Category Archives: Relationships

hand

How neuroscience saved my relationship

I have a shit track record with relationships.  I seemed to have gotten married twice and happened to have divorced both of them, getting rid of them with a snap of my fingers (and a small bribe to banish that second one from my life).  My current beau was reasonably nervous about getting involved with what some people might term a “runner”.   Ruiner is another name.  It is tempting to blame my was-bands for my divorces but I know perfectly well that my power to destroy relationships is equal to my ability to attract men.

I am an interesting mix of low maintenance with high expectations.  Camping and no showers for a week – no problem.  Dress up, dress down – all good.  But I require intense interest in life, ambition, progressive inclinations, a desire to volunteer and contribute to the community combined with a nuanced understanding of acceptable shoes (my definition, not your definition) and a butt that can fill out your jeans (which better not be from LL Bean).   I bring people in easily and can easily throw them away when I am done.  Not pretty, not nice.  But if you dig deeper, you might discover, I don’t do this to be mean, I do this to protect myself.

We all have our ways of protecting ourselves from getting too close and being too vulnerable with another human being.  One of my primary ways was to build up a negative story in my mind so I could cut loose at any time without it seeming like a loss.  But I want to keep this one – my new beau.  I want to make the relationship work this time.  I have been studying what works to change our patterns.  I discovered it all has to do with the brain, our neuronal infrastructure and how we form memories from our experiences.  This is what I discovered that might help me and might help you.

“One of my primary ways was to build up a negative story in my mind so I could cut loose at any time without it seeming like a loss.” 

 

We see what we want to see.

During my second marriage, I thought I was being clever by coming up with different pet names for #2, like “f@#king a&&hole”.   I would repeat this sentiment in my head each time he spoke.  As it turns out, this was not helpful!  It biased me against seeing anything good in him, regardless of what he did.  Our thoughts and past experiences dictate what we pull from our current experiences.   It is like we walk around with mesh made up of our past experiences hanging over our eyes, obscuring our vision.  #2 could bring me flowers but all I could focus on what the fact that he was 15 minutes late.  We see what we want to see.

Focus on the good.

In my current relationship, I focus on the good instead.  I purposely note in my mind when he has done something lovely (like listen to me, smile at me or come with me to my parent’s house).  I say it directly to him (Thank you so much for coming with me to my parents’ house.  It means a lot) and repeat it internally.  This is purposeful.  I am building up an argument to my body and brain to keep him.  Sure, I could pick out things I find annoying but I now know that noting those things, reinforcing them in my body will not do me nor him any good.  Our brain forms channels of thought that we can easily fall into and can easily reinforce if we aren’t careful (“He never comes with me to my parents”).  These negative stories can slowly destroy our relationships by tainting our perception and experiences.  By creating a positive story about him in my mind, when something negative does happen, it no longer has much of an impact.

“I purposely note in my mind when he has done something lovely.” 

 

Appreciate often and out-loud.

Another practice I have adopted is to compliment him on anything I see that I like (and even some behaviors I would like to see).   “I really appreciate how patient you were with me tonight.”  This lets him know patience is important to me (and that it is likely a requirement to adapt to my proclivities).  It also gives me inspiration to be patient with him when needed.  It makes him feel good (presumably) and provides a road map for him in future interactions.  Equally important, it again strengthens the neuronal pathway in my brain between him and good things.

We feel what we want to feel

In my 30’s, I bemoaned my lack of moaning.  I wasn’t consistently attracted to my husband and I was missing out on getting off.  I have thankfully moved past this awkward stage with a key life lesson.  You determine your own experience, not only of life and what you choose to see, but of intimacy, by what you choose to feel.  Much of the orgasmic experience comes from fully immersing oneself inside the sensations.  You can essentially create your own orgasm.  We feel what we choose to feel.

Associate him with good feelings.

I learned I could do much the same thing with my attraction for my beau.  By bringing full focus on how it feels when he touches my hand (or any other body part), I reinforce my brain’s association between the warm vibrations and his being.

There are two key practices I do.  I breathe in when he touches me, my breath marking the sensation he produces in me.  This practice forces me to slow down and appreciate him; it allows me to feel and note the intensity of my feeling for him.  I also intentionally note out-loud (and loudly inside my head) my attraction for him.  These two practices build a clear narrative for my ever-protective brain:  He is a keeper.

“I breathe in when he touches me, my breath marking the sensation he produces in me.”  

 

We can change our patterns, defeating our protectionist tendencies… if we are willing to practice.

This is the deal.  We are really good at repeating our patterns over time.  We are really good at protecting our hearts.  It takes practice, and courage, to open up, be vulnerable and create something different in your life.  This was my way of doing it: day by day, touch by touch, neuron by neuron.  By coupling positive thoughts with the sight, feel, and smell of him, I aim to ensure we remain a couple over the long term.  I hope you find your way too.

 

Erin Oldham, Ph.D. is a researcher and relationship & divorce coach. Erin works with people as they navigate getting into, sustaining and getting out of relationships. She also works with people as they negotiate divorce and the post-divorce world. Erin has a Ph.D. in Psychology and has been researching child well-being and the formation of healthy relationships among children and adults for 20 years. She is approachable, pragmatic, empathic and effective. She facilitates intriguing, engaging workshops on these topics as well.  Email her here.

communication

The Clumsy Conundrum of Communication

I dread the phone call that I know will come before I am ready.  Her timeline is vastly different from mine.  She wants to know what I am thinking about making for Thanksgiving dinner… in September.  I generally get down to business about 24 hours before the celebration.  She wants to discuss what I am thinking about for summer plans in February.  I, on the other hand, hold off as long as possible from thinking about summer and the pain of no free education-based entertainment during those two incredibly long months.  For her, planning ahead calms.  For me, planning ahead hurts my head.  We have different motivations, different timelines, and different ways of dealing with the world.  Neither she nor I are in the right, per se.  We simply communicate differently.  If she were my partner instead of my mother, I would likely have some communication challenges ahead.

