Debate Isn’t a Dirty Word

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When a tragedy such as the Orlando mass shooting occurs, an inevitable rise in debate follows. The debating can get nasty, and just add to the negativity of an already overwhelmingly awful event. I wish this wasn’t so.

I love a friendly debate. Probably to a fault, I’ll carry on a debate long past the time when most people become uncomfortable. Recently I’ve found myself in some lengthy facebook-commenting debates, and while I definitely don’t think Facebook is the ideal forum for such discussions, I’ve appreciated the exchanges. What I’ve noticed however, is that it makes other people uncomfortable. In these situations and many others throughout my life, I’ve been encouraged by friends and loved ones to “just let it go”, or “just drop it”. I’ve even carried on debates to the point that the other person involved gets upset, leaving me feeling confused and ashamed because I never intended to offend anyone.

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The truth is, I have a really hard time walking away from a debate, and I admit it probably has something to do with ego, but there’s definitely more to it than that for me. I find it interesting how uncomfortable debate makes people, and I think it’s a shame. I think it contributes to lack of progress on a lot of issues.

We feel uncomfortable when our thoughts and beliefs are challenged. It feels threatening, as if people are insulting who we are as a person. It’s natural, but it shouldn’t be this way. We are not defined by our ideas so long as we’re willing to be flexible in them. Therefore, a challenge to your beliefs shouldn’t be felt as a personal attack, and yet we get so defensive. When we get defensive, we get emotional, and we stop using reason to uphold our beliefs and start using more drastic measures like abusive language or even behavior to tear down the other person.

Another possibility is that we “just drop it”. We “just drop it” because we want to avoid the discomfort of disagreeing, or being challenged, or maybe because we’re accepting/assuming that the other person will never change their mind. But maybe you’ll change your mind. Would that be so terrible? If we “just drop it” then we lose the opportunity of following any conflict through to a resolution.

The reason why I seldom “drop” a debate is because I embrace the discomfort of having my beliefs challenged. If there’s a valid reason why I should think differently, I want to hear it! If I “just drop it” I might never get to hear that reason, and then how can I be confident in my beliefs? Discomfort is a signal to me that I’m emotionally tied to my beliefs, and I should look carefully to see if my emotions are clouding my judgement. Few of us are experts on all of the relevant issues that come up for debate. I’ll be the first to admit I have opinions about issues that I haven’t researched exhaustively . So I try to be open to influence.

I never want to make someone that I’m disagreeing with feel offended, and I never mean to attack you as a person. If I’m critiquing your ideas, it’s not to make you look bad, it’s only because I’m trying your ideas on for size and seeing how they fit within my reason. I’m challenging your opinions, because I’m curious. I don’t understand or agree with your perspective, but if it stands up to challenge, maybe I will. If we want to find our common ground, we might need to explore an issue completely.

So that’s my little explanation/disclaimer to why I rarely back down from a debate, even though it probably makes me look like an a-hole. I think a debate ideally ends when one person is convinced, or both sides have exhausted their arguments and agree to disagree (or when the food is delivered to the table, cause ya know, priorities). I think it would do a world of good if we all learned to tolerate our discomfort with conflict, detach our identities from our beliefs and our emotions from our reasoning.

As I discuss in other posts about healthy communication being key to a healthy romantic relationship, so too is healthy communication key to a healthy nation. As I encourage couples;

  • Let’s address issues, while avoiding blame and criticism.
  • Let’s share about our differences and try to understand each other without vilifying the opposition.
  • If the emotional intensity of a debate gets too high, let’s take a break until cooler minds can prevail and we can get back to the issue at hand. L
  • et’s entertain the possibility that we could be wrong and be open to influence.
  • Most importantly, let’s remember to focus on where we can find common ground and work from there.

If we can shift our perspective about differences of opinions to opportunities instead of attacks, then I think we might actually get somewhere.

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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.

Response to “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing”

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Ok so I’m on a roll with the “response” posts, but one particular blogger had me fired up late last week. Last Thursday xoJane.com published the article “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing”. When I first saw the article I was intrigued. While I thought the title was exploitive click bait, I thought maybe what followed would offer a provocative personal perspective about mental illness. Or I thought maybe it would be a reflection on how relief can sometimes be a complicated and even more painful aspect of grief.

