Should You Ever Reconnect With Your Ex to Be Friends?
As a marriage counselor, it is one of the great joys of my life to help people reconnect with their love for each other and repair their relationships. But not every damaged relationship can (or should) be repaired. When the bond that holds a couple together has deteriorated to a certain point, even the world’s greatest marriage counselor can’t help them, because there is simply no relationship to fix
And when this happens, couples counseling often transitions into breakup or divorce recovery work. I’m left with one heartbroken partner, struggling to make peace with the loss of the person they love, and what their new reality will be going forward.
And the one question I reliably hear from people in this emotionally shattered place is… Should I be friends with my ex?
Look, I get it. Losing the person you’re attached to is one of the most painful things any of us can experience, and it makes sense that you would want to hold onto your ex in some capacity, to avoid the pain of losing them all together.
But, many of the things that can make good sense when we’re feeling heightened emotions aren’t actually that good for us in the long run, and being friends with your ex, unfortunately, can fall into that category. There are some yawning relational pitfalls to avoid, at the very least. And even in situations where being friends with your ex is indeed what’s best for all involved , it’s in your best interest to navigate this new friendship with clear eyes and a heaping dose of intention.
That’s what we’re talking about on today’s episode of the podcast: what happens in the brain when we lose an attachment, and how it can make you feel desperate to keep your ex in your life; the drawbacks of maintaining that connection, as tempting as it can feel; and the scenarios where creating a friendship with your ex really is an excellent idea — and some advice for doing that in a healthy way.
That’s because you have lost an attachment bond, which is akin to entering a chemical withdrawal process. [I actually wrote about a book about this called “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to an Ex Love]. In this state, your brain will do what addicts’ brains do: send signals that something is very wrong, and that contact with your ex is the only way to rectify it.
The part of the brain that maintains our attachment bonds is ancient, and it doesn’t always communicate with the newer parts of the brain where conscious thought, long-term planning, or self-control happen. As you begin to release your attachment, you will experience powerful emotional flare ups that can make you feel desperate to hold onto your ex, and your thinking mind will come up with all kinds of reasons why those feelings need to be acted upon.
If this is what’s happening to you, my advice is to endure this (incredibly painful) withdrawal process so that you can release your attachment to your ex and move forward. In the short term, maintaining a friendship can bring you some temporary relief from heartbreak, by helping you avoid the pain of loss and withdrawal. But in the long term, avoiding this process only prolongs the inevitable, and causes you more pain than necessary along the way. Being friends with your ex for the wrong reasons can keep you bonded to them for years, and can prevent you from moving on with your life and your other relationships.
Benefits of Being Friends With an Ex
All of that said, there are some scenarios where trying to have a friendly or at least civil relationship with your ex is essential.
Admittedly, after a nasty divorce, getting to that place can feel impossible. But by grieving your lost relationship, healing from the pain, and working through feelings of anger and resentment toward your ex, you can establish a relationship that is at least civil, if not quite friendly. An individual therapist can help you get there. Many divorcing couples even opt to work with a marriage counselor, not to repair their relationship, but to build a new relationship.
It can also be a good idea to maintain a friendly relationship with your ex if you will have to see each other socially, or if you work together. You don’t have to be close, but it will feel better for you both if you can forgive your ex and reconnect with your positive feelings for who they are as a person. I’m sure those feelings existed at some point.
The Drawbacks of Being Friends with an Ex
BUT! There are some major drawbacks to being friends with an ex that I want you to be fully aware of before you proceed.
First, being friends with an ex can keep you attached for much longer than you need to be after the relationship ends. Maintaining your attachment to a dead relationship keeps you in limbo, where you’re still emotionally invested in your ex, and, often, unable to move forward with someone new. And, imagine how your friendship with your ex could impact any budding new relationships once you do move on. How will your new partner feel about you grabbing lunch with someone you used to cuddle up with every night? They may feel a bit threatened, and they may have some very valid concerns about your true availability.
And, relatedly, imagine how you will feel when your ex moves on into a new relationship. If you’re like most people, that will be difficult for you. Is paying that emotional price down the road worth it, if it means you get to stay in contact with your ex for now?
Finally, know that maintaining a friendship with your ex can be fine for you, while being incredibly damaging to your ex. This is especially true if you were the one who ended the relationship, and released some of your attachment to your ex beforehand (if you had it at all).
Your ex might be hurting, and searching for signs that there is still hope for your relationship. If this is how your ex is feeling, the caring thing for you to do is to help them get clarity that your relationship is indeed over, and that they need to grieve it and move on. Getting an innocent, friendly message from you can derail their entire healing process.
Should You Be Friends With Your Ex?
Only you can decide if being friends with your ex is right for you — there is no universal answer that will fit every person and every relationship. So, get really honest with yourself about why you want a friendship with your ex. Is there a real benefit? Or is it a way to stay bonded to someone who you can’t be with anymore?
Before you can be friends with an ex, something needs to happen first. We cannot move from a deep attachment to a casual friendship overnight. Our brains just don’t work that way. To get there, we have to move through the difficult process of releasing our attachment, and that can take many months, if not years. Before you try to reconnect with your ex as friends, give yourself time to get there, and understand that your ex might not be “getting over it” at the same pace as you are.
How will you know you’re ready? When you’ve released your attachment, you will have pretty neutral feelings about your ex and about the relationship. Not longing, pining, obsessive feelings, and not anger, resentment, hurt, or sadness. You will be able to think about seeing them without having a panic attack. You will be able to imagine meeting their new partner and thinking “good for them!”
The absence of feelings — true emotional neutrality — is what you’re aiming for. And that may or may not ever happen for you, or for your ex.
Boundaries with an Ex
If you do decide to be friends with your ex, no matter the reasons, tread carefully. Even decades down the road, our attachment bonds can be reawakened through exposure to your former person. An ex reaching out just to say “hi” is the beginning of so many stories about marriage-destroying Facebook affairs. If you are connecting with an ex, and you notice old feelings roaring back to life, that is a danger signal you don’t want to ignore.
It can also be tempting to enter a “friends with benefits” scenario or situationship with people you used to date. Avoid sex with your ex — even in normal circumstances, sex is rarely casual, and that is doubly true when you’re “hooking up” with someone you used to have a deeper relationship with.
Get clear with yourself about what a healthy relationship with your ex would look like, and then move forward with intention. How often would you see each other? What are the conversational boundaries you don’t want to cross? What about physical boundaries? How will you know if it’s working out, and how will you know if it’s getting out of hand?
If I could leave you with one piece of advice, it would be to not stumble forward into a friendship with your ex without being deliberate about what you’re doing and why, how you’re going to do it, and what a positive, healthy outcome would look like.
Episode Highlights: Can You Be Friends With Your Ex?
[8:43] Becoming Friends With Your Ex
The desire to stay friends with your ex comes from our human instinct to bond with each other. It is programmed in a part of the brain underneath consciousness and reason.
Attachment bonds can be unilateral, meaning that your ex may still be attached to YOU, even when you’ve moved forward. Be respectful of that.
[18:17] Boundaries for Being Friends With an Ex
Be honest with yourself about whether being friends with your ex is necessary and healthy for you. If you decide to be friends, make your intentions clear to your ex.
Letting go can be similar to withdrawal from an addiction, and it can be your best interest to go cold turkey with this past relationship.
Don’t fall into a “friends with benefits” situation. It can be harmful to yourself and your ex.
[32:15] Is It Okay to Be Friends With Your Ex?
There are circumstances where it is ideal to be friends with your ex, like when you have children together.
The opposite of love is not hatred. Instead, it is neutrality.
If it has come to a point where either party thinks the other is the worst person in the world, work with a competent therapist to resolve the issues between you and your ex.
[38:14] Staying Friends With Your Ex During Divorce
Do not villainize each other in the process of divorce. Keep a collaborative atmosphere with your ex all throughout for the best interest of both parties.
Consult a marriage counselor to figure out the new and different relationship you'll have with your ex post-divorce.
It takes a lot of emotional processing to have a healthy friendship with your ex, so you must put in the work.
Music in this episode is by Lord Huron with their song “Mine Forever.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://lordhuron.bandcamp.com. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to the Love, Happiness, and Success podcast.
We are listening to the legendary Lord Huron together. This is the coolest song. It's from their new album. The album is called Long Lost. The song is Mine Forever, which is very appropriate for our subject today.
Today we are going to be talking about one of the most difficult aspects of a breakup or divorce for many people, which is the conundrum of being friends with your ex. Is it possible? Is it a good idea? If so, how does one achieve it and maintain their sanity? All will be revealed over the course of today's podcast.
Last note about Lord Huron. I feel obligated to mention: this amazing band is currently on tour as I'm recording this. For my friends in Colorado, they're coming to Red Rocks, so get your tickets now. You can learn more about Lord Huron and their travel plans on their website, lordhuron.com.
Okay, now on with our show. If you've listened to this podcast before, you have probably heard me mention the various things that I do, right? I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist; I'm a licensed psychologist; I'm a board-certified coach. I'm the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching. But in my heart of hearts, I have a very special warm place for people struggling in the aftermath of breakups and divorces.
It's really like, if I do have a specialty, I mean, I do a lot of couples counseling and therapy and all the things, but I love working with people around this issue in particular. I always feel a little funny to tell people what I do. I'm a marriage counselor, but I really specialize in breakups and divorces because they're like, “What? Are you like the worst marriage counselor in the history of the world?” Like, no.
Just to be clear, I first and foremost love helping people repair their relationships—often work with people coming in the door who are sometimes feeling legitimately hopeless about their relationship. Like, “How can we ever fix this?” It is the joy of my life to be able to help people find their way back together again, and do a lot of deep important work, and come out the other side of that stronger, happier, and healthier than ever before.
Both their marriages, their relationships, but also, like, personal growth. A lot of personal growth happens in that process, and it's wonderful. I love it. Particularly when it works well, which it often does. It's just so cool to be a part of. It is also true that not all relationships can be repaired. Not all relationships should be repaired.
Sometimes when people come in to the best marriage counselor in the world, if one of them even has gotten sort of past this point of no return emotionally, it's just there's nothing left to put back together. Like, the motivation to be in a relationship just isn't there anymore. Certainly, I've also worked with people that—it is the right thing for everybody involved, it is, like, slow to stop. So, in these situations, what I have then been left with is one person, usually sitting on my couch who is often devastated—they didn't want the relationship to end.
Then, how do they work through it? I think personally, I have such a soft place in my heart for this is because I went through the most horrible breakup experience, as so many of us have, right? When it happened to me, I was in high school. I was still very young. But even, like, I've had a fairly long and interesting life, and I've had a lot of things happen to me, and to this day, that is still one of the worst life experiences I've ever had because of how devastating it was emotionally.
Also, I think combined with this is that there is this mythology in our culture that you should just be able to get over it and move on and, “What's wrong with you?” if you're still crying six months later. What I have learned since is that human beings do not work that way. We cannot flip our attachment to somebody else off like a switch, even if we really, really want to. Like, we just don't work like that.
Also, to be going through a period of intense devastation, it really is all you can think about. It's awful. That is actually the normal experience, it is not abnormal. But especially at the time when I was younger, that was not discussed at all in our culture. In addition to going through this terrible rejection and the pain and everything that went along with it, there's also this awful feeling of like, “What is wrong with me for failing the way that I do?”, right?
Anyway, it has been a real pleasure for me to be able to connect some of those dots and figure out some of the reasons why those things are true for everyone. It turned into a lot of research that I did because prior to that, even as a therapist, and as a marriage counselor, and as a psychologist, and all the things, none of that is taught in counseling school at all. There was nothing around the psychology of a breakup or broken attachment.
I had to go figure that out—did a lot of research. It turned into a book, Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to an Ex Love, but also really turned into a passion of mine. I love using the podcast to talk about all kinds of things and love and happiness and success and helping people repair their relationships, but also dealing with the real stuff like how to cope with a relationship that ended. Anyway, that is why we are here today.
I wanted to talk about a particular facet of this experience that really is difficult and messes people up routinely, which is around how to maintain a friendship with your ex. The reason why this is so complex and worth discussing is that it really has a lot of different variables. I wanted to give you truly helpful and meaningful information about all of this so that you can make informed decisions about what you want to do.
There are many compelling reasons to want to maintain a relationship or a friendship with your ex, right? I mean, one of them could be that you have a reason to. If you have children together, for example, it is really in everybody's best interest to try to have a positive, functional relationship. On the other side of that, if you're running a business together, I mean, if you have other kind of practical things that require you to maintain a relationship on the other side, that's possible. Sometimes it's really necessary.
I'll be providing information about how to achieve that. But the thing that is really tricky about this is that there are a lot of other situations where people really want to maintain a relationship with their ex. They want to be friends with their ex. Sometimes this is possible and healthy and good. People do it, and everybody's happy. But there can be a lot of complex stuff inside of this that can be like, even subconscious or non-conscious, and that's really worthy of discussion, too.
Becoming Friends With Your Ex
Let's just start by talking about that last piece first, right? That many people, when a relationship ends, even if they don't have a good “reason to”, really want to maintain that attachment. The reason why is relating back to the science of attachment, and I've talked about this on previous episodes of the podcast. Human beings are built to bond to each other. It is part of our survival drive system.
It is vital to our survival as a species to have very strong and powerful attachment bonds to other people. When these bonds form, they are biologically based as well as emotional and psychological. Like, there are mechanisms in your brain that exist for the purpose of bonding to other humans. They are operating at a level of your brain that is like pre-human, so they're in a part of your brain that our human minds, our neocortex, like, that newest layer of the brain.
The one that allows for language through rational thought, creativity, envisioning things. It is so far down underneath that that language can't touch it. Reason can't touch it. It is nonverbal. It is non-conscious in many ways. This is why so many weird things happen to humans in the context of attachment stuff, and particularly lost relationships. Because there are—you can't think your way through it.
You're like, “Why am I doing this? Why am I feeling this way? What is wrong with me? You're trying to, like, figure your way out of it. It just exists at a totally different level of our brains. I just wanted to throw that out there to help you understand why this is such a uniquely weird experience for many people because, it's like, neurologically, it's happening at a different level than most other things that impact us to the same degree emotionally. Anyway, there's that.
Because of this phenomenon, we develop these attachment bonds, and the desire to remain friends with your ex can be an artifact of that. That attachment does not turn off like a faucet. Somebody says, “I think we should probably see other people. I don't want to do this anymore.” The attachment doesn't cease to be just because that gauntlet has been thrown down or whatever, right?
You don't work that way. It's not a cut off. It is like a fading kind of thing. If it existed at all, I mean, people can be in relationships and not have that depth of attachment. Frequently, what can happen is that somebody who is initiating the breakup did not impulsively decide to do that. They have been on the off-ramp for a while. Their partner didn't know about it, but they have kind of worked their way through it, and largely released that attachment, if they had it at all.
That might be one of the reasons why they don't want to be in a relationship anymore is because they didn't feel that bond, and that's okay, too. That is not a judgment or a statement of anything about you. If that's the case, it's just—you can't force this to happen. If it wasn't there, it is a good idea to end a relationship because you deserve to have somebody who is really bonded to you.
For somebody to have the wisdom to say, “I'm not feeling it.” They're doing the right thing. Even if it is hurtful to hear that because you wanted it to be different, you are bonded to them. Understanding that these attachment bonds can be unilateral, I think, is really important. But when this happens, our desire to remain attached persists after the relationship is technically over, after the papers have been signed, after we're not seeing each other anymore, right?
