Anger ain’t that bad!

With all of the talk of Anger Management, and Letting of anger, and quotes like “holding on to anger is like holding on to a hot coal and expecting the other person to get burned”, anger has gotten a bad rep.  While yes, long term anger is damaging to the body in the way long term stress and long term anxiety are damaging to the body, every emotion we have has a purpose; including anger.  In dangerous situations anger fuels the protective instinct and helps provide the energy to protect ourselves and others.  In overwhelming situations anger gives the fuel to keep going when the odds seem completely against you, and helps push for change.  It is one of the emotions that lets us know that something is wrong that may need to be changed; possibly how you think of a situation, or the situation itself.

A recent study  has shown that anger can actually help people make firm decisions when they may have waffled before.  It can help people think critically about a situation in which they would have felt confusion about before.  With everything, if we let the anger get too big it can get in the way.  A candle can be beautiful and provide light, a campfire can provide warmth, a forest fire can provide incredible devastation.

Anger can be a wonderful protective agent. Feelings such as fear, shame, sadness and powerlessness are painful.  Anger helps manage those feelings from being as painful.  This can be a good thing in small doses, of course.  Anger can also be a distraction keeping us from being present with the true struggle. We need to look at what anger is able to give is in the moment we are using it. Is the anger giving us the courage to fight a fight that we need courage for? Is the anger helping keep motivation up in a situation that seems helpless? If so the anger is beneficial and helpful. If the anger is distracting from the true needs for yourself or a situation, or if it is just providing a cover-up so that you don’t have to be present with painful emotions then it is not helpful but possibly detrimental.

When we use Anger as a cover-up for painful emotions we don’t lose the emotions, we are hiding them from ourselves. Like when we were children and our parents told us to clean our rooms, and we just shoved everything under the bed. (I know very well that I am not the only kid to do that, I work with too many teens and adults.) Eventually the mess under the bed grows until there is a huge mess that will take a monumental amount of time and effort to clean. We can go on hoping that we never have to worry about it, but that day always comes. Out of sight may be out of mind, but it is still there. If there is trauma added to the mess it festers, like shoving food under our metaphorical beds. It starts to stink up the whole place. Using anger to cover this up just causes more pain and hurt that has to be shoved away and covered up, creating a cycle. Being able to let go of the anger and having the courage to face the pain and hurt that has been ignored is the first step to emotional (and sometimes physical) health.

It is important to be able to see your own true motivations behind the anger. Many motivations that lead to anger are a desire to be heard, a desire to be respected, and a desire to be seen as valuable. A feeling of lack of skill or lack of knowledge can lead to fear and anger. As discussed above, anger in these situations, in small doses can be helpful. It can help focus and add direction. In big doses it leads to rash decision making with verbal and possibly physical aggression. Learning the skills to feel comfortable in multiple situations can limit the anger as you feel confident instead of afraid.

Anger is no better or worse than any other emotion. It is useful and necessary at times, and in moderation can be beneficial. As with all emotions it is important to be able to harness the anger without letting it overwhelm you and your actions. It’s OK to be mad, it’s not OK to be bad.

What “I can’t” really means

What do you really mean when you say “I can’t”?  “I can’t”, or “I cannot,” truly means “I am unable to.”   If someone were to ask me to do a basketball lay-up, I would legitimately be able to say, “I can’t”.  I am unable to coordinate myself and the ball to do an official “lay-up.”  Were someone to ask me to learn to do a lay-up, if the words “I can’t,” should happen to come out of my mouth what I would really mean would be “I won’t”.  I am perfectly capable of learning to do a lay-up, though I honestly have little interest in doing so.

A good deal of the time when we utter “I can’t,” we really mean: I won’t, I don’t want to, it is too hard, or it’s to scary.   One of the worst things we do is convince ourselves of the “I can’t.”  This often comes into play when change is needed.  One of my personal “I can’t” moment came about 8 years and 70 pounds ago.  As I struggled with my weight I was referred to Gary Avignon, LPC.  After an interview and assessments he dropped the news.  I already knew I was over weight, but I didn’t know that my adrenal system had essentially shut down leading to depression, anxiety and type two diabetes.  Now for the good news.  In order to combat all of these problems I would need to completely change my lifestyle.  I would need to remove all non-complex carbohydrates from my diet.  This included most wheat products (bread, noodles, cereal), rice, sugar and potatoes.  No french fries, no bread, no spaghetti, no ice cream…Could you do it?  Veggies and fruits were a necessary part of this lifestyle, but even things like Special K cereal for breakfast was out.  As I was being told this, my first thought was, “I can’t.”  And as I thought these words I was informed that this lifestyle change would not just be until I lose the weight, but permanent, if I wish to keep the weight off forever.