But I was wrong. The article that followed was a string of shallow and callous judgements that begged the question of how it made it past an editors desk. XoJane later removed that article and apologized, though the author has not apologized. You can still see the original post here.

As someone who works with the mentally ill and has loved ones with mental illness, I was not only angered and offended, but also disappointed by the lost opportunity a explore a challenging but worthy issue. Let me try to explain what I hoped the article might be, and point an angry finger at what it actually was.

As a sibling of someone with severe and chronic mental illness, I’ve watched first hand the pain caused by mental illness to the individual and everyone that cares for them. The value of living such a painful life is a worthy conversation, not because anyone with mental illness is better off dead, but because the conversation brings light to the suffering that goes ignored or stigmatized. I’ve watched my brother go through hell. I’ve watched my parents’ lives turn upside down in their exhausting efforts to help him. I would be lying if I said there weren’t moments, when things were really bad, when somewhere deep in the darkest corner of my mind would it be better if he wasn’t here? became a thought. The times this has happened, shame and pain immediately follow. Shame for my own weakness and difficulty merely observing the pain that my brother somehow finds the strength to endure every day. Shame for my narrow sightedness that my parents’ unconditional love is a burden and not a triumph. After the shame, comes immediate gratitude for my brother, everything he teaches me with his experience, and everything his presence on this earth offers us. Our society has become so motivated by pain and discomfort avoidance, that we often forget pain precedes growth; pain precedes strength – and that must make my brother and others with mental illness some of the strongest people in the world.

As much shame as I have associated with that thought, I think that maybe it’s worth sharing. Sometimes our mind goes to a terrible place without asking our permission first. It’s human. It’s a product of the pain caused by mental illness, and the helplessness felt by anyone who cares, which is a result of such insufficient treatment and support. So maybe others have had similar experiences/thoughts, and similarly judge themselves. Maybe instead of judging ourselves we could share our experiences, lean on each other for strength, and try to make some change.

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This is the complicated emotional experience of someone whose life is touched by mental illness. You, Amanda Lauren, are not one of these people.

Your article didn’t mention any pain you experienced at a result of this person’s struggle. At most you described inconvenience and annoyance in response to what sounded like mere personality differences, not pathological symptoms. If you’re going to make the dubious argument that life with mental illness isn’t worth living, talk about homelessness, talk about insufficient treatment, talk about stigma, talk about being the victim of violence… Don’t talk about having a messy room and lack of a boyfriend.

You admitted to not even giving this girl a thought for years before you decided to add her to your Facebook feed solely for your entertainment. Based on some concerning behavior and posts about her diagnosis, you draw assumptions that she died lonely, unhappy, and a burden to her family, while simultaneously judging her family for allowing this to occur (as if it were something they had control over). You wrote an article assigning value (or lack thereof) to a person’s life that you weren’t even involved in.

If your point is that your former friend’s life was a tragedy best ended, you need to take responsibility for that tragedy. You watched and judged someone who needed help, and did nothing. Now she is dead. You can try to justify your behavior by backwards reasoning that she’s better off dead – But no, she’s not.

Now you not only need to take responsibility for how you treated your former friend, but the message you sent to everyone suffering with mental illness by publishing that article. The first step is taking responsibility for whatever mindset is at the root of such callousness. Seek some help Amanda Lauren. Don’t worry, you’ve cause some people some pain, but you’re not a lost cause.

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

Stop Categorizing Other People… and Yourself!

We live in a world that loves to categorize things. It’s the human brain’s little trick for sorting through a lot of information efficiently; “It’s either this, or it’s that”. While categorization can be helpful, there are some negative consequences, especially when applied to human experience. For example, we tend to sort other people into various categories, i.e. male/female, gay/straight, nerd/jock, etc.. This type of black and white thinking not only limits our ability to understand another person’s experience, but often times it can make it difficult to understand our own experience as well. We feel pressure to fit into rigidly defined categories that society has laid out for us, and as a result we might mitigate unique parts of ourself and our experience that don’t fit so neatly into these social boxes. People might hide or play down the parts of themselves that blur the lines so they can fit in and identify more closely with a certain group, all the while feeling fundamentally different. The point of this post is to highlight some examples of areas that we need to challenge our categorical perspective, so that we can all relate better to each other as unique and diverse individuals, rather then members of separate homogenous groups.

