Category Archives: Communication

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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“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

“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

The Insidious Triangle: Should you avoid triangulation?

“Mo’ Air” — Jonny Moseley by Mimi Stuart ©

Have you ever felt uneasy when a friend complains about his or her partner? Triangulation involves one person complaining to a third person about a primary relationship in order to vent anxiety. They are not trying to gain insight into how to deal with a problem.

Why do people triangulate?

Triangulating someone into your angst-ridden relationship temporarily relieves anxiety. People who feel helpless to change their relationship patterns sometimes seek to relieve their frustration through criticizing and complaining about their partner (mother, son, friend, etc.) Through the power of secrets, they may also temporarily feel connected to the person they are triangulating — a connection that may be lacking in the primary relationship.

However, the temporary feeling of connection and release of anxiety are like the effect of a drug — short lived and you always need more to get the same relief next time.

Insidious

Triangulation is as insidious as mold growing in the walls. While it’s hard to see the destruction, eventually the structure crumbles. In the end, complaining and listening to complaints is emotionally exhausting and corrosive. Being asked to take sides rather than having a dialogue is draining, futile, and brings everyone down.

The worst is when a parent complains to a child about the other parent, which puts terrible pressure on the child. Children generally want any kind of connection they can get with a parent, even if that entails becoming the parent’s confidant. But they pay for their parent’s emotional venting with growing disrespect for the complaining parent and feelings of guilt for betraying the other parent.

Complaining about family or close friends erodes all three relationships within the triangle. Trust fades for someone who complains about others behind their backs. Respect also diminishes for someone who listens compliantly to endless fault-finding.

Interlocking triangles

Often, when anxiety overloads the initial triangle, one person deals with the anxiety by triangulating others into the process, thus forming a series of interlocking triangles. For example, a mother complains about her husband to her son, who then complains to his sister, who then complains to her father. Each person’s alliance is dependent on other people’s anxiety and inability to relate directly to the person with whom they are experiencing problems. This is not a good foundation for life-enhancing relationships.

Life-enhancing relationships

The key to sustaining healthy relationships is to learn both to handle anxiety and to speak calmly and rationally directly to people about one’s feelings, needs and expectations within the relationship. Instead of blaming either ourselves or others, it is far more helpful to become aware of our own participation in the relationship dynamic. Awareness of how we perpetuate negative patterns through our tone of voice, behavior, talking too much, not speaking up, etc. is a prerequisite for change, growth, and wise decision-making.

Avoiding triangulation

We should avoid taking sides, but remain in contact with both sides. We can express neutrality and objectivity, or use humor while relating to the mature part of the person venting. Here are some examples:

“I think it would be more helpful if you talked to him about how you feel, rather than to me.”

“Since we can’t change her, let’s figure out how you might have participated in this situation.”

“I value my friendship with both of you. So, I would prefer not being in the middle.”

“I’m sorry you’re suffering so much, but I feel uncomfortable when you tell me such private details of your married life.”

“I don’t feel qualified to give you advice. I think this is something you might bring to a therapist.”

“I think I know how this story is going to go. Do you see a pattern in the situation? Maybe you could do something differently.”

Conclusion

Venting through triangulation diminishes you and those around you. Instead, if you focus on improving yourself and understanding others, everyone will benefit. Asking others for help in how to deal with a situation or to improve a relationship is very different from triangulation, and can be a good way to gain insight into your relationship dynamics. The key is to be open to feedback about your own behavior rather than just venting about someone else.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Compassionate Confrontation:
“He said he’d spend more time with me, but has not followed through.”

"Taurus" by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

When a person who has agreed to a behavioral change does not follow through, the ability to confront that person with compassion is essential. No matter how justified your anger, a hostile confrontation or withdrawal will only result in more frustration and distance.

The goal of a compassionate confrontation is to generate mutual understanding before taking action. Starting with this kind of dialogue is far more effective than letting your anger take over.

Arrange a Meeting

It is important to avoid simply jumping into a difficult conversation. You will be much more effective if you arrange a meeting with the following parameters in mind:

1. The meeting takes place in a safe place,

2. With adequate time for full discussion,

3. Without other people or the children around,

4. Not right before going to bed, and

5. Not when either of you is exhausted, has been drinking, or is hungry.

Ask the other person to agree to two conditions:

1. To give the discussion a certain amount of time so that neither of you will leave before the time is up, and

2. To avoid attacking each other and interrupting. If you are attacked or interrupted, don’t get angry. Just say, “Hey, let’s do this without attacking or interrupting each other, like we agreed.”

