Category Archives: Couples

Will it Last?

 

“If only I could see into the future. I keep wondering if we’ll be together.”

Abby has a new love in her life. He treats her well, they laugh, play and enjoy many of the same things. Secretly though, she’s consumed by fears of it not lasting.

“Right now your relationship with Tyler is only a tiny sprout,” I explained. “So at this point it’s impossible to know if that sprout is a weed or a flower.”

I also pointed out that she’s not a mere passive observer—powerless—waiting for the future to unfold. She’s an active participant in creating it.

The nature and the quality of the future are under construction today.

Day-to-day interactions serve as the building blocks affecting the quality and fate of our relationships. Invariably, we shape tomorrow by how we choose to relate and operate in the present.

Abby freely admits that her recent treatment of Tyler hasn’t been the greatest. Instead of being positive and light, she’s frequently snippy and impatient with him. She says it’s because he’s reluctant to commit. He tells her it’s too early since they’ve only been together for a matter of months.

Her obsession over tomorrow robs her of any enjoyment that the moment offers. So how can he enjoy the relationship if she isn’t?  And how appealing is a partner who comes off prickly?  One could say that Abby’s outlook is self-defeating—creating the very reality she fears.

For those in Abby’s shoes, I offer the following advice: Don’t focus on getting a commitment. Let the quality of the relationship be your goal. When the experience of being together is gratifying on a multitude of levels, for both parties, a commitment naturally follows.

Abby’s trying to control her insecurities by controlling the situation. To gain assurance about the future, she’s counting on external cues from Tyler.

That never works. Not only does it pressure others, causing them to pull back, it also fails to provide real guarantees. That’s because life is about changes—unpredictable changes. What exists today can change abruptly.

The only certainty we have is the present moment where we all dwell. Therefore, we must relish that moment and make the best of it.

Abby’s desire for a committed relationship is understandable. She just doesn’t have a right to ask someone to meet her expectations. Love accepts the position of the other person, and it accepts his or her need to be true to themselves.

Abby emphasized that she’s hesitant to stay in a relationship that lacks a commitment. “In case it doesn’t work out between us, I don’t want to get too attached to him.”

I responded, “Your downcast demeanor tells me it’s too late—you’re already attached.”

When Abby doesn’t let pessimism take the reins, this new relationship is nourishing in many ways, so walking out seems a bit premature. Let’s face it, a complete break from a person who has added brightness to one’s life seems like deprivation. Why do that? It smacks of self-denial.

I suggested she give the relationship time to grow—committing to the process.

And there’s another thought for Abby to chew on: Some of the best relationships don’t have marriage as an endgame.  So Tyler and Abby may not be headed for marriage, but that doesn’t diminish its potential worth.

Among Abby’s many challenges in this current growth lab of hers—and that’s what relationships are!—is conquering that all-or-nothing mindset.

Long-term devotion blossoms where two people are dedicated to the quality of what they build together—in the here and now.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) 2017 Salee Reese

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Fake Love

“We need in love to practice only this: letting each other go. For holding on comes easily—we do not need to learn it.”            

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

“If she leaves me, I’ll die—I’ll have nothing to live for. She’s everything to me—she’s my life!”

Jeremy, 27, is panicked over the possibility of losing his girlfriend, Shannon.

Not surprisingly, she isn’t flattered by being the object of such colossal longing and adoration. Instead, she feels an enormous amount of pressure, suffocated by Jeremy’s immense need and weighed down by the gravity of his dependency.

Jeremy’s brand of love doesn’t feel like love to Shannon. Her experience is that of being smothered. The effect on Shannon is understandable. Jeremy is demonstrating neediness, not love.

It’s impossible for neediness and love to coexist.

That’s because love is a two-way circuit, consisting of equal players locked in the dance of mutual give and take. Needy people, though, focus solely on their own needs, creating a draining effect on the other person.

Jeremy’s needy behaviors are driving Shannon away. Instead of looking forward to his calls as she did early in their relationship, she dreads them. Caught up in an exhaustive back-and-forth loop between guilt and repulsion, she craves release.