Sexual Orientation

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 10.20.08 PMWe generally think of sexual orientation as identification with a certain category (gay, straight, bi), but this can cause a lot of people confusion when trying to understand their own sexual feelings and experience. A healthier way to consider sexual orientation would be to think of it as a point on spectrum with strict heterosexuality and homosexuality representing the extreme end points of the scale. It’s actually rare that someone would fall on an extreme end of this spectrum. Maybe you’re mostly attracted to the opposite sex, but you can recognize when someone of the same sex is attractive. Maybe members of the same sex even show up in your fantasies from time to time, but you don’t necessarily ever feel inclined to act on those fantasies. The point is, whatever your experience may be, it has a place somewhere along this scale.

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Sexual Fluidity

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 10.25.26 PMTo add to the dynamics of sexual experience is the fact that sexual orientation isn’t necessarily a fixed trait. For many people, who they are attracted to evolves throughout their life. This concept can also be represented on a spectrum with complete sexual fixedness on one end and complete sexual fluidity on the other. Someone who has always been attracted to one sex (be it same or opposite sex) for as long as they can remember and never experienced periods or moments of attraction to the other sex, would be a very sexually fixed person. A more sexually fluid person might have periods of being exclusively attracted to one sex, but has also had periods of being exclusively attracted to another sex, and maybe also periods where they felt attracted to both sexes. In other words, wherever you fall on the sexual orientation spectrum discussed above, you don’t necessarily remain on that one point of the spectrum, but might move around a bit over time.

Research shows that women tend to be higher in sexual fluidity, and therefore are more likely to change sexual orientation throughout life. However, it’s unclear how much this is affected by different societal gender norms. For example, it’s generally considered more acceptable in our society for a straight women to experiment with other woman (e.g. making out with another girl at a party), than it is for a straight man to experiment with another man. The take home point is that there is a lot of gray area when it comes to our sexual preferences, and it’s totally normal to not fit into our society’s rigid categories.

Gender

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 10.22.03 PMA related area where society attempts to squeeze us into dichotomous categories is gender. Our society has established ideas of what it means to be a man and we call it masculine. We have established ideas of what it means to be a woman, and we call it feminine. However no man is strictly masculine and no woman is strictly feminine. The reality is that a woman can identify with any masculine trait(s) and it does not make her less of a woman, and the same it true for men. Therefore we can again consider these traits on a spectrum where regardless of your biological sex you may lean towards masculinity or femininity but still identify with traits of either gender. Right in the middle of this scale would be androgyny, which research has actually shown to be connected to many positive traits. In other words, it’s actually best to embrace positive characteristics associated with both genders. If we embrace this spectrum perspective of gender as a society perhaps we will be able to show more compassion and understanding for those who feel they identify more with the gender opposite of their biological sex. Perhaps individuals would not feel so conflicted and confused when their experience doesn’t seem to match what society prescribes for their sex. Perhaps we would all feel more able to explore and embrace our most genuine selves without pressure to conform ourselves to gender norms.

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Relationships

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 10.33.28 PMSexologist Jessica O’Reilly applies the spectrum perspective to relationships in this TED Talk, where she explains Dan Savage’s concept of “monogamish relationships”. She suggests that strict monogamy doesn’t seem to work for many people (as evidence by high divorce rates), however she states that the opposite (strict polygamy) doesn’t work for many people either. She encourages us to open our mind to the many possibilities in between monogamy and polygamy, and define fidelity in our relationships on our own terms. For example, maybe you and your partner do not have sex with others, but flirting is ok, or bringing a guest player into your fantasies/dirty talk is enough to keep things exciting. Whatever it may be, the spectrum perspective opens up the opportunity to have an honest conversation with your partner about wants and desires that might lay outside of society’s standard definitions of relationships.

Mental Health

Once you understand that most traits exist on a spectrum rather than in categories, you can begin to apply it to many areas of life. Even our typical understanding of mental illness has been defined by categorical diagnoses, and as a clinical psychologist in training I’m all too familiar with the problems inherent in trying to fit a unique person with complicated psycho-social issues into a strictly defined diagnosis. There is actually a current a push in the field of psychology to describe mental health conditions on spectrums rather than categories. An example is the transition from separate diagnoses for Aspergers Syndrome and Autism, to Autism Spectrum Disorder, which recognizes that individuals may experience symptoms of Autism to various extents and thus present in very different ways. In terms of other disorders, the presence or absence of one symptom can currently make the difference between whether someone qualifies for a diagnosis or not. Would it not make more sense to describe a person as “having the following depressive traits” or “falling above average on the depression scale”, rather than depressed or not depressed?