This is important to know because it can be exceptionally hard to sort through whether or not your desire to maintain a friendship with someone is due to reasons that are actually healthy, and that make sense for you and that would be a positive thing, or are you essentially in the grips of something that is very analogous to, like, a withdrawal process from a substance?
The thing that I've found through the research I mentioned to be so interesting about attachment and love is that the parts of our brain that exist for the purpose of attaching to other humans are the exact same parts of our brain that can get addicted to, actually, addictive substances. So, heroin, cocaine, those kinds of things.
There are receptors in your brain that when you take those drugs become stimulated, right? That through that repeated process, you get addicted to those drugs. Those exact same parts of your brain are the parts of your brain that get stimulated by romantic love, which uses the same receptors and neurotransmitters that cocaine likes to flare up inside people.
Then, the attachment process uses the same parts of your brain—receptors, neurotransmitters—as an opiate addiction, so it's quiet. It's calm, but man when it gets threatened or broken, it flares up into, like, really intense, intense cravings, obsessive feelings. It's like every part of your being wants to reconnect in order to feel better again. It is very real and is biologically based.
Again, because the stuff is happening in such deep areas of your brain, that your non-conscious, this emotional part of your brain can be sending signals to you that is like, “I need this. I need this. I need this. Where's my person? Where's my person? Where's my person?” Essentially, kind of freaking out.
Your conscious mind, which has only a very loose relationship to this more powerful brain structure, right, is very helpfully sort of interpreting this as, “Yeah. I probably should go pick up my toothbrush from their house and start a conversation.” They begin—your conscious brain can begin rationalizing all the reasons why this makes sense and can be kind of twisting itself into pretzels to bargain, right?
There's stages of loss, stages of withdrawal, and for both people who are going through grieving and other losses and people in recovery from substances, often visit this bargaining stage, right? Where they're like, “Well, if I only have a beer after 5 p.m., and it's only three, then I'm not an alcoholic,” right? It's trying to, like, thread this needle, figuring out some intellectually plausible way to maintain their attachment to something that they really don't want to release.
Consciously, they know it does not have a benefit that should, so your brain can do very interesting things in these moments. When you're having lots of ideas about maintaining friendships with people that you're no longer with, it can be an artifact of that kind of process. It's important to be suspicious of your own thoughts in moments like these, first of all.
Also, I mean, we need to acknowledge the fact that it is more difficult, I think, to actually not be in contact with somebody than it used to be. I mean, you used to have to, like, go to somebody's house, or go through the trouble of writing a letter right to, like, maintain contact. But these days, I mean, with social media, you can see all kinds of things or know all sorts of information about an ex that you didn't ask for, right, but it's just sort of in your face.
That can be very difficult. We can also, I think, feel obligated to maintain friendships with people. Like, again, going back to that mythology, well, we're mature. We're like Gwyneth and Chris, we should be able to be friends on the other side, right? Kind of, sort of self-judgments about what you should do that may or may not be in alignment with what's really helpful or appropriate to you—for you, rather.
Boundaries for Being Friends With an Ex
Again, that maintaining of connection through social media, and maybe, too, if you work together, if you have a social circle that you're both part of, there can be other potential losses or weird things to have to mitigate if you decide to end friendship altogether, right, and avoid seeing somebody—avoid any contact. Well, in some ways, that can be much healthier for you emotionally as you're going through this—the process of releasing an attachment.
It can create other issues, social awkwardness, particularly if you work together. I mean, that can create an objectively difficult situation. Again, there are a lot of reasons why you might try to figure out a way to do this, but my first piece of advice is to really try to get honest with yourself around whether or not this is actually a good idea, or, if this is—what you're experiencing is what it feels like to have an attachment breaking and feeling something very much like withdrawal—a very intense desire to maintain a connection.
Your attachment part of your brain is telling you that, “You're in danger. It's a terrible idea to let go of this person, so you have to stay connected to them no matter what,” and your intellectual brain is trying to rationalize all the reasons why. If that is what is happening, it is probably in your best interest to understand that and to just go cold turkey, and here's why.
Even though, in the short-term, you will be essentially protecting yourself from the pain of withdrawal, because as soon as you say, “Okay. That's it. I'm actually never talking to this person again. They're no longer part of my life.” Once you decide that for yourself, you're going to feel really bad. You're going to have this intense emotion. You're probably going to be crying. You're like, “No!”
If you go to, like, block them from your social app, or block their number, if you feel this, like, huge surge of anxiety and pain, it might even feel like terror, right? That is a good indication that your desire to maintain a friendship with this person is actually your—it's an avoidance mechanism. It's like methadone, basically. You're not feeling the fullness of the withdrawal experience, if you're still kind of in contact with them.
The problem is that if you do that, you will essentially maintain this attachment that is no longer a positive thing for you. I mean, objectively, right? If somebody doesn't want to be in a relationship with you anymore, or if you know intellectually that you should not be in a relationship with this person, if you try to maintain that attachment, you can stay in this weird purgatory place for a long, long time.
I know people. I have worked with people, and I mean, it's been a decade or more that they're still hurting about this past relationship. Because they just could not bring themselves to rip off this Band-Aid, and just decide for themselves that it was over. They're protecting themselves, but they're also harming themselves in the long run.
This can get even more difficult, and I think toxic for you to do, because it's also very commonly true that some people are like, “Why? I still want to be friends.” When you really start to get honest and crack into it and unpack all that, there's still this fantasy that you could get back together again.
That if you maintain this attachment, they'll decide—they'll realize what a terrible mistake they made and come running back to you, or if you—they'll remember or realize how great you are, if you can remind them through your friendship. So, what it can turn into is a lot of pursuing a lot of fantasy.
It's easy to even get into these situationships with people where one person still really kind of wants to get back together. Maybe you're still having sex sometimes. You're kind of in this “friends with benefits” situation that is very convenient for your ex, by the way, but it's really torturing you. It can be hard to work through all this and try to sort through what is good for you and what's, also, you sort of playing games with yourself intellectually in order to maintain this attachment bond.
If you suspect that this is going on in you, my advice would be to connect with a good therapist who understands the biology of attachment. Most don't. I mean, to be complete, like, nobody taught me this stuff, I had to figure it out. I had to do all this research, right? I think that there has been more done since. I think it's more in the consciousness of psychologists and therapists now than it was 10 or 20 years ago.
Ask questions for a prospective therapist before you get involved with one, because if you get connected to a therapist who doesn't understand the things that you and I are talking about today, it can very easily turn into, essentially, your psychopathology. “You have attachment issues. You never got over your parents’ divorce.” It kind of turns into being about you. It is not just not helpful and a waste of time and a waste of your money.
I mean, I don't know, maybe there are old attachment issues that are worth talking about. But, if your therapist doesn't understand the biological basis for this stuff, they're going to try to come up with reasons why it makes sense to them. Psychodynamics, other things that may have nothing to do with the actual path of healing from these kinds of things, which is much more analogous to a recovery process than it is to other things that psychotherapy is very useful for.
Just know that. Anyway, but try to get connected to a good therapist who knows about this stuff, who can help you really get clear around what is going on. “Is it actually helpful, positive in my best interest to try to maintain a relationship with this person, or am I just telling myself stuff to avoid pain?” Anyway, that's kind of option one. Please explore that.
Another situation that does come up related to being friends with one's ex is kind of like on the other side of this equation. Because another thing that is true is that if you are the one that has initiated the breakup, it may be that you would like to maintain a friendship with your ex, right? It's important to know that your ex may be feeling very, very differently than you are.
Like, if you broke up with this person, you released all this attachment stuff before you did that, or, at least, big, big parts of it. Cognitively, you got clarity that you didn't want to do this anymore, and you might feel guilty about that. It's very common to break up with people that you really like—you enjoy. You don't hate them. They're not bad people. You don't want anything bad for them. You would totally be friends with them. They just weren't the right, like, life partner for you, right?
In that case, you might love the idea of being friends with them. You'd feel less guilty. You'd be able to keep the good parts of your relationship but also be free to develop a romantic attachment with somebody else, right? This might be a positive thing for you. But it is important to understand that this may be incredibly toxic and damaging for your ex. I hope that wasn't too blunt. That's okay. It's like we need to be talking about this stuff.
Because if you are wanting to be friends with your ex, and you're reaching out, like, “Hi. How’s work? What are you doing?” and they are still in that terribly painful withdrawal place. Like, they're interpreting your efforts to reach out and and maintain contact probably as your interest in still having a relationship with them, which it is. Just not the kind of relationship that they want to have with you, right?
It's really not fair for them. They need boundaries. They need time to heal. They need clarity. Like, if you're sort of sending mixed signals to them, even if you're saying, “I think we can just be friends,” like, somebody who is in that brokenhearted place does not hear that. They're hearing you say, “Well, yeah. I mean, I still love you, maybe,” right?, which it isn't good for them to be in that space.
Leave them alone, and help them achieve clarity around, “This is over. This is over. This is over.” Work through that withdrawal. Work through all those feelings. Kind of mentally wrap their minds around that. If they're still in contact with you, it will be much, much, much harder for them to do that. So, please have respect for their process. Understand that this idea of being friends is very, very difficult to do for the biological reasons that I have explained to you.
Now, it may also be true that, well, on the other side of this, like once that healing has thoroughly been achieved on both sides. That takes time, like this is often measured in years for people, but at the very least, many, many months, right? We're talking about a much longer timeline than you might realize, so give people room.
Then, sometimes on the other side of it, you can legitimately reconnect on a different level in a different way. The signal that that would be possible is if there aren't feelings anymore. Like, if you can imagine your ex being with somebody else and then think, “Oh, that's awesome for them. I'm so happy for them, like such a great—yeah, that's wonderful.” Right? That if that feels either happy for you, or at the very least neutral, that's a good sign that you may be able to cultivate a friendship with an ex that is fully platonic and and also that has boundaries.
The other thing that is important to understand is that being friends with an ex, cognitively, we can have boundaries, right? We're just friends. We are not sleeping together. We are not XYZ. I can't tell you how many times I have had a front row seat to people getting into affairs many years later with an old flame that they reconnected with on social media, or they're still friends with, right?
Because those attachment bonds are so old and so powerful that they can sort of be like subterranean and then flare back up again, whether or not you want them to. If you have decided to maintain a friendship with an ex, and now one or both of you are securely partnered in different relationships, just keep an eye on that. It's like something simmering on the stove, like don't walk away from it. Don't leave the house.
Just notice that if you start to have feelings again that come up, that is a good indication that you need to really stop that altogether. Because if you don't, it can be a waterslide. Like, whoosh back into the pool of these romantic attachment kinds of feelings that are very powerful, and that have just been the death of many a marriage.
You can check out a podcast called Married With a Crush? for more on this subject. If any of what I'm saying right now feels familiar to you, please, please check it out, so that you don't have the terrible experience of arriving in the office of a therapist like me, a couple years later, like, “I ruined my life. What did I do?” It sneaks up on you, people. Anyway, check that out. Those are all reasons, cautionary tales about being friends with an ex—do's and don'ts.
Is It Okay to Be Friends With Your Ex?
I also promised you some information on situations where you might—it might be a good idea to attempt to cultivate a friendship with an ex, even if you don't really want to. I mean, we've been talking about people who have been going through breakups or situations where there were still positive feelings. For many people, and not all, but a lot of people going through a divorce, one or both of them is well past that, right?
I mean, there are many regrettable things that happen between two people before they get divorced, right? It is not uncommon if people are divorced or divorcing for one of them to have come to the conclusion over the course of many years that their ex is actually the worst human being that has ever lived. They actually feel trapped by the bonds of children, of business—working together.
They despise their ex—don't want anything to do with them, right? They're just so angry. They're so hurt. They have an emotional scroll that when unfurled is about 1000 feet long, and on it is written all of the terrible, horrible, stupid, insensitive, disgusting, maddening things their ex has ever done. It's like, “Why would I possibly want to be friends with somebody like that?” Right? It's a heavy lift.
If you are in a situation where you hate your ex more than anything in the universe, and you have children together, and you have to have an at least civil, functional relationship, just to make it as easy as possible, but also for your kids, it can be incredibly valuable to figure out a way to find your way back to some kind of positive feelings. Some shred of compassion, gratitude, appreciation, to hold on to and, also, quite frankly, to let go of some other stuff.
We think of hate as being the opposite of love, right? It is actually not true. Love and hate are two sides of the same coin. Again, going back to our neurological meaning-making here. The deep regions of your brain from which feelings of intense love emanate are pretty much exactly the same feelings of your brain that radiate feelings of hatred. It's the same thing. It's like two sides of the same thing.
If you have very intense negative feelings towards your ex, that is also an indication, to me at least, that you have not processed nearly all the things that you need to in order to arrive at true healing, which is not hatred, which can be protective in some ways, but it's not hatred. It is, honestly, the absence of any feeling at all, right? I know it's hard to think about, but the opposite of love is not hate. It is neutrality.
In order to get to this space, it is well worth your time to invest in working through this stuff. Again, usually with the help of a very competent therapist, because it's difficult to crack into on your own. It's very easy to stay in hatred and anger. Finding forgiveness is very difficult. Forgiveness for your acts, maybe even forgiveness for yourself. There can be a lot of grief underneath that.
The first layer might feel like anger, but when people start to work into it, you can discover that there's actually quite a bit of sadness, hurt, fear—that anger has actually been protecting you from. It's weird to think of anger as being protective, but it really is. But, being able to kind of dig into that other stuff in a safe place, process it, do the work will help you cultivate that true neutrality.
That will allow you to then begin to rebuild positive aspects of your relationship with this person because they’re there. They are. Even if the person that you are with wound up being very different than what you hoped, I don't think I've ever met a single human that was completely irredeemable. I'm sure they're out there, and it may be the case that is true with your ex, but might be like one thing, okay?
Now, other situations here. In the absence of intense hatred, you may be in a situation where you have an ex that you work with, you co-parent with, you have a business with, and you do not have the luxury of time and space to really process all this stuff, resolve the attachment, and you keep getting, like, triggered by your interactions with them in the here and now. That is just to acknowledge it's incredibly difficult.
I think, when I was—what I understand now, like, I had such a terrible experience with my own breakup in high school, and largely, I think, now I know, that was due to the fact that I had to see these people every day at school, right? Friends in common lived in the neighborhood; it's like, when you can't get away, it's very difficult to heal.
Staying Friends With Your Ex During Divorce
A couple of pieces of advice: if this is a divorce situation that you're heading into, do everything in your power to not burn it all down in the process of getting divorced. What I mean by that is to avoid divorce lawyers if you can. I've met a few and very nice people, well-meaning, and just the way that the legal system works and the way that lawyers kind of work, it so quickly descends into an adversarial, very like yucky, angry—it's like a war and it is also harrowingly expensive.
If there's any way that you can get through this with a mediator to help you create agreements together throughout this process, and that is focused on, “How can we collaborate? How can we build a bridge to the center? How can we each give a little bit and to go into this whole process with as much—as collaborative intentions as you can?”, will truly be in the best interests of you, them, and your shared children, or your shared business for the next several decades.
If there's any way to do that, try to do that if you're able to, or barring that, if you do have to get lawyers involved, do a lot of careful vetting around which one you choose and make a conscious decision to find one that has a collaborative stance, and that understands some of the psychology involved in all of this, and who is committed to helping you not create a mortal enemy through the divorce process.
