The Secret Ingredient to a Happy Relationship

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

You could probably “google” the title of this blog and get hundreds of different responses. Despite this, I would like to share what I think is the secret ingredient most couples and family members lack when they experience relational distress. I believe it is human intuition that when our character or role in a relationship is threatened we immediately want to put up a defense to protect it. One of the reasons we do this is to avoid feeling shame about ourselves or the role we play in our relationship distress. Most of us naturally want to feel important as well as feel we are making a positive difference with the people around us. The way we react to disapproval or criticism is similar to how our bodies react to a cold virus. When our bodies recognize that something foreign has invaded it and is threatening the system, it gives off antibodies to fight and defend itself. Unfortunately, in relationships, these natural efforts to defend ourselves from others’ disapproval usually causes more harm than good. Often times, we feel the “need” to help our loved ones hear our side of the story because if they don’t (we say to ourselves) they will think the worst of us. Then as soon as we express what “really” happened, we expect our loved ones to succumb to the “truth” of it and admit that their views of the incident are in error. Unfortunately, as you might have guessed, our episodes most often don’t unfold in this manner. What often happens is two people feeling unheard and misunderstood and leave feeling more frustrated than ever. However there is a key piece of knowledge here that many people have a hard time contemplating. It is that TRUTH IS POINTLESS IN RELATIONSHIPS! Trying to convince each other to hear the “real” story often ends up in a conversational debate about who is right and who is wrong. Now don’t get me wrong. I think there are certain things in the relationship that need to be regarded as “wrong” and “right.” However, for the most part, healthy relationships are often founded on a mutual understanding of each other’s unique perspectives. This leads me to the SECRET INGREDIENT……..VALIDATION. Validation is the ability to step inside our partners world and to see the world as they see it. When we have done this we given them permission to feel whatever they are feeling and acknowledge their difficulty and pain in the events that have occurred. When couples and families are able to validate one another’s story and feelings, positive interactions can start to succeed the negative ones and lead us on the road to relationship satisfaction. I think that often times we fear that if we validate and understand our partner’s feelings that we are afraid that our own feelings won’t be heard or understand. However, that is often not the case. When we are able to listen to our partners on an emotional and authentic level and our partners are able to express themselves on a vulnerable and authentic level, our partners are much more likely to step inside our world and listen to our reality.

Great Expectations

Author: Kyle M. Reid, Associate Marriage and Family Therapist

I once had a friend who told me that when he was first married, he had the flu one weekend. He started to get very angry at his wife because she didn’t have a glass of grape juice sitting on his bedside when he became sick. I thought to myself, “That’s ridiculous!” He went onto say that growing up his mother would give him a glass of grape juice every time he was sick. He was so used to getting one over the years that he expected his wife to do the same thing.

We all of have expectations in our relationships. Some are important for the relationship to continue (e.g. fidelity) and some are ones that we might need to reevaluate or just remember that we own them and shouldn’t push them onto our partners. I would say that the hard part is trying to decide which ones are worth fighting for and which ones we need to own for ourselves.

One of the biggest mistakes I see in relationships is the fight each partner has between what is right and wrong in their eyes. Each partner spends so much time trying to convince the other that they need to see things their way that all they end up doing is convince the other to hold onto their current way of thinking who in return becomes resentful towards them for trying to force their beliefs onto them.¬† One example of this is when my wife and I were first married. In our drawer in the kitchen, we had bar towels and towels you would use to dry your hands. According to my beliefs and how I was raised, you NEVER mix up the two! I had a firm belief that you never use the bar towels to wipe your hands and you never use the hand towels to wipe the counter. However, my wife didn’t see this issue as of great importance and was wondering why I was running around throwing a hissy fit. So, she would continue to mix up the two quite often. Sometimes I would go and wipe my hands on a hand towel not knowing that it had been used previously to wipe the counters off. I became frustrated with her quite often and attempted to convince her that my way was the right way of doing things and she needed to stop mixing the towels up. I began to realize that she just wasn’t raised my way. I realized that I needed to stop putting my expectations onto her and stop demanding that she live up to them. I had to make a choice. I would either continue to nag her about the towels to the point she would do what I said. I would get what I wanted but with a heavy price of resentment and a build up of emotional walls from her in return. On the other hand, If I chose to own my expectations and understand where she was coming from, I could begin to see how using the right towels wasn’t worth the pains of the relationship distress. I could ACCEPT it…… Of course, I chose the latter. We haven’t fought about it since. Choosing to ACCEPT this has lead me to look back on it now and think how silly it was for me to put so much effort into using the right towels. Now, instead of getting on her case, I grab another towel to wipe my hands and move on to the rest of my day leaving that behind me. This experience has taught me the importance of owning my expectations in my relationship as well as learning to ACCEPT many things I don’t have control over.