Take Home Point

The underlying point here is that few things in life are black and white, and it does us a world of good to look for the gray areas. It’s particularly dangerous to apply black and white thinking to other people, because we rob ourselves of what we can learn from the idiosyncrasies of others. Furthermore, let’s think about what we lose when we subconsciously apply black and white thinking to our own identity. What parts of life, what parts of our self, have we not explored because they seem to conflict with the labels we’ve applied to ourself? How can we meet our full potential, if we hold ourself to the confines of categories? So periodically check in with yourself… are there any areas where you’re not allowing yourself to explore the full spectrum of life?

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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!

The Social Psychology of Ferguson

Witnessing the dialogue sparked by the events in Ferguson, MO, I just feel so so sad. Sad to see people pointing fingers at each other, sad to hear overly simplistic assessments of a complex situation, sad to see people citing other crimes by other people as if it validates or invalidates what’s happened in anyway. Mostly it makes me sad to see people pushing away from each other, rather than coming together. It makes me sad, but I also understand. Having an education in social psychology, I can appreciate the complex factors that come together to create situations like this. This knowledge makes me feel far less judgmental, and far more empathetic when something like this happens. That’s why I truly believe that social psychology should be a required and fundamental aspect of every person’s education.  So for what it’s worth, I thought I would write a little crash course in social psychology to give some perspective on the events in Ferguson. Let’s first look at some of the ways prejudices are perpetuated and affect our behavior.

Confirmation Bias

To save energy, our brains take shortcuts (called heuristics) to quickly navigate the overwhelming amount of information presented by our environment. One shortcut our brains make is to seek information that supports the beliefs we already have. It takes less mental energy to continue believing the same thing, than it does to re-evaluate and adapt our beliefs. This is called Confirmation Bias and is one of the main ways that stereotypes and prejudice persist. For example, if I’m convinced Asians are terrible drivers I’ll notice every time a terrible driver happens to be Asian, but I’m not on the look out for all those Asians who aren’t causing any trouble on the roads. We find what we already believe.wpid-photo-jul-19-2012-1059-pmIf I think a black man is likely to be a criminal, my belief is reaffirmed every time I hear a story about blacks committing crime, but I give less weight to experiences that contradict my belief (i.e. all the black people around me every day not committing crimes). If I believe cops are racist, I’ll pay more attention to accounts that prove me right, and overlook instances of police officers treating people of different races with respect.

In-group/Out-group Bias

Back in our tribal days it was important for us to be able to quickly differentiate between “our peeps” and “outsiders”. So another energy saving trick our brains play is to categorize people into In-groups (groups I belong to) and Out-groups (groups I don’t belong to). Due to the homogeneity effect, we overestimate how similar members of out-groups are to each other, and recognize more individual differences between members of our in-group. It’s probably not surprising that we also tend to regard our in-groups with more positive attributes than out-groups, but you might be surprised by how arbitrarily we can make these attributions. For example, one researcher split strangers into two groups based on a coin flip, and participants still reported liking their groups members more, assumed they had nicer personalities, and were better workers (Tajfel, 1981). thMuzafer Sherif’s famous Robbers Cave Experiment was intended to examine the influence of group membership. He randomly assigned 22 white middle-class boys in summer camp to one of two groups. The two groups were separated from each other and encouraged to bond with members of their own group. The two groups were then brought together to compete in various activities for prizes. Before long the two groups engaged in name calling and taunting… then in vandalism and theft… then in such aggression that researchers had to physically separate them for two days. When asked to describe each group, the boys would describe their group favorably and the other group derogatorily.


Many other social psychology studies have demonstrated how easily we identify with a certain group, and develop biases in favor of our groups and against other groups. Think about the hatred some sports fans have towards fans of opposing teams. If identification with something as superficial as a sports team can cause such bias and result in extreme behaviors like rioting, think about the influence of something as personal as the color of your skin. Consider how much your perspective of any situation might be affected by who you see as part of your in-group or part of an out-group.