Let’s not do “scorched earth”, unless you absolutely have to. So, there's one thing. But the other piece of this is that it can be really, really helpful to have conversations with your ex about creating a different kind of relationship together. In order for these to be productive, you will both probably have had to do at least some personal growth work on each side to just kind of work through some of the big feelings that get triggered otherwise during these conversations.
Because when people are getting all flared up and activated, it's really hard to have a productive conversation. You can do this individually. We also even have people coming into our practice who have decided to get divorced or separate, and who now are working with a marriage counselor, essentially, but in a different role, which is, “Please help us figure out how to create a different kind of relationship together.”
It is talking not—it's no longer appropriate to be, like, processing feelings, or, “You did this,” and all that stuff. We're going to set that aside. You have to do that with individual therapists, but then together, you can come into these meetings with new intentions.
To have mediated conversations with somebody who can be like, “Okay, what is your vision for your relationship 15 years from now on your daughter's wedding day? You're both there. You're both so happy for her. What would you like that to look like for yourselves, and for each other, and for your children?” Coming in it with different sets of goals.
Also, having somebody to help you talk through, like, “What should the boundaries be?” I think accountability can be really important, and also clarity. Even when people are trying really hard to be friends with each other, there are conflicts around visitation or something changed. How do we resolve problems?
The issue here is that if you had been able to resolve conflict together well as a couple, you would probably not have gotten divorced in the first place in most circumstances. This is not a strength of this relationship to begin with. In kind of post-divorce counseling or growth work, it is actually an opportunity to learn how to do this together in a constructive way, not just for your friendship, or co-parenting relationship, or business partnership now.
It will certainly make that easier to do, but it will also probably be to each of your benefit. I mean, to figure out some of these conflict management or emotional intelligence skills that maybe you didn't have the opportunity to do when you were together as a couple, you can still do it on the other side. It's still really valuable work that you can take with you. Apply it to another relationship that you might be in.
There's a lot of growth that can happen—really, really positive things when people can sit down and be like, “Okay. What happened? Why was that so hard? Why did—let's kind of talk about this. What do we need to do now in order to have better experiences with each other?” It's very, very positive and constructive. Certainly, that's also an investment, right?
If it is a more casual situation, and somebody that you just work with or see around where it would be weird to, like, have an official sit down and get a mediator to figure out like, “Okay, how do we be friends?” It can be helpful to get very just clear for yourself around, “What would me being friendly, appropriately friendly with this person, actually look like in a work context? What would be healthy for me?”
Then, really, almost like through a coaching process, figure out, “What are the behaviors that I need to do in order to create that? What are the things I need to tell myself in order to create that? How will I know if it's working or not? What are the obstacles in my path?” and really kind of going through a coaching process in that regard.
There's a lot here, and if nothing else, if you've gotten nothing else from this conversation today, I hope I have imparted some degree of understanding of the very real complexity involved with maintaining a friendship with an ex. In any of the circumstances that I've described, it takes a lot of self-awareness and a high degree of intentionality in order to create a friendship with an ex that is genuinely healthy and positive.
If you are wanting to maintain an attachment and it's like, “Well, we can be friends,” got to get real honest about that. Make sure that it's healthy. If it is, do a lot of very strategic work around making sure, like, damn sure that it is healthy. If it is a need to have a friendship with an ex that you would rather not have, there's also a lot of emotional processing work.
Then lastly, if it's—you have to sort of build a new kind of friendship with somebody in the absence of a lot of hatred, it's still very complex, and it has to be an intentional process. The thing to avoid in any of these cases is maintaining a relationship or “friendship” with an ex without being very, very deliberate about why you're doing it, how you're going to do it.
What a positive outcome, a healthy outcome looks like, if you just sort of like, stay connected and like text with each other, and like their stuff on social media, and get together once in a while, you're not doing what we talked about today. That's also the easiest thing to do. Then, that is just to validate it. That is what most people do, is just kind of maintain an attachment without reflecting on it too much. It is to their detriment because it creates a different set of problems long-term.
Anyway, so much to share. I hope that this discussion was helpful for you. Thank you so much for spending this time with me today. I always like talking about breakup and divorce recovery, so thanks for giving me the opportunity to share some of the things I have learned along the way. That's all for today, but if you would like more on the subject of breakup and divorce recovery, because it is such an interest of mine, there is so much stuff that I have for you.
Of those, I think the one episode, How to Leave a Toxic Relationship with Dignity, is probably one of my favorites, and not least because it gave me an excuse to play The Gun Club on this podcast, but has a lot more information about the nature of attachment there for you, and in particular, why it can be so hard to release an attachment to a toxic relationship.
Interestingly, the worse a relationship actually is, the harder it can be to get out of. If that sounds interesting to you, I hope you check out that episode, How to Leave a Toxic Relationship With Dignity.
Then, of course, on the blog at growingself.com, there is so much more. In addition to these podcasts, we have all kinds of articles that I have written. You can learn about my own horrible breakup story. I'll be sure to link to it in the post for this podcast.
Then, of course, are tons of articles that the therapists that I work with here at Growing Self have written, who are excellent therapists, who are in the trenches of this breakup recovery work every day, divorce recovery work, and they have so much great advice. Parenting after divorce, dealing with divorce after affairs, I mean, there's so much good stuff.
Also, you might want to check out a podcast episode that I did with a really great divorce lawyer, Stephanie Randall. It's called amicable divorce. If you are looking down the barrel of that particular gun, you’ll want to check that out for sure.
Then, of course, the book,Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to an Ex Love. Although I should add, because this came up recently, I wrote this book years ago from my research but also, at the time, did it in a partnership with another organization that goes by the name Exaholics. I do not have any business relationship with that organization. That is not my practice. It is not my website. I do growingself.com, and somebody actually reached out to me the other day asking about that, and I was like, “Oh, no. That is not my thing. I just wrote the book.”
Anyway, so there's that. But anyway, so much for you on this subject. It is all for you—lots of good stuff. Check it out, growingself.com. Thanks for spending this time with me today, and thank you for giving me the opportunity to share this amazing Lord Huron song with you.
Again, you can learn more about Lord Huron on their website, lordhuron.com. You can get albums, concert tickets. They have t-shirts that are super cool to have. All kinds of great stuff, so check that out. Otherwise, I will be back here next week with more love, happiness, and success for you.
Secret bank accounts. Illicit rendezvous with the babysitter. Biweekly fights that end in split lips and phone calls to the police.
We’ve all heard about “those” relationships, haven’t we? And maybe we’ve even witnessed something close to them playing out between people we know. It’s no surprise when unions with such obvious markers of pain and dysfunction go down in flames. They may even make us feel a little better about our own relationships, or the kind of partners we are. Sure, we’re imperfect, but we would never do that.
But, as a longtime marriage counselor and couples therapist, trust me when I say that most relationships that fail don’t go down in a big, dramatic burst of flames that everyone sees coming from a hundred miles away. To paraphrase Hemingway, they tend to end gradually, and then all at once. The little injuries that add up to a divorce or a breakup usually seem insignificant while they’re happening, until their cumulative damage is too much for the couple to bear.
When two people who love each other aren’t able to make their relationship work, it’s sad. Because “making it work” is usually a matter of building certain skills, which anyone can do with knowledge and practice. I created this podcast to illustrate that for you. My hope is that, after this conversation, you’ll have a clear understanding of what really tanks relationships, and how you can avoid that outcome in your own.
My guest is Matthew Fray, a talented writer with some hard-won knowledge in this area. In his new book, “This is How Your Marriage Ends,” Matthew discusses his own marriage’s demise, and the lessons he wishes he’d learned before it was too late. We’re sharing those important lessons with you today, so you can keep your relationship alive for the long haul.
I hope you’ll tune in to hear Matt’s heartfelt relationship advice. Listen here on this page, on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
Many of the moments that destroy relationships look like no big deal while they’re happening. They can take the shape of “petty” disagreements, too insignificant to pose a real threat to something as important as your marriage.
But over time, these minor disagreements certainly can pose a threat. They can carry more emotional weight than you might expect, bringing up questions about love, safety, trust, and respect between yourself and your partner. If they’re not handled with care, these “petty” disagreements will undermine your connection, and can eventually cause you to lose what you value the most in the world.
Here are some hallmarks of the destructive conflict cycle that causes relationships to fail. By breaking these common patterns, you and your partner can begin to navigate conflict in a way that helps you grow together, not apart.
Why Relationships Fail: Defensiveness
Imagine that your partner is furious about something that doesn’t seem particularly important to you. Maybe you wore your shoes in the house when they’ve repeatedly asked you not to, or you were ten minutes late meeting them for dinner.
What’s your reaction to their anger? Do you feel like you’re being punished harshly for something that doesn’t mean much, considering how much you do for your partner every day? Do you remind them of all the sacrifices you’ve made for them or for the relationship, or of all the things they do that you don’t like?
That’s defensiveness, which is a totally normal reaction to feeling criticized or under attack. Unfortunately, when we get defensive, we can’t really hear our partners. We’re too busy arguing them out of their perspective to hear the hurt or the pain underneath their complaints, because what they’re saying feels like a threat to us.
When one partner is angry and the other is defensive, you get stuck. You can’t move forward into repairing the rift that’s opened up between you and deepening your understanding of each other, because you’re locked in a stalemate of “attack” and “counterattack.” Your partner gets the message that, when they’re upset, their feelings will be met with hostility. Eventually, they’ll stop bringing problems to you, and resentments will build.
So, what’s the antidote to defensiveness? Responsibility. When your partner is upset with you, try to take responsibility for your part in the conflict. That doesn’t mean you have to assume blame that isn’t yours, or always let them “win.” But admit where you’re wrong, and take an interest in their feelings about the situation. You’ll find that you’re able to have a real conversation at that point, and to resolve small problems before they grow into something more serious.
Why Relationships Fail: Emotional Invalidation
Emotional invalidation is another common cause in failing relationships. When we emotionally invalidate our partners, we might agree with their perceptions — that we were late, that we did wear our shoes in the house — but disagree with their emotional reaction to what happened. We might tell them they’re overreacting, or that we can’t understand what they’re so upset about.
Invalidation happens all the time. I would bet that, at some point in your relationship, you have invalidated your partner, and that your partner has invalidated you. Invalidation doesn’t make you a terrible person (or a gaslighter, for that matter). Most of us don’t even realize when we’re being invalidating; we usually think we’re being helpful, encouraging our partners to let go of bad feelings or see things from another, more positive perspective.
But chronic emotional invalidation leaves your partner with the impression that you don’t care about their experience, that you don’t take their emotions seriously, and that there’s no point in trying to resolve problems with you, because they’ll only be dismissed. If your partner comes to expect invalidation from you, they’ll likely begin to withdraw from the relationship. Eventually, this will destroy your connection.
To avoid invalidating your partner, practice listening to them, without trying to “fix” their problems or argue them out of their perspective. Practice accepting their emotional reality for what it is, rather than trying to convince them that the way they feel isn’t reasonable. I use the word practice deliberately here — validating is a habit that we all must build with intention.
Why Relationships Fail: Broken Trust
Minor conflicts that spin out into defensiveness and invalidation have a damaging effect on your bond to your partner. That’s because they lead to broken trust, which is enough to take down even the most loving relationships.
Over time, if you dismiss your partner’s feelings and concerns as unimportant or overblown, they will stop trusting you. I’m not being dramatic when I say that — they will learn that you’re not an emotionally safe person who will treat their needs, feelings, and perspective as valid and important. And that’s what we need from our partners, more than from anyone else in the world.
What happens when your partner stops trusting you? They stop being vulnerable with you, and they stop leaning on you in times of need. They might give up on trying to connect with you on a deep emotional level, and settle for a superficial relationship that begins to feel lonely and hollow to you both. They won’t assume that your intentions are good, and conflicts in your relationship will become more bitter and more damaging as time goes on. Eventually, if something doesn’t change, your relationship will disintegrate.
So how do you repair broken trust, once it’s been damaged? You can start by listening to your partner, validating their feelings, empathizing with them, and taking responsibility for your part in conflicts, rather than reacting with defensiveness.
This all might sound like I’m telling you to let your partner have their way, or to disregard your own needs, rights, and feelings in favor of your partner’s. That’s not the case — you also deserve to be heard, and to have empathy and validation when you’re upset. But you won’t get that by “winning” the argument or by being the most correct. You’ll get it by extending generosity and kindness toward your partner, which will make them more willing to reciprocate with kindness and generosity in return.
Why Marriages Succeed or Fail
If I could impart one bit of wisdom to every couple, from my many years as both a married person and as a marriage counselor, it would be this: When marriages fail, it’s usually not in a high-drama, crash and burn scenario. The kind of dissolution that makes for an intriguing TV plot line is rarely what I see play out between actual couples who arrive in my office.
But you can build these skills, and your relationship will be stronger and healthier for it. I hope this podcast gave you some good ideas for where to start.
Music in this episode is by Nocturne Blue, covering “Ship of Fools” by World Party.
You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://nocturneblue.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Did you know that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell?
I’m guessing you did, because it’s one of those things that every high schooler learns and probably never uses, unless they go on to become a biochemist. Which, to be fair, is a pretty awesome career choice. But there are many things that are essential to becoming a functional adult, that I’m betting no teacher ever devoted a single unit of a single class to teaching you.
How to do your taxes is one of them. How to have healthy relationships is another.
Of all the things we learn in school, we get zero education about how to have healthy, loving, meaningful adult relationships. If you were lucky, a Geometry teacher doing double duty as a Sex Ed instructor may have mentioned something about consent.
But constructive conflict? Healthy boundaries? Attachment theory? We’re on our own!
As an experienced marriage counselor, I know that healthy relationships are essential to a happy life. Without loving, close, enduring connections with others, the rest of life has little meaning. I also know that we’re not born knowing this stuff, and not everyone grows up watching a healthy relationship unfold between their parents.
How are you supposed to know what’s normal, and what’s cause for concern? How can you improve your relationship without a vision for what “better” would look like?
That’s why I created this episode of the podcast for you: so you could learn about the basics of healthy relationships, and give yours some care and attention when it’s sending out distress signals. You’ll learn how to evaluate the health of your relationship, and the steps you can take to make it even better.
Signs of a Healthy Relationship — Episode Highlights
As a marriage and family therapist, I know that most people have a hard time distinguishing between normal relational turbulence, and surefire signals that their plane is about to drop out of the sky.
Without understanding what healthy relationships look like, you’re vulnerable to two major dangers, and either of them can destroy your relationship.
The first is:
Believing something is very wrong when everything is fine.
I often meet people who believe they should never argue with their partner, or that minor differences are a sign their relationship is doomed. Adult children of divorce are prone to this kind of thinking, as are people who witnessed an unhappy but enduring relationship between their parents when they were kids.
These clients are determined to avoid the same outcome, but they’re not sure what a healthy alternative would actually look like. They may refuse to commit to their relationship because it’s (inevitably) imperfect, see catastrophe looming after every fight, or expect too much and become overly critical, eventually wearing their partner down.
Seeing problems everywhere creates new problems. Both for the partner of the person with unrealistic expectations for the relationship, and for the unrealistic partner, who is prone to reject fundamentally healthy relationships until they learn about what’s normal and what’s not.
And the second danger:
Believing everything is fine when something is very wrong.
Without an understanding of healthy relationships, you’re likely to be oblivious or unconcerned about serious issues that are present.
