Intimacy vs. Agreement:
“I better not disagree with his point of view, or he’ll get upset.”

"First Encounter" by Mimi Stuart ©  Live the Life you Desire

“First Encounter” by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Guessing game: Cycle of fusion

People often mistake intimacy with a feeling of closeness and “being one” that comes from all-encompassing agreement and approval, similar to the feeling of falling in love. So in their quest for intimacy, they will anticipate the other person’s response to decide whether to avoid saying something controversial or to show a new side of themselves. If they foresee disapproval, they will screen themselves and limit their expression to what’s tried and true between them. Or they will pressure the other person into agreeing with them.

Unfortunately, too much self-screening and manipulation start the cycle of emotional fusion (co-dependence) and lead away from growth and intimacy in a relationship.

Agreement vs intimacy

People do not get to know one another intimately when they conceal who they are and what they think. When two people are always in complete agreement and busy soothing each other’s egos, their relationships become tedious.

Intimacy develops when people express who they are more fully, even when it does not lead to a feeling of oneness. People may say they want more intimacy, but in fact, real intimacy may be too much for many to tolerate.

Tolerating the anxiety of intimacy

To deepen intimacy, two people must get to know each other more deeply. They each have to be able to express who they are, what they feel, and what they believe. This requires being able to handle the possibility of not getting approval, and that can trigger anxiety. Thus, by developing a better tolerance for anxiety, you enhance your ability to deepen intimacy.

Of course there is some limit as to what you should express to others. You don’t need to share every thought and feeling. There is a point where consideration and discernment count more than blunt honesty and openness. You also don’t want to bore others by expressing every thought you have. It’s important, for example, to avoid expressing every criticism or self-criticism that comes to your mind.

Get comfortable with discomfort

If you get comfortable with discomfort, you no longer need to feign agreement, laugh at a poor joke, or dumb down your conversation to avoid upsetting another person. Your relationships will be based on stimulating thoughts, growth, and authenticity rather than sham consensus.

Respectful communication

Intimate relationships develop best when you express your honest opinions respectfully, and most importantly, when you really listen to another person’s message without shutting him or her down. This means not being reactive — sarcastic, angry, or cold — when someone has an opinion that you disagree with. When you attack someone aggressively for their ideas, you are not encouraging them to be open and honest with you.

Respectful communication is different from acceptance and approval. Good communication does not necessarily make the other person feel his or her opinions are validated, but it also does not make the other person feel rejected or attacked.

Learn to reveal yourself, your opinions, and feelings respectfully, and to listen with equanimity. You will find that, with the right people, you will truly get to know one another, and develop meaningful, intimate relationships that are much more fulfilling than those based on self-screening and validation.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Passion vs. Predictability: The Problem with Emotional Fusion.”

Read “Emotionally Volatile People: ‘He can be so charming and then so defiant.’”

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Is life a drag?
Living the Moment

"Enlightenment" Dalai Lama by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“Enlightenment” — Dalai Lama by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

The extraordinary moments of life are outbalanced by the more frequent ordinary moments, such as working at the computer, going to the store, or sitting in traffic. The good news is that brain research shows that happiness is related more to your state of mind than the state of your current external circumstances.

One way to improve every moment is by learning to have a relaxed, mindful attitude, even when you might be bored or under stress. So there is no need to wait for the next time you go on vacation, go to a yoga class, or have a couple of drinks to improve your state of mind.

When you relax while focusing on the present moment, you can learn to be at ease, quick and on task without rushing. If you learn to be “in the zone” even in ordinary moments, life will flow more easily and your feelings of fulfillment will be enhanced.

We can consider life as a precious gift or a strenuous chore. To a large degree, it is our choice because we filter life through our mind. Here are some ways in which we can improve our state of mind, make the ordinary extraordinary, and be more enjoyable to be around:

1. Notice sensations, the air, the view, and the environment around you. This puts you in the present moment and mitigates anxiety and fear.

2. Observe your own energy and that of those around you. Intentionally transform your energy, whether you decide to focus on being peaceful, excited, appreciative, or ready for action.

