this is going to be a part of our relationship. There's no way to live in this world if it's not.” And start to have upfront discussions about their financial situation. 

Once they're in that long-term, committed relationship about money, budgets, goals, dreams, their values, how do they make decisions? What are their habits with money? That way, when they are starting out having some of those conversations, they're starting to build that trust, they're going back to that ability to turn towards one another, as Gottman says, as opposed to turning away, and opening up and being able to show each other, “Here's who I am, this is what I come from. Can we talk about it?” 

Transparency is one of the most important things when it comes to money and building that trust as a couple. Being able to give them that opportunity right from the beginning to talk about it helps build that. The longer it goes on, the more damage it does to the relationship.

Lisa: For sure. I can't help but thinking of your work right now. I know that you had done a ton of premarital counseling, and you've taught our lifetime of love premarital class. Are these topics that couples… Well, I know when they do premarital counseling with you, or anybody on our team, they will be talking about money. 

But how many couples actually get to do this work, or even know that this is a thing worth doing in the beginning of the relationship? Or in your experience, do most couples just kind of raise their hand, and like, “I think we need to talk about money” after they have run into trouble several years. 

Meagan: I think couples are getting a little bit more savvy lately. I think they often think they're talking about it, but they're not. 

Lisa: What do you mean?

Meagan: They're not talking about their values and how they plan to spend their money, or how their habits around it, and how those habits grew out of experiences they had in their childhood or with their families. They're talking about, “This is how much money I have in my bank account”, “This is how much I like to save every month”, and kind of there. That's important. That's a good start, and that's going to help you build some good habits as a couple. 

But when you're committing to a relationship for the long-term, having discussions around where are you seeing things going in your future, what would you do if somebody withheld money, Why would that ever occur, what do you need to talk about to make sure it doesn't occur and the relationship is really important. Those values and that background that you have growing up make a huge impact in those discussions. 

I've noticed a lot of couples will come in and say, “Oh, yeah, we talked about money.” Then, I say, “Oh, so you've talked about your childhood, and the positive memories you have, and the negative memories.” They often say, “Oh, no. We didn't talk about that. We just talked about what's in our bank account right now.”

Lisa: But I mean, that makes so much sense, though. What you were saying at the very beginning of our conversation is that we are not socialized to talk about money, or understand our relationship with money, the meaning of money, the values we have around money. It's like there's just this sort of blank spot in everybody's awareness in a lot of ways. 

So how could you possibly, without some support, be communicating that understanding of yourself to your partner when maybe you don't even know as a sort of this subconscious broth, or sort of simmering in. I could see how it's so fundamentally important to not just understand yourself, but understand your partner because as you also said in the beginning, people have very real differences about those things. I think it's very easy too to kind of, even subconsciously, judge other people's values, practices, orientation towards money if it's different from our own.

Meagan: Well, yeah — and for partners to feel like they're “less than” than their partner who maybe had more privilege and has more financial literacy or understanding around money. There's nothing wrong. They're not less than. They didn't have the same experiences, they didn't have the privilege of having some of that literacy or education brought to them. 

Oftentimes, when we can talk about that openly, and build some of that equity and connection in the relationship, it feels like a really secure attachment for both partners, and they feel like they can really move forward together. But I think that it can build a lot of different feelings for both partners. 

Lisa: Yeah. Wow. 

Meagan: I often think about it like — we have a culture of avoidance when talking about sex. I think we also have a big culture of avoidance talking about money. Those are two big betrayals that happen in relationships.

Lisa: Definitely. Well, there's a lot of shame, I think, around money, or secrecy. There's shame if you feel like you don't have enough money, but there's also secrecy if you come from a privileged background where it's like it's nobody's business how much I make.

Meagan: Same effect — shame and avoidance have been a big part of our culture. I think about Brené Brown, and she says, “How do we deal with shame? We have to squash it. We have to talk about it. We have to put it out there.” Yes, exactly. 

Signs of Financial Infidelity

Lisa: Okay, you mentioned that couples will often have differences in a relationship as it relates to money. As a result of those differences — not being known or understood at the get-go, a couple that does not have the privilege of coming to visit with you for premarital counseling or doing some like marriage prep work that specifically addresses the deeper issues of finances.

What would you say are some early warning signs that you might be in a relationship dynamic that could be vulnerable to financial infidelity, or that it could even be happening are starting to happen? What would you say are some of the ways that can look early on before it gets…?

Meagan: Small ways of being afraid to tell a partner about a purchase. I've noticed that there are sometimes differences around where excess funds should go. For example, during the pandemic, student loans payments were halted. I remember talking with a couple about where should that money go, “Do you have to keep paying? Or should we put it into savings?” Or should you maybe go buy that new bag or shoes that they were really wanting? 

There can be real differences around where that money should go and where that lies in terms of values. When that conflict really lands at an impasse, or there starts to be feelings of resentment or anger around how a partner's making decisions with their money, then absolutely, there needs to be some support for that partner. 

Sometimes, there can be, I think, incompatibilities where somebody has very strong values around how much debt or lack of debt or anything, and then somebody else really likes to believe in spending more, having more debt — in certain ways of feeling stable within that. That's probably is going to be a really big red flag and something that is very difficult for that

couple to ever navigate through. 

Lisa: I think even people who are fundamentally very similar in some ways, there are always differences within a relationship — somebody who's a little bit more of a spender, a little bit more of a saver. But you're saying that when that gap is too big that sometimes there is not actually the opportunity to build a bridge to the center. It's just sort of something that needs to be recognized. Is that what you're saying?

Meagan: If it's a significant gap, it's going to be something that is a pervasive issue in the relationship that's going to probably feel like consistent betrayals. That would be very hard I think for a couple to navigate. There's never going to be a couple that's perfectly aligned on every level. We know that all couples have perpetual issues. There is always going to be degrees of difference within this, and that's good. 

Like I said before, I think some differences in values give this breadth to a couple of creativity and their ability to make decisions. But when that gap is really different, I would be concerned about how they're going to build the bridge there.

Lisa: Well, I could see especially with money because I think if the values are very different, it starts to impact one's vision for one’s life. If it's retirement savings or being able to do certain things later in life, versus being able to have a life worth living for maybe somebody who feels better with spending more as they go. I could see that really starting to take a toll.

Meagan: In those tangible moments, those big life moments. That's why a lot of the conversations we have are, “What are your hopes, goals, and dreams? What is important to you?” Now, if somebody has a hope to have a big house and nice cars, and another partner says, “Well, I could go for that, but it's just not like my big dream.” 

