Conflicts in Relationships

“How can you be so heartless and cold?” Sandra asks with anger in her voice, “Why don’t you have any sympathy for my brother? You are so cruel!”

Kyle is looking at his wife and is wondering how they ended up in this escalated conflict, one of many fights about her brother. He is silently reminding himself that she has simply been taken over by not just an angry but also a judgmental protector right now. And underneath those protectors are feelings of fear and responsibility for a younger sibling who has always relied on Sandra. She feels helpless, guilty and frustrated.

She continues defiantly, “I will not turn him away if he needs my help! I am giving him the money, no matter what you think! You always support your ex-wife when she needs extra money, supposedly for the kids…”

Now Kyle can feel how his own protector is coming up. There is a part of him that just wants to reply sharply, “No you will not. I am the main provider in this family and I make our financial decisions.” But thankfully, he still has enough awareness that his controlling protector is gearing up for a fight in response to Sandra’s anger. He remembers to use their code word, ”Fire.”

The protectors are like Firefighters. They don’t care about the damage they cause; they only care about “putting out the fire”. In our inner world, that “fire” equates to our vulnerability and our emotional pain. That code-word “fire” for Kyle and Sandra means, “Stop. Let’s take a break right now to calm ourselves.” When we are triggered by our partner we need a time out of at least 20-30 minutes. During that time, we need to allow our sympathetic nervous system to calm down again. The time out is probably one of the most important agreements to make when couples struggle with escalating conflicts.

When our partner shows up in one of their protectors, rather than connecting from a more loving, calm or even vulnerable place, we often wonder what we are doing with this awful person. We might think, “How could I not see from the start how horrible he/she is?” While we are in this emotionally activated state, we perceive the situation and especially each other as a threat. We are unable to see clearly, problem solve or make rational decisions. Any conversation that we continue in this state can only become more destructive.

Terrence Real mentions in his book “The New Rules of Marriage” that we all have two competing images of our partner. We have one image of them at their best and one of them at their worst. You could perhaps say that when we hold the first image we see them for who they really are at a core level, or for who they are capable of being. That positive image might be identical with what we fell in love with when we first met. When our partner is being taken over by one of their protectors, we can hold that positive image as a beacon to remind us that he or she is more than this angry, controlling, judgmental, negative, complaining, or defensive person across from us.

In some cases, this core positive image can of course be problematic as well. If one person is holding the potential of who their partner can be so insistently that they ignore detrimental aspects of the relationship instead of acknowledging them, the image is creating an issue.

However, in most cases we need and want to cultivate the positive image to get through tough times. We can cultivate this picture by focusing on everything we love and like about our partner. A practice of appreciation of each other allows us to keep this image alive.

According to Terry Real, we also harbour a “core negative image” of our partner. That’s the combination of all the things they do that trigger us into judgements and challenge us in our relationship. It includes all the pain we have experienced with or through this partner. When we are emotionally activated, we are unable to see anything but the negative. We are seeing the other person through the glasses of the fight and flight response. Or Terry Real would say through “fight, flight or fix”. By that he means, we want to fight back, or stone wall/retreat/run away in some way, or quickly fix the tension in the room without addressing the problems and individual needs. Backing away from the issue just to fix the disharmony won’t help us. It breads resentment.

“The difference between real acceptance and just backing away from an issue, or away from the whole relationship, is resentment.”

Terrence Real, “How Can I Get Through to You?”

Why do we want to fight, run or fix? The reason is instinctual. We don’t see the other person accurately when we have been taken over by our protectors. In that moment in time, we also often assume that our partner has the worst intentions instead of being able to consider that they might have good intentions or reasons underneath their behaviour which seems so outrageous to us.

This goes both ways. Just as you might be triggered into seeing your partner from the core negative image when your vulnerabilities are triggered, your partner also experiences you from their perspective of the negative core image. What we really are seeing are our protective parts responding to what the other person activates deep inside of us, or in other words, what that person reflects back to us.