In this “I can’t” moment I had to decide what was more important.  French Fries, or my health?  Bread, or my health?  But making this sacrifice was overwhelming.  Food as comfort,food is an important part of our life.  In that moment, though, I made a decision then and there that I could.  Many times in the next year or two after making the decision I didn’t want to, but “I can’t” changed to “Oh my goodness this is HARD, but I CAN!”

When working with addicts and offenders (violent, sexual, what have you) one of the most frequent thinking errors is “I can’t,” (next to “it isn’t fair”).  When working with clients facing a large change, the most frequent thinking error is “I can’t.”  “I can’t leave my partner,” “I can’t leave my job,” “I can’t leave my home,”  “I can’t exercise,” even though I am miserable.  The justifications for all of these are many, and at times surprisingly few.  Often there are reasonable justifications for the “I can’t:” “I can’t leave my job because I can’t afford my apartment without it.”  “I can’t exercise because I have (various physical problems).”  Okay, then let’s figure out what you CAN do.

The moment we become honest with ourselves and use “I won’t” or “I don’t want to,” or “I’m scared,” or “that’s really hard,” we take a step forward.  You can leave your job.  It will make life very difficult in some cases, and will be very scary, but you can make that change.  You can’t do certain exercise, but you can find exercises you CAN do.  Anneli Rufus wrote a book called Stuck, Why We Can’t, or Won’t Move On.  While I disagree with some of her extremes, generalizations, and some of her “all or nothing” thinking, her concepts are sound.  She covers the concept of “I can’t” very well.  People come to me when they hit a point of stuckness they don’t want to tolerate anymore, but are often not ready enough to do the things they need to do, or admit the things they need to admit to themselves, in order to become unstuck and move past “I can’t”.

Next time you use the words “I can’t,” be honest with yourself.  Are you truly unable to, or is it too hard, scary, or difficult?  This admission is incredibly difficult to make, because the next step is to admit that you CAN.  You may not have the resources (emotional, financial, physical) but often you are able to obtain these things, if you look.

Are you ready?

 

Jealousy

“You can’t expect someone to love you when you can’t love yourself.” That’s the quote anyway. Well, there are times that I struggle to love me, and I’ve worked at it for years. But I have learned my value as a person and as a partner. I have learned that I am a pretty darn good catch, and anyone that doesn’t agree with that isn’t someone that I need to hang around. What knowing this, believing it in my heart, does for me is allows me to avoid jealousy.

Jealousy is the belief that you aren’t good enough. There is a fear that your partner will eventually see this, and start to look for the BBD. The Bigger Better Deal. Jealousy is the belief that everyone out there is better than you, and you aren’t enough to be faithful to. Jealousy has little to do with the other person, and a good deal with your belief that you aren’t good enough to be loved, let alone the other person. The way to kick jealousy is to find confidence. Letting go if insecurities and recognizing that everyone has crazy in them that needs to be worked on increases confidence. Learning to see that you aren’t the only person out there that doesn’t have their ducks in a row as much as they would like lets you be able to see your partner’s imperfections and not feel so bad about your own.

If you are confident in your worth, 3 things happen. First: you feel confident in your partner’s attraction to you, you feel confident in your ability to attract and pick a good person, and you have no fear that they will be looking elsewhere. Second: If they do happen to have a wandering eye, you recognize this as an indication of who they are, and not who you are. Third: you feel comfortable allowing yourself to shine through without trying to be someone you aren’t.

When you feel confident in your partner’s attraction to you, you don’t mind if they look. I know I like my car, and at the same time if a Ferrari or a decked out classic car goes by, I’m going to look and admire. It doesn’t mean that want to drive or own the car, I just want to admire it for the beauty it holds. The same is often true for people. We feel attraction on many levels. The areas of attraction are a person’s physical beauty, a person’s sexual beauty, emotional beauty, intellectual beauty, and humorous beauty.   My attraction to a Ferrari is attraction to it physical beauty (and maybe sexual. Yes, a car can have a sexual beauty / energy) with the knowledge that it is a high maintenance car. That makes it instantly overall less attractive on anything other than an artistic / physical level. For a relationship to be healthy and last there must be attraction on all levels. The least important is actually physical attraction, as a person becomes more physically attractive to a person as a deeper friendship is built through shared interests, humor, and life goals.