3. Be mindful of your body. Correct your posture and reposition yourself to feel strong and relaxed.

4. Notice your facial expression and decide if you you’d like to change a frown into a more pleasant expression. Smiling alone will improve your day.

5. Focus on your breath. Breathe more slowly and deeply.

6. Be ready to handle anything that comes your way in a positive way. View every challenge as an opportunity for growth.

7. Focus on others, that is, engage others with wit, intellect, or a compassionate attitude. This takes the focus off of one’s own complaints. And most important,

8. Be happy to be alive.

If things get rough, then breathe deeply, think about what you can be grateful for, and if possible, look for the irony, humor, or philosophical insight that many situations present.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “I want to enjoy life and not just think about money.”

Read “Fear and Panic: ‘If I don’t keep on top of everything, I don’t know what will happen.’”

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Arguments over money: “You call me a miser? You spend our money before we even have it!”

"Sandy Bay, Isla de Roatan" by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“Sandy Bay, Isla de Roatan” by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Arguments about money can easily destroy a relationship. However, a relationship can also be destroyed when a couple does not talk about their differing attitudes toward money.

Attitudes about money often reflect deep psychological emotions that have developed as a response to feelings of security or the lack of it while growing up. There is no one right way to handle money. Therefore, couples need to talk about money and how they plan to spend and save it without putting each other on the defensive. The earlier they start talking about their values, the better.

To have an effective conversation about money, both partners need to become aware of their own fears and desires about money and their sought-after security. This is not easy, especially when it comes to determining to what degree their judgments are emotionally based or objectively savvy. They also need to recognize and have empathy for the other person’s point of view.

Couples have to develop a mutual plan, even if the plan ends up being to keep finances completely separate. To make an appropriate plan, couples need to take into account each person’s underlying fears and desires.

Guidelines for talking about money:

1. Communicate effectively, so that you can be honest without being hostile. Talk about your own feelings and values without negative judgment toward your partner.

2. Do not overreact, manipulate, or control your partner into spending or not spending money.

3. Do not exaggerate financial situations to get the other person’s attention. Rather than attacking your partner for their spending habits, state your fears and your desires in a neutral way.

4. Avoid acquiescing to behavior you disagree with in order to keep the peace. Otherwise you will develop underground hostility and resentment.

5. Retain your independence. Avoid becoming too financially dependent on another person, particularly if you’re not on the same page regarding finances. Then you won’t have to live in constant stress.

Examples:

“I’m afraid that we won’t be able to pay the mortgage and other bills. I dread the possibility of losing our home, which could happen to us if I were to lose my job. I would feel a lot more secure having enough savings in the bank to last at least a year.”

“I know we need to budget, but it means a lot to me to go out once a week with you. It rekindles my feelings of romance and spontaneity. Why don’t we budget a certain amount each week so that we both feel comfortable with a little weekly entertainment and romance?”

“I’m concerned that I will not be able to retire. I would prefer to forego spending money for non-essentials, such as going out to dinner and buying new clothes over living with the fear of never being able to retire. I would like to create a budget that ensures that our savings are increasing each month by (amount or percentage) and to keep our spending in check.”

A couple has to speak candidly and listen to one another’s concerns and desires before they can make a specific plan that will satisfy both partners. Regardless of what you can agree upon, it doesn’t hurt to remain capable of being independent. Nothing in life is certain. Therefore, having some money set aside and being able to get a job and support yourself are key to promoting your psychological and financial security.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD


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“I feel that you are selfish.”

“Baby I love your way” detail by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

The good thing about “selfish” people is that they take care of themselves — so you don’t have to. They can also be full of passion and vitality because they do things out of interest rather than out of obligation or guilt.

This same tendency, however, can make them less aware and concerned about other people’s needs. It’s important, therefore, that your expectations match the reality of a person’s character. So enjoy the positive and protect yourself against the negative. Make sure you express and go after your own desires and needs — in a positive, life-enhancing way!

