Author Archives: Alison

“Should I stay with my husband who is rude, selfish, and impossible to live with?”

“Celestial Magic” Mimi Stuart©

“Should I stay with my husband who is impossible to live with?

My husband barks orders at me, is rude and condescending, and when things heat up he uses profanity and calls me names. He does things that can be very selfish, and if I complain he says I’m being “toxic”. He rarely says he’s sorry and is uninterested in counseling.

Here are the reasons I have stayed with him to date:

1) I don’t want another failed marriage,

2) We have a kid together and for her sake I don’t want to break our family apart,

3) He is very smart, can be fun, and we share values,

4) He is the primary breadwinner so I’d have to go back to full time work, and

5) We are both in our early 50’s and that feels like a pretty advanced age to give up and try to start over.”

1. Another failed relationship

Is staying in a failed relationship better than leaving it? We all make mistakes and face different challenges in our lives. Life is about learning from our experiences and transforming ourselves and our relationships for the better. Ask yourself whether staying in a failed relationship is better than leaving it when there is very little hope for joy, mutual growth, and deepening love.

2. Staying together for the children

Staying in an abusive relationship is not good for you or your daughter. In contrast, having the courage to seek a better life can be of great benefit to your child. It is a gift to show your daughter that you can set clear boundaries, that you have the self-respect to expect better treatment, and that you will take action to improve your life.

It may be helpful to explain the situation to your child, without unnecessarily disparaging your husband. There is no need to go into great detail, especially if the child is young. For example, you might say:

“You probably have noticed that we have great difficultly talking to each other without arguing. There will be disagreements in any relationship. But in our case, we are hurting each other constantly and unnecessarily. Since your dad is unwilling to go to counseling, I have decided to leave the relationship. But we both love you and life will go on and eventually improve.”

You may be surprised by her reaction, if not immediately, then down the road. If your husband is as abusive as you say then she may thank you for the separation.

3. My partner has good qualities. What is the magic ratio?

Something attracted you to each other in the first place, and it is good to still be able to see his positive qualities. The question to ask yourself is whether your relationship reaches the magic ratio—that is, a minimum of five positive interactions to every one negative interaction (found through John Gottman’s research.) When that magic ratio is not reached, the relationship will spiral out of control toward misery.

4. Financial considerations and going back to work

For many people, financial security is a very serious consideration. Yet independence from an abusive relationship is well worth your going back to full-time work. As a capable and thoughtful person, I am sure you will find work and thereby become more independent and also attract more positive people into your orbit. In fact, working can be the most liberating and rewarding experience you can have outside your relationship. Whether you stay together or not, working can expand your life and social network, which can enhance your self-respect and courage.

5. Too old to start over

You say that you are hesitant to end your relationship because you are in your fifties. But consider that you could easily live for another 35 or 40 years. Even if you only had another five years, your best years are likely ahead of you given your current circumstances. People can have new relationships, learn, grow, and find joy and happiness in many ways later in life. I know many people who are physically and mentally active well into their 80’s and 90’s.

Now that your husband is spending more time at home, ask yourself whether things are improving and will continue to do so, or not. Ask yourself whether you will be able to enjoy your life more in the next 30-40 years with him at your side or without him? What you have described is an abusive relationship, so I suspect the answer would be the latter.

It is laudable that you are taking responsibility for your part in the conflicts between the two of you. You can continue to work on becoming a more effective communicator and focus more on controlling your own life.

If you do leave your husband, there is no need to blame him or to be hostile. Explain the situation in a “nonviolent” way (see Marshall Rosenberg.) Here is an example,

“We have many values in common, I enjoy your wit and intelligence, and most importantly, we have a wonderful daughter. However, I need to be able to communicate with my partner in a loving way, to share joy, and to find ways to grow together. I feel distressed and frustrated that we rarely can talk with one another without fighting. I want to be in a relationship where there is mutual respect, curiosity and love. I’m sure you have noticed it too that our relationship is no longer a happy one—for either of us. We may find a way to resolve our ongoing problems by counseling, but if you aren’t willing to try, it’s best that we separate. It makes me very sad. I certainly don’t want to hurt you, but I can’t foresee continuing in the way we have been.”

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Intimacy:
“I want more intimacy, validation, and to feel closer to you.”

"Marilyn Silver Screen" by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“Marilyn Silver Screen” by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Some people claim they want more intimacy, but what they seem to really want is total agreement and constant validation, which are antithetical to intimacy. Long-term, passionate intimacy requires that two people have a strong enough sense of self that they can have differing opinions without expecting all-encompassing closeness and validation from each other.

Intimacy based on accommodation

People often find it uncomfortable to deal with their partner’s insecurities. It is easier to simply appease them, agree with them, and validate them. So they often validate their partner simply to accommodate the partner’s fears and insecurities. It is often really their own anxiety that they cannot tolerate when their partner is under stress.

