5 Factors to Evaluate Before Choosing a Life Partner
On my book tour for Love Cycles, three of the most common questions I was asked were these: "How do I know this person is right for me?" "How can I tell if they will make a good life partner?" "What is the most important thing I can ask them?"
It's better to look for clues using the logical part of our brain to determine whether the other person has the right "stuff" to make a suitable long-term partner than to feel our way to this decision. Our course, what we feel is essential, and someone may be a great fit with all the important qualities that we are looking for, but if our body doesn't react to them — no attraction, no chemistry, no "wow" — it's just as important information on which to base our decision. We need both heart and head to decide.
Here are five clues that will help you find out whether or not someone has the qualities to go the distance:
1. Family history
Here we're concerned with how connected a potential partner is to their family members and the quality of these relationships. I look for two red flags when I'm talking with a client about their family history. One is when they indicate that everything is or was terrible; the other is when they say that everything is or was perfect. Try to determine how much they are able to accept, forgive, and have family members' backs.
Look for how much they blame or make trouble for others. A good sign of balance is, for example, the following description of a family member: "Well, my dad's an interesting guy. He's so loving and generous. He had a hard struggle with depression. He's a glass-half-empty sort of guy, yet he tries hard to be more upbeat. The problem is he's very reluctant to seek help and kind of stuck in his ways. But, growing up, I remember how, most of all, he always loved and supported me. Although he didn't often show up for my activities, I always knew that it wasn't because he didn't care." This is balanced; he tells it like it is.
2. Past relationships
It is important to discover what kinds of friendships someone has had or currently have. The best sign is that they still keep a few of their oldest friends. See if they've been able to take some responsibility for their failed relationships. Do they speaking of past lovers in derogatory terms, such as "She's a total narcissist" or "What a borderline he is"? Occasionally, it might be true, but most of us look pretty unappealing to the other at the end of a relationship, and it's not usually the whole truth. Ask whether your potential partner tries to be fair-minded.
3. Handling anger
This involves your observing rather than asking. Watch how they behave when they don't get their own way, are disappointed, or feel angry. In life, we have to manage not getting our own way as well as hurt and disappointment. How people act with others under these circumstances says a lot about how they will one day act with you.
Since this is considered the No. 1 key to a good relationship (according to a long-term study at the University of Virginia), watching how generous your potential partner is in their treatment and discussion of others is extremely important. When we are love-struck, we are all generous and loving, but you need to look for indications of how generous someone will be when the love potion wears off.
5. A full life
Determine whether they have meaning in their life that doesn't relate to you — interests, passions, a history of expanding themselves. Do they have big dreams or a history of making those dreams come true? Paradoxically, the key to intimacy is the ability to be separate. Until you know yourself and feel whole and clear in what you want for your life, you'll never be able to be the best partner you can be. It's counterintuitive, but we really only get the most intimacy out of a relationship when we have done the most work on ourselves.
Imagine there are two parts to an "interview" with a potential partner (like with a job applicant). In part one, trust your heart, the chemistry, and your intuition.
If only things were so simple. This is clearly not enough. I bet 99 percent of you have felt that someone was "the one," only to be shocked and disappointed when, later in the relationship, you find out a whole lot of things that you totally missed. In part two of the interview, look at their abilities, their references, their experience, and all the other objective data that points to whether they are a good fit.
We have two parts to our brain, both of which are essential to use in the interview. The "feeling" part is an important indicator, but the part where rational and reasonable decisions are made must be an equal partner.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
So Your Partner Betrayed You: Here's How NOT To Let It End Your Relationship
But, if not avoided, betrayal can be dealt with and resolved. It is possible. It just requires total honesty, vulnerability, and commitment from both partners. A betrayal doesn't have to be an end of your relationship. It can be a new beginning. Here are three of the most common types of betrayals and their sources:
1. Disregarding needs because they are different from your own.
George, who owns a restaurant, is a raconteur and an open book. He excels at sharing personal anecdotes and recounts whatever is going on in his life with everyone — friends, employees, gas station and parking lot attendants, the tellers at the local bank, even fellow riders in the elevator.
George’s wife, Sarah, is reserved and private. A poet, she is serious, contemplative, and needs of a great deal of solitude. These needs complement his own. After long, hard hours at the restaurant, George is glad to go home to Sarah’s tranquil oasis.
