If you think the need to expand your vocabulary ended in high school, you're probably wrong.
There's some really good reason to think that we are born with just two emotional perspectives. The first can be summarized as, "I feel bad... uncomfortable... unpleasant." The second is, "I feel good... comfortable... pleasant." That's not a very rich description of experience. As we grow, our caregivers add vocabulary to our expressions. So, if an infant is showing signs of distress a parent might say, "You are angry." We then begin to assign the word "angry" to a given experience. This process continues with added words until we have a range of words to describe a range of emotions and experiences.
A problem arises when we weren't taught a wide range of emotion words. The consequence is that we can't express a range of emotions. It doesn't mean we don't feel a variety of things. It simply means we have no way of identifying them and then expressing them. This leaves us with a real deficit when conversations with an intimate partner require some complexity and nuance. It's a bit like an auto mechanic trying to fix a modern car with only a few tools and only the tools that are the most basic.
The solution is to learn new words and experiment with using them. Try them on. See if they fit. See if they allow you to express things more clearly and more precisely. See if they make your partner feel more comfortable because he/she has a clearer sense for where you are.
If you'd like to expand your emotion vocabulary, click here for a list of words that will help you describe your life experience more fully.
Recently I was interviewed by Lourdes Viado, PhD whose podcast, Women In-Depth, aims at helping listeners go deeper into the dynamics of their personal and interpersonal lives. It was a really enjoyable experience. Take a few minutes and listen in...
There is the notion that fear and love cannot coexist. It suggests that fear makes real love impossible and, by the same token, real love eliminates fear. In an ideal world and for those who are genuinely enlightened, I’m sure it’s true. But, most of us don’t live in an ideal world and very few of us are seriously enlightened. For most of us, the struggle between fear and love is daily…even though we don’t typically recognize the struggle for what it is.
The two fears that come with our efforts to love deeply are, the fear of abandonment and the fear of engulfment. Most of us reside in one camp or the other.
For those who fear abandonment the expectation is that their partner will leave. Even when a relatively stable relationship has been established, there’s a nagging sense that sooner or later the loved one will walk out the door and never come back. That nagging sense grows with thoughts like, “I’m sure he’s getting tired of me.” Or, “I just don’t have what she really wants.” Or, “When he discovers who I really am, he’ll call it quits.” If the fear of abandonment is strong enough it can actually create a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, the fear of abandonment can push a partner into questioning the relationship.
Those who fear engulfment expect their partner to limit freedom and essentially smother them. Smothering behavior can come in the form of excessive affection or excessive information seeking. In either case, the fear of engulfment can create an urgent need to move away from the partner. Those who fear engulfment are likely to withdraw or attack as a way of getting the space necessary to feel free and safe. When the fear of engulfment is strong enough, it can lead to deception. Rather than being straightforward about what’s going on, the frightened person will avoid openness by giving vague responses or simply lying about things.
Whether your dark truth takes you to feelings of abandonment or engulfment, genuine love asks you to hold steady despite the fear that threatens to overwhelm. Having the courage to admit the fear to yourself is, of course, the first step. Once recognized and named, the next step is to, as much as is possible, ground yourself in love that is unconditional and aware. This can be a pretty difficult task given the fact that everything in you will point to the “genuine” threat of abandonment or engulfment. The real task is to recognize that neither abandonment nor engulfment have the power to defeat mature and deeply rooted love.
Most of us go into marriage with the belief that it will provide the stability we need to live the life we’d like to live. In many ways that makes sense. Sometimes we look forward to marriage as a respite from the relentless risk-taking that comes with the dating scene. That, too, makes sense.
The truth is, we usually begin marriage with a lot of trust and a pretty clear sense of the stability that comes with it. That reservoir of trust is the product of successful risk-taking that occurred in the months or years prior to the wedding. But, once marriage begins, the stakes go up exponentially. There are all kinds of things that make leaving the relationship increasingly costly…things ranging from a financial hit to assaults on tightly held values. Because the stakes are so high we become less and less willing to take risks. We steadily back away from the very thing that builds trust and creates the sense of aliveness necessary for relationship health.