In the game of communication, one of the most important aspects is to understand your partners’ communication style and needs.  What do they need to know?  What level of detail do they prefer?  When do they like to know it?  When is the best time to talk with them productively?  Getting used to fine-tuning the way you communicate in the following ways can help you enjoy your relationship more.

What isn’t working?  Sometimes this is the easiest place to start in your search for good communication.  When do you not feel heard?  When does your partner seem not to be listening?  When does your subtle comment turn into a fight?  Ask yourself the following questions:

Was I clear in what I was trying to communicate?

Is there a better or ‘softer’ way to say what I was trying to say?

Did I use any blaming language that may have made my partner defensive?  (“You always…” “You made me angry”)

Did I give my partner time to respond?

Did I try and understand his/her position?

Was the environment conducive to a good conversation?

Are there certain words I use that tend to “trigger” my partner?

What triggers me?  What did he say that made me angry?

In a recent workshop, men and women talked about what is happening when conversations go awry. 

“I was rushed.”                 “We were late.”                 “I just got home from work.” 

“I felt disrespected.”       “She didn’t try to understand me.”          “He cut me off.” 

“He told me how I was feeling.”                 “She was telling me what to do.” 

What is working?  Think it through: when was the last time you had a really effective conversation meaning that you felt heard or you and your partner worked well together?   These are things you might recognize:

Calmness works. Being able to stay calm in your body and tone tends to keep the other person calm.  Think of it this way: people tend to mimic the body language and feelings of the one they are around.  If you are calm, she will be calm.

Environment matters.  Think “where” and “when”.  Don’t start a conversation when either of you is rushed.  Find a place that is quiet and a time when each party can relax into the conversation.  If he likes to have 30 minutes after he comes home to play video games, let him and ask him to let you know when he is ready to talk.  Sometimes I need to take a shower when I get home to wash off the day and then I am ready to face the world again.  Also, put your phones away and reduce any other distractions.  This goes a long way towards building an environment of respect.

Words matter.  We each have phrases that bug us.  Maybe it’s “you always” or “you never”.  Or maybe it’s a condescending tone that makes you feel belittled.  Notice the impact you are having on your partner.  Be willing to try different ways of speaking that build partnership rather than animosity.

Be a good listener.  This is the one to really pay attention to.  Be a good listener.  Being a good listener means not talking (at all!).  It means making eye contact and listening to understand your partner’s perspective.  If you are really listening, you are not be using the time to formulating your comeback.  You are not be planning your next move.  If you fear you will forget what you want to say, write it down.  A good practice to know whether you were listening is to repeat the words back to the talker and ask them if you got it correct.

This is what I think you were trying to say….. Did I hear you correctly?

Simply listening will go a long way to strengthening your communication with your partner.  If your partner feels heard and even better, understood, there is a lot less to complain about.

I fumble as much as I fly in communicating effectively.  It is a practice.  Allow your missteps to lead to you to being in step with your partner (or your mother), at least occasionally.  It is worth it.

 

Erin Oldham, Ph.D. is a researcher and relationship & divorce coach. Erin works with people as they navigate getting into, sustaining and getting out of relationships. She also works with people as they negotiate divorce and the post-divorce world. Erin has a Ph.D. in Psychology and has been researching child well-being and the formation of healthy relationships among children and adults for 20 years. She is approachable, pragmatic, empathic and effective. She facilitates intriguing, engaging workshops on these topics as well.  Email her here.

fight

We fight, a lot. Are we doomed?

I dated my college boyfriend for 10 years and then dove into marriage with him for the next 7.  We rarely fought; we were best friends.  Yet, in the end, we divorced.  What happened?  Reading about the research on what makes marriages work, we probably should have been fighting more.

There was too much unsaid in our relationship. Our not-fighting was a sign of not sharing our feelings rather than of contentedness.  John Gottman, my favorite relationship researcher, points out that not fighting is a predictor of divorce!

Is marriage just about resolving conflicts?  No, most marital arguments can’t be fully resolved (69% of them aren’t resolved according to Gottman).   So it isn’t useful to cross your arms until things change.  He simply won’t always be on time and she simply can’t help but need the bedroom to be spotless.  We are generally so ingrained in our patterns, that while short-term changes may be possible, we are more likely to fall back into our patterns over the long term.

So if we can’t change each other or force the other person to be ‘perfect’ in our eyes, what can we do?  We can “manage” the conflict instead of trying to resolve it.  Here are a couple steps for you:

Fight better.  Research shows it is not whether couples argue but how they argue that makes the difference.  Focus your energy on learning more about what triggers you (what makes you really mad!).  Find ways of staying calm so you can effectively communicate.  You might want to practice breathing deeper or asking for a break when overwhelmed.  Practice effectively communicating your needs.  Two tips: (1) find ways of starting a conversation that doesn’t trigger your partner (e.g., make them defensive, or make them shut-down) and (2) research “non-violent communication” practices.

Accept him/her.  Find a couple things about your partner that you are willing to accept just as they are.  Maybe he is messy and maybe you just leave that alone.  Maybe she isn’t great at making small talk at a party and maybe you just learn to live with that and be the “small-talker” of the couple.  For each characteristic of your partner that you can “accept”, you just got rid of one cause of your fights!

Get curious.  Another way to reduce fighting is to gain a greater understanding of your partner.  Start asking (non-threatening) questions.  “I would really like to understand you better.  I noticed you don’t talk a lot at parties.  Do you enjoy the parties?”  Fights can easily arise when you start making assumptions about why your partner is like they are.  A greater understanding of your partner can lead to greater empathy and less fighting.

Shift yourself.  A huge key to shifting away from fighting with your partner is to understand yourself better.   Each fight is caused by the dynamic between the two people.  You are half of that dynamic and the problem is that you can’t control your partner’s behavior (as much as you would like to!).  But, you can control how you behave.  It is rather amazing but you can see big shifts in your dynamic by simply shifting yourself.  This may look like changing the language you use to communicate, finding better times to communicate when both partners are calm, or even integrating yoga or meditation into your world.  Yoga and meditation enable you to be less reactive to stressful situations.  When I go to yoga regularly, I am a much better partner as I am calmer and kinder.

