INTIMACY VERSUS ISOLATION: RELATIONSHIP BUILDING & MAINTENANCE (PART 2)

*Please click here to read the first post in my two-part series on relationship building and maintenance which talks about the baggage we carry into our relationships.

In previous blog posts, we have talked about the importance of developing your identity, making progress in personal growth and handling the "baggage" we all carry into our relationships.  This piece is meant to continue that conversation but also define 7 specific ways in which we can maintain relationships that are both healthy and happy.

Have you ever wondered what REALLY happened to all those cartoon couples so many of us became acquainted with via Disney movies?  For instance, sometimes I wonder if Ariel from The Little Mermaid ever regretted trading in her mermaid tail in order to be with the man of her dreams.  Or what ever happened to Belle and "the beast?"  Was their relationship really just a complicated case of Stockholm Syndrome or did he eventually work through his anger and wild sense of entitlement? 

Perhaps they did live happily ever after.  But HOW? Happiness is not some magical destination you get to, unpack and bask in the glory of.  Happiness is something that ebbs and flows over the course of two people sharing their lives together.  In order to have a happy relationship, a healthy foundation must be laid--- one free of physical, psychological or verbal abuse.  No person can be truly happy in a relationship where there is no balance, therefore compromise must be made by both parties involved.

So, without further ado, here is a list of the top 7 ways in which couples can maintain and improve their relationships.

1. LOVE YOURSELF

That's right.  Go on and give yourself a hug every once in awhile because sometimes we can be our worst enemies.  As I have touched on in the blog posts entitled, "Who Am I?" and "Intimacy versus Isolation: Relationship Building & Maintenance (Part 1)," focusing on yourself and fixing what is in your control is key.  Self-esteem is proven to be the biggest factor when it comes to the strength of your relationship, so dig in and continue on that never ending journey of self growth!

Self-love tips: Kick it into neutral and have some "self" time where you do something you love or where you can completely relax.  Give yourself a pat on the back for the things you do well day to day.  Still holding onto some heavy baggage?  Find a counselor you feel comfortable with and team up to work through your confidence struggles.  

2. MAKE LOTS OF QUALITY LOVE

You heard me! In a study featured in the Journal of Family Psychology, marital stability in midlife was correlated with sexual satisfaction.  It is no secret that sex releases the "cuddle hormone," oxytocin.  This hormone helps to create trust, empathy and a bond.  It is the same hormone that allows for a new mother and baby to create a bond.

Love-making tips: Whether you are a new couple or a long established one, be sure that your partner's needs are being met just as much as yours.  Reciprocation is key! If you have busy schedules, set aside a few nights a week where you can commit to cuddling (or more) and make them a priority.  If things are starting to get too routine, surprise your partner with something new or ask about them more about their desires.

3. SEE THE GOOD 

Perception is everything.  How many times have you pointed things out that your partner did wrong?  Instead of focusing on the things that did not meet your expectations, start consciously pointing out things that your partner did well.  I'm not saying that you should never criticize your significant other's slack but perhaps that it could be balanced by compliments and appreciation. People often get stuck in a rut of either not doing things they need to do or doing them sloppily. When people receive praise or recognition for something they have done well, it positively reinforces that behavior and can help them do better on the things that they maybe didn't do so well on in the past.

Positive-reinforcement tips: One of the easiest ways to change perception is to incorporate a change in your routine.  For example; decide you will make the effort to show your appreciation of the little things your partner has done for you during the day when you have dinner together. Another opportune time to express your gratitude is when you settle into bed at night.  Happy thoughts create sweet dreams!

4. MAKE TIME FOR PLAY

Play time is NOT just for kids! Whether it is a friendly wrestling match, a random game night or an imaginative, "What if.." conversation, play is important.  Perhaps it is as simple as taking a walk together.  Do it.  If you feel like your relationship has become stale and boring, ask yourself this question, "When was the last time we made time for play?"

