4 Steps for Dealing with Insecurities in Relationships

In my article Insecurities In Relationships: It’s Not Them, It’s You., I discuss how looking to external sources (i.e. another person, money, food, etc.) for a sense of security can create a feedback loop causing you to feel more and more insecure in the long run. I end the article by suggesting that you must look within yourself for a sustainable sense of security, which in turn allows you to have much more satisfying relationships. Of course, this is easier said than done, and so the purpose of this article is to offer some tips on how to begin building security from with-in.

This article is not for those who feel insecure in their relationship due to valid breaches of trust or respect. This article is for those who feel insecure even when their partner gives them no reason to. Or maybe your partner does small things that could be concerning, but you find yourself overreacting and unable to discuss the issue calmly. This article is for those that feel like they need more and more from their partner to feel secure, and who’s partners are beginning to feel nothing they do will ever be enough.

When we look to external sources for a sense of security, it’s due to a subconscious belief that the feeling of insecurity is intolerable. When we think a feeling is intolerable, we feel we must DO something about it. We feel a compulsion to take action in response to our feeling. In relationships, we might try to get our partner to do something to relieve our insecurity; “If only he called more often” “If only she didn’t talk to that one guy” “If only he showed more affection”. If/when our partner follows through with our request, our brains get a shot of dopamine (the hormone that gives us the emotional high of being rewarded). We feel better, but only temporarily. Pretty soon we start to feel insecure again, and we think we need even more from our partner. The more our partner responds to our insecurity, the more we believe we need their action to feel better.

Step 1. is learning to tolerate the uncomfortable feeling of insecurity.

Painful emotions cause our mind to play a tricks on us;
  1. That this feeling will last for ever
  2. That this feeling is intolerable, and something must be done about it.

When you notice yourselves operating this way you must pause and recognize your mind is playing you for a fool. Your feelings won’t kill you; you don’t have to run from them, hide from them, or fight them. This feeling won’t last. Every feeling has a beginning, middle, and an end. Especially intense emotions, by definition, cannot remain so heightened indefinitely. Part of your task is learning how to tolerate feeling pain/discomfort and riding the feeling out, without feeling like you must do something to make it go away. Learning/practicing mindfulness meditation is a great way to learn how to observe your thoughts and feelings without reaction to them.

Step 2. is removing your partner or your relationship as the cause of your feelings. Yes, sometimes events in our relationship make us feel insecure, but it’s also important to remember that our mood naturally fluctuates from high to low. When we’re feeling down, our mind begins to scan the environment for reasons to explain why we’re feeling the way we are. We start to notice every little thing our partner does wrong, we start to feel tormented by negative thoughts about ourselves and our relationship, we start to think if they did something differently we would feel better. But we are not meant to feel perfectly happy all the time. Sometimes we just feel down, and insecure, for no reason, and that’s ok, and there’s no need to do anything about it.

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Step 3. is for when you really feel you must take some action to relieve yourself of a painful feeling. Tolerating uncomfortable emotions is important, but you wont learn to do it over night. Balance challenging yourself to sit with an uncomfortable emotion, and using self-care to relieve yourself. The important part is to do something for yourself rather than hope/expect/demand someone else do something to make you feel better. If you’re truly having difficulty tolerating your insecure feeling, try distracting yourself for a period of time until the feeling has lost some power. You should have at least 3 activities in your back pocket that occupy your mind and make you feel good. Try listening to music, exercising, watching a feel good movie, coloring in some adult coloring books; anything that will help you ride the feeling out. Check out my post 30 Things to Remember When You’re Feeling Down.

Step 4. is share with your partner. The idea is not to hide your emotions from your partner, but to not make them responsible for them. Once you’ve used some self-care to lower the intensity of your insecurity, go ahead and share your experience with your partner, but without blaming them. This might sound like “I’m feeling a little down and it’s just got me feeling insecure. Right now I keep thinking that I wish we spent more time together, but it might just be my mood. Maybe we can talk about when I’m feeling better, but in the meantime if you could be a little patient with me I’d really appreciate it.”

Each of these steps will still be easier said than done, but use this as a launching point towards building your own internal sense of security. For further reading, I highly suggest this book.

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Response to “Staying Hot for My Husband”

In a recent article , Blogger and newlywed Amanda Lauren posited that “staying hot for my husband is ESSENTIAL to a successful marriage”. Not sure what data Amanda is basing this advice off of, but as a relationship researcher, and woman with a brain, I feel obliged to respond.

Makeup routine of beautiful young woman.

Some points that I think you’re trying to make are valid:

  1. Sex is an important part of a relationship and is related (correlationally) to happiness. (See research here)

“While sex can’t make a marriage, it can break it. Having that physical, intimate connection is very important… And if my husband wasn’t turned on by me, we couldn’t have that essential intimacy.” – Amanda Lauren

BUT you don’t need to be a super model to have great sex, and relatedly, being attractive does not mean you’re great at sex. Furthermore, intimacy is a lot more than sex.

  1. How we feel about our own looks is important for our self esteem, and self-esteem is important for our happiness. And YES it’s helpful for a relationship when the people involved are happy people.

“Feeling good ultimately allows me to be a better, happier and more considerate partner. I see the look on my husband’s face when I come out of the bathroom, ready for a night out, or the way he checks out my butt on the way to Pilates class. Having an attractive wife makes him happy. They say “Happy wife, happy life,” but I’m happiest when my husband is happy.” – Amanda Lauren

The important distinction here is that how we feel about ourselves matters for our self-esteem. The more our self image is dependent on the feedback we receive from others, the more insecure we’re going to be no matter HOW objectively hot people might think we are. For instance, when I’m 70 years old I hope to look into the mirror and feel great about myself. Not because I look “hot” for a 70 year old, but because I see the reflection of a wise accomplished woman who makes shit happen and gives no fucks.

  1. Attractiveness is one way to offer value to a mate.

“All relationships require work, and working on myself is doing the work I need to do for the sake of my relationship. Even if I’m running 15 minutes behind on date night because my hair isn’t straightening, my husband can’t complain if he’s swooning over me.” – Amanda Lauren

Attractiveness is… well, attractive. Therefore you can leverage it to a certain point in your search to secure a mate. However, your looks are one small aspect of the self, and therefore one small way to offer value to another person. Other people might offer value with their financial stability, or their social resources. At a deeper level the value you offer to your mate could be your humor, your insight, your kindness, or intellect.

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Sure, I hope that my partner finds me attractive, but I also believe my looks are the LEAST valuable asset I offer to others. Therefore in the list of qualities that I devote my energy towards, keeping up my looks is not at the top. If you’re prioritizing “staying hot” for your husband, your implying that this is the most value you offer him. If this is the case, hate to break it to you, but your most valuable asset is a depreciating one.

In conclusion:

Physically attractive women are a dime a dozen. Beauty is no accomplishment and certainly doesn’t secure you a high quality relationship (just ask the many supermodels and actresses that have been cheated on and/or gotten divorced). Set a higher standard for yourself. Don’t focus on “staying hot for your hubby”. A woman with compassion, patience, humor,  insight, and intelligence is a true treasure to hold on to. Real men know that.

“If men can’t help but be visual creatures, I need to oblige.” – Amanda Lauren

Men should be offended by the statement “men are visual creatures” degrading them to less evolved creatures as if their ability to see somehow overrides their human capacity to think, feel, and discern. Guess what, we’re all visual creatures, in that we all have eyes, and behind our eyes are brains capable of complex reasoning and deep emotional experiences.

My partner lets me know when I look nice, but it’s obvious what really turns him on. He’s ready to pounce on me when I’m speaking about something I’m passionate about, or when I’m making him laugh, when I’m more focused on the status of the world than the status of my eyeliner, when I’m rushing out the door for our next adventure rather then waiting back to finish straightening my hair.

I felt strongly about writing a response to this article, because Amanda Lauren isn’t the only one spreading the idea that if woman wants an enduring happy relationship, she better stay “hot”. This message is scary for women who are already under pressure of unrealistic societal expectations, but furthermore this message is degrading. Women of the world, there are so many other reasons you’ll be loved than how “hot” you are.

Everybody likes to look nice, but the woman I’m trying to be usually has much bigger things on her mind, and has a man that does too.

