Pinot or Merlot?

Sadly no wine is involved in this post, but it is an interesting question posed by a relationship psychologist I listened to in a recent podcast: ‘You 2.0: When did marriage become so hard?’ (from NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast).

Let me explain.

In this podcast the psychologist shared a quote from the movie ‘Sideways.’’  In this quote the actor is talking about why he loves Pinot Noir – because the grape used in Pinot Noir requires very special conditions and a lot of care and attention to grow versus a Merlot grape which is much more resilient and needs less TLC, but is more common. The psychologist then suggested that many of us are aiming for ‘Pinot’ relationships with ‘Merlot’ skills and efforts.

In other words, we want to have a relationship where we are best friends with our partners, lovers, intellectual equals, adventure buddies, etc. But, we spend very little time identifying and developing the skills and behaviors necessary to support these expectations.

A ‘Pinot’ relationship is not better than a ‘Merlot’ relationship, but if you have ‘Pinot’ expectations, it’s important to have a clear understanding of the skills and behaviors that are needed to support this type of relationship.

I see this mismatch between relationship expectations and partner skill sets time and time again in my private practice. I have such deep respect for individuals and couples who become aware of and address the missing skills required to support and nurture their relationships.

But let’s face it, it’s scary taking an honest look at ourselves, it’s vulnerable and easy to feel ashamed and embarrassed rather than curious.  And society seems to give us the message that we should just somehow…magically… have all the necessary skills to be a great partner and to build a healthy relationship. Talk about pressure!

Very few people would put on a pair of skis and just expect, because they have legs, they should know how to ski well! Just because we are, by nature, relational beings, does not mean we automatically have all the skills and knowledge to create sustainable, healthy relationships.

So whether you want a ‘Pinot’ or ‘Merlot’ relationship, committing to learning the skills and behaviours associated with thriving relationships is essential.

So what are these skills and behaviors?

There are many, many great books and articles covering these topics. Here are just a few titles:

As a starting point though, the single most impactful skill you can focus on is communication. Having the courage to take a good look at your communication strengths and growth areas is the biggest gift you can give to yourself and any current or future relationships and partners.

Interested in learning more?

Reading about something is one thing, but putting it into action is where change and growth happen.

To that end I’ve created a free workbook to help you put one powerful communication skill into practice.

Sign up here to get your workbook and get started today!

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3 Relationship Blogs Worth Reading

Today I was thinking about the amount of time most of us invest in improving ourselves professionally, yet, how little time many of us invests in improving ourselves as relationship partners. It’s as if somehow we think this should just come naturally, but building healthy relationships can be quite a journey. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start, so I decided to review a few different relationship blogs that I think offer particularly good information, tools and resources.

The Gottman Institute Relationship Blog

The Gottman Institute was started by John and Julie Gottman, both couples’ psychologists. This blog offers couples and clinicians practical, research-based tools and skills to strengthen and repair marriages and relationships.

The Couples Institute Blog 

The Couples Institute was started by Ellyn Bader and Pete Pearson, both couples’ psychologists. This blog offers couples articles and practical exercises for improving their marriage or relationship.

Dr Sue Johnson Blog

Sue Johnson is a psychologist and primary developer of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT). Her blog posts include lots of great information and research about topics ranging from love to neuroscience to attachment

Are You Inviting Your Partner to Lie to You?  

When asked most people say they don’t want to be lied to by their partner, yet consciously or unconsciously there are a lot of cues we can give to our partner that lets them know we are not prepared to hear the truth about what he/she is thinking or feeling.

Here is a quiz developed by Ellyn Bader and Pete Pearson of the Couples Institute that can help you to evaluate your typical responses to your partner:

When my partner begins to reveal a truth, emotion, or a disturbing aspect of himself or herself, I….

Almost Never Occasionally Very Frequently
Look forward to the conversation
Listen very carefully and non- defensively
Ask for more information
Coordinate with my partner and if necessary, negotiate a better time to talk
Try to draw out a more complete understanding of his/her perspective
Tell myself to stay calm and attentive
Tell myself not to take personally what is being said
Recognize and appreciate the risk taken to self- disclosure
Compliment myself for encouraging the truth

 

When I hear my partner saying something I really don’t want to hear, I….

