Archive: October, 2011

A Relationship Is Like A Garden

A relationship is like a garden. It needs care, weeding and attention. Growing and tending a garden involves not only work but also pleasure.

As a couple plants flowers, shrubs and various forms of landscaping in their garden, they share ideas, beauty and creativity. The garden represents the connection and focus each partner is willing and able to give. It also highlights the differences in partners and their abilities. They find out one is better than the other at certain tasks. Their ideas for how the garden should look are sometimes met with approval, questions and disagreement. What is crucial for their relationship and garden is the tone of those ideas and how they are shared.

For instance, when they go to the plant store, one thinks to buy the soil, the other the special fertilizer for the roses. One thinks to buy a new pot, the other an unusual plant. They are sharing and doing, each recognizing the total effect for the garden. The interweaving of their views and perspectives makes the garden grow between them. Then the garden is actually transferred into the ground.

This is a subtle process that speaks to the dedication and the time it takes to make the garden grow. It requires an attentiveness to watch out for weeds encroaching on the new plants. It requires an act of care. This is a couple working together to create a landscape of beauty that both enjoy. The garden can be an expression of their passion in the riot of color, the arrangement of the usual and the ordinary, specifically shaped by this couple.

Yet, like with any garden, we might look at the weeds and remind ourselves to take care of them but then we forget. Other things take over. We become busy. The garden still grows but it gradually begins to struggle if the inattention goes on for too long. Weeds grow higher and higher. Soon their roots are strong and need increasing effort to dig out.

The analogy of this garden with a relationship is quite clear. When we ignore what is in front of us in our relationship, the weeds and irritants take root and become stronger and more offensive. This fact is so obvious, yet we all tend to forget that the daily expressions of love and care, like the daily weeding of our gardens, are the precious soil in which our love grows.

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The Importance of Emotional Safety in Love

What is emotional safety? It is feeling that intimate partners in a relationship have each other’s back. It means being emotionally available and responsive to one another during tough times. It means for each of them to have the other’s best interests in mind. It means counting on one another in times of need.

John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist who introduced this term for the first time in the 1950s, applied this concept of emotional safety to the infant’s relationship with his the primary caretaker. When a child feels emotionally safe in his relationship with the person he most depends on for survival and affection, this child will have a good chance of growing up to be an emotionally healthy and balanced individual, capable of deep and long lasting attachments to others and strong and secure about himself. And independent, as independence cannot exist without the experience of dependency first.

In adulthood, when we get attracted to a person, we repeat some of the childhood experiences of attachment. Some people, in fact, reawaken, in us, some of the old longings for affection, closeness and intimacy, as well as a need for secure attachment and emotional safety that we experienced as young children. We never fully outgrow them, even when we become more self reliant and independent as we grow up. When we can trust our needs will be met by our partner and trust we can rely on him or her in case of need, the relationship is solid and strong, and the two people in it can withstand the challenges that life throws their way at every turn. It is when we can no longer trust our partner to be there for us in case of need that the relationship gets on shaky ground, and the ghost of separation becomes more real.

So, think about how you feel with  your partner: do you believe he or she will be there for you in case of need? If so, you are in a good place. If not, try to go back and see if you can pinpoint what happened that took that feeling away. Let me give you a hint: it is when we feel abandoned that we lose this feeling of emotional safety. Perhaps when you had our child and felt your partner wasn’t as present as you would have wanted him or her to be? Or when you lost your job and felt unsupported? Or when you were ill and your partner “disappeared”, instead of being present for and with you? Or when your partner had an affair and you felt betrayed?

As you can see, there are many situations that can make all of us scared, alone and that challenge our abilities to cope. These are the times when we reach out to our partners for support, comfort, help, reassurance, love and, yes, just being there for us. Our partners, however, may be as frightened as we are. They may choose to remove themselves from the situation as a means of coping, focusing on their needs, not ours.

What is there to do?

Don’t wait for your partner to make the first move. You may have to wait for a long time. Maybe it will never happen, if your partner is doing the same, waiting for you to make the first move. Approach your partner with neither criticism nor judgment. Don’t use anger if you want to get close. Anger will distance the two of you from each other even more, creating a bigger barrier to overcome. Let your partner know you are not judging, you are just communicating your feelings. You may not get what you need, yet chances are you are more likely to get a positive response if your approach is non confrontational than if you use anger or you disconnect altogether.

Life in an intimate relationship is a process that constantly unfolds, presenting challenges and unknowns situations at every turn. It is only if both partners are willing to work together that the challenges can be overcome.