 

Take a moment to ask yourself what characteristics trigger you in your partner, and write them down. Because the people close to us always mirror to us what we have disowned, you will create a list of traits that will mostly be excellent shadow traits to work with in your next session with your relationship coach.

Now write down what you think your partner gets triggered by in you. What does his or her negative core image of you probably look like?

The work in individual sessions or in couple sessions is to understand our protectors—and those that our partner tends to go into—and to learn to speak “for” them rather than “from” them. It is also our responsibility as an individual to notice and work on the triggers or shadows that the relationship with our partner activates for us.

For individual sessions or couples sessions please contact

Angelika

905-286-9466

greendoorrelaxation@yahoo.ca

Check out discount packages for couples here.

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A Missing Piece in Couples Therapy

I am—despite that odd question arising after my last blog—not in the business of uncoupling people. I am more than ever invested in how I can guide couples to have a deeper committed long-term relationship in which both can feel safe. I have more recently discovered what the missing piece is in regards to being able to show up as the loving and compassionate Self with the other person. The answer lies in a particular practice which I will elaborate on more later in this article. But let’s first of all look at what is commonly done in therapy or coaching sessions and what the value of those approaches is.

Couples therapists like Stan Tatkin and Sue Johnson, who are based in attachment theory, empathize how important it is to create a secure attachment in our partnership. Stan Tatkin focuses among others on knowing each other’s threat signals and creating a “couple bubble” in which both partners feel safe with each other. Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, says, “When EFT is successfully implemented, each partner becomes a source of security, protection, and contact comfort for the other. Each partner can assist the other in regulating negative affect and constructing a positive and potent sense of self.” (Susan M. Johnson: The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy).

For both of them, the answer to feeling safe, less anxious and less depressed lies in the connection between the partners. The goal is for each partner to learn how to show up as the unconditionally loving attachment figure for the other spouse. Your partner is your primary go to and the one who provides the safety for your childhood wounds to be healed. Their premise is that you need somebody outside of yourself to heal the past. If your partner is really struggling to be that person because their own defenses are triggered in the relationship this journey can be frustrating. Unless one partner already has a secure attachment style, the process of creating this attachment requires some time and commitment to working this out together.

Drs. John and Julie Gottman, whose research-based insights and techniques I use in my sessions with clients, also have a wonderful set of tools to truly empathize, perfect communication between the partners, compromise successfully, and to avoid the four horsemen of the apocalypse, which predict the end of a relationship.

Other couples therapists, like Willard Harley, focus on women’s and men’s needs being different and on making deposits into each others love bank, which is the emotional account we all have. I acknowledge the importance of our needs by teaching my clients the non-violent communication steps developed by Marshall Rosenberg to express our feelings and needs successfully.

All these are fabulous tools and techniques that can make a big difference in our closest relationships. When couples are willing to not just learn but also practice these techniques, their relationship improves. Besides making the commitment to put the time in to practice relating differently to each other, couples must learn how to handle situations when one or both partners get triggered into states of high emotional activation, into what is called fight or flight. When this happens, destructive patterns of interaction are activated and amends and repairs need to be made. Often the spouses feel discouraged by that setback. And that is were Richard C. Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems Therapy, known in short as IFS, comes in as a missing piece.

IFS helps couples replace their distant, controlling, or needy way of relating to each other by what Schwartz calls “courageous love”. This courageous love is accepting of everything we are and all our partner is. Within each of us is a group or “family” of sub-personalities, which Schwartz calls “parts”. Just like in a family, these parts have intricate relationships with each other. Some of the more known parts are the Inner Critic and the Inner Child, but we have many parts which, according to Hal and Sidra Stone and their system of voice dialogue, are either primary personality parts or disowned personality parts. IFS, in comparison, focuses mainly on two kinds of parts. One type is the “protectors”, which have the function to keep us safe; some of them are responsible for us going into fight or flight mode. There are also the “exiles”, which usually are younger wounded child parts.

