Tag 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.

yoga

A mean yoga teacher taught me a ton about relationships in the midst of my post-divorce confusion

I might have been looking for a little punishment in retrospect. I entered the way too hot room, looking down and intermittently around, to see what I should be doing. You see, I am a rule follower. Give me a rule, and I will stick within the lines. It appeared I should be lying down, preparing for what was about to happen, probably not a good sign. I unfurled my mat gently with nary a noise and laid my weary body down.

50% of us have been through it, but somehow the journey through your divorce is incredibly lonely. I was in the midst of experiencing new loneliness and confusion with all that surrounded me. I was less lonely in this place where I had to follow the rules and could do nothing but focus on the sweat beads dripping down my forearms as I stretched them out ahead and behind me in Warrior One stance. In times of trouble, we all become seekers and I was seeking redemption or clarity or suffering or something when I entered that studio.

The laser focus of the teacher seemed to land on me each time, offering corrections and adjustments, not in the gentle whispering way of some teachers, but in the bark your name with a stern admonishment manner. Apparently, although I was innately, supremely flexible, I couldn’t even do half-pigeon correctly. No matter how close I thought I was getting to getting it, there was always some minute adjustment I could have, should have incorporated.

Her voice was severe as it cut through the thick, heavy air. She actually broke into a screaming rant one day, losing her cool in the steamy room. My friends were electing to leave the studio, appalled by the intensity of our ‘yogic’ sessions. They were dropping like little sweaty flies. But something in her straightforward, no BS manner appealed to me. The angry, redundant thoughts swirling in my divorce-addled head were exhausting. I needed someone to inject some clear messages.

1. ‘Don’t leave the studio!’Translation: Stay in the discomfort.

This was the dictate for us, the new-bies who were unused to the sickly, suffocating heat of the room. The rumors of judgmental teachers following you into the bathroom if you dared leave the room kept us in check. This seemed cruel at first but over time this was one of the most powerful messages for me in my journey. I just had to translate it into “stay in your discomfort.” We run from the discomfort, of relationships, of friendships, of comments, of political issues, all the time.  Staying in the discomfort, learning to breathe through our anxieties, into how we want to be, is a good first step.

2. ‘Lower!’ Translation: Soften to strengthen yourself.

Chair pose, the dreaded chair pose. It strikes me in two ways every time I hear the teacher announce it’s name. I get excited that my thighs are about to be challenged and I cringe at the thought of the pain. My way throughout my first four decades was to throw up layers of steel in response to a challenge. I would make myself impenetrable, impervious to pain. In a challenging pose, with my breath jagged, my initial approach was to steel myself against the pose, muscling my way through it. A couple months in, her words directing me to soften into the pose finally broke through my preconceived notions of the best way forward. I relaxed my leg and arm muscles, unclenched my fingers and tried another way.  Amazingly, the poses became easier as I stopped fighting against them.

3. ‘Eyes open!’ Translation: Be aware

40 minutes into the hour long session, she led us to the ground. The ground rose up to catch us as we unfolded our bodies, vertebrae by vertebrae until our arms and legs flopped to the floor. Bridge pose, our next endeavor. This was the exact point when we were all dying to check out, assuming the ground would be our friend. Breathing heavily, my eyelids shuttered. ‘Eyes open!’ As she rattled off various counts from 6 to 12, never letting us know when the final bridge would fall, reminders to keep our eyes open were thrown at us. Annoying at the time, now I see where she was coming from. It is so easy to check out and ignore our discomfort or dull it with various food and beverages. Keeping our eyes open is one way to stay aware, of what we are feeling and what we are learning about ourselves.

Why did she feel the need to teach through yelling?

What I could see and hear clearly in the end, once I was no longer so enmeshed in my own pain, was the pain she was walking through. Her yelling was meant to pierce through me into herself.