Play Tips: Make a sheet fort in your living room, pick out a movie you both enjoy, pop some popcorn and chill together. Go on an adventure. Visit a new city, state, or country. Parasail. Scuba dive. Go hiking. Surf together. The choices are endless.  When couples see and experience more together, they typically grow together.

5. SAY WHAT YOU MEAN, MEAN WHAT YOU SAY

COMMUNICATE.  According to multiple studies, poor communication is the number one reason couples split.  Do you have certain expectations of your partner but frequently get upset because they don't live up to them?  Perhaps it is because you have not communicated the importance of those expectations in a way your partner understands.  Feel like your desires get mowed over by your partner's? Start saying what you want.  Not that you might want it or not that you don't care, say what you mean.  

Communication Tips: Try to use "I" statements instead of "you" statements.  For example, lets say you and your significant other are trying to pick where to grab a bite to eat.  The last five times, you ended up going to their favorite place even though you really don't like it.  Instead of blurting out, "You always get to pick, I'm sick of eating such and such," try rephrasing your emotions in an "I" statement like this, "I feel disappointed when you said you want to go to your favorite place again because I would really like to go to....." Though it sounds a bit silly to use "I" statements for a food choice disagreement, they can really come in handy when you have trouble thinking during heavier disagreements. 

6. TEAM WORK MAKES YOUR DREAMS WORK

You and me against the world.  The mentality of WE not ME fosters a healthy relationship where each person is looking out for what is best for the pair.  Cooking dinner and cleaning up afterwards goes a lot faster with a team.  Communicate about where each person feels burdened and see where each of you can help lessen the load.  When a couple utilizes their individual strengths for the good of the whole, magical things happen.  Ok, maybe not 'magical,' but harmony and cooperation bring plenty of peace and efficiency on the long road of accomplishing a goal together.  Exercising together is also a great way to work towards health goals and build teamwork. Cooking, scheduling, motivation....all start to get in sync when both of you are in it to win it.

Teamwork Tips: Divide and conquer! If one of you is better at cooking, they cook and the other cleans.  Or do a trade off as you see fit.  Break responsibilities down to where they are easily split but based on each person's strengths.  Other times, simply doing things spontaneously for your partner can be an amazing gesture of love.

7. SET YOUR EGO ASIDE

Conflict is natural in all relationships.  Where it gets sticky is when either or both parties do not set their egos aside enough to look at the scope of the conflict in the relationship.  Too often, one paints the other as the 'bad guy' (or gal) and they are completely innocent.  There is always two sides to a story, you just have to slow your roll long enough for the other person to tell you theirs.  Sometimes apologizing means that you value your relationship more than your ego, even though you might not have been the only one at fault.

Relationship Mending Tips: LISTEN.  Above all else, listen to your partner.  Not only is this a sign of respect, but you just might gain some insight you did not know or understand beforehand. When having a tense discussion, focus on what the person is saying and try to understand where they are coming from instead of thinking about what you are going to say next.  If you are a person who gets really emotional in these situations, calmly tell the other person that you have heard and value what they had to say and you need to be alone to reflect on it all.  Take a few minutes or even hours to sort through it all and get back to them ASAP.  The longer you allow conflicts to linger, the worse it will get.  This way, there is no angry blow up, nasty words you can't take back or hasty decisions.


Who Am I?

Life can be a very complex, twisting path that can leave many people feeling uncertain, insecure, or just plain confused as to who they really are.  Identity is an essential part of being. What makes you "YOU?"  How are you different than others? Several things in life can effect a person's ability to establish a strong identity.  

From birth, our parents have a profound influence on how we feel about ourselves and the world around us.  From a psychosocial developmental standpoint; if parents have fostered a sense of trust, autonomy, initiative, and industry then the child is most likely to develop a good sense of identity.  If you can think of it like a video game, then trust is level 1, autonomy is level 2, and so on.  You can not pass to the next level without mastering the previous.  You can also imagine trust, autonomy, initiative and industry as layers of foundation that build IDENTITY.  

Let me paint a picture for you....  