Sarah admires and relies on George’s zest and wit. George makes her laugh and allows her to take life less seriously. Still, Sarah wants him to respect her privacy. Countless times she’s told him, “Just leave me out of your stories.”
Recently, Sarah learned that she was a finalist for a prestigious national prize for poetry. Thrilled and excited, she called George at the restaurant as soon as she opened the envelope.
“That’s fantastic, Sarah. I’ll bring home Champagne.”
“Oh, don’t bother,” she demurred. “It’s not like I’ve won anything.”
“Sure it is. It’s a huge honor to be a finalist. We’ll celebrate!”
“All right,” Sarah relented. “You know I love Champagne.”
No sooner did George get off the phone than he shared the news with the staff in the kitchen and patrons out in the dining room. “Looks like my wife just won a big prize for poetry,” he crowed. “Well, she’s in the running, anyway.”
Late that night at home, George poured two flutes of Champagne. “Here’s to my clever wife, the poet.”
“Thank you, but I haven’t actually won anything,” Sarah reminded him again.
“Yes, you have! It’s the recognition you deserve. The kitchen staff is all excited. They’re going to bake you a congratulations cake.”
After a small silence, Sarah whispered, “You told them?”
“Of course. Why not?”
“Because I asked you not to, that’s why.” Sarah was livid. “You’d think I’d know better by now! You’re the last person on earth I should tell anything. There’s no censor in your mind; you don’t think before you speak. You’re just thoughtless.”
George was bewildered. In his view, Sarah’s being a finalist for the prize was an honor. If she didn’t win, there was no shame in it. But that wasn’t how she saw it. She dreaded the thought that all these people would find out that she was an also-ran.
George just shook his head. How could his wife be angry with him about something he’d done out of love and pride? Clearly, he was the victim here.
In fact, George was guilty of something. He saw the extent of his wife’s need for privacy as unreasonable, so he simply disregarded it. “Why aren’t you me?” That was the question at the heart of this conflict.
The simple yet incredibly difficult solution to this conflict is for each partner to recognize the other as equal and separate, and acknowledge their needs as such. Like anything, it takes practice. But the positive evolution of your relationship will inevitably be worth it.
2. Invasions of privacy or lies of omission that are "justified" by their intent.
Anything from financial deception to the invasion of privacy can fit into this category — whether it's snooping on a computer or reading a private journal. When the breach of faith is exposed, the betrayed person may come to question everything about his/her partner and the relationship itself. Beyond the inevitable shock, anger, and hurt, betrayal often leaves its victims with a grievous loss of self-worth.
Those who betray their partners tend to rely on “reasonable” explanations to justify themselves. The reason they were unfaithful? Not enough sex in their marriage. The reason they maxed out the credit cards? Simple generosity — they wanted to take their partner on a first-class vacation.
In truth, however, an act of betrayal is an act against the self, which harms a person’s sense of integrity and self-respect. After betrayers digest what they’ve done and the pain they’ve caused, their shame and guilt can be all-consuming.
Avoiding this kind of betrayal requires a deep faith in your partner's ability and willingness to forgive, and the strength to be truly vulnerable. Recovering from it requires the same commitment to truth, openness, and each other.
3. Sexual betrayal.
No matter the reason, without your partner's knowledge or consent, sexual betrayal is never justified. Because of its powerful reverberations for both partners, sexual betrayal is an especially difficult marital problem to cope with and resolve.
Most of the time, the only way to reconcile is for both partners to clean their respective psychological closets of all baggage and to reach down into the depths of those emotional storage vaults to find the courage, honesty, and love to repair and forgive. I recommend you do this only with the help of a SEASONED therapist. It’s extremely hard work and it does not happen quickly. I have seen it take 1 year for some; 2 to 3 years for others.
Most of the reasons for the betrayal must be understood, especially by the person who had an affair. Perhaps the length and depth of this process explains why some of the strongest marriages I know have arisen from extremely serious betrayals.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
Live Your Calling & Other Lessons We Can Learn From Jane Goodall
When people turn to me for individual counseling and coaching, most often it’s because they want my help to identify and embrace their life’s passion, at work and in love. We live in a world filled with clichés about “living your dream,” yet for many of us that's a hard thing to discover, let alone fulfill.