For example, you may choose to respond by nodding agreeably when you don’t agree rather than saying, “I think you could have handled this differently.” As a result of hiding your true thoughts, the result is a deadening of the soul, resentment, and a loss of passion within the relationship.

Codependence

Validating your partner can temporarily improve your partner’s mood and functioning. However, it often creates long-term problems, such as increased codependency. Each partner feels increasingly burdened by an obligation to ease the other person’s anxiety. When couples become codependent, they are increasingly vulnerable to the other partner’s manipulation. They also become anxious about saying and doing the right thing in order to get a positive reaction.

Intimacy based on candor

True intimacy evolves when you don’t manipulate your partner to validate you. When you don’t need your partner to accommodate your insecurities, it’s easier to show parts of yourself to your partner that he or she may not agree with or validate. The benefit is that your partner then truly sees you without feeling an obligation to shore up your insecurities.

This requires a certain discipline, confidence, and courage to look at yourself objectively and to accept your partner’s authentic response.

While it’s nice to be validated by others, you are more likely to get true validation when you are not trying to attain it. When you’re willing to accept a person’s honest response, then you can meet that person on a deeper, truly intimate level. Ironically, less push for validation means greater intimacy and the possibility of a long-term passionate relationship.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

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

Narcissism: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

“Idaho Nobility” by Mimi Stuart©

Symptoms of Narcissism

There are degrees of narcissism, ranging from excessive self-importance to full-fledged Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD.) For people suffering from NPD, the craving for admiration, status or power is the primary drive in their lives. As a result, they display extreme selfishness, a lack of empathy, and grandiosity.

Narcissists are preoccupied with self-aggrandizement to hone public opinion of their image. They seek power, fame, status, money, or sexual conquests and are often envious of others who have an abundance of these resources. To obtain “narcissistic supply”—adulation, power, fame, etc.—they will exaggerate and misrepresent their talents and accomplishments. Grandiose and arrogant, they demand that others treat them as special or superior.

High-functioning narcissists present themselves well and are socially adept, having worked hard at creating their image. However, in intimate relationships, they frequently display envy, arrogance, entitlement, and cruelty. They protect themselves from criticism, humiliation, and rejection by over-reacting with contempt, outrage, and abuse.

Narcissists use their charm and charisma to attract people into their orbit, but they often end up exploiting them to serve their own needs. Their attitude of superiority and their tendency to blame others for their own misdeeds do not promote mutually-satisfying, long-term loving relationships.

Causes of Narcissism

Healthy narcissism is a stage that very young children need to experience to gain the confidence required to grow up, take care of themselves, and be able to initiate social interactions. Children generally grow out of this phase if they experience adequate mirroring-receiving empathy and approval from one’s caregiver, and idealization—being able to look up to a caregiver as a respected person separate from oneself. If they don’t experience adequate mirroring or idealization, their development may become arrested in the narcissistic stage.

Lack of mirroring occurs in one of the following ways:

1. Approval is erratic or lacking all together. The child is ignored.

2. Admiration is too unrealistic to believe, while realistic feedback is lacking. “You’re the cutest, smartest…”

3. Criticism for bad behavior is excessive. “You are bad, evil, stupid!!”

4. The parents are excessively permissive and overindulge the child, implying a lack of caring. “Sure, have a bowl of candy, more juice, toys, throw your food if you want to, I don’t care.”

Children are deprived of idealization in one of the following ways:

1. The parents are unpredictable, unreliable, or lacking in empathy.

2. The parents are emotionally or physically abusive.

3. The parents have no interest in the child’s needs, but exploit the child to feed their own self-esteem.

When children do not experience mirroring or idealization, their psychological development can be arrested in the narcissistic phase. They do not develop empathy for themselves or others. They feel flawed and unacceptable. They fear rejection and isolation because of their perceived worthlessness.

To cover their feelings of worthlessness, they focus on controlling how others view them by embellishing their image, accomplishments and skills. Their deep shame causes them to develop an artificial self. We all develop an artificial self to some degree, but narcissists identify fully with their artificial self.

They suffer from low self-esteem, although they and those who have fallen under their spell may not believe that they have a problem with self-esteem. People with adequate self-esteem are usually willing to look at themselves with honest self-reflection and consider areas in which they could improve. They have empathy for the flaws and inadequacies in both themselves and others.

Narcissists, however, loathe and conceal their flaws, believing that only perfection and superiority can be displayed. Thus, they view themselves and others with a perspective that swings from over-valuation to repugnance. In their quest for approval and acceptance, they use their charm and charisma. Once dependent on others’ approval, the smallest hint of disapproval can send them into a state of cruel vengeance.