Make up!  Most couples fight.  What is critical for the long-term health of a relationship is the recovery after a fight.  No recovery can lead to resentment and further anger.  Develop a way of coming down and connecting after a fight.  This can be a ritual of apologizing (“Wow, I am really sorry about how I acted.”) or maybe a ritual of appreciation (“I was really angry.  I am calmer now and I wanted to tell you how much I appreciate you coming back together to talk with me.”) or maybe a ritual of affection “I am sorry. <<hug>>”  Of course, offering regular affection, kindnesses, and positive statements about the relationship and each other forms the foundation that allows a couple to come down and connect following a fight.  85% of those who learn to effectively repair fights stay happily married.

So, no, your relationship isn’t doomed if you fight.  But if you fight nasty, it might be.  Learn to fight better, apologize sooner and make up sweetly.

 

Erin Oldham, Ph.D. is a researcher and relationship & divorce coach. Erin works with people as they navigate getting into, sustaining and getting out of relationships. She also works with people as they negotiate divorce and the post-divorce world. Erin has a Ph.D. in Psychology and has been researching child well-being and the formation of healthy relationships among children and adults for 20 years. She is approachable, pragmatic, empathic and effective. She facilitates intriguing, engaging workshops on these topics as well.  Email her here.

Connect with her on her website or on Facebook.

ponder

Will you have sex tonight?

Mathematical predictors of your sex life.

I love this guy, John Gottman.  I mean he comes up with mathematical formulas to figure out how often you are going to have sex this year.  He measures his approach to your bedroom with game theory.  The basic idea of game theory is that the decisions people make relate to the the payoffs they will receive as a result of that decision.   I generally find his books really easy to read but when he goes into explanations of game theory, he enters serious geek land.  He actually has sentences like this in the chapter:

EP for Ianamy agrees = 5 σagree + (-1)(1- σagree)

So I am here to translate his formulas for your pleasure, or future pleasures.  He postulates that most bedrooms are pretty darn quiet according to research.   Just a quarter of adults over 45 are having sex weekly and another 40% are having sex at least monthly which means that about 35% of adults are having sex less than once a month (AARP, 2010).  Another recent study found a relationship between having sex about once a week and levels of happiness, regardless of age, gender or how long the relationship had been going on (Muise, 2016).  So many couples are probably having sex less than they want to and less often than is related to happiness.  Maybe the woman has been rebuffed in their sexual advances one too many times, and she has each stopped asking.  Or, the man isn’t sure when the right time is to ask and has stopped as well.

Gottman suggests that the key factor in determining how often you have sex is how you react when your partner says “not tonight” to you.  If you react with any kind of rejecting behavior – sulking, sighing, complaining, criticizing, frustration or anger, you just set in motion a cascade of negative emotions that will lead to less sex.

If you react negatively to her refusal of sex … you get less sex in the future

Using game theory, Gottman estimates that sex gets as low as 15 times a year when both partners react negatively to a refusal of sex.  However, if the man, for instance, reacts positively when his partner says “not tonight” with understanding, kind words or affection, her payoff increases (she got treated nicely) and his payoff increases (she is more likely to feel positive feelings towards him for understanding and is more likely to say yes in the future).   Using mathematical formulas, Gottman suggests you could be getting it up to four times a week (233 days a year!) if you start rewarding your partner when she refuses sex.

If you react positively when she refuses sex … you get more sex in the future

A client recently lamented that he wasn’t having sex with his wife very often and wanted to know how to increase the frequency of sex.  I asked him about his thoughts on strengthening the relationship but he wanted to know how to increase the frequency of sex first, as that would make him feel satisfied enough to continue to work on the relationship.  I explained the following to him:

For men, sex leads to intimacy and for woman, intimacy leads to sex.

And thus, for both parties to want sex, there has to be intimacy.

If you work on your relationship by building intimacy, trust and ease, you will surely move towards intimate, trusting (read: fun) sex that has a sense of ease to it.   Bringing intimacy into your relationship comes from sharing secrets, small kindnesses, little kisses, frequent caresses, quick fixes around the house, loving words and so many other wise moves.

These small kindnesses are not done for the purpose of “getting some”, but for the purpose of expressing your appreciation.  By expressing your appreciation without expectation or coercion, you are building a foundation of intimacy from which intimate, satisfying sex will flourish.

p.s. Another recent study explicated that men are more likely to want to have sex in the morning and women are more likely to want to have sex at night.  This research makes all those refusals make more sense.  We don’t necessarily want less sex, we just want it at a different time than you!

For more on this topic, come to my workshop starting on April 4th.   The Secrets to Making Love Last is a four-part series focused on how to build and maintain a healthy, fun relationship.  You can come to one session or all four.  We will work through predictors of happy relationships and divorce, building trust, dealing with betrayals, understanding your patterns and enhancing your communication skills.  More information at localflamesmaine.com.  Register Here.

 

Authored by Erin Oldham, Ph.D.  Erin works with people as they navigate getting into, sustaining and getting out of relationships.  She also works withpeople as they negotiate divorce and the post-divorce world.  Erin has a Ph.D. in Psychology and has been researching how children and adults form healthy relationships for 20 years.  She is approachable, pragmatic, empathic and effective.  This is an excerpt from her forthcoming book.  Contact her at erin@localflamesmaine.com or 207-200-3970.  She facilitates fun, engaging workshops on these topics as well.  Localflamesmaine.com

For more from John Gottman, I recommend his book, “What Makes Love Last”.

 

 

 

wherehouse

It took an earthquake to shake me into ending my relationship. What about you?

