Have you had dysfunctional relationships? Complex trauma may be to blame.
Posted September 1, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Years after wounding events, someone with complex PTSD might have trouble finding and keeping loving and fulfilling romantic relationships.
- Because complex trauma happens cumulatively over a long time, it’s sometimes hard to identify.
- Happy, healthy relationships are possible even when one has complex PTSD, but not until the trauma is processed and healed.
When a person is exposed to multiple traumatic events over a long period, they can develop complex post-traumatic stress disorder. Unlike typical PTSD, which can be triggered by a single traumatic event, such as a car crash or an assault, complex PTSD is the result of many traumatic events, often of an interpersonal nature, spread out over time but often occurring during childhood or adolescence. Witnessing the illness or death of a caregiver, abuse or neglect by caregivers, or frequent exposure to violent or chaotic situations can result in complex trauma. Years after these wounding events, someone with complex PTSD might have trouble finding and keeping loving and fulfilling romantic relationships and have no idea that complex trauma is the reason why.
Because the trauma happened cumulatively over a long time, it’s sometimes hard to identify that it is to blame for one’s unhappiness. If you have experienced a series of dysfunctional romantic relationships, often feel dissatisfied with your romantic partners but can’t pinpoint exactly why, or have frequent unsatisfying sex with many partners, complex trauma may be to blame.
Here are seven signs that complex trauma is the reason why your romantic relationships aren’t working out.
1. You are always worried that your partners are going to leave you.
Constantly feeling insecure in a relationship is common among people with complex PTSD. Multiple major upheavals in childhood or having caregivers who were sometimes very loving and attentive and sometimes unavailable or aloof can lead to an anxious attachment style in adulthood and trigger a constant fear that your partner will leave you.
2. You act “needy” or “clingy.”
If a partner has ever described you as “needy or “clingy,” you might have complex PTSD. Because you are afraid of being abandoned, you cling intensely to your partner, and this behavior can eventually drive your partner away, thus fulfilling your fear of being abandoned. This pattern can last for years until you recognize and process the trauma that lies behind your behavior.
3. You are hypersensitive or hypervigilant.
If you feel hypervigilant to signs of trouble, or you are hypersensitive to slights even when you’re in a stable relationship with a loving partner, you might have complex PTSD. If you feel anxious or on edge most or all of the time when you’re in a relationship, and this pattern continues through multiple relationships, it might be time to seek treatment for complex trauma.
4. You never have long-term relationships.
If you like the idea of being in a long-term relationship, but you constantly find yourself ending relationships abruptly or are never with one person for very long, you may have an avoidant attachment style caused by complex PTSD. If you experienced childhood neglect or rejection by your caregivers, you might reject others to save yourself from being rejected. This “you can’t hurt me if I hurt you first” attitude is devastating to your chance at love.
5. You often feel agitated or antsy in a relationship.
If emotional intimacy makes you feel like you want to run for the hills, or if a long-term commitment feels like a threat to your sense of self, complex PTSD may be affecting your relationships. This behavior will keep you from ever getting close enough to a romantic partner to form the type of healthy bond that long-term love requires.
6. You have a hard time trusting romantic partners.
If you experienced abuse or neglect or lived in a chaotic environment as a child, you may have a hard time trusting your romantic partners. This is especially true if the caregiver you loved was also a source of the trauma you experienced. As an adult, you may crave closeness but then push it away when it appears. This is a sign of an anxious-avoidant attachment style caused by complex trauma.
7. You often say yes to sex even when you don’t want it.
If you frequently find yourself agreeing to sex or initiating sex even when you don’t feel sexual desire, you may have complex PTSD. You might do this because you crave immediate feelings of closeness, or you find that sex dulls other negative emotions. Then, when the physical intimacy is achieved, you may abruptly pull away, potentially ending a romantic relationship before it’s had the chance to begin, and you move on to a new partner. This is a sign of an anxious-avoidant attachment style triggered by complex trauma.
The above are just some of the ways that complex trauma can impair your relationships. Happy, healthy relationships are possible even when you have complex PTSD, but not until you process it and heal. First, you must recognize that the troubles you are experiencing in your romantic life aren’t the fault of your partners or your current situation but due to events that occurred years or even decades earlier.
What we get from psychological richness that happiness does not provide.
Posted August 28, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
Do you think a good life is a happy life? A meaningful life? It can be. But there is another dimension of the good life that, until now, has been vastly underappreciated. In an important article just made available online at Psychological Review, “A psychologically rich life: Beyond happiness and meaning,” Shigehiro Oishi of the University of Virginia and Erin C. Westgate of the University of Florida show us that psychological richness is the kind of wealth that can contribute to a truly good life.
Oishi and Westgate define a psychologically rich life as “a life characterized by a variety of interesting and perspective-changing experiences.” They are not trying to tell us what should count as a good life. Instead, they are asking what kinds of ideal lives people imagine for themselves, and a psychologically rich life is one of the kinds of lives that people desire.
Happy lives, meaningful lives, and psychologically rich lives have some things in common; you don’t necessarily have to choose. But a psychologically rich life is distinct from those other two kinds of good lives.
What Are the Characteristics of a Psychologically Rich Life?
Three key characteristics of a psychologically rich life are variety, interestingness, and perspective-changing experiences. The “Psychologically Rich Life Questionnaire” taps those characteristics.
- Variety: “My life has been full of unique, unusual experiences.”
- Interest: “I have had a lot of interesting experiences.”
- Perspective changes: “On my deathbed, I am likely to say ‘I have seen and learned a lot.’”
The characteristics of a happy life are very different, and include comfort, security, and joy. The characteristics of a meaningful life are different, too, and include significance and purpose.
Personality: What Kinds of People Lead Psychologically Rich Lives?
At least three personality characteristics typify people who lead psychologically rich lives:
- They are curious.
- They are open to experience (e.g., they have unconventional attitudes, artistic sensitivity, intellectual curiosity, flexibility, depth of feeling).
- They experience emotions intensely, both positive and negative ones.
It is not enough just to experience intense emotions. You also need to think about those emotional experiences and try to make sense of them.
Personal growth, autonomy, self-acceptance, purpose in life, and positive relations are also associated with a psychologically rich life. The authors suggest that people leading psychologically rich lives do not just hang out with the same person or persons all the time or pursue one goal in just one domain of life.
People leading psychologically rich lives also tend to be more liberal. “Those leading happy and/or meaningful lives tend to prefer to maintain social order and the status quo,” Oishi and Westgate note, “whereas those leading psychologically rich lives seem to embrace social change.”
What Facilitates a Life of Psychological Richness?
Do you want to have a happy life? It will help if you have resources such as money, time, and relationships (in the broad sense of the term, not just romantic ones). Want a meaningful life? Having moral principles, relationships (in the broad sense), and consistency might help.