Every message we get growing up from our family, our friends and the media, has conditioned us to believe that finding our soul mate, the One, will be the answer to our inner pain, our loneliness, sadness, fears or insecurities. The myth is that a special someone will come and love us unconditionally and heal all our childhood wounds. “We’ve been told that the love we need is a buried treasure hidden in the heart of a special intimate partner. Once we find that partner, the love we crave should flow elixir-like, filling our empty spaces and healing our pain” (Schwartz: You Are The One You Have Been Waiting For)

The truth is that our partner can no more relieve our sense of unloveability and unworthiness than the short term energy relieving behaviours (STERBS) we use to distract ourselves from our pain. The external focus on other people or on STERBS, like food, alcohol, drugs and so on as well as addictive activities, can only provide temporary relief. In fact, this very assumption that our partner is our rescuer is the reason why so many relationships struggle and fail.

“From watching movies or TV, listening to songs on the radio, you’ll be convinced that everyone, sooner or later, will find their one, true, happily-ever-after relationship. The person who will heal you, complete you, and keep you afloat is out there. If the person you’re with isn’t doing that, either he or she is the wrong person altogether or you need to change him or her into the right one” (Schwartz: You Are The One You Have Been Waiting For).

We subconsciously pick a partner who matches the template of our original care-taker who has wounded us by making us feel “less than” or unworthy. And we set out with the unconscious agenda to relive the past but this time around change this person’s mind about our worthiness to heal that original wound. The problem is that our partner acts so much like our caretaker that he or she triggers our protectors. When the euphoria of the honeymoon period is over, and the love naturally changes, we get scared and, as Schwartz puts it, set to work on one of three projects.

The first “project” is to get our partner to change into that loving rescuer that we are hoping he or she will be for us. “We plead, criticize, demand, negotiate, seduce, withhold, and shame” (Schwartz: You Are The One You Have Been Waiting For). Naturally, most partners resist these attempts to change them and become defensive. They feel unloved and not accepted.

The second project that we embark on is to figure out what our partner doesn’t like about us and then strive to become what we think he or she wants us to be. In this case, the criticism and shame is directed at ourselves. We are no closer to true love and acceptance than when we are trying to change the other person.

The final project kicks in when we give up on getting the love we crave from our partner. We begin to close our heart to him or her and we do one of three things. We either search for a different partner, we numb down enough to stay with our original partner, or we fool ourselves into thinking that we need to live alone because we believe our true needs for love can never be met in an intimate relationship.

Women engage more in the first two change projects mentioned above, while men tend to more quickly retreat into the third behaviour. Shutting down externally often seems like the safest choice for men, especially when they experience strong inner angry protectors. Men often fear what they might do if they let that rage take over.

Women tend to define themselves through relationships and are socialized to take care of their inner child parts through relationships. When those exiled child parts are upset, they usually want to change things in their relationship so that the distressed inner child can get the love and comfort from their partner in order to feel safe and secure. Hence, women are more often the initiators of change-oriented discussions.

We tend to assume that women are more connected to their emotions and we jump to the conclusion that they should be better at parenting their own inner children. However, women focus so much on taking care of others and on getting their inner child’s needs met by their relationship, that they are no better at nurturing their own parts than men.

Schwartz talks about a cruel joke that is being played on all of us. “We’ve all been setup—victims of a cruel joke. First we are loaded with emotional burdens by our family and peers, and then taught to exile the parts carrying them. Then we are told to go out in the world and find that special person who can make us finally like ourselves. Together we and our partner enter the striving, frenetic whirlpool American lifestyle that preludes time together, isolates us from community, depletes and stresses us out, and offers innumerable addictive distractions that further isolate us. When we can’t make this impossible situation work, we feel like total failures—as though something is wrong with us.” (Schwartz: You Are The One You Have Been Waiting For) Meanwhile, we never had a fair chance due to the baggage many of us have and the pressure of modern life, but most of all due to the complete ignorance on how to deal with our inner turmoil, other than expecting our partner to miraculously make it go away.