I have a hard time ending relationships.  I wait until big, insanely obvious events occur; I need someone to literally or figuratively hit me over the head.  In 1994, it took an earthquake with the ‘fastest ground velocity’ ever recorded to wake me up.   My bed, shaking so hard I couldn’t get off of it, was six miles from the epicenter of the 1994 Northridge earthquake in southern California.  Once the violent shaking gave us a reprieve, I did the only thing I knew to do in an earthquake: run for the door.  I placed myself between the frame, kowtowing to the ludicrous notion that a sloppily constructed building could ever support us.  He trailed after me, shoving himself in the doorframe, taking up my precious space.  Beeping car alarms and screaming neighbors permeated the thin stucco walls of the garden-style one-bedroom apartment we had moved in to rather recently after a rather short get-to-know-you phase.

Four months earlier, I had crossed the country with my dedicated medical school-bound boyfriend of five years.  A couple months later, I shacked up with the law student next door, trading in one honorable profession for another.  And then the trembling started again.  The earth lost its bearing and began to tear apart at the seams, destroying everything resting upon it.  These aftershocks were the most disturbing to me.  No one told me about that part.  I knew earthquakes happened in this part of the country and I knew books would fall off the shelves and picture frames from the walls, but I didn’t know the earth would keep reminding us, at random times over the next couple of weeks, that the solid ground beneath us was an illusion.

This jolt made me take action with the man taking up space in the doorway.  I met him when we were both swimming laps in the pool outside our UCLA-appointed apartments in West LA. He was a southern California surfing law student and I was a Washington D.C. fish out of water.  We moved in together shortly after we met for the most practical of reasons: saving rent money.  Of course, by the time we found our lemon and lime tree framed apartment in the valley, we had spent more money than we intended.  And, in the downgrade to the valley, we lost the pool that had brought us together.

Now that we were living together, I was actually getting to know him.  He was a military brat, his parents still living close to the base in San Diego. He was passionate and spoke with his hands cutting through the air as he explained that there was only one cause.  He believed that if you cared about one thing, you had to care about everything: there could be no deviation or nuanced beliefs.  I have never met anyone before or after him with such black and white thinking, which seems an odd ideology to take into law school.  He was also a “cutter” with inscriptions of pain lining his forearms.  I was obsessed with my abnormal psychology classes, which perhaps kept me intrigued with him, but I didn’t recognize the cutting for what it was because my textbooks were silent on the subject.  He was suffocating me with his pain; while lying in the bed we shared, he would hold up his hand up above his face and stare at it with tears streaming onto the pillow beneath him murmuring something about ‘small hands’.

I didn’t understand him or what he was experiencing but I did recognize that I couldn’t help him.  With the adrenaline fueled energy of our young relationship, we had cruised through the first couple of months with nary a purposeful or reflective thought.  I had lost that loving feeling and needed to figure a way to break my lease and break his hold over me.  I had been contemplating my path out when the earthquake struck.  While kneeling down to pick up hundreds of female folk artist CDs scattered across the living room floor, I looked up at him and said what the earthquake knocked out of me, “You need to find another apartment.  I’ll give you a month.”

how to know when to go

Parting is such sweet sorrow? How to know when to go.

We only know what we know.  We often have little ability to have a clear, objective perspective on our relationships.  How do we know when to go?  Turning to the research, there is clear information about what constitutes a healthy relationship and what characterizes a not-so-good one.  This may help us know when parting becomes the better option than staying.

A healthy relationship is characterized by joy, kindnesses, and ease.  These can be qualities that come into the relationship organically or can be ones that you nurture and grow intentionally.  Essentially, a healthy relationship creates an environment where you can take off the mask and be yourself.  It is a place where you feel heard and seen by your partner.  John Gottman tells us more in his book, “What Makes Love Last?”

John Gottman is one of my favorite relationship researchers.  I find him funny and real, grounded in rigorous research techniques and more importantly, grounded in the humbling experience of divorce as well as a second wife that brings her therapist background to bear.   Gottman is most well known for being able to predict which couples will de-couple with a 94% success rate (the 94% success rate emanated from a single study in 1994 and has been replicated with various groupings of couples in subsequent studies).  The key tool of prediction is the story of the couple’s relationship in their own words.  Gottman and his team start by asking each couple to relay the story of how they met and then ask a series of prompts to delve into the details of their partnership.  The researchers are able to rate the couple’s story along a number of dimensions to determine whether the couple is likely to stay together or to go their separate ways.  Couples that stay together express ‘fondness and admiration’ for each other and have taken the time to really get to know each other’s inner world.  They have asked the questions that give insight into how their partners feel and think; they have taken the time to know what is important to the other, what they hold dear.  The couple describes themselves as partners, and even when struggles rise to the surface, they figure it out together and revel in their togetherness.  There is an inherent satisfaction in the relationship; it meets the expectations that were laid down long ago.

A very different story is told in relationships that have gone astray.  The storyline and/or the punchline emphasizes the negative over the positive.  The like is gone.  Couples that are veering into dangerous waters no longer have fondness and admiration for each other, in fact, when they describe their stories, there is more “I” or “me” than “we”.  Tales of the past are rewritten for how they have impacted the individual rather than the couple.  The stories may focus on forgotten dreams, dashed hopes or deep dissatisfaction.  The sense of conquering life together is gone; the partnership has lost its partners.

If you need to measure and analyze your relationship, Gottman is the one for you.  He provides quizzes with scores to measure and to know when to go. Score less than 45% on his scale of dissatisfaction and disillusionment, and it is time for you to go. (See What Makes Love Last? by John Gottman for more.)

Another Gottman concept that can be brought to the table is the four warning signs of relationship breakdown.   He lays out four pillars of dis-ease that can sneak into your relationship: contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling.  The surest sign of contempt is the eye-roll as your partner states his/her case.  Contempt escalates into insults and name calling or may be disguised in hostile sarcasm or mockery.  Criticism is exemplified by barbs that start with “you always”, “you never” or “why are you so…”  The intent is to attack the partner through insults.  Defensiveness is when a partners sees and describes herself/hisself as a victim to keep from being attacked.   Defensiveness may involve making excuses, whining, switching topics or ignoring what the partner is trying to communicate.  Stonewalling starts with the crossing of arms and ends with unbreakable silence.

How to know when to go?