“I feel that you are selfish” expresses a negative judgment or complaint, not a feeling or request. When people hear negative judgments, their defenses come up and their hearts close down.

The most effective way to deal with people who seem a little selfish is to take care of your own needs and to pursue your own desires. Don’t expect them to stop what they are doing in order to take care of you. You will produce better results if you engage and entice the person rather than criticize and complain.

For example,

“Let’s do something that we both enjoy. Do you want to watch the game and then go to dinner?”

Or

“I left you some dinner, and have to go pick up the kids. It would be great if you could clean up. See you in a little while.”

Or

“Let’s go to the beach. I have a nice bottle of wine.”

Or

“I am going to see a band in town tonight with Damian and Corey. It would be fun if you’d join us!”

by Alison Poulsen, PhD


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A Passionate vs. a Lackluster Relationship:
The Problem with Emotional Fusion

“Pan Extasy” by Mimi Stuart ©

Do you feel threatened when your partner doesn’t agree with you or behave the way you want?

If so, you may be seeking a type of unity that is both unattainable and undesirable. Although many people in a relationship feel alienated from one another, emotional fusion is more often the problem than insufficient attachment. Emotional fusion occurs when people do not function independently, but are emotionally reactive by being overly acquiescent or rebellious.

Couples use silence, withdrawal, and facial expressions of disapproval to pressure each other to express agreement or approval. These subtle forms of manipulation usually causes people become defensive or to repress feelings and thoughts that are incompatible with those of their partner.

If partners can’t handle having differences of opinion, they miss the opportunity to have energized discussions as two separate individuals. Eventually passion in the relationship disappears, because it can only persist between two separate individuals. While it may seem nice to be in agreement, too much unison usually causes mystery, growth, and passion to fade away and be replaced by predictability and boredom, and/or anger and resentment.

Origin of emotional fusion

Emotional fusion with one’s family of origin often leads to a tendency to fuse with people later in life. When excessive energy is bound in a parent/child relationship, the child becomes emotionally fused to the parent and is unable to function autonomously. Over-attachment, where the child stays substantially merged with the parent, encourages emotional reactivity in the guise of accommodation or provocation. The child thinks, feels, and acts with the parents’ and later the spouse’s potential reactions and feelings in mind.

The child may become a “good boy” or “good girl”, doing and saying exactly what’s wanted, while repressing parts of him or herself that would provoke the parent. Or, the child may become rebellious, often saying and doing precisely the opposite of what the parent desires, in order to try to stake out a sense of individuality.

Often the child alternates between the two extremes rather than developing an organic sense of self based on reflections and experience, not simply one that accommodates or reacts against those on whom the child is dependent.
What’s lacking is an ability to reasonably express thoughts and choose actions without an intention to acquiesce or to rebel against family members.

Both over-accommodation and excessive rebelliousness result from fusion. Emotional fusion replaces adequate separation and real intimacy with a sense of suffocation and/or isolation. If your parent cares about you and gives you adequate space to have your own feelings, thoughts, and some appropriate decision-making power, there’s not much to rebel against. Nor is there an urgent sense to please the parent at any cost.

Repression

The pressured partner may accommodate her partner, while repressing her own conflicting feelings and thoughts. However, ongoing avoidance of discomfort, disapproval, and criticism leads to partners drifting apart, because they are hesitant to share incompatible or new parts of themselves. Soon they no longer have anything to talk about.

Repressed parts of the personality then gather energy in the unconscious, and ultimately seep out in the form of depression, sickness, or secret affairs. Repressed feelings and thoughts can also erupt unexpectedly in anger, violence, and even unexpected divorce.

Anger

Control, anger, and violence can arise from the inability to calmly and firmly withstand the pressure to merge with another person, or from the inability to tolerate another person’s disagreement or disapproval.

Arguing is often a manifestation of the unconscious attempting to balance togetherness and separateness. Focusing on the other through argument provides emotional contact, while anger and resistance to one’s partner’s wishes promote separateness.