The missing piece you have not been taught is how to parent yourself in a way that allows you to take care of our own inner wounds and to show up as your best self with your partner. You can stop searching outside of yourself because you are the special person your vulnerable inner child parts have been waiting for. Once you realize and embrace that insight fully, your partner will be released from the pressure to have to be the perfect unconditionally loving parent for your younger selves. IFS is essentially attachment theory taken inside.

In your partner’s place, your Aware Self will become the primary caretaker of your inner child parts so that your partner can be a secondary caretaker. Instead of your power parts, for example your Inner Pusher or Inner Perfectionist or Inner Pleaser, to just name a few, parenting your vulnerable inner children in their limited way, your true Self can give those parts what they so desperately need. Those protective parts are parentified inner children. They have taken on the job to protect you and thus parent the vulnerable child parts but are often quite burdened by it.

IFS is a psycho-spiritual model of therapy in which all human beings are perceived as healthy and whole. The Self is the spiritual aspect of this therapy. It is a myth that we have to learn or build compassion. Our true self is naturally accepting, loving and compassionate. All humans have this inner wisdom and healing energy. The Self is the healing entity. It is meant to be the natural leader of the inner system of parts. The Self is eternal, knows all and is not affected by any trauma. It connects us to others and to all living things. It is presence, heart-openness and conscious awareness. The Self is characterized by the eight C’s of self-leadership that Schwartz names. The Self is compassionate, calm, curious, connected, confident, courageous, creative and possesses clarity.

When you take care of all your parts from that Self, you can also show up from that calm, connected and compassionate stance with your partner. The way you relate to your own parts is mirrored in the way you are able to relate to your partner’s part. If you for example have a relationship with your own fearful part, you can be compassionate with your partner’s scared part.

When our power parts, for example anger, control, defensiveness, judgement, righteousness or even our distant rational self are triggered, we are usually blended with them or have a feeling of being taken over by them. Interactions with our partner from a place of anger, judgement, righteousness, defensiveness or control are clearly not productive but are greatly damaging for the relationship. Instead of our power parts taking us over in a given moment, we ideally want to be able to speak for the parts rather than being immersed by them and speaking from those powerful parts.

We also want to be able to speak for our vulnerable inner child and their needs rather than having the child take us over. When that child takes over and jumps into the driver’s seat, we might show up as overly scared, helpless, or moody. Our partner is left wondering what to do with this child-like behaviour and finds himself or herself in an involuntary parenting role.

The myth of us having a monolithic personality, which translates into being only one mind, is according to Schwartz one of the greatest causes of distance and conflict in our intimate relationships. That awareness of our parts, our natural multiplicity, on the other hand, is the greatest antidote. Instead of believing our partner is this angry or controlling person, or they are this distant judgmental person that shows up at times, we can relax into the awareness that this is just a part of them and that it serves the function of protection. When both partners are totally flooded by their protector parts, the knowledge that this isn’t a permanent condition but that the protectors on both sides will relax and the two Selves will emerge is extremely eye opening and comforting. We can then both work with our own parts to get back into Self and then repair and reconnect with our partner from a loving and compassionate place.

Not only does the knowledge of the multiplicity help us navigate through storms, but it can also deepen the intimacy and love. We all have fears that once we have exposed our parts that cause difficulties, we will forever be seen by the other person as having character flaws. If both partners understand that those are just parts of each of them, parts that simply need empathy and acceptance, it is easier to respond to each other lovingly. As we learn to love and accept all our own inner parts, we also learn to love and accept all parts in our partner.

“There is something magical about trusting that all of you is welcomed in a relationship. It’s as if you are a single parent who feels ashamed of how ugly, stupid, or frail some of your children are” (Schwartz). When this process of welcoming all parts of oneself and of ones partner is mutual, it provides such a secure couples connection that the protectors can relax more and more and both partner’s younger parts know it is safe to come out.