When I can recognize that a person’s wandering eye is an indication of who they are instead of who I am, I stop taking responsibility for the other person’s actions. People don’t cheat on their partner because of who their partner is, they cheat because of who they are. If someone is in a relationship they are unhappy in and they use that as an excuse to cheat, it is just that; and excuse. If you’re unhappy in your relationship do something about it; either try to fix it or leave, nothing gives you an excuse to cheat. When I recognize that the wandering eye is the other person, I become more discerning in the people I pick. I make sure that I’m not choosing people with a propensity to wander and then fear that they will do it to me, I pick people I know are good people, giving me more confidence in the relationship.

Someone once said “How I see you is none of your business”. When you let go of trying to impress other people and trying get them to see you as a certain way, and instead focus on being the person you want to see yourself as, you will instantaneously become more attractive to the people around you. It also means that you don’t have to contort yourself to be who you think the other person wants you to be. For example; You don’t have to lie about liking sports; if you don’t like sports, you don’t like sports. All you have to do is give your partner that does like sports the room to like them and you will be all set. Your partner will like you for you. If the only reason he likes you is because he thinks you like sports when you don’t, there is always going to be a fear that they will find out and stop liking you. Don’t try to be someone you aren’t in an effort to make yourself more attractive. Be you, if they aren’t attracted to that then you shouldn’t be with them anyway.

Jealousy is about fear and insecurity, not about the other person and their actions. If you are with a person that you legitimately need to watch all the time because they have cheated in the past or are known to have a wandering eye, then you should probably re-think your relationship. Otherwise it’s time to look deep and figure out what your fears and insecurities really are. Unless your partner is a complete and total ass (and they do exist), they are with you because you are just who they need. They are with you because they decided you are perfect for them. Work to keep from proving them wrong by turning on the crazy.

 

The soccer game in your head

Have you ever watched a kid’s soccer game? One with 6-year-olds? You watch two teams of kids and every single one of them wants the ball. There is no organization, and if a goal is made it is by luck more than skill because everyone is trying to be the one in charge. Now think of all you wants, wishes and would-likes. The want to play and have fun, the want to be seen as responsible, the want to be accepted and acceptable, the fears of failure and the desire to be successful, the want to tell the world exactly where it can go and how it can get there, the desire to make the people around you happy, the desire to make yourself happy, the desire to let your hair flow free and the desire to be professional. Imagine all of your wants, wishes and would-likes, and all of your fears as the players of the game. All of these players want the ball and think they all know best what to do with it and how to score a goal.

When you go watch a soccer game with anyone over the age of 12 the game changes. There are organized positions, each player knowing their role and knowing that if they play their part it increases the chance of winning the game. No-one is fighting their teammate for control of the ball, everyone is working cohesively for one purpose.

Most of the people I work with have yet to get all players working together. They are fighting for control of the ball and the one that is the strongest grabs control, picks up the ball and runs whatever direction they want to go with it. You, the coach, are no longer in control. The trick is to get each player to stop thinking they have the only way of reaching their goal. Most of them have similar goals; happiness, peace and safety. They just have disagreements on how to get the ball there. If they start to work together you won’t feel pulled in so many directions, or as out of control.

We want to think that our brain is in control of our actions. Though people can recognize that their heart can take over when they are in love, and people often feel butterflies or knots in their stomach when stressed. Many people have known the place where their heart is leading them on while their stomach is in knots. The heart wants connection and the zing of love, and the stomach wants to avoid the pain of rejection. There may also be a place even lower down that has it’s thoughts on some more carnal desires as well. This sounds like a bunch of players all fighting for the ball, doesn’t it.

The first step is to listen. If you ask your heart what it wants, it will speak to you, you just forgot to listen somewhere along the way. For some of us we had to stop listening because if we followed our heart we would have gotten in trouble. Our stomach knows how to stay safe, but sometimes what it wants is to go home, shut the door, close the curtains and eat ice-cream forever. It usually wants to avoid getting hurt and avoid rejection. When I can listen to the different faces of myself, and hear what they want I can start acting as a coach. When my heart wants connection and love, my stomach wants safety and to avoid pain, my throat wants to avoid talking about my embarrassing truths, and a little lower down wants…well…you know, I have to manage the wants and desires. I have to guide each player, pushing some forward, pulling some back, and working with each to use their strengths for the benefit of the team.