Praise and admiration boost the narcissist’s self-esteem, but only temporarily, because it merely reflects the false self. When faced with criticism or solitude, shadow feelings of worthlessness grow in corresponding proportion to the narcissist’s grandiosity. To fight off this inner doom, the narcissist doubles his or her efforts in pursuit of self glorification. The cycle is never ending and unfulfilling.

Treatments for Narcissism

Narcissists feel ashamed when confronted with a criticism or failure, and may become enraged at the suggestion that they should get treatment. Thus, narcissists are generally not interested in healing. Yet they will seek therapy when they have hit rock bottom or when they are compelled to by the courts or an irate spouse.

There are no known medications to treat narcissistic personality disorder, although there are medications to treat depression and anxiety disorders, which may accompany NPD.

Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, can help a motivated narcissist understand and regulate feelings of distrust, envy, and self-loathing. Generally, psychotherapy, which focuses on strengthening the ego and developing a more realistic self-image, is a long-term endeavor. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in particular aims at identifying cognitive distortions and false beliefs with more realistic beliefs and replacing harmful behaviors with healthy behaviors.

A new treatment called Cold Therapy has been developed by Sam Vaknin, author of “Malignant Self-love & Narcissism Revisited” and other books about personality disorders. Cold Therapy’s treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorders and certain mood disorders is based on two premises: (1) That narcissistic disorders are actually forms of complex post-traumatic conditions, and (2) That narcissists are the outcomes of arrested development and attachment dysfunctions. Consequently, it borrows techniques from child psychology and from treatment modalities used to deal with PTSD.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

“My husband is a gossiper. He even has the nerve to gossip about me.”

“Sorcery” by Mimi Stuart ©

“My husband is a gossiper. He gossips about everything and everybody. He even gossips about his daughter to his sister and has the nerve to gossip about me to all of them. I have caught him on the phone doing it. It is sickening.

He did not gossip when we were dating or in the beginning of our marriage. Now everything is out on the table and I’m wondering what is what. How do I handle this without destroying my marriage?”

The Harm in Gossip

While your husband is probably not intentionally trying to hurt you, he is hurting you. Moreover, he has lost your trust and your respect — two of the most crucial components in a long-term loving relationship. Therefore, I think that his perpetual gossiping is a very serious matter and that you should treat it that way.

If it were merely harmless gossip on occasion, then it might not be so bad. After all, everyone has some flaws. But persistent gossip, particularly when it is negative and about private matters concerning you and his own child, is offensive and damaging to your relationship. He doesn’t seem to realize that such gossip simply broadcasts his own insecurity and is only appealing to those who are equally insecure.

You must let him know how seriously this affects you and your relationship. You will be forced to withhold your private thoughts in an effort to protect yourself. As a result, you will become isolated and feel increasingly repelled by him. Under such conditions, the relationship will inevitably whither.

I would take a two-pronged approach including 1) a frank discussion about the matter, and 2) speaking up each time you catch him gossiping in an inappropriate manner.

1. Having a Discussion

Sit down with your husband. Let him know clearly how serious the matter is. Be kind. Start by telling him what you like about him or what initially attracted you to him. Then tell him that you don’t intend to hurt or criticize him, but that you need to tell him how your feelings about him are changing due to his behavior.

For example,

“I am concerned that I am losing my respect and love for you because you gossip so much. When you talk about others and especially about me to others, I feel uncomfortable and repelled. I think you should know that it is causing me to lose my trust in you, the core of our relationship. I don’t want to criticize you and hurt your feelings. I want us to go back to cherishing our relationship and our private life. I am asking you if you are willing to stop gossiping with others. I am telling you this because I need you to know how much it is affecting me, and it is also affecting our relationship.”

If he gets defensive, remain calm and listen to what he has to say. Repeat the above if necessary. If he will not converse, write it down in a compassionate letter. There is also a lot of resource material available online. You might want to share a couple of articles or a video on this topic with him.

2. Responding to specific instances of gossip

Let harmless gossip go unchallenged, it is common. But each time you hear him gossiping inappropriately or maliciously, say something like the following:

“I heard you talking about me (my sister, my father, our daughter) to X, which makes me feel terrible. If you have something you want to talk to me about, please talk to me, but not to anyone else. I want our relationship to be special, appropriate and private. Let’s be a team and avoid bringing other people into our relationship.”

If he continues despite your speaking up over a period of time, then I would let him know that the trust is gone, causing the connection to be broken, and that you want to attend counseling with him in order to try to rescue the relationship.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Anger: “I have a right to be angry.”

"Kej" from the Mayan Collection by Mimi Stuart ©       Live the Life you Desire

“Kej” from the Mayan Calendar Collection by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

Anger as a signal

When you feel anger rising in your belly, your subconscious is generally warning you to pay attention and perhaps to take action in order to avoid potential pain or loss.