Join me on Sunday, June 24 for an “Intro to Your Parts and to Your Self” workshop from 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. This workshop is based in Jay Earley’s parts work. For more information please call or email.

Contact me for a free phone consultation on either individual sessions or couple’s coaching. I also offer packages for couples.

Angelika

905-286-9466

greendoorrelaxation@yahoo.ca

The book “You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For

by Richard C Schwartz is available from Amazon.

I know your time is valuable and I appreciate you reading my blog. If you are enjoying my articles, you can subscribe to receive an e-mail notification whenever I post a new blog. All you need to do is to enter your email address in the field in the left sidebar. Thank you for your support!

The Four Stages of Long-Term Relationships

Have you ever taken a test to determine your highest five or highest ten values in life? I have done so repeatedly during my life and have experienced an interesting shift in values and priorities as I get older.

I have had a couple of, let’s say “interesting years”, going through menopause, getting a first taste of the empty nest syndrome with my oldest daughter, and breaking both my ankles a couple of years ago, which meant experiencing what it is like to be helpless. With all this came a bit of a shift in my value system. Ten or even just five years ago my children were my highest priority, followed by building my business and my education/learning. Safety and financial security in old age did not even show up within the first five. Now it has moved up, because these experiences shifted my priorities.

My top values are not just the children anymore but “relationships” in general. By that I mean not only my own relationships, but also my ability to assist other people with their relationships. That number 1 priority is followed by the value of “learning and growth”. Now these top two go nicely hand in hand. Richard Bach said, “We teach best what we most need to learn.” I would fully agree with this. And I want to add to it, “We teach best what we feel most passionate about.”

With my value system shifting, I had a huge personal growth experience because what didn’t change in line with my needs and priorities was my partner’s value system. His highest values continued to be freedom and autonomy. Meanwhile, I was trying to sell him on my new highest values of making financial decisions for safety and planning ahead to the future. Basically, I was asking him to live life my way.

My blind spot was that I was trying to impose my agenda of what I thought was best for him and us onto him. And being unable to convince him of the importance of my values, I started feeling resentful. What I completely overlooked was that nobody wants to do something that they cannot link to their own highest values. Everybody is motivated to make changes, but when we want to shift, we need to be able to link how an activity or choice is serving our highest priorities in life. There was nothing wrong with his values, they were just different, and the safe choices I wanted to make were not in line with his main needs and value system.

Values are an important part of all our relationships. Where they overlap, we experience harmony and understanding, when they don’t overlap, we often experience judgments and fear. We try to change the other person based on our system of ideals. Those differences in values, priorities and needs usually arise during the second stage in long-term relationships, but can also show up again when value systems shift.

Relationship coach Jayson Gaddis from the Relationship School in Bolder, Colorado, explains that long-term relationships evolve through three or—depending how you look at it—even four stages of relationships. To understand what each stage is about and how we move to the next stage is critical for relationship longevity.

 

THE HONEYMOON STAGE

It all starts with what we know as the “honeymoon stage” when we are completely smitten with each other. We focus on what we have in common, the same interests and the same values or world views. The person we are infatuated with is at the top of our priority list because the electricity and chemistry we feel lights up the same part of the brain as addictive substances. When we are experiencing love, our brain secretes neurochemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, and growth hormones. We are on a euphoric high. We feel we cannot be apart from the other person. This is nature’s way of ensuring the survival of our species. This biochemistry is ideal for us wanting to reproduce.

The honeymoon stage usually last a few months to a couple of years. If we expect this stage to continue, disappointment ultimately sets in. This stage is not meant to last. It was meant to bring us together. It slowly turns into the stage that Gaddis calls “The Challenging Stage”.