If you want a psychologically rich life, it will help to have curiosity, time, energy, and spontaneity.
Certain kinds of life experiences are associated with a psychologically rich life. They include:
- Spending a semester abroad, or just taking short trips in your everyday life
- Challenging or dramatic life events
That last one is one of the more intriguing and unique experiences that can contribute to a psychologically rich life. People who have experienced catastrophes and tragedies might not say that their lives are happier as a result, but their lives probably would be psychologically richer. Divorce, for example, can be painful—but it can also change your perspective in a way that can be psychologically enriching.
What Do You Get Out of a Psychologically Rich Life?
People who lead happy lives get personal satisfaction. People who live meaningful lives get to contribute to society. People who live psychologically rich lives are rewarded with wisdom. For example:
- They have a depth and breadth of knowledge.
- They have complex reasoning styles.
- They consider multiple causes for other people’s behavior.
- They realize that what they know isn’t definitive and isn’t universal.
This wisdom, the authors believe, comes from the many different kinds of life experiences of people who lead psychologically rich lives, experiences that introduce them to different perspectives and show them life’s complexities.
In their day-to-day lives, people who lead psychologically rich lives engage in some novel activities, and not just routine ones. As students, they take more challenging courses and they care about actually learning things, and not just getting good grades.
On their deathbed, the people who led happy lives might say, “I had fun!” People who led meaningful lives might say, “I made a difference!” People who led psychologically rich lives might instead say, “What a journey!”
Global Perspectives: The Good Life, in 9 Nations
Oishi and Westgate wanted to test their ideas in a variety of countries. They asked people in nine nations—India, Singapore, Angola, Japan, South Korea, Norway, Portugal, Germany, and the U.S.—to describe their ideal life. Then they asked them to rate that life on happiness, meaningfulness, and psychological richness (e.g., eventful, interesting). People in all nine nations typically rated their ideal lives as high on all three dimensions.
What if they had to choose just one? Happiness was the most popular choice in every country. Meaningfulness was next. Still, a nontrivial percentage of people in each nation, between 7 percent and 17 percent, said that they would choose a psychologically rich life, even at the expense of a happy life and a meaningful life.
Are Single People Especially Likely to Lead Psychologically Rich Lives?
The authors never compared people of different marital or relationship statuses in the studies they described. They did, however, mention this:
“According to Kierkegaard, a married person with a secure, well-respected job and children may have a happy and (in many respects) meaningful life, but not necessarily a life rich in diverse perspective-changing experiences. Although most people choose such a conventional, secure, and well-respected life, others… choose the esthetic wanderer’s life instead—unconventional, unstable, and uncompromising.”
Several of the characteristics and experiences of people who lead psychologically rich lives have also been linked to staying single or liking single life. For example:
- Open-minded: In “The badass personalities of people who like being alone,” I reviewed multiple studies showing that people who like spending time alone, and people who are unafraid of being single, are more likely than others to be open-minded.
- Personal growth: In a study of adults at midlife, more than 1,000 people who had always been single were compared to more than 3,000 people who had been continuously married. The people who stayed single, compared to those who stayed married, reported experiencing more personal growth. They were more likely to agree with statements such as: “For me, life has been a continuous process of learning, changing, and growth.”
- Autonomy: In the same study, the people who had stayed single were more likely to agree with statements such as “I judge myself by what I think is important, not by the values of what others think is important.” In response to questions on the Single at Heart quiz, people who are single at heart are more likely to describe themselves as self-sufficient, as having personal mastery, and as wanting to make their own decisions about matters both small and large.
- Adventurous: People who are single at heart may be especially likely to pursue their dreams. That could mean pursuing adventures or other intriguing opportunities, or choosing meaningful work over more lucrative work when they can’t have both, or being there for the people who mean the most to them.
- They don’t put just one person at the center of their lives: By definition, people who are single at heart do not organize their lives around a romantic partner. They spend time with, and care about, the people they find valuable, without automatically prioritizing a romantic partner or a potential partner.
Can we conclude from the research that single people lead psychologically richer lives than people who are married? I don’t know about single people in general, but my own hypothesis is that people who choose to be single for positive reasons, such as the single at heart, would tend to experience more psychological richness in their lives.
Positive coping after a breakup requires consideration of the purpose of loss.
Posted August 26, 2021 | Reviewed by Chloe Williams
- Starting a new serious relationship too soon after a long-term relationship ends can have many negative emotional consequences.
- Starting a new relationship too soon indicates an attempt at avoidant coping, which is a dysfunctional strategy.
- Reflecting on one’s part in co-creating a dysfunctional relationship and relearning how to live singly are key to effective healing from loss.
Because every relationship and every personality are different, there’s no ideal or correct way to manage a breakup. Breakups are inevitably painful and complex because they involve a loss and a host of complex and sometimes contradictory emotions. While there’s no psychologically healthy way to avoid negative feelings post-breakup, there are behaviors that can make the emotional experience even more difficult. Specifically, starting a new serious relationship too soon after a long-term relationship ends can have many negative emotional consequences.
Based on anecdotal data of having counseled individuals and couples for many years, in addition to receiving extensive clinical training and researching relationship dynamics for many years, individuals often move on too soon after a serious relationship ends. On a commonsense level, the motivation to replace a lost relationship with a new one is understandable. Losing a relationship is painful not only because of the associated symbolic and emotional losses but also because of the disruption and loss of so many shared behavioral routines.
Starting a new relationship too soon indicates which type of coping strategy?
The motivation to start a new relationship is often an attempt at emotional avoidance. Rather than confront uncomfortable feelings, an individual propels himself or herself into a relationship for a quick mood and ego boost. Avoidance as a strategy, however, is dysfunctional because it is impulsive, born out of childlike wishes and fantasies as opposed to the thought-through, long-term thinking and planning that should characterize adult decision-making.
What is the purpose of the time period after a breakup?
Having an action plan for coping makes relationship dissolution more manageable, and one’s action plan should include consideration of purpose. In particular, the time post-breakup has one primary purpose: to grieve the loss that occurred and to learn from it.
As a practicing psychologist, I’ve heard many individuals say they didn’t need much time to heal because the grieving process started long before the official end of their relationship. Put another way, they would say they already mourned the loss of the relationship while they were technically in it. That argument has some validity; it’s true that sadness and disappointment typically precede the formal end of a relationship for months or even years, and that the subtle awareness that the relationship is ending accumulates to the point of actual termination. Yet the argument doesn’t account for the need a person has to learn to be happy enough on one’s own – without needing or depending on another love interest to make them feel good and valued.
Your responsibility in the relationship ending.
The most helpful practice anyone can engage in post-breakup is to reflect on what they did or did not do that contributed to the relationship disintegrating. This framework does not ask what you did that caused the end, but rather what you may have done to help co-create a dysfunctional relationship that ultimately ended.