Sometimes, the thing that makes the difference is finding someone who inspires us — someone who’s had their eureka moment and gone on to live their calling. A person like that can give us the motivation we need to find and follow our own deep, still voice within.
Jane Goodall, the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, is one woman who points the way. Lately, I've noticed reference to her everywhere. And it's no wonder — Jane embodies many of the qualities essential to living an authentic life from the inside out. Here are five of the ones I find most inspirational.
From a young age, Jane was inquisitive about the natural world. As a little girl, she once spent five hours sitting in a hen house. Her parents couldn’t find her and were so worried they called the police, when all the while she was watching a chicken lay an egg.
What did you love to do as a child, so much so that time stood still? Before you grew self-conscious, anxious to please, and conform, what was your deepest pleasure?
Like many kids, Jane received a stuffed animal for her birthday. Fatefully, hers was a chimpanzee, which she named “Jubilee.” Jane was fascinated by this stuffed toy, which led her to imagine what life might be like in the wild. As she grew up, Jane kept Jubilee close at hand as the inspiration for many a daydream adventure. Even today, Jubilee lives on Jane’s dresser.
Is there a toy or another object, such as a photograph, from your own childhood that might hold a clue as to what grabs your attention and interests you now?
When Jane graduated from high school she couldn’t afford to go to college. Instead, she took a series of jobs as a waitress, a secretary, and a filmmaker’ assistant. She did what she needed to support herself but never stopped feeding her abiding love of nature and animals. When she was twenty-three and visited a friend in Africa, the moment of vocation came. There, she was hired by a famous anthropologist to observe chimpanzees in Tanzania, and her life’s work began.
Even if you work in a job that does not fulfill you at the moment, do you see ways to keep your own aspirations strong and steady? Do you seize an opportunity when it comes your way?
In 2010, someone asked Jane if she believed in God. She answered, “I don’t have any idea of who or what God is. But I do believe in some great spiritual power. I feel it particularly when I’m out in nature. It’s just something that’s bigger and stronger than what I am or what anybody is. I feel it. And it’s enough for me.”
When we’re ironclad in our beliefs, there’s no room for the possible in our minds. We are never too old to find and follow a dream, but we have to allow room for the possibility of that, rather than close the door on options we may think are out of reach.
Often, the clues to our passions are found where we feel most alive and connected to the universe, as Jane did when she was out in nature.
Has your vision of what you should be doing with your life become rigid? How can you be more open to your life’s potential? Like Jane Goodall, would spending some time in nature help you see yourself in a new way?
Jane gave each animal she studied a name, not a number. She was criticized by some, who argued that giving them a number would keep her detached. She didn’t want to be detached. It was her keen sensitivity to the individuality of these animals which led to a more profound understanding of their behavior. The chimp she named “Flo” became so well known and beloved by the world that her obituary ran in the London Times after she died. Jane’s passionate attachment also enabled her to dedicate her life tirelessly to her subjects and to help others see them in a new way.
Many of the virtues and strengths that psychologists, philosophers, and religious thinkers agree are central to human potential are ones Jane has embodied since she was a child. Clues to the journey we’re born to take are scattered throughout our lives, just as they were in hers.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
4 Surprising Truths About Keeping Love Alive
All relationships go through hard seasons. Especially if you and your partner have been together a long time, you have probably felt the cyclical nature of these “seasons”: there have been some storms, hard chills and times of foggy uncertainty, along with times of sun and cool breezes.
1. Relationships are an inside job.
All change begins within you and is maintained by you. Once you shift your focus from your partner to yourself, you gain enormous power to affect both your relationship and your own well-being.
Too often, we blame issues in our relationships on our partners. But the truth is that the change begins with you and you alone. You can always change the way you react to what the other person says and does, even if your partner doesn’t do anything differently. That is where the dynamic shift begins.
During tough conversations, I have said to myself If I were a loving person, what would I do now? which helps me respond mindfully and intentionally, rather than react defensively.
2. Communication isn’t an issue when things are going well.
I've been a couples therapist for more than 30 years, so I've worked with a lot of couples. One of the most common things I hear from couples during their first session is the following complaint: “We don’t communicate well.” You may have even said this yourself.
When I hear this complaint, I realize that I'm sitting with two people who are doing a great job of articulating how they’re not articulate. When things are going well in a relationship (or even going along as usual), communication is never the problem. Of course, things get a little more complicated when we’re under stress, or feel angry, sad or afraid.
