Created for Connection, Part I

I consider it courageous to show others our vulnerable, less polished and impervious sides, in situations where it is most tempting and easy to be jaded, phony or manipulative. I see this question of whether to connect when interacting with couples, families, friends, politics, and even day-to-day encounters with strangers. While we have exercise caution and care with our hearts and guard against being taken advantage of, we also can act as though we have more to fear than we actually do. How do we decide where there is a real threat of being hurt, physically or emotionally, and where we can let down our guards?

The Disconnected

I have met people who were extremely guarded and afraid of being hurt, although they would never admit to this. They hold up their shield of not-caring, or of cynicism or even aggression to keep themselves from being hurt themselves. The world can indeed be very frightening and dangerous, and we have a duty and responsibility to ourselves to accurately assess when to defend ourselves from others.

But when we can’t shift from that state of protectiveness once the threat is over, or can’t tell a truly dangerous situation from one that merely seems threatening, or one that is neutral but reminds us of past hurts, then we become rigid and incapable of opening up when we want to. And that is a sad and lonely state of existence. Even when such people connect, they often do so from a superficial, win-lose stance. By this I mean that the person feels that they must win and someone else must lose to be safe. Are they concerned for the loser? At this point, it’s every man or woman for themselves, and all such people care about is that they weren’t the loser. Empathy is lost at this point, and when empathy lost any kind of dehumanizing, cruel behavior is possible.


I have also met people who are so open and willing to experience anything and everything that they often get hurt in relationships. They tend to attract people like the ones described above, because they are easy prey for cynical, selfish people. They expose their soft, vulnerable sides in hopes that people will take care of them the way a parent takes care of a child. Unfortunately, the world is not made that way. When we reach 18, our society assumes that we are adults, capable of taking care of our own emotional and physical needs. When we depend on others to look after us and protect us from situations where we should exercise good common sense, we run the risk of being treated pretty savagely. We need to balance of looking after ourselves, but not exclude considering others’ needs and wants.

A Balance of Connection

Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, we can meet each other and have a reasonable expectation of civility. Some of what we expect of each other depends on our cultural backgrounds. In some cultures, to leave oneself open for possible exploitation is a foolish act that leads to automatic exploitation. For other cultures, there is a level of trust that favors the tender-hearted and assumes the best in people. I think the United States is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, but is edging towards the cynical end increasingly as time goes on.

We have to make choices about how to use our sensitive, tender parts of ourselves with others, and how much to give of our vulnerabilities to others. Unfortunately, the world is becoming increasingly inhospitable to this practice, as violence escalates and we become increasingly jaded and greedy. How do we carve out a space to meet soul-to-soul with others’ vulnerabilities and hold each other, and ourselves, in a tender, careful way? How can we show love, appreciation and kindness to each other even when we’ve been hurt in the past and have doubts about humanity’s worth? These are some of the issues that are especially salient to people who have been in traumatic situations, and can be explored in psychotherapy.

The Look of Love

If you’ve stopped hurting your lover’s feelings, congratulations! Now it’s time to figure out how to celebrate and nourish your love for each other.

love family at sunset
love family at sunset

At times, couples in therapy can reach a point where they have stopped hurling insults and hatred at each other, and find that they are not sure what to do next. If they had poor modeling from their own childhoods and families, they may not know what a healthy relationship looks like. We all have ideas from the movies and television of what the ideal couple should do when they have a disagreement, or that couples don’t have disagreements at all. However, this is not the case. Most couples disagree on a number of things and it’s not very important that they disagree, but how they disagree and whether they get their disagreements resolved.

Sometimes look at me funny when I suggest this, but I would recommend that you and your partner right down what your ideal argument would look like. It’s a fact of life in any relationship that there will be disagreement. But how do you want to resolve those disagreements? You can’t realistically expect that your partner will think exactly the way you do on every issue. Yes, there are some important issues like whether or not to have children and how you will spend your joint money, that you should probably agree on early in the relationship. Premarital counseling can be helpful in flushing out some of these potential landmines, if they are not agreed-upon. However, new disagreements and smaller ones pop up during the course of the marriage. Sometimes they are unpredictable, and depend on changing health or income status, and sometimes they are long festering wounds that were never addressed earlier in the relationship. In any event, it would be good to figure out what you don’t like your partner to do and what you do wish they would do instead.

You also need to look at how you behave in the fight, not just what the other person does that drives you up the wall. If the other person is speaking harshly to you, are you aware of your voice as well? Are you saying things that you know will make the other person upset, or disregarding their thoughts or feelings? These are all ways that you can clean up your side of the street, so to speak. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, each person’s opinion and thoughts are worth considering and it is important not to insult the other person just because you don’t understand where the coming from.

So what is a healthy relationship look like? What do you want to be doing differently with your partner, and what do you want them to be doing differently? Some key pillars of relationship health are, in my opinion, the ability to take responsibility and to have empathy for the other person. Listening is essential to the ability to empathize with your partner. If you are just assuming that you know how they feel, without checking it out with them, then you are expecting them to be just like you. If you truly want someone who is just like you to spend the rest of your life with, then perhaps being single is a better option for you. Usually we get together with our romantic partners because there’s something exciting and different about them that sets them apart from other potential mates. In a healthy relationship, we celebrate and appreciate those differences rather than seeing them as character flaws the other person.