Once one becomes emotionally separate, anger is no longer necessary to resist pressures to merge with the other. You can accept the fact that your partner is disappointed or disagrees with you. You can express disagreement or make requests without being angry or scared. Uncomfortable, yes; but angry, no.

Example of Fused Couple: Paul states he does not want Sally to visit her sister. Sally doesn’t go, but is angry for hours or days. Or Sally says she’s going anyway, and Paul stays angry for days.

Example of Differentiated Couple: Paul says he wishes he could go on a trip with her and is sad that she’ll be going without him. Sally says she’s sorry he’ll be lonely, but it’s really important for her to spend some time alone with her sister. Or Sally says that he’s welcome to join her if he can get away.

Partners are equally fused

Partners who stay together for a long time, say a year or more, are generally equally emotionally fused, although they may not think they are. They just express it differently.

For example, it’s not accidental, although it may be unconscious, that a man who seeks his own space chooses a woman who yearns for connection. If she didn’t seek connection, there wouldn’t be any. If he didn’t seek space, there wouldn’t be any. They both need the other to find some sort of balance. Yet, the man may believe that the problem is all hers—she is simply too needy. The woman believes that the problem is all his—he fears intimacy. They’ve both selected the ideal person either to learn from or to blame.

Problems with fusion:

1. No sense of identity

Increased emotional fusion paradoxically creates both a greater need for more togetherness in one person and an urge to flee in the other person. Sometimes one person experiences both. Feelings of being trapped, controlled, and smothered, or isolated, unsupported, and unloved infuse the relationship.

The problem is that neither partner can maintain his or her sense of identity in the presence of the other. When one disagrees or neglects the other, the other takes it personally and becomes reactive by withdrawing coldly or picking a fight. Alternatively, partners may quickly accommodate each other, repressing their own feelings and thoughts, which eventually leads to resentment or a diminished sense of self.

2. Needing emotional validation

Most relationship difficulties result from attempting to avoid anxiety. Often, when we’re anxious, we seek validation from others. Others then feel obliged to give us validation, because they feel uncomfortable with our anxiety. Validation is an attempt to soothe the other’s anxiety in order to soothe our own. Such validation differs from compassion and appreciation, which are freely-given expressions of kindness, enjoyment and gratitude toward the other, rather than attempts to mitigate distress.

3. Diminishing boundaries

With increased fusion, boundaries between people dissolve, and anxiety becomes increasingly infectious. “As boundaries dissolve, there is increased pressure on people to think, feel, and act in ways that will enhance one another’s emotional well-being” (Kerr and Bowen, p. 77). Well-being cannot be provided by another person without diminishing that person’s selfhood and independence. So, the expectation of providing for someone’s well-being ironically increases pressure, anxiety, and disappointment.

4. Controlling behavior

If your sense of identity or well-being depends on what your partner thinks, it’s natural to try to control your partner. Above all, it becomes critical to minimize anxiety and to continue securely in the emotional attachment. Controlling behavior, however, stifles all spontaneity and freshness in a relationship.

For example, people who complain of sexual boredom often feel threatened by the display of new sexual behavior by their partners and therefore ridicule or reject such attempts, which are ways of trying to control a person. Or they may hesitate to try something new themselves for fear of their partners’ disapproval.

Differentiation

To resolve the anguish of emotional fusion, individuals need to become more highly-differentiated, that is, emotionally separate, and therefore, less reactive. Differentiation will (a) permit a person to get intensely involved without becoming infected with the other person’s anxiety, and (b) eliminate the need to withdraw or control the partner to modulate a person’s own emotional well-being. Even if only one person becomes less reactive, the relationship will improve.

Ironically, emotional objectivity and separateness allow us to be more intimate and passionate. Someone who is differentiated doesn’t fear intimacy or solitude. While we want to be considerate of others in our interactions, we don’t want to negate ourselves by endowing others with too much power. When we are not excessively worried about another’s reactions, we can be truly intimate, that is, we can express ourselves, our thoughts, and our emotions more freely and deeply. When we are more confident in ourselves and less hindered by our partner’s anxiety, we can grow emotionally, sexually, and intellectually, often enticing our partners to do the same. When someone is confident with a positive attitude, rather than cautious, fearful of rejection, or controlling, that person becomes more attractive and is able to ignite passion more easily.