Ask yourself the following question: “What did I do in the relationship that contributed to problems in the relationship?” Following that, ask yourself “What are three or four things I will do differently in my next relationship to be a better partner?”
If you’ve recently ended a relationship, you may tell yourself that you already know those answers after a month or two of being single. As a practicing psychologist, I can assure you that additional valuable realizations will come at six months, a year, or even further in the future. Those who experience a long-term relationship ending would serve themselves well to go through at least a couple different seasons in the calendar year as a single person before considering looking for a new romantic relationship.
How to practice positive self-talk.
Because positive self-talk (the running internal dialog we have with ourselves) is crucial to mental health, remember to show yourself compassion as you heal from a relationship loss. Take your negative feelings about the breakup and flip the script on them, using what clinicians call cognitive reframing. Tell yourself that the fact that you want a relationship – when you’re ready – shows that you still value emotional attachment and that you weren’t so destroyed by the previous relationship that you gave up on relationships altogether.
The positive point is that you have the capacity and desire for attachment; the change you must make is to be cautious and deliberate in the way you go about seeking that attachment. Taking time to reflect and live comfortably as a single person post-breakup is a far better strategy to find a meaningful connection than jumping into a new relationship quickly, magically thinking that the new one will be better than the last without having done the proper mental work.
A strategy for seeking healthy companionship when you’re ready.
After many months have passed and one has relearned how to comfortable live singly, casual dating is a wise option for companionship rather than setting out on a course to find the next long-term partner.
With dating, two individuals get their needs met for socialization and playfulness, but they avoid the pressure of long-term emotional contracts. Communicate directly from the start, “I need to date slowly” or “I’m not ready to jump right into a serious relationship.” Limiting the frequency of seeing each other once per week or once every other week may also lead to more successful dating outcomes.
Too often, people see each other too soon and later feel overwhelmed or pressured by the intensity of the new relationship. If dating couples start slowly, two individuals bypass unnecessary pressure and fairy-tale expectations for a future relationship, and lay the foundation for a relationship that can be healthy and lasting.
If you have BPD, everything feels unstable: your relationships, moods, thinking, behavior—even your identity. But there is hope and this guide to symptoms, treatment, and recovery can help.
What is borderline personality disorder (BPD)?
If you have borderline personality disorder (BPD), you probably feel like you’re on a rollercoaster—and not just because of your unstable emotions or relationships, but also the wavering sense of who you are. Your self-image, goals, and even your likes and dislikes may change frequently in ways that feel confusing and unclear.
People with BPD tend to be extremely sensitive. Some describe it as like having an exposed nerve ending. Small things can trigger intense reactions. And once upset, you have trouble calming down. It’s easy to understand how this emotional volatility and inability to self-soothe leads to relationship turmoil and impulsive—even reckless—behavior.
When you’re in the throes of overwhelming emotions, you’re unable to think straight or stay grounded. You may say hurtful things or act out in dangerous or inappropriate ways that make you feel guilty or ashamed afterwards. It’s a painful cycle that can feel impossible to escape. But it’s not. There are effective BPD treatments and coping skills that can help you feel better and back in control of your thoughts, feelings, and actions.
BPD is treatable
In the past, many mental health professionals found it difficult to treat borderline personality disorder (BPD), so they came to the conclusion that there was little to be done. But we now know that BPD is treatable. In fact, the long-term prognosis for BPD is better than those for depression and bipolar disorder. However, it requires a specialized approach. The bottom line is that most people with BPD can and do get better—and they do so fairly rapidly with the right treatments and support.
Healing is a matter of breaking the dysfunctional patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving that are causing you distress. It’s not easy to change lifelong habits. Choosing to pause, reflect, and then act in new ways will feel unnatural and uncomfortable at first. But with time you’ll form new habits that help you maintain your emotional balance and stay in control.
Recognizing borderline personality disorder
Do you identify with the following statements?
- I often feel “empty.”
- My emotions shift very quickly, and I often experience extreme sadness, anger, and anxiety.
- I’m constantly afraid that the people I care about will abandon me or leave me.
- I would describe most of my romantic relationships as intense, but unstable.
- The way I feel about the people in my life can dramatically change from one moment to the next—and I don’t always understand why.
- I often do things that I know are dangerous or unhealthy, such as driving recklessly, having unsafe sex, binge drinking, using drugs, or going on spending sprees.
- I’ve attempted to hurt myself, engaged in self-harm behaviors such as cutting, or threatened suicide.
- When I’m feeling insecure in a relationship, I tend to lash out or make impulsive gestures to keep the other person close.
If you identify with several of the statements, you may suffer from borderline personality disorder. Of course, you need a mental health professional to make an official diagnosis, as BPD can be easily confused with other issues. But even without a diagnosis, you may find the self-help tips in this article helpful for calming your inner emotional storm and learning to control self-damaging impulses.
Signs and symptoms
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) manifests in many different ways, but for the purposes of diagnosis, mental health professionals group the symptoms into nine major categories. In order to be diagnosed with BPD, you must show signs of at least five of these symptoms. Furthermore, the symptoms must be long-standing (usually beginning in adolescence) and impact many areas of your life.
The 9 symptoms of BPD
- Fear of abandonment. People with BPD are often terrified of being abandoned or left alone. Even something as innocuous as a loved one arriving home late from work or going away for the weekend may trigger intense fear. This can prompt frantic efforts to keep the other person close. You may beg, cling, start fights, track your loved one’s movements, or even physically block the person from leaving. Unfortunately, this behavior tends to have the opposite effect—driving others away.
- Unstable relationships. People with BPD tend to have relationships that are intense and short-lived. You may fall in love quickly, believing that each new person is the one who will make you feel whole, only to be quickly disappointed. Your relationships either seem perfect or horrible, without any middle ground. Your lovers, friends, or family members may feel like they have emotional whiplash as a result of your rapid swings from idealization to devaluation, anger, and hate.
- Unclear or shifting self-image. When you have BPD, your sense of self is typically unstable. Sometimes you may feel good about yourself, but other times you hate yourself, or even view yourself as evil. You probably don’t have a clear idea of who you are or what you want in life. As a result, you may frequently change jobs, friends, lovers, religion, values, goals, or even sexual identity.
- Impulsive, self-destructive behaviors. If you have BPD, you may engage in harmful, sensation-seeking behaviors, especially when you’re upset. You may impulsively spend money you can’t afford, binge eat, drive recklessly, shoplift, engage in risky sex, or overdo it with drugs or alcohol. These risky behaviors may help you feel better in the moment, but they hurt you and those around you over the long-term.
- Self-harm. Suicidal behavior and deliberate self-harm is common in people with BPD. Suicidal behavior includes thinking about suicide, making suicidal gestures or threats, or actually carrying out a suicide attempt. Self-harm encompasses all other attempts to hurt yourself without suicidal intent. Common forms of self-harm include cutting and burning.