Observe your relationship for a couple weeks.  Ask yourself…

  1. Does my relationship have more contempt than kindness?
  2. Does my relationship have more criticism than support?
  3. Does my relationship have more defensiveness than empathy and understanding?
  4. Does my relationship have more stonewalling than conversation?

If yes, look for a therapist or coach that can help you move towards healthier ways of relating to each other.

Authored by Erin Oldham, Ph.D.  Erin works with people as they navigate getting into, sustaining and getting out of relationships.  She also works withpeople as they negotiate divorce and the post-divorce world.  Erin has a Ph.D. in Psychology and has been researching how children and adults form healthy relationships for 25 years.  She is approachable, pragmatic, empathic and effective.  This is an excerpt from her forthcoming book.  Contact her at erin@localflamesmaine.com or 207-200-3970.  She facilitates fun, engaging workshops on these topics as well.  Localflamesmaine.com

everafter

What I gave up when I destroyed happily ever after

(A cautionary tale for those considering divorce)

If I knew how much I would give up, I might not have done it.  My empowered move to move out of a stifling relationship ironically forces me to give away power on a daily basis.  My ego is decimated, traditions are upended and any possibility of control is a joke.  I decided to give away 50% of my children for the possibility of ‘lightness of being’ in the aftermath.  I didn’t calculate the loss at the time and didn’t fully appreciate what I was stepping into or running away from.  I just wanted out.  I didn’t want ‘out’ of my children’s lives but that is what I inadvertently ‘accomplished’.

At the time of my divorce, the visions dancing in my head were most heavily steeped in freedom and justice and… actual dancing.  I was going to discover the perfect man, have perfect fun, and rediscover perfect joy.  Nine years later, my reality veers close to and away from my ideal, depending on the day.  This is what real looks like today.

Perfection? Not so much.  Yes, I did find a lovely relationship, after far too many painful, confusing ones.  No, he isn’t perfect.  I’m not either.  But, I like so much about him and he brings me heretofore unparalleled joy.  But it isn’t he who changed me.  It is I who changed.   I have discovered that all human beings are wildly imperfect, rather unpredictable but imminently improvable.  We can learn new tricks.    We have to do the work, not to reach perfection, but to realize there is no perfection and that a healthy, fun relationship requires your calm presence and undivided attention each and every day.

Friends with the ex? Not so much.  I had delusions, like many who make the call, that my ex and I would be friends.  I envisioned that I could take what I liked about us and give back the rest.   Extended family vacations, huge Thanksgivings with new partners and progeny in tow, the more the merrier in my rainbow-tinged book.  The reality is that we don’t get to dump someone and expect him to still be a friend.  It isn’t fair; it isn’t nice.  Be careful and fair about what you wish for.

Ease in my life? Eh, sorta.  At 45, I feel grown up for the first time in my life.  I feel calm and grounded, on some days at least.  So that is lovely.  But there is an important part of my life that never reaches ‘ease’; the non-stop requirement to negotiate my children’s lives.  Every decision now runs through two families: the sports they play, the weekend activities they sign up for, and the age at which they can date.  This fall, my son ripped his ACL playing football, the sport I didn’t want him to play, but I was overruled because I control only 50% of my children’s lives.   If you think about it, in a game where everyone controls 50%, no one can ever win.  Compromise is literally the name of the game.

This is what I realize now, nine years post-divorce.  I implore you to read and understand and really think through your separation or divorce.  Is it worth it?

When you blow up your vows, what are you really blowing up?

1. You will put your ego away.   With kids, it is rarely about you anyway, but now there will be even less of you in the equation.  When they cry for their dad in the middle of the night, you will simply call him.  When they tell you how much fun they had with their new step-sister, you will simply smile and say, “That’s great.”  You will feel pangs of jealousy clawing at you, threatening to thwart your promises to never say a bad word about their lives with the others.  You will remember that this isn’t about you; you will smile away the pain in your gut.

2. You will choose your battles.  Now, you control only 50%. This means that when your children are not with you, someone else is in charge, someone who sees him or herself as an extra parent but someone who you do not know.  In the beginning, I used to send over the chore chart to my ex just in case he wanted to implement the same dictates in his house.  I used to tell him what the kids ate in my house just in case he also wanted to reduce gluten, and red meat.  Now, I set rules for my household that go no further than my doorstep.  I ask my children if the different rules in the two households, both alike in dignity, bother them.  As long as they say “no”, I move on and leave the other household alone.

3. You will let it go.  In this new world of split time, you will have no choice but to let it go, lest your anger eat you alive.   On a day like today, a gorgeous autumn day, I have let go of my plans to go apple picking with my children next weekend.  Why would I do this?  My daughter just texted that her other family went today, yet again beating me to the punch, not in malice, but in happenstance.  This happens all the time with bowling, movies, and vacation destinations.  You will let it go and move on.

We seek freedom and we get it, but we lose some as well.  There is measurable good in this alternative configuration of our lives.  My children now know I will fight for what I believe in, and that I will persevere even when the cards are stacked against me.  They see me in a different light, as one who considers and makes choices, many of them hard.  By observing my interactions with their father, my children are learning to negotiate and to acknowledge themselves and others.  They understand that there are times when you speak up and times when it is just as well to remain silent.  They know that many people can love them, from all angles, in their own ways.  So, in the end, my ‘ever after’ is different and a bit more challenging than what I imagined, and, I am sure, from what my children imagined as well.  Divorce leads to compromise, and less control over your children’s lives, but if you can reach a place of peace with this altered ‘ever after’, your children will likely reach that place too.

 

Authored by Erin Oldham, Ph.D.

