Deepen Your Relationship in Conflict

Deepen Your Relationship in Conflict

A few days ago, I came across various articles warning readers about what not to say to different groups of people- what not to ask women, what not to say to new parents, what not to ask an older male divorcee, what never, ever to ask (fill in the blank). I decided to investigate these articles further so that I might be able to understand the messages. After reading them, it seemed that the message to readers was pretty clear. The authors hoped that their words would preclude people from offending each other, sounding stupid, or both.

Overall, I appreciated this sentiment. I don’t like to see people get their feelings hurt either. But the more I thought about the authors’ collective message, the more I couldn’t help but get the feeling that there might be an even deeper message, a message that communicated danger in being curious.

As a therapist, I see a lot of people who want to learn how to manage conflict in a more productive way so that they can have the relationships, careers, and lives they want. A lot of learning how to manage conflict is a) learning how to manage one’s emotions, b) learning about the language one uses to communicate (and what it says about them), and c) curiosity about another’s experience. We are in conflict in every way, every day. Conflict is simply variation. We all manage (and mismanage) conflict every day, sometimes without realizing it.

When I hear people urging others out there to clam up and not ask specific questions, I hear them asking for people not to communicate their curiosity. It sounds as though they are suggesting that the antidote to conflict is a closed mouth. Of course, that isn’t the intention; I know that. But a lot of relationship wounds happen unintentionally.

Which brings me to… intention. When you are managing conflict, it’s important to pay attention to intention, both your own and another person’s. If another person’s intention is unclear to you, it’s a great idea to ask them. If it seems like they’re trying to make you feel uncomfortable, provoke you, etc., the conversation will probably feel like more of an attack and their questions might feel more threatening or offensive. Most people don’t want to oblige people’s questions when they feel threatened. But what if someone is genuinely curious about your experience? Then how do you feel about questions?

What if the thirty-something single working mom wants you to ask the questions that you have about her life so that she can broaden your understanding, feel a little less isolated, and deepen her connection to you? Obviously, the first step is to ask if you can ask. Second, be respectful and non-critical if she doesn’t want to answer certain questions. I imagine that part of what went into creating these lists of what not to ask who is the notion that there are times when it’s tough to be and feel vulnerable, that we need to respect this in one another.

Take some time right now to think about questions that might be on your “questions never to ask me” list. How did they get on that list? What does it mean to you when someone asks you these questions? Does age, gender, sexuality, privilege, economic status factor in? If so, how? What feeling is evoked when someone asks you or when you think about someone asking you these particular questions? What would you like to avoid by avoiding said questions?

I’m reasonable. I get that it might feel surprising (and maybe a little jarring) to be asked certain questions by strangers or those with whom you are not close, no matter how pure the intention. I’m not advocating for intrusiveness. But it seems like there is a lot of “never ask this!” advice for friends and family and I think it’s such a disservice to intimacy and connection! Most humans want to understand and be understood by one another.


Love and Be Loved,


Try This When You Are Overwhelmed by Stress

Try This When You Are Overwhelmed by Stress

Ever heard the phrase, “If you can’t get out of it, get into it?” It’s the motto for the experience-based outdoor education program, Outward Bound. The idea is both simple and revolutionary; if you can’t avoid an experience it, explore it. Find out more about it, what you need, and why that’s important.

This takes a lot of intention because, to be honest, most of the time, we want to get out of things. We want to get out of our uncomfortable situations, painful feelings, anxiety-addled thoughts. We want to end our imbalanced relationships and quit our stressful jobs. We want to get out of discomfort and into comfort.

We end up living lives of dread- dread of chaos, dread of pain, dread of all kinds of woe. In our attempt to keep ourselves out of discomfort, we live full-time in anticipation of it which can be pretty uncomfortable. That’s the worst part of all of it! In our effort to prepare for or avoid dis-ease, we end up living lives full of it. It seems a little counterintuitive.

Sometimes just the thought of sitting without pain or stress or discomfort sends us into a tailspin. “But I sit with it every day! I feel depressed and anxious all the time because I’m sitting with it!” people say. “If you knew how bad I felt, you wouldn’t tell me to try to ‘sit with it.’”