- Extreme emotional swings. Unstable emotions and moods are common with BPD. One moment, you may feel happy, and the next, despondent. Little things that other people brush off can send you into an emotional tailspin. These mood swings are intense, but they tend to pass fairly quickly (unlike the emotional swings of depression or bipolar disorder), usually lasting just a few minutes or hours.
- Chronic feelings of emptiness. People with BPD often talk about feeling empty, as if there’s a hole or a void inside them. At the extreme, you may feel as if you’re “nothing” or “nobody.” This feeling is uncomfortable, so you may try to fill the void with things like drugs, food, or sex. But nothing feels truly satisfying.
- Explosive anger. If you have BPD, you may struggle with intense anger and a short temper. You may also have trouble controlling yourself once the fuse is lit—yelling, throwing things, or becoming completely consumed by rage. It’s important to note that this anger isn’t always directed outwards. You may spend a lot of time feeling angry at yourself.
- Feeling suspicious or out of touch with reality. People with BPD often struggle with paranoia or suspicious thoughts about others’ motives. When under stress, you may even lose touch with reality—an experience known as dissociation. You may feel foggy, spaced out, or as if you’re outside your own body.
Common co-occurring disorders
Borderline personality disorder is rarely diagnosed on its own. Common co-occurring disorders include:
When BPD is successfully treated, the other disorders often get improve, too. But the reverse isn’t always true. For example, you may successfully treat symptoms of depression and still struggle with BPD.
Most mental health professionals believe that borderline personality disorder (BPD) is caused by a combination of inherited or internal biological factors and external environmental factors, such as traumatic experiences in childhood.
There are many complex things happening in the BPD brain, and researchers are still untangling what it all means. But in essence, if you have BPD, your brain is on high alert. Things feel more scary and stressful to you than they do to other people. Your fight-or-flight switch is easily tripped, and once it’s on, it hijacks your rational brain, triggering primitive survival instincts that aren’t always appropriate to the situation at hand.
This may make it sound as if there’s nothing you can do. After all, what can you do if your brain is different? But the truth is that you can change your brain. Every time you practice a new coping response or self-soothing technique you are creating new neural pathways. Some treatments, such as mindfulness meditation, can even grow your brain matter. And the more you practice, the stronger and more automatic these pathways will become. So don’t give up! With time and dedication, you can change the way you think, feel, and act.
Personality disorders and stigma
When psychologists talk about “personality,” they’re referring to the patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving that make each of us unique. No one acts exactly the same all the time, but we do tend to interact and engage with the world in fairly consistent ways. This is why people are often described as “shy,” “outgoing,” “meticulous,” “fun-loving,” and so on. These are elements of personality.
Because personality is so intrinsically connected to identity, the term “personality disorder” might leave you feeling like there’s something fundamentally wrong with who you are. But a personality disorder is not a character judgment. In clinical terms, “personality disorder” means that your pattern of relating to the world is significantly different from the norm. (In other words, you don’t act in ways that most people expect). This causes consistent problems for you in many areas of your life, such as your relationships, career, and your feelings about yourself and others. But most importantly, these patterns can be changed!
Self-help tips: 3 keys to coping with BPD
- Calm the emotional storm
- Learn to control impulsivity and tolerate distress
- Improve your interpersonal skills
Self-help tip 1: Calm the emotional storm
As someone with BPD, you’ve probably spent a lot of time fighting your impulses and emotions, so acceptance can be a tough thing to wrap your mind around. But accepting your emotions doesn’t mean approving of them or resigning yourself to suffering. All it means is that you stop trying to fight, avoid, suppress, or deny what you’re feeling. Giving yourself permission to have these feelings can take away a lot of their power.
Try to simply experience your feelings without judgment or criticism. Let go of the past and the future and focus exclusively on the present moment. Mindfulness techniques can be very effective in this regard.
- Start by observing your emotions, as if from the outside.
- Watch as they come and go (it may help to think of them as waves).
- Focus on the physical sensations that accompany your emotions.
- Tell yourself that you accept what you’re feeling right now.
- Remind yourself that just because you’re feeling something doesn’t mean it’s reality.
Do something that stimulates one or more of your senses
Engaging your sense is one of the quickest and easiest ways to quickly self-soothe. You will need to experiment to find out which sensory-based stimulation works best for you. You’ll also need different strategies for different moods. What may help when you’re angry or agitated is very different from what may help when you’re numb or depressed. Here are some ideas to get started:
Touch. If you’re not feeling enough, try running cold or hot (but not scalding hot) water over your hands; hold a piece of ice; or grip an object or the edge of a piece of furniture as tightly as you can. If you’re feeling too much, and need to calm down, try taking a hot bath or shower; snuggling under the bed covers, or cuddling with a pet.
Taste. If you’re feeling empty and numb, try sucking on strong-flavored mints or candies, or slowly eat something with an intense flavor, such as salt-and-vinegar chips. If you want to calm down, try something soothing such as hot tea or soup.
Smell. Light a candle, smell the flowers, try aromatherapy, spritz your favorite perfume, or whip up something in the kitchen that smells good. You may find that you respond best to strong smells, such as citrus, spices, and incense.
Sight. Focus on an image that captures your attention. This can be something in your immediate environment (a great view, a beautiful flower arrangement, a favorite painting or photo) or something in your imagination that you visualize.
Sound. Try listening to loud music, ringing a buzzer, or blowing a whistle when you need a jolt. To calm down, turn on soothing music or listen to the soothing sounds of nature, such as wind, birds, or the ocean. A sound machine works well if you can’t hear the real thing.
Reduce your emotional vulnerability
You’re more likely to experience negative emotions when you’re run down and under stress. That’s why it’s very important to take care of your physical and mental well-being.
Take care of yourself by:
- Avoid mood-altering drugs
- Eating a balanced, nutritious diet
- Getting plenty of quality sleep
- Exercising regularly
- Minimizing stress
- Practicing relaxation techniques
Tip 2: Learn to control impulsivity and tolerate distress
The calming techniques discussed above can help you relax when you’re starting to become derailed by stress. But what do you do when you’re feeling overwhelmed by difficult feelings? This is where the impulsivity of borderline personality disorder (BPD) comes in. In the heat of the moment, you’re so desperate for relief that you’ll do anything, including things you know you shouldn’t—such as cutting, reckless sex, dangerous driving, and binge drinking. It may even feel like you don’t have a choice.
Moving from being out of control of your behavior to being in control
It’s important to recognize that these impulsive behaviors serve a purpose. They’re coping mechanisms for dealing with distress. They make you feel better, even if just for a brief moment. But the long-term costs are extremely high.
Regaining control of your behavior starts with learning to tolerate distress. It’s the key to changing the destructive patterns of BPD. The ability to tolerate distress will help you press pause when you have the urge to act out. Instead of reacting to difficult emotions with self-destructive behaviors, you will learn to ride them out while remaining in control of the experience.
