Category Archives: Couples

Go Find Another Well

Time and time again, Christi tried to quench her thirst from a dry well.

The analogy describes what it’s been like living with her boyfriend, Tony, for the past six years. The anguish she’s felt is comparable to someone slowly dying from thirst. Although he called her his girlfriend, his participation in the relationship was halfhearted at best.

Christi held out—hoping that some day—if she just hung in there long enough, her dreams of a future with this guy would come true. Well, that all came crashing down around her when she discovered he was dating another woman.

No question, dashed hopes and rejection are a lot to endure. Loving support from others is a welcomed comfort, but it falls short of soothing a wounded heart. Recovery takes time, long moments of silent reflection and acquiring a new perspective.

In our counseling session, I could easily see the grief and betrayal in Christi’s eyes.

“I served that man for six years!” she said. “My life revolved around him!” She went on to explain all that she gave up—what she sacrificed personally—for him.

“Christi,” I said, “I’m having a hard time thinking this guy deserves you.”

She lowered her eyes. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for him,” she said with a sigh. “I guess I couldn’t love enough ….”

“Did Tony betray you or were you betrayed by a fantasy?” I asked.

She looked puzzled.

“Did you read more into this relationship than was actually there?” I continued. “Did you imagine Tony to be something he wasn’t?”

“Ye-e-s … apparently so,” she muttered.

We spent the next several minutes contrasting her fantasy against reality. He didn’t invite her to go places with him. He showed little or not interest in the things she liked doing. He wouldn’t call or text her after business trips. Rarely ever, actually. He didn’t make her birthday a special event or even get her a gift! 

Where was the tenderness? Where was the concern for her needs and wants? Where was the concern for her feelings? It flat out wasn’t there.

For six years, she made excuses for him in her mind, all in an attempt to avoid the bold truth. She ignored all clues that told her they were ill-suited. And the clues where everywhere.

For years–before meeting Tony–Christi had yearned for a companion who was as devoted to her as she was to him. She imagined that Tony would be that guy.  “I kept thinking if I just got it right, he would come around—he would love me better,” she said.

How sad for Christi. She had used Tony’s lukewarm interest in her as a measure of her own worth and adequacy. Instead of asking herself: Do I measure up to what he wants? a better question would have been: Can he fulfill what I need in a partner?

Enduring the status quo wasn’t wise. She should have moved on, freeing herself to seek a more compatible partner.

I let her know that what her heart yearns for is right. What was off-kilter was expecting it to come from him.

I explained that she’s seeking love in places where love is in short supply. It’s like going to the same well everyday hoping to fill her cup with water. The well is  dry, so quenching her thirst is an impossibility. She returns each day, though, anticipating more than a mere trickle. It never happens.

“One of the things you need to see,” I said, “is that there are other wells spanning across the landscape in every direction, as far as the eye can see. But you tend to be blind to them.”

“I can’t argue that miserable truth,” she said solemnly.

As our session wore on, Christi started putting things together. “I can see that I don’t value myself very much,” she said. “And I’m like my mom—her life revolves around my father. It saddens me how she’s given up so much of herself just to make him happy. Well … it seems I’m no different. Hmm.”

Christi’s learned pattern is being challenged because the well did something extraordinary: It uprooted itself and left her behind, thirsty and confused in the dust. Painful as that might be, ultimately, the “well” did her a favor. She’s now forced to explore the offerings of other wells.

But before jumping into another serious relationship, Christi needs to figure out why she blames herself when love isn’t reciprocated, and why she denies herself other potential opportunities. Why does she undervalue herself?

Once she deals with the problem at its roots, the next time a well runs dry, I’m convinced she won’t stick around. Feeling deserving of more, she’ll seek water elsewhere. There will be no stopping her! It’ll be impressive.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

 

(c) Salee Reese 2020

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Wanted: A Gentle Caveman

Image result for 11 signs you're falling in love

 

          Knowing how to love a woman isn’t rocket science. Or is it?

Over the years, as a counselor, numerous men have sought my advice about women. They want to know how to navigate the baffling pathway to a woman’s heart.