This often happens like this: Sara is always telling Mike he doesn’t listen. “I’ll work on it,” Mike says, but he doesn’t step back and assess his listening skills, learn about the fundamentals of good listening, and then practice applying those listening skills with Sara. Instead, he thinks this is just something people say when they’re mad. He’s certainly heard it before.
So Mike stays the course, and Sara gets progressively more fed up. Eventually, she stops trying to be heard and starts withdrawing from the relationship. “Why does Sara seem so distant?” Mike wonders. “Better not ask. I don’t want to start a fight.” Eventually, Sara calls it quits, and Mike feels genuinely blindsided.
I’ve seen this play out between many couples, and it’s always sad. Mike loved Sara and he would have taken action, if he had understood that his relationship depended on it.
Characteristics of a Healthy Relationship
To avoid either of these bad outcomes, there are a few characteristics of healthy relationships that you should know. When I’m assessing a couple’s relationship, these are the components I’m looking for. Get these elements right, and your relationship will fundamentally work.
Emotional safety is the most important component of healthy relationships. Returning to our plane metaphor, emotional safety is your relationship’s engine. Without it, none of the other doodads even turn on.
So what is emotional safety? It’s the basic, felt sense of being loved and respected by your partner. It goes beyond hearing your partner say, “I love and respect you,” although this is nice. It ecompasses actually being shown through your partner's actions day after day that your needs, rights, and feelings are important to them. So much so that you can feel it.
In an emotionally safe relationship, you know your partner is committed to you, and that you’re not going to be abandoned if you have a disagreement or a bad day. You don’t feel judged by your partner, and so you feel comfortable being your true self with them. You know that they care about you and your wellbeing.
Emotional safety does not mean never having a fight. All couples have conflict, and yes, all couples hurt each other’s feelings occasionally. But when your relationship is emotionally safe, you trust that your partner doesn’t want to hurt you, not emotionally and certainly not physically. Fights are unpleasant, but they’re not threatening to you, or to your relationship. In conflict, you both manage your own emotional reactions and respond with compassion to each other.
This makes it possible to address problems as they arise and work through them together; when your relationship is emotionally safe, you’re not walking on eggshells.
Communication is about how you talk to each other, but also how you behave toward each other. You’re always communicating something, as the saying goes.
Healthy relationships have a lot of positive communication. This can look like words of affirmation, which is one of the five love languages. But it can also look like showing your partner curiosity or affection.
Thoughtful gestures are another form of positive communication. When you know your partner had a hard day, so you take care of the dishes without being asked, that communicates that you understand their experience and want to help. It doesn’t involve words, but it says a lot.
Of course, we also communicate when we’re not feeling so happy with our partners, and how you approach those conversations is even more important. When you have problems, how do you resolve them? In a healthy relationship, things may get heated and passionate, but it’s always respectful. Name calling, aggression, and abandonment are signs of destructive conflict.
On the flip side, if you’re not talking about problems, that’s an issue. Conflict happens in relationships, whether it’s out in the open or not. When you can’t address issues without the conversation becoming a catastrophic fight, things tend to get passive aggressive, resentful, and eventually, disconnected.
Unproductive conflict is more like a volcano: erupting periodically when the pressure is right, destroying a few villages, and then entering a dormant phase where things seem basically ok…until next time.
Every relationship involves teamwork. I call this the “functional partnership” aspect of your relationship. Who picks up the kids? Who mows the lawn? Who pays the bills?
In a healthy relationship, you’re able to work together in an effective, balanced way. You have dozens of little agreements, many of them explicit, around “how we get stuff done” as a couple. You may argue from time to time about who is or isn’t doing what, especially as circumstances change and these roles need to be rebalanced, but you’re ultimately able to find resolutions that feel good to you both, and that make you a better team.
When the “teamwork” component is missing, one or both partners will likely feel resentful. One partner may feel like they have to do everything, or it either won’t be done, or won’t be done properly. The other partner may feel their efforts aren’t recognized, or that they can’t do anything to their partner’s satisfaction, so they might as well stop trying. These couples often get stuck in a state of gridlock, where even talking about how they are or aren’t working together feels difficult.
Without good communication, teamwork is hard. When we feel criticized or taken for granted, we’re not eager to step up our efforts, or to cut our partner some slack. If you’re struggling with teamwork in your relationship, try working on communication first.
In healthy relationships, we enjoy each other’s company in basic ways. That doesn’t mean planning elaborate date nights or expensive vacations. Healthy couples can have a nice time chatting over dinner, or perusing the aisles of a hardware store.
You can have a lot of positive engagement in your relationship even if you don’t share a lot of interests with your partner. If you’re married to a birdwatcher, you don’t have to grab your binoculars and join them in the fields every Saturday morning. But when they come home gushing about the red-flanked bluetail they just spotted, give them your attention, and better yet, your curiosity. Showing interest in your partner’s passions shows your interest in them.
The opposite of this is judging your partner, or wishing that their personality or interests were different than they are. In an unhealthy relationship, the non-birding partner rolls her eyes when her mate gushes about the bluetail. Eventually he stops sharing this part of his life with her, and they grow a little bit further apart.
Shared Hopes and Dreams
Finally, healthy couples share hopes, dreams, and goals for the future.
You can do this in a million different ways, depending on what feels meaningful to you both. Many couples connect around their children, and the values they want to instill in them. Others connect around their home, or shared financial goals, or a particular community or cause that they both care about deeply.
Working together toward shared goals is what gives couples a sense of “us.” Together, you both get to become a part of something bigger than yourselves, and create a life that reflects your love.
If this is all sounding a bit ambitious, since you’re currently arguing about, say, who should take out the trash, don’t fret. Once you have the more fundamental healthy relationship components in place — like emotional safety, communication, and teamwork — your big vision for the future will come together more easily.
Healthy Relationship Quiz
I hope this podcast gives you a clear sense of which parts of your relationship are working well, and which parts could use a little work. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your partner. You may inspire a productive conversation.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to The Love, Happiness and Success podcast.
That beautiful song is called One Of These Days. It's by Bedouine. I thought it was the perfect song for our show today because she does such a gorgeous job of capturing the hope of somebody who really wants a relationship to work and believes that it can, and also an awareness of the realities of a relationship — and also to add another layer of complexity, her intention to create the kind of relationship that she wants to have with her partner.
That is perfect for us because we're going to be talking about all of those things on today's show. In today's episode, I am going to be helping you identify some realities of your relationship. In particular, what are things that signify that you have a healthy, strong relationship with a lot of potential and a lot of opportunities? Even if it's not perfect all the time, what's a keeper?
On the other side of that, what is really danger/warning signs for a relationship, and things that might be going on in your relationship that indicate there probably are bigger problems that are worth taking seriously. I wanted to offer this because so many people that we talked to in my practice or right into the show, their number one concern are their relationships and what's going on in their relationship.
A lot of times it's, “What do I do with this? How do I solve this problem? Or, is this a solvable problem? Is this a sign that maybe this relationship isn't what I want it to be, and maybe it isn't ever going to be what I want it to be? Then, on the other side, I think some people really, relationships are a mixed bag — all of them are. All relationships have some conflict and have some turbulence, and it can be really confusing because some people really in great and fundamentally solid relationships still wonder, “Is this okay?”
That's what we're talking about on today's episode of The Love, Happiness and Success podcast. If this is your first time tuning into the podcast — first of all, hello and thank you for being here. I'm so glad you're here. This show if you haven't listened before, this is all about you and my efforts to help you have better relationships, feel good about yourself and your life, and also do more good things in the world. This is all about empowerment.
In every episode of this show, I am attempting to step into the gap between where you are and where you want to be to help you just get direction and guidance that will help move you forward. What my sort of place is and why I'm presumptuous enough to think that I might be helpful to you — I am a marriage counselor, a therapist, and a life coach. By trade, I am the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching.
I spend a lot of time talking to people just like you — the therapy or counseling room across from me on my couch about stuff that's going on in their lives, things they can do to fix it. And you too deserve the benefit of good advice and some professional recommendations that can help you move forward. On this show every week, I'm attempting to answer the questions that you are telling me are important to you.
People get in touch with me and with us all the time with things that are on their mind — things about relationships, or personal issues that are coming up, or how to deal with different things. If you would like to do that, you are so welcome to. The easiest ways to get in touch, you can cruise over to our website — growingself.com.
We have a very active kind of comment/question community on those posts on our blog and podcast page. You can also send a general email to us — firstname.lastname@example.org, and also a great way to connect is through Facebook — facebook.com/drlisabobby. Let me know what's on your mind and you just might hear your question answered on an upcoming episode.
Is My Relationship Healthy?
Again, today, I am here to support you with your relationship. We're going to be talking about how to assess the strength and the health of your primary relationship that you have with your partner. This is really intended to be about your primary romantic relationship with your partner, your spouse. But I think that a lot of what we're talking about really applies to any kind of relationship in your life and how healthy it is.
As you're listening to this, you might consider how do my relationships with some of my friends feel when I apply these criteria to them, or even with family members — so that you can decide, “Are there areas of my life — relationships in my life — that could maybe use some extra TLC and/or maybe worth working at to improve? Or even do I set boundaries with some people if it's consistently not feeling good, and the evidence is indicating that it's probably not going to get better? So you can listen for that.
But before we jump into the criteria — how healthy is your relationship, things to look for — let me first tell you why this is so important. Because I think that this really matters and it's something for you to just keep in back of your mind as you're listening to the rest of this.
Many people who come into our practice for help, they're coming in because they are really in distress about their relationships. Either they're coming in the context of couples counseling, or even individuals — they're coming in because they're worried about their relationships, and they want to talk about their relationships.
What I see is that many people coming in, they feel genuinely confused about their relationships, and how they're going. Sometimes, best-case scenario, it's for seeing a couple and it's for couples counseling, and they're both in agreement that, “We have so many strengths and our relationship and so many things we want to build on, and we care about each other so much that we really want to invest in our relationship and make it the best it can be. We're here to get your help and just tweaking a few things and getting back on the same page, and making sure that this is just really feeling good for both of us.”
They're very proactive, and they're very focused on wellness. They're almost using couples counseling as a preventative kind of thing — coming in at the first sign of trouble. That is the absolutely best-case scenario. We love working with and helping those clients. We do great work.
Now, there are two other types of couples or people that come in with concerns about their relationships. Sometimes, there is just a general lack of awareness about what is healthy and normal in a relationship or a marriage, and what's not. That can create huge problems, and actually cause issues in a relationship. Let me explain.
Because I know that sounds really dramatic to say that a lack of awareness or almost education about healthy relationships can cause problems. But I'm not really talking in a hyperbolic fashion here. It's really because I sit with people who maybe have just had their families shattered by a divorce, or it's impossible to not sit with a couple that's like breaking up because of relationship issues and not walk away from that feeling really sobered by the experience.
Or, also working with people who come in, and they look back at the last 10 years of their lives and it has been a string of failed relationships that never even made it that far to marriage, but just over and over again with these patterns where they're feeling dissatisfied. They're ending relationships or they're connecting with people that aren't good for them, and the relationships sputter out.
That is really sad for a lot of people and it creates consequences that impact them, potentially for their whole lives is around the way they're handling their relationships. This is really big stuff. As I've mentioned before in articles and other shows, I think it's ridiculous that we spend so much of our lives learning in school about everything else.
We learn about Math, we learn about Science and Literature, but we get zero education about how to have a happy, healthy, functional relationship with another person. Nobody tells you explicitly how to do that. The ironic tragedy, of course, is that the quality of your relationships has much more to do with the overall quality of your life than your ability to write a coherent paragraph around Lord of the Flies or something like that. This is really important stuff.
Again, this is why I've been working so hard in other podcasts, and then the work in my group. Also, on this podcast today again is to try to fill that gap and give you information that can really help you and help you avoid the fate of some of the people who do ultimately show up for help in a space where it's pretty far gone — and they've been struggling for a long time.
This podcast is one way of doing that, and other kinds of educational things that we're doing is to try to correct this educational imbalance. We're overeducated with regards to so many things in life, and not educated enough I think when it comes to life skills around — again, relationships or how we manage ourselves as people. That's what I'm doing here.
Also, I created a little tool to help you get clarity about your relationship and how healthy it is. I actually created a quiz that is available on my website. You might consider taking this quiz before I launch into all of the information that I'm going to be giving you today because if you listen to everything first, and have an idea of what your answers should be, it may impact your results if you take the quiz before learning about what it all means.
If you are interested in getting a score on a measurement that can help you assess the relative strengths and “growth areas” of different parts of your relationship, I will invite you to pause this podcast for a second and come take the quiz. It's at growingself.com/relationship-quiz, relationship-quiz, and take the quiz. Then, come back to this podcast when you're done, and we will talk about what it means. However, obviously, don't do this if it's not a good time or if you're driving or something. But you can still just listen and take the quiz later.
Or, if you want to get really some interesting data, you might send your partner the quiz and see what their answers are. That could be very illuminating. It could potentially launch some really productive conversations between the two of you. That is something to consider as well. If you have the time and energy, take the quiz. But otherwise, I'm going to continue on here.
Unrealistic Expectations of Relationships
First of all, let me explain the dangers on two different extremes of what can happen when people really don't understand what normal healthy relationships look like and feel like, and why it can be so problematic on both sides of this spectrum. On the one hand, when people have unrealistic expectations about what good authentic relationships look like or feel like, they can perceive that they're good, happy, healthy, solid relationship is actually having problems when there aren't problems.
It's so that they begin to believe that something is wrong with their relationship when it isn't. Then, that belief, in turn, creates actual problems in a relationship. They may overreact to small issues or they might catastrophize and feel really hopeless about the relationship, become disillusioned with a relationship, or perhaps even become really critical or overly demanding of their partner, and the partner starts to feel diminished and like they can never make them happy. Then, that actually does cause real problems over time.
You might be thinking to yourself, “That's silly. Who would believe that there's an actual relationship problem when there isn't one? It doesn't make sense.” But think about it for a second, because most people, again, in the broader societal context of zero relationship education — where do we learn about our relationships? We learn about it from the movies and television, or we learn from whatever we saw our parents doing, typically, or the people around us doing.
On one extreme, we have what the media shows us about the relationship ideal, which often has very little basis in reality. Most rom-com certainly, and many other movies, they end when two people have just become over all kinds of obstacles and discovered how much they love each other, and they're the pinnacle of their romantic bliss. Then, the movie fades out, and they're in love forever.
It doesn't continue on and follow that rom-com couple for the next five years through the evolution of what happens next in the months and the years that follow after the excitement of a courtship. It doesn't portray a realistic picture of what a normal marriage looks like, and what is normal and expected for people as they transition into having a family or dealing with the ups and downs that life brings. People — we move, we change jobs, we have stuff to deal with, and our relationships can change and evolve in response to all of that. We don't have good models for that.
Then, on the other side, the other models that we do have are our parents, our family of origin, and the people around us. A lot of us had parents who did not know what they were doing when it came to relationships either. Being a child of divorce, or seeing your parents rotate through a couple of different partners as you were growing up, or even having parents who as so many do, found a kind of stable happiness where maybe they're not really engaging with each other, communicating well or enjoying their relationship, but they're able to have enduring partnership nonetheless. But maybe not one that any of us would aspire to.
For all of these reasons, we didn't learn how to do relationships. Either we have this romantic ideal for what relationships should be, and also if we saw our parents fighting with each other, and then they got divorced. A lot of people take that as fighting means divorce or unhappiness. There's a lot of fear if people do see things happening in their own relationship that are reminiscent of things that they experienced in their family of origin that their parents weren't able to successfully deal with or overcome.