Being situated at the center of someone’s universe is far from a breeze. On a constant basis, Shannon feels responsible for Jeremy’s well-being—held hostage by a dilemma. “My actions will either make or break this man!” she exclaims.

“When Jeremy says, ‘I love you,’ he’s waiting for me to reciprocate. He’s always wanting me to hug him, too.” And, Shannon added, he does so in a pleading way, saying, “All I want is a hug.”

That’s not love—that’s fishing for reassurance.

Shannon usually gives in because she can’t bear to see him crushed. Instead of referring to herself as Jeremy’s girlfriend, she describes herself as his “obsession.”

In a counseling session, Shannon told Jeremy how she felt. After she made herself clear, she expressed her need by saying, “You’ve worn me down. I need some time apart from you.”

She asked Jeremy for a two-week break, including no phone contact. Her request was precise: “Give me some space—let me miss you!”

Jeremy pouted a bit but reluctantly went along with her wishes.

His compliance, however, was short-lived. Within 24 hours, he sent a text, followed by several more. Each time, he exerted great effort to convince her of his love and try to change her mind.

In a session with Jeremy alone, I asked, “What’s the difference between love and need?”

He shook his head—he didn’t know.

“Your actions,” I explained, “convey that you need her, not that you love her.”

The expression on his face switched from sad to stunned. “I love her!” he insisted.

“If you loved her,” I responded, “ you would take her requests seriously. Her needs would matter.” I pointed out that when Shannon asked for space, he neglected her request.

Jeremy needs to learn that actions speak louder than words. Instead of conveying love, his actions shout, “It’s all about me.” For example, reaching out for hugs is fulfilling his need while ignoring hers.

“When we love someone,” I told Jeremy, “we make sure a hug is what the other person wants, too. That’s love.”

If Jeremy’s feelings were based on love, he would be exercising understanding and caring restraint, instead of working so hard at dismantling the boundaries Shannon had erected for the sake of her well-being.

“Love gives space for the other person to breathe, even though it hurts,” I said.

Jeremy replied somberly, “In other words, I’ve got to let go, right?”

I replied, “We can’t let go of what we don’t own. You never did have her—we never possess anybody. My best advice, is to stop clutching. Cultivate your independence. Only then can the relationship be right.”

For Jeremy, releasing his grip was a frightening thought. “She may never come back!” he declared.

He may be right, but loosening his grip is the only shot he has at saving this relationship. As long as Shannon feels obligated, guilty and repulsed, she won’t be inclined to reverse her direction.

The more desperate we are to keep a relationship, the more apt we are to lose it. A relationship must be grounded in free choice, not overpowered by neediness.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) 2017 Salee Reese

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Poke the Tiger

“I pray every night that God will take my life.”

Vince, 56, apparently would rather die than leave a life-sucking relationship. He’s been with his wife, Gail, for eight years. And for the bulk of that time he’s been unhappy, merely enduring his existence instead of living.

In our counseling session, he depicted Gail as having a sharp tongue and a hair-trigger temper.

He recounted several irritating incidents of being nagged and belittled. Instead of objecting to this dignity-squashing treatment, he continues to tolerate it. “Why ignite her wrath?” he said. “I survive by withdrawing.”

“Why do you stay with her?” I asked.

Vince gave a heavy sigh. “I can’t bring myself to hurt her.”

When we protect people from hurting, we may be doing them a disservice. When offenses go unchallenged, we inhibit the soul-searching process.

“You love her, Vince, but maybe she needs to hurt a little,” I said. “The truth may hurt, but it makes us take a good hard look at ourselves and possibly grow. “She’s oblivious to the extent of your misery,” I continued, “including how badly you want out and your reasons why. How can she change for the better if she isn’t given that information?”

“You don’t know Gail,” he said. “She’ll explode!”

“Perhaps,” I said. “And it’s that behavior she needs to open her eyes to. Her temper, along with a few other habits, is chasing you away—and probably everyone else.”

Vince nodded. “It’s true. But how can I possibly tell her that?”

“Come from the caring you naturally have for her,” I said, “a space of compassion, one that’s non-critical and minus blame. In other words, don’t attempt it when you’re gritting your teeth and seething with anger.”