When we take care of and are responsible for our own emotions, we can be intimate without pressuring others to validate or soothe us or to do what we want. By not allowing other people’s anxiety to infect us, we remain emotionally separate and objective, which paradoxically allows for greater connection and intense intimacy. Relationships are desired for enjoyment, not to be controlled to fulfill a need.

Existential aloneness

Underlying emotional fusion is caused by a fear of being separate and alone in the world. As we face and accept our own existential separateness, our tolerance for being alone increases. Our disappointment in others diminishes, because we relinquish unattainable expectations that our partners will save us from our basic separateness and mortality. Paradoxically, our oneness with others, not just our partners, increases as we accept our separateness.

Solution

We need to recognize how our reactivity toward others is driven by our own anxiety and sense of aloneness. Part of this process is realizing that we can never be fully united in thought and feeling with another person. Once we genuinely accept our existential separation from others, we can more fully enjoy the fleeting connection with others, without grasping to get more of it, and without resisting it to avoid the pain of its eventual loss.

Passion requires being in the moment and letting go of fear and control. While there is a place in long-term relationships for planning and thinking about the future, there is also a place for being free of those thoughts and letting spontaneity and desire reign. Passion is a feeling of being alive, alert and excited in the midst of the unknown. By breaking away from predictable routine and control over your partner or over yourself , you can allow a little unpredictability back into the relationship. Embracing the unknown—or anxiety—with a positive attitude, you can turn it into excitement, desire, and passion.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “I never get to go skiing anymore because of my partner.”

Recommended References:

Kerr, M. & Bowen, M. (1988). Family Evaluation: The role of the family as an emotional unit that governs individual behavior and development. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York.

Schnarch, D. (1991). Constructing the sexual crucible: Paradigm-shift in sexual and marital therapy. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Embracing Each Other, by Drs. Hal and Sidra Stone

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The Most Appealing Way to Take a Compliment

“Power of Pink” by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Why People Give Compliments

Some compliments are more meaningful than others. The best ones are specific, genuine, and address something that requires effort or skill. Others are less meaningful, because they are general, manipulative, or address a quality that you were born with, such as being tall.

In either case, when people give compliments, they are generally attempting to make a connection with you or to make you feel good. They feel good when they have a positive effect and when they are acknowledged. So whether the compliment is really meaningful or not, consider the other person’s feelings, and avoid focusing simply on whether you feel embarrassed and whether you deserve the compliment.

How Not to Respond to a Compliment

Imagine how a person might feel if you respond to a compliment with dismissiveness or a negative remark about yourself. For example,

“You look fantastic!”

“No I don’t. I look terrible.”

Your response is unfriendly and unappreciative. In negating the compliment, you lose vitality and desirability. More importantly, the person giving the compliment feels rebuffed.

Some people fear that they will come across as arrogant if they accept a compliment too readily. However, accepting a compliment does not mean letting it go to your head. If you know yourself, then your self-worth will not be based on casual external feedback.

There is also no need to argue against the validity or motivation of a compliment. If we do not let it inflate our ego, we do not have to worry about someone’s dubious intentions. Even if the compliment is given in an attempt to manipulate you, graciously accepting it does not mean you will let it influence your actions.

How to Take a Compliment

Taking a moment to feel gratitude when you are treated well is a gift for the person giving the compliment. Why not enjoy soaking in kind words like a few rays of sunshine? People enjoy knowing they have made someone else feel good. Letting your appreciation show with a smile, a twinkle of the eye, and a “Thank you” encourages people to continue to look for the good in both you and others.

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.

~Leo F. Buscaglia

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Parental Boasting for Self-Esteem:
‘Honey, I was just telling the Jones how smart and athletic you are.'”

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