In any given situation we have many players wanting game time, for different goals and different reasons. As the coach, we have to sort through them, find the players that are best for the situation at handle, and play them to their strengths. As the coach, working to avoid judging the players that want things that are less than helpful or less than healthy is important.   In the above situation I work with my heart to allow me to find connections, while using my anxiety to keep me aware and safe, hopefully avoiding a problematic situation with a partner that is less than safe and less than healthy. My heart would have me leap before I look and my stomach would have me be lonely. If I can get them to work together neither feels neglected and both feel as though they are part of something bigger.

A kiddo that I work with is struggling because she wants to be loved and accepted, she wants to be seen as fun, and she wants to stand up for herself and not take any shit. Her wants are pulling her in separate directions and causing anxiety. We are working on being able to give each of her wants a job, and letting each want see that they are not opposite of each other. The more confident she is the more she will be comfortable around people and the more comfortable she will be being herself. The more herself she can be, the more accepted she will be by others in general. The keys are to get each or the parts to quit fighting the other, and to see how they can work together to achieve both goals.

When you learn to listen to your anxieties and angers, your wants and desires, you can learn to start using them and directing them. You can get them to work together and stop feeling as pulled apart. You are the coach, and you have to take control of the players. Let them play to their strengths, and make sure each of them has a part to play. If they feel ignored or neglected, each player will revert to taking over and hogging the ball. Each part of you has valid wants, and ultimately wants the best for you, even though the way they try to get those needs met may actually set you back. Giving the players set tasks and letting them see how you are helping work toward the goals will lessen the anxiety and increase feeling in control and confident.

Word Shift

Today I had one of my teenage clients ask me “What is a sociopath?”. As I discussed what it is, I asked why she was asking. One of her friends had said to her “I think I’m a sociopath”. We had a discussion of how words are used in ways they aren’t really meant for, people taking small bits of information about something and using it in a way that works for them. Linguists call this word shift. It happens in languages throughout the years. A word means something at one point, and it is used and used and used and eventually shifts to a different meaning. One word that has shifted that drives people crazy is “literally”. “My head will literally explode if you pop your gum one more time.” My head is figuratively exploding at the way you used that word.

There are several words in the mental health word that are used figuratively in ways that can be more damaging than people think. One that shifted about the time that I was a kid was “retarded”. Retard means slow. In music there is a symbol for retard, or to slow down. When one is mentally retarded it means they are mentally slower than average. It has shifted to mean stupid and dumb. Less than. It is now thrown around in the vernacular without thought to what it means to those that actually fall under the true heading, slower than others. Gay initially meant happy. Then it shifted to mean homosexual. Now it has shifted again to mean lame or pathetic.

Many words in mental health have started to shift. Today phobia is anything that someone has anxiety over, not the paralyzing fear that it actually is. Bipolar now means mood swings, not the debilitating shifts in functioning from mania to depression. Antisocial now means wanting alone time instead of someone that doesn’t respect the rights feelings of others, and sociopath is someone that doesn’t feel emotions the same way. Stupid and Idiot used to have clinical implications, idiot feel at an IQ under 30, someone that didn’t have the ability to even take care of their own daily functions including bowel movements.  And yet we throw the word around as though don’t have weight or substance.

We throw these things around, saying them about ourselves and others without really thinking about their meaning.   When was the last time you called yourself an idiot? Have you heard someone say recently “dude, that’s retarded”? Or “Why are you acting so bipolar?”

Words have meaning, saying them to ourselves and to others. Labels have meaning. The vernacular of words has shifted, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t have power. There are stigmas attached with the words that we use. Bipolar is a debilitating disorder that comes with significant stigma, and yet we throw the word around like nothing. The people it hits doesn’t feel it as nothing. It means that their feelings and emotions aren’t legitimate, that they are over reacting or that not acting 100% happy 100% of the time isn’t acceptable. It encourages repression of emotions, not management of reactions.

I can’t control the entire society in which these words are shifting, but I can spread an awareness of what the effect is. I can help you learn to stop using this language toward yourself, and let you know that while your conscious may not take it seriously, your subconscious absolutely does take it seriously. So does the subconscious of the person that you may have thrown these words at. I myself am guilty of using the word retarded in a way that it was not intended for. I have called myself stupid and an idiot. As I have moved through life and my experience I have learned to be aware of the words I use and what the real meaning is. I have learned to let go of the language that tears down, even when I think it is meaningless.