I suggested he write it in a letter because in a face-to-face encounter, defensive reactions are likely to be triggered in both parties.

Vince and I explored what he wanted to say in the letter. He wasn’t inclined to flat-out tell her of his intentions to walk out. That’s because he was no longer certain about that particular course of action.

He has hope—for the first time—that she might change. Vince has also come to understand how he’s been perpetuating the problem by biting his tongue.

His withdrawing behavior sent the wrong message to Gail: “Vince might not like how I’m treating him, but, hey, he still takes it, and he’s still around. It must be working.”

In short, because he continued to cooperate with toxic conditions, she failed to see it as toxic.

Cooperating with an undesirable or toxic system, situation, or person—pretending that all is well—merely reinforces it.

The question is, if he starts to assert himself in a respectful manner, will she change things on her end? Time will tell.

In the meantime, the letter. It needed to be a declaration stating that the status quo has been detrimental to Vince and their relationship. Here’s Vince’s letter:

Dear Gail,

I’m moved to write this letter because I love you and I want to improve our relationship.

Up until now, I have tended to keep my feelings locked deep inside myself. I don’t share them with you and that isn’t good. It isn’t good for either of us, and our relationship has suffered because of it.

I went to a counselor. I told her that I pray each night asking God to take my life. I’m miserable and I don’t communicate that to you. I should have a long time ago.

She helped me see that no one’s at fault here. We’ve fallen into a rut that neither of us can seem to get out of. It seems you’re critical of me almost all the time, and I feel like I can’t make you happy, no matter what I do. I clam up so nothing gets better.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I can’t go on this way, Gail. But I have hope. I want to fix this. I want us both to be happy. I think we can be! I’d like us to go to counseling together.

Your husband, Vince

Along with this letter, Vince needs to stop withdrawing. When he feels nagged or when there’s been an insult to his dignity, he needs to learn to respectfully and immediately object.

Blocking the soul-searching process doesn’t do anyone any favors. Others remain stagnant if we’re not direct and truthful. Waking up someone who is blind to their behavior can be a painful thing, but if we really have the other person’s best interest at heart, the result will be better for everyone.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2017

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Over It

Holly told me she wasn’t suicidal. I disagreed.
“I guess you’re right,” she said after some thought. “I’ve been killing myself off for years.”

Holly was referring to staying with a man who frequently deflates her spirit—her husband, Lance.

She related the events of an evening they had some friends over. When it was time to call it a night, Holly stood with the front door open while saying good-bye as each guest left. From the living room Lance shouted, “Hey, dummy, close the door!”

I asked, “Could a casual passerby talk to you that way?”

“No,” she said.

“Then why do you take it from someone who supposedly loves you?”

“I’m not so sure I want to anymore,” she said in our counseling session. “I’m afraid to leave him . . . to be on my own. But I’m more afraid of staying. I look in the mirror and wonder who that dismal-looking person is. Where did Holly go?”

For some, contemplating divorce is rooted in valuing oneself, a recognition that greater respect is deserved. One could even say that breaking from someone who is toxic to our well-being is an act of compassion—self-compassion.

It’s typical for people to be drawn to those who treat them as poorly as they treat themselves. If we’re self-harming or self-condemning we automatically feel deserving of harm or condemnation from others. Conversely, those who treat us respectfully are rejected or ignored. Kindness can feel foreign and make us uncomfortable.

But when we begin to cherish ourselves, something interesting happens. We simply cannot tolerate demeaning or abusive treatment anymore. Indigestion is experienced at the core level. Our gut cries “foul” every time we’re subjected to degrading behavior or remarks.

This is what’s happening to Holly.

“His nasty jabs make me boil inside,” she said, “and I cringe every time he puts down the kids.”

That’s understandable. A sense of outrage when treated horribly is not only appropriate but a sign of being mentally healthy. We’re supposed to think protectively of ourselves and of our children.

She recalled an incident in which he tripped over her shoes. He erupted, blasting her for leaving them in his way.

“If it’s not me, it’s the kids,” she said. “I used to fold—letting him get away with being a jerk. But I can’t do that anymore . . . I fight back.”