We talk about what that difference is, and what would it mean, and what would you have to do to achieve that together as a couple, what sacrifices — are they willing to make, or not willing to make in that process? Oftentimes, a couple tends to align with each other really well. Those are fun conversations. Couples love to talk about their dreams and their goals together.

Lisa: We both want to quit our jobs and live in an RV for a year. To bring this kind of background, I think this has been a really good conversation about just some of those basic pillars of having a healthy financial relationship with your partner. 

But let's just talk for a second about the situation that I know is all too familiar in your practice where you get a call from a couple who has just — a financial betrayal feels like it just blew a hole in the waterline of their relationship. It feels like a crisis, and it's like all this stuff is coming out. 

For people who might be listening to this podcast who have experienced that, or who are currently going through it, can you give us some insight or recommendations for how to even think about trying to repair this, or maybe even situations where it's actually not repairable?

Meagan: Well, in thinking to try and repair it, the first step is you're going to need help. You're going to need somebody to sit there with you and help you sift through that, and there's a process to that. There's ways that we can help understand what happened, why it happened, and what we need to do to start to heal and repair if they're ready to do that and want to move in that direction. 

If it's been irreparable harm and is on that other end of the spectrum that's very damaging with long-term impacts, and typically a couple, is it working in our office at that point, and they are working in other places? Then, there's a lot of damage control because infidelity with finances has a long-term impact on somebody's life. When you're married, that's shared. Typically, that debt isn't just impacting one person, it's impacting the whole family.

Lisa: How enraging to be cleaning up that mess. Even if you do decide to end the relationship, it's still your problem for a long time. It's just enraging.

Meagan: That goes back to that powerlessness and that devastating experience. There's a lot of support for them. I think emotionally taking care of their mental health, and trying to take it a step at a time to try and pull themselves out of that so they can get stable again.

The Right Advisor for Financial Infidelity 

Lisa: That's good advice. I'm also glad that you brought up an important point, which is with any kind of infidelity, be it sexual infidelity, emotional infidelity, it is extraordinarily difficult — I would even say impossible for couples to figure that out without some kind of support because the emotions are so intense, and they will destroy the type of work that is needed to repair a relationship unless you're working with somebody who can help you manage those, as you say, kind of crack into…

Anger is such a big part of this. How can you have emotionally intimate vulnerable conversations when you're in that, “How could you have done that?”, kind of space — and so just to recognize that. Given that, you really need professional help, what advice then would you give to a couple who is trying to figure out where to look for help because I know you and I both know that it can be very difficult to find appropriate help for even relatively basic things. 

Something that you and I often talk about is the fact that most counselors, seeing couples for garden variety relational stuff, do not have specialized training, or experience, or expertise in working with couples, and that can create really non-ideal outcomes. I think the general public doesn't even understand that if they want to work on their relationship, they should work with an MFT who has specialized training in the modalities that we know work. 

Because most of the time, somebody will show up in the office of a licensed clinical social worker, thinking that they're there for couples counseling, and they'll be told to go on a date night or whatever, and it doesn't help. Then, they think that couples counseling has failed, and their relationship is irredeemable, and they genuinely don't know that they didn't know enough to go to a qualified professional. I think that's a real dark part of our field in general. 

What we're talking about today, though, Meagan is an even more specialized facet of couples counseling that… I know we work with a lot of MFTs in our practice here at Growing Self. I know that you have, so graciously, conducted a number of trainings for our group on the subject of financial counseling for couples because it's something that you know so much about. 

I know for a lot of people, even in our group is going through these internal trainings, is really the first time that they've gotten specialized training and experience around financial counseling for couples. I just wanted to bring that out because I know that there is somebody dealing with a situation — they need help. But where would you even look? Are there things to ask?

Meagan: The other day I was asked, “Who should I go see for —  my husband and I are struggling. Who should we go look for?” I said, “You always want to look for a systemic therapist.” They're like, “What is that?” When we think about infidelity, financial infidelity — we've been talking about, Lisa — this is a systemic issue in a relationship. This isn't in a vacuum. This goes back to values, this goes back to identity, this goes back to financial implications, the family, it's trust, loyalty, what does the commitment mean? 

You have to work with someone. I would say step one is find a systemic therapist. A systemic therapist is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist — somebody who's trained in that system’s thinking. Then, also look for somebody who actually has experience working with couples and talking about money. They need to have that comfort with talking about money, being able to ask these questions about money, and know that it is a longer process, that it is not something that is going to be resolved within six sessions. 

This is something that takes a while to address. That reminds me that many couples who are talking about money need to talk about it throughout their relationship. It's not just that premarital times, it's about — values change throughout our lives, and we shift just like income changes throughout our lives often. How can we continue to have that conversation? It takes a really long time to understand that and continue to build that trust as a couple just as it would going through the therapy process to address any betrayals or infidelity, so that recurs. It's going to take a while.

Lisa: To be looking for an MFT, that systems-minded person, somebody who is competent, and comfortable, and experienced in working with couples around financial aspects. But also I want to highlight what you're saying, but you didn't say this out loud. But it's like, on a very deep level is where we need to go to really create healing, and growth, and change in a financial relationship because I think that even some, coming out of my air quotes, again — “the financial people”, their answers, in my experience, tend to be quite behavioral. 

“We need to create a budget. We need to create separate checking accounts.” There are very specific do's and don'ts related to financial practices — and I did not hear you talk about any of that in our conversations. 

Meagan: It has nothing to do with that, and more to do with respect, loyalty, and emotional intimacy, and a relationship, and how to repair those so that the fidelity in the relationship is strong. Sometimes, through that process for a couple, it is being able to build evidence of trust. A partner may ask to see bank accounts, may want to track spending, so that they can feel that trust built, and have evidence of those behaviors. 

But building a budget with a couple is not going to address a financial infidelity. It's going to leave them feeling confused. The deep pain of the betrayal isn't being addressed and the ways that they need to heal.

How To Practice Financial Transparency?

Lisa: I'm so glad we're talking about this because I think people need to hear this important message from you because we just don't talk about this enough, and so many couples are struggling with it. If you go see a financial planner, they'll be like, “Okay, let's bring in the three months of expenses, and let's build a budget.” 

Before I let you go — this has been such a wonderful conversation. I hear that like, at the beginning of the relationship. It's important to have very deep meaningful conversations.There is a path of repair many times when things are starting to go sideways, and that financial infidelity is really a symptom of many things, but fundamentally, lack of alignment, emotional safety, understanding of each other, and that there is a path to repairing that. 