I get it. Life can feel like one big compound-stress heap sometimes (or a lot of the times), especially when you live in a metropolitan area. Things are more expensive, quicker-paced, more competitive, and more crowded.

I’m not simply talking about sitting with your discomfort and thinking about how uncomfortable you are. (I have a feeling you might already do that…) I’m talking about intentionality- intentional curiosity, intentional honesty, intentional exploration. It’s the opposite of stewing in your stress.

Let’s take math, for instance, any math. Remember how our teachers wanted us to show our work? Most likely, you didn’t get credit for answering a problem correctly unless you showed all of your work. They wanted us to be able to see how we arrived at the numerical destination to show that we understood everything that went into making that outcome possible. Then, we could build on our understanding and have the ability to answer increasingly challenging questions. Incidentally, some of us didn’t feel very confident in our math computation capabilities. Some days it can feel like life is one giant math problem.

I’m asking you to try breaking it down; break-down the problem or insecurity or stress to see how you arrived here and what it will take for you to be able to do what you need or want to do. Solve for x by working backwards.

If a relationship is so stressful that you are contemplating ending it, first look at some of the information you have. How did it become this stressful? How do the two of you handle conflict? If you fight, what are the fights like? (Name-calling? Swearing? Throwing things? Hitting below the belt?)

If it’s your job that you are thinking of quitting, what has convinced you that your dis-ease will dissolve once you’re at a new job? How did you come to understand it this way? What’s the worst part of it and why?

Sometimes the answer will be to end a relationship, quit a job, sometimes not. The feeling of self-assuredness we seek regarding an outcome usually comes from the sense that we have adequate information (that we understand), feel resourced in ourselves and are connected to our intention. We don’t like to feel like we’re grasping around in the dark and will take the first thing we hit. That makes us feel more scared and desperate.

When you allow yourself to sit with what makes you uncomfortable, ask yourself questions, are honest with yourself about the answers, you give yourself the most solid platform from which to launch your intentional decision.

I’m also aware that this can’t always happen. Sometimes, life calls for fast and swift action. There are situations in which the only decision we have to make is to how we will respond. Either way, I’d love to talk with you more about this. I know it can feel overwhelming.


Love and Be Loved,

What You Need to Know Before You Break Up, Divorce, Or Separate

What You Need to Know Before You Break Up, Divorce, Or Separate

I see a lot of couples and individuals who seek help with their romantic relationships, marriages, and intimate partner relationships. The most common issue they bring involves some kind of change they would like to make in the way they communicate. This can mean a variety of things.

“We have problems with communication,” can mean that one partner wants the other to have mind-reading capabilities (which often results in resentment), difficulty taking responsibility (defensiveness and blame), unaddressed or unmanaged insecurities, frequent criticism by one or both partners, or shutting the other out. Often, all of these are present. This can be exhausting and discouraging. When this difficulty in “communication” has gone unmanaged long enough, people begin to wonder if it means a break-up is imminent. I hear the phrases “fresh start” and “clean slate” more than I can count. Often, people feel as if relief cannot be achieved fast enough.

A small background on humans and our emotions (and emotion management):

There are two brains that are responsible for our emotional life, the prefrontal cortex (logic) and the limbic system (emotion). The prefrontal cortex is in charge of our executive functioning. Because of our prefrontal cortex we can make decisions, calculations, and reason.

Our limbic system is our emotion center, the pain and pleasure centers, where our fight or flight responses originate. When activated, the limbic system releases adrenaline. Adrenaline interferes with/prohibits the prefrontal cortex from reasoning. If the limbic system is incredibly triggered, it releases a lot of adrenaline. If it is only slightly triggered, it releases less.

This system works great when we need to act without thinking. If in danger, we can quickly get to safety. The same system is less ideal when we need to think before we do or say something (which is most of the time). When we legitimately need immediate relief, it is an efficient interaction. When we feel like we need immediate relief (and are not actually in danger), we have our work cut out for us.