Anger can be a powerful emotion. In threatening circumstances, it can be effectively channeled to help defend yourself or others, to command action or to set and maintain boundaries. In many circumstances, however, showing raw anger prevents understanding and perpetuates suffering — yours and others.

Beneath the anger

When you view anger as a signal, then the most effective response is to pause and reflect before taking action. Assessing the emotion and thoughts underlying the anger is generally the best way to plan how to rectify the situation or avoid further injustice.

Often it is helpful to figure out specifically what is underlying the anger. Generally, anger is triggered by fear of immediate loss, pain, or future damage, or by the recognition of an injustice. For example, you might fear being physically or emotionally hurt, or being abandoned or losing someone you love. You might fear financial insecurity or being ridiculed. Anger is also triggered when you see others hurt or treated unfairly.

The other individual

To be most effective, first consider the perspective of the other individual(s) involved even if you don’t agree with their perspective. You can communicate much more effectively if you can find common ground and if you use a solicitous tone of voice and effective choice of words.

For example,

“Perhaps you meant to help…”

“I imagine this promotion means a lot to you…”

“I know economic times are rough…”

“You seem to have a lot going on in your life…”

How to communicate anger effectively

The best communication occurs when people show their vulnerability while remaining self-possessed, in other words, if they don’t give in to the underlying vulnerability and they don’t go ballistic. So, don’t attack, cry, beg or whine. Stay neutral, find common ground, and state your case or make your point.

Here are some examples of bad vs. better communication:

Bad: “How dare you talk to me like that!”

Better: “I know you’re upset, but I feel pushed away when you talk to me like that. Would you explain what you want without raising your voice so much.”

Bad: “How selfish of you not to call until the last minute!”

Better: “I know you’ve got a lot on your plate, but when I didn’t hear from you, I was disappointed and decided to make other plans rather than be angry with you.”

In summary, when you feel anger, don’t become reactive, but do the following:

1. Understand what is motivating your anger, so you can be clear about what you want.

2. Find common ground to keep lines of communication open.

3. Express the feelings of fear or sadness that cause your anger without becoming overwhelmed by fear or sadness.

4. Maintain a calm demeanor, that is, maintain your self-respect and self-control.

5. Make a request, not a demand of the other person, if appropriate.

In certain life-endangering circumstances, however, using the full power of your anger could just be the most effective way to prevent harm.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Random Thoughts from So What I Really Meant

"Wisdom of Laughter" — Einstein by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“Wisdom of Laughter” — Einstein by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Passion

Passion is the feeling of exhilaration in the face of mystery. It arises from the heat generated by the intermingling of two people pursuing their own individual passions. So if partners sacrifice their own personal passions, interests, and friends for the sake of their relationship, that relationship will probably lose its passion.

Jealousy

A jealous partner may have experienced abandonment in his or her life and be easily triggered. Getting angry won’t help the situation. Be considerate and reassuring, but don’t start constricting your life to pander to the jealous partner’s fears, if they are unreasonable. Tell the jealous person that the suspicions are hurtful and are causing you to feel defensive and suggest focusing on his or her positive desires instead.

Feeling controlled

Those who are susceptible to being controlled need to stop fearing the other person’s reactions. That doesn’t mean becoming confrontational. You simply cannot let the fear of another person’s anger dictate your willingness to stand up for your values and needs. Calm, candid, honest communication is best to avoid developing a relationship based on fear and resentment.

Perfectionism

There is no reason you can’t have both the desire to excel and the ability to accept and enjoy the moment, which may be less than perfect. Laughter is much better for your health and your relationships than the anxiety of having to control for the perfect outcome. You rarely hear about the perfect dinner party, but an over-spiced, smoke-filled, ridiculously-problematic dinner tale gets a lot of mileage in laughter-filled stories long after the smoke clears.

Stress

Focus primarily on difficulties you can do something about. Taking control requires taking positive steps to deal with challenges, not ignoring the problems, suppressing the stress, or allowing yourself to be consumed by stress.

Taking control includes prioritizing situations in your life, changing your situation, and changing your perspective, and, just as important, relieving the mounting tension in healthy ways such as exercising, relaxing with friends or family, and developing a sense of humor. In cases where you cannot take physical action, you can take action by consciously changing your attitude and the way you think about the situation.

Difficult times

Feelings of fear and worry are important signals meant to get our attention in times of danger. Once we are alerted to difficulties, however, we need to harness fear and worry in favor of our personal power. The most useful powers in times of difficulty include courage, love, and clear thinking.

Experiencing vulnerability, including fear and sadness, is a crucial part of being able to feel empathy and love. However, we should not allow feelings and vulnerability to take over and engulf us in panic. Worry and anxiety are contagious and paralyzing. It is the power of our capabilities, our thinking, our courage, and our optimism that can best handle the inevitable difficulties of life.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Watch “Pursuing your passions in relationship.”

Watch “How to Deal with Controlling People.”