Thoughts / cards for love

Send a Friend-alentine!

Happy Valentine’s Day to you all!

The 14th February. That weird day made by society for couples, but where couples face weird pressure for no apparent reason. A day where people are obliged to express their undying love for each other, when they could just express their undying love for each other on any other day. Where according to the retail giants, we’re going to waste our money on silly things like over-priced chocolates or stuffed animals. A day that generally helps promote good old-fashioned gender stereotypes. The day where the strong single person might just need to be a little stronger. The day your Mum probably wishes you were married already.

And the history of Valentine’s Day is all a little bit on the dark side. During the Roman Empire, people celebrated the feast of Lupercalia where men sacrificed a goat or a dog and whipped women with animal hides. An act that was believed to increase a woman’s fertility!

There are different legends about who St. Valentine was. One tells the story of a Christian priest who was imprisoned and fell in love with his jailer’s daughter. Before his death, he signed a love letter to her with the words “from your Valentine.”

Another legend tells about a priest who ignored Emperor Claudius II's ban on marriage for young men in his army. The priest continued to marry couples who were in love for which he was eventually executed.

What helped St. Valentine’s Day take root across the ocean in the United States was the nation's emerging consumer and popular culture, boosted by the influence of advertising and the following developments in printing and mass production.

In the 1840s, an American newspaper called The Public Ledger endorsed the holiday saying that people needed “more soul-play and less head-work” and more opportunities that allowed for an “abandon of feeling.” The meaning of “valentine” transformed from signifying a person to referring to an object of exchange.

In the following decades, the marketing machines of many companies turned their wheels to lure more and more customers into celebrating the holiday, and convince them to purchase valentines—in the forms of cards, chocolates, flowers, and jewellery—for their loved ones.

It’s all a bit of a dark comedy really!

To be honest, I’m all for the declaration of love and Valentine’s Day has certainly contributed to the way in which western culture celebrates and expresses love. I just don’t think it needs conditions – one person, romantic in nature, and on a specific day.

That’s why our Love Cards this year are declarations of love for anyone near and dear to you. Let’s call them Friend-alentines! And given we’ve only got around to releasing them today, on the 14th February, you can send them to whoever you want – whenever you want!

They’re all available here.

Read more →

Understanding love

Happy (belated) Love Day my friends!

Phew! I am exhausted. After a full month of blogging all things relationships, I’m a little drained. And a little confused. And I don’t know if I’m all that much wiser on this thing called love. Are you?

We looked at intimate couple love and fighting and breaking up and being single. And we explored love as requiring components of acceptance and compassion and communication and reality.

But it very much feels like there are some glaringly obvious holes. And I’d like to acknowledge (some of) these. As a single, white, childless, heterosexual woman who has never been married (or divorced), my personal experiences are somewhat limited when it comes to relationships. So my inspiration for the content may have been a little vanilla, or lacking in diversity. Despite this, I believe that everyone deserves to be able to love and be loved. In the respectful relationship of their choosing.

As an example, I never mentioned LGBTIQ relationships. So I’ll quickly mention one thought I have on these relationships now. According to law in Australia marriage is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life. I think this law is ridiculous. This being said, I believe that the choice to marry should be available to all of us regardless of the sex of our partner. I believe all members of the LGBTIQ community should have the same opportunities to celebrate their relationship and be afforded the same respect, love and recognition from their community as that of their heterosexual counterparts. And I look forward to a time that the law reflects these beliefs that we are all a bit more equal in a more socially just society.

I also didn’t discuss the complexity of domestic and family violence. Because it’s so hard and complex and tragic. And it would have taken me months and months.

So, instead we barely scratched the surface of love and relationships over the past month. And it’s all pretty confusing, but I recently came upon this beautiful definition that might just help us a bit more.

“love is understanding”

For the more religious of us out there, this definition comes from a medieval thinker Thomas Aquinas who was trying to define what Jesus was getting at, when rather than be shocked by particular people around him, he continually embraced them (E.g., apparently in Matthew, chapter 8 Jesus is approached by a man with leprosy. He’s in a disgusting state. But Jesus isn’t shocked, reaches out his hand and touches the man. Despite the horrendous appearance, here is someone (in Jesus’s eyes) entirely deserving of closeness and kindness. In a similar vein, at other times, Jesus conspicuously argues that tax collectors, prostitutes, thieves and adulterers are never to be thought of as outside the circle of love).

In this way of talking about love: if we truly understand love, we could possibly love anyone. In other words: love isn’t specific in its target. It is open to everyone. All of humanity, even (and in a way especially) its less appealing examples.

And we do this often. Express our love as understanding. For some of us, we commonly do this with our extended families. If I had a dollar for every person who upon disclosure of me being a psychologist replied “Oh, you should come work with my family”, I would not be renting anymore. And it is the same in my own family. We’re all highly functioning and get along very well. But things are a little bit weird round the edges. But it’s only because we really, really know the intricacies of our families and what’s gone before for decades and decades that help us to understand. But despite all of this, we still love. We understand and we love.

Working in a therapeutic role assists greatly with this level of understanding. As therapists we get to ask heaps of questions and listen. And as you hear the stories of a human developing, whether it be through a story of childhood trauma or an unexpected incident, we can begin to understand why a person might be behaving in a particular way. A person is not a ‘sex offender’ or a ‘drug user’, but another human with needs and imperfections.

We’re all flawed. It’s part of the human condition. But we’re social creatures and I reckon that means that part of our job as humans is to love. Not the romantic head over heels love with one person only. The effortful love. The love that takes work to see beyond the outwardly unappealing surface of another human – in search of the tender, interesting, scared and vulnerable person inside. Our minds tend fiercely to resist such a move. For instance: if someone has hurt us we naturally want to see them as horrible. The thought they might themselves be hurting themselves feels very weird. If unpleasant events happen in someone’s life – if they keep on losing their job or acquire a habit of drinking too much– we’re tempted to hold them responsible for everything that happens to them. It takes a deliberate effort to move the mind to understanding. But the more energy we put into looking at love through understanding, the more we might be able to love more people than we initially thought.

Read more →

Being our own BFF

Let's do a very quick experiment. Grab a pen and some paper. Go on, this will be good fun!

Firstly, quick as you can, without too much conscious thought, list all of your most favourite things about your bestest friend.

Easy? Got a massive list of amazing qualities? Excellent!

Now, with that pen and paper, list your most favourite things about yourself. Quickly. Off you go.

How was that? A little bit harder? Was your list a little bit more difficult to cultivate than that of your besties? A bit slower to get off the ground? Maybe your BFF’s qualities look a little longer than your own when written down on paper by you?

It’s interesting isn’t it? In general, we are way nicer to our friends than we are to our self. We humans can be much, much better at being able to love the people around us than we are at loving ourselves. To improve our relationship with our self it might be worthwhile to consider the practice of ‘self-compassion’.

At its core self-compassion is about treating ourselves kindly. Extending towards our self the same kindness and sympathy that we might extend to a good friend.

Over the past decade self-compassion has gained popularity as a related and complementary construct to mindfulness, and research on self-compassion is growing at an exponential rate. Dr Kristen Neff a pioneer in the self-compassion field has explained:

Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?

Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?

In essence, compassion for our self is similar to the compassion we feel for our loved ones. When we feel compassion for others, we feel kindness toward them, empathy, and a desire to help reduce their suffering. It’s the same when we are compassionate toward our self. Self-compassion creates a caring space within us that is free of judgment—a place that sees our hurt and failures and softens to allow those experiences with kindness and caring.

To explain it a bit more, it might help to outline what self-compassion isn’t.

Self-Compassion is not self-pity.

When we humans feel self-pity, we can become totally immersed in our own problems and forget that others have similar problems.  We can ignore interconnections with others, and instead feel that we are the only ones in the world who are suffering. Self-pity tends to emphasize egocentric feelings of separation from others and exaggerate the extent of personal suffering. Self-compassion, on the other hand, allows us to see the related experiences of self and other without these feelings of isolation and disconnection.

Self-Compassion is not self-indulgence.

Self-compassion is also very different from self-indulgence. This took me a while to understand and some other (struggling) perfectionists may also have difficulty with this one. I was initially reluctant to be self-compassionate because I was afraid that without my inner self-criticism I would let myself get away with just about anything and everything would fall to shit. This, however, is self-indulgence rather than self-compassion.  Being compassionate to oneself means that we want to be happy and healthy in the long term. In many cases, just giving oneself pleasure may harm well-being (such as taking drugs, over-eating, being a couch potato), while giving yourself health and lasting happiness often involves a certain amount of displeasure (such as quitting smoking, dieting, exercising).  We are often very hard on ourselves when we notice something we want to change because we think we can shame themselves into action – the self-flagellation approach.  However, this approach often backfires if we can’t face difficult truths about our self because we are so afraid of hating our self if we do.  Thus, weaknesses may remain unacknowledged in an unconscious attempt to avoid self-censure. In contrast, the care intrinsic to compassion provides a powerful motivating force for growth and change, while also providing the safety needed to see the self clearly without fear of self-condemnation.

Self-Compassion is not self-esteem.

This is a really important one. Although self-compassion may seem similar to self-esteem, they are different in many ways.  Self-esteem refers to our sense of self-worth, perceived value, or how much we like ourselves. While there is little doubt that low self-esteem is problematic and often leads to depression and lack of motivation, trying to have higher self-esteem can also be problematic.  In modern Western culture, self-esteem is often based on how much we are different from others, how much we stand out or are special. Accordingly, it is not okay to be average, we have to feel above average to feel good about ourselves. Unfortunately this can mean that some attempts to raise self-esteem may result in narcissistic, self-absorbed behavior, or lead us to put others down in order to feel better about ourselves. We might get angry and aggressive towards those who have said or done anything that potentially makes us feel bad about ourselves. The need for high self-esteem may encourage us to ignore, distort or hide personal shortcomings so that we can’t see ourselves clearly and accurately. Finally, our self-esteem is often contingent on our latest success or failure, meaning that our self-esteem fluctuates depending on ever-changing circumstances.

In contrast to self-esteem, self-compassion is not based on self-evaluations. People feel compassion for themselves because all human beings deserve compassion and understanding, not because they possess some particular set of traits (pretty, smart, talented, and so on). This means that with self-compassion, you don’t have to feel better than others to feel good about yourself. Self-compassion also allows for greater self-clarity, because personal failings can be acknowledged with kindness and do not need to be hidden. Moreover, self-compassion isn’t dependent on external circumstances, it’s always available – especially when you fall flat on your face! 

But the two do go together. If you’re self-compassionate, you’ll tend to have higher self-esteem than if you’re endlessly self-critical. And like high self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with significantly less anxiety and depression, as well as more happiness, optimism, and positive emotions. However, self-compassion offers clear advantages over self-esteem when things go wrong, or when our egos are threatened. Research indicates that in comparison to self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behavior, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger.

The bottom line is that according to the science, self-compassion does in fact appear to offer the same advantages as high self-esteem, but with less discernible downsides.

So, how do we focus on cultivating a compassionate and kind relationship with our self? Well according to Dr Neff, self-compassion entails three components and in order to be truly self-compassionate we combine each of the three essential elements.

1. Self-kindness

Self-kindness is being gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critically and judgmental. Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.  Self-compassionate people recognise that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals. People cannot always be or get exactly what they want. When this reality is denied or fought against suffering increases in the form of stress, frustration and self-criticism.  When this reality is accepted with sympathy and kindness, greater emotional equanimity is experienced.

The best way to think about being kind to yourself is to think about a friend. Go ahead. Do it now. Visualise your best friend. Again. Now imagine they come to you and say they are hurting because they were passed over for that promotion at work that they’ve wanted for so long. Would you say to them, “Well, it’s probably because you didn’t work hard enough. And you’re too weak. You should have spoken up about wanting a promotion a long time ago.” What? You wouldn’t say that to a friend? Would you say it to yourself? It’s more likely that you would hug your friend and say, “Oh no! That’s terrible. I know how long you’ve been hoping to get that promotion. Come on, let’s go get some coffee and talk about it?” You can be kind to yourself in this way, too. Treat yourself as you would treat a friend who is suffering. Just as you would hug your friend, soothe yourself as well. Put your hands over your heart or locate the spot in your body where your hurt is hiding and gently place both hands there. Speak kindly to yourself. Call yourself by an endearing name. “Oh, honey. I’m hurting because I wanted that promotion so badly. This is a really hard place to be in right now.”

2. Common humanity

This is my favourite bit. Self-compassion requires recognition of our common humanity, feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering.

Frustration at not having things exactly as we want is often accompanied by an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if “I” were the only person suffering or making mistakes.  But we all suffer. All the humans suffer. Turns out the very definition of being “human” means that one is mortal, vulnerable and imperfect. And yes, that’s shit, but with self-compassion we recognise that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone.

Many times when we criticise or judge our self, we can feel very, very isolated. It can seem as if we’re the only person in the entire universe with this problem or flaw. And yet, we are all imperfect. We all suffer. And so we are all connected by our shared humanity.

One of the wonderful outcomes of self-compassion is our enhanced sense of belonging, the feeling that we are all in this together.

The next time you are looking in the mirror and not liking what you see, remember that you are an integral part of a flawed, wonderful, wounded, miraculous human tribe.

3. Be mindful

Third, it requires mindfulness—that we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it.

Self-compassion also requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time.  At the same time, mindfulness requires that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.

How will you know that you are suffering if you are repressing your pain, rationalizing it, or busy with problem-solving?

We can allow awareness of our pain to enter in. Being mindful is about noticing what is happening in the moment and having no judgment about it. Notice our hurt and just be with it, compassionately and with kindness. And note that trying to make pain go away with self-compassion is just another way to repress pain and hurt. Self-compassion is about being with your suffering in a kind, loving way, not about making suffering disappear.