Taking I’m sorry back

Forgiveness is key in our lives.  One of the first things we teach kids is that they need to apologize for things they do.  “Say you’re sorry!”.  It has become insincere.  In working with violent and sexual offenders though, the first thing we do is tell them to stop saying “I’m Sorry”.  Offenders say it so many times without actually meaning it, the words actually start causing pain.  The expectation when the words “Im sorry” are uttered is to forgive, even condone.  This at times causes trauma and pain when we know that the words do not come from a place of sincerity and remorse.  The concept of forgiveness has changed to mean condoning the behavior.  I walk up to you and steal your pen.  When you catch me, I give it back and say “I’m sorry”.  When you say “That’s OK”, as is socially required it feels as though we are telling the person that what they did is OK, especially when we don’t believe they actually feel remorse.

We have tainted the concept of forgiveness.  Forgiveness today is letting the other person know that things are OK between us.  This is not the concept of true forgiveness.  We have forgotten that forgiveness is not for the offender.  Ultimately my forgiveness is not for you, but for me.  An article on globalone.tv does a wonderful job discussing the topic of forgiveness in depth.  Discussing the concept of forgiveness as not holding on to things that cause us pain, as opposed to letting the other person off the hook or telling them their behavior is OK.

I work daily to change concepts of forgiveness and “I’m sorry”.  I have actually stopped saying “I’m sorry”, because it has so little value any more.  I acknowledge what I did wrong, why it wasn’t OK, and what I will do to not do it again.  I find that “I shouldn’t have done that, it wasn’t OK” (along with displaying actual remorse) goes a lot farther than “I’m sorry” does.  I teach this concept to my offenders, reminding them that they actually  have to agree that they did something wrong and agree to not do it again to make “I’m sorry” work.

And I work to teach that forgiveness isn’t about the other person.  It is about the weight I choose to carry with me.  I can find many things in my life that I can carry if I choose; my divorce, getting laid off, not getting promotions, etc.  These are places in which I have been betrayed and hurt by someone else.  I could hold on to anger, resentment and pain.  Holding on to these only weigh my soul down without effecting the others involved in the situation. I personally want to loose weight, not gain it.

I have started saying “thank you” to someone that has apologized to me if they did something they should apologize for.  I have given up saying “it’s OK” if it wasn’t.  Try the two things mentioned here in the next week.  If you have something you have done to someone else that you regret, tell them what it was that you shouldn’t have done, and let them know that you know it wasn’t OK.  And when someone says “I’m sorry” for something they should truly be sorry for, instead of saying “It’s OK” tell them that you appreciate their apology.  It lets go of the requirement that I let someone off the hook and condone their behavior when I really don’t.  And by taking accountability for your actions you show that you truly feel bad for what you did, and you aren’t uttering a colloquialism just to smooth things over.

And finally, don’t apologize if you don’t need to!  Someone runs in to you on the sidewalk, and they are clearly at fault, and you apologize.  Why?  Because it is what you are supposed to do.  If you didn’t do anything wrong, and especially if you aren’t sorry, don’t continue to ruin the word.

Let’s take I’m sorry back.  Let’s make it mean something again.  Let’s make it mean true regret, an acknowledgement that you’ve done something wrong, and not a request to condone or ignore a behavior.  When you forgive do it for yourself not the other person, and not because it is expected or required.  When you say “I’m sorry” say it because you feel true regret, not because you feel true regret.  Say “Thank you” when someone else apologizes, instead of telling them their behavior was OK.  Stop letting I’m sorry be a requirement and and insincerity.

When is enough, enough?

Life is about balance, and this includes relationships. Knowing when to fight, when to back down, and when to retreat doesn’t come written down in a handbook. There are very few situations where there is a black and white, wrong or write answer. They do exist, they are just far and few between. Knowing when to move away from a relationship is not easy.  When do I let go of personal needs, wishes wants and would-likes and help my loved one, even if it causes me pain or problems? When do I walk away, admitting that my loved on is an anchor around my neck that is drowning me? These are questions to which there are few easy answers.