Can you say a little bit more about, in your experience, when couples are engaging in healthy ways with each other around financial practices, matters, their financial life — what does that look like in your experience when a couple is actually doing this well?

Meagan: There is transparency through — they know their finances, they know what's happening with their money, and where it's being spent.

Lisa: Are they sitting down with each other and looking at finances together periodically? 

Meagan: Typically, it starts off with maybe a bigger conversation early in the relationship about, “Here's my money situation, here's my credit report.” I always encourage couples that it’s very, very important to show your… It’s such a hot date, right? But put your chips on the table. Let's not hide anything. Because if we are hiding, it's going to come out — it always does, and so, can you do that? 

Then, we do money meetings. How do we have a money meeting consistently to the point where we feel like we're completely on the same page? Then, you space them out. Sometimes, couples are doing these weekly. Sometimes, they're doing these monthly. Then, after a while, they feel like that trust has been built, they're in such sync with each other, they know what their spending is, their habits have been established, the trust is strong there. 

There's consistent communication around money, but it's maybe not as structured as that money meeting, and those couples are able to say, “Oh, okay, great! We've met our goals”, and those goals can be a variety of different things for couples. They’re always different. There's not one specific set that needs to happen. They feel freedom, and trust, and closeness in the relationship because they've been able to establish that. 

There's those conversations in the beginning, money meetings to establish only through behaviors, supporting each other, coming to each other when mistakes are made — because those happen when you forget to pay a bill or when the credit card expired, and whatever, and talking through those things — and having that established trust with one another. That's

really good. 

Lisa: That's wonderful. I'll also share — there was another idea that you shared with our team when you did a training on this topic that I actually took to heart personally because you were talking about the importance of both people in a relationship having access, and knowing where all the stuff is, knowing where all the passwords are, knowing how to like do different things. I think it's very easy in a long-term relationship for one person to just sort of naturally take on more of those tasks.

That really resonated with me because I'm more of that person in my own marriage. It was actually after that, like, “Wow, if something happened to me, would Matt know where to — even the logins, and the passwords, and what's happening.” I really appreciated that, and we haven't done this. I will take your great advice at some point, but you recommended even switching off sometimes — like who's in charge of doing the things, like letting your partner manage the practical stuff. I’m working on that part, Meagan.

Meagan: We all are, right? It's such a great thing to do, and it's such a good exercise for both people because one partner takes the first six months of the year, and then the other partner takes the other six months of the year. 

It's a long enough period of time where they're really getting a deep understanding of, “Where are all the bills? What's happening with our retirement accounts? How do we do direct deposit?”, any of those things and stuff that always comes up for couples throughout that time like, “Oh, no. The refrigerator broke. We have to get a new one. How do we pay for that?” And talking about that with each other. 

That doesn't mean the other partner doesn't know what's going on. They know everything, there's still all of that communication, but they then switch. It's a real tragedy when we have a client who comes in and they were unaware of what's happening, and maybe something happened to their partner — and they don't know where the bank accounts are, and they don't know where to access things or pay the mortgage. 

They're already dealing with enough stress in that moment to have to deal with that too. It's really important to be able to have those roles switched, and that one person is always in charge of it. That is something that we work towards when we're dealing with infidelity — how do we get to the place where we feel confident enough to switch those roles?

Lisa: I could see that being a big victory for couples that have been on this path when they feel comfortable. Well, I'm sure that there's always some apprehension, but that trust of being able to hand this over you, and “You tell me how we're doing with our finances.” I would have imagined in your role when that shift happens, you think, “I think our work is done.”

Meagan: Quite a bit of celebrating.

Lisa: That's good. What a great conversation. Thank you so much, Meagan, just for talking about this very sensitive topic with me today, and just providing so much of your wisdom and experience — both with our practice, but also with our listeners today on the podcast. Thank you.
Meagan: Thank you, Lisa. I always love talking with you.

Healing Relationships

Healing Relationships

Healing Relationships

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

Healing Relationships

A healing relationship is one that helps us regain our sense of value, autonomy, safety, and respect — our birthright as human beings. After bad experiences that may have seemed to call these basic truths into question, healing relationships can affirm these truths to us, building our self-esteem, confidence, and sense of security in the process.  

Let’s try a little thought experiment — think back to a time when you made a truly regrettable mistake. When you were filled with regret and would have given anything to hop into a time machine, blast off to the past and undo what you’d done.

You probably felt pretty bad about yourself at the time. Was there someone you turned to, who listened with compassion and understanding? Maybe they helped you remember that, despite your mistake, you were still a human being worthy of love and respect, even at a moment when you didn’t feel like it. 

I hope so. And if you have had an experience like this, you’ve been touched by a healing relationship, an important topic we’ll be exploring on today’s episode of the podcast. 

My guest is Paige M., a marriage and family therapist and coach here at Growing Self. Paige is an expert on healing relationships, and she has some fascinating insight into these nurturing connections and the positive impact they can have on your life. 

Healing relationships are so important to all of us. In fact, they’re the key component of effective therapy. So learning to cultivate healing relationships in your own life is incredibly worthwhile. This conversation will help you recognize a healing relationship when you find one, and embrace the experiences that will allow you to grow into a happier, healthier version of yourself

Join me here, on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Healing Relationships

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

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Healing Relationships: Episode Show Notes

What Is a “Healing Relationship?”

The safe, therapeutic relationship between counselor and client is the foundation of all effective therapy. But other important relationships in our lives — with partners, friends, family, even coworkers — can also be incredibly beneficial to our mental and emotional wellbeing. 

Maybe you’ve experienced this. You may have been cheated on by an ex, but the next person you dated showed you it was safe to trust again. Or maybe you had a teacher who humiliated you when you gave the wrong answer, but other teachers were kind to you, even when you were wrong. 

These are the kinds of corrective experiences that take place within “healing relationships,” and they are so important for anyone who has experienced relational trauma (which is to say, everyone!). 

When we have new experiences with safe people who treat us with empathy and respect, we offer our brains “counter-evidence” against old narratives about who we are and what we deserve, helping us regain our feelings of safety, security, confidence, and trust in our connections with other people. 

Can You Heal While In a Relationship? 

You may have heard that it’s best to get over any past relationships before moving into a new one. This isn’t bad advice — getting back to your feelings of wholeness and happiness as a single person can be an important part of breakup recovery. But in reality, many relational wounds stick with us, even after we’re feeling “over” the relationship in question. 

