02 Jan

Introduction: Let’s Talk About Love

As a psychologist specializing in working with couples struggling in their relationships, I often hear individuals tell me that even though they are angry or frustrated with their partner, they still love them and believe they are loved in return.

When I ask them how they actually experience this love within the relationship, they often offer explanations such as, “because we’ve stayed together this long”, or “even though he get’s angry at me he can also be really kind and gentle”, or “because she tells me  she loves me” and so on.

My intention here is not to criticize these explanations, but to use them to reflect something that strikes me as quite remarkable.

My clinical and personal experiences suggests that most people seem to have given very little thought or reflection about this thing called love.

It seems odd to me that something most of us would argue is essential and important for us in our relationships, and which we generally consider to be such a powerful source of motivation in our lives, receives so little consideration on our part.

Without question the experience of love is a complex, powerful, and mysterious process. Many knowledgeable and learned individuals have discussed this topic from innumerable angles, and I am not suggesting that we should be scholars in this area.

In fact I would even argue that it does not matter one bit what one “knows” about love at the intellectual level in order for that person to be loving.

But I would argue that there are many things we do in the name of love, which have nothing to do with love at all, and can even be harmful and destructive.

When we equate love with having security and comfort for example, or when we confuse love with being possessiveness and controlling, it becomes very difficult to see what we are doing to others, or what is being done to us.

I will offer some of my reflections on this complex topic of love over this next series of articles.

My primary purpose is not to enter into an intellectual discussion of love but rather to discuss a particular way of looking at this subject which I hope will provide a clear and useful way of looking at our relationships and our life.

I hope it will also help clarify many other terms which are relevant to relationships such as power and control, discipline, responsibility, and honesty and truth, just to name a few.

I would also hope that this viewpoint will offer some direction and guidelines for parents in terms of caring for their children, and ideally, will perhaps help each of us learn healthier, more productive ways of relating to each other, to ourselves, and to our world.

Unless I am mistaken, it looks like were going to need it.

29 Feb

When Love Fails

My clinical experience in working with couples and individuals over the years suggests a fundamental lack of understanding of what it even means to have a truly loving relationship.

In my previous article “Yes, But Do You Really Love Me,” I referred to a specific type of struggle that arises in relationships when one partner is seeking to establish a more meaningful and connected type of relationship, but the other is unable or unwilling to reciprocate.

This article looks more closely at some of the difficulties that arise under these conditions.

There is one basic struggle that seems to arise repeatedly between couples, especially when the commitment level to the relationship begins to deepen. This conflict occurs when one of the partners is seeking a more connected and deeper form of love from their relationship than the other.

It is often the case that their partner in this relationship believes they are already as loving as they could possibly be, and cannot understand why they are being asked for something to be different.

But the partner who knows, or at least feels,  that something truly important and vital is not happening in the relationship may not even be able to explain to the other why they feel so unhappy.

This can creates much confusion and distress for both parties.

The one who doesn’t understand what the problem is may feel unjustly accused, and wonder begin to resent for even raising the issue.

In response, the person raising the issue may start to believe that the problem is with them.  They may conclude (or even be told) they are too needy or that there is something wrong with them they need to solve by their self.

It is not surprising therefore, that when this struggle arises it leads to almost unresolvable conflict.

As a therapist, when I see couples in my practice there is invariably an imbalance between the two partners in terms of their comparative levels of current psychological development.  What satisfies one partner and makes them happy simply doesn’t work for the other; it is not enough.  The net result is that as one partner is pulling for the relationship to change, the other partner is resisting and often pulling for it to remain the same.

Typically, the central issue for change seems to revolve around the ability of the dissatisfied partner who wants more intimacy to properly understand what they are looking for, and to identify this to the resistant partner. Then the question becomes “To what degree can the resistant partner come on side with the wishes of the one seeking change”.

If the initially resistant partner is able and willing to change, then the transition to a higher functioning relationship tends to be fairly smooth and very rewarding for the couple.

If the resistant partner is unwilling to change or unable to do so,  then some very difficult issues arise and it is here that  challenges begin.