Sometimes our guide to the other side is different than we imagined. Sometimes she is yelling, directly, in our ear, trying to get us to finally hear what she is saying. She didn’t teach me compassion but ironically, she taught me that the path to strength is through softness and vulnerability. She opened me to the skills I would need to enter into a healthy relationship.

Allow the guides in your life to be unexpected and unorthodox. Your guide may not resonate with anyone else but they may be just the perfect person at the perfect time for you.

I still yoga regularly, although at a different studio. I enjoy the quiet and pause it brings to my life. But I can still hear the mean teacher yelling in my head at times and I continue to appreciate the messages from her.

 

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.

 

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

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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

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The Secret Truth About Lying

He is such a dick. I can’t believe he lied to me! We have all sputtered or spit this refrain. The akin phrase from the men: What a crazy bitch! How is it that we view as liars those who have scorned or left us because all those sweet nothings whispered in the middle of the night evaporated into words of vitriol?

I have a theory that some of our craziest, most delusional declarations may not be lies per se, but hopes, dreams and wishes instead. I also believe those statements are heavily influenced by the chemicals in our brains.

Now, I am not making an argument that people don’t ever lie. I was married to a chronic liar, which he copped to, in a letter, that he said he wrote to me, that his post-divorce girlfriend told me he said he wrote for her, that he posted on Facebook. (He had an attention deficit disorder of a different sort.) So I understand malicious liars. This isn’t about them. This is about the things we say during relationships and how they may not qualify as lies.

Four Proclamations Said in the Heat of the Moment: Are They Lies?

Try these four on for size.

1. I want to be with you forever.

When we are falling in love, our brains are awash in dopamine and norepinephrine. Those chemicals send us into a land of extremes (picture snorting cocaine and the immediate aftereffects and you may understand why everything in love is so very). Falling in love is like we are in a tunnel with tunnel vision only hearing the reverberations that emanate from the tunnel echoing back at us. She is all you think about. She seems perfect! She is like no one you have ever met. Your brain ruminates on her all the time. You are staying up late talking and touching and looking into each other’s eyes. Your brain is convincing you that she is a unique being on this planet, unlike anyone you have ever experienced, ever! So, of course, you throw out words like “forever”, “best” and “perfect”. You believe it when you say it.

2. Let’s make a baby.

This is an interesting one to me. Having had triplets, I felt completely over-done with babies soon after their birth when I was 30. My plan was for one and done and I ended up with half a hockey team. But during my rebound marriage, delusional ramblings came out of my mouth and his in those first six months. Lets have a baby together. My sex education when growing up was a book called “Where do babies come from?” which suggested it is natural to want to be as close as we can to the one we love, and there is nothing closer than having a baby together. The chemicals flowing through our brains make us think we can take on anything. I also believe there is a strong evolutionary pull towards wanting to procreate together.   Luckily, we were able to step back and see that the existing 5 kids between the two sides was too many and 6 would have been perfectly disastrous. No one was lying when they proclaimed a brief desire for children; we were just in love.

3. That was the best sex ever.

This is one of those statements that is not worth questioning too much. I mean, really, who cares to dissect their entire sexual past to determine whether that last 20-minute session was truly the best ever?  When you get to a certain age, like mine, you will have made the statement to five, ten or twenty different people. In doing research on the brain’s reactions during lust, sex, and love, I realized that it is the intense hit of endorphins in the build-up to and following orgasm that forces “oh my god” over and over out of your mouth, regardless of your religious beliefs.  It is the same force that allows you to clearly and sincerely state your fervent ardor. So, if someone tells you are the best ever, smile and say thank you.