Then, when they have normal conflict or disagreement or transitional times in their own marriage, it can become very easy and understandable, honestly, that they might take that to mean that they're about to get divorced, or that something really terrible is about to happen in their relationship because that's what they saw happen play out in the lives of other people, and they don't know how else to navigate through it.
Again, very understandable, but I hope that helps you understand why some people who have good healthy relationships can almost like misread the signals like the normal relationship turbulence and come away from that thinking that there's something really wrong when. Maybe, there isn't.
Part of my hope for today's podcast is to help you understand if maybe you lean that way, what is normal so that when you have normal ups and downs in your relationship, or maybe you and your partner do have a fight, you might think back to what we talked about today and say, “You know what? This is okay. We are okay, we can get through this.” And hopefully, have some tools to help you get through that in a productive way instead of getting scared. That is one thing we're going to be talking about today.
Then, the other side of the spectrum that is at least as problematic if not more so, is the sad side where people are not aware of relationship issues, and what are things that they really do need to be paying attention to and actively working to correct because there are things that people experience in day-to-day relationships that from a marriage counselor's perspective, it’s like, “Buddy, your relationship is about to drive off a cliff six months from now. Do you not see this?”
It's so hard because if people aren't paying attention to those signals, or if they're ignoring the warning signs, or minimizing them or blowing them off, or saying, “Oh, this isn't a big deal. My partner just needs to get over that. This isn't anything.” Or maybe, they avoid difficult conversations, or they get defensive, or just essentially refusing to acknowledge the issues that their partner is trying to bring up.
These are the people who wind up getting blindsided by a divorce or a breakup. When I say “blindsided”, I'm using my air quotes right now because as we autopsy of these relationships, there were all kinds of signs that this was coming, but they didn't know. They didn't understand that the whole time, they were wanting to avoid or not deal with, or not participate in finding solutions to their problems.
Their partner's needs and feelings were going unmet for a long time. Their partners were month by month, year by year really emotionally distancing themselves and losing respect for them, and losing hope for the relationship. In those cases, what we too frequently see is that for years, sometimes one person wasn't taking the problem seriously and their partner was really fighting for their relationship in a lot of ways.
Over time, the partner who had been complaining and saying, “Hey, we need to work on this”, will eventually stop. They'll give up hoping that change is possible. Then, they decide eventually that it's time to go.
Then, the person who hadn't realized how big of a deal these issues actually were, or who thought they could handle it on their own and that things will just get better — those are the people who are like hysterically calling us for next day marriage counseling appointment because their partner is like packing their car and begging their about-to-be ex to go to marriage counseling with them. Sometimes, it's too late.
The other side there, I also hope to offer today some realistic information that you could use, or even if you are with a person who isn't taking things seriously, put this information in front of them to perhaps help them understand that some of the things that are going on really are problematic and that you guys need to work together to improve it because it's not sustainable, the way that it's going. That's my other hope and intention for today.
So, it’s just to help you stay out of trouble, basically, on both sides of this. Let's now run down some of the basic foundational things that are either solid and in a good place, and the other stuff that can happen from time to time is just noise. If they're not in a good place, that fighting and conflict is really indicative of a much larger problem.
Domains of Relationship Health
In general, there are five different categories or domains of relationship health that we look at. One of them can be thought of — academically, it's referred to as attachment, but I think of it as emotional safety. That is the number one most important thing is how safe does your relationship feel to you. By safe, I'm not in addition to physical safety. Things like trust and commitment, and just feeling generally loved and respected by your partner. That all falls into the emotional safety domain.
The second really important domain that ties in with emotional safety is communication. How do you guys communicate with each other? And when there are problems, how do you solve those problems? Looking at communication can give you also a lot of information about how healthy a relationship is overall.
Another tremendously important aspect of relationship health is around your sense of teamwork, or the kind of functional partnership that you have with each other — the nuts and bolts of how you do things together day-to-day, and how good that is currently feeling for both of you.
When that isn't a good space, or if you have good processes in place to help you work through those issues as a couple, your relationship is really very strong. Also, if you are having fights all the time about teamwork, and who's doing what, and how that's supposed to happen — that is also something to pay attention to. It can be easy to blow off is just potato-potato stuff, but over time, it can really take a toll. We're going to be talking about that.
Another incredibly important domain of relationship is the level of positive engagement and enjoyment that you have with each other because even if there is other stuff going on that might feel challenging in other domains of your relationship, if you're still genuinely enjoying each other's company and feeling good with each other, and finding and intentionally cultivating those experiences to share — that is another huge point of resilience for your partnership. We'll be talking more about that.
Lastly, but not leastly, we are also going to be talking about the aspect of your relationship that has to do with your shared life — like how do you support each other's hopes and dreams, and have also a set of shared meaning and value. The sense that you guys are both working together for something that's bigger than both of you — that is also a huge strength for a couple. Without it, the foundation of a couple can really be damaged. We'll be touching on that too.
Characteristics of an Unhealthy Relationship
Those are our five basic domains. Let's just start by talking about the first one. The first domain is emotional safety. If you have solid emotional safety in your relationship, in my opinion as a marriage counselor, almost everything else is a solvable problem. If your basic sense of emotional safety feels more fragile or doesn't feel as strong, it is going to cascade down and negatively impact so many other aspects of your relationship. We're going to be talking about this one first and at most length.
If you are getting the sense that your partnership is struggling in a major way as you're listening to this, I would advise you to focus on building up this area of your relationship first because other things will begin to fall into place if you guys have emotional safety together.
Okay, what do I mean by emotional safety? Emotional safety is this sense, this basic sense, this felt sense of being loved and respected by your partner. It is beyond somebody saying, “I love you” or doing nice things for you. It's really feeling that your feelings, and needs, and rights are important to your partner. They show you that in lots of different ways that you fundamentally know that they are committed to you, they're not threatening to abandon you if you do something that upsets them, you don't feel judged by them.
You feel safe with them. You can be yourself and they like you. They like who you are. You also trust them to not hurt you physically, of course, but also in other ways. There are lots of different ways to hurt in a relationship and to damage trust and relationship. How does your partner respond to you when you come to them with — I don't know.
Maybe, you're going through a hard time emotionally, do you feel cared for by them in those moments? Do you feel like they're emotionally available for you? If there is a problem that you need to solve in your relationship, is it okay to say that and say, “I wonder if we could work on this.” Or, do they say, “Babe, what's going on?” Or, do they start screaming at you and throw a chair out the window? Or, do they get immediately angry and refuse to talk, and slam the door and walk out?
That is not emotional safety. That is a lot of real insecurity emotionally. Emotional safety is really about the basic trust in, “I'm loved, I’m cared for, I'm respected”, and that you're with somebody who is able to conduct themselves in such a way that they can manage their emotions so they're not scary or they're not rejecting. They are also able to be responsive to you — they can listen to you, they can talk to you, they can meet your needs and just basic ways, or work with you to solve problems.
It's just you don't feel like you're walking on eggshells all the time, or that if you're about to do something wrong, there will be consequences — those things are the opposite of emotional safety. With that in mind, I would like to say that all couples fight, all couples have conflict — spoken or unspoken. It can show up in a lot of different ways. You didn't marry yourself, you're not partnered with yourself. It is natural, and normal, and expected that as people are coming together and trying to do a relationship together, there are going to be times when you don't see eye to eye or that one of you hurts the other person's feelings — that maybe that wasn’t intentional, or maybe it was intentional.
But these are just sort of normal things that can happen across the lifespan of a relationship. The fact that those things might be happening doesn't really mean that much. What matters much more is that, in general, even though you do get into it with each other from time to time — that most of the time, when you do have conflict, it is done in a way that isn't scary. It's not threatening to you or your relationship. Also, the kind of unspoken truth that you're both aware of while conflict is happening is that:
“We're going to get through this. It's going to be fine. We are not seeing eye to eye right now. We need to make some changes in the way we do things and we are willing to work with each other to create that. Fundamentally, at the end of the day, I know that you love me and care about me, and don't want to hurt me or want me to be in any kind of pain. And I feel the same way about you.”
If that sort of emotional safety is present, the other stuff is turbulence that can be worked through. Consider how your relationship feels when it comes to emotional safety. Again, if you want item by item, “Are these things happening? Check ‘yes’ or ‘no’.” The quiz might be helpful for you to differentiate what is indicative of emotional safety and what isn't. Again, you might want to check that out at the relationship quiz — growingself.com/relationship-quiz.
Okay. Now, let's talk about the next domain which is the communication domain. Communication refers to a lot of different things. It does refer to the way that you talk to each other. But communication also refers to the way that you behave towards each other and what you show each other both verbally and nonverbally. Healthy communication has two aspects.
First of all, there's a lot of positive communication in a healthy relationship. There are words of affirmation like, “Oh, hey! I'm happy to see you and I love you, and you look nice today.” Or, “You smell good”, or whatever it is. Or, “Wow! This is a great dinner. Thank you.” Words of kindness, and appreciation, and positivity.
Also, caring is communicated through things like curiosity, “How is your day? What's going on with you?” Communicating like, “I care about you and I want to be your friend. I want to know what's going on with your life.” Positive communication — just enjoying each other, and some people are more verbal than others.
If you're — I hate to gender stereotype because there are plenty of women who tend to be more introverted, and are partnered with men who are just dying to talk about stuff, believe it or not. In many relationships, it can also be true that the woman — the female partner if it's a heterosexual relationship — might desire that more kind of verbal communication, positive communication than their male partners.
When I'm talking about communication, that kind of verbal engagement can be a piece of that. But also, we need to recognize and value the other ways that our partners might show us they care about us through the things that they do for us through physical communication. Certainly, physical affection and sexuality can be a part of this too.
Also, just the thoughtful gestures that people can make — doing the dishes without saying anything can be part of it because they know you've had a hard day or spending 45 minutes helping you find your car keys because you're stressed out and don't know where they are. All of these things can be meaningful forms of communication that say, “I care about you. You're important to me. I'm here for you.” In healthy relationships, there's a lot of that going on.
The other side of good communication is that, while all couples have disagreements, and all couples have misunderstandings, and all couples have growth moments where something isn't working for one or both of them and they need to work through it — that communication, while it can be passionate, or heated, or, “No, you really don't understand. This is really important to me.”
That even though it can get intense emotionally sometimes, it is also done fairly respectfully. There's not name-calling, it's not screaming, and being scary and hostile — going back to that idea of emotional safety — and it's not rejecting. It's not defensiveness, “I don’t know what you're talking about. You're crazy. I don't want to talk about that. That's stupid.” That is really just as hostile and destructive as somebody who's very critical and attacking.
Or, again, going back to that emotional unsafety idea that you're walking on eggshells, or that you can't bring up things that are important to you, that it isn't safe to talk openly about potential problems without it turning into a big fight or a big catastrophe. Those would be evidence that in the communication domain. There are more serious problems happening where as long as everybody is like on best behavior and says “please” and “thank you”, and “pass the salt”.
It doesn't bring up any big deal if you guys can have a good time, but you can't talk about other more authentic things. Those are indications that you really need to take a look at what's happening in the communication in your relationship and work on improving that because those are problems that are going to get bigger over time, particularly if those communication problems result in one or both of you feeling fundamentally uncared for, or emotionally unsafe with each other.
Now, again, with communication, all couples fight, and those conflicts can get heated and passionate — but in a healthy relationship, that happens. But the difference between a healthy relationship is that in a healthy relationship, two people can have a disagreement. They can be upset with each other. They can feel frustrated and, “No, you're not understanding me.”
But what happens too is that they are able to either stay in the ring with each other and have that eventually become a productive conversation where they learn something new about the other person, or where they're able to identify some improvement that can prevent that misunderstanding or that hurt from happening again in the future, and then are willing to follow through. There's a certain sense that their conflict is productive in a healthy relationship.
Whereas in an unhealthy relationship, even though the beginning stages of an argument might look exactly the same, there isn't that ultimate resolution. It's like a big fight, and somebody slams the door, and the other person drives off. Whatever that fight was about doesn't really get resolved on a deeper level. That is evidence of, again, a much bigger problem if communication doesn't allow the two of you to ultimately come back together again, and find a solution.
The goal here is not to avoid conflict or not to ever be frustrated with each other. That happens in healthy relationships. But the difference, again, is that it's not productive at the end in an unhealthy relationship. Okay, hope that makes sense.
When it comes to the teamwork domain of a relationship — again, this also ties into communication and to emotional safety. But teamwork refers to the way that you guys do things together as a couple.
All couples, over time, in order to be happy and healthy and satisfied with each other, need to come together and create a preferably explicit set of agreements around, “This is how we do things as a couple.” It could be tied to housework, “I do the cooking, you do the dishes. You mow the lawn, I clean the bathrooms”, “We are intimate with each other on Tuesdays and Saturdays because that's the only realistic times we really have to be together.”
Or, we don't make plans with each other's family before first consulting the other person. There are all kinds of little — I hate to use the word “rules to live by”, but they kind of are. Not rules, but really guidelines around, “This is what I know you need in order to feel like our relationship is in balance. There is a balanced division of labor that we both feel good about. Neither of us is feeling resentful at the other for maybe carrying more than their share of the burden for keeping the wheels on this bus that we're doing together.
Also, agreements and understandings around, “This is how we do show each other love. This is the time that we connect together as a couple. I'm going to set boundaries around this time because this is our time to be together. We do Family Day on Saturday, so I'm not going to book myself up with a mani-pedi with my girlfriend on Saturday because I know that you're counting on that time to hang out with me. This is our time.”
It's all dozens of these really small little agreements in a healthy relationship. The health of a relationship fundamentally, I think in many ways, it can be assessed by — how many of those agreements do you have? Are they working for both of you? In couples that are really distressed or when communication isn't good enough to allow two people to continue a conversation long enough to come into a compromise around, “Okay, I'm going to do my yoga class on Sundays, and that'll be your time to hang out with the kids. You can go do your thing on Saturdays, and I’ll do the kids.”
Couples who are fighting all the time and who don't have good communication, it turns into a crap-show argument around attacks and defensiveness so that they cannot arrive at a productive conclusion where they're like, “Okay, I know what my job is.” Again, the presence or absence of those agreements can indicate one of two things. If you have a lot of these that are working really well, I think that's a really positive indicator that your relationship is fundamentally happy and healthy.
I would say that any conflicts that you might be having are just opportunities for you guys to arrive at new agreements that there may be areas of your relationship that have not been agreed upon yet. It may be, as happens with many couples, that life changes. As couples go through transitional periods — maybe you have a child, maybe one person takes a new job, maybe you move to a new community — for whatever reason, the agreements that you had in the past no longer totally applied to your life as it is currently.
All conflict means is that you guys need to come together and figure out this stuff. Again, that is normal, healthy work that all couples need to do. If you're having those kinds of conflicts, that doesn't mean that anything bad is happening. If you do not have a lot of these agreements around your partnership, if one of you is persistently feeling resentful towards the other, and if you are not able to have productive conversations that help you come to resolution, that to me would be a strong indicator that you have serious work to do.
If you leave these undone, or if you ignore them, what will happen is that the resentments will continue to pile up — and that it will become harder and harder to talk about this stuff productively without it turning into a big yucky fight. Take a look at what's happening with regards to your teamwork.