When we are in the midst of a tough situation with our partner, we tend to react in one of three ways: we fight, freeze, or flee. In one of these reactive modes, we will of course look very different to our partner than when we’re breezing along, relaxed and open. That's why we need to be mindful of our triggers, and notice when they are being set off. From there, we can set an intention to slow down, and respond to a conflict rather than react.
3. Most troubles in relationship happen because of fear — the fear of lost connection.
I sat in my office with Jeff and Cindy on the verge of a breakup. It wasn’t the complaints about each other that startled me. It was the moment that Cindy put her head in her hands and sobbed, “I’m losing my best friend.” Suddenly it became clear: the depth of her agony arose from the threat she felt her grievances posed to their existence as a couple.
We’re wired in our brains and hearts to be connected with others. Numerous studies show that touching, hugging, and being a part of loving relationships help us to live longer, healthier, and happier lives. So how can we manage the anger and conflict that are part of all relationships, and avoid the loss of life-enhancing connection?
The secret to keeping our relationship strong under duress is to manage our love account just as we manage our bank account: by keeping the deposits higher than the withdrawals. Listen, support, touch, apologize, appreciate, and surprise. We need to practice these behaviors often enough to amass the goodwill to cover those times when the relationship is “overdrawn.”
We can be angry, hurt, outraged. It doesn’t mean we cut off connection. It doesn’t mean we fail to see the merit of our partner’s main strengths. Although it may feel like the last thing we want to do, if we keep the bridge open between us, we’ll find the way forward in the most difficult times.
4. Just about any two people can get along, if they really want to.
I’ve sat with people that were similar in most ways with very few complaints between them, and yet they didn’t have the willingness to reach out to one another in ways that would’ve deepened their love and connection and they parted.
I’ve sat with people who couldn’t be more different, who were recovering from the biggest messes you could imagine: multiple betrayals, misunderstandings, years of hurt and anger. Yet they felt a compelling connection and commitment to one another, which they didn’t want to lose. Diligently they adopted new rules and practices to regain connection. They managed to forgive each other and to do the inner work to stop whatever behavior had caused the trouble.
If two people are willing to do the work, make the changes, and learn the skills, they can have a relationship better than anything they ever imagined.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
What To Do When You Want to End Your Relationship
You’ve been struggling with disillusion in your relationship for some time. The thrill is long-gone. So is the joy. The stress is high, the pain is deep. You’re worn out, and you feel like things will never change. You’ve reached the point where you think, Things just can’t go on like this.
So you ask yourself, Should I leave? Is that the answer? Is this the end of a love that once seemed so right?
My answer? Don’t decide, at least not yet.
Instead of reacting to the pain, respond with these three essential actions (or non-actions) from a longtime marital therapist:
1. Slow down, and don't let the knee-jerk reaction rule you.
When you feel the intense urge to react in a moment of pain, it’s important to just be still and rest for a while. If you take it easy and go slow, your needs and desires will have time to register within you, and you will be in a better place to recognize and understand them.
For example, sometimes we think we want to leave a person when what we really want is to escape from the pain in a stuck dynamic in the relationship. If we can comfort and soothe ourselves long enough to regain some sense of calm on our own terms, we can begin to assess if there’s something to salvage from the wreckage of what we’ve built together.
Sometimes we know that, above all, we want out of the feeling of being stuck or uninspired. And from there, of course it's easy to attribute our misery to the relationship when it may be much more about ourselves. But taking the time to gain clarity and space from volatile emotions will help understand what is really making you unhappy.
2. Educate yourself.
Don’t seek advice (and definitely don’t take advice) from friends and family. Often, the people who love you the most will see only your side of things, which may make you feel good and righteous but won’t shed new light on where you are now in life and what you need to do next.
Find a trustworthy mentor figure — whether it be a therapist, or a coach, minister, priest, or rabbi, instead. Talk to them about the dilemma and decision you’re struggling with. If your partner is willing to join you in a counseling session, you must find a counselor that you BOTH trust. Sometimes the most impossible relationships can transform into something wonderful, given support and insight from the right source.
Particularly if you are married, or you and your partner have made a serious commitment, seek out a financial adviser, a couples’ counselor, or another trusted third party that can inform you of the legal and financial ramifications of your options: separation, divorce, or even a sabbatical from marriage.