Erin is a researcher, relationship & divorce coach, and mediator.  Erin works with people as they navigate getting into, sustaining and getting out of relationships.  She also works with people as they negotiate divorce and the post-divorce world.  Erin has a Ph.D. in Psychology and has been researching child wellbeing and the formation of healthy relationships among children and adults for 20 years.  She is approachable, pragmatic, empathic and effective.  She facilitates intriguing, engaging workshops on these topics as well.  Contact her now at erin@localflamesmaine.com or 207-200-3970.  More information here.  localflamesmaine.com

self-esteem

Killer Self Esteem: 5 Steps to Stop Sabotaging Your Relationships

Killer abs and killer legs… people work hard to get them. Killer self-esteem, on the other hand, is not a desired trait, yet, incredibly prevalent in the dating world.  As an adult dater, our insecurities, gain clarity and sometimes, strength as we continue to date. We have seen love and loss and are aware of our foibles and faults. Awareness is good. And, verbalizing your discomforts is a smart strategy in a relationship. However, insecurities that seep into the cracks and crevices of our relationships may expand over time, causing riffs that wreak havoc. It is a slippery slope as they say, emanating from a seemingly innocent question that when repeated enough times has the exact opposite effect that we intend it to have.

“Do you like me?” This common refrain reflects our insecurities and is behind many of our actions in the early months of a relationship.  Check out what happens when you continually prod your partner for an answer.

The Needy Scenario

Take 1…“Do you like me?” “Of course!”
Take 2… “Do you like me?” “Yes”
Take 3… “Do you like me?” (eye-roll) “Yes”
Take 4… “Do you like me? Are you sure?” (Am I sure? Do I like him?) “Um, yes, of course”
Take 5… “Do you like me? Seriously?” (Do I? He really is a little much, sometimes) “Actually, I have been meaning to talk to you about something…”

The Jealousy Scenario

Jealousy is another way to quickly sabotage your relationship.  Jealousy emanates directly from insecurity and low self-esteem.  This is a conversation from a former relationship that started at the same time that I began to run Local Flames workshops on healthy relationship skills (irony times 10!).

Take 1…

“Who was there tonight?” “Oh, it was a great crowd, really good people.”
“Any men in the room?” “Sure, this really nice guy Mark and another great guy, John”
“Were you attracted to them?” “Uh, I was running a workshop so it wasn’t really relevant.”

Now, repeat this conversation every week, sometimes multiple times a week, after each event.

“Who was there tonight?” “Lots of people”
“Any men in the room?” “Yes” (note the reduction in detail over time)
“Who?” “It is not relevant. I am not going to tell you because you continually accuse me of ridiculousness.”
“Were you attracted to them?” “Oh my god!! No!!”

If this were to keep going, if I hadn’t left him at the doorstep of his insecurity which I did, eventually my thoughts may have meandered down this road: “Fuck it. He has been accusing me of cheating on him for months. Maybe i’ll just try it out.   These other men look better and better every time he opens his mouth.” As I have seen with my clients, one person’s jealousy can contribute to another person cheating, which thereby reinforces the first person’s insecurity and belief that people cheat on him (or her)!

Why do we do this? We have beliefs about ourselves that we look to reinforce. We feel badly about ourselves from things our parents told us, from experiences we have had, or from shame related to something that happened to us.  Then, we behave in ways that reinforce that we are right to feel badly about ourselves. She may be looking for him to prove she is unlikable by continually asking if he likes her. Her low self-esteem is killing any potential the relationship had. I have seen this equally in men and women, whether in different or same gender relationships. People are usually not completely aware that they are causing their own downfall. It is easier to blame others for how we feel rather than to face ourselves and our faults head on.

5 Steps to Stop Sabotaging.

It takes courage to start believing in yourself by understanding that we all have faults, big and small. Here are five steps to stop sabotaging yourself and your relationships.

1: Catch yourself in the act. While it may be worthwhile to ask your insecurity question once or twice to check in, it is important to recognize when you are asking the same question of someone over and over.   Ponder why you are asking the question. Do you really need to know the answer? Is that because you didn’t believe the answer the first time, or has something happened that you feel you need to ask it again? Is it your anxiety/insecurity asking or are you asking?

2: Explain yourself. The best gift you can give your partner is a greater understanding of you. Tell them explicitly what makes you feel insecure and what you makes you feel loved. There is nothing wrong with having insecurities because we all have them.  Assuming your partner can read your mind and know what you need is a bad bet.  Communicate what you need from your partner to feel calm and good in the relationship. For example, “I tend to get sort of uptight and insecure in the beginning of a relationship. It helps me to know how you are feeling about the relationship.”

3: Recognize it in others. When someone is peppering you with questions that give you pause, consider what is really going on. It can be helpful to gently state your position clearly to reassure your partner of how you feel. “Yes, I truly like you and am enjoying our relationship. I will tell you if I have a problem.” “I enjoy doing workshops. I am not interested in seeing anyone but you.” Pay attention to whether you are doing anything that may be contributing to your partner’s discomfort and insecurities. For example, are you showing up late without explanation? Are you moody and you don’t tell your partner why?

4: Believe in yourself. This is hard. When you believe in yourself, your need for reassurance from others will reduce and you won’t feel the need to ask the insecurity questions as much. Maybe develop a mantra to say when you are feeling insecure: “I trust this relationship and that she will tell me if there is a problem.” Needy is not sexy.

5: Trust the other. Very often, our insecurities relate to a lack of trust in others. Think about whether your questions of, and behaviors towards, others relates to your lack of trust of them. Did the person actually do something to lose your trust or do you just have a hard time trusting others? Ask yourself what you can do to work on trusting the other person and then communicate that to your partner. For example, “It really helps me when you volunteer information about what you are doing at night” or “I really appreciate when you compliment me.”

As you walk through this world, you will determine your experience. The one common refrain that people repeat to me in relationship coaching sessions again and again is “I can’t stand needy men/women!” Needy is not sexy. Neediness is someone that needs to be reassured and who can’t stop asking those insecurity questions. Don’t let your self-esteem destroy the potential of your relationship. When you find yourself blaming someone else for your current state, I have a suggestion for you… stop, look inwards, and start there.

 

Authored by Erin Oldham, Ph.D.

