Category Archives: Communication

“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


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

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