Whether dating or in a long-term relationship, it’s not uncommon for a guy to receive mixed signals. One man described the predicament perfectly: “I’m convinced women want a gentle caveman. They resent power, yet they want a powerful man. They want to tell you how to drive, but they really want you to drive.”

His observations were reinforced when a female client told me,

“I want a man who takes control, but isn’t a controller.”

Indeed, a fine line to walk.

What does it mean to be a gentle caveman? How is it possible to be a man who takes control without being controlling? For answers, I went to the logical source—women.

Jodie, 36, said this about her boyfriend: “I need him to be strong enough to stick up for what he feels strongly about, yet sensitive to my needs and feelings.”

She gave an example. “I’d had a bad day and just needed to talk it out, but he kept watching his game on TV. I was crying, and instead of consoling me, he went to another room so that he could watch his game on another TV. That told me that something else was more important than me.”

I asked: “So if he were to be sensitive to your needs and yet stick up for his own, how would that look?”

“In that situation,” she said, ” I just needed for him to shut the TV off. I wanted to be chosen over everything else at that point.”

Jodie clarified that under ordinary circumstances, “It’s okay if someone doesn’t drop everything for you.”

So I asked, “What would an empowered, gentle caveman do if his partner wasn’t in a distressed state?

Jodie replied: “He would say, ‘Can we talk about this in ten minutes or after the game?’”

She pointed out that his manner would be tender and patient, minus any hint of annoyance.

“All I would need is the assurance of a time-frame,” she said. “It’s a matter of knowing that your man wants to devote time to be there for you.”

Courage and independence are other qualities attributed to a gentle caveman. Women respect a man who will draw the line.

Tara, 27 and single, said: “If a guy lets me walk all over him, I will. Instead, I need someone who’ll stand up to me and not be a doormat. Yes, I’ll probably get ugly if he actually calls me out on it. But I’ll get over it, and I’ll be even more attracted to him than before.”

The message is clear: Integrity is sexy.

As women, we admire men we can’t completely tame or train. Not to say we don’t try. We do, but the men we respect are those who respect themselves while simultaneously respecting us.

In the movie, “What Women Want,” Mel Gibson’s character starts out as your stereotypical rude, narcissistic, insensitive sexist. He’s convinced that he’s  admired and desired by every woman he meets. But when he acquires the ability to hear the private thoughts of all women, his ego takes a nose dive. He’s faced with the ugliness of his own behavior as seen through the eyes and minds of the disgusted women around him.

Aside from getting stung by the unvarnished truth about himself, he can’t help but learn about a woman’s genuine needs, her hopes and her true emotions. From that point on, he’s incapable of viewing women the same. The result? Respect and empathy.

According to the women I surveyed, powerful men have the courage to face feelings. This includes their own as well as the feelings of others. Gentle cavemen feel comfortable with their own tears. Tears don’t make them little, dependent or vulnerable, despite what some were told as children.

When a woman says she wants her man to take control, it means she wants him to take control over certain situations—not her. For example, women generally like it when men take the initiative and say, “Let’s go for a walk.” Or, “Don’t make any plans, because I’m taking you out.” Or, “I’ll drive, sweetie.”

And if the back-seat driver in her tries to tell him how to drive his car, the gentle caveman—in control of both his car and his reactions—simply says confidently and respectfully, “Thanks, but I’ve got things under control.”

Odds are she’ll like that.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2020

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The Love in Goodbyes

 

They share one thing: the tomb they inhabit called their marriage. It’s as cold and lifeless as a mausoleum’s marble walls. Merely coexisting in physical proximity to each other, they rarely utter a word—only when necessary. Long ago, they gave up occupying the same bed—even the same bedroom. Detachment characterizes their marriage.

Is it a marriage? Legally, yes—emotionally, no.

Years ago, Beth and her husband underwent a psychological divorce, a condition of disengagement and indifference. The original intimate connection they once shared and enjoyed is broken.

The growing gap between them became evident to Beth after their children left home. At that point, Beth realized that she and her husband live separate lives, each absorbed in pursuing their own individual interests.