The Dark Truth is that couples should take risks precisely when risk-taking seems least desirable. It’s not about taking outrageous risks. Small and reasonable risks are exactly what need to happen. Here are some risk-taking suggestions.
When you feel yourself playing it safe you can be sure you’re in dangerous territory. Do the counter-intuitive thing and take a risk.
The need to know runs deep and strong. For the most part, we believe that if we know what is happening we can do something about it. When we know we feel a sense of control. And, having a sense of control is vital to our well-being. But, most of us also understand (at a deep and often avoided level) that we don't really have control over much of anything in our lives. Just watch the news on any given evening. You will hear about events...usually tragic events...that have turned lives upside down in an instant.
We are given daily doses of "truth" that, once digested, give us the impression of knowing. This knowing comforts us and allows us to feel like we can take charge of our lives. All of this is very important and very useful. Without it we wouldn't even know how to boil an egg. Information is good! Information that is true is even better!
We act as if there is no end to knowing...that we could actually get to a place where we know all that can be known. This is particularly true in long-term relationships. Their length itself seduces us into thinking we know all there is to know about our partners. Once we've arrived at this place of knowing we've concluded our quest and the relationship has essentially lost its appeal.
The problem resides in an over-emphasis on knowing. This is accompanied by the discomfort most of us feel with the notion of mystery. We could say that the popularity of mystery novels demonstrates a real interest and attraction to mystery. But, that's not really the case. The popularity of mystery novels resides in the fact that the novel points out a mystery but concludes with the mystery being solved. A mystery novel that leaves things mysterious wouldn't have a lot of appeal.
The dark truth is that for a long-term relationship to maintain its vitality, a portion of it has to remain mysterious. In order for a couple to feel actively drawn to each other there needs to be an experience of interest and curiosity both of which are fueled by the presence of mystery.
Identifying your Dark Truth can go a long way toward managing conflict and, perhaps, even making the conflict productive. If you recognize that you are tempted to believe you know, you can be on the lookout for instances where your knowing limits curiosity and therefore relationship growth.
Stripped it down to the bare minimum, there are two kinds of people…those who are afraid of limits and those who are afraid of freedom.
Limits and freedom are basic features of life. Ultimately, our sojourn on earth is limited by time. We are born on a particular date and we die on a particular date. Despite that limit, we have great freedom to make of that time what we want. All along the way we have the freedom to choose the direction our lives take.
The dialogue between freedom and limits is at the core of how couples relate to each other. That dialogue may, in fact, be a basic part of what attracts us to each other. We come into the world hardwired for a fear of freedom or a fear of limits. If we’re wired to fear freedom we will be attracted to someone who isn’t afraid of freedom. Their ease with risk taking will feel like a breath of fresh air. By the same token, if we’re wired to fear limits we will be attracted to someone who is comfortable with limits. Their ease with limits will feel grounding and stable.
Difficulties arise when stress enters the picture. Sufficiently stressed, we typically revert to our basic instinct. In other words, we become our primitive selves. So, if we are wired to fear freedom we begin to look at the world through that lens. We begin to see even the slightest and most reasonable risk-taking as a threat. For example, if stressed financially, a person fearing freedom will see spending as a threat to their security…even when the spending is minor. By the same token, a person fearing limits will experience the same situation as smothering--as if they are being choked to death. The conflict that follows will have all the qualities of a life and death struggle. It will be intense. Even the purchase of a pair of inexpensive flip-flops can ignite an all out battle.
Identifying your Dark Truth can go a long way toward managing conflict and, perhaps, even making the conflict productive. If you recognize that at a deep level you fear freedom then you can be on the lookout for instances where that fear might be triggered. Of course, the same is true for a fear of limits.
Judging from social media posts, magazine covers and other forms of consumer information, most people are looking for a relationship life that is smooth, fulfilling, growing, interesting, passionate and exciting. This, despite the common disclaimers that go something like this…
“I know relationships are hard and they require work.”
“No one is perfect, certainly not me. So, I know there will be ups and downs.”