During the first stage of life, it is important for the child to develop trustwith the parents.  If a child is often left alone, not fed properly, or badly treated, then the child will likely experience a crisis of trust throughout life until they are able to develop a genuine trust with another.  The child therefore develops a sense of fear or mistrust for others and of the world.  In order to build an identity, you must be able to trust. 

Autonomy, or the ability to accomplish things on your own, is the next stage a person must accomplish in building a strong sense of identity.  As a child, we go through a stage where, "NO" is our favorite word.  Using the word, "NO" is symbolic and rebellious in a sense that we realize we now have CHOICES and can use this word to utilize free-will. Both over-protective and harshly critical parents jeopardize a child's ability to develop the capacity to do for themselves.  The over-protective parent denies the child of autonomy through doing everything for them and not trusting the child to be able to do for his/her self.  An overly critical parent denies a child autonomy through harsh punishments for accidents so much so that the child becomes fearful of thinking or doing for his/her self.  One good example of fostering autonomy in a child would be if a parent was to "child proof" their home so that the child can be safe and be able to discover and play on their own.  When a person has successfully acquired autonomy, they are then fully capable of making decisions on their own; even in spite of failures, shame, and doubt.

Initiative is the ability to lead independently, to imagine, and to act on that imagination.  The feeling in opposition to being initiative is to feel guilty.  Guilt is learned through being conditioned to feel badly for ideas, dreams, or even those "WHY" questions kids like to ask when thy begin to get curious of the world and how it works.  Parents can stifle initiative by not allowing kids to use their imaginations or in reacting to the child's questions negatively.  Children at play is the equivalent to adults at work.  When children are denied play, they are denied the ability to lead, which can ultimately lead to guilt and insecurity.  Someone who develops a sense of command or leadership through play early on in life will likely be able to be industrious or confident in their work as a teen or adult.

Industry lays the last layer of foundation that supports a strong sense of identity.  The opposite of industry is inferiority.  If a person has gained initiative then they will likely build upon this. Through hard work comes praise and positive rewards which condition the person to understand, "If I complete my work and I do a good job, then my parents/teachers/peers praise me and this makes me feel good about myself."  If a person is already at a deficit of lacking initiative, however, a sense of inferiority can set in and paralyze the person from performing well. They may then look at those performing well and become jealous or compensate for their inferiority by bullying others.  A person who has gained praise for their accomplishments is more likely to develop a better sense of self through the development of self-confidence.

The last obstacle, according to Erik Erikson's psychosocial stages, is to develop IDENTITY rather than role-confusion.  Typically, during our teenage years we are experimenting and "trying on" different identities and roles in society.  It is important for family and friends to be supportive during this time of self-discovery in order to facilitate the person in developing a healthy identity. A person can end up being confused about who they are and what their future looks like if the people around them do not properly encourage a sense of independence and control.  Instead, a lack of confidence in desires and beliefs will leave the unsupported person feeling lost.

Personally, I remember wanting to be a firefighter, so I joined a Fire Explorer Program where I attended academy for 2 years.  At the same time, I was also an environmentalist leading a campaign through my high school for Oceana and thought that I would enjoy becoming a Marine Biologist.  Furthermore, I simultaneously became a Peer Counselor at my high school and thought that helping people through counseling would be my calling.  So wild! Looking back I can see how confusing my identity must have seemed to my friends and family.  In reality, these 3 work interests were all something I really enjoyed and in the end I picked the path that led me here, writing this article today.  However, just because you must decide on a specific occupation does not mean that you can't incorporate the other interests of what makes up your identity. Even though I am a Licensed Professional Counselor, I am still an environmentalist and surfer.

Incorporating all of your interests into your identity and life can be a very fulfilling experience. People wear many hats throughout their day and even more throughout their entire lives. Learning to incorporate your many roles in life is what makes you whole.