Taken together, the research suggests that self-compassion provides an island of calm, a refuge from the stormy seas of endless positive and negative self-judgment, so that we can finally stop asking, “Am I as good as they are? Am I good enough?” By tapping into our inner wellsprings of kindness, acknowledging the shared nature of our imperfect human condition, we can start to feel more secure, accepted, and alive. – Kristen Neff

It does take work to break the self-criticising habits of a lifetime, but at the end of the day self-compassion is just asking us to be friendlier to our self. Asking us to relax, allow things to be and love our self with a little more kindness.  

For more good stuff on self-compassion, check out the website of one of the lovely ladies I completed my psych training with here. Dr Brooke is a self-compassion guru and she's got an awesome #bemyownbestie Insta campaign going to keep your practice on track!

Read more →

In sickness and in (mental) health

Over the previous 8 blog posts, it’s been pretty clearly established that relationships are not the easiest of things to manage. They generate a bit of work for us. But overall, having people in our lives is pretty worthwhile. (I cannot believe I’ve just summarised all those words into 3 piddly sentences).

In a very similar vein, when we love someone who is experiencing a mental illness it can be bloody hard work. Bloody hard. But probably worth it in the end.

I’m a bit loathe to write this post because there are plenty of articles floating around titled “how to love someone with a mental illness” or even “why you should love someone with a mental illness.” And it makes me cringe up a bit. For a number of reasons:

  • It perpetuates the “us versus them” mentality. People who experience a mental illness may have specific medical and psychological symptoms they have to deal with, but that doesn’t mean they’re something other than human. Would you love some with diabetes differently? Or need advice on how to love someone with athlete’s foot?
  • Doesn’t’ everyone have their own shit to deal with? Experiencing the symptoms of a mental illness may require certain lifestyle adjustments and more care at specific instances, but so do other things in life. Like when we take on way too much stuff at work. Or when the kids are really sick. Or when we change jobs. Lose our job. Are struggling financially. Lose someone in the family etc etc. Dare I say we all need specific care at certain instances in our lives, mental illness or not.
  • Even if there are unique ways in which people who have mental illnesses need love and care, that’s largely on an individual basis. We all have specific needs at certain times in our lives. These needs have to be communicated with the people around us — our friends, family, significant other, colleagues, etc. Because articles with “tips” about how to care about someone who has a mental illness may not be what every individual person needs nor wants. The person with the mental illness is responsible for knowing what they need to stay well and being able to communicate that.
  • Stigma is usually why these kinds of articles exist. I wouldn’t have to write about this if social stigma didn’t exist because then we would realise that we don’t need to try to love someone who is perceived as different in one way or another. We would simply love people because we are humans and we should care about each other's welfare.

Having noted all of that though, sometimes when we love someone who is experiencing active symptoms of a mental illness there’s particular things that are a real struggle for us. We might be worried we are not saying the “right” thing. We could be constantly concerned for their safety. We can be frustrated that they’re not improving. Or that they’re not seeking treatment. Or that they can’t see that there are any problems with their health at all.

All of these struggles though come from a place of love. If we didn’t feel these things about the person close to us, then we wouldn’t feel so strongly about them. And here’s a really, really, really important thing when someone is experiencing a mental illness, love is really, really, really important.

In the book A General Theory of Love (2001), a trio of psychiatry professors, Lewis, Amini and Lannon, describe love as an interaction of neurotransmitters and hormones in our body:

“Our nervous systems are not separate or self-contained; beginning in earliest childhood, the areas of our brain identified as the limbic system (hippocampus, amygdala, anterior thalamic nuclei, and limbic cortex) is affected by those closest to us (limbic resonance) and synchronizes with them (limbic regulation) in a way that has profound implications for personality and lifelong emotional health.”

Interestingly, we can actually see evidence of these connections when we explore research in this area related to stress management, depression, anxiety.

The ability to adequately cope with stress, is one of the protective factors against mental illness. British psychiatrist John Bowlby, known for his seminal work in the area of developmental science, defined attachment as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” In Attachment (1969), Bowlby showed us the crucial importance of the secure relationship on the development of adaptiveness and coping capacity. And throughout our lifetime, this remains true.

‘Allostatic load’, a psychological term coined in the 1980s, represents the physiological consequences of chronic exposure to stress. Positive social experiences and higher levels of social integration and support are associated with lower allostatic load in both young and older cohorts. From childhood until old age, being connected to others in secure and loving relationships helps us better deal with stress.

Currently depression and anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric conditions that are experienced in the Western world. And social isolation is clearly linked to higher rates of depression and anxiety. According to a Health and Human Services report, getting married and staying married reduces depression in both men and women. And research in the areas of physical health has shown that high levels of social support may actually improve prognosis in such conditions as cancer and myocardial infarctions by reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression that can often be associated with these illnesses.

And when people seek treatment for depression it will often focus on interpersonal relationships as a way to improve depression as is the case in attachment therapy in children and interpersonal therapy in adults. In addition, Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), which focuses on transforming relationships into ones that feels safe, secure and connected, have also been found to be effective in significantly reducing the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Ultimately, encouraging our people with a mental illness to be involved in loving and stable supportive relationships can potentially help in their recovery.

Though there are times when people need to “take a step back” from someone experiencing active symptoms of their illness, this generalises to any situation where one simply needs to create boundaries with another person in order to maintain one’s wellness.

Mahatma Ghandi once wrote, “Where there is love there is life.” Loving and stable relationships can help to improve a person's ability to manage stress and can help to decrease anxiety and depression. We are all social creatures, whether we experience mental illness or not.

Read more →

You've got to have friends

In the hierarchy of relationships, friendships are usually somewhere toward the bottom. Romantic partners, parents, children—all of these tend to come first.

This is true in life, and in science, where relationship research tends to focus on couples and families.

But our friendships are pretty unique relationships because unlike family relationships or working relationships, we choose to enter into these networks. And unlike other voluntary bonds, like marriages and romantic relationships, they lack a formal structure. You wouldn’t go months or even a year or two, without speaking to or seeing your significant other (hopefully), but you might go that long without contacting a friend.

Despite all of this, the smart people doing all the research and the surveys that all the peoples continue to do repeatedly show us just how important our friends are to our health and our emotional wellbeing.

The reality is the people who have close friendships appear to be happier.

In 2002, two pioneers of Positive Psychology, Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, conducted a study at the University of Illinois on the 10% of students with the highest scores recorded on a survey of personal happiness. They found that the most salient characteristics shared by students who were very happy and showed the fewest signs of depression were "their strong ties to friends and family and commitment to spending time with them." 

But I was a University student once. And I reckon I was probably in that top 10%. My friends were without doubt my priority. I was very committed to them. And the shared experiences/regular binge drinking excursions with them. More so than anything else. My part-time job at Donut King. University. My liver.

As we get older though, we tend to have more demands on our time. Many of them more pressing than friendship. After all, it’s easier to put off catching up with a friend than it is to skip your kid’s recorder recital or an important business trip. Or in my case the other day, writing a grant application for work. The ideal of our expectations for friendship is always in tension with the reality of their lives.

William Rollins, Professor of Interpersonal Communication at Ohio University has studied friendship for decades.

“The real bittersweet aspect is young adulthood begins with all this time for friendship, and friendship just having this exuberant, profound importance for figuring out who you are and what’s next,” Rawlins says. “And you find at the end of young adulthood, now you don’t have time for the very people who helped you make all these decisions.”