Beth sought counseling because she can no longer endure the way she is living. “I’m lonely in my own house,” she lamented. Although they are mutually involved in various social functions, “we’re not companions,” she said. “There’s no life in what we do together.”

Her marriage has been reduced to a habit, not something she cherishes. Feeling stifled in such a cheerless and deadening existence, Beth wants a divorce. But fear of the unknown anchors her. Although hardly rewarding, her marriage is familiar territory, representing a comfort zone. So staying together assures security and keeps Beth from having to deal with the unknown.

Another roadblock is guilt. She’s tortured by the thought of hurting her husband. Yet, in reality, Beth is hurting him more by living dishonestly. Maintaining the illusion that all is well—merely going through the motions—is a form of deceit.

“If he knew the truth,” I asked, “would he choose to stay married? Would he really want to stay in the relationship if he knew you were there only because you can’t bear hurting him and because he’s a comfort zone for you?”

Beth suddenly got that distinctive “the lights just came on” look.  After a few seconds of gathering up her thoughts, she said, “I have never–ever!–entertained that thought before.” She relayed how she found that both “disturbing, yet strangely freeing.”

Physically she’s still married, but her spirit has moved on. “You didn’t cause that to happen, Beth, so it’s not something to feel guilty about. We can’t tell our soul what to accept, what to do and where to be.”

Divorcing her husband isn’t a hostile act waged against him. It’s an act of honoring truth, while also honoring herself and her husband.

Since Beth can’t be what she isn’t and can’t feel what she doesn’t, she should love him enough to release him to pursue more gratifying connections with others.

Call it a higher form of love.

“If the relationship is no longer rewarding for you,” I said, “it can’t be rewarding for him either.”

Yes, it will be painful for him, but better to experience the pain of truth, than to go on living a make-believe existence.

Fantasy doesn’t nourish—it leaves us empty and unfulfilled.

When relationships end, our knee jerk reaction is to cast blame—aimed at the other person or ourselves. Sometimes that’s  appropriate . . . but in Beth’s situation it wasn’t. In fact fixating on causes and blame can distract from the deeper truth:

Life is a flowing stream—change is an inevitable fact of life. Nothing stays put even if we would like it to.

We also tend to believe that divorce entails turning off the love. Not so. In fact, such thinking merely amplifies suffering because souls are tormented by estrangement.

Soul bonds never die—they undergo a metamorphosis.

Ironically, for Beth, living a lie has created more distance than falling out of love. The fearful and guilt-ridden side of Beth has clung to the status quo, while her more alive self is pulling her in the opposite direction—toward a life relevant to where she is now in her growth.

“Embrace your life, Beth, and go where your soul wants to take you.”

“Then what do I tell my husband?” she asked.

I told her to warmly convey her truth along with her heart’s regret. “You didn’t anticipate or plan this,” I said. “Something in you shifted. You’re not the same person you were twenty years ago. It’s something you hadn’t counted on. Tell him that.”

Sadness and grief always accompany letting go. I urged her to join hands with him and walk through the pain together.

It’s the loving way to say goodbye.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2019

 

 

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Unexpected Gift

 

“I don’t take responsibility for what’s going on in your head.”

That’s what Gordon wishes he had said when his girlfriend completely misinterpreted him . . . again.

It all started when she called to tell him how bored and miserable she was at work. According to the work schedule, she had the day off, but they needed the money. Bills were starting to pile up because Gordon had been sick for several days and was forced to take time off from work, so he’d been borrowing money from her to handle his half of the bills.

After getting free of the bug, he returned to work and started earning an income once again. But it would take a while before they were completely out of the woods.

Gordon was feeling nothing but respect and gratitude for his girlfriend’s generosity and work ethic.

After the call, he quickly rearranged his schedule so he could surprise her at work and help alleviate her boredom. As he drove to her restaurant, he felt immense tenderness toward her and was looking forward to brightening her day.

He walked in. She looked up and saw him smiling. Her face got very serious. “You need money, don’t you!” she said gruffly.

He froze . . . stunned.  She had completely misread his intentions. Though deeply hurt, he managed to stammer out a few words in defense of himself: “No . . . why would you think that? Nothing like that. You told me how slow things were and that you were bored, so I came!”