For a step-by-step, self-guided program that will teach you how to ride the “wild horse” of overwhelming feelings, check out our free Emotional Intelligence Toolkit. The toolkit teaches you how to:
- get in touch with your emotions
- live with emotional intensity
- manage unpleasant or threatening feelings
- stay calm and focused even in upsetting situations
The toolkit will teach you how to tolerate distress, but it doesn’t stop there. It will also teach you how to move from being emotionally shut down to experiencing your emotions fully. This allows you to experience the full range of positive emotions such as joy, peace, and fulfillment that are also cut off when you attempt to avoid negative feelings.
A grounding exercise to help you pause and regain control
Once the fight-or-flight response is triggered, there is no way to “think yourself” calm. Instead of focusing on your thoughts, focus on what you’re feeling in your body. The following grounding exercise is a simple, quick way to put the brakes on impulsivity, calm down, and regain control. It can make a big difference in just a few short minutes.
Find a quiet spot and sit in a comfortable position.
Focus on what you’re experiencing in your body. Feel the surface you’re sitting on. Feel your feet on the floor. Feel your hands in your lap.
Concentrate on your breathing, taking slow, deep breaths. Breathe in slowly. Pause for a count of three. Then slowly breathe out, once more pausing for a count of three. Continue to do this for several minutes.
In case of emergency, distract yourself
If your attempts to calm down aren’t working and you’re starting to feel overwhelmed by destructive urges, distracting yourself may help. All you need is something to capture your focus long enough for the negative impulse to go away. Anything that draws your attention can work, but distraction is most effective when the activity is also soothing. In addition to the sensory-based strategies mentioned previously, here are some things you might try:
Watch TV. Choose something that’s the opposite of what you’re feeling: a comedy, if you’re feeling sad, or something relaxing if you’re angry or agitated.
Do something you enjoy that keeps you busy. This could be anything: gardening, painting, playing an instrument, knitting, reading a book, playing a computer game, or doing a Sudoku or word puzzle.
Throw yourself into work. You can also distract yourself with chores and errands: cleaning your house, doing yard work, going grocery shopping, grooming your pet, or doing the laundry.
Get active. Vigorous exercise is a healthy way to get your adrenaline pumping and let off steam. If you’re feeling stressed, you may want to try more relaxing activities such as yoga or a walk around your neighborhood.
Call a friend. Talking to someone you trust can be a quick and highly effective way to distract yourself, feel better, and gain some perspective.
Tip 3: Improve your interpersonal skills
If you have borderline personality disorder, you’ve probably struggled with maintaining stable, satisfying relationships with lovers, co-workers, and friends. This is because you have trouble stepping back and seeing things from other people’s perspective. You tend to misread the thoughts and feelings of others, misunderstand how others see you, and overlook how they’re affected by your behavior. It’s not that you don’t care, but when it comes to other people, you have a big blind spot. Recognizing your interpersonal blind spot is the first step. When you stop blaming others, you can start taking steps to improve your relationships and your social skills.
Check your assumptions
When you’re derailed by stress and negativity, as people with BPD often are, it’s easy to misread the intentions of others. If you’re aware of this tendency, check your assumptions. Remember, you’re not a mind reader! Instead of jumping to (usually negative) conclusions, consider alternative motivations. As an example, let’s say that your partner was abrupt with you on the phone and now you’re feeling insecure and afraid they’ve lost interest in you. Before you act on those feelings:
Stop to consider the different possibilities. Maybe your partner is under pressure at work. Maybe he’s having a stressful day. Maybe he hasn’t had his coffee yet. There are many alternative explanations for his behavior.
Ask the person to clarify their intentions. One of the simplest ways to check your assumptions is to ask the other person what they’re thinking or feeling. Double check what they meant by their words or actions. Instead of asking in an accusatory manner, try a softer approach: “I could be wrong, but it feels like…” or “Maybe I’m being overly sensitive, but I get the sense that…“
Put a stop to projection
Do you have a tendency to take your negative feelings and project them on to other people? Do you lash out at others when you’re feeling bad about yourself? Does feedback or constructive criticism feel like a personal attack? If so, you may have a problem with projection.
To fight projection, you’ll need to learn to apply the brakes—just like you did to curb your impulsive behaviors. Tune in to your emotions and the physical sensations in your body. Take note of signs of stress, such as rapid heart rate, muscle tension, sweating, nausea, or light-headedness. When you’re feeling this way, you’re likely to go on the attack and say something you’ll regret later. Pause and take a few slow deep breaths. Then ask yourself the following three questions:
- Am I upset with myself?
- Am I feeling ashamed or afraid?
- Am I worried about being abandoned?
If the answer is yes, take a conversation break. Tell the other person that you’re feeling emotional and would like some time to think before discussing things further.
Take responsibility for your role
Finally, it’s important to take responsibility for the role you play in your relationships. Ask yourself how your actions might contribute to problems. How do your words and behaviors make your loved ones feel? Are you falling into the trap of seeing the other person as either all good or all bad? As you make an effort to put yourself in other people’s shoes, give them the benefit of the doubt, and reduce your defensiveness, you’ll start to notice a difference in the quality of your relationships.
Diagnosis and treatment
It’s important to remember that you can’t diagnose borderline personality disorder on your own. So if you think that you or a loved one may be suffering from BPD, it’s best to seek professional help. BPD is often confused or overlaps with other conditions, so you need a mental health professional to evaluate you and make an accurate diagnosis. Try to find someone with experience diagnosing and treating BPD.
The importance of finding the right therapist
The support and guidance of a qualified therapist can make a huge difference in BPD treatment and recovery. Therapy may serve as a safe space where you can start working through your relationship and trust issues and “try on” new coping techniques.
An experienced professional will be familiar with BPD therapies such as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and schema-focused therapy. But while these therapies have proven to be helpful, it’s not always necessary to follow a specific treatment approach. Many experts believe that weekly therapy involving education about the disorder, family support, and social and emotional skills training can treat most BPD cases.
It’s important to take the time to find a therapist you feel safe with—someone who seems to get you and makes you feel accepted and understood. Take your time finding the right person. But once you do, make a commitment to therapy. You may start out thinking that your therapist is going to be your savior, only to become disillusioned and feel like they have nothing to offer. Remember that these swings from idealization to demonization are a symptom of BPD. Try to stick it out with your therapist and allow the relationship to grow. And keep in mind that change, by its very nature, is uncomfortable. If you don’t ever feel uncomfortable in therapy, you’re probably not progressing.
Don’t count on a medication cure
Although many people with BPD take medication, the fact is that there is very little research showing that it is helpful. What’s more, in the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved any medications for the treatment of BPD. This doesn’t mean that medication is never helpful—especially if you suffer from co-occurring problems such as depression or anxiety—but it is not a cure for BPD itself.