The next article will look at this situation is greater detail.

23 May

Love: It’s More Than A Feeling

“I love you.”

When we use these three little words what do we mean, what are we actually saying?

There have been occasions when working with distressed couples in my practice, when it looks as though all is lost and the relationship may be over.

It is not uncommon at this point for one of the partners, in desperation and confusion, to look at the other and say, “But I love you.”

The response from their partner is often: sounds something like this; “I know you say you love me, but you don’t act like you do.”

Something doesn’t quite fit for this partner. There is a discrepancy somewhere between what the words “I love you” are supposed to mean and the actions that are associated with those words.

In making sense of this confusion what I have come to understand is that, when I say “I love you,” it can mean one of two very different things.

Over on one side of the spectrum it can mean, “I love the feelings I have when I am around you,” or similarly, “I love how you make me feel.”

These type of statements reflect how I feel by virtue of things, such as how you look, or what you are doing, which I experience as pleasurable. I feel good when you treat me well, I have positive experiences when you smile at me, and so forth.

I see this as a quite common meaning of the phrase “I love you”.

On the other hand the expression “I love you”, can refer to a very specific type of action in which I act towards you, and for you, in specific ways and with a very clear intention; to encourage and support you, to be of assistance in your emotional and psychological well-being.

This relational value is less common.

These are two radically different meanings of what it means to love another.

Let’s examine this through a simple analogy.

I can look at an amazing garden and experience such beauty and wonder that I say “I love this place!” This expression is a reflection of how I feel about the garden.

One might expect with this type of experience that the person would look forward to return visits, perhaps bring his or her friends to so see it, spend time walking around it, maybe even write about it.

But I could stand there a long time feeling many wonderful things and still never realize that the flowers and plants need watering.

At some point, in order for me to continue to have this garden, a transition in my thinking and behaviour would have to occur.

I would have to understand that if I actually want to be able to look at this garden, I am going to have to offer consistent care and attention for it to flourish. I will have to expend energy, make numerous choices, allocate resources and so on.

In other words, the object of my attention and the aim of my actions would have to transition from “in here” and how I feel, to “over there”, to the needs of something beyond myself.

Even so, it would still not be not enough to simply provide water, exposure to sunlight, good soil and clean air to this garden. I would need to go beyond that. Different plants have different requirements, some actions that might nurture one can harm another.

If I wanted this garden to not just survive but thrive, I would have to take the time and devote the energy to understanding and learning about the specific needs of each flower and plant.

So what about loving “you” in terms of your have your wishes, needs, desires, and preferences? Proper nurturing and caring for another demands actions in which the other is actively recognized on their own terms, actions appropriate for who they are and what they need, rather than how I feel about them.

So when I say “I love you,” am I primarily expressing how I feel about you, or am I also acting in such a way as to actually demonstrate that?

The issue as I am considering it here, requires more than just feeling love for another. It is more complex than simply acting in kind and caring ways.

It is this theme I will look explore in the series of articles entitled “Love as an Act of Will“.


15 Jun

Love As An Act Of Will (Part I)

As a psychologist working with couples in conflict and those trying to improve their relationships, my primary focus is on understanding the specific type of work that needs to be done to promote the best interests of both individuals in that relationship.

This work is always directed at encouraging the ongoing growth and development of these individuals and helping them to see how do this for themselves, in their own relationship.

In this article I want to look at the idea of nurturing one’s emotional and psychological growth within their relationship in an effort to explain what this means in terms of how I see it.

In a previous article “Love: It’s More Than A Feeling”, I suggested that we can identify love in terms of the feelings one has for another, or as an action one takes within the relationship. I explained why I felt that love as a feeling was a limited and often one-sided experience of love, and why it might not be conducive to a healthy or even mutually satisfying relationship.

Scott Peck, in his book “The Road Less Traveled“*, defined love as “The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s or another’s spiritual growth” (pg. 81).

This is an example of one definition of love in which it is defined in terms of an action rather than a feeling, and it is further qualified as an action we choose for our self and for another for a very particular purpose. I want to use it to anchor this and subsequent discussions because there are many aspects of this definition I like, and think it offers some very clear directions that can be followed if one chooses to do so.