How to Build Trust in a Relationship

Building or rebuilding trust in a relationship can seem like such a difficult task, especially when one or both people in the relationship have been hurt, by each other, or by others in the past. Part of why building trust seems so hard is because it’s a somewhat abstract term. What is trust? What does it mean to trust someone? Does it mean I believe you no matter what? Does it mean I’m confident you’ll never hurt me? Do you build trust by being completely transparent with your partner? Or does trusting your partner mean giving them the benefit of the doubt?
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While it seems abstract, research has been able to clarify how trust is built, and offers us a clear path to a stronger relationship. Dr. John Gottman and his team have spent decades studying couples, and tracking their relationships over many years. By comparing the relationships that have lasted to those that haven’t, he’s discovered valuable insights into many important aspects of relationships – including trust. The truth is that trust is not built or earned by grand gestures, but little by little over a span of time. Trust is built by the way that you respond to your partner in small every day moments.

Bids for Emotional Connection

According to Gottman, relationships are comprised of hundreds of daily bids for emotional connection between partners. A bid for emotional connection is anything we do to seek acknowledgement from our partner. Sometimes it might be conscious, like when you reach to hold your partner’s hand. Other times we might not even realizing we’re signaling for our partner’s attention, like when we let out an exasperated breath for them to hear. Every time we smile at our partner. Every time we respond to them with a sadness in our voice. Every text message. Every invitation to a work function. Every game of footsy under the covers. Every thing we do that our partner could respond to is a bid for connection. In each of these micro moments, the questions are asked “will you respond to me?”, “are you there for me?”, “do you care?”. For each bid, the partner on the receiving end has a chance to respond in a positive or negative way. It’s these seemingly insignificant moments, that across time build trust in a relationship. Each response to a bid representing but a small drop in the pot of trust or mistrust, that over the years determine the balance of the relationship.
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Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Janince Driver have identified nine different types of bids
● Bids for emotional support (“I feel so upset about my mother…”)
● Bids for interest (“I read this interesting article today…”)
● Bids for enthusiastic engagement (“What do you think about trying that new restaurant?”)
● Bids for extended conversation (“Did I tell you about that conversation I had with Mary?”)
● Bids for attention (“Look what I found at the store!”)
● Bids for play (tickling, teasing, a game of backgammon)
● Bids for humor (“How funny is this video?”)
● Bids for affection (hugging, cuddling)
● Bids for self-disclosure (“How was work today?”)

Turning Towards vs. Turning Away

Every time an emotional bid is offered, the partner on the receiving end has a choice to make “do I turn towards my partner, and respond in a loving affectionate way?”,”do I turn away, and ignore my partner’s bid?” or even”do I turn against them and respond negatively?” Of course we all know we should be there for our partner, and it’s common sense that a successful relationship involves responding to your partner in a positive, loving way. However, small and subtle bids for affection can be easy to miss or ignore, especially when we ourselves are feeling in need, and even more so when our needs are in conflict with our partners. On a dramatic scale this could look like your partner asking you to spend the weekend with them, when you’re really feeling the need for some alone time with friends. On a more subtle scale this could be recognizing that your partner is tired, and offering to cook dinner even though you’ve had a long day yourself.

None of us will respond perfectly to 100% of our partner’s needs, and letting a bid for connection slip through the cracks here or there is not going to make or break a relationship. However according to Gottman’s research, the frequency with which partners respond to a bid for connection by turning towards each other is significantly related to whether the relationship will last or not. He found that 6 years after marriage, couples who were still together turned towards each other 86% of the time, while couples that divorced turned towards each other about 33% of the time.

So How Do I Build Trust?

  • Be on the look out for bids for connection, and as much as possible turn towards your partner
  • If you’re not sure what your partner is looking for – ask them! (“What can I do for you sweetie? Do you want to talk? Or would you just like a hug?”)
  • Help your partner meet your needs, by being direct with your bids (instead of an aggravated roll of the eyes, say “honey I’m so stressed, I’d love if you could just listen while I vent”)
  • When your partner seems to be on the offensive or defensive, rather than responding to the content of what they’re saying, ask your self what their deeper need might be. (Her words might say “I’m fine”, but her tone might say “I need to know you really care right now”)
  • Be patient. As mentioned, each bid for connection gives you the opportunity to add a drop to your relationship’s trust. The more you respond positively to your partner’s bids, the more you’ve invested in your relationship’s trust, and the more reserves you have. It takes time to build up strong reserves. When trust and mistrust are equal, or there’s more mistrust than trust – every transgression feels intolerable. When your relationship is heavily weighted towards trust, mistakes are more easily forgiven.

    Learn More!

  • Gottman.com: Turn Towards Instead of Away
  • Thefishybowl: The best Offense is No Defense

8 Things You Should Be Doing In Your Relationship: Because Science Says So!

Most people don’t realize how much research exists about what you can do to improve your relationship. So often couples feel so imbedded in the routine of their relationship, they assume that any noticeable difference in the quality of their relationship would require hard complicated work. In reality, science tells us that there are some simple things that are likely to give your relationship quite a boost. Most are easy and fun to do, so why not give them a try?!

1. Self Expanding Activities

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Self-expanda-whataties? According to the theory of self-expansion, we all have an innate drive to grow as individuals. Relationships are one of our primary methods of expanding our own sense of self, as we learn from another person and they expose us to new and different experiences. Studies show that we’re more satisfied with relationships that contribute to our growth, but as time goes on self-expansion in your relationship can dwindle. If you and your partner get stuck in rut of mundane routine, you may no longer feel like your partner is helping you grow. In fact, you might even feel like they are holding you back, which can lead you to look for sources of expansion outside the relationship (like maybe even a new relationship – read more about the influence of self expansion on infidelity here). How do you stop this from happening? Make participating in self-expanding activities a priority in your relationship. What are self-expanding activities? Anything that’s new and exciting. The idea is that you’re engaging in things together that make you both grow as individuals, and thus grow closer together.

Here are some ideas:

  • Travel some place new
  • Take a class together
  • Try a new restaurant
  • Go on a hike
  • Try to learn a new hobby together
  • Go sky diving
  • Run an obstacle course together
  • Literally ANYTHING new and exciting!

2. Building your Love Maps

Relationship researcher and author John Gottman suggests couples build up their “Love Maps”. What does that mean? Your Love Map is your guide to your partners internal world. Your knowledge about the ins and outs of who your partner is as a person provides the soil for friendship and intimacy to grow. It’s little things (what’s their favorite ice cream flavor?), and everyday things (who’s giving them a hard time at work?), and big things (what are their fears?). Gottman has found that couples in successful relationships have well developed Love Maps; they have a rich and deep understanding of their partner’s world. This understanding also helps them handle stressful situations better. So get to know your partner! Again, and again, and again!

Click here for some questions shown by research to build intimacy between two people.

3. Watching Movies Together

No really. Recent research suggests that watching movies together might be as beneficial as participating in couple’s therapy (which hopefully doesn’t catch on or I’ll be out of a job!). Researchers provided couples with a list of 47 movies featuring long-term romantic relationships, and were told to watch one per week for a month and then discuss it together using questions provided. Researchers were surprised to find that after three years this turned out to be just as effective as established therapeutic methods at reducing divorce; cutting the divorce/separation rate in half, from 24%-11%. Pretty big pay off for a few movie nights! Give it a try with your partner – click here for the list of movies and questions used.

4. Having More Sex

National surveys have shown correlations between the amount of sex a couple is having, and their satisfaction in the relationship, and risk of separation. Now this research is correlational, so it’s possible that having less sex makes you unhappy in your relationship, while it’s also possible that being unhappy in your relationship makes you want to have sex less, as it’s also possible that confounding factors (i.e. financial stress, health issues, etc.) might be causing a negative impact on happiness in your relationship and sexual frequency. Regardless, it seems happy couples are having more sex. One reason may be that the open communication required for a satisfying sex life also spills over into healthy communication in other parts of the relationship. Sex is also an exciting physical activity that can contribute to a couple’s sense of expansion as discussed above, and produces all sorts of hormones that makes us feel great and close to our partner (testosterone, dopamine, oxytocin). Sex is also a great stress reducer, and stress is related to decreased relationship satisfaction. So how much sex should you be having? Research shows it’s really a matter of you and partner’s preferences. In other words, how the amount of sex you’re having compares to the amount you or your partner would like to be having is what really makes the difference in relationship satisfaction. And it’s important to know that it only takes one of you being dissatisfied with sexual frequency to decrease both of your satisfaction in the relationship. What we do before and after sex is important too. Showing more affection after sex (i.e. spooning, pillow talk, etc.) relates to increased sexual satisfaction, and increased relationship satisfaction (Muise, Giang, & Impett, 2014). Couples instructed to kiss more frequently for 6 weeks also reported more relationship satisfaction compared to a control group (Floyd, Boren, Hannawa, Hesse, McEwan, & Veksler, 2009).