When it comes to BPD, therapy is much more effective. You just have to give it time. However, your doctor may consider medication if:
- You have been diagnosed with both BPD and depression or bipolar disorder.
- You suffer from panic attacks or severe anxiety.
- You begin hallucinating or having bizarre, paranoid thoughts.
- You are feeling suicidal or at risk of hurting yourself or others.
Growing up, it’s expected for our parents to set rules around curfew, cleanliness, household chores, how to treat others, and establish routines. Parents also set boundaries with their kids in hopes to help them become independent. But things start to get complicated when children grow up into adults, yet the parent struggles with the balance between being a parent and letting their adult child have their own life. If this is an area of tension in your family, here’s what you need to know about setting healthy boundaries with parents.
Why setting boundaries with parents is so important.
Setting boundaries with your parents is important for various reasons: It prevents you from building resentment toward them and promotes healthy, enjoyable interactions, while also helping you further establish individuation—that is, having an identity outside of your relationship with your parents. Without proper boundaries, parents may believe and feel that it is OK for them to be imposing their beliefs and ways of living onto their adult children.
While these conversations can be difficult to have, they are necessary in developing a healthy relationship with them and with yourself. The end result of setting healthy boundaries with your parents can lead to a decrease in anxiety, resentment, improved ability to manage conflict, and healthy self-esteem.
What healthy boundaries with parents look like.
Healthy boundaries with parents involve mutual acknowledgment that you are an adult with your own thoughts, opinions, beliefs, experiences, and needs. It means owning your needs and being able to say no when you want to say no and yes when you want to say yes.
Examples of poor boundaries from a parent might look like:
- Having unexpected and frequent visits from them
- Unsolicited input about your partner
- Unsolicited advice about how you’re raising your children
- Having them buy things for your home without asking you
- Frequent comments about your diet or body
- Interfering in your personal life
Setting boundaries with parents look like:
- Identifying what your own unique values are, some of which may be different from theirs
- Being able to act in a way that is consistent with your values and beliefs
- Being clear on what you need
- Establishing rules on how you would like to be treated.
How to set boundaries with parents.
1. Be clear and concise.
Before coming to your parents with what you would like for them to adjust, first ask yourself what is bothering you and explore why. Conceptualize the issue. Identifying how their specific behavior makes you feel will help you feel more confident and secure in asking for what you want.
Being clear and concise means being straightforward and stating exactly what it is you need from them without apologizing. Make sure that your request is concrete, coherent, and measurable.
For example, this comment might not go over well: “Please stop dropping by unexpectedly all of the time, because it’s getting really annoying.”
Try this instead: “It is difficult for me when you drop by unexpectedly. Moving forward, can you call first? And remember I can only spend time with you on the weekends.”
The more you practice being concise, the easier it gets.
2. Be assertive and compassionate.
Being assertive involves stating how you feel and what you need without trying to hurt the other person. This includes maintaining eye contact, maintaining a sense of calm, being open to having a conversation, actively listening to the other person, monitoring your tone, having a straight posture, and being direct.
At the same time, being compassionate is also important. This means understanding where your parents may be coming from and understanding the difficulties they may be experiencing in letting go of the role they once had in your life, while also simultaneously honoring your needs. Practicing compassion helps us stay grounded and come from a place of love versus defensiveness.
3. Demonstrate appreciation.
When setting a boundary with your parent, it may help to show appreciation toward what you are grateful for in the relationship, and perhaps the intent behind their behaviors. For example, if you have a parent that ongoingly interferes in your relationship, you can state that you appreciate their concern for you or appreciate that they want what’s best for you, but you also would like for them to stop trying to get involved in your romances because you are capable of making your own decisions. Showing your parents appreciation tells them that you still value them showing up in your life. You just would like how they show up to look differently.
4. Practice the “broken record” technique.
If your parents combat your requests for healthier boundaries, try the “broken record” technique. This is a practice in assertive communication where you do not engage in tangents, arguments, or circular conversation. Rather, you continue to repeat your needs clearly and concisely over and over. This demonstrates that you are sticking to your boundaries and are not interested in engaging in an argument or negotiation about your boundaries.
An example of the broken record technique might look like saying “I am not engaging any further; stop making comments about how I am raising my children” and saying this as many times as you feel comfortable. This technique conveys and reinforces your message without getting into trying to justify why you want certain boundaries in place.
5. Know your limits.
Take the time to be clear about what you are willing to tolerate and not tolerate from them. Where will you draw the line? For example, can you only manage talking on the phone with your parents once a month? Every day? There is nothing wrong with you for wanting to set limits with your parents. This is a healthy part of individuation.
Additionally, if the conversation isn’t going in a direction that is helpful or productive, know when it is time for you to end the conversation. Pay attention to how you are feeling and how much discomfort is healthy for you to tolerate. If you feel like you need a break or walk away from the conversation, it’s important to do so to prevent yourself from getting angry and escalating the conversation.
6. Release any guilt about having boundaries.
Setting boundaries with parents can stir up feelings of doubt, fear, and guilt. In order for us to be able to practice assertive communication and compassion toward ourselves, we have to practice recognizing feelings of guilt around setting boundaries. Guilt can be an indicator that we feel like we are doing something wrong, and it’s important to fully know that setting boundaries with your parents is not wrong. It is just is. Boundaries are an important part in preserving the relationship and building your sense of self.
A practice in releasing guilt can be reciting affirmations like “I deserve to express myself” and “I am allowed to have my needs met.”
At the end of the day, you get to decide your boundaries and your terms. Remind yourself of why you are setting your boundaries, and practice self-validation and self-compassion before, during, and after the conversation with your parents.
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- Couples don’t need identical attachment styles to function successfully in a relationship, but knowing how it impacts the relationship can help.
- Even with two securely attached people, the need for communication and problem-solving is crucial for a healthy relationship.
- Differing attachment styles may require extra intention and effort to work through problem areas.
When we enter an intimate relationship, whether we have a complementary attachment style to our love interest is not on the radar in the least, but ultimately it is the factor that influences relationships the most.
Couples do not need to have an identical attachment style to function successfully in a relationship but having an awareness of the ways one’s style can impact the relationship increases the odds of satisfaction and longevity.
Attachment develops as a result of nature and nurture. It begins in utero and is influenced by maternal experiences and genetics. It is then impacted during early childhood in the ways caregivers respond to our cries in infancy, how our needs are met, and the way we are treated.
Throughout our lives, relationships with family, friends, and others play into our attachment style, reinforcing or correcting our innate understanding of how other humans respond to us.
Through this collection of experiences and genetic wiring, our attachment style is borne. Attachment styles are classified as secure, avoidant, anxious, or disorganized.
How Couples’ Attachment Styles Impact the Relationship
Two people with secure attachment are likely to have a greater sense of stability in their relationship. Not to say that the relationship will be perfect or without strife, but the baseline ability to trust the process of human relationships is a good indicator for success.