If you’ve been betrayed in the past, it’s totally normal to have trust issues in new relationships, even if your current partner has been nothing but trustworthy. If you’ve experienced a traumatic abandonment, you may be anxious about being left again, and that anxiety might show up as controlling behaviors toward new partners.

When you’re in a healing relationship with a safe, trustworthy person, you can begin to notice these feelings, and then attend to the old wounds triggering them in the present with self-compassion. By being mindful of your feelings and where they’re coming from, you can avoid acting out, and instead have conversations with your partner that help you both understand each other better

How to Heal from Relationship Trauma

As young children, we’re completely dependent on our caregivers to meet our physical and emotional needs. If we don’t get the care, love, and support we need at this vulnerable stage of our lives, it has a profound impact on how we see ourselves, and how safe and secure we feel in the world. 

Children who suffer neglect or abuse can carry the residue of relational trauma well into adulthood. They can develop issues like chronic stress, difficulty regulating their emotions, or difficulty making contact with their emotions at all. 

These are remnants of the survival mechanisms that protected your psyche as a little kid, but as an adult, they can keep you from being open and present in relationships. Learning about these survival mechanisms usually isn’t enough to shift them, but gathering new experiences that help you feel autonomous, safe, respected, and loved by others can be. 

Experiencing healing relationships can help you begin to let go of some of those defenses and become more vulnerable, open, and secure. 

Healing Relationships: When It’s Time for Therapy

Healing relationships are a beautiful thing, but we can get into trouble when we start to believe the power of our love is enough to heal another person. It’s a seductive idea that comes from a good place, but it won’t lead to the healthy relationship you want and deserve. 

If your partner has a problem, like an addiction or severe trauma, the healing relationship they really need is with a professional, who can guide them through a structured, evidence-based healing process. If you decide it’s your responsibility to help them heal, that relationship dynamic can easily veer into codependence, which isn’t healthy for either of you. 

When someone you love has lingering relational trauma, you can be a loving pillar of support, but you can’t take charge of their healing. 

Building Healing Relationships

Compassionate, emotionally-safe relationships can teach us it’s safe to trust other people, be our true selves, and be open to deep, meaningful connections. 

When you build healing relationships with others, you’re not only getting companionship. You’re laying down new connections in your brain, and helping yourself become the authentically happy and healthy person you were born to be.

Healing Relationships: Episode Highlights

[01:20] Healing Relationship

  • Paige leveraged “healing relationships” through her own work with trauma survivors.
  • In therapy, predictability and structure are essential to creating a safe space for clients who are going through trauma.
  • Reciprocity of love and support are crucial in healing relationships. 

[12:03] Adverse Childhood Experiences

  • When adults are incapable of addressing their child’s emotions, they would manifest them in an uncontrollable manner.
  • In some cases, the traumatic experiences of children lead them to pushing people away to protect themselves.

[18:03] Healing From a Traumatic Relationship

  • Individual therapy is beneficial for clients who have experienced numerous traumatic events. 
  • A healing relationship is egalitarian; both sides need to be accountable to one another.

[25:14] Attachment Styles vs. Relational Trauma

  • There's an overlap between attachment styles and relational trauma.
  • The types of attachment styles are secure attachment, anxious attachment, and avoidant attachment.
  • For people with relational trauma, their style of attachment can be disorganized.

[35:29] Addressing Trauma in a Relationship

  • Externalize the trauma.
  • Have an open and honest conversation about your traumatic experiences.
  • Reflect and validate the harm that was done.

Music in this episode is by Oliver Riz, with the song “Healing Love.”

You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: Oliver Riz. 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: Conventional wisdom says that we need to love ourselves first and that you should be over any past relationships before starting a new one. But the reality is that healing our emotional wounds isn't something that happens all at once. A lot of times, our wounds occur through our relationships, and they are healed through relationships. 

To help us unpack all of those big ideas, I have invited my colleague, Paige McAllister, to speak with us today. Paige is a Marriage and Family Therapist on the team here at Growing Self. She's also a doctoral candidate in Marriage and Family Therapy. She has a background in so many relevant things. She has expertise in sexuality, in interpersonal violence, in trauma, and she has done so much wonderful healing work both with individuals and couples on the path to healing on every level. 

I am so excited to invite her into the conversation today to share her expertise with you. Thank you soon-to-be Dr. Paige for joining us today.

Paige: Thank you. Thanks for having me. 

[01:20] What is a Healing Relationship?

Lisa: Do you get a little thrill when people call you Dr. Paige? Hard-earned. We were just chatting a little bit before we started this interview that you are in the final stages of the dissertation process, and talking about how amazing it's going to feel to be on the other side of that. Congratulations in advance. That's a big achievement. 

You, in addition to that, have so much experience in helping people, particularly in healing from trauma. Just to kind of catch our listeners up a little bit here — one of the things that we do in our practice here at Growing Self that I love so much is that we have different kinds of community events in our group where we'll talk as a group about different topics. Some of it is personal growth in nature, but some of it is professional growth in nature. 

You hosted a group the other day that I was so privileged to be in attendance of. You were talking about healing relationships and the significance of them in our work. I just left that group wanting to know more. Maybe, we can just start there. I mean, healing relationships — what do you think of when you think about healing relationships?

Paige: Well, I came to this idea through my own work with trauma — survivors of trauma, and thinking about what kind of relationship did we need to have in the room in order for them to heal. 

Lisa: Between you and your client?

Paige: Between me and my client. I was thinking like, “Well, if trauma is violent, and it violates boundaries, and it's unpredictable, and people don't take accountability for the harm that they've done, then in therapy, we need to have some predictability and some structure. I need to acknowledge that I can do harm.” 

Then, I think it just naturally flowed out of that to think about — I talk with my clients about those kinds of relationships that they have with other people in their lives. We're doing a very specific type of healing work as a therapist and a client. But they were doing lots of that healing work on their own outside of session. 

When I think of relationships for healing, I think of egalitarian relationships — mostly just the opposite of trauma, not the absence of harm. But more than that, the presence of support, and trust, and safety, and consistency, and place where people say they're sorry and mean it when they've done something that's caused harm.

Lisa: I love what you just said. I honestly hadn't thought about it in that way that it's not just the absence of trauma. A good relationship is not the absence of things that lead to a bad relationship that you're saying that they're actually very specific, positive qualities that a healing relationship has, and you can create that kind of relationship with a good therapist. 