Sometimes we learn more from a knowledgeable person that offers no advice but reflects our words back to us. What we hear may surprise us, as if the words and thoughts were brand-new. For the first time in a long time, we may feel our more vulnerable selves emerge from beneath the defensive scar tissue. That’s when we will begin to see who we are, where we are, and what we need to do next.
3. Move your focus away from avoiding discomfort or being "nice.”
If you do decide that ending the relationship is the right decision acknowledge that you will need to confront discomfort directly. You will ultimately need to go through the breakup in the most courageous way, which is face-to-face, and it won't be comfortable.
Don’t use text or email (or worse, social media!) to give your lover the news, and stay away from Breakup Butler, who gives the message to your partner “nice” and “not so nice.”
Even though the conversation may be awkward and uncomfortable, you will feel a surge in self-respect once you finish what you came to say, because you had the courage and the consideration to meet in person. When you talk, acknowledge what you valued in your relationship, even as you say the connection between you doesn’t work anymore. Take time to be absolutely clear. Don’t give your partner false hope with expressions like, “for the moment I feel,” or “maybe in time it will change.”
Afterward, give yourself time to grieve but don’t look back. Don’t torment each other with prolonged goodbyes and false, mixed messages. Don’t call, don’t write, and don’t toy with them on social media. Definitely don’t drive by your ex’s house to try and figure out if they’re with someone else. That kind of behavior feeds the drama but will only end in more misery, whatever you discover. If they’re with someone else, you feel bad. If they’re all alone, you feel guilty.
Put the past away and begin to rebuild your life around new people, places, and things. Give yourself a chance to feel like “you again,” as a single person. What you choose should make this breakup easier on you, not more difficult.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
Why You Always Have the Same Old Fight
Do you notice that you and your partner always end up having “the same old argument”? It's as if it doesn’t matter at all where the conversation or conflict started ... it just always ends in the familiar sinkhole.
After a while you may understand that the issue isn’t really about the housework, the weekend plans or money. It's something else something you can’t put your finger on. You just know the sinking feeling when you see “the look,” hear the sound in their voice or feel your own feeling of sinking inside, that voice telling you, “Here we go again.” This ongoing familiar fight can feel like an endless loop with a dead-end and no way out. But why?
Well, the reason it feels like it's a loop, is because it IS a loop. Without learning how to notice the patterns as they arise, there's no way to stop a vicious cycle in its tracks. That's why I am telling you that there is a way through it. The only place to start is to recognize the barriers each person must overcome, and then developing strategies to manage these barriers productively.
To begin, let's look at what I like to think of as the four common causes of these cyclical, repetitive arguments:
Most repeated fights are not really about what they seem to be about. In fact, they tend to happen because something in our past is being triggered by a present experience, even if it’s minor. Our partner might do something that evokes memories of feeling bullied, betrayed or falsely accused in the past and we are actually reacting to our history rather than to what is actually happening now.
The first step here is awareness of these triggers. But read on, as I will elaborate on "exit strategies" in the next section below!
2. Core Issues
The vulnerabilities and reactivity we bring to repeated fights may include core values and questions like “Who’s in charge of my life?” “Am I valued and accepted for who I am” and “How much can I trust you to have my back”?
Again, take stock of what emotional triggers make you feel particularly vulnerable, and experiment with being accountable to those things when you communicate with your partner.
3. “The Other Side Of Attraction”
Characteristics that attracted us to our partners in the beginning may become sources of annoyance later. I call this “the other side of attraction.” In other words, we may fall in love with someone because they seem predictable and reliable. When the “love drug” wears off and the honeymoon phase is over, the same behavior may seem rigid and lacking imagination, and we’ll probably argue about that.
4. The Loop
Repetitive fights breed further iterations of the same argument, period. One person's idiosyncrasies create vulnerable patterns in another person's behavior, which may, in turn, aggravate first person further. And so on . . . this is the definition of a vicious cycle.
But let's take this one a little further.
For most women, the number one concern is disconnection, while for men it is feeling unjustly criticized or being seen as incompetent. So let's take a heterosexual couple, Jake and Meg. Say Jake makes weekend plans to go hiking with his friends and Meg feels abandoned. This can trigger a “fight” response from her in the form of anger or sarcasm. Jake sees this as criticism, triggering a “flight” instinct, so he withdraws which intensifies Meg’s fears of disconnection. The loop builds up steam, and continues.