Fundamental Attribution Error

The Fundamental Attribution Error refers to the social psych. finding that we are prone to disproportionately attribute a person’s behavior to innate character traits, and underestimate the influence of the situation. In a study by Jones and Harris (1967), participants were told to read articles for and against Fidel Castro. Even when participants were told that the authors were assigned to write for or against Castro based on a coin toss, they still rated authors of the pro-Castro articles as having more favorable opinions of Castro. In other words, they were unable to fully consider the situation, and couldn’t stop themselves from making assumptions about the authors’ personal beliefs. Social experiments have shown that we’re more likely to attribute our behavior to the situation, but other people’s behaviors to their personality. So when I cut people off in traffic it’s because I’m really in a rush, and it’s not something I would normally do – but when someone else cuts me off in traffic it’s undoubtedly because they’re characterlogically a big d-bag. th-1We are more likely to make attributions consistent with our own prejudices. For example, an analysis of over 50 studies showed that when men failed to accomplish a task, it was assumed they didn’t work hard enough. When women failed it was assumed the task was too hard for them. Thus interpreting the same situation differently due to a bias that women are innately “less able” than men. We are also less likely to consider the influence of the situation on members of out-groups. So when a white cop shoots an unarmed black man – If I more strongly identify with the white cop, I’m more likely to consider how the situation influenced his behavior, but attribute the black man’s behavior to his character. If I identify more strongly with the black man, I’m likely to consider how the situation influenced his behavior, and attribute the cops behavior to his character. In reality, the situation influenced both of their behaviors more than I probably realize.

Group Dynamics

In the good ol’ days before ethics boards, Philip Zimbardo wanted to study how much the behaviors of prisoners and prison guards were influenced by innate personality, but ended up conducting one of the most important studies of group membership, power vs. oppression, and the influence of situation. The Stanford Prison Experiment involved a make-shift jail in the basement of a campus building, and 24 “psychologically stable and healthy” middle class male participants. Zimbardo randomly assigned participants to be a “prisoner” or a “guard”. Guards dressed in a uniform, carried batons, and wore tinted glasses to prevent eye contact. Prisoners were given identification numbers, smocks, and a chain around one ankle. stanford_prison_experimentThe study was supposed to continue for 2 weeks. After 6 days the experiment had to be called off, because the situation had gotten out of control. After the first day, prisoners revolted against the guards’ authority by refusing to follow directions, barricading their cells, and cursing at the guards. Guards then attempted to assert their control over the prisoners with increasingly sadistic methods. They attacked prisoners with fire extinguishers, stripped them naked, made them do push-ups (while they sat or stepped on their backs), refused to let them use the bathroom (instead making them defecate in a bucket in their cell and refusing to empty it), removed their mattresses, and put them in solitary confinement. One prisoner had to be released from the study due to a mental/emotional breakdown involving disordered thinking, uncontrollable crying, and uncontrollable rage. spic63If such chaos can unfold after only 6 days of otherwise equal people being assigned roles of power vs. oppression, think about the consequences extrapolated across centuries. If 6 days of having your rights taken from you can cause someone significant emotional distress, what’s the effect over generations? If 1 day of make-believe guards asserting authority over you can cause average people to revolt, how do you expect people to act when it’s a part of their every day lives?

Crowd psychology

This subject can easily fill an entire book, and involves many social psychology phenomena in combination, but the point returns to the power of the situation. Groupthink causes the a desire for conformity and cohesiveness in the group to overpower rational thinking and behavior. People experience de-individualization, and thus anonymity in crowds. groupthinkDiffusion of responsibility means the more people involved, the less responsibility any one person feels. The less responsibility any one person feels, the more they’re likely to do (or not do) things congruent with their morals. Group polarization is the tendency for groups to think and act in more extreme ways than individuals. So if the individuals that make up a group wanted to rebel, together they are going to be extremely rebellious. If the individuals that make up a group wanted to be punitive, together they are going to be extremely punitive. It’s worth mentioning that uniforms also de-individualize, particularly helmets, visors, glasses, masks, shields – things that are covering a person’s face and thus their identity. When our identity is concealed, we feel less inhibited and less personally accountable for what we do.
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Fight or Flight

This is not a social psychology term, it’s a biological term. When we feel threatened past a certain point, our reflexes kick in and our bodies decide to either fight or flee. When this happens, the emotional center of our brain is on autopilot, and is not taking the time to consult with the rational part of our brain about whether or not we are making good decisions. The reason it’s important to include this in the discussion, is because it’s another way a situation affects our behavior. If I’m in a situation where I feel I’m in danger or my life is being threatened – whether it’s because someone I think is a criminal is coming towards me, or someone with a gun is trying to overpower me – my body reacts before I can think about what I’m doing.

