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.

01 Mar

Relationship Anxiety

When asked why life is stressful, we often talk about the demands of work, the responsibilities of being a parent, paying our bills and so on.

Yet, as I discuss here, every time we interact with another person it introduces an element of uncertainty into our lives, and under certain conditions, can generate remarkable levels of stress. This article examines the fundamental basis for this stress response and how it  connects to conflict, anxiety, and depression.

At a general level, there are many similarities between people in how they experience their self, others, and the world. Without such commonalities we could not communicate, share ideas, work together towards goals, and so on.

But I don’t think we properly appreciate the remarkable quality or quantity of  the differences which exist between each and every one of us, in how we are experiencing this thing we call reality.

Neither do we properly appreciate how those differences impact on our relationships with others. Let me expand on this further.

From moment to moment, my experiences  of the “me in here”, the “you over there”, and the “world out there”, comprises my reality. That experience provides the basis for what I believe, and how I live my life. I must be able to trust this.

Trusting that my perceptions are accurate is as important for me as it is for you.  Yet surprisingly, none of us experiences or interprets “reality” the same way – ever.

Even at the same moment in time, and same physical location, someone standing next to you, looking at the same event will be having differing experiences from yours.

Indeed it is quite possible the two of you could be having experiences so dramatically different you would never even know you were in the same room.

Nonetheless, both of you will be experiencing your own personal reality; a reality which is true for each of you, but not the same for either.

Thus when two people start talking to each other, they are always expressing their personal version of reality to each other.

Every interaction I have with someone introduces me to a version of reality different from mine; sometimes similar, sometimes diametrically opposed – never the same.  Both of us will assume that our view of reality is true.

So what happens when one person’s perceptions and experiences of reality, their truth, comes up against another person’s perceptions and experiences, and those truths do not match?

Every time this happens, we experience some measure of anxiety; a response which is often so small it is unnoticed.  Sometimes however, this anxiety response triggers a large alarm.

The answer to the question as to when is the alarm small and when is it large is, “It depends”.

If we happen to be engaging in “small” talk, differences in our experiences may seem inconsequential such that the alarm bell will be essentially silent.

But if two people present each other with differing experiences of reality that have high personal importance where there is a need to be right about one’s perceptions,  the alarm bell will be loud, and each person will begin to experience strong emotional reactions. It is here that the possibility for conflict begins.

This can become painfully obvious when disagreements occur with those we are supposed to feel safe with, or to whom we are “close. Depending on a complex array of personal, relational, and situational dynamics, such disagreements may lead to aggressive argument or even conflict, or they may eventually be peacefully negotiated. Whether we like it or not, conflicted disagreements threaten the fundamental assumption of trust we work so hard to establish in our close relationships, which was one of the primary reasons for having that relationship in the first place.

What is fueling this conflict  is not simply the subjective differences in opinion.  Rather, the conflict is being energized by a challenge to each person’s perception of reality, which links directly to our fundamental need to know what is happening around us and to be able to trust those perceptions.

Interestingly, for some people, their fundamental sense of security concerning their own perceptions is strong and robust.  When their perceptions of reality are challenged by others their reactions are well controlled and relatively calm.

For others however,  their fundamental sense of security is weak and fragile.  Their reactions when their perceptions are challenged can be quite volatile and even aggressive.

Why some people are secure while others are insecure is complicated.  Why some issues in particular press “hot buttons” for some people and not for others is also complex and neither issue can be properly covered here.

What I do want to emphasise is that If threats to our beliefs about what is right, true, and fair are constantly occurring, then even the strongest amongst us will begin to more experience mounting anxiety.  And if this continues over an extended period of time we will begin to experience chronic stress with all of the associated symptoms.

If we have no solution to this chronic threat we will begin to burn out.  Eventually we will begin to experience depression.

Please read my next post, Relationship Anxiety (Conclusion), for my closing remarks.

29 Aug

Identity: Who Did You Say You Were?

Have you ever stopped to consider how little people really know each other? I don’t mean casual acquaintances or even friends.  I mean people who say they love and deeply care for each other; people who are willing to commit their lives to each other.

I am not referring to whether or not they are interested in (or at least talk about) what we might call each others objective reality (how was work today, how were the kids, what did you think of that restaurant last night etc.).  Rather, I am pointing to what seems to be a remarkable lack of interest in, and exploration of, each others subjective reality;  their thoughts, feelings, memories, desires, fears, fantasies and so on.