So here’s some tips:

  • Don’t wait until you’re “in the mood”. Often times even if you don’t feel in the mood to start, you get there. Lean into it (metaphorically… and, well… yeah).
  • Having more sex makes you want more sex. Try increasing the frequency incrementally.
  • Talk about it! Couples who communicate openly about likes and dislikes in the bedroom have increased sexual satisfaction.
  • Check this out for some sexual intimacy exercises.

5. Spending an Extra 6 Hours a Week Together

Analysis of interviews with couples found that those with successful marriages spent about an extra 6 hours a week together. Sound like a lot of time to set aside? Well actually, the 6 hours is an accumulation of a some quicker easier habits. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Take an extra 2 minutes every day before work to say goodbye and ask something about your partner’s coming day (10 minutes per week).
  • Take an extra 6 seconds to hug and kiss your partner when you reunite at the end of a day, and then chat with your partner for about 20 minutes. (1 hour, 40 minutes)
  • Take 5 minutes everyday to express gratitude to your partner (35 minutes per week)
  • Take 5 minutes everyday to give your partner physical affection, especially before falling asleep (35 minutes per week)
  • Set aside 2 hours for a weekly date night (2 hours per week)
  • Set aside 1 hour at the end of the week to discuss what went well that week, and what didn’t, as well as plan for the week ahead. Ask your partner how you can show them love and support over the coming week (1 hour per week)

6. Meditating

Meditating has many beneficial effects for relationships. Research has shown that meditation is related to improved stress management, and stress is known to negatively effect relationships. In addition, meditation has been associated with increased empathy and understanding others, which can positively effect healthy communication within a relationship. Meditating helps a person acknowledge and observe their thoughts and emotions, before reacting to them, therefore enabling them to make more conscious decisions about how they want to react. This is particularly beneficial when discussing topics of conflict within a relationship, because it can help couples avoid negative communication patterns such as defensiveness and criticism, and opt for healthier more supportive communication styles such as active listening and responsiveness. Going back to our self-expansion theory – meditating together can provide quality time and widen your sense of self as individuals and as a couple. In fact, couples that have participated in mindfulness meditation training programs have reported feeling increased closeness and intimacy with their partner. Read this to find out more mindfulness meditation!

7. Writing about Your Conflicts

Eli Finkle and colleagues conducted a study where they had couples write about a conflict they experienced within their relationship from an objective stand-point, for about 7 minutes. Couples did this once every 4 months for about a year, and reported about the quality of their relationship. Those that participated in the writing exercise were able to avoid the decrease in marital satisfaction, passion, and sexual desire that was reported by the control group, and that research has shown relationships in general suffer. In other words, stats show that relationship satisfaction peaks early on and slowly declines over the course of the relationship, but this simple writing task enabled participants to maintain their current level of satisfaction long-term. So exactly was the writing task?

  1. “Think about the facts and behaviors of a specific disagreement that you have had with your partner over the past 4 months. Think about this disagreement with your partner from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for all involved; a person who sees things from a neutral point of view. How might this person think about the disagreement? How might he or she find the good that could come from it.”
  2. “Some people find it helpful to take this third party perspective during their interactions with their romantic partner. However, almost everybody finds it challenging to take this third party perspective at all times. In your relationship with your partner, what obstacles do you face in trying to take this third partner perspective, especially when you’re having a disagreement with your partner?”
  3. “Despite the obstacles to taking a third party perspective, people can be successful in doing. Over the next four months, please try your best to take this third party perspective during interactions with your partner, especially during disagreements. How might you be most successful in taking this perspective in your interactions with your partner over the next four months? How might taking this perspective help you make the best of disagreements in your relationship?”
    (A Brief Intervention to Promote Conflict Reappraisal)

8. Creating Shared Meaning

John Gottman’s 40+ years of researching relationships has lead him to find that the couples who are really masters at their relationship have found a “shared meaning” for their relationship and their life together. You and your partner may have different thoughts about life and the future, you may have fundamental differences of personality that can cause conflict, and you may have different ways of handling various situations, but having a shared meaning keeps you connected, in-tune with one another, and gives you common ground to build on. You create your shared meaning through rituals, roles, goals, and symbols. You can proactively explore and develop the rituals, roles, goals, and symbols in your relationship, and begin building the meaning of the relationship early on.

Here’s some things to explore with your partner:

  • What daily, weekly, annual rituals are important to you? Sharing a morning coffee? Weekly date night? Yearly vacation?
  • What holidays are important, and what do they mean to you?
  • Do we share dinnertime together, and what’s the meaning of dinner time?
  • How do you see the role of husband, wife, partner, parent?
  • What goals do you have for yourself and your partner?
  • What’s a life dream of yours?
  • What symbols represent your relationship?
  • What does “home” and “family” symbolize for you?

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I’ll stop here for brevity’s sake, but research has a lot more to tell us about how we can improve our relationships. If you’re wondering whether there’s research regarding any more specific issues, there probably is! Let me know what you’re curious about, and I’ll try my best to share some information!

Female Orgasm 101:

what every guy should know, but so few do

UnknownMany women require a perfect storm to enjoy a full orgasm with their partner; the right mood, the right maneuvers, the right man (or woman). When these elements aren’t matching up it can create frustration, and shame. Sensual moments that should be opportunities to increase intimacy can become stress provoking and create further distance. Articles upon articles from Cosmo to Mens Health boast of secrets to life altering orgasms, and yet many women continue to have difficulty climaxing with their partner. In fact statistics suggest that about 75% of women usually don’t experience orgasm during sex (compared to 10% of men) (Sex in American Survey, 1994), and about 10-15% of women have never experienced orgasm. Part of the problem is that female orgasm gets plenty of press and publicity, but it’s often misinformation that’s being dispersed, while some simple basics get skipped over. With that in mind, I thought I would cover some of the fundamentals that every guy should know, but few seem to practice.

Clitoral Stimulation

 I know what you’re probably thinking – “Duh!” But as much as it would seem that the importance of clitoral stimulation for female orgasm is common knowledge, the little love button still gets neglected. This might partly be due to men assuming that the clitoris is being sufficiently rubbed during intercourse, however this is rarely the case. In fact, it’s very unlikely that any intercourse position will provide enough clitoral stimulation for a woman to climax, explaining why the majority of women do not experience orgasm during intercourse. Even when there is clitoral stimulation during intercourse, it’s often not for long enough or not consistent enough for orgasm.
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Adding to the neglect of the poor little clitoris, is all this hype about the “G-spot”. The G-spot is understood to consists of an extension of interior clitoral tissue that can be stimulated through the vaginal wall in SOME women. So – not all woman appear to have a “G-spot”, and for those that do, it’s still essentially stimulating the clitoris and requires the same finesse. However, we know that all women DO have a clitoris, so rather than focusing your efforts inside her vagina hoping she’s one of the lucky G-spottees, wouldn’t it make more sense to stick with what we know works?