The situation does NOT absolve personal responsibility

But before we pass judgements, I think it’s important to remember that we are all susceptible to the influence of the situation, and that other people’s behaviors are influenced by the situation more than we tend to think. People of all races commit crimes against all types of people for all types of reasons. In my opinion, none of these crimes justify the existence of any of the others. But the situation is such that white people experience power and priveledge daily, while black people and other minorities experience oppression and discrimination daily. Thus, in interracial conflicts white people’s behavior is often influenced by  power and privileged, and black people’s behavior is often influenced by oppression, and the behaviors of both parties are influenced by biases.

The character of any individual involved in such events usually has less impact than you probably think. I don’t know officer Wilson, I don’t know Michael Brown, and I don’t know exactly what happened that day. Chances are that both Wilson and Brown are people who have done some very good things and some bad things. Chances are that depending on the situation, they’d both be capable of doing terrible things that they would regret, and that weren’t in line with their character. Chances are that they both had beliefs and engaged in behaviors that were influenced by biases, sculpted by the environment that they grew up in. None of which changes the fact that what happened is terrible, and tragic, and representative of a much bigger problem than this singular event.

While I have some understanding of why people behave the way they do, and have my own opinions about what behaviors are right and wrong, I hate seeing the country divided rather than united against the situational factors that underlie such events. As far as I’m concerned, the events of Ferguson are the product of a society that we all participate in, and thus we all share some of the responsibility. Instead of pointing fingers, how about living our lives in such a way so as to reduce the devisions between us, and increase solidarity of the only true race – the human race.

To me, a large part of the puzzle is increasing our awareness of our own biases, as awareness is the first step to change. To that effect, I hope this helped a little.

Be Grateful.

All upset feelings are a consequence of desire.
This isn’t a new idea. Good ol’ Siddhartha figured this one out like a gazillion years ago.

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Every time you’re feelings down, pause and identify what it is you want that you’re not getting. More money? More things? True love? Power? Better abs?

Consumerism has us constantly focused on the ways our lives could be better, and it’s a hamster wheel to no where. Because we find what we look for. If you’re looking for ways that your life could be better, I guarantee you will always find something, and so you’ll never be satisfied. In some ways that’s ok… because it motivates us to grow. But if you think trying to filling in those gaps is going to make you happier, you’re very wrong.

Unless you're this easily please tarsier.

Unless you’re this easily pleased tarsier.

Many social psych. studies have found something that increases overall well-being more than money, power, looks, etc.:

An Attitude of Gratitude.

One study had a group of people journal once a week for 9 weeks about 5 things they were grateful for, and compared them to a group that journaled about 5 burdens in their life, and another group that just journaled about whatever the hell they felt like. At the end of the 9 weeks, the gratitude group had better health, exercised more, reported more joy and happiness, were more optimistic about the future, and felt better about life in general (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). This study’s cool because it’s not just correlational – In other words it’s not just that happier people are more grateful, but when people were randomly assigned to be more grateful, they became happier.

Desire is focused on the deficits in life, while gratitude is focused on the abundances in life. Part of the problem is that desire is also future oriented. It’s about gaining something so that you’ll be happier than you are now. But we don’t live in the future. We never get there. We live in the moment. Gratitude orients you towards the present. What is there to be thankful for right now?

“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”
~ Meister Eckhart

So once you’ve identified the desire that’s at the root of your negative emotions, remind yourself that achieving it probably isn’t going to affect how happy you are – you’ll eventually just find something else to desire. So try to check yourself, and challenge yourself to switch perspective. Take a moment. Look around. At any given time there are a million things to be thankful for. Try to name 5. The warm clothes on your back. The tasty hot coffee in front of you. The fresh air filling your lungs. The sound of a child laughing. Wet kisses from a wagging dog. The master piece of blue sky, soft clouds, fluttering leaves, and rippling water that God’s laid out for you every. damn. day.

Challenge yourself to open your eyes and find the things to be grateful for…

I guarantee you’ll find them.

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