As usual, nothing he said made any difference. She didn’t budge from the distorted picture she had of him.

The whole event had a sobering effect on Gordon.  “I just couldn’t believe it,” he said. “She automatically assumed that just because I was visiting her at work—where she makes tips—that I came with my hand out, wanting some of her hard-earned cash.” He thought she might jump into his arms, or smile gratefully, or even just grin a little. The more he thought about it, the more it hurt.

“What kind of guy does she think I am?” he said. “I don’t even come close to the type of person she imagines me to be. Only a cold-hearted jerk would respond to someone’s call for help by showing up with the intent of asking for money. She doesn’t know me at all!  And the person she thinks I am isn’t even someone I’d want to be associated with.”

Once Gordon’s eyes were opened, he realized that this scenario had defined their relationship for the entire three years they were together.  He also saw just how much unhappiness he had swallowed during that time.

This latest event was a reality check. He came to realize that he could no longer stay in a relationship that was so costly to his well-being.

“Without knowing it, she gave me an incredible gift.”

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality

(c) Salee Reese 2018

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Don’t Take the Bait

When Jim returned home from his Saturday fishing trip, his wife, Marlene, was withdrawn—cold as ice. Alas, the all too familiar silent treatment had set in. He asked Marlene if there was a problem. With her head turned away, she murmured a mere, “No.” Remaining calm and unaffected, he said, “Well, you’re not acting as if nothing’s wrong.” He then encouraged her to say more. She didn’t respond. At this point, Jim had two alternatives: either invest agonizing energy into altering her mood, or just let it play out. He chose to let it play out.

A wise choice on his part because silent treatments are best ignored. Attempts to squelch them have a way of simply reinforcing them. Silent treatments are a substitute for verbalizing. As children, indirect communication may have been the sole option for some. Perhaps they were screamed at or ignored for speaking up directly.

As a young child, Marlene may have been taken seriously only when she got quiet and emitted vibes of being annoyed or hurt. If so, she learned that there is a greater payoff for going quiet than for speaking up. Her manner, though, is self-defeating in an adult partnership of equals. How can Jim be attuned to her needs if she alienates him—if he’s left in the dark?

Before he started counseling, whenever Marlene would go silent on him, Jim’s urge to fix the situation would be overwhelming. Tormented with guilt and unrest, he would try anything—short of turning cartwheels—to appease her. It never made a difference. Instead, it only left him feeling disgusted with himself.

Now, Jim doesn’t get caught up in those antics.

He has come to realize that the solution to dealing with Marlene’s silent treatments lies in changing conditions in himself as opposed to changing external factors.

In the past, if someone was withdrawn or angry with him, Jim automatically assumed he was at fault. But Jim is no longer inclined to accept blame that doesn’t belong to him.

In our counseling sessions, I emphasized to Jim: “Don’t be managed by silent treatments. Refuse to take the bait.” Instead, I urged him to practice integrity. Silent treatments are designed to control or punish. Thus the term “punishing silences.”

Inherently, they are an insidious form of aggression. Not only do the aggressors hide their weapons, they don’t see themselves as aggressors. Intent on believing they have been wronged in some way, they view themselves as victims and therefore feel justified to punish.

Being on the receiving end of a cold shoulder can be an intensely frustrating experience. Because there’s an unwillingness to discuss the unspoken complaint, people in Jim’s position are declared guilty without knowing why and without being given the opportunity to defend themselves.

The fair and open approach entails dialogue between both parties, mutually engaged in seeking a satisfying resolution.

Jim made such an attempt soon after returning from his Saturday fishing trip. In a forthright manner he invited open dialogue, giving Marlene ample opportunity to express what was on her mind. He wasn’t nasty about it, nor did he come off like a puppy deserving of a good whipping. He merely attempted to address an obvious problem.

Jim went as far with it as he could—the rest was up to her. Her manner exuded alienation, leaving him no healthy alternative to backing off. In so doing, the responsibility for Marlene’s mood was appropriately placed squarely in her lap.

Jim and Marlene went about their weekend barely speaking a word. The atmosphere was thick with silence—and tension. By Sunday evening the silence broke.

