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.

Fight or Flight = Bad Communication

Once your nervous system gets escalated and moves into fight/flight/freeze response, it’s next to impossible to have a useful discussion. And for many of us, we don’t even know when that response has been triggered in ourselves let alone in our partner. So we continue trying to communicate with little success. This state of nervous system arousal causes us to perceive almost everything in our world as a possible threat to our survival – we tend to see everyone and everything as a possible enemy. You both may still be engaging with words, but at the core all you can focus really on is self-protection – its pretty hard to be curious when your nervous system thinks you are under attack. Our hearts are closed. Our prefrontal cortex – related to empathy, is disengaged. Our systems become focused on fear and self-protection, not love and connection.

Because nervous system arousal can happen so quickly an important aspect of improving communication is to become more aware of when your nervous system has escalated into fight/ flight/freeze.

Here are some of the signs that the nervous system is in fight/flight/freeze:

  • We experience an adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol surge
  • Breathing rate increases.
  • Awareness intensifies and our impulses quicken.
  • We become hypervigilant, “looking for the enemy”
  • Fear becomes exaggerated and thinking becomes distorted as we see everything through the filter of possible danger.

Dr. Dan Siegel offers a nice demonstration that can help to make this brain process more concrete. Once you start recognizing some of the signs that you have moved into fight/flight/freeze you can start to experiment with ways of calming your nervous system before continuing a discussion with your partner. More on some of those strategies in the next post.

If you would be loved quote

If You Would be Loved…

If you would be loved, love and be loveable…

Courage Quote

You Don’t Develop Courage

You don’t develop courage by being happy in your relationship everyday. You survive it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity.

I Care About You Quote

I Care About You

I care about who you are, who you have been, who you want to be. I open myself to you to listen and learn about you. I cherish you, not just my fantasy of who you are, not just who I need you to be, but who you really are…

Jet Pack Solves All Cartoon

A New Way to Avoid Difficult Conversations

jetpack

relationship communication cartoon from poorlydrawnlines.com

 

 

Being Heard Quote

Being Heard is so Close to Being Loved

Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.

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?