Abuse should never be permitted or swallowed no matter what form it takes—physical, verbal or emotional. All have a flattening effect on self-esteem.

When I first saw Samantha, another client, she was putting up with physical abuse. “Whenever he would beat me I used to believe it was my fault,” she said. “But I don’t anymore, so what can I do?”

“Why don’t you leave this man?” I asked.

“I’m thinking of the kids,” she answered.

“No you’re not,” I said. “Thinking of the kids includes considering what they’re exposed to day in and day out. Watching mommy get hit isn’t good for children. Period.”

Although Holly isn’t a victim of physical abuse, she’s a constant target of her husband’s verbal and emotional abuse, which is just as devastating. Eventually, I met with Lance, who seemed clueless about his behavior and the effect it was having on his wife.

“Why would she want to divorce me?” he asked. “I love her!” I presented him with the simple truth: “The love in your heart doesn’t count unless it’s translated into actions.”

Instead of feeling loved, I pointed out, she feels like a whipping post.

If Lance wants to save his marriage, he’ll have to make some changes. Real changes. Superficial change—merely going through the motions—won’t cut it. She has to see and feel a changed heart. It’ll show in how he consistently relates to her and the children. Because he seems so blind to his mistreatment, I’m afraid Lance has an uphill battle ahead of him.

While Lance tries to change his side of the equation, Holly is starting to take her life back.

She’s been liberating herself from everything that debilitates or saps her spirit, including him.

She’s growing beyond the belief that she deserves insulting attacks to her dignity. And  she’s realizing that her children need a climate that’s esteem-enriching. She also sees how unhealthy it is for them to observe their father’s cruelty and her mere endurance of it.

Ultimately, if Lance continues in his spirit-deflating ways, she and the kids will be out of there. As they should be.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2017

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Love Shouldn’t be a Prison, and True Love Isn’t

love-prison

 

Since this is the month we celebrate Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d dust off one of my favorites from several years ago that seemed to resonate with many people. Even if you’ve been following me from the beginning, this one’s worth a second look:

One thing that assures a long-lasting relationship is kindness—each partner treating the other with the same respect, courtesy and gentleness that characterized their mode of relating in the beginning.

Unfortunately, our human tendency after settling in is to relax those standards. We drop those nicer habits. Not good. A relationship should be a place where flowers grow . . . not a place where we’re constantly encountering prickly nettles.

Another crucial element is freedom. Love shouldn’t be a prison, and true love isn’t.

Go to my column titled “The Grander Version of Love” where you can read about Carl and Lynn. I go into more depth about kindness, freedom and two other components that comprise a healthy relationship.

I welcome your views! 

“Making marriage work is like operating a farm. You have to start all over again each morning.”

— Anonymous

(c) Salee Reese 2017

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The Unhappy Chameleon

chameleon2

Doug wowed me with this in one of our sessions:

“I always wanted to blend in . . . like a chameleon.” Then looking away reflectively, he added, “You know, it takes a hell of a lot of energy to change my colors.”

He’s right. So why do we do it? It’s all about making sure we’re liked and loved. If we don’t make ourselves acceptable, we fear rejection. And rejection is a very lonely place.

We all do our share of adapting and approval-seeking. It only becomes problematic when we lose sight of our true selves. In the book, The Dance of Anger, Harriet Lerner describes that condition as being “submerged” or “de-selfed.”

Here’s one of Doug’s examples: In the midst of ordering chicken from a menu, his wife interrupted, “You don’t like chicken—you like roast beef!”

He remembers his meek, defeated response at the time: “I guess you’re right. I don’t like chicken.”

Sadly, Doug didn’t really know what he liked. He was used to being defined by the outside world.

When I first met Doug, he described himself as unhappy most the time. That makes sense because de-selfed people can’t be happy. They live a compromised existence which includes spending endless amounts of energy pleasing and accommodating others. The end result is often depression, a depleted interest in life, and hidden anger forever percolating just below the surface.