Addictions and Their Substitutes for Love

Author: Kyle M. Reid, Associate Marriage and Family Therapist

One of the best books I ever read wasn’t actually a novel. It was a book about drug addicts. It is called In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Mate. Well, I learned from this book that most of the things that a drug addict struggles with and the reasons for their addiction plague most relationships. Addictions are actually much more common than you might think. There are many forms of addiction that plague relationships: such as TV, Internet browsing, pornography, social media websites (i.e. Facebook), computer games, video games, cleaning, shopping, music, eating disorders, and electronic gadgets. The problem behind the addiction isn’t the addiction itself but the addiction cycle and the needs our bodies are trying to get met. Even if you take the steps necessary to stop one addiction (e.g. pornography), another one pops up in its place (e.g. TV). This is because you are not actually solving the problem underneath the addiction, which is: using poor substitutes for love. People who struggle with addiction do not necessarily have problems with being loved or feeling loved, but the problem lies in “accepting love vulnerably and openly on a visceral, emotional level” (Mate, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts). People who cannot find or receive love need to find external influences or substitutes to get their needs met (Mate, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts). One of the biggest differences between people who struggle with addiction and people who are less influenced by them is their ability to handle and deal with emotions. Children who have parents who are always attentive to their needs, who have the ability to regulate their own emotions, and can properly soothe their children, learn to manage their emotions effectively because they were taught by their parents. However, those who have poor attachments with their parents and were left to themselves to soothe their emotional distress relied on external sources to comfort themselves. It is unfortunate that we are entering into a society where there is more and more emotional deprivation and reliance on electronic technology to find comfort rather than having quality contact at home with our loved ones.

What do I do then?

If you are struggling in a relationship where addiction has taken its toll on the relationship distress, I encourage you to see a therapist. Addictions can be difficult to overcome and unless you can deal with the underlying problems associated with the addiction, you are most likely to develop other forms of addicted behaviors. However, knowing what is at the root of addiction can help the addict and the partner of the addict in knowing what needs to be done.

If you are interested in finding out more information on the book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, please visit the resources tab at the top of the page.

The Lost Art of Listening

Author: Kyle M. Reid, Associate Marriage and Family Therapist

One of the most common complaints I hear from couples is the inability that they have to communicate effectively with each other. By the time they come into therapy, they are both exhausted physically, emotionally, and mentally in the relationship and are at a loss of how to get the other partner to understand them. When partners stop listening to each other, the relationship slowly starts to diminish. However, before we go further, lets talk about the differences between hearing someone and listening to someone. Listening is more than just hearing what people say. I can hear my wife talk to me about her day and get every word she is saying but if I am playing on my phone while she is doing this she will most likely reply, “Are you listening to me!” Of course my natural reply would be, “I heard everything you said!” However, what did she really want from me?……… She wanted more than just hearing her words, she needed me to help her to feel I cared about her day and what she was going through. ¬†Listening to our partners is not about agreeing with them! It is about trying to show empathy towards their situations and what they are going through. It is about trying to put ourselves in their shoes and walk in them a bit.

By the time couples get to therapy, the listening stops and the defensiveness starts. They had stopped listening to each other long ago in their relationship and have come to a point where they just want to be heard by their partner. So you can imagine what this looks like. The most common example of this to me in therapy happens while one partner is talking to other. A lot of the time, the latter is trying to think about the next thing to say to him or her trying to win the war of words.

At this point (the point where most conversations end up in an argument), many couples contemplate divorce believing that they will find somebody better who will understand and listen to their needs. While this usually happens initially at the beginning of relationships, most patterns get repeated in the long-term no matter how many relationship changes there are.

One of my favorite authors, Michael P. Nichols, PhD, wrote a book called,¬†The Lost Art of Listening. In here he stated, “A relationship is not a thing, not a static state; it is a process of mutual influence. A relationship isn’t something you have; it’s something you do. Couples who learn to listen to each other–with understanding and tolerance–often find that they don’t need to change each other. The impulse to change things, to make them better, is a natural and largely constructive one. But anyone who thinks of marriage as an infinitely improvable arrangement is making a mistake. The ideal of perfectibility breeds frustration. Many problems can be solved, but the problem of living with another person who doesn’t always see things the way you do isn’t one of them. Sometimes marriage isn’t about resolving differences but learning to live together with them” (p. 207).

What do I do then?

If you feel you are in a relationship where you are not being understood, ask yourself, “Does my partner feel understood by me? Does her or she feel I care about their opinions?” When my wife and I are talking about something together, I often don’t agree with how she sees things. However, I recognize that her feelings and opinions are just as important as mine and who am I to say that I am the all-knowing authority on the subject! I have learned in my relationship and with my therapeutic experience that expecting your partner to align with your way of viewing the world will mostly likely leave you alone in that world. My advice is to resist the urge to try and change your partner and focus your efforts on listening to them. Doing this will likely lead to a better and healthier relationship. I have often found that by doing this and helping your partner feel cared about by you, he or she will most likely be in a place to listen and understand you.

If you are interested in finding out more information on the book, The Lost Art of Listening, please visit the resources tab at the top of the page.