But that you can also have those kinds of healing qualities in a relationship with a partner or friends, families, loved ones. Can you say a little bit about why it is so important for people who have lived through hard things to have healing relationships with others?

Paige: It's important: a) because we are social creatures, and we all need people around us. We all deserve to have positive fulfilling relationships. I think it's especially important for people who have had damaging or traumatic relationships to have them for their healing, but also because they deserve them because as humans, we deserve that. 

Also, in good healing relationships, they're not just one way; they're reciprocal. It's not just that I'm supported and loved, but I get to support and love others. I think we all need those experiences as well. 

Lisa: It gives us an opportunity to see ourselves showing up in positive ways in relationships. That can be very healing as well.

Paige: The number one thing I work on with survivors of trauma is helping to reestablish autonomy because trauma takes so much away from us. When we're living with traumatic responses, our behaviors, our emotional reactions often feel so out of our control. We're not really choosing how we're responding to the situation, we're just going into survival mode and doing what we feel like we have to do. 

Healing relationships can be a place for people who have been any kind of trauma, but especially trauma that happens within relationships — to be able to show up the way they want to, and to determine how that relationship is going to go, and have some autonomy there which I think supports overall healing when trauma feels like it takes so much away from us that in healing relationships, I do have control, I do get a say — which I think is really critical to healing overall to feel autonomous.

Lisa: You're bringing up so many important points here. I think maybe for the benefit of our listeners, I think when therapists use the word “trauma”, we're often thinking of different things — just a bad experience. Also, there are different kinds of trauma. There are traumas where your physical safety is threatened, or you are hurt, or you're witnessing something horrible happening to other people. 

There is also such a thing as relational trauma which is a very real trauma, but I feel like we don't talk about that kind of trauma as much. Can you take us just into that? I know we've tried to talk about on past podcasts around trust issues, healthy relationships — but I don't know that we've really unpacked relational trauma on the show before. Can you say more about that? No pressure.

Paige: It is. In general, I use a really expanded definition of relational trauma because I think it's most helpful. But relational traumas are things that happen in the context of relationships that threaten our relational safety — just like violence or natural disasters can threaten our physical safety. I find with my clients often, those are the traumas that are harder to identify for them. But they're like, “Well, my parents are my caregivers. They didn't hit me. They fed me, and they provided a roof over my head. I shouldn't be upset about the other things that happened.” 

But then, they told me these stories about emotional neglect — that people didn't take care of their emotions, didn't help them navigate their own emotions, that when they, as children, had really big emotions, parents and caregivers tried to shut that down either because they were uncomfortable, or they didn't know what to do, but they were overwhelmed. 

Or they were told that they were being dramatic or childish — but they were a child. Of course, there was — they're just expressing normal emotions. The way people responded were really critical or negative, but they just ignored them. I think that's harder — I think those are the kinds of traumas that are harder to recognize but fit within like a relationship.

Lisa: And hard to validate. Because just as you're talking, I'm sitting here thinking that we really, I think, don't do enough in our culture to talk about the very real attachment needs that we have, particularly as children. They're very much tied into survival drives. I mean, there are fundamental needs to feel safe, and respected, and understood by the people around you on an emotional level like security. When that is threatened or damaged, it is quite damaging to people. But we don't talk about that reality. I think that people struggle to legitimize their own feelings when that's coming up for them. Is that — ?

Paige: Also because when we're children — when I'm eight, nine, ten, I can't just go off.

Lisa: This isn't a fundamental attachment need right now, mom! Exactly. 

Paige: Because I need my parents both to take care of me emotionally and to provide for me, physically. I don't have choice in those relationships. I don't just get to go find new parents if the ones I have aren't doing what I needed to do for whatever reason. I think it's hard for people to validate, but also just like the trapped-ness of, “I can't choose another relationship here.” 

When we talk about childhood trauma, and this also came up in my dissertation work with survivors of intimate partner violence, the narratives that we have are really overt, extreme demonstrations of physical violence, sexual violence, and neglect — extreme neglect like people aren't being fed and basic needs aren't being met. 

That's what we tend to talk about. When we talk about intimate partner violence, the image people have in their minds is really extreme physical or sexual violence. But there's all sorts of emotional violence, verbal violence, and neglect in those areas as well. We just don't talk about them as much. We don't have those narratives. It's also in my experience — people are really uncomfortable if identifying as a survivor of trauma now means a bunch of things for me. I think there's some self-protection there as well. 

[12:03] Adverse Childhood Experiences

Lisa: Well, let's talk a little bit about that part because — and I like the way that we're sort of breaking this down a little bit: like there's relational trauma that happens in childhood. The time in our lives when we're vulnerable, we're really dependent on people in a very real way — and that impacts us. Then, certainly, there can be relational trauma in romantic relationships, or friendships. But can you talk a little bit about the impact of relational trauma when you experience it as a child?

Paige: Fundamentally, it changes our view of ourselves and how we relate to other people. When we're children, we don't know much else. If we look at the researchers doing really great work on childhood trauma, and chronic stress is often what they call it — adverse childhood experiences. They talk about the buffering aspects that can happen with a strong, stable adult to show what that relationship can look like.

Lisa: A healing relationship. 

Paige: A healing relationship. But if we don't have that, or if most of our relationships with our primary caregivers or parents are traumatic, or aren't fully meeting our needs instead of meeting our needs, often the way it changes how we view ourselves and others is… 

I mean, it's not a one-to-one; it's not just like this week. It is somewhat true that in those initial relationships, we learn about what we deserve, we learn about — that's our main example of what human relationships look like. So we can internalize some beliefs about ourselves about what we deserve, about what we're worth. 

In addition to when we talk about other types of trauma, we talk about an increased vigilance for danger in the world, and having trauma responses where we're triggered by something, and we go into “fight, flight or freeze” because our central nervous system is activated. That all holds true with relational trauma as well, depending on the severity of it. But we will develop ways to survive in those relationships. 

If I'm a child, and when I am showing big emotions or any emotions at all, I'm told I'm dramatic and people get mad at me. I might just start shoving those emotions down, and down, and down, “The message I'm getting from everyone is my emotions are too much, so I'll just put those in a box, and put that box in a bigger box.” It's not really how emotions work. They're going to pop out in other places, and sometimes in bigger ways because we're not working through emotions as they come. 