A public service announcement:
I know that porn is super awesome, but please don’t be fooled by the women who are paid to act like having a penis drilled in and out of them is the greatest ecstasy they’ve ever experienced. Realize this: intercourse in and of itself does feel pleasurable for most women, and your woman may vocalize her enjoyment, and sometimes that’s plenty satisfying enough for both parties without necessarily feeling like everyone has to orgasm. But also know: orgasms are like, the best – and your lady deserves one as much as you do. So just because she seemed to enjoy herself, doesn’t mean she came… and unfortunately, just because she said she came, doesn’t mean she came.
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Despite what porn would have us believe with it’s variety of acrobatic positions, the intercourse position that’s most likely to bring a woman to orgasm is actually a modified version of ol’ faithful Missionary referred to as the Coital Alignment Technique. If a man is on top and leaning more forward (than typical missionary) such that the base of his penis/pubic bone is angled against the clitoris, and he rocks up and down (rather than thrusting in and out), it’s possible for both partners to be stimulated and reach simultaneous orgasm via intercourse. Read more about CAT here.
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Good Things Come For Those Who Wait

At the root of many frustrated men’s damaged egos, and orgasm-deprived women’s shame is a simple biological truth – women’s bodies take a longer amount of time to progress through the arousal cycle and reach orgasm. Men typically can reach orgasm within a few minutes, women generally need at least 15 minutes. This is true regardless of a man’s sexual prowess, and a woman’s libido. Therefore if a man is only stimulating a woman for the same amount of time it takes him to get off, it’s not enough. Not nearly. Expecting your woman to get off in the same amount of time it takes you is unrealistic and will likely cause frustration. In addition, if she has the feeling that you want her to reach orgasm faster than she can, it will only cause anxiety and distractions; further inhibiting her ability to reach orgasm.
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You want to create an environment where she feels like she has all the time in the world, because you truly enjoy pleasuring her. This means that you should begin stimulating your female partner long before you are stimulated, or continue afterwards (or both! After-all, women can have multiple orgasms!). The average woman requires at least 15 minutes of stimulation to climax, and will become sore after about 45 minutes, so use that as a guideline for the amount of time to spend pleasing your woman. While only 30% of average women report reliably reaching orgasm with their partner, research shows that 93% of women who’s partners spend 20 minutes or more on foreplay, reliably experience orgasm.

Steady Rhythmic Movement

Imagine your penis is being stroked at a nice steady rhythm, when all of a sudden your partner starts doing something completely different. It might feel good, and exciting, but the change of pace might also have slightly interrupted your progress towards climax. Well the same is true for women except much more dramatically so. There’s nothing wrong with trying some different things when you’re playing downtown, in fact that’s part of what makes things fun and exciting. But know that when you want to bring your woman to climax, it usually requires a steady rhythm of stimulation, possibly with gradually increasing speed and pressure.
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This is another reason why intercourse often doesn’t lead to orgasm. Some men might stimulate the clitoris for a bit during foreplay, then again during intercourse, and maybe even again after a change in position – Well intentioned, but the stopping and starting, and different rhythms are going to interrupt that 15 minutes of clitoral stimulation.
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Sometimes men may think that doing the same thing for too long might get boring for the woman, or perhaps they become concerned that what they’re doing isn’t working. But generally, if a woman is close to climaxing and then her partner aburptly switches up the rhythm, she’ll lose her momentum and have to start building towards climax again. Often times the next technique her partner tries is just as pleasurable, but the change of pace just sets her back in the progression towards climax. These concerns can be addressed with some healthy sexual communication (discussed farther below), i.e.: ask your girl to signal you if she likes what you’re doing and doesn’t want you to stop.

Avoid Direct Clitoral Stimulation

I know, I know… seems like I’m contradicting myself here. Hear me out.
While the clitoris is key for female orgasm, it is an extremely sensitive area with 8 thousand nerve endings. Some well-meaning, eager to please men will go right for the clitoris and apply intense, direct pressure, even pushing back the skin on the mons pubis to better expose the clitoris. Love the enthusiasm boys, but for many women this much direct stimulation is too intense.
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It might be helpful to think about the clitoris as analogous to the penis – after all they’re made from the same embryonic tissue. The visible part of the clitoris is comparable to the head (or glans) of the penis. For many men, direct stimulation concentrated on the head of the penis can also become too intense. Now consider that the penis has half as many nerve endings as the clitoris. What you might not have known is that the clitoris also has a shaft, similar to the penis, that runs about an inch from the glans towards the belly button under the skin. Consider involving this in your stimulation as much as one might involve the shaft of the penis in stimulating a man. Other ways to avoid over-stimulating the clitoris is to limit your use of a pointed tongue or the tips of your fingers. Instead opt for a flat tongue or several fingers together in order to disperse the pressure throughout a wider area. A great way to learn what works for her is to just provide a surface (your tongue, your gums, your fingers, etc.) and let her guide the pressure and rhythm by rubbing against you.

No Need for Spread Eagle

You know that sexy move you do that spreads her legs wide? Yeah, don’t do that. At least not if you want her to be able to orgasm. A lot of positions that seem really sexy (and can certainly feel good and provide novelty excitement) actually restrict blood flow to a woman’s pelvic muscles, inhibiting her ability to enter into the automatic muscle spasms that come with orgasm and can thereby delay or prevent her from reaching orgasm. This is another reason why many positions for intercourse are not ideal for female orgasm. As a rule of thumb, her legs should be about 6-9 inches apart when you’re trying to bring her to climax. Having her lie flat on her back with a pillow under her lower back is really ideal for the relaxation and blood flow needed for orgasm. Other exciting positions including 69ing, kneeling, standing, etc. (while fun) usually create too much muscle tension and constriction for orgasm. This doesn’t mean you have to resign to vanilla sex. Women don’t experience a refractory period after orgasm like men do, so I suggest setting your lady up for success, bringing her to climax, and then explore whatever wild positions and techniques you (consensually) choose for your own pleasure.

Comfort and Confidence

For many women, sex is as psychological as it is physical, and so preparing your woman’s state of mind is as important as any of the above advice. Sometimes a woman’s biggest obstacle to achieving orgasm is getting out of her own head, so the more you can do to help her be present and tuned into her physical sensations over the static in her head, the better. Particularly loud static often consists of stress, and insecurities. Do what you can to help her unwind and let go of any stress whether its via a relaxing back rub, bubble bath, relaxing music, or even just diverting her attention to something enjoyable like a movie before you become physical, or even just giving her some time to unwind.
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Realize that sex can make many women feel extremely vulnerable and exposed. Any insecurity that a woman has about herself physically or sexually is going to be at the forefront of her mind, making it very hard to focus on the physical sensations in her body. Help your woman by doing what you can to make her feel she has nothing to be insecure about. There’s no such thing as over the top here fellas – make her feel like a goddess. Tell her how beautiful she is, how much she turns you on, how much you love her body. Feeling pressure to orgasm can get in the way of orgasm, so again, let her know how much you enjoy every aspect of pleasuring her, and that she has all the time in the world. The more confident and sexy she feels with you, the better the sex is going to be – guaranteed.
Remember, this chick's got nothing on your girl!

This chick’s got nothing on your girl!

Part of making her feel comfortable is also being mindful of the environment. If she’s too cold or too distracted by harsh lighting or an uncomfortable position it can be harder to relax and be present. If she feels self-conscious with the lights on, turn them off. If she’s more comfortable under the covers, cover her up. This is her time – you can discuss compromises for when it’s your time.

Communication

While I hope this provided some helpful basics, remember that every woman is different, and every woman’s orgasm is unique. The advice above can serve as a guideline, but it won’t all be true for every girl. The number one best thing you can do for your sex life is communicate. Talking about sex can be sensitive, as the topic tends to make us all feel very vulnerable. We wonder if what we do is normal, and if what we like is acceptable. We wonder how we compare to others, and we wonder what our partner is thinking. We avoid the topic for fear of rejection, but in exchange we sacrifice amazing fulfilling sexual connection with our partners.
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So ask what turns them on, ask what feels good and what doesn’t, ask what they’ve been curious about but never tried, ask how they masturbate, ask what they fantasy about. Consider yourself a student, going for your Ph.D in pleasing your partner. The rule for healthy sexual communication is: no judgement, and no defensiveness. If your partner shares that something you’re doing isn’t working, rather than taking it as an insult, take it as an opportunity to learn to better please your partner. If your partner shares something you’re not comfortable with, remember you don’t necessarily have to act on the things you communicate about, but your relationship and sex life will benefit just due to your ability to openly and non-judementally communicate about your wants and desires.

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Now maybe it seems like I just threw a lot of information at you, but remember practice makes perfect! Hopefully, once you start implementing some of these basics and begin a dialogue with your partner about your sexual preferences, you’ll find that bringing your woman to climax is a relatively simple process. To be fair, a woman shares responsibility for her orgasm, whether it’s managing her own stress or honestly communicating her needs – amazing sex is a team effort. If you and your partner continue to experience frustration and difficulty regarding orgasm, you might consider consulting with a doctor, as many medical issues and medications can influence one’s ability to climax.
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I want to conclude with a reminder that orgasm is only one part of sexual experience and expression. In my opinion, when we have sex with the sole purpose of getting off, we’re limiting ourselves sexually. I’d encourage everyone to explore, enjoy, and indulge in all aspects arousal without considering each act as a step towards orgasm. That being said, it’s nice to be able to give and receive the gift of an orgasm with your partner, and I hope some of the tips above might help with sharing that gift.