We will all struggle with something throughout our lives. Any time two or more people get together the struggles of one will affect the other. Many of these struggles will come and go, and some of them will be life-long struggles. Because we are social creatures we want to be with others and have their support and sponsorship as we move though struggles. We often turn to each other for validation and help. We all balance giving support when asked, and setting boundaries to make sure our needs are taken care of. In general giving this validation feels good as we help partners, friends and loved ones move through difficulties. When the support begins to weigh on us, or requires that we sacrifice our own identity, that is when the decisions get more difficult.

We enter in to relationships with someone that we love and care about, thinking that we can handle anything that comes our way. Then life happens. Accidents, illness, mental health, job loss and addiction are just some of the things that can change a partner or create difficulty in the home. When we signed on with our partners we signed on to be supportive and sponsors through thick and thin. We didn’t sign on to bail at the first sign of trouble. We also didn’t sign on to sacrifice our identity, our values and needs, or even our health and safety.

A situation in which you are in physical danger, especially in which you feel as though your life or the life of your children is in danger is a black and white situation in which you need to leave. There are safety plans available online that will help with packing lists and exit plans to keep you safe. It is often a struggle to leave a partner in times of abuse because we often know why they are doing what they are doing. We know their pain and their struggles. We know their insecurities that lead to their actions. Their pain, insecurities and struggles never excuse or OK physical assault or rape. A situation in which you or your children are in danger is not one to stay in.

A situation that is a little less black or white is when addiction is involved. You wouldn’t bail on your partner struggling with cancer, and like cancer, addiction is a disease. At the same time drug and alcohol addiction creates strong personality changes in partners and can lead to emotional, physical and financial burdens. It can tax families to the limit, especially children. In addiction people lose a part of themselves. A part that can be regained, but in the interim the actions of the addict can destroy a family. They key is the willingness of the addict to get help. An addict can’t be a good anything but a good addict. They can’t be a good parent, a good employee, or a good friend. The addiction is a monkey on their back that takes over and demands to be fed at all costs. Only you can decide if the price is too much. The danger aspect applies here as well. If you are in physical danger, you must protect yourself. If your partner is wild and aggressive when they are using but great when they are sober, you still need to leave. When you signed on with your partner you agreed to help them, and a strong supportive partner can make the difference between sobriety and addiction. It all goes back to your partner’s willingness to get help. If they won’t get help, it doesn’t matter how supportive you are, they won’t change.

If you are ever asked to give up a big part of who you are for another partner or a relationship, it probably isn’t a healthy relationship. Now, if you are asked to give up your drug use, or your unhealthy habits, that is different. But if you are asked to give up your identity, if you are asked to suppress your wants, wishes and would-likes long term, the relationship probably isn’t healthy. There are some situations in which the relationship is so amazing in other ways that it doesn’t matter that you have to forgo or let go a part of your identity. It should be pretty darn amazing and have a lot of perks in other places to compensate for the requirement of suppressing who you are. Only you can decide if the relationship is worth losing part of who you are. It is rarely worth losing a core part of you, such as your spirituality, your sense of humor, your sensuality / sexuality or your body image. If you are OK with your body, but your partner wants it to be different (bigger breasts, better abs, better bottom, etc) then it is a good indication that your partner likes you for your body and not who you are. If you are the right person for them, and you are confident in your body, then your boobs shouldn’t matter.  I personally would not give up my cat that I’ve had for 16 years for a relationship. She is important to me and a part of my identity. Again, only you can decide what part of you is worth sacrificing for someone else. And again, there had better be some darn good compensation for that sacrifice. In most cases, being asked to suppress or sacrifice who you are for your partner or your relationship means you aren’t with the right partner.

Illnesses and accidents throw curve balls at the person that goes through them. They also throw off the friends and partners. I’ve worked with clients that have partners that have had motorcycle accidents with traumatic brain injuries, degenerative diseases, even depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. When we marry we make a vow: In sickness and health. What happens when your partner gets in an accident that changes their personality, and they are no longer the person that you fell in love with? This happens in cases of brain injuries. It can also happen after a tragedy or when people are in great amounts of physical pain. There are resources for those with partners that are no longer able to take care of their basic needs that can help caregivers feel less overwhelmed. There are also support groups, both online and in person that help with feeling less alone. In most cases the partners and caregivers I work with stay with their partner. There are times though, in which leaving is a viable choice. If you are in danger, you are allowed to leave. If your partner has become someone that expects you to manage or tolerate behavior such as drug use or cheating, you are allowed to leave.