4. I love you.

This is the big one. How could he say he loved me and then walk away from me? He never loved me! My worst divorce #1 moment came when the inept therapist I was going to said, “It seems like you never loved you husband.” This was my love of the last 18 years that he was dissing with a single harmful sentence. I repeated the sentence to my soon-to-be ex and he was completely destroyed. What a ridiculous waste of emotional energy to turn what had been an important and enduring relationship into a waste of time. We can lose that loving feeling, but a moment in time doesn’t erase the past. We can also feel fully in love, yet a month later move on to someone else. Part of the explanation lies in the fact that there are different brain systems at work for lusting after someone, falling in love with someone, and having a long term attachment to another person. Another part is that we all feel love and express love differently from one another. Some of us move on quickly from one love to the next; others need longer to heal. But those are different articles. For now, suffice to say, believe him when he says “I love you” but accept it if he moves on.

The truth

We want people to be perfect, to know themselves perfectly, and to speak their truths all the time. The older I get, the more I realize truth is relative, impermanent, and transitory at best. Sometimes I have to try a statement out loud before I know if it is true or not. I told my last boy that I was totally up for taking care of his 3 year old child, and I felt completely sincere in my proclamation at the time. Trying out that statement now, I can see there is no way I can step back 10 years in time after I have hit the golden years with my own 13 year-old triplets.   So it was my truth at the time, but it is not my truth. Get it?

In the throes of love anything seems possible.   Wrap your last love-lost story in some perspective. Remember that as we say bold and big statements, we are influenced by our past patterns, our recent experiences, and the chemicals flowing in our brains.

 

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

deflated

Deflated? Five Steps to Date Intentionally and Have Better Experiences

There is a great opportunity in dating when you are moving past your twenties, thirties and perhaps your forties. You can approach the whole process with purpose. The way we met our first boyfriend or girlfriend was usually through a friend in high school, sitting next to someone in math class or meeting at a party. At that time, we were beginning to discover the world around us but didn’t have a lot of perspective on ourselves, our beliefs or how we wanted to be in this world. Approaching forty is often a turning point in people’s lives, when they develop a deeper understanding of themselves, and usually a strong sense of vulnerability as they realize that the work towards being our best self continues, each and every day. Out of this sense of vulnerability and greater awareness of ourselves, we have a golden opportunity to date intentionally.

When dating intentionally, we can also anticipate the end game. We know that some of the keys to a good relationship are trust, vulnerability, kindness and communication. These key characteristics become easier when we have greater self-awareness. The following suggestions for dating intentionally allow these characteristics to flourish in yourself and your relationships.

A couple good places to start…

Look inwards.

Through a focus on ourselves, we create room for others. We have to fully understand ourselves and be able to articulate for others what we know about our proclivities and tendencies. And, we have to do something surprisingly challenging: Accept ourselves, as we are now, for real.  We all have a past; we have all done things we aren’t terribly proud of. We all have a dark side, which we prefer not to show others, and sometimes not even to think about. Our dark side, arising from our insecurities, often rears its ugly head when we are in relation to another. Through truly having awareness of ourselves, we can start to be who we want to be in relationships.

Pursue your passions.

Finding that special someone can be frustrating as you put yourself out there and continue to end up empty handed. Focusing on your passions and what it is you love in life can open new worlds and avenues to meeting interesting people. This puts the focus where it should be, on you. Think of the last time you met someone who was really pursuing their passions and how that struck you. You were likely intrigued, inspired and even attracted to that person. So focusing on your passions will raise your attractiveness to others.

Work hard.

How did you become good at what you do? Did you sit back and let the world come to you? No, we get to where we want to be through diligence, focus, hard work and dedication. We work hard to have healthy bodies and open minds. The same holds true with dating and finding a great mate: hard work can pay off. In the dating world, this “work” can come in the form of self-inquiry through yoga, meditation, or journaling and self-love through healthy eating, working our bodies and practicing loving thoughts. It may also mean conducting research on the best online sites and deciding to step in that direction. Or getting your picture taken by a professional to put your best foot forward.

Be open.