Adrian was a card-carrying member of the de-selfed club when I started seeing her. Her comments echoed Doug’s:

“I’ve spent most of my life adapting to others,” she said, “disguising and burying myself to get approval. I’ve done it so well for so long, I now have difficulty grasping who I really am.”

“Who is the real me?”

“I’m a chameleon and I don’t know my real color.”

Adrian started submerging her true self at an early age. “My mom’s love would turn off if I didn’t say and do what she wanted,” she said. “I wasn’t allowed to have a self.”

Adrian’s habit of self-denying followed her directly into her marriage … beginning, actually, on her wedding day. Her father handed the newlyweds $500 with special instructions. “He insisted we use the money for having a good time on our honeymoon—and nothing else,” she said.

“Well . . . that didn’t happen,” Adrian said with a defeated sigh.

That incident was a snapshot of things to come. Adrian listed off a series of comparable incidents that took place throughout the 23 years of their marriage. She then lowered her head solemnly and said, “I think my mantra has always been: ‘Yes dear, anything you say.'”

Adrian so needs to speak up in this relationship. She needs to share the person she really is with her husband—not just with me. How else can she relieve her depression and resurrect her actual self? And how else can the relationship possibly change if she doesn’t change?

When Adrian first started therapy, she thought her problem narrowed down to two people, her mother and her husband. Her thinking: If only they would change. But she has moved beyond that and is realizing it’s not what others have done to her, but what she’s been allowing. Until she realized that, she was powerless to change things for the better.

Something very interesting happens when we communicate directly from the depth of our natural being. Our total person comes forward. Call it our true self.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) 2016 Salee Reese

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“How Do I Fix Us?”

stitched_heart (1)

 

“Why am I the last to find out? I didn’t know my wife was unhappy. She never told me!”

I had to tell him the truth. “Yes, she did, Todd. There were clues. You just weren’t seeing them.”

Beth had grown quiet and distant in his presence. In contrast, she was lively and talkative around her friends. Passion and affection were gone. She constantly seemed sad.

She was.

Where did Todd go wrong? Simply put, he didn’t do a good job of listening. Early on, Beth tried to open up and express herself but such attempts were abruptly shot down by his defensiveness. Eventually, she quit trying to be heard. So . . . the slow erosion of a relationship was underway.

Genuine listening is more than mere cerebral activity. Central to listening is the state of the heart and the mind. Are they both open?

Todd treated Beth’s grievances as one would a debate. Determined to defeat her, he aggressively attacked her opinions, concerns and feelings. His goal was to win by convincing her that she was wrong.

Instead, he convinced her that he wasn’t there for her.

When an exchange of thoughts ceases in a relationship, so does the intimate connection.

“You may be a winner when it comes to debates,” I said, “but your style doesn’t keep a marriage intact.” I pointed out that the goal in a relationship is to have two winners.

Downcast, he asked, “How do I get her back?”

“Todd,  you must start by narrowing the emotional distance, and you do that by listening to her . . . truly listening to her.”

Listening with the heart.

When that’s occurring, the listener is sincerely engrossed and curious about what the speaker is saying.  The speaker doesn’t  sense impatience, irritation, judgment or disinterest from the listener. And there’s no fear of being pounced upon.

More than the desire to win her back, I urged Todd to let his love for Beth translate into a yearning to understand her and remove her distresses.

A few sessions later—when I knew Todd was ready—I arranged a session with the two of them. His role was to listen. Leaning forward with warmth emanating from his eyes, he invited her to tell him why she was considering leaving him.

She talked and he listened. She was able to say all that she wanted without being interrupted or attacked. Nervous at first, she steadily began to relax as he remained calm and caring. Beth felt free and safe to express what was on her mind.

I was particularly touched by something Beth said near the end:  “When you listen to me it lets me know I matter, and as a result my heart opens up a little wider.”

Signs of progress don’t automatically usher in a fairy-tale ending. It was going to take time for Beth’s heart to trust and feel safe enough to freely open up. But I knew if Todd sincerely dedicated himself to change—and remained consistent with those changes—there was hope.

In the past, Todd had used his intellect to win. To his amazement, he learned that only the heart knows how to win . . . at love. How nice. 🙂

 

(c) Salee Reese 2016

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

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