State of Mind

To effectively confront someone, you have to start the conversation when you’re emotionally able to manage your stress and reactivity. You have to resist blaming or judging. An effective discussion starts from a position of appreciation, that is, you have to find a way to value and understand the other person and to convey that you want what is best for both of you.

To know what action to take, you will need to have a full understanding of what’s going on. Keep your emotional focus on valuing the other person even if you don’t like what they are saying. It is crucial not to take things personally when they speak from a position of fear.

Communications Professor Dalton Kehoe suggests that in a situation where you’re hearing negative attacks to view yourself as a matador with a raging bull coming at you. Simply step aside rather than stand in its way.

Starting the Discussion

Ranting may temporarily relieve your stress but it has a damaging effect on dialogue. The whole point is to get a deeper understanding of the other person’s view of the situation. In fact, you will often be surprised by the the other person’s point of view.

To start the discussion, you can say, “I think this affects both of us.” Describe the situation briefly and factually, being as neutral as you can. For example, “Two months ago, I asked you to spend more time with me. You agreed to come home earlier, but haven’t.”

State your concern with only one sentence, so that the other person doesn’t shut down or become defensive. For instance, “I’d like to be in a relationship where we enjoy more time together.”

Active Listening

Then ask how the other person views the situation. “How do you see it?”

Be sure to actively listen to gain understanding. Don’t become defensive. Try to understand the other point of view, even if you don’t agree. Encourage a full explanation of their view without interjecting judgment or arguing back.

To neutralize the unhelpful tone of a confrontational discussion, take the negative content and re-frame it without the negative emotion. Reinterpret what’s being said into neutral language.

For instance, if he says, “I work like crazy, and get home to your nagging me to do more work,” you can re-frame it by saying, “I’m so sorry that you feel annoyed by the way I approach you when you come home.”

Your Point of View

Once you have gotten the full story and the other person has run out of emotional heat, then you can ask if they will listen to your perspective. Again keep it neutral and descriptive so as to gain their understanding. Keep it calm and brief.

Once May Not Be Enough

While this is the most effective method for dealing with conflict, it may take a few times before there’s enough trust built up for the attacks and defense to diminish. At that point, people may become more comfortable in being open and honest to themselves and each other.

Solution

Do not rush to solve a problem when you only understand part of the story. Once there is true understanding, problem-solving becomes a relatively easy and minor part of the discussion. Problem-solving can only occur when people really understand the problem from both points of view. The solution then becomes obvious, although it may still be painful. Life often demands that we adjust our dreams and hopes to reality. But first it is crucial to find out what the other person’s reality really is.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD


Recommended and Reference: “Effective Communication Skills” by Professor Dalton Kehoe from The Great Courses.


“I dread facing this problem.”

“Tournament of Champions, Kapalua” Steve Stricker
by Mimi Stuart © Live the Life you Desire

“No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking.”

~Voltaire

Once in while you will luck out and a problem will resolve itself on its own. Usually, however, running from a problem causes it to mutiply into a large number of troubles.

Why run from problems?

Why do people dread handling problems? They may want to avoid disappointing others; they may shudder at the idea of changing their lives; they may recoil from admitting that past choices have not turned out as expected. Ultimately, it is anxiety and fear that prevent us from confronting our problems.

Tension intensifies

It is not easy to face problems head on. Yet, the longer we wait, the greater the anxiety and fear of confronting the problem becomes. It is astonishing how the angst of avoiding difficulties will intensify with inaction, becoming worse than the difficulty of actually dealing with the problem itself.

How we confront difficulties defines us

Heartache, hurt, and hurdles are part of life. No one handles all challenges with ease and grace. Yet, it is our struggle with those very challenges that chisels our character. In grappling with dilemmas, we discover what is meaningful to us. Through difficult discussions and decisions we fashion our own identity.

Facing our problem does not equal making snap decisions

Facing problems does not always require rushing to action or making quick decisions. Some dilemmas need time to resolve appropriately. There is a key difference between black-and-white problem solving—either making a snap decision or avoiding the problem—and making a wise and thoughtful decision. When we avoid black-and-white thinking, we learn to view the world in its many shades and colors. Sometimes we need to take time to consider the various complexities of a particular circumstance to figure out what to do.

When we face problems with seriousness, openness and courage, we are no longer a slave to the dread that debilitates us. By acknowledging the past but not dwelling on it, we become capable of changing ourselves and our lives. By facing difficulties, we open up the realm of new possibilities. By completing unfinished business, accepting and forgiving ourselves and others, we become free to move on.

“No man is free who is not master of himself.”

~Epictetus

by Alison Poulsen, PhD