A lot of people feel they have a clear sense of what they want in another person. It certainly makes sense to have an idea of the direction you want to go in terms of forming a partnership with another. However, it may also be wise and even fun, to also allow life to surprise you. You may have been saying for years that you want someone 6 feet and then be spun around by the perfectly adequately heighted man next to you. You may have insisted on a thin and athletic woman and then find yourself rolling from laughter from the insightful humor of the perfectly curvy woman sitting at the table across from you. Next time you are at an event with other single people, try just talking to the person next to you without expectations and see where the conversation leads. Be open and allow life and people to knock you off your feet. You don’t truly know how someone will be in a relationship with you until you try it out.

Five steps to dating intentionally

1. Grow your self-awareness. Be curious about yourself. Start asking questions about how you got to the place you are at. Think through and document actions you are proud of and behaviors that surprised you in relationships. What tends to cause you anxiety, anger, fear, or insecurity? What do you recognize about yourself and your patterns? How do you act when you feel scared or anxious? Write your observations down (so you remember what you discovered!). Be prepared to communicate your new self-awareness to your next partner.

2. Communicate what stage you are in to those you date. Where you are in life makes a huge difference in how you approach dating. Are you recently divorced (in other words, are you rebounding)? Have you done some self-inquiry and are ready to jump in? Do you just want to try out a couple dates here and there but don’t want to commit to anything quite yet? These are all “good” places to be and each stage can hold fun and heartbreak depending on the steps you take. Be honest with yourself and the people you choose to date about the stage you are in.

3. Be intentional in choosing how and who you date. This is where you have to be active and put yourself out there. Do some research on different ways to meet people including online sites, matchmakers, single meet up groups, and interest-based meet up groups. If you choose online dating, it all starts with a profile. Since healthy relationships are based on trust and openness, create an honest, accurate and intriguing profile (and get a good picture since we are all visual creatures!). And when you find yourself perusing profiles to determine who to give a chance, be picky and open-minded simultaneously.   Remember that when we met people in college, we didn’t know everything about them which allowed them to surprise us. One strategy is to read a profile and email back and forth a couple times and then just meet in person. It is through meeting someone in person, that we can get a real sense of someone’s energy, style, mannerisms and personality.

4. Take it slow. Dating can be about meeting new, interesting people; it doesn’t always need to be about the end game. Don’t fret too much when you end up on a date with someone you believe you aren’t interested in (and start with the 30 min coffee date to make it less painful!). Remember that we live in a small state and you never know who can introduce you to the one who may suit, inspire or intrigue you.  And, once you start exploring a relationship, do just that, explore it. Just like you are going to be curious about yourself, be curious about the other person. Observe them, stay open and honest with yourself about what you are seeing. Understand that in the early stages of a relationship, our brain is prone to glossing over inconsistencies and anything negative. So the best strategy you have for really determining whether another person has true merit is to take your time. Spend time with the other person and by yourself, pay attention to how your body reacts to the other person and notice whether your behaviors with the person are in line with who you want to be.

5. Be willing to say no and start again. Sometimes it can seem like there are so few people out there that we stay in a situation that is not ideal. If we start operating from abundance rather than a scarcity mindset, it can change everything. Within a mindset of abundance, that there are limitless opportunities; our worlds change each day as we learn more and more. It opens you up to follow your instincts and make good choices. Abundance teaches us that it is okay to wait for someone who truly nourishes us. This means, we can say “no thank you”, “you are lovely, but not for me” with ease and breathe and start again.

 

This article was published in Essential Living Maine Magazine in February 2015.

 

Erin Oldham, Ph.D., is the founder of Local Flames, an organization dedicated to supporting people in developing and sustaining healthy relationships. We offer a newsletter to connect people to local events and the latest research on healthy relationships as well as workshops and coaching/consultation for individuals negotiating divorce and the post-divorce world. Erin has a Ph.D. in psychology specializing in child development and has researched how children and adults form secure attachments and healthy relationships for 25 years. Contact Erin at erin@localflamesmaine.com or 207-200-3970 for more information about her workshops and coaching. Localflamesmaine.com