Erin is a researcher, relationship & divorce coach, and mediator.  Erin works with people as they navigate getting into, sustaining and getting out of relationships.  She also works with people as they negotiate divorce and the post-divorce world.  Erin has a Ph.D. in Psychology and has been researching child wellbeing and the formation of healthy relationships among children and adults for 20 years.  She is approachable, pragmatic, empathic and effective.  She facilitates intriguing, engaging workshops on these topics as well.  Contact her now at erin@localflamesmaine.com or 207-200-3970.  More information here.  localflamesmaine.com

womanhand

Three months in? Five Ways to get to Four

There is a classic story amongst dating adults. It was depicted in 9 ½ Weeks, with a little pizazz and lot of soft-core bondage. It is the story of the rapid rise and fall of the steamy adult relationship. It starts with a bang and fizzles out with one last confusing text.

January

Oh my god! I haven’t seen you in forever! I have to tell you about Josh. Holy shit, he is the best. No seriously, I think he’s the one. I mean, it’s just this feeling I get when I’m around him. It’s totally perfect. And you’ll never believe this. Our mothers have the same name. Seriously, and get this. He got married on the same date as my birthday. How weird is that! And wait for it… it is literally the best sex of my life!!

February

No… yeah, no, I mean it is going really well. We went to a really good concert last night. I met his kids last weekend; that was weird. A little reality check but I really, really like him. He lives in Yarmouth and wants to stay there. There is no way in hell I am moving out of Portland. But it’s way too early to think about all that, so no biggie.

Mid-February

I do, I really enjoy our time together. I don’t quite get why I need to hear about his ex so much but whatever.   I definitely don’t want to deal with another crazy ex. Get this, he left his toothbrush at my house. It just sits there staring at me in the morning. What’s up with that? What? No, definitely, the sex is still pretty good.

Early-March

We’re on a break, I mean, just a short one. We really like each other and really want this to work. It was just feeling like too much work. Should it be that much work? He was weirdly defensive the other day and I still don’t know what he was mad about. I felt like I was right back in my last relationship! I might have to get out of this.

Late-March

We broke up. No, this time for good. I miss him, but I love being alone.

48 hours later

Well, we’re trying it again. No really, I’m feeling good about it. We had a really good talk. Well, and a little sex too. He said everything I was waiting to hear. I’m really excited that we’re back.

April

Oh, right, we broke up a week ago. I meant to tell you. I mean, we tried as hard as we could but it just wasn’t working. I loved that first month we spent together. We just couldn’t get back there.

What’s up with that?

Month 3 is when the mask we wear is no longer comfortable and starts to break off. We have an innate knowledge that to feel truly safe in a relationship we must be known and be vulnerable. In trying to reach that place of safety, we have to go through the field of fear. Fear pushes us back to our core emotional patterns learned oh so long ago. Automatic pilot kicks in. If we are a runner, this is when we run. If we are a fighter, this is when we fight. So how do we get through the field, with the relationship, and ourselves, intact?

1. Learn your patterns.

Pay attention to yourself. What do you do when you feel backed against a wall? And, what puts you there? Is it the mere mention of commitment or a vacation together that gives you cold sweats?   Does talk of wanting to merge families put you on edge? And how do you react when you feel uncomfortable: do you turn off emotionally, back away from the relationship physically, return to former girlfriends, feel anxious, and/or begin to cling and text overly long sentiments? Does jealousy or anger creep in?

2. Learn to be vulnerable.

Your patterns are your defense. They keep you from having to feel real feelings, which emanate from that sense of vulnerability. Step 1 to being vulnerable is believing in yourself and understanding that we all, every single one of us, have (many!) beautiful imperfections. Being vulnerable takes an act of courage. It is believing in yourself, not clinging to past stories, past beliefs or things past partners said about you. Start by taking a breath and repeating “I’m okay, no, not just okay, but good. I’m good”.

3. Know that discomfort is a good thing.

You may have heard the suggestion to “lean into your discomfort”. Leaning in is a signal that you are open to doing things differently this time, that you know that learning new emotional patterns takes work. When you feel uncomfortable, it is a signal to your brain that you are on the precipice of learning something new. When you feel the discomfort in your body, stop, breathe, and stay with that discomfort. Do something differently. Instead of turning away from the person in front of you, turn towards her and say, out loud, “Wow, I am glad we got to this point. I feel uncomfortable. My usual tendency would be to back away from this relationship and start acting weird, but I am choosing not to. I am happy to be here with you.”

4. Stop trying to get back to the first month.

A long term relationship has a different feel to it than the early, dopamine-laden days of that first month. The trick to the longer term relationship is to aspire to feelings of attachment rather than the quick hit of cocaine (cocaine has the same impact on the brain that touch, love, and sex have during that first month). Attachment, the feeling in a longer term relationship, feels like a comfortable blanket wrapping around you while you sit in front of a fire with your favorite book. You don’t have to give up the quick rush when you are striving for a longer relationship. Picture sex on the couch before you grab your book!  But know that aspiring only for the quick rush will not result in sustained joy or a sustainable relationship.

5. Or just break up.

Because you are showing your true self around the three month mark, you should recognize the other person is too. You are getting new insight into what she is like, how she deals with conflict, and how she feels about herself. This is an ideal time to step back, ask lots of questions of the other person, and assess the relationship with a calm, objective eye. It is always possible that the person in front of you is not a good match. Breaking up and trying again with someone else is always an option. If you decide you want to stay in the relationship, take a breath, and get ready for the ride.

 

Authored by Erin Oldham, Ph.D.

Erin is a researcher, relationship & divorce coach, and mediator.  Erin works with people as they navigate getting into, sustaining and getting out of relationships.  She also works with people as they negotiate divorce and the post-divorce world.  Erin has a Ph.D. in Psychology and has been researching child wellbeing and the formation of healthy relationships among children and adults for 20 years.  She is approachable, pragmatic, empathic and effective.  She facilitates intriguing, engaging workshops on these topics as well.  Contact her now at erin@localflamesmaine.com or 207-200-3970.  More information here.  localflamesmaine.com

heartdoor

Stop. Read this before you fall into the same relationship trap… again.