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A New Universe for “Couples at the Crossroads”

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you are confronted with something you know absolutely nothing about, and all of a sudden you realize that a whole new universe has opened up in front of you? You are amazed by how much you didn’t even know existed and are mesmerized by the wealth of information that is now available to you.

Well, this is what happened to me when I shifted from writing a book to becoming unwittingly involved with the intricacies of layout and technical editing, ISBN numbers, Library of Congress Cataloguing, fonts, headers, footers and code. It was mind boggling!

This happened when I met with Heinz Kegerer, our layout and technical editing expert, to discuss the preliminaries of getting our book, “Couples at the Crossroads,” published. After the first couple of sentences I realized he was talking over my head. He might as well have been talking to me in Chinese (which I do not speak nor understand) as far as I was concerned. I had taken for granted the process of publishing a book. I assumed someone else was going to take care of it.

When I kept staring at him with a blank look, Heinz realized I was totally clueless. He was asking me to make decisions and I didn’t even know what he was talking about! He backtracked quite quickly, I must say, and started explaining things as simply as ABC. From there, he painstakingly pulled me along by the hand, trying to get me up to speed, so I could comprehend what he was trying to communicate to me.

Not that I know much more about this now, but I certainly have much more appreciation for all the work and expertise that goes on behind the scenes in the self-publishing process.

Here is Heinz with me during one of our meetings in which he is trying to explain some basic concepts.

I will never be able to pick up a book and leaf through its pages without thinking about all the work that went into making this book the final product I now hold in my hands.

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Counseling For Couples: Love Strong During Difficult Times

It is not only intuitive but also supported by research that during difficult times relationships suffer. We know, for instance, that events such as a death, an illness, the loss of a job, relocation, financial problems and other major events cause a lot of stress and this stress gets displaced onto our primary relationship.

Whenever we are exposed to stress – either acute, or chronic, or both – it becomes harder to maintain inner emotional balance and separate what goes on around us from what happens within us.

The closer the relationship, unfortunately, the worse the negative effects because we tend to open up and reveal our inner thoughts and feelings in situations where we feel safewithout being afraid of reprisals. This is in most cases with our mates. Thus, they run the risk of becoming the punching bags that allow us to let steam out. We TRULY believe we are angry at them, without realizing, in most cases, that we are displacing our feelings from one situation to another.

In intimate relationships, under normal conditions, each partner is the caregiver and the care receiver in turn, according to what’s needed. Very seldom both partners are in the same emotional space, so when one is down, the other can be available for support, encouragement, empathy, soothing and this makes all the difference. However, when the stress affects both, like in any of the situations described above, each person feels the need to reach out to each other at the same time, but neither is available to provide what’s needed. So the system that works under ordinary circumstances ceases to provide the help needed under extraordinary ones.

What is there to do in such cases?

Couples need to:

  • Remind themselves and each other that the problems they are facing are not between them. Both of them are affected by the problems, so if they ally and remind each other they are a team, they will build more strength and will be able to cope with the problems in a more effective way.
  • Provide positive feedback and affirmation to each other for all the positive and strong elements in their relationship.
  • Strategize on how to cope, both jointly and separately, with the external stressors in their lives, shifting focus from the two of them to the problems.
  • Make a commitment to regularly take time out together to reconnect, relax, have fun and play and not talk about the problems that are causing stress.
  • Provide consistent feedback to each other about how each is handling the stressful situation.
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Relationships: Running Together, Running Apart

I used to see them all the time: a couple running together. She was friendly and smiling when we passed each other. At times she had a kind word or a comment about my dog, which I took as an acknowledgment of me. He seemed less friendly, at best grunting a “hi” as we ran in opposite directions. She was clearly much younger than he was, as he ran hunched over, and she with her high step.

They ran together every day, early in the morning, following the same route. Their pace seemed to be synchronized, as they ran side by side, at times conversing with one another, at times quiet.

I noticed that, through the years, things with them began to change, slightly at first, then more noticeably. She began to use an iPod, so conversation was no longer an option. She also began to lengthen her step or perhaps increased her speed. I never figured out what happened, but she started to run ahead and he was behind. At first I thought it may be for security, as they were running on a busy road, but then again they never did it before, so why now?

I was then in the process of writing the book “Couples at the Crossroads” and wondered if this is what was happening to this couple as well. Were they getting to the crossroads in their relationship? Or was I just seeing crossroads everywhere because this is what I was working on?

I didn’t want to rush any interpretation solely based on the changes I noticed on how they ran together, or no longer together, as was now the case. So I kept watching them.