Other people might rebel against that. Maybe, I'm going to do more dramatic things because I'm trying to get attention, I'm trying to get care of — I'm trying to take care of my own emotions but I don't know what to do because I'm a child. We develop ways to survive. Everyone's got their own thing that they do. It looks different for everyone, but we often take those survival strategies into adulthood, even into relationships that are healthy or could be healthy. 

Then, we're still acting on those survival strategies of trying to manage ourselves and relationships by editing our behaviors, or — I don't like the phrase “acting out”, but we're trying to do something. It's not that we're being malicious, but we're trying to protect ourselves, so we might engage in behaviors and relationships that are not helping us accomplish those goals. 

Lisa: I think this is maybe tying back to what you were saying at the beginning of our conversation, like the idea of autonomy. Meaning, that you have sort of control, and independence, and volition. I think what I'm hearing you say is that, understandably, people who have been experienced relational trauma, especially earlier in life, maybe having feelings that are coming out in ways that are sort of uncontrollable in some ways. Their big feelings — they’re manifesting in weird behaviors that they themselves don't fully understand. Or they are being — you use the word “editing”, sort of containing themselves to the degree that it's impacting intimacy, vulnerability in a relationship. It can look like a lot of different things. Just that it carries over, it's like ghosts from the past that don't sometimes have anything to do with the relationship that you're actually in — in the present. 

Paige: Which is really frustrating when you're in kid. 

Lisa: It is.

Paige: Because I think most people with trauma, it's not one or the other — it's kind of all of it. There are moments where they're doing these behaviors to protect themselves — like pushing people away, or coping with intense emotions maybe in ways that they don't want, or aren't as healthy, as well as trying to contain it and edit it. I think that's part of the struggle of traumas. 

Its extremes in multiple ways that sometimes it's our emotions are too big. Other times, it's that we're trying to keep them very small, and neither of them are going to… I mean, both of those are very frustrating, exhausting processes. Also, it can be really difficult to manage within the context of a relationship that somebody wants, and with people that they trust and love.

[18:03] Healing From a Traumatic Relationship

Lisa: I want to talk more about the healing relationship idea because that is really a crucial component of healing for people who have had that life experience. But we have to talk about something else too, which is that… I mean, I can't tell you how many clients I've worked with who have been in love with someone. They're in a relationship with someone who has experienced relational trauma in their past, and who is still dealing with the impacts of it.

They are working so hard to be a kind partner, to have a healing relationship for that other person. At least in my experience, that is not actually enough to change it. Working with clients would be like, “I thought I could help him. I thought that through the power of our love, it could be different.” And they get hurt in the process. So healing relationships is certainly crucial — we'll talk more about that. 

But what is — there’s sort of a bigger problem because it seems like the person who has had that early trauma needs to be aware of it, and actively participating in that healing in different ways in order for a healing relationship to be beneficial. Would you agree with that? Or do you see it? I mean, you have a lot more experience in this than I do. I'm coming at it from a very couples counseling kind of orientation. You're the trauma expert in this conversation. What have you seen with that?

Paige: I strongly believe that — like individual therapy to really process trauma, like structured processing of trauma is really helpful when it's happened. I think that relational trauma or — relational healing is helpful and critical. But when there have been intense traumas, when people are experiencing lots of trauma responses in their everyday life or in the context of their relationship, then individual therapy would be really beneficial, and sometimes critical before we can move forward. 

I also talked to my clients about — this is a therapist’s trick. I don't know if you talked about it on the podcast before — but externalizing the trauma. We take the trauma out of the person, “You are not your trauma.” But in relationships, trauma very much becomes a third entity, like a third person in the conversation we're having, a third actor in the dynamics of our relationship. We both need to be able to look at it and see it for what it is. 

I often find as well that when one partner is trying to heal someone else with their love, they aren't always asking — sometimes they feel like they have to be kind of delicate with that person. They can't ask for accountability; they just got to give, and give, and give love — and that's what's going to fix it. 

But in a healing relationship, it's egalitarian. We're both being accountable to each other. It's not that one person is always accommodating for the other, or trying to make it better, or holding their own feelings back because you've been through so much, so I can't bring it up.

Lisa: Well, it's not a healing relationship for the other person at that point. That it is not a healthy relationship for both people. It's imbalanced. Well, then just for the purposes of this conversation, because that self-awareness of, “Ooh, I do have trauma that is maybe coming out in my relationships. It is my responsibility to do something about this so that I can be a good partner to my partner.” 

What would your guidance be for some just like — how do you know if the things that… Because every single one of us can scroll back through our mind’s eye, think about the time that our mom yelled at us, or whatever it was — how do you develop that gauge of, “This is actually — it impacted me, it's still impacting me. I need to do something about this.” What would your tips be for someone?

Paige: If there are other mental health struggles going on, there's depression and anxiety — anything in that range. If you're already meeting with a therapist, I would just ask your therapist like, “I think this thing might be impacting me.” and have a clinical conversation about it. My clients don't always know how to bring it up. I try to ask good questions, but sometimes we just don't know it's something.

Lisa: But again, if we're not aware that it was a trauma, we're not legitimizing it — how do you even know that it's something to talk about in therapy like, “I had a critical parent”, or whatever?

Paige: Kind of a sign that I look for in my clients to help them talk through is — are there situations where your emotional reaction is out of proportion to what happened? It is either too big, or it's too small. This thing happened, and all of a sudden, I jumped to 100% anxiety. I got so, so overwhelmed. Anything in that range — like my emotional reaction. 

It's a frustrating thing that happened, but I go to rage, or just immediate panic, or it's something that happened. I think that “out of proportion” is key because we're allowed to have feelings. We're going to have things happen in our lives. But if we notice that we're just shut down emotionally, that our, “God! It’s just…”

Lisa: Like, “We had a fight, and I would not talk for three days.” “ Like that kind of thing. There's something there.

Paige: If the way you're responding to things feels confusing to you, if it's mysterious like, “I don't know why I reacted that way. It wasn't how I wanted to react. But you said something, or this thing happened, and I just  — my gut reaction was this, and I had to run away. I had to shut down.”

Lisa: Like losing control of yourself a little bit.

Paige: Those are some of the big things — kind of the classic PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The symptoms are having flashbacks or nightmares, have an increased startle response. That could be happening and that would be a good indication. But for some of those relational traumas, I think it's more like our individual responses to things — just paying attention to them. 

But clients that I've worked with that have experienced relational trauma, they don't feel in control of it. It feels really confusing and exhausting both in terms of in the context of relationships and in other situations in their lives.