Now, the next important domain of relationship health goes back to your enjoyment of each other. To say very clearly, healthy couples that have a lot of strength and resilience, they enjoy each other's company in just basic ways. That does not necessarily mean that they are superficially — air quote again — “compatible”, or that they share a lot of common interests, or that they like to do the same things.
You would be surprised at how many couples I've worked with that are really worried that they are not good together, or that their relationship isn't going to be happy long term because they don't like to do the same things, or they don't feel like they have a lot of shared interests. The actual truth is that enjoying each other's company and having a good time doesn't have that much to do with whether or not you both like to do the same things.
What is much more related to is how flexible, and generous, and tolerant you can be with each other. Also, how much you just enjoy each other as a person. At the same time, there are all kinds of couples that are both really going to music festivals, or really all the stuff that one would put in an online dating profile, “I like walking on the beach. I like to travel.”
They like doing those same things, but they're still fundamentally not that compatible because when they go to the music festival or go travel to Tahiti, they're fighting the whole time because
they're not enjoying each other's company. I just want to reframe your idea around what a good solid healthy relationship means in terms of that fundamental enjoyment piece.
Again, when it comes to enjoying each other, what I'm talking about is, “Do you like your partner's personality and fundamental ways? Do you have a good time together when you're just doing regular stuff? It's nobody's idea of a good time to go to Costco for half a day on Saturday. But when you do that, are you having a good time? Are you just enjoying that? Do you have just a basic interest in your partner?
A huge area of health and strength for a relationship is that even if you are not personally that interested in something that is important to your partner, you are still willing to be generous and genuinely curious about their interests in it and what it means to them. Are you willing to join with them from time to time in the things that are meaningful, and valuable, and important to them? Or, can you support them in doing their thing even if it's not something that you can directly participate in for whatever reason?
Again, think about the health of your relationship. Do you typically feel good? Does your partner make you laugh? Do you think they're interesting? Or, if they're telling you about some obscure hobby that they're into that you're like, “Oh, really?”, can you extend the graciousness of being interested in them and what they care about, and communicating that care.
Likewise, maybe you're into some really obscure like baseball card… I don't know, whatever — statistics, and your partner isn't. But you feel that your partner is at least willing to talk to you if you came home, and you're all excited because you just found some rare Collector's Edition baseball card and whatever. Do they get excited with you? And are they willing to, every once in a while, go with you to the garage sale to go look for baseball cards, or whatever it is, even though it's not their first choice?
It's just the feeling that your partner is being generous with you, and that they could care less about baseball cards, but they are still enjoying just driving around on a Saturday with you and going to different places because they like your company, and vice versa.
Now, on the other side of this, what I would look for as a sign that a relationship does have more serious issues has nothing to do with whether or not people like the same things. But it is:
Are they judging their partner for liking the things that they like? Are they contemptuous of their partner's interests? Are they refusing to participate in things that are really genuinely important to their partner? Do they ridicule things that are genuinely important to their partner? And are they just day-to-day just having conversations? Do you feel like your partner doesn't like you and thinks that you're dumb, and the stuff that you're into is lame and feels like they're always rolling their eyes when they talk to you? Or do you feel that way towards your partner?
Those behaviors or those feelings to me would be indicative that there's a much deeper problem, and it is not about finding hobbies that you guys can both do together. It's about figuring out what's going on that's feeling so abrasive to both of you and really working on how do you cultivate a feeling of tolerance and acceptance for who your partner really is.
How do you learn how to appreciate them for who they really are and have gratitude for who they really are as being individual and distinct from you? Because if you're in a relationship that's colored by a lot of judgment where one person is really feeling like the other person should be more like they are, or vice versa — that is problematic, and that is also going to lead to… Over time, it will erode your sense of emotional safety and the foundation of your relationship.
Lastly, joined to that but different is the sense of shared hopes and dreams that a partnership has. In our last category, we were talking about that enjoyment, and that is really around appreciating and respecting each other and enjoying each other as individuals so that you both have space to be yourselves and that you like each other anyway even if you're different.
The other piece of this is — do you have shared hopes and dreams for your partnership and your family? Are there things that you can connect around that do feel meaningful to both of you, whether it's your kids or your home, or if you have financial goals, or if you have things that you're working towards — like in 10 years, we would like to be retired and buy a house in Vail, and whatever it is.
It could be other kinds of things. Maybe there is work that you both feel is meaningful and important to both of you. Or, maybe it is volunteer work, or maybe it's a particular cause that you guys both feel really good about. I could look like anything. But there is this sense of shared meaning and shared purpose, and like you're working together to create something or that you have values in common that both of you are working together to express jointly in your lives.
In healthy relationships, there is at least an element of that. There is at least some sense of “us”, of “we”, “This is what ‘we’ are doing with our lives. This is what ‘we’ want ‘our’ home to be like and ‘our’ family to be like. These are the values that we'd like to instill in our children, and this is how we are working together to create this future reality that we’ll share.
Then, strong couples, strong partnerships are talking about those things explicitly, “What are our five-year goals? What are our 10-year goals? Are we saving money for our kids to go to college? What are we doing with our lives?” Having open conversations about that — again, going back to that last category is also making space for the things that might be individually important for each of you, but that you're working together as a couple to make those things happen.
Maybe, the goal for you guys is that one of you could go back to school, and this is what the other person will do in the meantime. Or, that one of you has always had a dream for staying home and nurturing children, and this is how the other person is going to make it happen. Again, it's not that you guys are both doing the same thing, but that you are working together to create a life that both of you feel good about and having conversations around that.
On the opposite side of that couples that I worry about don't have that sense of “we”. They don't have that sense of future, they don't have that same sense of shared meaning and shared purpose. It's not to say that couples can't create that because I tell you what —
To people who don't have emotional safety, who their communication is going off the rails and are still struggling about the right way to load the dishwasher, they have kind of prerequisite work to do in the foundational aspects of their partnership before they can have those headier kinds of conversations around, “What are we doing with our lives?”, kind of thing.
Just because you might not be in that space now, that doesn't mean that if you can't do some repair work around those more foundational aspects of your relationship that you couldn't build a beautiful life together that's really based on your shared dreams and your shared goals, and feel like you're both working together to create that.
The Makings of a Healthy Relationship
Those are the different relationship domains that signify health in a relationship, or that signify growth opportunities in a relationship. Me talking through these, I hope that the number one thing that was conveyed to you is that every couple can grow. By working together on specific areas of their relationship, it can improve. Just because some of this warning sign stuff is happening, all that means is that you need to pay attention to it and work together to make it better.
That is the only thing that it means. It does not mean that your relationship is doomed. What is more concerning is if you're coming to your partner and saying, “This is a problem. We need to work on this.” And they are saying “no” — that may eventually spell doom. But we're not there yet. Because you're listening to this podcast, you're educating yourself and you're going to work on this with your partner. It can be okay.
If you have been listening to this podcast under duress, if your partner has you trapped in a moving car and is playing this podcast for you, so you'll listen — I hope that what you heard is that your partner really cares about your relationship and wants it to be better, and has wanted you to listen to this podcast so that you could learn about what areas of your relationship are feeling problematic for them and what healthy relationships look. Because chances are, if it isn't feeling good for them on some level, it isn't feeling good for you either.
I hope that this has put together a roadmap in your mind around goals that both of you can work towards, around what a happy, healthy relationship can look like for both of you. To my other listeners on the other side, if you have been worried about your relationship or having anxiety about certain aspects of it, the fact that your partner does disappoint you sometimes, or that you do have conflict every once in a while, or that you don't have a lot of things in common, or whatever —
I hope that you have also learned that those things don't always really matter that much and that you can have normal relational, turbulence, and friction and things can not always feel perfect. You can still have a really fundamentally happy, healthy, strong relationship; that this is just the experience of being in a long-term relationship as this kind of stuff happens sometimes, and I hope that it's helped you gain a deeper awareness and appreciation for all the strengths in your relationship.
As always, I hope that this podcast was meaningful to you and helpful to you. It is my labor of love and just my way of giving back to the world. I will ask, though, that if you feel like you've benefited from this podcast, or any others — if you could pay it forward to other people by leaving a review for this podcast, preferably favorable, but on iTunes or Stitcher or wherever you listen to this, it only will help other people find this podcast or stumble upon it in their own times of need.
They've just gotten into a fight and are trying to figure out what the heck is going on and what does this mean about their relationship — they can also hear this and get information that could help them. They won't unless you leave a review about this podcast because when you do that, it will make the podcast more available for them. Again, this is a totally free — I consider it to be a community resource more than anything else. This is a resource that only exists because listeners just like you have put it in front of other people.
We don't do any advertising or this isn't a financial thing. This is just free help. Anyway, that is my request of you. Also, I'd like to invite you to take advantage of the other resources. Again, if you want to take that quiz come to my website — growingself.com/relationship-quiz. That too is free.
If you have questions that you'd like me to answer on an upcoming episode rather, get in touch with me through my website. Again, through Facebook — facebook.com/drlisabobby. I love all of your questions. I read every single one, and I am compiling a list of things to discuss on the podcast based on the questions you're asking me, so keep them coming.
Alright, thank you again for listening and I'll be back in touch in a couple of weeks with another episode. Until then, take care.
You walk into the office after a much-needed vacation, feeling rested and ready to get back to work. “How was it?” says Camille, your questionable coworker. “I’m so glad you got to go, instead of staying to help us finish that project.”
She’s mad at you…right? But then again, her sweet tone of voice and wide grin doesn’t seem to match that impression. So you thank her and keep walking, wondering why the whole exchange left you feeling defensive and icky.
If you’ve been on the receiving end of a “nice remark” like this, you’ve experienced passive aggressive behavior. Passive aggression happens when we can’t or won’t express negative feelings directly, and instead resort to covert hostility as an outlet for our anger, jealousy, or resentment.
When you have a passive aggressive person in your life, whether it’s a coworker, friend, family member, or romantic partner, you’ll find yourself questioning your own perceptions, and wondering whether you’re just being sensitive, or if there’s actually some antagonism beneath their pleasant exterior.
Doubting yourself like this can be absolutely crazy-making, leaving you unsure about how to respond. That’s why I wanted to create this episode of the podcast for you: so you can recognize passive aggressive behavior, understand where it’s coming from, and deal with it in a compassionate, assertive manner that’s healthy and fair for you.
My guest is Kathleen C., a therapist and life coach here at Growing Self. Kathleen has helped many people set healthy boundaries with passive aggressive people or redirect their own passive aggressive impulses so they can have healthier, more authentic relationships with everyone in their lives.
We’re talking about what causes passive aggression, why it can be so damaging to relationships, and how you can deal with your own Camilles — without losing your cool, or your sanity.
How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People: Episode Highlights
Passive aggressive behavior is confusing, exasperating, and damaging to relationships. When someone says everything’s fine, but their behavior says otherwise, that’s a form of gaslighting whether it’s intentional or not. The sooner you can get clear about what’s actually happening in a passive-aggressive dynamic, the better.
Understanding what passive aggressive behavior is about (hint: It’s not you!) will help you deal with it. Just recognizing passive aggression can be a big relief and can help you respond in a confident, emotionally healthy way.
Examples of Passive Aggressive Behavior
Passive aggressive behavior can take many forms, but it always involves expressing negative feelings indirectly rather than out in the open.
When you’re on the receiving end of this veiled hostility, it can feel confusing because there’s a mismatch between the passive aggressive person’s words and their actions. They may tell you they’re not angry, but then slam the door as they exit the room.
Here are a few other examples of passive-aggressive behavior:
Giving a compliment in a sarcastic tone.
Sabotaging someone else’s plans.
“Forgetting” to do something you agreed to do.
Giving someone the silent treatment when you’re upset.
Excluding a coworker from an important meeting.
Talking badly about someone behind their back, while being polite to their face.
Sulking when you don’t get your way.
Speaking to someone in a condescending tone.
Behaviors like these aren’t always passive aggressive, but they can be, especially when they’re part of a pattern. If you’re unsure whether someone is being passive aggressive, tune into your own feelings about what’s happening between the two of you. If a “friendly” exchange leaves you feeling confused or mistrustful, you might be picking up on some covert hostility.
Reasons for Passive Aggressive Behavior
People behave in passive aggressive ways when, for whatever reason, they don’t feel able to express their emotions directly.
People with a tendency to “people please” are often prone to passive aggressive communication. When you have a strong fear of being disliked, it can feel impossible to confront others directly. Instead, a people pleaser may try to get some emotional relief by being hostile to the person they’re upset with while maintaining plausible deniability about it. For this reason, many self-identified people-pleasers are experienced by others as quite passive aggressive.
Whatever the reason, passive aggressive behavior erodes trust, builds resentment, and leaves issues in a relationship to fester.
How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People
If someone is chronically passive aggressive toward you, particularly if you’re not close to this person, the best way to deal with it is to distance yourself as much as possible. You could do this by choosing not to be around the person, or by simply not engaging with them to the extent that you’re able. Certainly don’t react to their behavior in the way they’re most likely hoping you will — by getting angry, upset, or defensive.
Keeping your cool signals to the person that you’re not going to engage in the passive aggressive “dance” anymore, which makes treating you this way a little less gratifying.
How to Fix a Passive Aggressive Relationship
If it’s a relationship you value, you can try talking to the passive aggressive person about what you’re noticing, how it’s affecting you, and where your boundaries are.
You may say something like, “I’ve noticed that you make jokes at my expense in front of our friends sometimes. When you tease me like that, I feel embarrassed and hurt. I’m not going to spend time with you if you continue talking about me like this.”
This response is both vulnerable and direct, a combination that can sometimes disarm passive behavior. Either way, their response will tell you a lot about how emotionally safe you can feel with this person, and whether they’re actually a friend you can trust and count on.
And if your goal is to improve the relationship, it’s important to be an emotionally safe communicator yourself. Refrain from blaming, accusing, or lashing out in anger at the passive aggressive person. Instead, focus on your own observations, feelings, and boundaries.
How to Stop Being Passive Aggressive
Have you ever asked yourself, “Am I passive aggressive?”
We often don’t realize when we’re being passive aggressive, so it’s worth taking a look at your own behavior and being honest with yourself about your motivations.
Notice if you’re feeling angry, jealous, insecure, or threatened around a certain person, and how you might be acting those feelings out in your relationship with them. You might find yourself talking about them behind their back, being disingenuous with them, or being unsupportive of their success.
If you notice these things, don’t beat yourself up. Just think about why you may be feeling this way and what needs you’re trying to meet. By treating yourself with compassion, you can find better ways to get your emotional needs met, without resorting to passive aggressive behavior.
Episode Show Notes:
[1:59] The Passive Aggressive Patterns
Passive aggressive behaviors leave us in a place of self-doubt due to a lack of clarity about the person’s intention.
The classic passive aggressive pattern is mixed messages, for example, when someone's words and tone don't match.
Intentional “forgetfulness” toward crucial promises is another example of passive aggressive behavior.
[11:23] How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People?
Understand why they act that way.
The root of passive aggressiveness is insecurity.
Passive aggressive behavior can keep us from having close, meaningful connections.
[21:29] Passive Aggressive Relationships
If someone's being passive aggressive toward you, that's a reflection of their feelings, beliefs, coping mechanisms, and communication skills, not of you.
Sometimes, it is ideal to disengage and ignore the passive aggressive comments.
[32:16] How to Handle Passive Aggressive People?
Set a positive precedent by modeling vulnerability when confronting passive aggressive behaviors.