 

THE CHALLENGING STAGE

Eventually, the sober reality comes in. As we get to know the other person with all their good traits but also their challenging ones or their “flaws”, disillusionment occurs. This is a chance to learn to love our partner the way they really are. We begin to see the difference between us and the person we love. We had different experiences growing up and have therefore learned different beliefs than our partner. No two people have absolutely overlapping values, and we now notice the values which don’t match as well as dissimilar ways of handling life. This is were we often try to sell the other person on our values. We want to convince them and are bound to fail because value systems tend to be strong and ingrained. Our baggage from our past resurfaces and needs to be dealt with. Our childhood wounds and experiences from past relationships enter into the equation. Our partner mirrors our disowned parts—also called our shadows—to us.

When two people come together, they are different to begin with, and in this stage, they might polarize into opposites and judge each other for those differences. What attracted them in their partner when they met is now likely to be a point of criticism. Certain differences even become perpetual problems. Dave, for example, has safety and security as a high priority, while his partner Marie has freedom as her highest value. Paul is identified with responsibility and hard work, while his girlfriend Eva is able to relax and enjoy life more. Jenny wants to expose their kids to lots of educational and cultural activities, and her husband Frank has different parenting ideas, wanting them to excel in sports. Laura likes to go out and party, while Ross prefers to be home. Amanda is very neat, while Lucas has a much higher tolerance for mess.

In this stage, we experience conflicts and might get stuck in arguing or even blaming each other. We end up in a tug of war trying to convince the other one that we are right. If we don’t learn how to handle these conflicts differently, the result is burn out. People either give up and leave the relationship, or they compartmentalize the difficult issues and settle for maintaining the status quo, as unsatisfactory as it might be for one or both partners. Unless we learn how to deal with the challenges in a constructive manner, we won’t advance to stage three.

 

THE MATURE LOVE STAGE

Stage two is testing us on how we handle interpersonal stress, and if we know what to do with our baggage from the past when it resurfaces. It is normal in all relationships to have disagreements and challenges, and it is also normal that we trigger our nervous systems into firing. When our reptilian brain perceives threat, we go into fight or flight mode. Our fear provokes the release of stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, as well as inflammatory agents such as cytokines. How we navigate those differences determines whether we are able to advance to stage three.

When we learn how to deal with adversity in stage two, an empowered relationship in stage three is the result. The challenges in this mature love stage don’t stop, but we have learned how to deal with our triggers in a conscious way. We now have the confidence to make it through challenges together, knowing that we have each other’s backs. We are able to recognize when our values and priorities shift and handle this change consciously. This requires both partners to put in the necessary work to understand themselves and each other so that the relationship can get stronger through this growth process.

 

LOVE 360 STAGE

Gaddis names a fourth state which is an adjunct to stage three. In the Love 360 Phase, we trust the bigger level of life. You could say we assume a more spiritual view. We realize that things are not happening to us but for us. Our trials are blessings at the same time. That principle applies no matter what we go through, including affairs, disconnection from each other or even break-ups. What is happening is a gift and an opportunity to grow and learn from it, provided both partners are willing to put the work in.

When we reach the Love 360 State, we are experiencing a different clarity and are able to perceive that the events are all for our benefit. We realize that we are in charge of what we want to create as opposed to being in the victim seat, where we feel life is out to get us. Adversity makes us stronger as individuals and as a couple. We are able to hold more contradictory perspectives. We recognize our dis-empowering stories as limiting narratives and re-frame them. We are also able to hold the space for each other in the midst of drama or life changes and trust that we can work through anything together.

Contact me for more information on either couple’s coaching or individual sessions. We can work on your own triggers and patterns in individual sessions or on your interactions with each other so you can advance to the next level of your relationship. From March 20 to April 3, 2018 I am offering a 20% off SPRING SPECIAL for Couples.

Angelika

905-286-9466

greendoorrelaxation@yahoo.ca

I know your time is valuable and I appreciate you reading my blog. If you are enjoying my articles, you can subscribe to receive an e-mail notification whenever I post a new blog. All you need to do is to enter your email address in the field on the left side of the bar. Thank you for your support!