Apologizing for her behavior, Marlene explained what her problem was. She was disappointed when he chose to go fishing because she had been anticipating a romantic weekend—time with just the two of them. Ironically, since Marlene failed to be up front about her desires and expectations she sabotaged the entire weekend with her sulking. Her apology was a victory for integrity.

Had Jim manifested his former pattern of absorbing blame and engaging in feverish attempts to appease his wife, a different outcome could be anticipated. More than likely, the silence would have culminated with Jim groveling apologetically and Marlene enshrined in her self-righteousness.

Instead of surrendering to guilt, though, Jim displayed strength and poise, thus uplifting the dynamic between them. Quite possibly, Jim’s demonstration of unyielding integrity stimulated some healthy soul-searching on Marlene’s part.

Her use of silent treatments may become a relic from her past. Now, at least, Jim is breathing new life into the pattern of their relating. By changing his behavior, he’s stimulating Marlene to follow suit.

 

(c) Salee Reese 2018

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

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Moving Through Grief

 

It has been two years since her husband, Trent, died. But to Amy it feels like yesterday.

“Why am I grieving?” she lamented. “I thought I was over it.”

I answered her simply: “We’re never over love, Amy.”

After his fatal car accident, she told herself she must be strong for the children. So she stuffed her feelings—locked them up in a steel vault deep within. The truth is, such attempts fail miserably. Denied or submerged feelings slowly creep into our everyday consciousness, so eventually we’re forced to face them. This is what happened to Amy, prompting her to seek help.

In our counseling session, I explained that when tragedy strikes, numbness is a natural response—an automatic defense mechanism—that cushions us from experiencing horrendous and often incapacitating pain. But such numbing is a temporary fix—it doesn’t heal the wound. Healing must occur before we can move forward, before we can be intact as a complete person, and before we can engage in our life wholeheartedly again.

On the emotional level, Amy needs to experience and talk about every aspect of the loss associated with Trent’s death, including the loss of his presence, his companionship and the loss of their dreams.

She needs to let herself miss the sound of his voice, his smiling eyes, his laughter, his scent.

He’s no longer there as a father figure for their children. That’s a loss.

Yes, he had flaws and idiosyncrasies. But she’s surprised at how insignificant they all seem now.

“It’s what made him unique,” she said fondly.

I suggested she set aside time to quietly reflect on Trent, letting her heart call forth countless warming memories.

“And if you feel moved to write, don’t resist doing so. Most likely, your instinctive wisdom is nudging you in the direction of healing,” I said.

To keep it simple, some people write down single trigger words associated with special memories.

“Maybe you’re moved to visit certain places, like favorite vacation spots. Go there again,” I insisted.

“Above all,” I said, “let yourself cry.”

I advised her to take her time—to be patient with the process.

Grief can neither be hurried nor directed. At best, we can only surrender to it.

I asked Amy about her childhood, how her parents dealt with negative emotions.

“Emotions weren’t dealt with,” she replied. “They were ignored—never discussed.”

As a result, when Amy’s dog died, or when she wasn’t invited to the prom, or when her best friend moved away, she felt isolated and alone in her suffering.

“So, do you think your children feel alone in their suffering—even two years later?” I asked.

She nodded.

Amy handled her husband’s death in the only way she knew how. And she believed she was doing the right thing for her children—by being strong.

“Your children need for you to be strong in a different way,” I said.

“Strength isn’t demonstrated by being emotionless, but by one’s willingness to face emotions head-on.”

Healthy coping isn’t exemplified by ignoring or hiding unpleasant emotions, but by going through them. It takes courage to grieve, and children benefit when they witness their parents embracing the process and coming out fully intact on the other side.

In contrast, emotional numbing may force a family to pretend the deceased family member never existed. This was true in Amy’s household. After Trent’s death, he wasn’t mentioned at all. Such silence and avoidance is akin to erasing him from every picture in the family album.

“That doubles the grief, Amy.” I said.

Not only did she lose him, she lost the memory of him as well.

“How can he touch your life—yet today—if his memory is eradicated?”