Create a space that encourages authentic and meaningful communication.
Disengage if the person doesn’t feel emotionally safe to communicate with.
[43:44] Am I Passive Aggressive?
Are you honest with yourself about your motivations when you communicate?
Find other ways to get what you need, without resorting to passive aggression.
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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: Today, we are talking about a topic that I know so many people wrestle with. I, myself, have encountered this, which is passive-aggressive people. They're everywhere. They can show up at work, in our friendships, in your relationship with family members, and it can be really frustrating and difficult to know what to do in these situations. Also, this is just an exasperating experience.
You know that type of thing where somebody is sunny, and pleasant, and fun to your face, but then you know they're saying or doing things behind your back, or maybe even somebody making those ambiguous comments that can be taken a few different ways in your presence, but knowing them and their history, you know what they're talking about, but you can't really confront it directly.
It's just so hard to know what to do in these situations without making the situation worse. That is why I enlisted the support of my dear friend and colleague, once again, Kathleen S., who is a therapist and coach here on our team at Growing Self who has so much experience in helping people develop truly healthy relationships with healthy boundaries, healthy communication, high degree of emotional intelligence. I'm hoping that she can shed some light on this phenomenon to provide you some direction for this situation.
Kathleen, thank you so much for being here with me today. You are just such a joy to talk to. You're one of my all-time favorite podcast guests because you always are just so generous with your information and ideas. I'm confident that you will be able to shed light on this for us today too, so thank you.
Kathleen S.: Oh, thanks. Thanks for having me. I do hope to give some helpful information today to help us all deal with, I think, this experience that we all share like you said.
The Passive-Aggressive Patterns
Lisa: It happens. So many examples — this can take so many different forms. I mentioned a couple in my intro. But when your clients, your counseling, or coaching clients are describing this experience to you, what are some of the patterns, or ways, or even your own life that this passive-aggressive behavior tends to show up? Because it can take many forms.
Kathleen: So many. As I was always thinking about this preparing for today, I was struck by how many versions of this there are. You’re right — iy can come up at work. and certainly also closer to home, in your friendships, or even in your family or in your romantic relationships. I think the hallmark is that kind of like you were alluding to — that it leaves us feeling confused, and disarmed, and embarrassed or doubting ourselves and disempowered kind of.
Lisa: There's that. I won't use this term because we have clean language on this podcast, but kind of like that “mind-f” experience where you're like, “Did that just happen? I felt like that just happened. Did it? If I say that out loud, then what will happen?” It totally just puts you in this precarious situation interpersonally.
Kathleen: You feel threatened in a way and intimidated for sure. Then, unable to trust yourself, and therefore unable to really directly address it, or do anything about it because you start to doubt, “Am I seeing this clearly? Is that really what that meant? Did that really happen? Or am I interpreting…?” We tend to personalize, “Am I interpreting this in a faulty way because of my own insecurities?”
That's part of the reason why passive-aggressive behavior works because it does kind of leave you without clarity, and stuck in that place of self-doubt — unable to assert yourself. That's kind of one of the… We can talk about the different ways people are passive-aggressive so you can identify it. But then also when you recognize it's happening, not personalizing it, and recognizing what it's really about and that it's really about the person who's doing it — that leaves you in more of a space to take care of yourself.
Lisa: Okay,that sounds like a fantastic plan. I would love to start with, just as you were suggesting, what it actually looks like. Because I think even just having that conversation would be so incredibly validating to so many of our listeners because there's that confusion, that unknown. What does this look like from your experience in action? What are the types, if you will?
Kathleen: We have your classic mixed messages where maybe someone's words and tone don't fit. Maybe they're complimenting you, but their tone has an edge of sarcasm or sickly sweetness. Or perhaps their nonverbals their body language don't match their tone or what they're saying. Maybe, even they say they're going to do one thing, and they don't follow through. All of those messages or contradictions.
Lisa: I see that the ladder in couples counseling, honestly — in couples, it's so hard for people where their partner will say they'll do something, and then they don't. Then, the other person is left to figure out if that was like an intentional forgetfulness to wound them, or if they actually forgot — because that also happens.
Kathleen: When you start to see patterns because forgetting is definitely can be a passive-aggressive technique. If you start to see patterns where, “My partner is really good at remembering these things, but conveniently forgets the things that are important to me or the things that expressed are important to me.”
Making excuses or procrastinating, and sort of in ways that don't make sense where there doesn't seem to be a strong logic for why I didn't follow through this time, or, “I've been procrastinating. I don't remember us talking about that. That's not what we said. We were on the same page, we had the same conversation, and now it's different. That can be, so I'm glad you brought that up.
That's just one way in couples and relationships that we can experience passive aggression. It's not to say that that's always the case. Sometimes, we do forget things. But if you see a pattern of that, especially along with other passive-aggressive types of behaviors, and I think you can feel it sometimes too. Trust your guts.
Lisa: You're saying the mixed messages where people are saying one thing, but you feel icky. It just flashed in my mind when you're saying that. You're from the South, so I'm sure you'll know if somebody says, “Bless your heart.” It's actually not a good thing.
Kathleen: A condescending tone can also be a marker of passive… That's a good example of that, “Oh, bless her heart.” But you can feel icky. Trust your gut — if you feel this person is being kind, but they don't feel safe, or they're complimenting you, but you don't feel close to them. They're telling you something is important to them, and that they're hearing you, and they're going to follow through, but you don't trust it. These are all just good, I think, markers.
There isn't one, unfortunately — I can't say, “Here's the stamp. We can stamp this person as being passive-aggressive to you. You can be 100% sure.” I think it's more of a pattern of experiences and feelings.
Lisa: You know what? One is coming into mind, and I don't— I'm not sure if this counts or not. But just as we're talking about this, have you ever had the experience where someone might set rules, or limits, or something, boundaries, with you that you know for a fact they don't set with other people?
It's not that the rules or expectations or boundaries are necessarily inappropriate, but that it feels like they're just for you. Have you ever experienced that, or is that just my life that we're talking about right now?
Kathleen: Listen, I haven't experienced that one personally, but it's a great example. I can imagine it at work in particular — like unnecessary red tape, making things unnecessarily difficult for you and you being the exception to that, chronically disagreeing with you — these are different ways that… Holding you to different standards whether those be boundaries, or, let's say, work standards in a professional setting, and then other people.
That's a good example — stonewalling. Whether it's the silent treatment from your partner, or maybe it's in a social setting talking to everyone in the group, but not looking at you, or at work — not responding to your emails, or including you in a business meeting that you should be included in. That kind of exclusion and silent treatments which can look those different ways and take those different forms. That can be a form of passive-aggressive behavior.
Guilt-tripping is another big one by holding you responsible for their feelings, playing the victim — that kind of thing — or even being in the victim role themselves and sort of guilt-tripping you around that, or sabotaging themselves, believe it or not. This can happen a lot in romantic relationships. I've actually heard it said before, “I will do this to myself and I will be so unhappy, then they'll finally see how much they hurt me.” This is passive-aggressive…
Lisa: Like that emotional blackmail. Passive-aggressive way of expressing…
Kathleen: Of expressing your feelings because that's part… It's not the only reason we're passive-aggressive but it’s one of the reasons is when we feel like we don't know how, or we can't — we're not allowed to directly talk about what we need or how we feel. We can’t sustain that, stuffing that forever, so it can come out in passive-aggressive ways. That's just one reason that we can behave passive-aggressively. When that is the motive, sometimes it can look like playing the victim.
How to Deal with Passive-Aggressive People?
Lisa: You know what? I did actually want to ask you about it, and I certainly want to talk about how to deal with passive-aggressive people. But I was actually interested in hearing more about this perspective as well like why people do behave in passive-aggressive ways just to illuminate it.
I have compassion for it even, but what you just said was super interesting is that people tend to engage in these behaviors or communicate in this way when they don't feel able to express their feelings in more direct ways. Is that it?
Kathleen: It's one of the reasons, yes. I actually think the first step in being able to deal with passive-aggressive people is to understand the reasons why people act that way because it helps us with that lack of clarity and that confused feeling. It kind of — that proverbial facing your fears, like “look the monster directly in the face”. Then, that scary threat shrinks, and becomes something a little less scary and more manageable.
If we can understand why people are passive-aggressive, then we can go up. That's what's happening there. And be a little less scared. Then, we're able to think clearly about what we want to do with that. It's an important piece. Having beliefs that it's not okay to express your feelings, to ask for what you need, to take up space to have conflict, which are — we talked about it when we talked about people-pleasing, a lot of us have learned that.
What are we left with, then? To either completely neglect our needs, or try to get them met by beating around the bush in a passive-aggressive way because we feel scared or insecure about actually being vulnerable, and authentic, and direct in our communication. That is one big reason.
Lisa: Interesting. I never really thought about this in the same way until you brought this up that it's on this… We had that marvelous conversation about people-pleasing that I think so many of us can identify with too. But what I'm hearing you say now is that maybe that people-pleasing tendencies and passive-aggressive tendencies are actually two sides of the same coin.
Kathleen: They definitely can be. We might have to the best of intentions, and then do things that or express ourselves in ways that you're not happy with for sure.
Lisa: If you're people-pleasing, and you're sort of doing things that don't feel good to you, and you feel like you have to. That even though you're not maybe talking about how you feel in the moment, it's still coming out sideways, and it's likely to be in those passive-aggressive kinds of…
Lisa: Yes, like your nail polish kinds of…
Kathleen: Then, you're really thinking, “You didn't invite me to go get your nails done with you, but you invited Sarah or whatever.” That's one reason. But there are other situations too. If I had to pick one root for all the different ways that passive-aggressiveness can show up, it would be insecurity for sure. I would say all passive-aggressive behavior is rooted in that, but it can come from, “I feel too insecure to be — we were just saying — to be clear, and authentic, and direct. I shouldn't do, I shouldn't be upset”, that kind of thing.
Or it can be, “I feel like I don't have power and control in this situation. I need to figure out — I feel like I need to get that to be strong, to be competent, to be respected.” Or it can be “I feel threatened by you or jealous of you, And then I might handle that with passive-aggressive behavior which is sort of another way of feeling like I have some power and control there.”
Rooted in that sense of, “I'm not secure here”, but can have slightly different motivations. Not everybody who is passive-aggressive is always fully aware that they're doing it, and not everybody comes from a place of, “I really want to tell you how I feel, but I'm scared to.” Some people are just being adult bullies. It depends very much on the situation and the person.
Lisa: Totally. What I'm thinking of right now as you're sharing this — I know you're familiar with Brené Brown’s work around the role of vulnerability and having the courage to talk about things like, “That hurt my feelings”, or “That made me feel left out”’ or like “You don't care about me”. That is so scary, that passive-aggressive behavior is sort of the opposite of that. Those feelings in a highly defended form, basically, is what you're saying that people aren't expressing.
Kathleen: Absolutely. That’s it.
Kathleen: Absolutely. We've talked about having sort of a continuum for maybe we have aggression on one end, and passivity on the far end of that continuum, and assertiveness, if it's in the middle of those. I have always said its assertiveness is our pathway to genuine connection. It should open up communication. It is vulnerable to be assertive, actually. It can be scary, but it's also very authentic and can lead to intimacy — just like Brené Brown talks about.
I would definitely say that passive-aggressiveness which might be, depending on the version of it, sort of closer to either end of that continuum, a little not quite aggression, but near it, not quite being passive, but somewhere near that. It’s just another version of not being authentic and vulnerable — protecting yourself from how scary that can feel. But it keeps us from having closer, more meaningful connections at the same time.
Lisa: It's so easy to hide, I think, in that passive-aggressive place because if somebody does dare in the phase of that passive-aggressive moment or communication to say, “I feel like you're upset with me right now. Is something going on?” So easy for people to be like, “I don't know what you're talking about. It's a joke.” Whatever that it can look like.
Kathleen: “I’m just teasing you. I’m just messing with you.”
Lisa: You can hide forever in that place.
Kathleen: That's the thing about it — it's veiled. It’s sneaky, and that's what makes it so confusing.
Lisa: Over time, in your experience, what does that passive-aggressive communication style — because it is a communication style. People are being passive-aggressive — they're communicating something. What does that do to relationships over time, both in that space between people, but also for the sort of recipient of the passive-aggressive behavior, but also for the person doing the passive-aggressive behavior — what do you see this turn into over time?
Kathleen: I think it creates almost an ever-growing, not even a gap but like a wall between the two of you. It definitely erodes trust, I think, on both sides because when you're trying to get your needs met, but you're doing it in a passive-aggressive way, you're not going to get… At first, you might get some satisfaction, let's be honest. Seeing the other person be affected, “This is what I wanted, and I don't know how else to do that.”
But with time, you don't actually get those needs met, you don't feel seen and heard, you don't feel like you're on the same team, you don't feel safe and trusting — even if you're the passive-aggressive one.
Lisa: I could see it pushes people just further away from you, and if you're really trying to be cared for and understood, it's like the opposite.
Kathleen: “I can't trust you, I can't trust what you say, I can't trust that you're going to be honest and transparent with me, which means I don't have a way to keep this relationship healthy and growing.” Then, even the person being passive-aggressive begins to feel hopeless as well. We kind of almost create these deep grooves that we get stuck in this — of a relationship dynamic of mistrust and resentment. Does that make sense?
Lisa: That it's impossible to have the kind of emotionally safe, authentic, courageous conversations that are required to keep our relationship healthy. It's like that just starts to feel impossible after a while.
Kathleen: The more that we have those, and that we are heard and safe when we have those, the closer we can get, and the safer that we feel, and the more we trust, the more we open up and so on and so forth. It can go, unfortunately, in the opposite direction as well. The less often we have those conversations, the more unsafe we feel.
Passive-Aggressive in Relationships
Lisa: Well, I'm glad that we're talking about this. If we were to shift a little bit into — your advice for if someone is recognizing that they're caught in this kind of loop with someone that they wish to maintain a relationship with because I think that that is a piece of it. I know, I have encountered in social situations or situations where you do have the power to kind of distance yourself from people because I'm an extremely direct person most of the time. I don't know how else to be.
When I feel that energy, I separate myself from that person when I have the power to do so. But I've also — and I know that many our listeners and our clients have had experiences where that's like a family member, or someone that you are connected to in perpetuity, but don't have like even enough of a relationship to be able to… Like your wife's brother or something like that, sort of an extended family, or even like a parent, or in the worst-case scenario, a spouse, but like a sibling.
When you have to deal with this, how do you even begin to mend that? I heard you say — understanding what it's about.
Kathleen: That's sort of the first step. But you're talking about someone that you have to have in your life who can't really cut off ties, but you're not close enough where they're not safe enough to be really vulnerable with them basically. That could be a boss too or a co-worker. Yeah, yeah. Or work. situation. Yeah.
Lisa: A workplace situation. But that's even good advice that they're kind of like different categories of people. Maybe for some people that you do have the opportunity for more intimacy with you, you can have more meaningful healing. But there's like that separate category of people that you're sort of stuck with. I think the hardest thing in those situations is that like with a co-worker, or a boss, or like an extended family member — whatever I say or do, they're just going to be defensive and deny, and I'm going to look like the idiot, and it's going to make things worse. It's such a bind.
Kathleen: Yes, let's kind of look at this in levels I suppose, and you can kind of get a sense of which categories of people in your life some of these levels of addressing passive-aggressive behavior would apply to or not. If we start the beginning like we said — understanding this is about them, not you. It's not your fault. So don't get too caught up in the content of the comments they're making because you're not doing anything wrong.