The time is poured, largely, into jobs and families. Not all of us couple up or have kids, but we’re all likely to have friendships affected by others’ couplings.  “The largest drop-off in friends in the life course occurs when people get married,” Rawlins says. “And that’s kind of ironic, because at the [wedding], people invite both of their sets of friends, so it’s kind of this last wonderful and dramatic gathering of both people’s friends, but then it drops off. You find at the end of young adulthood, now you don’t have time for the very people who helped you make all these life decisions.”

In a set of interviews he did in 1994 with middle-aged Americans about their friendships, Rawlins wrote that, “an almost tangible irony permeated these adults' discussions of close or ‘real’ friendship.” They defined friendship as “being there” for each other, but reported that they rarely had time to spend with their most valued friends, whether because of circumstances, or through the age-old problem of good intentions and bad follow-through: “Friends who lived within striking distance of each other found that… scheduling opportunities to spend or share some time together was essential,” Rawlins writes. “Several mentioned, however, that these occasions often were talked about more than they were accomplished.”

But if you plot busyness across the life course, it makes a parabola.  So for those of us who might be in this peak period of busyness now and our friendships may be at the bottom of the pile, we might have a bit more time later on. Once people retire and their kids have grown up, there seems to be more time for the shared living kind of friendship again. People tend to reconnect with old friends they’ve lost touch with. And it seems more urgent to spend time with them—according to socioemotional selectivity theory, toward the end of life, people begin prioritizing experiences that will make them happiest in the moment, including spending time with close friends and family.

But when there’s so many benefits to cultivating loving and meaningful relationships who wants to wait til then? Not I.

Like romantic relationships, sustaining and nurturing true friendships in the present requires time and effort. But the reality is that it’s well worth it, because having good friends can:

  • Improve your mood. Spending time with happy and positive friends can elevate your mood and boost your outlook.
  • Help you to reach your goals. Whether you're trying to get fit, give up smoking, or otherwise improve your life, encouragement from a friend can really boost your willpower and increase your chances of success.
  • Reduce your stress and depression. Having an active social life can bolster your immune system and help reduce isolation, a major contributing factor for depression.
  • Support you through tough times. Even if it's just having someone to share your problems with, friends can help you cope with serious illness, the loss of a job or loved one, the breakup of a relationship, or any other challenges in life.
  • Support you as you age. As you age, retirement, illness, and the death of loved ones can often leave you isolated. Having people you can turn to for company and support can provide purpose as you age and be a buffer against depression, disability, hardship and loss.
  • Boost your self-worth. Friendship is a two-way street, and the "give" side of the give-and-take contributes to your own sense of self-worth. Being there for your friends makes you feel needed and adds purpose to your life.

And just because you’ve been friends with someone since you were both in nappies, doesn’t mean they will be there forever either. Whether we hold onto these old friends or grow apart seems to come down to dedication and communication. In a longitudinal study of best friends, the number of months that friends reported being close in 1983 predicted whether they were still close in 2002, suggesting that the more you’ve invested in a friendship already, the more likely you are to keep it going. Other research has found that people need to feel like they are getting as much out of the friendship as they are putting in, and that that equity can predict a friendship’s continued success.

Technology has indeed shifted the definition of friendship, but the research vividly points out that our most important and powerful connections happen when we’re face-to-face. There is significant evidence that talking to people face-to-face, even via Skype, is much more satisfying than text, email and Facebook. This in itself isn’t surprising – as humans we respond to visual cues that can never be replaced by emoticons. So make it a priority to stay in touch in the real world, not just online.

Relationships are one of the biggest sources of happiness in our lives. Yes, we get busy and it’s so very easy to get caught up in our responsibilities and other relationships, but losing touch with the people we have chosen in our lives can be one of the most common end-of-life regrets. Let’s make an effort to stay connected and nurture our relationships. Because lovers may come and go, work may carry us half way around the world, but friendship tends to be a point of stability in an otherwise rapidly changing world.

Read more →

The 'satisfyingly normal' relationship

The decision whether we should stay in our intimate couple relationships or leave them is one of the most consequential and painful any of us ever has to make. On any given day, many millions of us could well be secretly turning the issue over in our minds as we go about our daily lives, with our partners beside us possibly having little clue as to the momentous decision weighing upon us.

This choice is perhaps more common now than it ever was. We expect to be deeply happy in love and therefore spend a good deal of time wondering whether our relationships are essentially “normal” in their sexual and psychological frustrations – or are beset by unusually pathological patterns which should impel us to get out as soon as we can.

Back in the day, it was probably way easier because there was probably way less choice and we probably weren’t really able to leave. Religions would insist that God blessed unions and He (or She) would be furious at them being torn apart. Society strongly disapproved of break-ups and cast separating parties into decades of shame and ostracism. And psychologists would explain that children would be deeply and permanently scarred by any termination in their parents’ relationship. But one by one, these objections to quitting have fallen away. Religions no longer terrify us into staying, society doesn’t care and psychologists routinely tell us that children would prefer a broken family to an unhappy one. The burden of choice therefore now falls squarely upon us.

Luckily for you my friends, I may be able to assist you with your questions about how “normal” your relationship actually is. For I have compiled some of the recent evidence and knowledge about long-term relationship satisfaction. I know, I really am good to you. I’ve even provided references.

  • When we first enter a committed couple relationship we generally report high initial relationship satisfaction (Glenn, 1998; Markman, Stanley & Blumberg, 2001; Lavner & Bradbury, 2010) and hope (and expect) that the relationship will be life-long (Millward, 1990).
  • Over time, relationships change. On average, people report lower levels of satisfaction and higher levels of negativity. This could be due, in part, to partners habituating to their relationship. For example, after the first ten years of marriage relationship satisfaction declines substantially (Holman, 2001).
  • When couples have a child, they experience the transition to parenthood. This brings many changes to their relationship, including more traditional gender role patterns of chore division, and even steeper declines in satisfaction (particularly if the pregnancy was a surprise). However, the presence of children is related to lower rates of divorce.
  • When children leave home, partners experience another transition. For some, satisfaction increases when this happens. However, for those who are relatively dissatisfied, the likelihood of divorce increases when their children leave home.
  • Increasingly, people are cohabiting. Cohabitation may be seen as a precursor to marriage, as an alternative to marriage, or it may be seen as completely separate from marriage. There is a large degree of variability in terms of how cohabitaters view cohabitation. The data on cohabiting couple relationships is much more limited than for married couples, but suggest that the rates of relationship problems and breakdown are substantially higher for cohabitating couples than for married couples (McDonald, 1995; Weston & Qu, 2007). People who cohabit before marriage also tend to have higher rates of divorce.
  • A substantial proportion of couples endure relationship distress before ending their marriage (Glenn, 1998; Holman, 2001). Although couples endure a lot of negative experiences before divorce, divorce is also related to negative outcomes. These include higher levels of depression, financial problems, and physical problems.
  • The divorce rate for first marriages is currently about 36% in Australia, with 2.3 divorces per 1000 residents in 2007 (ABS, 2013) and it is expected that divorce rates will continue to rise in the future (ABS, 2010). As painful as the experience of divorce is for many people, about 75% of divorced men and 66% of divorced women remarry within 3 years (Hahlweg, Baucom, Grawe-Gerber, & Snyder, 2010).  Unfortunately, the divorce rate in second marriages is even higher than in first marriages (Heatherington & Elmore, 2004). 
  • After divorce, people continue to value marriage. Most people who have divorced report a desire to marry again. However, second marriages are more likely than first marriages to end in divorce (Hahlweg, Baucom, Grawe-Gerber, & Snyder, 2010).
  • Marital experience is related to quality of life in old age. The more times people are married, the lower level of financial well-being they tend to have (Heatherington & Elmore, 2004).   Controlling for number of marriages, people who have spent more of their lives married tend to be healthier.