I went on to explain that a cloud of gloom persists because she’s looking at what went wrong instead of what went right. He showed up in her life. He added a strand to the fabric of  her existence that would not have occurred otherwise. He not only enriched her life but he also enriched the lives of his children. That fact should be celebrated.

I suggested she break the silence and get everyone talking about Trent. She should expect tears and laughter. Both are good. They will express and acknowledge Trent’s powerful impact on their lives.

Amy followed my advice, and now that she is bravely sharing her emotions with her children, things should soon be much better in their world.

An emotional wound is finally being allowed to breathe, and I think Amy will be surprised at how much healing can occur when emotions are allowed to see the light of day instead of being buried in a vault of silence.

 

(c) Salee Reese 2018

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My Girlfriend Is a Bully

Avoid people who don’t care what they do to you.

Picture a large, ugly, brutish ogre who frequently pummels people over the head with a club. More than likely, he’ll be catered to because doing so will make things a trillion times more pleasant than the alternative. Standing up to him will have the same effect as throwing gasoline on a roaring fire. Better to shrink down and become docile than incur greater fury.

Not all bullies look like ogres. Some are pretty. Alan’s girlfriend, Vicky, fits that description, and yes, her hot-headed tirades trigger an impulse to appease.

“I have to watch what I say around her,” he said. “She’s quick to take offense.”

So Alan treads cautiously, taking care not to ripple the pond.

This inclination to avoid making waves is exactly where bullies get their power. Defusing that power involves overriding our built-in response to fear—our natural impulse to steer clear of trouble.

The automatic flight or fight response, writes Albert J. Bernstein, Ph.D., author of Emotional Vampires, was necessary for our primitive ancestors. “Without it, they wouldn’t have lived long enough to become our ancestors,” he said. To assure survival, the rules were plain and simple: “If the danger is smaller than you, kill it and eat it. If it’s bigger, run away before it eats you.”

According to Bernstein, bullies take full advantage of this instinctual fear response. So it’s understandable why bullies would use intimidation, aggression and anger as tools to gain control over others. It works!

Bernstein points out that “When regular people get angry they distrust their own feelings and hold themselves back.” But, he continues, this isn’t true of bullies. They “lean into their anger,” using it to their utmost advantage.

Vicky believes it’s high time Alan marries her, so she’s applying pressure. Her bullying tactics aren’t always thunderous. Sometimes she tones down the anger and uses sarcasm—a subtler form of aggression. She’s also been using guilt-inducing digs. So the question weighing heavily on Alan’s mind is whether he should marry her or run away before she devours him.

In our counseling session I tried to give Alan some things to chew on.

“Do you really want to be in a relationship where you have to shrink down in order to make it work? Is ducking and placating a life you want?”

Alan shook his head. “That’s not living,” he said. “She would have to change.”

I continued, “The next question is, will she? Is she likely to?”

The odds are against it because Vicky rarely takes a good, hard look at herself in the mirror. Instead, she’s a classic blamer, pointing an accusing finger.

How can we be self-corrective if we’re not self-reflective?

If Vicky were to turn her life into a play, the cast of characters would consist of villains and she would be the victim. In her mind’s eye, she’s constantly being wronged. Consequently, she feels justified to lash out, sometimes unmercifully.

Typically, such “victims” are blind to the wounds they inflict on others. In fact, if those wounds are brought to their attention, they’re likely to respond by saying: “But look at what you did to me,” or “How do you think I felt?” So instead of heart-felt compassion, the victim becomes defensive—feeling wronged one more time.

Alan has a kind heart. Casting him as a villain is not only erroneous, it’s an insult to his innate goodness.

Defeating bullies, Bernstein points out, takes place in the arena of our own mind.

For Alan, this means he must first become convinced of his basic goodness and that he doesn’t deserve Vicky’s degrading treatment. Having mastered that, he will naturally stand up against her demeaning assaults. He won’t shrink, he won’t skirt trouble—he’ll defend his integrity head-on.

When Alan changes his dance step, Vicky will invariably be challenged to do the same. If she doesn’t, he’ll be faced with a choice, and hopefully he’ll make the right one.

 

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2017

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