If someone's being passive-aggressive towards you, that's a reflection of them and how they're feeling, what they believe, their coping skills, their communication skills. We talked about Brené Brown — she talks about how vulnerability combats shame. By understanding, “Look, this is what's happening. This is about them, not you.” We can kind of decrease the intimidation factor and the embarrassment or the shame factor a little bit.
Level one of dealing with somebody in your life like this is kind of to, like you were saying, when it's possible to avoid it and to distance yourself if you can — ask to be put on a different project at work, or don't be caught alone in the room with your mother-in-law or whatever, whoever it is. Have an escape plan prepared ahead of time and make that a boundary for yourself, “I'm not going to be cornered.”
Sometimes, we do have to just not engage — ignore or pretend we didn't hear the question or the comment that was was made. This is all part of our avoidance strategy here. It's kind of like — somebody once used this term to me, and it stuck and that like, “Not letting them put the coin, the quarter in the pinball machine. Not reacting in a way…”
Lisa: Getting activated.
Kathleen: “…giving them the reaction that they're looking for.” Kind of making it not really fun or purposeful for them anymore by not getting upset, by not getting defensive, or explaining yourself if that makes sense. For some people in your life, this is how handle it.
Lisa: I always take the bait, I always have that tendency like, “I want to confront it.” That is what I'm hearing you say — not the right strategy. Okay. Lisa takes notes.
Kathleen: I'm the same way.
Lisa: Because that's what it feels like.
Kathleen: I either want to confront it or I just want to be around it. But sometimes, we are in these situations where we have to navigate a little bit more subtlety, and when you have to have — to keep the harmony.
Lisa: Kind of expecting it like, “I know what this person does, I know how unlikely to feel in this moment, and I am in advance deciding that I am actually not going to react and make this gratifying for them, and I will try to minimize my contact with them to the degree that I can. If I can't, I am just going to smile and nod.”
Lisa: Pass the salt.
Kathleen: Know what this is, what's happening — and then just by being able to identify it and label it in your mind, be prepared to not engage in that dynamic with them. Sometimes, we can take it a little step up, and we can get into some broken record boundary-setting like, “Well, I'm not really going to talk about that right now.
Or let's say somebody brings up something from the past, “I don't really care about that anymore.” Just kind of putting the big “stop” sign. It's a variation of the avoidance technique that we can use. It's just a way of saying, “I'm really not going to do that dance with you.” Sometimes, we can do that, and sometimes we can't. We have some other options. But when that's all you can do, sometimes it is what is best for you.
If that's not possible, you can have, kind of getting out of the victim role. It is another way of not giving them the response that they might be looking for, but it's less avoidant when that's not an option. Just showing them other ways that you're not upset and it's not working on you like laughing with them when they tease you, “Oh, yeah, that's true. I am really bad at time management. Got to work on that.”
Showing that you have the self-confidence that you're not going to be passive-aggressively bullied that you can laugh at yourself — that's not going to work if that makes sense.
Lisa: I think I'm hearing on this emotional level, you're also really shutting the door on any emotional safety or emotional intimacy with this person. It's like you're in a room, and there's a snake who's trying to bite you and just handle it like that. I think where a lot of people get roped in is feeling like, “This relationship has the opportunity for me to talk about how I'm feeling right now. Maybe, we can like do this differently next time.”
What I'm hearing you say is like, there's a whole class of relationships where actually, “No, this isn't going to change. You shouldn't be telling people how you actually feel and just understand what this is and protect yourself.”
Kathleen: There is a whole class of relationships like that.
Lisa: Good. That's good to know.
Kathleen: There are people, hopefully in your life, too, that maybe they don't — some people don't realize that they are being passive-aggressive, or it's something that they've learned to do, but they've never really had the kind of relationship that allows them to look at that in a safe space and be really vulnerable with somebody.
For those people, maybe it is your significant other, maybe it is a really close friend who teases you sometimes when you're out socializing or something like that. Maybe it is a family member that we can use assertiveness techniques with them. Again, it kind of helps to have a plan prepared ahead of time if possible as far as, “These are the kind of things I've noticed happening. The next time it happens, or the next time I feel that way, here's what I'm going to do.”
When I work with clients on assertiveness, we have different scripts that we use because in the beginning, it can feel really hard to think on your feet and it keeps it really simple. One of them, we kind of touched on earlier, and that is just pointing out those discrepancies, pointing out the mixed messages that you've noticed like, “Hey, you've been a really great friend to me in so many ways over the years. I've also noticed, though, that when we hang out with ‘so and so, and so and so’, sometimes you will make jokes at my expense, you'll tease me. I'm just wondering, what is that about?’
That might be a discrepancy strategy where we point out differences or messages that don't match, “You said you were going to get back to me by email by Thursday, and we agreed on the plan on how to deal with this issue, and you didn't do it, what's happening there?” This is just your basic discrepancy assertiveness technique. But when it's someone that we feel that we're closer to, and we really do want to have a close relationship with, we can get a little bit more vulnerable, and talk about how we feel, “When you tease me like that, I get really embarrassed and I feel really hurt.”
I think like we talked about last time — how they respond to that is something that gives us information about how emotionally safe we can be with them. But people aren't perfect, it takes a little bit of time to open up. It's hard to not get defensive when someone points something out to you or tells you that their feelings are hurt. But if it's somebody that's really important to you, you can be a little bit patient, and try being vulnerable and honest, giving them the chance to let their guard down.
How to Handle Passive-Aggressive People?
Lisa: Like in those moments to kind of go into that with what you were describing — that compassionate understanding of why people might be communicating that way in the first place. Because what I'm thinking about right now is that sort of systemic impact that — like maybe they don't feel emotionally safe enough with me to tell me that they're angry with me, or that I hurt their feelings. That's why they're teasing me or doing whatever in the first place. Would you recommend trying to address that with somebody who has been behaving that way with you?
Kathleen: Absolutely. Right now I'm imagining someone really close to you, like a significant other, or very close friend, or maybe a sister — it depends. Someone you feel close to, a relationship that you value, then yes, I would say, “Why not say? Why not ask?” I would imagine that it's difficult sometimes to say they're upset with me, “Is that what's happening? Or is it something else? I just want to understand what's going on with you because I care about you.”
So setting the precedent modeling vulnerability, and that it is okay to be human, and to take up some space, and to have these big uncomfortable feelings, and to talk about them. Let's bring them out into the light of day, they're not that scary. Sometimes, we can sort of disarm passive-aggressiveness and change the relationship dance that we have with that person.
Lisa: Totally. This is so interesting because when we started talking about this, I was thinking about the passive-aggressive experience from the perspective of an individual who may be dealing with this. But as we're talking, I'm just starting to think about all of the couples I have worked with over the years where there has been — and I'm using my air quotes right now — “passive-aggressive behavior” in one partner, where the other partner doesn't realize, and this is very common and like a pursue withdraw dynamic.
I am going to gender stereotype with it. It is not always this way. It's sometimes it goes different ways, but it is a passive-aggressive appearing man and an angry woman who are married to each other. That oftentimes, what is actually happening in that relationship dynamic is when that guy says, “Actually, this is how I'm feeling”, or, “I don't want to do that”, or “I think we should do it this way”, it's like all hell breaks loose, and there are very severe relational consequences for his disagreeing in an authentic and vulnerable way, so he stops.
I think looking at this through my couple’s counselor lens right now, the other piece of this I think we can extrapolate is how very important it is to be an emotionally safe person if you want somebody close to you to stop engaging in that sort of avoidant behavior because it's real easy to point your finger at somebody else for being passive-aggressive and not realizing that you're kind of scary, and then they might want to avoid having a conflict with you.
To have that self-awareness — and that's me stepping into the couple’s counseling lens right now. But thank you for reminding me of that because I think that can be important and intimate partnerships. That's the thing.
Kathleen: Then, we're not really talking about what we really need and how we really feel. We don't really know each other anymore. Sometimes, it's not that obvious. Sometimes, it's clear — one of us is getting really angry, “What do you mean you don't agree with me?” We'll have someone shut down and just fall in back on passive-aggressive behavior because again, that's the only way I can communicate it all ear safely.
Sometimes, it's more subtle than that. It's, “Oh, okay. Well, I'm still going to do it my way.” Or we have the passive-aggressive meets passive-aggressive pattern, “Oh, okay. Alright. Well, sure, I'll consider that. Then go and make the decision on your own, “Oh, I forgot. I didn’t say that.” Or, “I don't know how to do that, and so I did it differently”, or whatever.
Either way though, when you start to feel like, “This person isn't a safe person for me to open up to either because they get angry”, or because, “I'm not heard and seen. My feelings are invalidated.” We kind of fall back on, “How can I be heard? Passive-aggressive communication might be our last step before we just stop trying to connect or make an effort at all sometimes.”
Lisa: Well, that's really, really good advice is just to try to talk about it openly, and compassionate, and emotionally safe way because your only other choice in some ways is to withdraw. Now, can I ask you about one other little facet of this or variable?
Part of what is coming up for me too, as we're talking, and I will say this as someone who has, personally ADHD tendencies, in case you haven't noticed over all the years we've known each other Kathleen, and I have seen a dynamic in relationships where one partner actually does have trouble remembering things, trouble with task-based stuff, time management, and it is interpreted as being passive-aggressive when actually they have like thinking differences that make that kind of thing hard for them, and it can create so much hurt feelings in a relationship when it's being interpreted in a hurtful…
People feel like their partner doesn't care a lot of the time when they are struggling with ADHD. Do you have any guidelines or recommendations to help somebody kind of differentiate, “Is this person being intentionally hurtful and passive-aggressive, or are they just sort of a mess, and that's why they're late or forgetting to pick up the whatever at the store?”
Kathleen:: I've experienced this with clients more than once and…
Lisa: Probably with me. It’s been a really important moment for them in their relationships to be able to understand their partners in a different way. I think the reason that was able to happen is because you'll see other signs of ADHD outside of the relationship, “Does this person forget things? Do they forget what they said and conversations they had with other people too? Do they forget or have difficulty managing their time for themselves — doctor's appointments or whatever other obligations outside of their relationship with you?”
You'll see it gets confusing too because… Also with ADHD, you have a difficult time regulating your emotions often as well, or can feel — well, we won't go down that. I would say the best path is to actually — there's a great book on this topic. There are two books — Married to ADHD, and Is It You, Me, or ADHD. Those are two great books.
Or meet with a counselor, or a therapist, a counselor, either by yourself or with your partner to learn a little bit more about this because there are a lot of things that go into ADHD — hyperfocus is one of those things, difficulty with time management for getting things, losing things. But the point is that you'll see that pattern across the board with your children, with their friends, in their job, not just with you. Does that answer your question?
No, that's great advice. I think, even if that is what it is, your original recommendations — like having an authentic, vulnerable conversation about how this is making you feel is also probably the answer. Even if it's a different origin, your partner needs to know that the way they're showing up in your relationship is not feeling good for you and that we need to do something a little bit differently, even if it's not intentional.
I love just your advice for this compassionate, authentic, vulnerable — and I think that's one of my big takeaways from the conversation. It's that you have to be that person, you have to be the brave one almost — is that it?
Lisa: In a relationship worth keeping.
Kathleen: I would say that's a really important takeaway from this conversation. If you want authentic, meaningful communication, you kind of have to create the space for that by doing that yourself, and being receiver of that, and being willing to receive that. Then, we can get the ball rolling in that direction in those safe relationships. Again, we're not robots, we can't flip a switch and say, “I'm not defensive anymore.”
Or for people whose partners have had ADHD, they're not always aware of it, and they don't, and they can still get defensive — and so, “I don't know what you're talking about. That's ridiculous.” But are they open to looking into it? Are they open to even just hearing how these behaviors affect you, and looking at what they've tried to do about that, and if it's worked or not? Are they open to getting some help?
Starting the process of having those scary conversations that are really, really rewarding in the end. When it's not someone who's safe or close, don't let yourself slip into the trap of trying to figure them out or argue with them, disengage as much as you can.
Lisa: That's really good advice. I love that idea. It's like if you want to have a different relationship, if you want to have an emotionally safe relationship and an authentic, vulnerable relationship, we can't tell the other person to stop being passive-aggressive. That's this moment when you need to show up in that really courageous way, and then that's the path of change.
One last question, then I'll let you go there. There was a comment that you made earlier in our conversation that I thought was so interesting which was that many times passive-aggressive, or people like we should say — people who are engaging in passive-aggressive communication or behaviors are not always aware of it. Just for fun, somebody listening to this podcast, how would they know if they themselves are actually showing up in this way, and having this impact on others?
Kathleen: That's a great question.
Am I Passive-Aggressive?
Lisa: That's a hard question. I'm just curious, if you were doing passive-aggressive things, and you didn't realize it, what would be your clues? How would you look at this?
Kathleen: It does kind of go back to our conversation that we had about people-pleasing — check in with your feelings, and be honest with yourself about your motivations when you communicate, “Am I actually feeling underneath this — sometimes frustration or power trip feeling? I might actually be feeling scared, or hurt, or jealous?”
Notice that those are emotions that you're experiencing, especially particularly around a certain person, “Am I feeling threatened around them, or insecure around them? Do they sort of push my insecurity buttons?” Are there…
Lisa: Or if I have to act certain ways around certain people even though I don't really want to. That would be a…
Kathleen: Am I different around certain people rather than others? Although I think sometimes when we learn to be passive-aggressive in order to communicate in relationships, it becomes sort of a habit. But I really honestly think slowing down — and I always go back to this — to being compassionately curious with yourself, “I am really annoyed by her. Gosh, you really get the EEG whatever. Gets on my nerves. Man, I really can't stand that — did you see with it?
Do you find yourself talking about them behind their back? Do you find yourself being disingenuous with them? Or really being irritated with them? Slow down and check in with yourself, “Okay, what am I needing? What is this situation bringing to my attention that I need to do for myself?”
Lisa: Resentment or even that narrative around, “She asked me to pick up the whatever at the store, but she wouldn't do that for me. Besides, she was mean to me yesterday, so I'm just not going to.” There's that narrative in your head up. But I think in summary — again, we recorded that beautiful conversation about people-pleasing behaviors.
Maybe, it’s if you really strongly identified with a lot of what we talked about and that people-pleasing episode, there is a chance, that unless you're working on that intentionally, you may be coming across as passive-aggressive to other people because even though you think you're hiding your anger or resentment, maybe you're actually not. Is that a fair way of saying?
Kathleen: I don't think people can successfully hide that too well. Well, I don't think they're really doing anything. They can’t do that for any significant length of time. If you're feeling that way, you're not addressing with assertiveness, with vulnerability, it's not going to go away. You're probably not hiding it as well as you think you are.
It's an opportunity to face some of your fears, and maybe as a reward, feel more seen and heard than you have before. That's the good news.
Lisa: I love it. But that's the message is that personal growth, working on yourself, developing healthy boundaries, creating congruence in your life, having healthy affirming relationships is really the path out of both situations. What a positive note to glide to a stop off.
This was such a fun conversation, Kathleen. Thank you so much. You just illuminated so many different aspects of this. I know that even myself talking with you today understood this in different ways because of our conversation. I'm sure that some of our listeners maybe have as well, and that they can use these new insights and put them to work in their life. Thank you for doing this with me.
Kathleen: Right, absolutely. Glad to be here. Thank you.
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
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.
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.
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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