Did that clear it all up? In case you weren’t aware before, it really looks as if there’s not really such a thing as a “normal” and “satisfying” enduring relationship. This thing we call intimacy, is a dynamic thing. It flows and changes. We like our partner a lot and then less so. Our relationship meets our needs and then it doesn’t and then it does again. If we’re all so dissatisfied in couple relationships why do we stick it out? 

Most experts agree that a happy relationship affords us numerous benefits (Halford & Markman, 1997; Waite & Gallagher, 2000; Weston & Qu, 2007).  Being in a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship is a potent predictor of positive health and well-being for adult spouses and their children (Amato, 2000; Proulx, Helms, & Buehler, 2007).  Partners in satisfying relationships have been found to live longer (Ross, Mirowsky, & Goldsteen, 1990), report fewer health problems (Waite & Gallagher, 2000) and use health services substantially less, at around 25% lower costs per person (Prigerson, Maciejewski, & Rosenheck, 2000) than people in distressed relationships.  Stable marriages are associated with financial prosperity (Waite & Gallagher, 2000) and a low likelihood of needing government support (Thomas & Sawhill, 2005).  Furthermore, children who are raised by their own parent in the same home are advantaged on dimensions such as psychological adjustment and school attainment (Amato, 2000).

Conversely, marital distress is a generic risk factor for a variety of child and adult mental health problems (Bambling, 2007).  Relationship distress is strongly associated with lower levels of health, well being and finances in the spouses.  In a US national survey, the most frequently cited causes of acute emotional distress were relationship problems including separation and couple distress (Swindle, Heller, Pescosolido, & Kikuzama, 2000).  Relationship distress is positively associated with poor work performance, particularly for men in their first 10 years of marriage (Forthofer, Markman, Cox, Stanley, & Kessler, 1996); and in a study of clients seeking assistance with work-related concerns from employee assistance programs, two-thirds reported family problems as “considerable” or “severe” (Shumway, Wampler, Dersch, & Arredondo, 2004).

Relationship distress is also linked with the onset, course and poorer response to the treatment of individual adult psychiatric disorders.  Using data from over 2500 married participants of the National Comorbidity Survey, Whisman (2007) reported that marital distress was correlated with the 1-month prevalence rates of 12 specific psychiatric disorders.  In comparison to non-distressed individual patients, maritally distressed individuals are up to three times more likely to have a psychological disorder, including depression, alcohol abuse and anxiety disorders.

The reality of it is though that this is all the stuff of averages. Every relationship is unique. And every unique relationship will probably have periods of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. But the thing is people, as partners in this thing called love, we’re not just passive bystanders in our relationship. Our intimacy with our loved one is not something that just comes to us. Our level of satisfaction is not caused entirely by external factors. The level of dissatisfaction is not dependent solely on the other person.

All relationships face difficulties, and most are resolved over time. However when the problems become entrenched and seem unable to be solved, it is important to seek professional help. For many it can be far better to resolve the problems than to dissolve the relationship. Unfortunately, research shows that the average couple waits six years before seeking help once the problem is recognised, and only a small percentage seek the professional help they need. Half of all marriages that end do so in the first seven years. These statistics are very sad.

It is important that you seek help from someone who is trained and experienced in working with relationships. Most people ask friends for recommendations, and word of mouth is a good way to find help. You can also ask your GP for a recommendation or phone the APS Find a Psychologist service here or on 1800 333 497 (in Australia)

Help can also be found through organisations funded by the Australian Federal Government that employ psychologists and other professionals specialising in relationship counselling. Organisations such as Relationships Australia and Centacare all offer professional assistance.


Read more →

Moving on

It will probably happen to all of us at some point. Or it probably already has. Working through the agony of romantic rejection with some dignity and degree of reason is part of the experience of being a human. Luckily, the science of the psychology suggests to us a number of tips that might help.

Firstly, there’s no need to minimise what has happened. Let’s not be brave. Rejection is painful. Understand and acknowledge the fact that we're going to experience a wide range of emotions. It’s totally okay to be sad. Being ‘brave’ is not required here. Allow our sadness as much room and time and melancholic love songs and warm baths and chocolate that it needs. Until we eventually bore ourself back into having an appetite for life again. Let’s treat our emotional wounds like we would a physical one and heal.

Secondly, connect to those who appreciate and love us. Getting rejected can really destabilise our evolutionary ‘need to belong,’ which is why we often feel so unsettled and restless after a romantic or social rejection. Our need to ‘belong’ dates back to our days of living in small nomadic tribes, when being away from our tribe was always dangerous and sitting among them was a source of comfort.

One way to settle ourselves after a rejection is to reach out to our core group, our real tribe —be they friends, colleagues, or family members—to get emotional support from them and remind ourselves we’re valued, loved, and wanted.

If you’re the one who has been rejected, remember that in general humans are not excellent at breaking up with people. It might be because we’re too nice.

It’s probably for the best if you really try and believe them when they said that it was over. Try not to imagine that their past sweetness and kind words provided any covert indications of future commitment. Remove morality from it: they were not being ‘bad’ for not loving, nor were you ‘good’ for wanting them. You were both on the search for pleasure that took you down different and conflicting routes. Try not to turn this into a morality tale. They acted weird around the break up not because they were bad or – indeed – unsure. They just felt terribly guilty; because they are nice. Which doesn’t, though, mean that they want you. Think back to when you rejected people: you didn’t hate them or regret them, the chief emotions were embarrassment and pity.

Next, carefully consider the relationship narrative you tell yourself.

After a breakup, it can be healthy for us to reflect on what we’ve learned from the past relationship and what they want to improve in the next one. This is much easier said than done though.

The loss of a partner can make it very easy for us to fall into the self-deprecation trap. Psychologist Arthur Aron and his colleagues has shown that when people are in close relationships, their self becomes intertwined with their partner’s self. In other words, we begin to think of a romantic partner as a part of ourselves—confusing our traits with their traits, our memories with their memories, and our identity with their identity.

One of the greatest pleasures of being in a relationship is that it can broaden our sense of self by exposing us to things outside of their usual routines. But this also means that when a relationship ends, the loss of a romantic partner can, to some extent, cause the loss of the self. In one study, after reflecting on a breakup, people used fewer unique words to describe themselves when writing a short self-description. And the more people felt themselves grow during a relationship, the more likely they were to experience a blow to their self-image after the breakup.