As time went by, I noticed that the distance between her and him grew wider. She was still smiling when she passed me and seemed full of energy, while he looked gloomier and gloomier. He didn’t even say hi any longer when we passed each other. He seemed to be lagging further and further behind her and she no longer seemed to care whether he was there or not. There was no doubt about that. I decided this wasn’t my imagination. At times, she was almost a quarter of a mile ahead of him.

Then I didn’t see them for months. I wondered what had happened to them. They had stopped running. Was this a reflection of a much bigger issue?

It was. It was confirmed when somebody told me they got divorced and she moved out of town.

A few months later he began to run again, this time alone. Actually he wasn’t even running any longer. He would walk for a while, then break into a short run and then walk again. His head was down. He no longer looked at anybody when he passed people but looked at the road as though he was intently looking for a lost penny he could never find. He was looking for something that was gone.

It became clear to me now that their running together – and separately – was a microcosm of the gradual disconnection that had been developing between them, a reflection of a bigger disconnection in their relationship. I wonder if they were even conscious of how their emotional disconnection reverberated in many other areas of their lives.

And, I kept asking myself, would I have noticed, had I not been writing a book on couples at the crossroads?

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Counseling For Couples: Breaking Up But Living Together

When couples living together break up, sometimes no one moves out. Why? The answer is money. Some people who can’t save the relationship still live together to save money. How can two people live in this situation? Here are my five tips:

Sit down and go over the finances BEFORE anything else. Leave feelings out of this as much as possible. Come up with a plan that both feel is fair and feasible. Try to divide things up as closely as possible to 50/50.

Set a goal such as: “We are going to be living in the same place until …” This could be a time frame: six months, three months, one year and so forth. This could be a financial frame: “We are going to live together until we both have paid our joint debts” or “until one of us has paid off what he or she owes the other” or “until one of us finds a job. This should happen within a certain number of weeks.” Make a commitment to each other to respect your joint plan and not change it unless you discuss it first.

Share with each other information that affects the two of you. Did one of you find a new job or did you or your partner lose one? Is there a major change that may affect your mutual agreement? Couples should also share minor changes that affect each other. For instance, if you decide to spend the night somewhere else and you have always been very consistent with your schedule, leave a note or send a text to your partner about this change so he or she does not worry about your whereabouts. This doesn’t mean you need to tell your partner everything you do and everywhere you go, but it is common courtesy to let your partner know that you are OK.

Talk about your feelings for one another. Quite likely one of you is emotionally ready to move on, whereas the other may still be hoping your relationship can be repaired. It is important you know where each of you stands.

Discuss how you want to handle new relationships. How does each of you feel about the other getting involved with someone else? Is it OK to bring a new friend home? How can you do this in a courteous and respectful way?

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Writing About Couples With Mozart In The Morning

The idea for our book about couples at the crossroads in their relationships came to me one day as I was thinking about how to reach more people than just my patients with information I thought would be helpful to them. After all, we are all in relationships of one sort or another. We all have been in relationships from the first day of our lives and on and off since then. So I figured some information that addressed the “common denominator” to most interpersonal problems would be useful! And I think this is the core message of the book: No matter how different your individual circumstances are, there are some basic issues that come up in all relationships. These are the issues addressed and explained in the book we are working on.

Dr. Susan Schwartz and I began to write and meet regularly to discuss what the book would look like. We would e-mail our parts, read them out loud to one another, revise them and move on.

We typically met in restaurants. You can imagine how much food consumption is associated with the writing of this book! We can say we tried a lot of restaurants in town that offer lunch, typically sticking to one we liked for a while, then moving on to the next one once we got tired of the same food. We also moved to different parts of town, covering most of the Phoenix area.

I typically write in the morning. Like now, it’s before 6:30 am and I have been at the computer for over an hour. Mornings are times when my mind is fresh and full of ideas. It is also when I still remember my dreams and spend some time pondering over their messages. At times they provide flashes of insight into what I am doing.

I write with Mozart. Not the composer. Mozart is my dog. He lies under my desk while I write and keeps me company.

I rescued Mozart through a rescue group for Golden Retrievers. He was neglected from birth. When we adopted him last spring, he had never had a bath, been on a leash, driven in a car or visited the vet. No one even pet him. Now he follows me everywhere and gets anxious when I leave because he is afraid I will abandon him. So I guess I have become his mom. He is extremely attached to me.

When we got his papers, I saw his mother’s “family” name was Mozart. Mozart also happens to be one of my favorite composers. The name was totally spot on!

Can you see how the issue of attachment, which I discuss at length in the book as being the bedrock of all human connections, applies to relationships between dogs and animals as well? Dogs love you unconditionally, just like children do. It’s adults who at times mess things up. And when that happens, we hope our upcoming book can help those couples reconnect.

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