Quite Often Occasionally Almost Never
Cry
Believe it’s mostly my fault
Withdraw and pout
Counterattack and blame
Don’t’ say much now but will dump on him/her later
Use the silent treatment or cold shoulder
Interrupt and change the topic
Tell him/her why he/she is wrong
Pretend to listen but tune out and don’t remember a word that was said

Scoring

Add up your totals for each column

  • Column 1 = 1 point,
  • Column 2 = 3 points,
  • Column 3 = 5 points

9-18 Congratulations for your honesty

18-27 Watch out for your tendencies to discourage truth telling

27-45 You’re on a great track. You really know that eliciting the truth builds a stronger foundation

This quiz can be a helpful tool for increasing your awareness of the ways you may be encouraging and discouraging your partner’s truthfulness.

1 Powerful Step to Improve Communication

As I mentioned in a previous post, the most common reason people give for seeking couples counselling is problems with communication. Communication is a pretty broad area and making change generally requires being able to address small pieces at a time.

John Gottman, psychologist and relationship researcher, has done a great job of breaking down communication into smaller, more manageable pieces. An important piece of communication, according to Gottman, is bids. He defines bids as a “fundamental unit of emotional communication” specifically “a question, a gesture, a look, a touch – any single expression that says ‘I want to feel close to you.’

Bids could include:

Verbal Non Verbal
Thoughts Affectionate Touching
Feelings Facial Expressions
Observations Playful touching
Opinions Affiliating gestures (eg. holding door open)
Invitations Vocalizing (laughing, sighing, chuckling)

 

So making bids and recognizing bids are the first two ingredients, responding to your partner’s bid is the third. Gottman describes 3 types of bid responses:

Turning Towards Turning Away Turning Against
Passive (Nod, uh-huh) Preoccupied (non-response) Contemptuous (put downs, insults)
Low energy (Sure, okay) Disregarding (irrelevant response) Belligerent (provocative, combative)
Attentive (Validation, opinions, thoughts, feelings, questions Interrupting (introducing unrelated info or a counter bid) Contradictory (arguing with or without hostility)
High energy (Enthusiasm, full focus, empathy) Responses may be mindless or intentional Critical (character attacks)
Domineering (control, overbearing)
Defensive (fake helplessness, victim stance)

Gottman’s research findings show some interesting trends:

  • Husbands heading for divorce ignored their wives’ bids for connection 82% of the time
  • Husbands in stable relationships ignored their wives’ bids just 19% of the time
  • Wives heading for divorce ignored their husbands’ bids 50% of the time
  • Wives in stable relationships ignored their husbands’ bids 14% of the time

Experiment: If you are looking to improve your communication, becoming familiar with bids, both how you make them and how you respond to them, is a great place to start. Over the next few days don’t try to change anything about your interactions, just observe when you make bids and recognize when your partner makes bids and notice how you tend to respond.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on bids or your experience with this experiment in the comments section.

Jet Pack Solves All Cartoon

A New Way to Avoid Difficult Conversations

jetpack

relationship communication cartoon from poorlydrawnlines.com

 

 

The 5 Minute Listening Experiment

When conflict arises and couples are feeling stressed, one of the first things that can disappear is the ability to listen to and hear each other.  Part of the reason listening becomes more difficult is that, as our nervous systems start to escalate, we tend to move into fight/flight/freeze mode, filtering out most of what our partners are saying in favour of our worst assumptions and interpretations. No wonder it’s so easy to skip listening and go straight to defending, attacking, and blaming. It can also be tempting to move straight to problem-solving, in hopes that a quick solution will make the discomfort of conflict go away. Problem-solving is certainly an important step in conflict resolution, but it is difficult to do effectively without both partners feeling listened to and heard. Learning to tolerate discomfort, while listening to each other’s points of view, is an essential, though often difficult step, toward de-escalating and resolving conflict.

