Author Archives: Alison

Shaming Others: “What is wrong with you? You are good for nothing!”

"Blue Tune" by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

People who live with a sense of deep shame can become consumed by despair as a result of the feeling that they are flawed and unworthy. Excessive shame is difficult to bear, and often leads to self-destructive behavior, addiction, depression, and in some cases, suicide.

Even when people who feel deep shame are doing well, they may continue to expect others to be disappointed in them. Their shame sometimes leads to self-sabotaging behavior, which results in their getting the negative response they feel they deserve. Thus, it is difficult to deal with people whose reckless behavior is partly due to their belief that they do not deserve any better.

We want to motivate them to change by pointing out how mistaken their actions are. We want to set boundaries and protect ourselves from their reckless behavior. Yet we have to be careful that our intentions do not get expressed with contempt. Harmful behavior should be met with repercussions. We should set boundaries, enforce consequences, and communicate our disappointment, but it is not effective, helpful, or kind to shame and humiliate another person.

Expressing your own feelings about someone’s behavior while setting boundaries is fundamentally different from judging that person as a worthless individual: “What is wrong with you—you good for nothing!” Similarly, showing compassion while setting boundaries is very different from trying to artificially boost someone’s self-esteem with permissive indulgence.

Expressing disappointment in a situation should be factual rather than judgmental. Communicating your own feelings and intentions to set boundaries is more effective and humane than making negative or humiliating judgments:

“When you did such and such, I was disappointed and angry. I’m asking you to….”

“I can’t trust to you follow through at this point. So I will no longer….”

“I don’t think that my ‘help’ is really helping you. In fact it seems to be doing the opposite. So I can’t continue, but I truly wish the best for you.”

People who feel deep shame need to be loved, valued, and spoken to honestly rather than judged or coddled. They should be held accountable for their actions without being humiliated. Often a therapist can help them stop their negative self-criticism and restore in them a feeling of self-worth.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Pursuing passions or partnership?
““You should spend more time with me instead of going fishing!””

"Long Drive" — Jim Furyk by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“Long Drive” — Jim Furyk by Mimi Stuart ©

Should you push your partner to stop pursuing their passions?

People often push their partner to stop pursuing their interests in favor of spending more time together as a couple. The pursuing partner may genuinely want to spend more time together or he or she may be reacting to feelings of jealousy or insecurity. Feelings of insecurity in particular will cause someone to try to control the other person and become possessive.

Some partners find it uncomfortable to deal with their partner’s insecurities. So they prefer to accommodate them. Often it is their own anxiety in face of a partner who is upset that they cannot tolerate. As a result, when their partner pressures them to give up their interests, they give in quickly in order to avoid conflict.

Long-term problems of appeasement

When your partner appeases you, you may feel temporary relief. However, ongoing appeasement will create long-term problems. The result of repressing one’s own desires can result in a gradual deadening of the soul, growing resentment, boredom, and a loss of passion within the relationship.

When your partner continuously appeases you at the expense of their own interests, they will lose some of their passion for life and for you. Moreover, as appeasement becomes the norm, you will both feel increasingly burdened by an obligation to appease each other. As a result, one or both of you will become more and more vulnerable to the other person’s manipulation.

Long-term intimacy and accommodation

True intimacy evolves when you don’t manipulate your partner to accommodate your needs and desires. Long-term passionate intimacy requires that two people have a strong enough sense of self that each can spend time separately pursuing their own individual interests.

To sustain a long-term passionate relationship, you need to balance two primary drives — the desire for togetherness and the desire for autonomy. While everyone has a different ideal balance point, it is clear that the extremes of too much togetherness or too much independence each generate their own problems.

If you really love someone, you do not want that person to stop pursuing their passions and interests. Nor should you want to make that person feel guilty for pursuing them. It’s not much fun spending time with someone who feels stifled and held back. The very reason you love a person has a lot to do with their vitality and individual interests. So it is both wise and loving to encourage them to continue to pursue their interests.

Empower yourself

When you feel threatened by your partner spending time apart from you, rather than controlling your partner, find a way to empower yourself and the relationship.