So, now that we've looked at some of the main causes for these repetitive fights, let's consider some strategies to change the dynamic.
1. Build your “exit strategy” toolkit.
No matter how hard you try you cannot change your partners behavior, only your own. Find an exit strategy to the loop. This begins by recognizing when you are in it, and soothing yourself out of your normal reaction. Mantras, breathing slowly, images of your dog, garden or favorite hike can all act as agents to stop your own inner loop of reactivity. Often if one person can break out of it, the other will also become more centered and it can stop.
2. Look inward.
In the middle of the “same old-same old,” we are looking out and see our partner. Their uninviting body language, their mean looking mouth, their unfriendly eyes. The challenge here is to look within, ask yourself, “Would I want to take a selfie of my facial expression RIGHT NOW and post it on social media?” I have taught myself to think of one of the things I appreciate the most about my partner in the middle of the hardest loops, and more and more often it backs me off of my defensive strategy. It doesn’t eliminate the problem but it often helps reframe the fight to be more productive.
3. Let go of your need to be right.
When you KNOW you are right and your partner is wrong, you know you are in trouble! (Of course there are certain things that ARE wrong, lying, hitting, breaking commitments. But most often we are feeling self-righteous about our point of view rather than an actual transgression.) It may feel justified, but it will usually fuel even greater conflict and distance.
4. Agree not to discuss the problem until the storm has passed.
When we are in the middle of the trouble we are bombarded by neurochemicals that are while arguing, most of us are “flooded” — bombarded by neurochemicals that make it hard for us to relate constructively. We are reacting, not responding.
Taking time out, going for a walk, agreeing to come back to it within 24 hours may help you each become calm and reasonable enough to find a resolution. And of course, if there’s an ongoing issue (and no, not just a habitual, unproductive communication dynamic), you may sometimes feel like you can’t make progress. In those cases, consider seeking the help of a skilled counselor or coach.
This post originally appeared in MindBodyGreen.
Susan Grace Beekman
The Big Question: What if Mom was Right?Around the time I got kicked out of Sunday School for asking too many questions, I decided I’d have to answer them for myself by trying out other brands than the Southern Baptist variety.
She looked at me with such sympathy and kindness. “Maybe you ask too many questions,” she said. “I just accept things, and I’m pretty happy.”
My friends said essentially the same thing as my turmoil turned to depression. I kept looking, convinced I’d find a more satisfying answer, that other people must know something that I didn’t. Seek and ye shall find. The words bubbled up from somewhere.
So I became a seeker. My senior year, desperate, I picked up The Religions of Man, by Huston Smith. I had found my manual.
Philosophy classes followed in college, featuring Existential Ennui 101. Then came a life-long fascination with the concepts and practices of world faiths, which offered snapshots of the truth and stories to back them up. Eventually these same questions led to more and more study of archetypes and mythology and contemplative practices. I learned to meditate and crossed paths with Vipassana, or mindfulness. I began to hear a few subtle answers at last, as I listened, and the Search was still on.
No matter what showed up on the mystical path, what I continued to notice is that the mind just kept cooking up new questions that could not be meditated away. Or medicated, for that matter. (I had already given that a good try in my twenties)
Thirty years of seeking later, I fell in love with inquiry when I discovered that some of the thoughts that present themselves simply want to be understood…not in the mind, but in the heart.
Now my business required asking questions of my clients. So much for my mother’s advice! I became deeply committed to this process, sometimes called the Great Undoing. During the past decade, I’ve questioned the thoughts of hundreds of people, if not thousands. Almost without fail, I’ve witnessed the radical freedom that comes as the old personal religions are questioned one by one. I also continue to notice for myself how much suffering is relieved when I stop believing those stale old refrains.
And what I’ve noticed is that new refrains still come all day long, like piped Muzak in the brain. The idea of bringing each of them up for inquiry can be (just perhaps) a bit overwhelming.
Which led to a new question. The big question. The scary question.
What if my mother was right?
What if I DO ask too many questions? The more questions I’ve asked, the more I’ve come to see that there is a mind below the mind that is just fine. All the muzak of random thoughts firing away can drown it out, but at a deep level, there’s an internal Knowing that is deep and true and beyond questions because it is at the root of being. And it would be asking one too many questions to inquire into the reality of that voice.