Life Lesson #534: Stop Trying to Change Other People

One of the biggest struggles I’ve faced so far, is to stop trying to change others. I hate to even admit it, but I’ve struggled with this in romantic relationships, in friendships, with family, and professionally.

I’ve stayed in unhealthy relationships hoping that the other person would change.
I’ve caused problems in relationships by pressuring the other person to change.
I’ve argued with family members because I thought they should be different.
I’ve been disappointed by expecting someone to act differently than they always do.
I’ve been frustrated with friends who weren’t doing what I thought they should.
I’ve felt exasperated by clients who seemed stuck in bad habits.

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This probably makes me sound like a controlling narcissist, but most of the time I’m completely unaware that the problem is rooted in an underlying desire for another person to change. I think most of us often make the mistake of trying to change another person, or even just hoping another person will change, and I think it’s the underlying cause of a lot of interpersonal conflicts.

Why Do We Want to Change Others?

Because we think we’re helping.

Often, I want people to change when I feel they are unhappy, or that they could be happier. I might try to get a client to change their habits, when I feel they are self-destructive. I might try to get a friend to change their perspective, when I feel it’s holding them back. Hell, even this post is an attempt to get you to change the way you think about relating to others, because I hope it might be helpful!

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So often we size up other people, try to identify what their “problem” is, and offer solutions. While this process feels altruistic, it’s really just self-serving. It makes me feel better to believe I can help, but what am I really doing for the other person? Most likely, I’m belittling their experience by suggesting there’s a simple solution, and insulting their intelligence by assuming I could solve problems they couldn’t. Most people can figure out for themselves what they should do, but it’s the doing it that’s difficult, and no one can do it for them but themselves. Even if someone takes our advice and benefits from it, we’ve robbed from them the process of figuring it out themselves, and the ability to take full ownership of their own success.

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Because who they are feels threatening.

We like to feel “right”. Other people’s differences from us can make us feel uncertain about ourselves, and the way we live life. Uncertainty is uncomfortable, so we maintain our sense of security by judging/critiquing/finding fault with people who are different. Essentially asserting that they should be more like us, because we’re just so damn “right”. It can span from something as superficial as fashion choice, to something as intimate as personality, or spiritual beliefs. In reality, it’s a reflection of our own weakness, our own insecurity. Instead of tolerating the possibility that we’re wrong (or at least no more right than someone else) we rationalize why someone else is wrong and should change. The more we tear them down, the more secure we feel. Only it’s not a sustainable way of gaining security, because it’s just a matter of time before we find something else that challenges our beliefs, behaviors, perspectives, etc.

Because they are difficult to exist with.

There are people who are just difficult to deal with. Our first reaction to such people is generally to think of all the reasons why they are difficult, and how much easier life would be if they would just change. Unfortunately, this is usually just a waste our energy, because the only people we have control over is ourselves. We can set ourselves up for repeated disappointment by continuing to hope someone will act differently than they always do, or we can ask how we can change so that it affects us less. Focusing on other people’s flaws distracts us from facing our own deficiencies, like maybe our low frustration tolerance, or our inability to fulfill our own needs.

Why Trying to Change Others is a Mistake

Because it doesn’t work.

Research suggests you may be able to get a person to change their habits, but our personalities are pretty stable throughout life. When trying to get a person to change in any way, we need to remember that their sense of security is just as dependent on feeling “right” as ours is. For the most part, trying to get another person to change will only heighten their defenses and motivate them to think of all the reasons they’re right and you should change. Genuine change has to come from within. Generally the more it’s forced on someone, the more they will resist it.

“When a person gets insecure, he retreats to his conditioned personality, a coat of armor made of bad habits and pretenses”
– Dr. George Pransky, The Relationship Handbook

Because we have nothing to learn from someone exactly like us.

Trying to change someone else robs you of the value that they provide by being exactly who they are. I believe people come into your life exactly how they are, because of who they are – and that’s the only way they are of value to us. Maybe because they challenge us to grow, to look at the world a in a different way, to learn from their struggles. By trying to get people to fit into the little box that is easiest for us to accept them, we truly limit ourselves so much.

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Because it keeps us from truly connecting with another person.

Worst case scenario: another person starts acting in such a way as to please us, and in the process they lose their authentic self. Often times they end up losing their unique spark that drew us to them in the first place. Even though their behavior may be more acceptable to us, their soul is less accessible to us. You cannot have true intimacy with someone who is not being authentic – in fact intimacy is contingent upon feeling secure enough to be your authentic self. If you make someone feel that like isn’t safe for them to be themselves – that being themselves might be met with criticism and reprimand, then you can never truly connect with that person. Connection to other humans is the most important part of life, and not an area to make concessions.

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Because the greatest thing you can do for anyone, is accept them.

Our relationship is the best thing we can offer someone. Our love. Our acceptance. This far exceeds any value of advice, or influence. Every person has everything they need to reach their fullest potential already inside them, but we are all held back by fear and insecurity. The best thing we can do for another person, is to support who they are completely, so that everything they have inside can find its way out. This is what truly allows people to grow and transform into the best version of themselves, whoever they are supposed to be. Trying to force change on someone makes them fight it, but accepting someone unconditionally frees them to explore new possibilities.

“Self-esteem, confidence, wisdom and understanding are what allow people to drop destructive habits and make sound decisions in life. All of these qualities are brought out by goodwill, not by pressure and humiliation”
– Dr. George Pransky, The Relationship Handbook

Accepting People for Who They Are

When I say that you should accept people for who they are, I’m not suggesting that in extreme situations you should tolerate hurtful, disrespectful, etc. behaviors. Although I would still suggest you shouldn’t waste energy waiting for that person’s personality to change. Instead our energy should be directed towards what we can change. It might be working on our own communication skills to get along with others better, or our own coping skills to better tolerate difficult people, or it might be gathering the strength to cut an infectious person out of our life.

I’m also not suggesting that you shouldn’t try to work through differences with people. As mentioned, people can change their habits with awareness and motivation. If it drives you crazy that your husband leaves his dirty socks on the floor, he might be able to change this habit. Try bringing it to his awareness in a way that isn’t attacking him as a person, and that communicates you still accept him socks or no socks. In other words, we can resolve issues with other people, without asking or expecting them to change fundamental aspects of themselves.

Not only do I believe that accepting another person is the greatest gift you can give them, I believe it’s the greatest gift you can give yourself. Personally, letting go of any expectations for another person to be anything other than what they are has been one of the most liberating experiences.

“Happiness lies in accepting everyone in our lives EXACTLY as they are.
We cause ourselves untold misery whenever we believe others to be imperfect and try to change them.
This is the number one rule for a happy relationship.”
~Jonathan Lockwood Huie

It’s achieved by, and contributes to, a change in perspective from focusing on what more I want from a person, to appreciating what they already offer. Appreciating a person for their strengths and weaknesses, their nooks and crannies. Not evaluating and judging each aspect of them in isolation, and approving or disapproving. Instead, taking a step back and taking in the entire person, like a piece of art in which the darkest parts accentuate the brightest and beautiful parts in an essential way – such that if you took away any aspect of the piece, the whole would lose its’ meaning.  

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Insecurities In Relationships: It’s Not Them, It’s You.

Time for yet another one of my revelations: Most (if not all) problems in a relationship can be traced back to insecurity.

Insecurities that make us defensive
Insecurities that make us guarded
Insecurities that make us needy
Insecurities that make us demanding
Insecurities that make us submissive
… you get the idea

Reflecting on my own experiences in relationships I’ve realized that any time I felt angry with, or hurt by my significant other, it wasn’t about something they did – but an insecurity they triggered.

That time they canceled plans because they had to work late, the subconscious insecurities triggered probably went something like: “They must not want to spend time with me. Work is more important to them than me. I better make them feel guilty so they show me they love me again”.

That time they left me with all the chores: “They must not respect me, or even care about how this effects me. I better show them how angry I am so then they will respect me and not do this again.”  