I would argue that it is precisely those experiences, the ones we might identify as our “interior” self, which make each of us truly unique and remarkable.  These are the deeper, more personal, immediate, and alive aspects of our being.  They are the ones that matter most to us and the ones that define our essential and vital self.

And I am suggesting that the failure of people in relationships to learn more about and respect such qualities in each other leads to a whole host of potential problems and difficulties that may never get resolved until they are understood.  And for many people, they may never get understood.

All in all this lack of interest and exploration of each other with each other creates a rather strange and confusing situation for us humans.

For example, we think we understand and know our loved one, when in fact we do not.  We think the other understands us, when in fact they don’t. What we have done instead is identify with the “exterior” of the other, and confused that with who they are.

The truly odd thing about this is that we each expect, and sometimes demand, that the other be what we have imagined them to be as a result of what we have learned about their external apearances.  But we are all so much more complex than our outside presentation.

And soon enough and sure enough, we will present to the other in a way that does not match with our exterior as they have come to know us.  But it will fit with our interior and seem perfectly natural and acceptable to us.

And when that happens the other can feel surprised, shocked, dismayed, disappointed, angry, and a whole range of other negative experiences.  At these moments the reaction generally tends to be; “Hey, what’s wrong with you, get back to being the person I know and stay there.”

When they present their self to us in an odd or unexpected way, we will ask the same of them.

If we are each reasonably healthy we will stand up for ourselves  and ask to be known and accepted more deeply and clearly.  If we are not so healthy, we will step backwards towards the image the other expects of us and we will stay there.

But we will suffer.  And often, we will make the other suffer in a variety of obvious and not so obvious ways, for not being willing to accept the truer, deeper, and more meaningful aspects of our being.

Does this scenario have real world implications for individuals in those relationships?  I am certain it does.

Can this help us understand why so many relationships struggle and eventually break-up? Can it help explain why so many people get depressed, turn to drugs and alcohol, have extra-marital affairs and a whole host of other relationship disturbance?

I think it does explain much of this and I think it is all so tragic.

Why tragic?  Because I don’t believe people do this intentionally to each other.  I don’t think they are trying to hurt each other.  I just think they don’t know any better and don’t even see the problem being created.

So what does it mean to say  “I love you”,  if at precisely the same time I don’t really know you or even want to know you?  And what does it mean if you won’t or can’t tell me who you are even if I ask?

Exactly who is this “you” I love?

01 Apr

Mindfulness In Our Relationships

Imagine someone picking up a book, perhaps one of the great classics, but they cannot read. All they see is black squiggly lines on white pages. This book is meaningless for this person. Because it is meaningless it has no value and can easily be discarded.

Now imagine a highly skilled reader picking up that book. That same book now has a wide range of qualities that it didn’t have for the first person.

There are characters and events that generate a complex and fascinating world of images and meaning and will probably generate a wide range of emotional responses that did not and could not exist for the first person.

In this way it has become something much more, something very different, and something of much greater value. If we think of our experiences of our self, of others, and of the world we live in as a book, people generally seem to be very poor readers.

The information they are able to access is very limited, and therefore has little meaning and value. Let me be clear about what I am saying. Most people, if asked, would of course be able to identify what they are thinking about, how they are feeling, what they are looking at, etc.

But oddly enough, it is only when someone actually asks us what is going on in our mind that we tend to really notice.

Herein lies the problem.

Only rarely do we actually become aware of where our mind is at. So this otherwise reasonably accessible level of understanding is typically restricted from our awareness.

And it is restricted primarily only because we generally don’t pay attention to it. As a result, a great deal of potential learning opportunities go unrecognized by us.

This potentially valuable information, as a source of knowing about our self, is generally not accessed and thus not utilized by the average person.

As I have discussed in previous articles relationships, there are two fundamental and critical relationships we need to pay attention to: The relationship we have with our self, and the relationship we have with others and the outside world.

Most people don’t pay attention to either, and, I would argue, don’t even know how to pay attention. In many ways, we have as much understanding of our self and the world out there, as does someone who has a book in their hands but doesn’t know how to read.

If we really want to know about either of these relationships, we have to learn to be mindful. Learning how to pay attention properly is crucial to understanding our self and others.

This idea will be discussed and expanded in other articles released around the subject of mindfulness.

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