I do not interpret the term spiritual within the standard religious context. Neither do I interpret it in terms of something “out-there”, “psychic experiences, most “new age beliefs”, or any of the many magical/superstitious ideas that often surround the word spiritual.

Rather, I use the term to identify a normal process of psychological and emotional maturation that begins at birth and progresses into adulthood, and which can, under the right circumstances, be continually developed throughout out life.

Physical growth occurs in a predictable pattern throughout our life span. These phases of growth follow a consistent and familiar developmental sequence such that first we are a baby, then a toddler, and on up through the teenager and adult stages.

As any parent knows, we also follow a developmental sequence in terms of emotional and psychological changes. As children get older their ability to think becomes increasingly complex, their emotions become better regulated, they see more clearly how things are connected and related to each other, they become more aware of others, and so on.

Just as there are “average” height and weights for different age groups, so too are there age appropriate “average” levels of emotional and psychological development.

Interestingly, as with height and weight, by the time people reach early adulthood, the rate at which they are growing emotionally and psychologically seems to slow down dramatically. Generally, we do not seem to mature much beyond the level we achieve as young adults even as we get older. Or if we do it is a very slow process.

But there are levels of emotional/psychological growth beyond this average adult level of development which have been well researched and documented by many others (see, for example, www.kenwilber.com). Most people never reach these more developed levels, often referred to as the “spiritual” stages of growth, and so it is not surprising that they are either poorly understood, or perceived in a distorted and often inflated manner.

While there are many remarkable aspects to these higher stages of development, most adults in our population have flat-lined at a mid-level range of emotional/psychological development, and many are functioning below that.

But most importantly, they are staying at those levels. They are not developing further and in a very real sense are stagnating there. This is where the majority of my work takes place because that is where most people are operating.

It is my belief that our greatest source of suffering stems from the failure to develop and nurture our emotional and psychological development, and that the most important task we could undertake is to nurture and promote that growth and development.

What most people don’t seem to understand is that the majority (not all) of the adult population has developed to the point where they actually can nurture their own psychological development given the right direction and guidance.  They just don’t know how to do it.

Furthermore, not only can they learn how to do this with some guidance, one of the most powerful vehicles for effecting this change can occur by including their relationships as the vehicle for that change.

As I will explain in further articles, the failure to identify and promote this development has many unrecognized consequences for us in our life and our relationships. If we cannot identify the source of those difficulties we cannot address the underlying problem.

Worse than that, when we misidentify the fundamental nature of our problem, we spend an inordinate amount of time developing and implementing solutions that not only won’t work, but can often be quite harmful and sometimes destructive.

So what exactly are the ways to nurture our spiritual development???

The answer to this question is very easy to express (many people do it all the time) but very, very difficult to implement.

We grow through awareness, by becoming more conscious of our self, through self-discovery, self-realizations, self-actualization, or, using Peck’s definition, we extend our self.

In the next article, Part II, I look more closely at this notion of extending our self.

06 Jul

Love as An Act of Will (Part II)

In Part I of the previous article, (Love as Act of Will Part 1), I presented a definition from Scott Peck’s book, “The Road Less Travelled” in which he described love as “The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s and another’s spiritual growth” and briefly explored the meaning of “spiritual growth.”

Let’s look more closely at this action described as “the will to extend oneself…”.

The act of extending oneself can be seen as two movements; one inwards and one outwards. The inward extension can be identified as an ongoing and compassionate inquiry into the nature of one’s self. It is taking a look at who or what one is made of, moving down into one’s being and exploring the psychological space and places that define us –  some of  which we may not even yet be familiar with.

This inquiry is more than simply an examination of our thoughts and feelings.

It includes, for example, making a genuine effort to see how we really, truly feel about our partner, other people, and ourself. It is a sustained attempt to fully appreciate the differences between our many emotional experiences such as pleasure, pain, envy, anger and how we move through the world and make choices on the basis of those feelings. It is an interested inquiry into our memories, images, sensations, dreams, hopes, fears, and the endless depth of other experiences that comprise the fundamental sense of “who am I”.