This isn’t to say that the things your partner does aren’t objectively wrong in one way or another, but any extreme negative reaction on your part is always based in some personal insecurity. This speaks to the REBT principle that we do not react to an event, but only to our interpretation of that event. Greek philosophers agree, so you know it must be true.

“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them”
– Epictetus

Most of us have a psychological make-up that’s a veritable land-mind of insecurities, planted there throughout our life experiences. We view each new experience through a lens of our personal fears, doubts, beliefs, and biases. So when we explode at our partner for not being there on time – we’re not just mad at them, we’re mad at our father for not showing up to our little league game – only we’re not usually conscious of it. 
I would even go so far as to suggest that, due to a most basic need to love and be loved, every variety of insecurity is rooted in a fundamental and universal fear of not being loved… but that’s a tangent you can read more about here.

Relationships consist of a series of bids for love and support from our partners, that we hope will ward off that scary feeling of not being loved. Will you comfort me in this situation, or invalidate my feelings? Will you make me feel wanted, or reject me? Can I depend on you for this, or will you disappoint me? In other words, we’re constantly looking to our partners for feelings of security – security within the relationship, and security with ourselves. When they don’t fill this need, it hurts, and it feels scary. It triggers that deeply buried and powerful fear – that maybe we’re not loved… maybe we’re not even lovable.

This extends past relationships too. We might look to many other things in our external world to make us feel more secure – our jobs, our bank accounts, our looks, our achievements, etc. We convince ourselves that if these factors are just right, we’ll be secure, we’ll have value, we’ll be lovable.  If we don’t feel secure, we assume it’s because one of these factors isn’t where it should be. So we try to change our external world. We try to get more money, or a more prestigious job title. Some people will starve themselves, or have surgery to feel more attractive. In relationships, we fight and argue in attempts to force the relationship to meet our needs for security. We try to change our partners into people that act in ways that will always make us feel secure. get-back-here-and-love-me_610

Other people can make us feel more secure…

It’s true. Research has found that being in a relationship with someone who has a secure attachment style can make us more secure.

If you’ve never heard of attachment styles before, the basic idea is this: Our early interactions with our parents (or primary caregiver) lays the foundation for what we expect and thus how we behave in future relationships. If our parents were consistently available when we sought them for comfort and support, we’ll develop a “secure attachment style” in which we’ll be able to get close to others and trust them to provide us with love and support. However, if our parents were unavailable or inconsistent in attuning to our emotional needs, we’ll develop an “insecure attachment style” in which we have a hard time trusting that others will love and support us. People with secure attachment styles show more empathy in their relationships, seek out support from others more easily, communicate their feelings more easily, and are more trusting. Insecurely attached individuals might be anxious and clingy in relationships, or distant and avoiding, or a confusing combination of all the above. The silver lining is that shacking up with someone who has a secure attachment style, can help you feel more secure in your relationships.

Screen Shot 2014-04-27 at 2.37.05 PMSo this is good news, but not the perfect solution in my opinion – because I think depending on your partner to make you feel secure can only go so far. Even people with secure attachment style have relationship difficulties, and feel insecure at times.

The External World is Unpredictable

The problem is that anytime we are looking externally to feel more secure – we will be inevitably be let down. We might feel better momentarily, but it’s simply not sustainable. Our partner gets us flowers to apologize for messing up, and we might feel loved again – but it’s a matter of time until something else starts to make us feel insecure. This is because we can never control other people, and so we can never be 100% certain that they will feed our need for security. In fact, nothing about the external world is completely dependable, or without risk. People are unpredictable, our jobs are unpredictable, the world is unpredictable. Relying on external sources of security only creates a negative feedback loop that makes us feel less secure and even more dependent on those external sources.Screen Shot 2014-04-25 at 10.39.51 PM

 The self is the only dependable source of security 

The only true source of security is from within. We might exert all kinds of effort trying to control the rest of our world, but the only thing we can really control is ourselves. So what if we put as much effort into mastering our ability to choose the perspective we take of the world? What if instead of trying to change our partners into people that are better at making us feel secure, we change ourselves into people that fill our own need of security? What if we could provide ourselves with our own secure attachment to ourselves?

What would this look like? Well we would give ourselves the type of love, validation, and responsiveness that we hope for from our partners. We would recognize and respond to our own needs with patience and care. We would trust ourselves to love and respect ourselves no matter what. We would put effort towards developing ourselves to be the best version of ourselves, for ourselves.

 Once you realize this, your relationships will improve.

With this in mind, I have two things that I say to myself when I’m having difficulties in a relationship.

1.“It’s never about them, it’s always about you”
In other words, when we’re upset we automatically start blaming things on our partner’s issues, it’s really always about our own issues.

2. “Am I hoping/expecting something external will make me feel better right now?”
(spoiler alert: the answer is pretty much always “yes”)

By making a habit of saying these things during any interpersonal conflict, I remind myself to look inward for the reasons why I am so upset. Once I do this I can work on addressing my own insecurities that are fueling the problem, without making my partner responsible for them. Being aware of how my own insecurities are contributing, I become calmer, more objective, less defensive, and more open to my partner’s perspective. I can communicate my needs and insecurities to my partner without hostility, opening the door for issues to be dealt with in a productive way. Doing this then builds trust, support, and intimacy.

Paradoxically, when we are less dependent on our partners to make us feel secure, intimacy flourishes and our relationships actually become more secure. By being able to provide ourselves with the validation and support we need, we can simply enjoy our relationship without trying to make it serve our needs. We can accept our partners’ differences and short-comings, because they no longer threaten our sense of security. And so we become better romantic partners. We become the type of person that our significant other wants to be with, wants to love, wants to support, etc.

With that I’ll leave you with the best definition of true love I’ve yet to come across:

“It is a caring enough about the person that you do not wish to interfere with his development, nor to use him for any self-aggrandizing goals of your own. Your satisfaction comes in having set him free to grow in his own fashion.”
– Carl Rogers

* For more on learning how to build security from with-in, check out 4 Steps for Dealing with Insecurities in Relationships

4 Ways to Avoid Cheating in Relationships

When most people enter a committed relationship, they never expect that they would be unfaithful to the person they love. Yet research indicates that infidelity occurs in anywhere from 25-38% of relationships (Luo, Cartun, & Snider, 2010; Blow & Hartnett 2005).

The reasons why people cheat are complicated and varied. Personality characteristics, situational factors, and relationship issues can all contribute to infidelity. However, I think part of the problem is that people are generally pretty passive about remaining faithful. We make a commitment, but then hardly consider the type of effort needed to uphold that commitment. I don’t think people usually wake up one morning and decide they are going to cheat on their significant other. More likely, they simply don’t define boundaries for themselves. So they gradually approach the line of inappropriate with small, seemingly innocent steps that subtly chip away at the integrity of their relationship. Before they know it, cheating is just a matter of taking one more, small step.

One small step for man... one giant misstep for his relationship!

One small step for man… one giant misstep for his relationship!

I think it’s a shame that more people don’t actively work on honoring their commitment to their partner. I would guess few people even think about how they might do that. So here are some tips on how to take responsibility for remaining faithful in a relationship, based off of what research tells us about people who cheat vs. people who don’t.

#1 Idealize Your Partner

One theory about relationships suggests that we are as committed to our current partner as we are convinced they are the best option for us. Basically, we all want the highest quality mate we can get, so if we think we can do better we won’t be that committed to our current partner. Our perception is important here though. Even if you can’t actually do any better, as long as you’re convinced you can you’re not going to be very committed. On the flip side, you might be with a blubbering idiot but if see them as the best thing since sliced bread, you’re going to be very committed.

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So it makes sense that research has found people highly committed to their relationships tend to idealize their partners (Murray, 1999).

The take home point here is that if you want to protect your commitment, remind yourself often of all the qualities you admire about your partner and all the things they offer that would be hard to find elsewhere. Be conscious of your self-talk regarding your partner. Are your thoughts critical, focusing on their shortcomings, or unfairly comparing them to others? When you notice yourself thinking this way try to redirect yourself back to a place of admiration and appreciation for your partner. Do your best to put them up on a pedestal. It’s not always easy but it will have positive effects beyond protecting the fidelity of your relationship.