In short, when our lives are not in danger, our limbic system makes us stupid.

It’s common for people to experience stress involving the two brains in other aspects of their lives, too, not only in relationship. We look for a “fresh start” in many places- jobs, places of residence, careers, and groups for instance. It’s just as common for those who have begun a fresh start to find that they’ve made a mistake or that the problem has followed them. This can bring about feelings of anger, grief, confusion, desperation, and hopelessness.

We ask ourselves, “Should I stay or should I go?” (Because we like to simplify things, and we want to feel better yesterday.) It would benefit us to shift our thinking a bit and ask ourselves,

“What am I looking for? What would have to be true for me to have the experience I want?” This pattern of thinking sets the scene for a more curious, thoughtful mindset. Instead of piling reaction on top of reaction, we have the chance to clearly navigate our situations with intention and care.

I encourage you to do just that; ask yourself what you’re after and what would have to be true for this to be experienced. Give yourself time and space for thought and curiosity. To quote the adage- “Don’t just do something. Sit there.”

If you would like to find out more about strategies to manage your emotions, read my older entries, stay tuned for newer entries, or give me a call. Whatever you do, be patient and compassionate with yourself so that you can figure out what will work for you. You would probably rather have lasting relief over immediate (and usually short-lived) relief.


Love and Be Loved,

Build Your Confidence in Relationships

Build Your Confidence in Relationships

A few years ago, I was walking down a mostly-empty street in my neighborhood, and I saw someone walking in my direction. He was an older man, looking down, walking rather quickly. I waited for him to look up so that I could smile at him or acknowledge him in some way. He didn’t look up, and we both kept walking in our separate directions.

This went on for about four months or so. Different times of day, we passed one another, neither of us greeting one another. For years I had been completely comfortable with this kind of coexistence. I was fine to walk past people without looking at or speaking to them, without making any attempt to connect with them.

Eventually, I noticed a shift. I wanted to reach out to people. I wanted to be a safe, friendly, loving face. My first efforts at this were with this man.

Day after day this man and I walked past one another without much (if any) interaction. After a few months, I said my first “good morning” to him. He briefly looked up, glanced in my direction, looked back down, and continued his quick pace. I decided to stick with my new addition to our routine passing and continued to greet him each time we saw one another.

We pressed through this new phase of our interaction for a few months. We would approach one another; I greeted him; he would quickly glance at me and keep walking. I grew accustomed to this and began to expect it.

One day, as I was gearing up for our usual interface, something changed. I smiled, said hello… and he smiled back. He slowed down, smiled at me, and said, “It’s a beautiful morning, isn’t it?” We chatted for about a minute or so and then continued on our way.

I was elated. After almost a year of consistent behavior and subtle shifts, we were strengthening our gentle little connection. Every day after that, we shared bits of our lives with one another, our weekend plans, which books we were rereading for the hundredth time and why. I still enjoy our connection. We now look for one another and begin our conversation long before we’re side by side.

This process has taught me significant lessons.

If I had never reached out at all or given up early on when it seemed like my neighborhood friend preferred that we keep our narratives to ourselves, I wouldn’t get to enjoy the connection that we have today. If I had stopped reaching out to him any time I felt rejected or embarrassed because he didn’t meet my reach, it would have been a loss- the loss of a warm connection and the loss of my authenticity.

Just because someone might not respond the way you hope doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do or say what’s in your heart.

As I thought about what I learned from the interactions with my neighborhood friend, I started to think about how it could inform my more intimate relationships. What could I give to and gain from relationships in which I reach out empathically, patiently, selflessly? If I can reach out to a stranger for almost a year and expect nothing in return, how am I capable of being in long-term relationships? I began to wonder what my life could be like if I didn’t need anything or anyone to be different from how they are at any given moment.

What seemed like a mundane part of my day turned into an invaluable gift. I started keeping my eyes open to other lessons that might be right in front of me, lessons that I had previously ignored. I like what I am finding.

I’d love for you to tell me about your lessons. What have you found?


Love and Be Loved,