I have been doing some heavy lifting. Head down, eyes scanning left to right, engrossed in a book on how the brain develops on an airplane to Los Angeles and then again while flying to St. John. The fact that I am reading a book on the fallacies of the neocortex and the simple brilliance and vulnerability of the limbic brain on vacation gives you a sense of how much I love this stuff.

Some of the stunning things I learned…

1. We literally can’t see (healthy) love right in front of us.

In childhood, we store an impression of what love feels like from our parents or whomever we are around to attach to. That impression is ingrained in our neural networks. As children, we do not discern in our attachments. We do not judge the goodness of our parents. As we age, we prefer the emotional patterns of our family, regardless of the merits of them. Let’s say that emotional pattern is one of detached, emotional unavailability. We then tend to look for adults that replicate what we think of as “love” which in this case is someone who is detached from their experiences.   We can get in a relationship with someone who is different, maybe very affectionate and giving, but this won’t feel good to us, it doesn’t feel like “love” to us, so we let them go, leaving our partner wondering what went wrong.

The upside: With really effective therapy and/or deep introspection, we gain insight and awareness of our patterns and how to change them (and pick better partners).

Childhood chisels it’s patterns into pliable neural networks, while later experiences wield weaker influence on the evolving person. Often the only emotional learning one sees after childhood is the reinforcement of existing fundamentals.”

– Lewis, Amini & Lannon (2000)

2. There is no such thing as an accurate memory (Freud was ridiculously wrong)!

Memories are not neatly laid down, available for retrieval at any time or with intensive psychoanalysis (as Freud hypothesized). We “remember” with our neurons and thus we are disposed to see more of what we have already seen, hear more of what we have heard previously and think what we have thought before. As we form neural networks, each new observation, word or sound instantly gets associated with similar, past observations, words and memories. Our past and our general temperament guide us to encode or reinforce our experience in specific ways. So we form memories in our own individual way and then we continually rework those memories as we have new experiences. Optimistic people tend to remember happy times, depressive types more easily recall loss, abandonment and despair and anxious people ruminate on past threats. This told me a lot about why my previous husband (my was-band) and I remembered our fights entirely differently.

The upside: You can train your brain to see things differently. Meditation helps!

3. No type of therapy is better than any other. The only thing that matters is the therapist!

This one makes so much sense. There is limited evidence that one type of therapy works over another type of therapy. What researchers have discovered is that it is the therapist themselves that makes the difference. A therapist who can form a relationship with her client, an actual emotionally balanced relationship emanating from limbic resonance (I’ll explain more on this in the workshop) is the most effective in guiding the client towards what healthy relationships “feel” like. Once the clients have enough of the experience of a healthy relationship, such that they are reforming their neural networks, they can then use that template out in the real world. Basically, someone can describe a “healthy relationship” to you as much as he wants but until you experience it personally (or limbically), there is nothing in you, your brain or your behaviors that will change.

The upside: A good therapist has been shown to actually change your brain.

4. We need love to survive. Literally!

Back in the days when there was no one watching over researchers who had a bit of a God complex, some unbelievably cruel experiments were done. In the 1940’s (not that long ago!), an experiment was conducted on forty newborn infants to determine the importance of affection. Twenty of the infants were in a facility where the caregivers were instructed to provide the basics (food, water, shelter) but to withhold communication, nurturing and affection. The other twenty infants were cared for normally. After four months, half of the infants in the no-interaction group had died. They, then, halted the experiment. Beyond this grotesque example, there is clear evidence in how the brain has developed and functions that love is not a luxury but a necessity.

The upside: Love and attachment heals! That love can come from pets, friends, family members and lovers.

5. When we lose a partner, we literally lose our ability to regulate ourselves emotionally.

Ever behaved unexpectedly badly during a breakup and wondered wtf just happened? Yep, me too. When we lose another person, we lose some of our ability to regulate ourselves emotionally and may act out of “character” in the aftermath. When we form a partnership with another human, we have a real, as in tangible, impact on the way their brain is functioning and they have a similar impact on our brain. Think of the good feeling you get from being around a positive person – that is them having a similar impact on your limbic brain. This impact comes from the limbic resonance between two people (come to the workshop to get the full explanation of this). When we lose a person from our lives, we lose a part of ourselves. A portion of our neural activity depends on the presence of that other living brain. When we are in a healthy relationship, with each person taking perpetual care of the other, we thrive (and actually live longer!). We feel whole, centered, and alive. When we lose a person, even if the relationship had deteriorated, we miss and yearn for that sense of being known, and we lose our ability to behave nicely for a while as well.

The upside: We learn to regulate again as we heal. Therapy, journaling, yoga and meditation help!

There is so much here and so much more I didn’t have space to write about. We are going to get into it at a workshop on March 8th from 3-5pm. Come discuss!

(And to read more about this, I recommend “A General Theory of Love” by Thomas Lewis, MD., Fari Amini, M.D. and Richard Lannon, M.D.)

 

Workshop: Your Brain on Love & Divorce

Sunday, March 8th 2015 from 3:00 – 5:00pm

What is happening to your brain, and thus you, through falling in love, heartbreak, divorce and rebounding.  An exploration into what is happening physiologically through various psychological stages we go through in and out of relationships.  This workshop will help you make sense of why we act and feel like we do.  We will explore topics such the crazy period following divorce, the reasons we feel so compelled by people during the first two months of a relationship before things break down, why we cheat and why we can’t help but rebound after a breakup or divorce.    $45 per person / $75 for two (a couple or friends)

Sign up here

 

 

Authored by Erin Oldham, Ph.D.

Erin is a researcher, relationship & divorce coach, and mediator.  Erin works with people as they navigate getting into, sustaining and getting out of relationships.  She also works with people as they negotiate divorce and the post-divorce world.  Erin has a Ph.D. in Psychology and has been researching child wellbeing and the formation of healthy relationships among children and adults for 20 years.  She is approachable, pragmatic, empathic and effective.  She facilitates intriguing, engaging workshops on these topics as well.  Contact her now at erin@localflamesmaine.com or 207-200-3970.  More information here.  localflamesmaine.com