INTIMACY VERSUS ISOLATION: RELATIONSHIP BUILDING & MAINTENANCE (PART 1)

*Please Click Here to read "Who Am I?" my previous blog post about Erikson's early childhood psychosocial stages of development to refresh your memory before further reading.*

In a previous blog post I wrote entitled, Who AM I, we discussed the necessity for development and growth as an individual.  In this past blog post, Erik Erikson's psychosocial stages of development were used as markers for age-appropriate goals in successful maturation into adulthood.  Many people can still be theoretically "stuck" in a childhood crisis like not knowing who they are as an individual (identity vs. role confusion) or even lacking self confidence to accomplish things for themselves (autonomy vs. shame) which have origins in various environmental/parental factors.  

At some point, however, people inevitably reach a point of attempting to develop intimacy (deep relationships including; love, friendships, sexual intimacy, marriage). Unfortunately, if we are still carrying over unresolved crises from our childhoods into our adult lives and relationships, there is a great potential for heartache and despair.  In this post, I would like to discuss how to achieve deep and meaningful relationships.

CHECK YOUR BAGGAGE AT THE DOOR

Yes, we all have some baggage.  Some have small carry-on's and others have the full matching set, complete with 360 degree rotating wheels! Regardless of the size, your baggage needs to get checked.  Most of us have gone through life or continue to go through life living each day under several shells of defense.  The shell you hide under might be labelled Projection or Denial or RepressionDisplacement or even Regression (See chart below).  In psychology, all of these are what we call defense mechanisms and while they might shield you from some sort of emotional pain in the present, they will lead to a life of inauthenticity and ultimately, meaninglessness relationships.

RECOGNIZE WHEN YOUR BAGGAGE CREATES TURBULENCE IN YOUR RELATIONSHIPS

What is that old saying again?  The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.  Now that you have admitted to yourself that you hide under the shells of certain defense mechanisms, you can begin to watch for when they rear their ugly little heads in your relationships.  

I once had a client who could do nothing wrong. She was repetitively late, promised things to people but did not deliver and would not take responsibility for anything she was called out on. Rationalization was her shell even though she would not accept the responsibility of labeling it as such.  In her eyes, she was a perfectionist, a super busy woman, always on the go.  In reality, she was not too great at prioritizing, scheduling, and committing to her responsibilities.  As a result, her friendships and dating life were suffering.  Her excuses were her drug and she was addicted.  

In therapy, I would say the majority of clients accept feedback from their therapist and whole heartedly invest on working on their selves by taking responsibility for their behaviors. However, sometimes there are clients who would prefer not to look in the mirror for fear that it would shatter their perception they have built of who they think they are (or really, what they want to be like).  This client was one of the latter in which we could talk about others around her but when it came to her doing work on herself, she would quickly find other "more important" things or other people to talk about.  

If you are willing to honestly look at your behavior and thought patterns, check your baggage, and then start to recognize it when it pops up in your relationships...then you are ready to grow.

YOU'VE TAGGED YOUR BAG, YOU CAN IDENTIFY IT WHEN IT POPS UP, NOW WHAT?

Now comes the "fun" part. You've been honest with yourself thus far in admitting to using some defense mechanisms, you can catch or prevent yourself from using them, and now its time to think.  Where and when did you start using these?  Was it recently?  All your life?  When you figure out the "when and where", it becomes much easier to spot the "how and why."

Eventually, my client who had been hiding under her shell of rationalization would come to terms with it after having several failed attempts at maintaining a steady intimate relationship.  She would later admit to having parents who would scrutinize her for minor mistakes at a young age and was able to see how this influenced her cycle of needing to feel perfect and needing to make excuses when she had fallen from perfection. She had pushed the memories of her strict childhood down so far, she almost forgot what started this behavior pattern in the first place. 

Coming to terms with not being perfect was a hell of a thing for her.  After all, she had been perfect her whole life, right?  When she was able to admit that she did not really have any true friends or a stable intimate relationship at the age of 32 and that her "go-to" shell of rationalization had acted as a wall in pushing people away, only then was she able to admit to being flawed. Her motivation to grow and seek intimacy was greater than her comfort of remaining in her shell and protecting her ego.  

Her motivation is what awakened her and your motivation is what will awaken you if you dare to go outside your shell.

       LOVE AFTER LOVE 

        By, Derek Walcott

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.