Getting curious instead of furious

Quite often when I work with couples, and also other family dyads, I notice that people get themselves wound up and heated about common misunderstandings. Once the people involved allow themselves to calm down and talk about what was bothering them, they find out that they were misinterpreting each other, adding projections from their own past, or misunderstanding what the other person intended to say. A lot of the problems stem from not just what is said, but how things are said (e.g., in a sharp, aggressive tone of voice or with threatening or disrespectful gestures). This is where the interpretations and projections from the past go wild, usually. It’s very hard to stay centered and rational when you’re being flooded with emotional responses that have as much to do with an abusive past, as with what is happening now.

This is why I recommend first that people have a weekly check-in as a couple. Sit down without any distractions (social media, phones, television, computer, kids) and talk as calmly as you can about one thing you liked that your partner did, and one thing you didn’t like. Take turns (even use an egg timer to ensure that both get a chance to speak). Then reflect back what you heard your partner say. Be open and humble enough to be corrected. If you’re doing the correcting, don’t shame the person (e.g., “You’re so stupid, I can’t believe that’s what you thought I said!”). Instead, say, “No, that’s not what I intended to say; this is….” A book that is very helpful to couples (and any) communication is Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, which helps people be responsible for their own emotional reactions and not blame and shame each other.

The second thing I recommend is that if you find yourself in an argument and you just can’t fathom where this person is coming from, take a moment, breathe deeply, and then tell them, “I don’t think I understand what you are saying/intending. Help me understand, please.” I know, easier said than done, right? But it can make a world of difference between having a horrible night fighting for hours, or helping the other person clarify what they want to communicate. Each of you has the right to be heard, understood and validated. Each of you has a unique perspective that is equally valid to the other’s. Don’t lose sight of that when you have disagreements. There may be a perfectly valid reason the person is saying or doing what they are right now; you just don’t have the magic decoder ring to understand it. Even when they explain it to you, it still may not make sense, but stick with it and you will have a better chance at “getting” your beloved’s point of view.

Third, I suggest that both partners keep in mind, “what is the end game?” Is it to be right and lord that over the other person like a kid in the school yard, or to remain happily together for a long time? Is what you are defending, or fighting about, important enough to risk alienating the other person and having bitterness and resentment between you? Is it something that you might laugh about later, saying “I can’t believe we fought about that! How silly!” I ask people who get angry to rate how important this matter you’re getting upset about is, on a scale of 1-10. If you can honestly say it’s above a five, ask yourself why that’s important to you. If it’s below a five, consider letting it go unless it’s emblematic of a greater sense of disrespect and pain in the relationship.

With Valentine’s Day coming up next month, I thought I might arm those of you in relationships with a few pointers to get through that holiday. It has its own set of expectations and cultural meanings that sometimes get in the way of really enjoying each other. If you think that your relationship is in trouble and could use more help, please call me at 661-233-6771.

How do I Look in Your Eyes?

We all want to look good to the people to whom we’re attracted, whether woman or man. This is a normal, healthy concern when not taken to an extreme. However, I have spoken with people (usually female) from 13 years old, all the way into their 60s and 70s, for whom a lover’s approval is tantamount to their self-esteem. This is a dangerous phenomenon, I think, because it leaves them open for mistreatment at the hands of their lovers. I have seen people enter a number of relationships wherein they choose partners who treat them poorly after an initial idealization phase, in which everything the woman does is perfect and flawless. However, the same people who can put you up on a pedestal can also tear you down to the depths of hell, if you place your self-worth in their hands.

Sure, it’s nice to hear wonderful things about yourself when you are infatuated with someone and they with you. It’s that euphoric rush of feeling so special and uniquely perfect to that person that we all dream about having. However, usually it doesn’t last and gradually, if we’re lucky, it’s replaced with a more realistic, enduring appreciation that’s tempered with the realization that you’re not perfect and your lover isn’t perfect. These more realistic expectations allow you to be human and same for your partner, which allows each of you to be fully yourself and grow into the person you’re meant to be. However, when someone needs you to be perfect or expects that of you, it’s hard to live up to those standards when you’re having a bad day, or sick, or angry, or whatever they don’t consider acceptable. Then, the same person who fawned over you and tried to spend every moment texting, calling and spending with you can suddenly become disenchanted with you and find your once-loveable idiosyncrasies annoying, or even intolerable. This is a sure-fire way for a relationship to crash and burn, because the level of intensity and mutuality that you initially feel in the initial phase is based on a temporary psychological merging, where you feel “one” with the person. Eventually, you and your lover must emerge from this and reclaim your identities as separate individuals, ones who nonetheless make room for the other person in your life. The extent to which you make room for each other is the tricky part of this dance; merging is the easy part. So as you start to establish your newfound identity as a separate person who can affirm yourself and your partner, and be similar to them but not identical, requires both people to be healthy enough psychologically to allow your partner to be whole and wonderful, and yet paradoxically imperfect.

This emergence is rare to achieve in your teens and twenties, although some people are able to accomplish it with stable backgrounds and a precocious emotional maturity. People have to work at it especially if they come from dysfunctional homes where they did not get their needs for admiration, nurturance and attachment met. They might need to do individual work on repairing those early deficits in psychotherapy before they can work on their relationship, or they might be able to go through that process simultaneously in couples therapy as they do individual work. But the bottom line is that they need to be able to like the person they see in the mirror just as much as they expect their lovers to cherish that person. To expect someone to love you more than you love yourself leaves you open to possible exploitation, degradation, and ultimately, abuse. Instead of worrying about how you look to someone else, please make sure that you can affirm that person in mirror in a realistic, warm, and loving way.