Even with two securely attached people, the need for communication and problem-solving is crucial for a healthy relationship. For couples in which one (or both) people have anxious, avoidant, or disorganized attachment, communication can be difficult.
Attachment style can impact the way couples communicate, and often it is as much about what is unspoken as what is said aloud. People who struggle with anxious or avoidant attachment styles may read too much into non-verbal communication or make assumptions about their partner’s intent or feelings based on underlying beliefs about themselves.
Someone who has an avoidant attachment style may struggle with confrontation and this can result in resentments and perpetuated miscommunication between couples.
Problems With Trust
Trust is a primary challenge for people with insecure attachment styles. It may not even be obvious that the underlying issue is trust-related, but it manifests in murky ways like not fully investing in a relationship or keeping emotional distance for self-protection.
More obvious ways trust is affected are through jealousy, insecurity about a partner’s dedication, and feeling preoccupied by self-doubt. Insecure attachment can even contribute to infidelity, as there can be a sense of relationship futility, boredom, and challenges with getting one’s needs met.
Positive Outcomes for Differing Attachment Styles in Relationships
Differing attachment styles in a relationship does not mean imminent doom, it just requires extra intention and effort to work through the problem areas.
Sometimes couples who have attachment differences can experience personal growth because of their work in a relationship, and this can mean greater couple satisfaction and a healthier sense of self-worth.
While no one should enter a relationship with the expectation of healing personal pain, (a setup for failure), sometimes it can become a joint effort and a happy side effect if two people are committed to mutual growth.
Healing Old Wounds
Couples who begin to explore the way their attachment styles affect their relationship may find that it helps reframe a lot of past life events, including prior relationships and lessons learned in childhood.
When individuals are doing their own attachment work within a safe, loving relationship it can offer a lot of healing. The work is two parts; one’s own journey toward exploring self-worth and having a safe place to practice healthy attachment behaviors within a committed relationship.
Learning to Trust
One of the most beautiful aspects of couples growing together and doing attachment work is the mutual trust that can be built.
Learning how to communicate and get one’s needs met effectively, gaining a greater understanding of how attachment directs relationship behaviors, and finding workarounds can disrupt insecure attachment and offer new, healthier experiences.
Even though our innate attachment style is hard-wired, we can make informed decisions about thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that can shape the quality of our relationships with ourselves and others.
Couples who have differing attachment styles may find that the best is yet to come when they are open to exploring attachment togethe
But it was the directness of my coach’s question shook me out of my overconfidence. 93% of drivers believe they’re better than average drivers – a statistical impossibility. The intellectual part of my brain clearly understood the statistics, yet my emotional brain said “Sure, but not us.”
So what’s the issue?
After all, on the surface we seem to have all of the preconditions for a thriving marriage. We’re financially secure. I’m not beholden to the 9-to-5, don’t have a boss, and complete professional autonomy. Heck, we’re even done saving for college. But during that split second, was my body telling me something that my brain wouldn’t acknowledge?
Kids, man. Kids
John Gottman is a psychology professor who studies marriage stability and divorce prediction from his famous “love lab.” In his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, he confirmed what many new parents have experienced firsthand: marital satisfaction plummets after the birth of a first child.
Why do 67% of couples “become very unhappy” during the first three years of their child’s life? Gottman’s research identifies a few reasons:
- The frequency and intensity of relationship conflicts increases significantly
- The fatigue makes it impossible to have an emotional connection
- A baby does not emotionally “retreat” from an unhappy parent (and mom, in particular)
- Though both parents work much harder after the birth of their child, they both feel unappreciated
Resentment: The inverse of appreciation
Appreciation is defined as the “recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of someone.” Simple, right? Not so fast. Appreciation – or should I say, the lack thereof – is the seedling of relationship resentment. Resentment acts as a relationship tax, forcefully injecting itself into every dimension of our marriage: money, in-laws, chores, vacations, and parenting philosophies. And left unchecked, it has some gnarly copounding effects.
This is just so damn hard
What’s more difficult, being the primary breadwinner or caretaker? The appreciation/resentment paradox is our post-industrial version of “To be, or not to be.” (Here, it’s important for me to disclaim that I can only speak about our own situation where we’ve consciously separated the breadwinner and caretaker roles.)
As the primary breadwinner, I think I have it harder. When I was part of the corporate grind, I’d point to the non-stop email and conference calls, navigation of internal politics and banality of corporate bureaucracy. Today, as a solopreneur, I’d add to the list cash flow volatility, untested business models, and watching your savings go down for nearly three years.
But being a primary caretaker is also damn hard. There’s the straight up physical (pregnancy, labor, soreness), emotional (post-partum, the “WTF is going on”), societal (the elusive hunt for the pre-baby bod, mom shaming), fatigue (breast-feeding, all-nighters, sleep training) and loss of freedom (naps, seriously, naps). And let’s not forget the emotional labor.
The kicker: identity
But on the caregiver side there’s the big kahuna: the loss of identity. With the snap of a finger, Lisa went from professionally-trained fine artist… to a Mother. Here’s how the (aptly named) Scary Mommy blog describes this shift:
I’m talking about the fact that in one quick instant, you go from being woman, girlfriend, wife, professional, artist, lover, free-thinking-doing-being-person to MOTHER. Just like that. And mother, at least at first, is bigger than all those other things, whether you want it to be or not.
During some of our trying moments, Lisa would lament how once paternity leave ended “You get to go back to being Khe from RadReads.”
Caregiver versus breadwinner: what’s harder?
This is the part where the Bros on the Internet like to hit back. A sampling of their arguments:
- Have you ever been reamed out by your boss?
- Do you know how much it sucks to fly cross-country for one meeting?
- Have you ever had to update a PowerPoint at midnight on Friday?!?!
(Yes to all of the above, btw) And in the quiet corners of the Thursday Happy Hour you’ll start to hear the paternal grumblings: “What can possibly be so hard about napping all day, going out on mom dates (they drink, don’t they?) and playing peek-a-boo with a cute baby?” I know, because these thoughts have all crossed my mind.
The final verdict?
I hate to break it to you, but they’re both hard. In different ways. At different times. With different combos of physical and emotional. So let’s move on. But one thing is for damn sure: Everyone loses by dwelling on the unanswerable question of “Who has it harder?”
Resentment in action
Let’s leave the abstract and identify two specific examples where a droplet of resentment can quietly start sucking all of the air (and joy) out of a relationship: Economy Plus and Date Night.
The decision to buy the extra legroom has always been a divisive issue within the RadReads community. It’s the classic paradox of delayed gratification – do you optimize for the journey or the destination?
But for us, the blow-out fights over $59 upgrades can be reduced to the resentment-driven question of “who has it harder?”