People that have been through abuse as a child can struggle to trust and bond as adults. This struggle affects loved ones because no matter how hard they try it can feel as though their love will never be enough.   It can be a challenge living with someone that wants to feel close but has barriers and boundaries that have been put in place before you ever met them to keep them emotionally safe. Childhood trauma often includes betrayals by people that were supposed to protect them and they had to learn to live with that in order to survive. This can include keeping themselves from trusting.  Being able to feel connected can be difficult. Because of the betrayals as children people with childhood traumas can be very sensitive to the possibility of betrayal as an adult, and this can lead to defensiveness in partnerships. This defensiveness can make partners feel very distanced and alone. They best way to be able to stay in such a relationship is to remember that their self-esteem and identity is not yours to fix. You are allowed to set boundaries with them, kindly, even if it hurts their feelings. You are allowed to take care of your own wishes, wants and would-likes. If ever you are not allowed to it isn’t a healthy place to be.

Relationships are hard work. They require patience, and understanding when your partner isn’t at their best. Relationships aren’t about bolting at the first sign of trouble. They also aren’t about losing who you are and sacrificing your identity to keep your partner happy or to keep the relationship happy. The lines between the hard work of making your relationship go and losing yourself are blurry. There are rarely easy answers. If you feel as though you are losing yourself the first thing to do is talk to your partner, without criticism, contempt or blaming. Talk to them about your wishes, wants and would-likes. Work with your partner to find a way to get your needs met as well.  If it is unsafe for you to do so because of violence, or your partner just blatantly couldn’t give a rat’s ass about you or your needs it’s probably time to go. Remember, you never have to make the decision by yourself. Talk to a counselor about your needs, talk about your fears, and talk about how to get your needs met in a healthy way.

Letting go of attack and defend

In relationships we have an investment to have our partners see us as loveable. We all have a fear of being left, and it is reasonable to believe that if our partners don’t see us as loveable they may leave. When our partners come at us with the revelation that they don’t see us as awesome, fear rears its ugly head and our first instinct is to want to defend ourselves. In this moment, the moment our partners come at us with criticism either constructive or not, we feel attacked and possibly fearful of being left. When we start to defend we start a cycle. Our partner feels as though they have to defend their position, get their concerns heard and possibly get their needs met. We start to listen to each other only in as much as we are getting ready to defend ourselves. We perfect the “Yes, but….” We have now hit the attack / defend cycle. If you fast-forward a year, or 10, we don’t even have to have to hear our partner’s criticism, we just defend or attack.

One way to step out of attack and defend lies on the shoulders of the person feeling attacked. When our partner comes at us we have an instinct to defend ourselves. Instead of turning back to defend, admit to yourself or to your partner, or both, that you feel attacked. And then ask for more information. That step is counter-intuitive to everyone that has ever been in a fight. To a lot of people it seems like getting punched in the fact and asking for a second punch. Imagine you are the one with the point to make, and imagine your partner asking you to give them more information about what you mean. Or asking why it is important to you. Or asking you how you felt. Would the next statement be another punch? Or would you feel validated and maybe be able to explain why your point of view is so important to you?

Another way to step out of attack and defend lies on the shoulders of the person that wants to get their point across. Learn to step in with a gentle approach. Avoid criticism or contempt for the other person, and work to avoid blaming. I think by now everyone has learned what an “I statement” is. Avoid anything that starts with “you”, and identify what your feelings are, and what your needs are. “I’m frustrated and I would like more help with the dishes”. “I’m feeling very unappreciated lately, and I would like….” Notice how these statements are very different from “you never help me with the dishes” (criticism) or “You don’t see anything I do” (blaming).

The steps for both sides include being able to identify your feelings in the moment. At times this is the most difficult part, as what most people are able to easily identify is angry. “I’m angry”. What else are you feeling? Abandoned, afraid, defensive, confused, betrayed, unloved, un-loveable, criticized, and hurt are common feelings during fights, all leading to anger. When you are able to identify what you are feeling, after taking a second to soothe the feeling yourself, the next step is to identify what you wants are.

Fights are a dance with two people trying to lead. If we can back down and be more gentle in our approach when asking for something to change, and if we can take a second when feeling attacked and try to dig deeper to get a better understanding of our partner the dance changes. It becomes less volatile and less hurtful to both partners. It becomes more validating and each person walks away less angry, less hurt, and less betrayed.  When we can change the dance we will feel closer to our partners and safer in our relationships, with greater intimacy.