Because listening can be tough, especially during conflict, it’s a great skill to practice with your partner on a regular basis when things aren’t so stressful.  As the listener, you can increase your ability to remain curious, without becoming defensive or judgmental. And by listening to your partner you are giving them a pretty rare gift. As the one being listened to, you can practice sharing how you feel or how your are perceiving a situation, without moving into accusations or blame.

If you are curious, give this 5 Minute Listening Experiment a try. Set a time aside and decide who will talk and who will listen. Set an alarm for 5 minutes, and then switch roles. Initially it’s best to stick to topics that are not too sensitive.

Listener

  • Pay attention to when you are truly feeling curious and when you are feeling defensive or judgmental. Notice any differences between these experiences.
  • Notice how strange it can feel to simply listen and not respond or try to problem-solve.
  • Remember that your partner is only sharing how he or she sees or feels about something. It’s only one perspective.
  • Listening does not mean you have to agree with what your partner is saying. It does show that you are curious to know more about why your partner feels the way he or she does.
  • Try imagining that your partner is a stranger on a plane telling you about his or her experience.

Speaker

  • Its a real gift to talk about your experience without interruption, so take advantage of the opportunity to openly and honestly express how you are feeling or perceiving a situation. Be careful not to move into blaming or accusing.
  • Once the 5 minutes is up, thank your partner for listening.

Life is busy and it would be unrealistic to expect couples to devote endless hours to just talking and listening. The good news is that this skill can be practiced in a very short period of time. Why not give it a try and see?

Love is a Verb – 12 Ways to Get More Active in Love

“Love is a verb. Love – the feeling – is the fruit of love the verb or our loving actions.” -Stephen R. Covey

An all-too-familiar sentiment that I hear from clients to explain why they are thinking of leaving their long-term relationship is “I love my partner, I’m just not in love with them anymore. When I follow up to ask how they know this, I hear variations of “I’ve lost that lovin’ feeling.” That love is just a feeling seems to be a pervasive belief. It often follows that if you are ‘not feeling it’ that must mean it’s time to exit the relationship and find that feeling somewhere else.

That’s not to say that there aren’t times when leaving becomes the appropriate choice. However, it’s generally helpful to get clear on the concrete reasons that this relationship is no longer where you are choosing to stay. Basing a choice to leave on a feeling is often an indicator that people have bought into Hollywood’s version of love and don’t have a good understanding of love beyond the fluctuation of feeling.

So if love isn’t just a feeling, what is it? It’s also action, it’s commitment, and it’s an evolution. Love is a crucible for both partners’ growth, learning and healing. When love is all about feeling, you are usually in the honeymoon stage of relationship. It’s a great and important stage and a lot of the connection that develops in this period of time helps to sustain the relationship when the going gets tough. But if you keep leaving your relationships once the honeymoon stage ends because the ‘butterflies in the stomach’ feeling starts to fade, you may find yourself missing out on the opportunity to experience the deeper more profound shades of love that come with action and commitment.

So what to do when you still love your partner, but you’ve lost that lovin’ feeling?

Here are twelve ideas to experiment with; why not try one or two of them for a few weeks and see what happens?

  1. Write a bunch of post-it notes with things you like about your partner and stick them places your partner will find them. For example, on their pillow, in their car, in their briefcase or purse, on their laptop screen, get creative.
  2. Give more than you take in your relationship. Instead of getting stuck keeping score, see what happens when you give more than your partner without expecting anything in return.
  3. Communicate! Pay attention to what your partner is saying. Put down cell phones, close laptops. Set aside time to focus on your partner. If you are struggling with communicating, get some help. Attend a workshop, read a book together, go to counselling.
  4. Before you blame, take a look at anything you might be contributing to the situation. Make a real effort to see the situation through your partner’s eyes – it doesn’t mean you have to agree with how they see things but can go a long way in helping them feel less defensive.
  5. Hold hands, hug, give a little shoulder rub, touch your partner’s arm, affection is connection.
  6. Accept and celebrate your differences instead of feeling threatened by them.
  7. Remember that you are a team and you can accomplish much more when you work together then when you get entrenched in defending your turf. Notice if you get stuck on the concept of winning or losing. There will be endless give and take over the long haul.
  8. Laugh! Whether that requires a funny movie, a funny joke, a tickle fight or sharing a funny story. Laughter is a great way to build connection and stop from taking yourselves too seriously.
  9. Develop rituals that are meaningful to the two of you.
  10. Attend a couples retreat
  11. Create some common goals and work towards them.
  12. Have a weekly date time whether it’s an activity in the home, a hike or a dinner out. Time together is essential.