Research has shown that people reported the most prolonged distress after a romantic rejection when it caused their self-image to change for the worse. People who agreed that the rejection made them question who they really were also reported more often that they were still upset when they thought about the person who had rejected them. Pain lingered from rejections that had occurred even years before.

However, some people are able to draw weaker connections between rejection and the self, describing rejection as an arbitrary and unpredictable force rather than the result of some personal flaw. They may perceive the two individuals to be unmatched or see rejection as a universal experience. Others may see the breakup as an opportunity for growth, often citing specific skills there were to learn from a break up. Other participants in this same research acknowledged that breakups had helped them to accept that they couldn’t control the thoughts and actions of others, or to learn how to forgive.

In other words, the stories we tell ourselves about rejection, can shape how, and how well we cope with it. Narratives that explained pivotal decisions (including getting married or divorced, and changing jobs) as moving toward a desired future, rather than escaping an undesirable past, were associated with higher life satisfaction.

One strategy for making breakups a little easier, then, might be to consciously consider the narratives we create about the experience. A person might think: I was bad at communicating in the relationship; I guess I just can't open up to people. Another story might be: I was bad at communicating in the relationship, but that’s something that I can work on, and future relationships will be better. Maybe a healthy habit of questioning our own narratives can help us to make better ones—stories that promote resilience in the face of pain.

Another strategy – write about it. Turns out getting out the journal and pen can bring out all the positive emotions that can occur following a break-up. And there are positive emotions.

Expressive writing or journalling is an intervention well-suited to coping with break-up due to its focus on cognitive-processing, simple format, and successful track record. Researchers examined whether a writing-based intervention facilitated coping with a romantic break-up in nearly a hundred single participants who experienced break-up in the past three months. Those in the experimental group wrote about the positive aspects of their break-up. A separate group wrote about the negative aspects, while a third group wrote about a superficial topic not related to the break-up. All groups wrote at home for 15 to 30 minutes a day for three consecutive days without receiving any feedback from the experimenter.

They found that those who focused their writing on the positive aspects of their break-up (factors leading up to the break-up, the actual break-up, and the time right after the break-up) reported experiencing more positive emotions regarding their relationship's end and did not experience an increase in negative emotions. The increased positive emotions included feelings of such as: comfort, confidence, empowerment, energy, happiness, optimism, relief, satisfaction, thankfulness, and wisdom.

Writing about positive writing aspects of a break-up was most effective, particularly if the break-up was mutual, while those in the negative and neutral writing conditions only increased in positive emotions if the break-up was initiated by the participant. Writing was equally effective for males and females.

I engaged in a lot of expressive writing at the time of a relationship break down on the advice of my psychiatrist a few years ago. And it did produce some positive outcomes. Whilst I was quite certain emotionally that my world was categorically over and there was very little point in moving on, focused writing helped to maintain an objective perspective about the whole thing.

And remember this. All the feelings eventually pass. Some of them might take a while. But they will pass.
Read more →

When the relationship breaks

We couldn’t do a series of love blogs without mentioning the pitfalls.

The thing about relationship break ups is that it’s way less fun than falling in love. It can be like jumping into a pile of hot wet garbage. It can also feel like trying to come off some wild and intoxicating illicit drug.

The message of social rejection often hits us in the centre of our ego and shakes up our self-worth.

And we would have all felt the sting along the spectrum of social rejection at some point in our lives. Whether it be being the last person to be chosen for a sporting side in PE class, people not coming to our party or not being selected for the job we really wanted.

I've experienced it. You've experienced it. Even The Beatles experienced it. Yet every time it happens, we're reminded again how awful it is to be rejected.

Evolutionary psychologists suggest that the human experience of rejection goes back to our ancient roots. In our hunter/gatherer past, the result of being ostracised from our tribe was pretty much death as we were unlikely to survive for long alone. It’s assumed the brain developed an early warning system to alert us when we were at risk of rejection. Because it was so important to get our attention, those who experienced rejection as more painful (i.e., because rejection mimicked physical pain in their brain) gained an evolutionary advantage—they were more likely to correct their behavior and consequently, more likely to remain in the tribe, survive and pass on their genes.

There's a physiological basis to this theory as well. Research shows that rejection triggers the same brain pathways that are activated when we experience physical pain.

The brain system that helps us to attach to somebody else is at the very same level of thirst and hunger systems. That level is in what we might call the ‘old’ or ‘reptilian’ parts of the brain, operating at an unconscious level. When we get really thirsty, it’s this part of the brain that blocks out anything non-hydration related so that we finally get a drink of water. And when we do get a drink of water, it tastes really, really good.

Drugs of abuse also work on this same reward system. As does attraction. When we fall in love with someone we really, really want to be with them. All the time. It’s like being very, very thirsty.

But it’s a bit less conscious. But still so incredibly painful.

Brain imaging research shows that the discomfort people experience when looking at a picture of their ex-partner shows up in the insular cortex: the same brain area that that’s active when you strike a nerve in your tooth, which scientists say is the most extreme physical pain you can feel. Furthermore physical pain medication has been found to reduce the emotional pain that rejection can elicit. In a study testing the hypothesis that rejection mimics physical pain, researchers gave some participants acetaminophen (Tylenol) before asking them to recall a painful rejection experience. The people who received Tylenol reported significantly less emotional pain than subjects who took a sugar pill.

We can also relive and re-experience social pain more vividly than we can physical pain. When I attempted to recall the pain of my first tattoo recently, my brain pathways responded with "Meh." (They were wrong). In other words, that memory alone didn’t elicit physical pain. But if I tried to relive a significant relationship break-up (I’m not going to, I’d like to do other things today), I can be flooded with many of the same feelings I experienced at the time (and my brain will respond much as it did at the time, too). Our brain prioritises rejection experiences because at our core we are still social animals who live in "tribes." This leads to an aspect about rejection we often overlook

So whilst not a physical wound or injury, we’re in distress. At an emotional and conceptual level.

Furthermore when we form intimate partner relationships we fold the other person into our identity. Whether or not we’re head over in heels in love with the person we’re consciously uncoupling with, we lose part of our self when we split. We brought them into our sense of who we were — they were our partner after all, our “other half” — and now that half is gone.

The end of a relationship is confusing to us when it comes to our identity. After the end of a relationship researchers have found a drop in a construct called self-concept clarity - that subjective sense we have in knowing who we are, and the belief that our identity is cohesive and consistent.

When we're in romantic relationships, our identity changes in a host of different ways. After a relationship ends, the same thing is true.

Researchers have shown that people often attribute the end of a relationship to such changes as their appearance, hobbies and even goals and values. However, depending on the relationship itself there are some marked differences.

If a relationship helped to expand our sense of self — meaning that we gained new characteristics/attributes through our relationship with our partner — then our self-concept actually shrinks after a breakup. That being said, if we feel the relationship didn't help us expand our self-concept while it was happening, we can actually experience feelings of self-growth or rediscovery of who we are after a relationship ends.