No acknowledgement of difficulty nor awareness of imperfection seem to stop us from looking for the quick cure that will, within a few designated steps, resolve all the really difficult issues we confront. Maybe it’s always been this way. Or, maybe we are simply living out an instant culture brought to us by quick internet searches and same-day delivery for online purchases. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is acknowledging the difficulty of successful relationships, letting that awareness soak in thoroughly and diving deeply into the work of making things go well.
By not letting the awareness of difficulty soak in thoroughly we fool ourselves into thinking things will be fine. Most of us are unwilling to embrace the depth of the relationship difficulties we face. We prefer to avoid them and hope for the best. The net result of avoidance is that we feel some temporary relief. But, in all likelihood the difficulties take root and become even more entrenched.
It takes a lot of acceptance, patience and courage to experience the full extent of what happens in an intimate relationship. Sometimes it’s even difficult to embrace how good things are. So, it’s not just the hard stuff that we resist. Being completely open to what a relationship brings…both good and bad…is the definition of intimacy. Intimacy often feels great but not always. Though it doesn’t always feel good, it’s always productive.
Going forward, I’ll take a look at some of The Dark Truths of Successful Marriage. These are the things we’re often reluctant to acknowledge and even more reluctant to embrace.
The thirteenth window is physicalness or risking. Humans too readily forget that their bodies speak loudly to their close and ongoing relationship to their evolutionary past. We are still animals, and, in certain ways, still closely connected to the plants. We must not forget that we are a part of all living things. Animals and plants do not destroy their bodies. They take risks to live, but they do not undo themselves for unnatural reasons. Humans do, particularly in their self-diminishment. Animals and plants do not pity themselves in their ecological survival struggles. Humans do. Animals and plants seldom appear to be plagued with problems of self-destructiveness. Humans are.
Animals and plants seldom forgo the important part that taking risks plays in their continuing being. They dare to try, to evolve. We can come to know this through unending attentiveness to the physical--to the animal and plant world and to our own bodies and souls. To stay alive we have to experience the beautiful exhilaration of being, experiencing ourselves in our physicalness--when we just walk, much less dance. To repress or forgo that exhilaration is to jeopardize our self-being.
Taken from The Windows of Experience by Malone and Malone
The twelfth window of experience is connectedness or reciprocity. All experience is reciprocal and involves connection to some other. Much of psychotherapy is the task of helping a person understand that they always participate in what happens in their relational experiences. This does not mean that they are at fault. It simply means that they participate, they are indeed connected and they have to acknowledge the ongoing reciprocity in the experience. They can persist in trying to change the other person to make the relationship better, but doing so is a losing endeavor. We can only change ourselves. As Thomas a Kempis said in The Imitation of Christ, "Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you with to be."
That fact is true of all relationships, even in psychotherapy. A therapist cannot change another person. Growth is always emergent, and ways of growing--or not growing--are learned early in life. If a child has a playmate whom she has continued to pay with over a period of time, and she comes complaining to her father about how badly that other child has treated her, and if he deals with his child by suggesting that there are some people who are so messed up that you simply cannot get along with them, then he is being irresponsible. He is undermining in the child an important awareness--that regardless of the other child's problems, his own child has something to do with what has happened in that relationship. She is the creator of her ordinary living, not just the created. The father forgets the truth of which John Ruskin spoke in Time and Tide: "To make your children capable of honesty is the beginning of education." There is no honesty in living in a nonreciprocal world.
Even in our solitary experiences, our dreams, our meditative reflections, our planning, our worrying, or our fantasies, we are dealing with reciprocities--reciprocities with memories, expectations, and lingering consciousness. We must always remember that we are participating in the unending reciprocity of life. Otherwise, we are seduced by the notion that others are doing it to us; we are seduced into becoming less that whole.
Taken from The Windows of Experience by Malone and Malone
Getting stuck is all too common for many couples. We want things to move forward smoothly and consistently. The truth is, having problems isn’t the problem. Getting stuck and not being able to solve problems … that’s the problem.