As the primary breadwinner, this frivolous purchase triggers hyper-vigilance against lifestyle creep, angst about our income uncertainty and fear of going broke. (All harbingers of the pernicious scarcity mindset.) And having gone from a really high income to a virtually non-existent one, makes me really insecure. So during that fight, deep inside there’s a scared little boy (I’m not being dramatic) pleading “Do you know how hard it is to make money on this path?”
The primary caretaker has their own gripes about the non-upgrade. The kid(s) will probably be more on her lap – she’s the gatekeeper of all the snacks, an on-premise supply of milk, and possesses the uncanny superpower to get them to nap in 17 inch seat. Come on, splurge on the $59 bucks for crissake.
Here’s the thing: this had nothing to do with Economy Plus and everything to do with years of built up resentment.
The next example is date night, long heralded as the savior to any marriage. Yet how does this act of relaxation turn into a source of resentment? Once again, the caregiver-breadwinner conflict rears its ugly head (courtesy of emotional labor). Let’s examine what happens from each perspective:
The Breadwinner (i.e. me) waltzes home, proud to have made the reservation on OpenTable and counting down the minutes until that first cocktail. After all, there was a big board meeting that week, so this is the night to blow some steam with your boo.
On the other hand, the Caregiver (Lisa) needs help getting the babysitter situated. The kids are hysterical because they’re not feeling the new sitter. Dinner needs to be prepped. Are the PJs out? Is the Apple TV set up? Oh and did you get the cash, like I asked? (Crap!) Next thing you know, we’re 45 minutes into dinner staring down at our plates in silence.
This dynamic – and how it builds up resentment – is perfectly encapsulated in Emma’s viral comic You Should Have Asked.
Let’s examine the tape (and again, I can only speak to our marriage). On date night, I feel that I deserve a relaxing night out. And because I made the economics of the night possible, all I need to do is open the Uber app.
On the other hand, Lisa feels that date night starts with the coordination of the kids and sitter, long before we even step foot in the restaurant. And if all that coordination falls on her, the date’s no longer a date. We might as well save ourselves the drama and stay home.
Who is right? Who is more deserving of a break at this juncture?
This is the part of the post where the Bros reappear – calling me whipped or denuded of my God-given masculinity. It turns out that letting go of your ego is a much easier route than digging your heels and trying to win the battle of who’s got it harder. And even if you do “win,” (whatever that means) you’ve paid a hefty price: emotional detachment.
Resentment compounds (just like interest payments)
It’s hard to pinpoint when the seeds of resentment were planted. Having kids is an obvious marker, but I truly think it started long before we met. Why? For each partner, it’s a manifestation of their own insecurities. For me, the scarcity mindset turns so much of life into an ongoing struggle. And if everything is a struggle, goddammit – I want to feel appreciated!
The author Malachy McCourt wrote: “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” That’s bit dramatic, but left unchecked resentment can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Twitter friend Visakan Veerasami succintly describes how relationships need a “waste elimination system” and how “hitting snooze” on difficult conversations can have some serious ramifications.
How to deal with resentment
With time, resentment in a relationship acts accumulates and hardens like wet leather. But our minds and hearts are more malleable than we think. Curiosity, empathy, and trust can quickly rightsize a relationship that feels like two ships sailing in the night.
1. Name it, to tame it
The philosopher Carl Jung wrote: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” It’s much easier to see recurring behaviors if you can identify them with a name.
Understanding that the date night fight is really about appreciation can help you cut through the noise and get straight the heart of the issue. And you can get there with some simple questions:
- What are you feeling right now?
- Where is this coming from? (Note: not in a passive-aggressive tone)
- How can I best support you right now?
2. Share your own introspection
One of the hallmarks of difficult conversations is that they tend to be conversations about identity. Being a good partner bears striking similarities to being a good boss. So we can draw lessons from the management classic Difficult Conversations, as Doug Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen devote entire chapters to the link between difficult conversations and our sense of self. The Harvard professors describe how looking inward gives us significant leverage in managing our anxiety during these tense situations:
To become more familiar with your [particular sensitivities], observe whether there are patterns to what tends to knock you off balance during difficult conversations, and then ask yourself why. What about your identity feels at risk? What does this mean to you? How would it feel if what you fear were true? It may take some digging.
3. Turn towards, instead of away
In Gottman’s Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work he introduces the concept of bids. Bids are “any attempt from one partner to another for attention, affirmation, affection, or any other positive connection” and can show up “in simple ways, a smile or wink, and more complex ways, like a request for advice or help.”
In my experience, bids can be reflective “Look at that moon,” subtle (grabbing your hand during a walk), or explicit (“I’m really struggling with my mom right now.”) How the bid “receiver” reacts is critical as they might:
[su_list icon=”icon: bolt” icon_color=”#2a2a2a”]
- Be distracted (i.e. Thinking about work) and just ignore it
- Be stressed and therefore dismissive (or even worst, condescending)
- Or feel outright resentful, twisting the logic in a manipulative way to clap back (“My mom doesn’t stress me out that way.”)
Bids are “little moments” that slowly build up mutual trust, funding what Gottman calls an “emotional bank account” that one can draw on later when things get tense. His research shows that 86% of couples that “turned into their bids” stayed married and found that “arguments between couples were not about specific topics like money or sex, but instead failed bids for connection.
Yet to their subtle nature, bids can be easy to miss – especially once resentment has hardened a relationship. And Gottman details the serious repercussions to missing a bid:
To “miss” a bid is to “turn away.” Turning away can be devastating. It’s even more devastating than “turning against” or rejecting the bid. Rejecting a bid at least provides the opportunity for continued engagement and repair. Missing the bid results in diminished bids, or worse, making bids for attention, enjoyment, and affection somewhere else.
As a simple first step, Gottman suggests openly taking inventory of your bids with your partner with the following questions:
- Could or should I get better at making bids? How?
- What keeps me from making bids?
- What is my impulse for turning?
- Do I turn away or against more often than I turn towards?
4. Don’t go to sleep mad
So we’ve established that resentment compounds and accumulates. Yet after a fight it’s actually possible to abate the ensuing death spiral – it just requires setting aside your ego.
The biggest realization that we’ve had is that in the heat of the moment, you don’t have to resolve the particulars of a conflict. And if you’ve read this far, you know that these are complex issues without black-or-white solutions. Apologies quell resentment’s powerful momentum.
It helps to make the apology specific. “I apologize for raising my voice. I apologize for saying this mean thing.” The specificity of the apology honors the fact that a broad solution isn’t possible whilst passions are flaring. And with any accelerating conflict – a brief pause (combined with a night of sleep) – can defuse any tense situation.
5. Go heavy on the attaboys and attagirls
Three words. (And nope, not the L-Word.) You can never say them enough. “I appreciate you.”
Say it as often as possible. Just make sure you mean it. Just make sure you feel it.
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