To make matters worse rejections also send us on a mission to seek and destroy our self-esteem. We often respond to romantic rejections by finding fault in ourselves, bemoaning all our inadequacies, kicking ourselves when we’re already down, and smacking our self-esteem into a pulp. Obviously this is not incredibly helpful. Blaming ourselves and attacking our self-worth only deepens the emotional pain we feel and makes it harder for us to recover emotionally.

It’s probably also not a good idea to go around blaming ourselves too harshly either because as it turns out rejection temporarily lowers our IQ. Being asked to recall a recent rejection experience and relive the experience was enough to cause people to score significantly lower on subsequent IQ tests, tests of short-term memory, and tests of decision making. Indeed, when we are reeling from a painful rejection, thinking clearly is just not that easy.

The better news is that there are ways to treat the psychological wounds rejection inflicts. Thank the Heavens! It is possible to treat the emotional pain rejection elicits and to prevent the psychological, emotional, cognitive, and relationship fallout that occurs in its aftermath. Stay tuned for some of the healthy ways to move on.

Read more →

Hope Street Cards Book Club - January

This month for Hope Street Cards Book Club in the spirit of all things love I read Dr Gary Chapman’s ‘The 5 Love Languages’.

I have read versions of this text before. This time round I embarked on the ‘Singles Edition’. Obviously.

You may have caught wind of these so called languages by now. The title has been sitting on the New York Times Best Sellers list for some time since it was originally published in 1995 and has apparently sold over 10 million copies world-wide. Not bad, for what sounds like a pretty cheesy self-help book.

According to Dr. Chapman, there are five universal ways that all of us express and interpret love. Reflecting on over 30 years of experience providing couples counselling, Chapman observed specific ways in which partners communicate with each other. His theory is that there the majority of us express and interpret love in the same five ways.

The premise is pretty simple: Different people with different personalities express love in different ways. Therefore, if you want to give and receive love most effectively, you've got to learn to speak the right language.

It’s hypothesised that we each have one primary and one secondary love language (you can take a quiz here to determine your love language), and we tend to give love in the way we prefer to receive love. Since we don’t all have the same preferences as our partners when it comes to giving and receiving love, this is how things can sometimes get a bit tricky. But if we develop an understanding of our partner’s primary love language, we can start to speak love loudly and clearly in our relationship.

The five love languages are:

1. Words of affirmation

According to Chapman, this language uses words to affirm other people. For those who prefer the words of affirmation language, hearing "I love you" and other compliments are what they value the most. Words hold real value within this language. Furthermore, negative or insulting comments cut deep — and won't be easily forgiven. Essentially, having affirming words will make you feel loved if this is your primary love language.

According to the online survey I took this was the outright leader as my primary love language, which I hadn’t guessed in reading the book. Or at least I thought my results would be a bit more closely aligned.

When I reflected on this, I kept coming back to the periods where I have truly, truly struggled accepting any words of affirmation. During my episodes of mental illness, loved ones would repeatedly provide affirmative love words that I could not even comprehend. Let alone assimilate. Initially I thought this was somewhat interesting and a flaw in Chapman’s whole theory, but due to the nature of the illness though one has to wonder whether I would have been capable to accepting any form of love (language) at that time. Hmmm.

Affirming words is more than just the “I love you’s” though. It’s also the words of encouragement and praise and kindness. It’s the way in which we express our words. How we sit with someone in silence. It is quite true that I do really love language, silence and positive reinforcement.

2. Quality time

This language is all about us giving the other person our undivided attention. If this is our primary language we deeply value doing things together and receiving full, undivided attention from our spouse, including sharing quality conversations and activities. Distractions, postponed dates, or failing to listen can be especially hurtful to us. Being with our loved one makes us feel satisfied and comforted. Distractions, postponed dates, or the failure to listen can be especially hurtful to these individuals. Being there for them is crucial.

This was a secondary language for me and I’d agree that I do often feel quite rejuvenated after spending uninterrupted time talking to a loved one or doing activities together. The online results noted “You deepen your connection with others through sharing time”. Which, yes, I agree with. But wouldn’t everyone?

3. Receiving gifts

Let’s not mistake this love language for materialism. If this is our primary language, we deeply treasure a gift or gesture that shows we are being thought of, cared for, and prized above whatever was sacrificed to bring you the gift. Gifts are seen as visual symbols of love.  This doesn't necessarily mean the person is materialistic, but a meaningful or thoughtful present it was makes them feel appreciated.

Gifts can be purchased, found or made, and the value is often less important than the significance of the gift. If you are not intuitive at giving gifts but your spouse’s primary language is receiving gifts, you can start by making a list of all the gifts that your spouses has been excited about – this will give you an idea of what gifts he/she appreciates.  Gifts also go beyond just physical items, and can include the gift of self (or the gift of physical presence). You feel hurt by the absence of daily gestures, a missed birthday, anniversary, or a hasty/ thoughtless gift.

Unsurprisingly, this was another secondary language for me. I say unsurprisingly because gift-giving is a dominant language in my family of origin. And it’s beautiful. Birthdays and Christmas are joyous and beautiful events and the “Gift-giving ceremony” is a tradition that is so meaningful that it brings overwhelming joy to both the giver and the receiver.

4. Acts of service

With this love language, actions speak louder than words. When we speak the language of service we want our partner to recognise that their life can be tough and we would like them to help them out in any way possible. Lending a helping hand shows you really care. People who thrive on this language do not deal well with broken promises — or perceived laziness — and have very little tolerance for people who make more work for them. Basically, if you're not willing to show your appreciation by doing them a favour, you're saying you don't value them.

I have a hunch that some of my close friends might have this as their primary love language. They are truly wonderful at helping me out when I’m feeling stressed or drowning in things to do. But also, I reckon that if their loved ones said to them “let me do that for you”, and then followed through with cooking a meal or washing the car, they’d feel so incredibly loved and adored. It might even lead to love in the bedroom. (Excuse me while I try to make this point very clear. In the off chance he might be reading!).

5. Physical touch

Physical touch can bring a sense of security and connection to any relationship. If this is our primary love language, we crave displays of care and love through is thoughtful touches, hugs, kisses, pats on the back, and/ or sexual intercourse. Neglect or abuse can cause serious damage and hurt to you emotionally.

Like other love languages, there are different dialects in physical touch, such as loving touches on the arm/ back/ shoulders, a back rub, sexual foreplay and intercourse, sitting closely on the couch, holding hands etc.  Even if you share the same love language of physical touch, don’t assume he/she speaks the same dialect as you.

This language rated lowest for me. Don’t really have much to say about that.

The theory goes on to explain that one we’ve established our dominant love language and that of our partners it doesn’t mean we should stop expressing the others. We still enjoy traits of the others. And we can learn to develop and love through those as well.

Here’s my quick review of the actual book:

The good things:

  • Totally agree with Chapman that to have a lasting relationship we need to recognise that the emotional high of the “in-love” experience is only temporary in nature and after this has run its course we need to make the shift to what he refers to as “real love”
  • I liked his definition of “real love” as:
    • A conscious choice or an act of will to love the other person;
    • Effort and discipline to understand and give love to the other person (not merely driven by the euphoria of being “in love”); and
    • A focus on growth and development of yourself and your partner (unlike the “in love” phase when we simply see the other party as perfect and hope they will stay that way).