This essay originally appeared on Susan’s website, Oasis Life Design.
Building Relationship Skills
Myth: “Having had a happy childhood is a prerequisite to having a great relationship as an adult.”
The best predictor of the future is not necessarily the past.
While there is no way to accurately assess the percentage or number of people who came from unhealthy families, it’s reasonably safe to state that a lot of us didn’t get a great start in life and grew up under less than ideal circumstances that included various forms of addiction, abuse, and neglect. While there is no doubt that such circumstances pose significant obstacles that impede physical, emotional and intellectual development, they are by no means insurmountable, given the right kind of support, resources and motivation in adulthood. This is not to infer that overcoming such hardships is by any means a simple thing or can be easily corrected, but rather to challenge or at least question the widely held belief that anyone who has grown up in a “dysfunctional” family cannot hope to create a healthy adult relationship.
One of the things that does characterize the experience of many of those who have grown up in neglectful or abusive families is the likelihood that they have internalized a belief that they are not worthy of being treated with respect or love. Children tend to take things personally and assume that they are deserving of whatever treatment they receive, good or bad. This of course adds an extra burden to anyone who has had to deal with this phenomenon. While there is no doubt that such an added difficulty is no easy matter, there is a difference between something being difficult and being impossible.
Those of us who were fortunate enough to have positive esteem mirrored back to us from loving adults were likely to come into adulthood feeling secure in ourselves and safe in the world. We probably felt valued, wanted, cherished, honored, and loved. Still, high self-esteem is no guarantee of a successful relationship just as low self-esteem is no guarantee of an unsuccessful relationship.
On the other end of the spectrum are those of us who came from families where we may not have felt wanted or valued, where things seemed chaotic or unpredictable, and we felt insecure much of the time. We may have felt that we were in the way, ignored, overly controlled, or that we were trouble. As children, we couldn’t change these conditions, so we were left feeling powerless, unworthy, and unlovable.
Most of us fall in the middle of the spectrum, so we know both extremes from our early lives and feel a mix of worth and worthlessness, unlovability and lovability. While psychotherapy is the treatment of choice for many of those of us who are suffering from low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, or addictive patterns, there are other means available through which we can heal past wounds that have left us feeling broken or incomplete, one of them being that of a committed partnership.
Committed partnerships provide us with the means through which we can expose the unhealed or unloved parts of ourselves to someone who has the capacity and desire to accept that within us that we had deemed to be unacceptable and bless us with their embrace of those aspects of ourselves. Such a relationship is not necessarily a substitute for therapy, but it can provide us with the kind of experience that affects our sense of value as a person.
Being related to with acceptance and respect can heal the places in our self-image that have been wounded and help restore us to a sense of wholeness where we may have previously felt broken. As we come more fully into integrity with our true nature, our capacity to give and receive love increases and deepens. Loving partnerships tend to diminish fear and anxiety and promote a sense of peace and security. These relationships, due to their very nature, expose whatever within us has been intentionally or unconsciously concealed or denied, thus providing us with opportunities to bring acceptance and self-compassion to ourselves and by extension, to others.
Not only is it possible to have a great relationship even after growing up in difficult circumstances, but the pain of our past experience can actually become the motivation that drives our commitment to do the work that is necessary to create the kind of fulfillment that we were denied as a child.
The past does not have to dictate what the future will be. It is only one factor, and not necessarily the most significant one that influences future possibilities. We can recover, heal and grow beyond the limitations of our past experiences but only if we trust that this is possible. The saying that the person who believes that something is possible and the person who believes that something is not possible are both correct. There is great power in our beliefs and they can easily become self-fulfilling prophecies if we are not careful. If we are convinced that we are handicapped by our past then we will act in accordance with that belief and ultimately get to be right. If on the other hand we refuse to accept the notion that our future is determined by our past, and do the work necessary to heal and recover from our wounds and disappointments, we will not only free ourselves from the limits of old beliefs, but we will be well on our way to creating a life beyond what we previously could have even imagined. We can come from serious dysfunction, addiction, abuse, psychosis, etc. and still create a golden relationship. It’s all in the commitment.
This essay originally appeared in PsychCentral.