The outer extension involves the considerate sharing of one’s intimate self to another. This is an attempt to let the other know more about you, to share what you are finding in your personal inward discovery with the other.

This is much more than a recounting of one’s thoughts, recounting the day’s activities, or a reviewing of one’s personal history to the other. It is the willingness to “put oneself fully behind” what is being said, to present the actual depth of one’s experience, including their emotional aspects such as shame, doubts, fears etc.. It is in a very real sense an intention to fully risk oneself with the other, something we seldom do.

Extending oneself towards another also involves more than communication. It also means responding and acting on behalf of the other in terms of their needs and their best interests, not simply your own needs and interests (see my article – The Golden Rule).

Having said all this, it is much easier to give to others when they are also also taking the time and making the commitment to discover themselves and are willing to extend their self to you. It is this reciprocal effort which really moves the relationship along and provides the ideal conditions for growth in the relationship.

Needless to say, without a basic level of mutual interest, trust, and care, this type of relationship can not occur. Nonetheless, it does not preclude you from acting in this manner since your own personal growth still requires this whether another is interested or not.

So how does this all work together? In future articles I will comment on how I see most relationships working in terms of this definition of love. I will also identify several key areas for you to consider to help you decide if your own relationship is currently functioning as a vehicle for your emotional/psychological growth.

* Scott Peck, M.D. “The Road Less Traveled”. Simon and Schuster (1978)

15 Apr

The Golden Rule

As a child I was often told “it is better to give than to receive.” I always understood this message in terms of giving gifts to others rather than getting them, and the implication was that somehow in doing so, I would be a better person for doing it. While I could hear what I was being told, I could never quite understand why or how this might be true. It took me a long time to really grasp the crucial significance in this message.

In many, many different ways and at many different levels, my uniqueness, my individuality, the very experience I call “my” self, has been, and continues to be, significantly connected to others’ experiences of me. When others treated me as valuable, I was likely to see myself as having value. When I am loved by others I will probably feel lovable.

Similarly, I am likely to feel disturbed and defensive when others are angry or critical of me, and embarrassed or ashamed when others point out things I have done that hurt them. It is a strange and painful paradox that much of who “I” am, the types of experiences I am having and how I define those experiences, exists by virtue of the quality of my relationships I have had and am having with others.

We are not impacted equally by everyone. Rather, the size of that effect is typically related to the depth of our personal relationship. Those who have meant the most to me are the same ones whose actions and responses have had the greatest effect on how I define myself. Those who I “love” have a greater impact on my sense of self than those I “like” and so on down the line.

So it is vitally important that I should ask myself this question; “How am I treating the significant others in my life (especially the ones I love)?” because they are so crucially important in how I feel and think about myself. If I want to feel good about myself, and much of that experience arises within my significant relationships, then how conscious am I about what I am doing to the people I care most about? And it is precisely here where the giving and receiving part comes in to play.

I can either give, which is to act in loving and caring ways toward others, or I can wait, and perhaps even demand/expect to be loved and cared for (RECEIVE). I can choose to engage in particular actions with intention, or I can passively hope that something positive will happen for me in my relationships.

In giving, I am taking responsibility for myself, my actions, and my relationships. While I can never accurately predict the outcome of such actions I am at least steering the ship in the direction I want it to move in.

When I wait to be cared for and loved, everything is reversed. I become the passenger in the boat. I have almost no say in what is going to come my way and since others will eventually tire of giving with such poor return they will get frustrated. Conflict, struggle, and disappointment is virtually guaranteed.

From my perspective, this giving and receiving distinction reflects a critical distinction between love as an action and love as a feeling (see my articles “Love As An Act of Will”). As I see it, this is the crucial message in the Golden Rule “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Others Do Unto You”. At one level it can be seen as a form of compassionate guidance in how to treat others. But at another level it instructs and encourages us to “do”, rather than be “done to”.

As with all profound teachings, there are many levels of meaning. So too with the lesson about giving and receiving, for when we understand that it is in the act of giving that we receive, then it offers so much more than advice about gift giving.

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