#2 Degrade Alternatives

Not only do people highly committed to their relationships idealize their partners, but they are also more likely to derogate their alternatives (Johnson & Rusbult, 1989). In other words, they are more critical in their judgements of other potential mates who might threaten their relationship. To protect our belief that we are with the best possible person for us (and thus maintain our commitment)– we need to tell our selves how wonderful that person is, as well as how icky everyone else is by comparison. I think self-awareness is crucial here, because it can be so much easier to idealize an alternative than our current mate.

You know all the weird things about your significant other. You’ve seen how they look first thing in the morning, you’ve heard them fart, and discovered all their quirks that drive you crazy. On the other hand, it’s easy to let our minds get carried away with fantasies about how perfect that cute guy in office seems. He’s probably the type of guy to get you flowers for no reason, hide love notes for you to discover, and call you just to see how your day’s going….

ryanSure these fantasies seem harmless enough, but we need to be careful. Our thoughts build the reality we live in, and ultimately determine our behavior. The take home point here is that if you want to protect your commitment to your partner, you will look for reasons why other potential mates don’t measure up.

#3 Avoid Temptation

One of the top reasons for cheating (particularly among men) is opportunity (Brand, Markey, Mills, & Hodges, 2007). So if you’ve made a commitment to stay monogamous, you have a responsibility to be on the look out for situations that might lead to the opportunity/temptation to cheat, and avoid those situations. Again, these situations are usually the result of several more innocent occurrences. It’s not like you’re likely to walk into a room and find a beautiful woman asking if you would like to commit adultery with her (unless maybe you’re Tiger Woods). Rather, a coworker you’ve exchanged innocent flirtations with might invite you to happy hour… which turns into late night drinks… which turns into less innocent flirtations… and so on. Therefore to protect your relationship, you need to have foresight into what can lead down a dangerous path.

If you’re trying to stay sober, it requires more than turning down a drink that’s offered. It might mean staying away from bars altogether, being careful about how you spend your time with friends who like to drink, and avoiding certain activities that you associate with drinking. If you need to save money, you might have to avoid your favorite stores, or throw out any catalogs you get in the mail. If you’re committed to losing weight, you don’t go into a Dunkin Donuts, and you don’t even look at those delicious looking brownies in bakery window.

Staying faithful to your partner requires similar preventative measures, as well as insight into your own capacity for self-control. If don’t want to cheat, nip temptation in the bud!

#4 Keep It Interesting

Screen Shot 2013-12-10 at 9.29.15 PMAnother common reason for cheating is boredom (Brand, Markey, Mills, & Hodges, 2007). In previous posts about relationships, I’ve discussed self-expansion theory, which suggests that we are innately motivated towards growth and expanding of our sense of self, and relationships with others is one of our main methods of achieving this (Aron, & Aron, 1997). Research suggests that our satisfaction with our current relationship is related to how much it contributes to our self-expansion. Research also suggests that when we don’t feel like our partner is helping us grow, we pay more attention to alternatives, i.e. other dating partners who represent an opportunity for growth (VanderDrift, Lewandowski, & Agnew, 2011). This is a risky place to be in terms of commitment, because almost anyone new provides the potential for self-expansion just by being someone new and different.

The way to prevent falling into this trap is to put a conscious effort into making your current relationship continuously self-expanding. This can be accomplished by doing new and exciting activities with your partner that help you both grow as individuals together. Travel some place new together, sit in on a lecture, or take a dance class!

Bonus!

All of the aforementioned advice is to help you take responsibility for being a faithful partner, but the benefits don’t stop there. Each of these tips are likely to also improve your satisfaction with your relationship, and the over-all quality of your relationship – which makes it even less likely that you’ll want to stray from your partner. Not to mention, improving the quality of your relationship will also make it less likely that your partner will be tempted to stray. So stop being passive about your commitment to your relationship – and life in general for that matter! Take responsibility, take action, and reap the benefits!!!

Passion vs. Dedication: What’s More Important In A Relationship?

The dating site OKcupid asks members to answer a variety of questions and uses the answers to predict compatibility with other members. I can’t imagine there’s much validity to this method, but I still find it interesting to read peoples’ answers. There’s one question that particularly interests me: “What’s more important in a relationship? Passion or Dedication?” To me, the obvious answer is dedication – so much so that I figured anyone who responded “passion” must not take relationships seriously enough to qualify as dating material. To my chagrin I noticed an interesting phenomena…
Literally every guy I’ve seen answers “passion”.facepalm-over-animal-ags-stupidity

Really? Really??? This forced me to do some self-reflection – am I crazy for thinking dedication is so obviously more important than passion in a relationship? Am I alone in this?? Of course, seeing that so few agree with me, I have to consider the unlikely possibility that I might be wrong. On the other hand, my background in psychology has allowed me to take classes and conduct research on human relationships, so maybe the difference between my opinion and the general opinion of the Okcupid population reflects a difference in education. I have to remember that what seems like common sense to me now is really the product of being exposed to information that most people might not receive. It’s really a shame if this is the case, because I think the value you place on passion vs. dedication in your relationship can have very real consequences. I’d like to explain my reasoning, and then you can decide if I’m crazy, wrong, or well educated (or all of the above).

Passion is important. Passion is what draws you to another person. Passion is what gives you that “high” of falling in love, and inspires you to keep coming back for more. Without passion, you’re stuck in the friend zone. While passion is necessary to begin a romantic relationship, it is only one part of a successful long-term relationship (and in my opinion not the most important part). But don’t take my word for it; let’s see what the research has to say.

The Triangular Theory of Love, developed by relationship theorist Robert Sternberg, identifies 3 elements of relationships that combine in different ways for different types of relationships. The three elements Sternberg identifies are passion, intimacy, and commitment. Passion is associated with physical attraction and intense emotional arousal. Intimacy refers to a sense of emotional closeness, comfort, and support between two people. Finally, commitment is the choice to be dedicated to a relationship and make an effort to preserve it for the long-term.

lovetriIn Sternberg’s theory, the combination of all three of these elements is labeled “Consummate Love” and is basically the holy grail of relationships. While many relationships might start out with all three of these elements, Consummate Love unfortunately isn’t very sustainable. The reason? Over time passion simply tends to fizzle down. Don’t shoot the messenger, that’s just what the research says.

Why does passion fizzle down? Passion is associated with arousal and arousal is fueled by adrenaline. Think heart racing, palms sweating, and an intense sense of urgency. Sounds like falling in love, right? Also sounds like a high-speed car race or sky diving, right? According to research, your partner doesn’t even have to be the source of the heightened adrenaline in order for your attraction to them to increase. A classic experiment by Dutton and Aron (1974) showed that men who were stopped and interviewed by a female on a rickety, flimsy suspension bridge found the woman more attractive than men who encountered her on a more sturdy and stable bridge. Additional research has validated that heightened adrenaline can be misattributed to another person and increase our attraction to that person.

Do I make you randy baby???

Do I make you randy baby???

This is why passion peaks early in relationships, because the very nature of beginning a relationship is new and exciting. You’re continuously being surprised by learning new things and having new experiences with this person. Without putting any effort into it, the process of falling in love creates adrenaline and makes us feel passion. However it simply isn’t possible to remain in a heightened state of arousal indefinitely. Eventually as you become more familiar with a person, the novelty wears off. Instead of basking in an idealized fantasy of your partner and relationship, you have to face the reality of remaining committed to a real person with flaws and a relationship with ups and downs, or else go seek new passion elsewhere.

I realize this might seem like a very bleak and pessimistic view of love, but I don’t think it has to be. Sternberg’s theory labels love with high levels of intimacy and commitment, but lower levels of passion “Companionate Love”. This is the type of stable and comfortable love that is most typically experienced by partners in long satisfying marriages. Companionate love is not based on fiery passion, but on common interests, sharing, and deep friendship. Research shows that this tends to be the stuff happy marriages are made of. Lauer and Lauer (1985) surveyed hundreds of couples that had been married at least 15 years, asking them what made the marriage work. The most common responses were “I married my best friend” and “I like my spouse as a person”.