Do you Have Conflict Rules of Engagement?

Let’s face it: conflict is often a necessary and unavoidable part of almost all relationships. However, we do have choices about how we behave and engage during conflict situations. Most of the time, couples are just relieved when the conflict is over and want to put it in the past. While an all-out fight can be a release valve for built up frustrations and hurt, if neither person ends up feeling heard or safe enough to speak up, the conflict won’t be resolved, but simply swept under the carpet only to re-emerge another day.

Why bother with Rules of Engagement?

Everybody comes into relationships with a set of their own attitudes and beliefs, shaped by their family of origin and past experiences. With these past experiences come different perspectives related to conflict. Imagine a relationship where Partner A avoids disagreement at all costs, while Partner B finds it difficult to stop talking about an issue until he/she feels it is resolved. During an argument or disagreement, Partner A might feel overwhelmed and either acquiesce or shut down, just to keep the peace, while Partner B might feel frustrated or abandoned, like he/she just can’t connect.

Here are some simply strategies to help increase the chances of turning conflict into a useful conversation:

  1. Stay focused. Get clear on what the issue really is, and avoid bringing up other issues, tempting as it may be.
  2. Set a time limit. It can be helpful if both partners agree on how long the conversation will be, so neither of you feels trapped. A typical time limit that many couples start with is 30 minutes. If more time is needed, take a break and come back to it.
  3. Set a date. Scheduling a regular, weekly time to check in with each other can help to ensure that little issues don’t become big ones down the road.
  4. Make sure your partner is in the mood to talk. If not, plan for a different time in the near future and stick to it.
  5.  Ask for a time out. Agree that you can request a time out if one or both of you is becoming upset or escalated.
  6.  Be curious. Come into the discussion with an attitude of curiosity about what your partner is saying, rather than one of defensiveness. Remember, being curious does not mean you have to agree, but it might help you to be more understanding of your partner’s point of view and where your he/she is coming from.

It isn’t always easy to create rules of engagement and they aren’t always easy to stick with, especially in the heat of the moment. Work together with your partner to establish a set of rules that both of you can agree on, and remember that it’s an ongoing process that can be changed and refined as you go.

 

The Power of Thank You

Do you know what your partner most wants to be thanked for?  Do you let your loved ones know what sort of recognition is most important to you?

In this 3 min TedTalk Laura Trice discusses the importance of asking for and giving thank yous.

Love can feel like risky business…

Love can feel like risky business…will we lose ourselves in the process? Open ourselves up to depend on another only to be rejected or abandoned? What would that say about us if it happened, that we are not worthy or not good enough? No wonder we want to protect ourselves!

Rumi makes a very wise point: “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it”

There are all sorts of reasons we might build barriers against love, sometimes consciously, sometimes without even knowing it. Barriers can develop from what we have seen and experienced in our families, past relationships, and popular culture. Yet, in the effort maintain these barriers, to protect ourselves, to avoid being alone or to maintain a sense of control, we limit our ability to connect with others.

It’s easy to point fingers where relationships are concerned and even easier to keep focused on the other person and what he or she needs to change, instead of looking inside ourselves. Ideally your partner would make some changes too (or make all the changes your heart desires), but realistically that is not something you can control. In staying other-focused, it’s easy to avoid looking at ourselves, where we do have some control.

By getting to know and learning to accept ourselves for who we are, weakness, strength and all, we can spend less time trying to prove our worthiness or seeking love from another in order to feel okay and instead begin to transform our barriers into bridges.

What are some of the barriers that might prevent you from being available for love?