If you’ve ever played a musical instrument you know the experience of practicing a piece, making a mistake, stopping and starting over again only to make the same mistake again. The spot where things go bad can acquire an energy that’s difficult to overcome. Each time you approach that spot there’s a tendency to anticipate a mistake and therefore an increased likelihood that the mistake will actually occur. Because relationships operate in patterns or cycles, couples experience this phenomenon often. The persistence of the stuck places can be incredibly frustrating.
Here are five tips for what to do when you’re feeling that familiar and frustrating stuck spot in your relationship.
1. Take a “revolutionary pause.” The revolutionary pause is more than just stepping back and counting to ten. It’s all about what you do when you’ve stepped back. It isn’t a passive waiting. It’s very active. Taking a revolutionary pause means giving yourself an opportunity to take in the big picture of what is happening. Feeling stuck inspires a natural inclination to focus intently on the specific circumstances of your “stuckness.” In that moment it can be very helpful to locate yourself in the larger pattern of your relationship. Once you’ve located yourself in the pattern, you can more easily say, “Oh, this is just a particular spot in our relationship. It isn’t the whole of the relationship. By noticing that it’s only a spot, you give yourself a chance to gain a different, more productive, perspective.
2. Shake it off. Much of how we are in relationships is physical. Most of us are inclined to forget that. We tend to think thoughts are the primary source of information. Actually, our bodies inform us all the time. Tension, for example, clearly shows up in the body. And, getting stuck usually brings on tension. If you’ve ever watched a nature program where the cheetah is chasing the gazelle you will know that on those occasions when the gazelle escapes the cheetah, the gazelle does an interesting thing. As soon as she knows she’s safe, she does a massive body shrug. She literally shakes off the trauma that her body is holding.
So, the next time you find yourself in a standoff with your partner, consider taking a moment to retreat to a private space and shake it off. From head to toe, move your body as if you were shrugging off something unwanted.
3. Cultivate curiosity. Problems are not solved by repeatedly applying a familiar “solution.” The hallmark of a good scientist/researcher/inventor is curiosity. When we allow “stuckness” to take hold, it typically has a paralyzing effect. Introducing curiosity can loosen things up remarkably. Ask yourself things like, “What am I really trying to accomplish?” Or, “I wonder what I’m doing that makes my partner so defensive.” Or, “Who does my partner remind me of when we get to this stuck place?”
Questioning yourself in an open and curious way can lead to a different stance that can, in turn, lead to a different outcome.
4. Pay attention to the choreography of the moment. People aren’t just stuck emotionally or intellectually. They are also stuck in space and time. Instead of standing your ground, walking away, or closing in for the “kill,” consider moving toward your partner with openness and acceptance. Sometimes the notion of taking a “time out” and leaving the scene becomes just another predictable feature in the pattern of “stuckness.” So, think about not leaving. Instead take on an open posture. Make eye contact in a softer way. Pay attention to how facial expression might be contributing to the impasse you’re experiencing.
5. Consider the relationship you have with your own emotions. In any interaction, you have two relationships occurring simultaneously. There’s the relationship you have with the person opposite you and the relationship you have with your own emotions. If your relationship with your emotions is a bad one, in all likelihood it will negatively affect your relationship with the person opposite you.
When you have a good relationship with your emotions, they are neither in charge nor ignored. Emotions are an alarm system that appropriately warns you that something needs your attention. They are like a smoke alarm. When the alarm sounds it’s important to determine if it’s just the toast that’s burning or if your drapes are on fire. It’s not OK to take the battery out of the alarm any more than it’s OK to call 911 ever time it goes off.
Feeling stuck is most often the result of having a bad relationship with heightened emotions. We wind up calling 911 when, in fact, it’s just a case of burnt toast.
When it comes to getting unstuck, the most important thing to remember is that more of the same is never a good idea. In fact, the definition of being stuck is doing the same thing over and over without experiencing progress.
Jake Thiessen, PhD
I've been working with couples for a very long time. And, I love it! This blog is my attempt to communicate some of the things I've learned over the past 40 years.