Now I’m not saying we should all accept the inevitable fate of a passionless long-term relationship. Research does show that there is a small percentage of couples that seem to be able to make passion last. I think that understanding the nature of passion, along with some dedication, gives you the best shot at being one of those lucky couples. Unfortunately, fairy tales, romantic comedies, etc. lead us to believe that when we find our “soul-mate” we will be madly in love for a lifetime and effortlessly live happily ever after. I think it’s this misunderstanding about the nature of relationships that might account for such a high divorce rate. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the height of passion in a relationship lasts about two years, and most divorces occur after about two years of marriage. If you are passive about your relationship, and expect to live passionately and happily ever after, you’re bound to be disappointed. Furthermore, when passion begins to dwindle you’re likely to conclude that the person you’re with isn’t right for you and seek someone else that gives you that sense of passion (which will be easy because the novelty of someone new will innately fosters arousal, as discussed).

^ Married once, engaged 5 times, currently single. Thanks for the advice Johnny but I'm all set.

^ Married once, engaged 5 times, currently single. Thanks for the advice Johnny, but I’m all set.

On the other hand, if you are very dedicated to your relationship, you can take a proactive approach to keeping passion alive within your relationship. For example, since we know any experience that increases adrenaline can heighten your attraction to a person, doing exciting things with your partner can keep the passion alive. The Self-Expansion Model theorized by Aron and Aron (1997) posits that individuals have an innate inclination towards growth and expanding our self-concept. One of the main ways we do this is through our relationships, and so it’s no surprise that satisfaction in relationships has been correlated with high levels of self-expansion. In other words, satisfying relationships are ones where the partners help each other grow as individuals.

Getting to know someone new naturally expands our self-concept, and so no effort is needed to reap the benefits of self-expansion in a new relationship. As time passes, a relationship is no longer inherently self-expanding; the novelty wears off and you’ve already learned most of what you can learn from simply getting to know your partner. Thus relationship satisfaction can also decrease, but there’s a silver lining. Researchers have been able to increase couples’ views of the quality of their relationship by getting them to engage in new and exciting activities together. So you can improve your relationship by putting a conscious effort into planning  new and exciting activities with your partner that help you both grow as individuals.

Take home message: Passion is important, but not likely to be maintained over time without dedication. Furthermore, placing too much emphasis on passion in your relationship is dangerous, because it sets you up for failure. When the passion in your relationship dwindles (as it almost inevitably will) you will doubt your relationship, be tempted to give up and start over with someone new, and eventually repeat the same pattern. Rather than looking for someone who fills you with endless undying passion, look for someone you enjoy and respect as a person. Take the advice of most happily married couples, and marry your best friend. Then put some effort into making that relationship as exciting as possible.

954786_390046057770738_1093487704_n*side note: I haven’t looked at women’s answers to the OKcupid question, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a gender difference. Research shows that men have more romanticized ideas about relationships, whereas women are more practical. Hence men are more likely to emphasize passion over intimacy or commitment. Knowing this, I shouldn’t have been surprised by all the “passion” responses from men. This means that men generally place the most value on the least sustainable aspect of a relationship. Wake the ef up dudes!

Interested in more? Here’s some articles that talk about the same stuff much more eloquently:
Nytimes.com: New Love: A Short Shelf Life?
Scienceofrelationships.com: Is Long-term Love Possible?
Scienceofrelationships.com: Hot and Heavy or Slow-and Steady?
Scienceofrelationships.com: Rekindle the Romance in Your Relationship with Self-Expansion

Communication: The Best Defense is No Defense

I’m extremely interested in what makes communication effective vs. ineffective. As I’m working towards becoming a psychotherapist, I think it’s crucial that I have a deep understanding of communication so that I can 1) reach my clients through my own communication, 2) recognize problem areas in my clients’ communication, and 3) help coach them to better express themselves. For personal and professional reasons, I am particularly interested in communication within intimate relationships. It’s no novel idea that good communication can be a couple’s secret to a lifetime of happiness and harmony, while poor communication can make relationships toxic and tear them apart. So what are the keys to good communication in relationships, and what are the traps of bad communication?

CoupleFight-480x330

It seems to me that defensiveness is a vital issue in communication between partners. When unmanaged, defensiveness can start a spiral of communication that escalates from a loaded comment to a full blown argument. In fact, while an argument might seem like two people attacking each other, I would suggest that arguments almost always consist of two people defending themselves. Unfortunately we often feel like the best defense is a good offense. However, if you can resist getting defensive when your partner is upset, you are much more likely to be able to resolve the issue and become even closer to your partner.

So why is it so hard to keep down our defenses if we know it would probably make life a lot easier? Well, at the risk of stating the obvious – Keeping down our defenses makes us feel really fucking vulnerable.  Vulnerability is a very scary and uncomfortable feeling that we want to avoid, and so we try to deflect away from our flaws and mistakes. Instead of taking a moment to try to understand what our partner needs, we push back, turn the light on their flaws and mistakes, and invalidate their experience. Staying calm and opening ourselves up when we feel like we’re being attacked goes against our very nature, but it is the key to stopping an argument before it begins.

Our natural reaction to a threatening situation is fight or flight, and in the context of a relationship this often manifests as arguing or shutting down. Though this is a protective mechanism, in relationships it only serves to  hurt us more. We end up hurting the person we love and damaging the relationship, when our relationship is one of our best means of fulfillment. When your partner is hurt, it never helps the situation to go on the defense, even if you have a reasonable defense. When you get defensive, you are focusing on what you need instead of what your partner needs. Your partner needs to feel heard, understood, and loved… it’s very unlikely that any defense you throw up is going to make the other person feel better or give them what they need. When they don’t feel they are getting what they need, they will likely either come back with a stronger attack (since their first attempt wasn’t successful at making you understand how hurt they were) or they will shut down. In either case they end up not feeling like they can trust you to nurture them. The whole situation could have been circumvented if you had the strength to take a breath before reacting and think about what your partner is really trying to communicate, and what they really need.

This isn’t easy. Our brains a literally wired to mirror the energy of those around us, so when you’re facing a furious spouse, your brain says that you should also be furious. It also goes against our natural fight or flight reaction. It takes a real conscious effort to be able to move towards the very thing that you feel is attacking you. However, if you can achieve this, what would have been a relationship damaging argument can become an opportunity to build trust and intimacy with your partner. This is actually the more self defensive thing to do as well, because the faster you let your defenses down, the faster your partner can return to loving position towards you.

So how do you stop yourself from getting defensive? Well I think it takes a lot of self-awareness, because the first step is recognizing when you are starting to feel defensive. This is a challenge, because in these situations our brain is usually too focused on reacting to the threat to allow for self-reflection. With practice however, you can start to recognize the process of  becoming defensive. For me, my heart speeds up, I stop listening to what the person is saying and instead start planning my attack. My muscles tense and my eyes narrow.

Once you recognize the sensation of becoming defensive, it helps to notice external elements that might be contributing to your reaction. For example, is you brain just mirroring the energy of the person you’re with? In which case, can you bring their energy down by managing your own? Is there a lot of other stimulation in the area (lights, loud sounds, etc.) that might be overwhelming your senses and putting you in a heightened state of alertness? Are there other unrelated issues that already had you agitated and left you quick tempered?

Now that you realize you’re getting defensive, how do you return to a loving position toward your partner? You must make yourself empathize with them. Remember that even though you feel like you’re being attacked by your partner in some way, they’re coming to you because they need something from you. The way they’re communicating it might be shitty, but they are actually trying to reach out to you. Try to listen past the complaints, yelling, jabs, etc. and hear what they’re actually trying to convey. Maybe it’s “I’m scared”, “I need help”, or “I miss you”. It’s very hard to get defensive when we’re really making an effort to understand another person’s perspective, especially someone we love.

Here’re some tips:

  • Study self-awareness. This is a life tip because building your self awareness will help you in every area of life (there’ll probably be more on self awareness to follow in another post at some point). Try meditation, breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, etc.
  • I know it’s cliche and easier said than done – but take a deep breathe and count to five. This forces your heart to slow down and stops you from slipping into the spiral of defensiveness. This can also be an anchor for you to enter into a more self aware state.
  • Remember that the more angry or upset a person comes across, the more vulnerable they feel. Try to think about what would be making them feel vulnerable.
  • Notice your body language. If your arms/legs are crossed, uncross them. If your making fists, relax your hands.
  • If you’re confident you can do so in a loving way, make some physical contact with your partner. A hand on their knee, or their hand, or even a hug can do wonders for calming another person down and returning them to a loving position towards you.

I know these strategies seem simple and probably common sense, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy. Keep practicing and keep trying though, and I promise this is a skill that will make a huge difference in your life!