[25:14] Attachment Styles vs. Relational Trauma

Lisa: Here's another question. I hope that this is okay to ask. But on the show, we've talked before about attachment styles — secure attachment, avoidant attachment, anxious attachment. 

What is the difference between an attachment style and a relational trauma — particularly that happens earlier in life? Or do you see a lot of overlap in that? Are there differences? I've never even thought about this before our conversation today. I don't know if this is a fair question or not.

Paige: I haven't thought about it a ton, and I'm not like an attachment expert. But all the trauma people reference attachment. Attachment theory is really foundational. I think there's an overlap between attachment styles and relational trauma, and our responses to relational trauma. The way I talk about it with clients is that we're all managing needs for connection and needs for autonomy in relationships. 

Like a secure attachment is, “I can hold both of those. I can be close to you. I can be connected to you. I also can be on my own and have my own goals, and hobbies, and interests”, where avoidant attachment is, “I can't stand being close to people, so I'm going to go on here and have my own little island.” Anxious attachment, “I can't stand being away from you, so I'm going to pull even close.” 

I think often with people with relational trauma, there's more disorganized attachment where, “Sometimes I'm feeling really anxious, and I need you to close.” Other times, “I'm feeling anxious about you being too close, and I'm going to push you away.” That fits within our understanding of attachment styles. 

That's how I explained it to my clients, though, because I think sometimes people can identify with a label. I'm sure you've talked about this with attachment styles — like they really cling to that label like, “This label is me.”

Lisa: It’s not that helpful. Totally. I think it can be helpful in certain ways like to just understand yourself more compassionately, and I heard somebody say… I think it might’ve even been somebody in our group — that there's no such thing as a perfectly, securely attached person. We all sort of fall to one side or the other. We all have, in certain situations, different reactions that could be avoided, could be anxious, sort of depending on what's going on and stuff. I hear you. I'm 100% there.

Paige: I think trauma can help maybe understand, “Why is this kind of more of my go-to?” Or help explain if it is both — if I'm feeling kind of a push-pull like, “I want you close, but not too close.” I think trauma does a lot to explain that. Then, honestly, the work in therapy is looking at the exceptions as well like, “When are you able to balance that? And how are you doing that?” 

Lisa: That's good to remember. So turning our attention back to this idea of a healing relationship. One of my takeaways honestly, from what we've just been talking about, is this idea that even if you're trying to have a healing relationship with somebody who is unwell, who has unresolved trauma, it is not going to be a healthy relationship for you. 

I guess, because part of this, I think that many people, many of our listeners have had adult relationships — maybe in addition to early stuff, but certainly adult relationships that felt toxic, that felt damaging, that felt really traumatic. 

Do you think that there's a correlation between somebody having a traumatic relationship experience as an adult? Is that an indication that maybe the partner that they were with was so traumatizing to them? Probably a good indication that their partner had had some stuff that maybe neither of them were aware of at the time they were in that relationship with each other. Is that fair to say, or am I extrapolating too far? I want answers, Paige.

Paige: I'm a therapist. I'm going to say, “Well, it really depends. Sometimes.” There's just so much that plays into how we treat each other. My own trauma — it’s definitely going to impact how I’m treating others, especially in close relationships. 

I think sometimes people, like you mentioned, are aware where they're like, “Oh, I know my partner has been through all these things. I'm just going to try to heal them, fix them with my love.” I also think just our general narratives about what relationships are in our developmental phase play into that as well. 

Having worked with teens and young adults that are out in their first relationships, trying to decide what relationships are — don't always have good skills, or good models of “this is what a healthy relationship looks like”. But definitely, trauma impacts how we treat each other and how we're able to show up in our relationships.

Lisa: Although healing relationship is not enough, it is really a crucial ingredient. If you have lived through toxic or damaging traumatic relationships in the past, a lot of important growth and healing does happen in the context of relationships. Can you talk a little bit more about what that can look like for people? 

In particular, I’m thinking of somebody who was maybe mistreated in previous relationships — it damaged their self-esteem, it damaged their trust, it was traumatic. How can a new relationship — a healing relationship help start to resolve some of that?

Paige: I think, firstly, it's got to be the right person. I always help my clients think through traumas, especially relational trauma is going to tell me that all humans are unsafe. All the people could be dangerous. When we work through our trauma, and we're working towards autonomy, then I get to decide who I trust, and who I don't, who I let in. 

But healing relationships with others — the scientist in me struggles with this part because there's something about it that's not magical, but it's like that feeling of being in a relationship that's strong and supportive. 

It feels like a hug even when you aren't getting a hug when we can show up as ourselves, we can share parts of ourselves, and we're validated, and we're accepted — all the words that are coming to mind are just the word again, like it's so healing to be in those relationships.

Lisa: But it's compassionate, it's emotionally safe. I think I'm also hearing between the lines — like you were talking about that feeling understood, feeling accepted. That makes me wonder if part of that key ingredient of having a healing relationship is that your partner knows and understands your trauma and your trauma response, so that when you do have those moments — maybe when you feel scared or angry, they're able to see that for what it is, as opposed to doing that typical relationship dance. 

I think many times when people don't understand what or why their partner's sort of reacting the way they do, it becomes very easy to be mad at your partner for being mad, or be defensive in response. You're saying that healing relationship is almost the opposite of that. I see that you're getting triggered right now and sort of meeting that with compassion, as opposed to more criticism or rejection. Is that part of it that like understanding?

Paige: Then as the partner, maybe without trauma, or maybe the partner with my own trauma, I can view your trauma as separate from you. You are still a whole human being to me who is making choices and doing things that impact me. But you are a human being that you are not your trauma. I can hold space for your trauma impacting, the choices that you're making, the things you're saying or the way that you're saying them.

I think really critical to healing relationships is that there is a lot of repair. When trauma responses come up when we don't show up the way we want to, there is space to make it right. We can apologize, that we can come together and discuss, “What actually was going on? How can we take care of this together?” 

But if there are big relational triggers in our healing relationship, we're going to do everything we can to avoid those triggers. If it's something yelling comes up for my clients a lot, “I grew up in a chaotic household. I can't handle yelling. I just go into survival mode right away.” Those two partners do work really hard to not have yelling be a part of their relationships — find other ways to work through it.

I think healing relationships also, and that’s something I work with couples that they're navigating this a lot, we need to take lots of breaks. We need to slow down and be able to soothe our trauma response so that we can have productive conversations. In healing relationships, there's lots of space. We can slow it down, we can take a break and come back. 

