06 Feb

Relationship Anxiety (Conclusion)

In a previous post, Relationship Anxiety, I discussed why and how interactions with others can introduce anxiety into our lives, and under certain conditions, can generate remarkable levels of stress.

While it is often difficult enough for adults when their interactions with other adults threaten their sense of reality and security,  it is even more disturbing when this happens for children in their interaction with adults, especially when it is with their parents.

Indeed, it is here that the origins of why some of us feel fundamentally secure while others do not begins to develop and unfold. And it is those experiences that will define the quality of every subsequent experience we have, and influence the many ways we will learn to respond to every personal interaction we encounter.

This fundamental insecurity generates anxiety, and with our all too common human tendency to minimise pain which stems from anxiety, almost all of us have a wide and complex variety of  avoidance based strategies and defences created across the many years and stages of our psychological  development.

So it is is that some of  our reactions in times of relationship stress are reasonably mature and productive, while others can appear childish and are destructive.

These historically rooted developmental avoidance strategies help explain why many people don’t like to argue with those around them, why they don’t like to stand out from others, and why they can be so easily persuaded to surrender their beliefs and alter their behaviour if it allows them to feel like they belong or fit in.

Coupled with the fact that our defensive avoidance reactions are primarily unconscious also helps explain how two people can begin a relationship so in love, and end up fighting and hating each other so completely, without ever really understanding why or knowing what to do about it.

That which is familiar, predictable and controllable is comforting.  That which is unfamiliar, unpredictable and uncontrollable creates anxiety .

Perhaps this explains why, in the larger arena of social relationships,  there is so much distrust and conflict between people who hold different religious beliefs, or cultural values, or even sexual preferences.

It also accounts for why we so quickly criticise those who don’t share our beliefs or ideologies, and why we feel so completely justified in doing so.

What is so odd and distressing about all of this however, is the fact that the very existence of differing realities and values of others can  potentially make our experience of life so so rich and interesting.

It is because there are such difference that we can learn about life beyond our own narrow personal understandings and perhaps begin to learn what it is we need to make this a better world for us all to live in.

It is a shame this opportunity is wasted all too often.

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)

29 Oct

Love As an Act of Will (Part III)

In Part I and Part of II of this series, I have described how we can view love as the action which serves as the vehicle for nurturing and enhancing our emotional and psychological growth, and looked at that action actually within the context of one’s relationship with another.

In this article I provide a brief description of three basic types of relationships that define the relative state of health of that relationship. Read More

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?

05 Sep

Hello? … Is Alexithymia There?

“Alexithymia” is a term coined to describe patients who have so successfully buried their emotional problems that they no longer have any capacity for genuine insight. These patients present as being “emotionally illiterate” such that they have great difficulty in expressing or describing their feelings. Because their capacity to intellectualize and rationalize can be highly developed they often have very strong and rigid opinions about themselves and their life, making two-way communication about these very important issues very difficult and frustrating.

Importantly, such patients do not even realize they cannot identify their own feelings, and while they can use words like “love”, “hate” and “jealousy”,  close inspection reveals that they have never actually experienced them.  They typically show no emotion while telling sad stories, presenting details of their unhappy relationships, or discussing events of their childhood. Read More

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