The less good things:

  • There is a lot of ‘God’ in this book. There is also a very strongly worded chapter on the importance of marriage, which I did not read. For reasons related to being happily single at present.
  • I had hoped that this book would focus mostly on developing your use of the love languages for use in relationships outside of couple relationships – as it was for ‘singles’. And it did that a little bit, but not much. The majority of the book, it was more of a dating guide for single people to become no longer single and address the issues they have had in previous relationships and become couples again. In case couples don’t know, single people also have important relationships in their lives.

You know a wonderful way to show love in any language? Send a card! We've got some for you right here!

Read more →

Fighting a good fight

Let me preface this by admitting that I am not a natural fighter. At all. I will do pretty much everything within my power to avoid any form of confrontation. And if something upsets me, my natural reaction is to sulk. I’m pretty good at sulking.

It seems to be pretty widely acknowledged that all couples argue. But I’ve been in relationships where we didn’t argue much at all. Told you I was good at sulking. These relationships all ended though. Make of that what you will.

Some of us might feel unable to argue because we feel that our underlying anger, which can get triggered during an argument, will get out of control. Others might find it difficult to argue because we feel inadequate within the relationship. Some of us might have been exposed to bitter arguments as we grew up and are determined not to repeat the patterns of unhappy parents during adulthood.  

The thing is, in intimate relationships when we avoid arguing, for whatever reason a lot of things remain unresolved. Or power games begin to play out. Or we might distance ourselves from our partner.

Arguments and disagreements are not necessarily a sign of a relationship ending or love fading. They’re just a sign of two imperfect human beings in an imperfect relationship expressing their own individuality. This is pretty bloody healthy really. They’re about compromise and commitment and communication.

When couples seek relationship therapy it’s often interesting to explore with the couple the themes of the argument. Couples may find that they always argue about the same issues time and time again without ever resolving the underlying problem. It helps to see that arguments around money are rarely about money: they're usually about power. Arguments about kids are usually arguments about control. When we argue about chores, we are often more concerned about fairness. Sexual arguments are usually about intimacy; and arguments about jealousy and fidelity are usually about maturity. By identifying these underlying issues, we can often communicate more directly and with a more positive outcome.

There are a number of things we can try and do to stop sulking and put up a good fight. In addition to reaching a good understanding of the nature of the commitment, there are several other guidelines that can be explored when a couple decides to bring their arguments to a more constructive level.

1. It is better to be close and happy than to be right.

This is another Dr-Philism that I sprout. A lot. Blaming each other and trying to change the other person's opinions are both counterproductive. When we assume that one person is right and the other person is wrong, we put the person who is “wrong” on the defensive. Get out of this right vs. wrong framework altogether. Accept the fact that you simply see the issue differently.

2. Healthy fighting begins with empathy.

After all, you love this person with whom you are fighting. The empathic process is a really positive way to disagree, problem solve and find compromise. Become aware of your impact on your partner. To fight as an adult, we remember that no one is perfect. We move our attitude from all or nothing to realistically accepting the foibles and failures of others without trying to convert them. Arguments often start when we say something without realising how our partner will take it. During an argument, check out what the other person means: “When you said that, did you mean that you feel I always have the upper hand?” Listen to what your partner is trying to tell you.

3. Don’t keep score.

This one is pretty important. It’s a really good idea not to view our relationship like a bank. "Well I put this into it, so you should too. You debited this amount back in 1993 and I didn’t, but I will continue to remind you of that debt forever more because this is a JOINT ACCOUNT". Again, kind reminder, this person is your beloved. Another small reminder, we can’t change the past. Although you may feel hurt by something that happened in the past, the only options we have are to work for better circumstances in the present and the future. Of course, you may want to talk about things which have bothered you in the past, but holding a grudge usually interferes with the productive resolution of current problems...those things which you can do something about. Work on one current problem at a time, not a list of things from the past. Discuss the problem while it is relevant.

4. State your needs as specific requests.

Try not to personally attack your mate. Best to criticise the problem, rather than the person you love most with all your heart and soul. Express your feelings as your feelings, not your thoughts. Own your own feelings and express them in a responsible way. For example, instead of saying, “I think,” say “I feel.” for positive behavior change. It is not helpful to criticises the person's character; this simply puts the other into a defensive stance. If we label our partner with words like “crazy,” “immature,” or “slob” does not solve the specific problem you need to address, and it pretty much ensures that you will not be heard. These words are only meant to hurt (and it would be better in this case just to say, “Right now I feel like I want to hurt your feelings”).

5. Simply and genuinely listen. Be there.

Try and be present in the moment with interest. Really listening means to open your heart and shut off any inner dialogue that attempts to answer what your partner is saying. Use descriptive language to explain your feelings and never interrupt.

6. Avoid the avoidance.

This includes the sulking Sam. And the other less useful fighting techniques. Which are so easy to do sometimes. And often make us feel like you’ve been the winner or gained the upper hand. But does anyone in the relationship really win, when any of these techniques are implemented?

    • Timing – Really not helpful to discuss something really, really important when our partner is least able to respond or least expects it -—like just before he or she leaves for work, or late at night, or during a favourite TV show.
    • Crucialising: This happens when we exaggerate the importance of an issue by drawing conclusions of great magnitude regarding the relationship. “If you loved me, you would never have done this” is a good one. Or: “This proves you have never cared about me.” Incredibly unhelpful, yet incredibly common.
    • Cross Complaining: This is when our partner complains about something and we ensure that we’ve got a complaint of our own to raise. “I forgot to take make up the bed? How about all the times you haven't taken out the garbage?” This means in essence no one’s issues get heard.
    • Mind Reading: When we let our partner know that as it turns out we are actually the expert in how he or she feels or things or should behave. “You don't really feel angry right now.” “You didn't mean to say you wouldn't be home for dinner.” This one is really annoying when we’re on the receiving end and it does wonders to deprive your partner of all rights as an equal.
    • Fortune Telling: Like mind-reading, this technique gives us the upper hand. “You will never change” demoralises our partner and effectively blocks any resolution of the real issues at hand.
    • Pulling Rank: This one screams nastiness if you ask me. But it’s easy— it's much easier just to say that you bring home more money, or you have more friends, or you have more education, or you do more around the house, than to address the real issues. “When you make as much money as I do, then I'll listen to you” works like a charm at showing that there’s no need for equality in this relationship.
    • Giving Advice: To really be a dick, whenever your partner wants to talk over a problem, always act like the expert. Tell your partner how to act, think and feel. Always have the better answer. If this is ever questioned you can always say that you were only trying to be helpful. This will undermine all attempts for an empathic, supportive and understanding relationship.

7. Ask for help. 

Many relationships have been lost that could have been saved from the inability to ask for help. Pride has no place in intimacy. We all make mistakes and have misunderstandings. And if the relationship cannot be saved, you are always free to leave.

On occasion it blows my mind that individuals live healthily and happily in intimate couple relationships for so long. This stuff is hard. No one provides us with accredited formal training in this arena. It's just another one of the fabulousness trials and errors of life. 

Read more →