[35:29] Addressing Trauma in a Relationship

Lisa: But the bit like giving ourselves and each other permission to stay in a good place and be self-aware enough to know like, “I can't keep having this conversation right now.” 

One of the things — I'm thinking about two different situations right now. I’m thinking about a couple — and I'm sure that you have seen this couple. It's a relationship where no betrayal has occurred, and one of the partners has experienced betrayal in a previous relationship, either sexual infidelity, financial infidelity. They were really traumatized by a previous relationship. 

Now, they are in a new relationship and they're having those like anxious flare-ups, and that vigilance. Over time, that does, I think, start to take a toll on a lot of partners because they're like, “I didn't do that to you. I haven't done anything wrong.” I know that this is a big thing. And this is not the kind of thing that can be resolved through a couple of pieces of advice. There is an experiential healing process that people go through. It takes months, sometimes years. 

But generally speaking, what would your advice be for a couple who is grappling with that kind of dynamic, and it is eroding kind of the safety and health of their relationship? How do they identify it? Where will they even start to move back to a healing relationship space?

Paige: My biggest advice is to start to do what you can — have your partner that has experienced that betrayal, that trauma to externalize that trauma. The way I talk about it with my clients is, “What is your trauma telling you? What is trauma saying in these moments where you're having this anxiety?” Potentially your trauma is saying, “My current partner is going to hurt me just like my past partner did. I'm watching this movie play out again. I don't want to be hurt again — I need to protect myself.” 

When we're just caught up in those anxious thoughts, they feel like us, they feel like our own thoughts. Even just saying like, “This is what my trauma is telling me. This is what my anxiety is telling me”, and being able to communicate that to the partner instead of making accusations, or “I need to check your phone. I need…” 

There's other things that we can do when anxiety gets really high and say, “My anxiety is telling me that I am unsafe right now.” Then, we can have a conversation around it rather than always dealing with kind of the patrol fallout.

Lisa: “You're cheating on me.” The accusations and — right.

Paige: If we can have a conversation from a space of, “This is what my trauma is telling me”, and start to have that conversation, I think that's really, really critical. In those moments where, and I think this is helpful with all anxieties, just check our thoughts a little bit, “Is this actually true? Is this just feeling true? And this feeling is coming from this place that I can identify that I know where this is coming from?”

Lisa: I'm so glad we're talking about this right now, Paige, because I think that this reality, this truth often surprises people. I tell my clients all the time like, “Don't get tricked into believing everything you think or everything that you feel”, because I think there's so much pop psychology that, “Everything you think and everything you feel like is true.” Exactly. 

Actually, that's not always helpful. To be able to have that sort of psychological distance — that meta-awareness of how you're thinking, how you're feeling in the moment that is maybe not actually — it's like an artifact of trauma, as opposed to some fundamental truth that you need to take action on right this second. Thank you for bringing that up. I think that that is just so crucial to be known. 

One last thing. We talked about a relationship where one of the partners had — in a previous relationship — experienced relational trauma. Here is a trick question, hopefully not a trick question — pop quiz. 

I know you too have also worked with so many couples where there has been trauma, betrayal in the context of the relationship. It's not that some horrible other person five years ago hurt me — it's that actually you hurt me. There was an affair, there's financial infidelity — something of that nature. Do you feel that the path of healing and recreating an emotionally safe healing relationship is similar in those circumstances? Or does it look a little bit different in your experience?

Paige: I think it looks a little different because we have that person who's caused the harm is still there, and they can take accountability. There’s something I've been thinking a lot about in this context. It comes from Dr. Harriet Lerner's work on apologizing. She recently came out with a book on it, and she talks about how an apology… 

Lisa: Is it like apology languages? Or is it different?

Paige: It's different. I think the book is called Why Why Won't You Apologize? She talks about how an apology validates the experience of the person harmed. I've been thinking about that a lot in terms of relationships where one person has caused harm. We have to validate the experience of the harm that was done — which is really uncomfortable. 

It is very uncomfortable to look inside yourself and to actually own up to that rather than when we were trying to just make it better. We're saying whatever we can think of or do to just make it better like, “Please stop being mad at me”, rather than like, “I recognize that this is what was going into it for me, and this is what I did, and this is caused you harm in this way, this way, and this way.” 

When there's been betrayal in relationships, I use the language of trauma with my clients. We talk about trauma responses and triggers, and we talk about self-soothing and working toward safety so that that couple can soothe together. But until we're there, we're going to build up to that emotional safety and normalizing that, first of all, “Of course, you're not feeling totally safe to do that, and that's okay. We're going to work toward it. Everyone's going to get space here.”

Lisa: What a useful model to be bringing in the idea of trauma to those situations because I think one of the — it's almost a cliche. The person who did the betrayal is like, “That was such a long time ago. Why are you still upset? Nothing is happening. I've like totally reformed.” I think there's this lack of awareness that there is still a very active trauma response that gets triggered by certain things that's very real, and it’s the legacy of that relational trauma.

That does not go away easily. But I think that people imagine that it's — you've heard that phrase, “It's time to get over it.” Just like that, isn’t that how humans work? Bringing that idea of the impact of relational trauma to those situations I think is a very compassionate way of looking at it that helps people wrap their heads around what's happening and why the feelings persist.

Paige: And give us some language to talk about why it's still there, and kind of give us a path, a path forward. If we know this is a relational wound, well then we've got some steps — how are we going to address this wound? I think at least a part of its hardest because in our culture, we're fairly punitive. We think about like when people have done things wrong, they deserve to be punished. 

But that doesn't heal in the relationship. We've got to think of different ways to interact around harm that's been done that we can find healing. Often, that includes some of those other things about a healing relationship that we've got to not just trust, but maybe, in addition to a loss of trust, there was — I'm losing the train a little bit here. 

Lisa: No, it’s okay. Well, and I won't keep you but I'm glad that we're talking about this. I think that my biggest takeaway from this conversation is just the impact of relational trauma, and that it's something we should all really be aware of —both in ourselves and our partners. In addition to — we're working on ourselves in productive ways of really working to create healing relationships with our partners. 

Also, I think having expectations that we deserve to be in healing relationships too because you know none of us come through this life unscathed and unscarred. Every single one of us is carrying wounds of one kind or another. To be real, compassionate, and intentionally cultivating that healing space in between you and the people that you love. So, thank you. 

Thank you so much for joining me today, Paige. This was a wonderful conversation. I appreciate your time and just all the wisdom that you share with our listeners today.
Paige: Thank you.

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