1. Desire the best for your partner.

You will have a better relationship if your partner is happy. It reflects well on you and you will be more attracted to your partner if your partner is passionate about life rather than unhappy about it.

2. Be curious about your partner’s interests.

You don’t want to become a couple that has nothing to talk about. Don’t feel resentment about your partner’s fishing, golfing, or reading. Instead, ask about their interests, their progress, and other details. Find genuine joy in what they appreciate about their pursuits and passions.

3. Pursue something you enjoy.

Start pursuing your own passions. If you don’t have any, try out different activities, sports, or hobbies, or take some classes. The experience of trying new things will make your life richer. When you keep your life engaged, you enhance your life, which also makes you more interesting to be with. Taking on challenges builds a healthy confidence and joie de vivre. Even failed pursuits make for great stories. All of this will lead you to a more interesting and passionate relationship.

4. Make your time together more enjoyable.

Plan activities together that your partner will want to participate in. Spending some time together is important. Rather than spending that time complaining about your partner’s passions, think about pursuits that you can do together that may be interesting or pleasant for both of you. Talk to your partner about what your interests and passions are.

While it is important to spend some time together, couples keep their relationships alive when they do not spend all their time together. When you encourage your partner to pursue their passions, they will be grateful to be with someone who is truly loving.

Loving someone means respecting their autonomy and wanting them to be truly happy.

Alison Poulsen, PhD

New Book Announcement:
“Desire & Desirability: Transform the Pursuer/Distancer Dynamic into a Mutual Loving Relationship”

Desire & Desirability
Transform the Pursuer/Distancer Dynamic into a Mutual Loving Relationship

Over the past seven years, I have had the pleasure of responding to many questions and comments from readers of my blog “So what I really meant….” I have been struck by how frequently readers express the value of understanding the Pursuer/Distancer dynamic and the benefit of learning how to overcome it. This inspired me to write this book called “Desire & Desirability.”

Often in a relationship one partner seeks more intimacy than the other. When the Pursuer seeks too much connection or attachment, the Distancer can feel trapped and anxious about losing his or her independence, which may ultimately lead to withdrawal from the relationship leaving the Pursuer heartbroken.

Perfect balance in a relationship is impossible to achieve, yet we can learn to modify our behavior to move toward better symmetry. Real-life examples described in this book illustrate ways to transform your desire based on need into desirability based on fullness. The examples focus primarily on couples in romantic relationships but the principles discussed hold true for all types of relationships including those between friends, co-workers, and parents and children.

It is my hope that understanding the strategies laid out in “Desire & Desirability” will give you the tools to empower you to sustain a more balanced, reciprocal, and fulfilling relationship.

I want to thank my readers for the many thoughtful comments and questions sent over the years that have inspired me to think about relationship and psychological challenges in new and deeper ways.

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The Limits of Parental Indulgence

"Sergio's Finish" by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

“I feel terrible about not being able to buy my kids what their friends have. But I can’t afford to buy them new ipods and shoes right now.”

Your value as a parent lies in what you communicate to your children and the values that you convey, not in what you purchase for them. You are not doing your kids any favors by buying them everything that they want or that their friends have. You are doing them a favor by not doing so and explaining to them why not.

Even when parents can afford things, they are giving more to their kids by NOT teaching them to feel entitled to have everything they want. Learning delayed gratification and planning for the future are valuable gifts that will go a long way in encouraging capability and independence.

Simply say,

“Right now we need to save money for the mortgage, emergencies, retirement, and your college.”

Or

“It’s important to have money put away to ensure that we will survive another potential downturn. Twenty dollars here, a hundred dollars there, add up surprisingly fast.”

It’s all in your attitude that says they’ll be fine without the new merchandise. If you don’t show anxiety about their wanting things or about their being “without,” then they will learn to live more comfortably with desiring things and not having them right away.

You can also suggest to them that they can save up for what they want themselves. If children learn both to wait and to work for what they want, they will end up appreciating the items more, or they will lose interest in acquiring them all together.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

“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.’”