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 anxiousattachment 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.
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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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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.
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.
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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
“Do you think your wife would ever leave you?” It was a jarring question, one that shook up routine coaching session. “Absolutely,” I said without any hesitation. I surprised myself with my answer’s assertiveness. It was a bit like jumping off a cliff at an amusement park. You trick your legs into jumping, a split second before your brain processes the “Holy sh*t” moment. But my wife (Lisa) and I both knew that there was resentment in our relationship. And understood its potential to wreck havoc.
The marriage overconfidence trap
Lisa and I often discuss the grim prognostications for marriage in the US, headlined by the 50% divorce rate. One out of every two marriages will end in divorce.
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.”
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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The two books below are some of the most impactful books I’ve read on all types of relationships: spouse, direct reports, and friends. Highly recommend!
This New York Times bestselling book is an overview of the concepts, behaviors, and skills that guide couples on the path toward a harmonious and long-lasting relationship.
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work is the culmination of Dr. Gottman’s lifelong work: an overview of the concepts, behaviors, and skills that guide couples on the path toward a harmonious and long-lasting relationship.
Just as Masters and Johnson were pioneers in the study of human sexuality, so Dr. John Gottman has revolutionized the study of marriage. Straightforward in its approach, yet profound in its effect, the principles outlined in this book teach partners new and startling strategies for making their marriage work. Dr. Gottman has scientifically analyzed the habits of married couples and established a method of correcting the behavior that puts thousands of marriages on the rocks. He helps couples focus on each other, on paying attention to the small day-to-day moments that, strung together, make up the heart and soul of any relationship. Packed with questionnaires and exercises whose effectiveness has been proven in Dr. Gottman’s workshops, this is the definitive guide for anyone who wants their relationship to attain its highest potential.
You might think that your wife has an innate ability to remember your mother’s birthday or which Friday it is that your son is performing in his school play. And you probably know plenty of other dads who have women in their lives who appear to possess some sort of organizational genius when it comes to family scheduling and household tasks. That’s because even enlightened, helpful, and considerate men have blind spots when it comes to what they think men and women are responsible for in family life.
Once, as an experiment, I stopped cleaning the bathroom sink. Eventually, I asked my partner if he’d noticed how disgusting it had gotten. He hadn’t. I also often marvel that I’m somehow the only one of us who can remember which cupboard the glass baking dishes belong in. He cooks dinner maybe once a week, but I need to give him several hours to emotionally prepare for the task and also offer suggestions of what he could cook that I would like and would not be too difficult for him.
I may sound like I’m venting. And I am a little. And everyone is different. But these little elements of managing a household, however, are kind of like tentacles on the monster of society’s broad and often unspoken expectations of nurturance from women. But here’s the thing: According to researchers, this idea that women are naturally more nurturing than men just isn’t true. It’s merely an outdated notion that society has adopted.
Many women bear the weight of not only managing their feelings but also their partners’ in order to accomplish the daily tasks. This is often referred to as “emotional labor,” or the invisible work necessary to manage households, often in spite of working outside the home as much as their partners. It’s described as the mental load of “always having to remember” in a comic about emotional work among new parents that went viral last year. Constant management of their entire families’ needs takes a toll on women and especially wives and mothers, who often grow exhausted and resentful if their partners ignore the invisible burden. If a husband finds himself asking his beleaguered wife “what can I do to help?” chances are the question came too late.
Many women bear the weight of not only managing their feelings but also their partners in order to accomplish the daily tasks that need to be accomplished. This is often referred to as “emotional labor,” or the invisible work done to manage households,
The idea that all women are born nurturers is likely a holdover from the Industrial Age, when work and home lives became separated for the first time, says Rebecca J. Erickson, Ph.D., professor of sociology at Akron University in Ohio. As work moved away from the homestead, women became the executives of sorts of the family sphere.
“The problem is that those expectations haven’t changed since women entered the workforce,” she says. “The belief that women primarily are in charge of and accountable for the emotional climate in the home is still part of the invisible work that women do. And part of the issue about that is that it’s seen as something natural in women as opposed to something that takes time, energy, and skill.”
According to a paper published last year in the journal Sex Roles, more than 60 percent of both men and women reported that women tend to remind their partners more often about things that need to be done. Men also don’t experience the societal pressure to take charge of the family to-do list like women do, the researchers at William Paterson University and Columbia Business School also concluded. In addition, the Paterson-Columbia researchers found that men were much more likely to issue reminders about things from which they’d personally benefit, such as making sure their wives remembered their promise to buy him a new suit jacket for a work party, whereas women’s reminders were typically more selfless.
“The belief that women primarily are in charge of and accountable for the emotional climate in the home is still part of the invisible work that women do. And part of the issue about that is that it’s seen as something natural in women as opposed to something that takes time, energy, and skill.”
“It’s not that women are innately better able to remember and multitask — we were socialized this way,” says study co-author Janet Ahn, Ph.D., professor of psychology at William Paterson University. “It arose out of need. Society socializes women that we’re the ones to fulfill other people’s needs and that good girls help other people out.”
That these ideas are so deeply ingrained is precisely why many men might be surprised to hear that their partners feel they bear an unfairly heavy emotional workload in the marriage. Ahn says she hasn’t met a single woman who has told her that this dynamic doesn’t exist in her home, yet many men she meets seem defensive about her research and insist that they take on just as much organizational work in their relationships.
Men, per Ahn, often say they’re perfectly willing to help when women tell them what they need to do, for example, but don’t understand that expecting women to delegate every conceivable task is a big part of the emotional labor women are sick of typically having to do. For example, if a husband is going to the grocery store but asks his wife about what he should buy or for meal-planning, well, that’s not really helping with the emotional workload.
“The emotional tasks of running a family don’t always get defined because they’re so typically absorbed by women, and men often don’t see them as actual labor like they do with instrumental tasks, such as taking out the garbage or doing the dishes,” says Jennifer Lois, Ph.D., sociology professor at Western Washington University and author of Home is Where the School Is: The Logic of Homeschooling and the Emotional Labor of Mothering. “Women, on the other hand, are socialized throughout their lives to pay attention to relationships and the emotions of other people.”
“Men know they need to contribute with housework and childcare but often don’t understand how to have a conversation about the emotional work that needs to be done in a relationship,”
Modern gender relationships, thankfully, are getting better. And the line between what moms and dads are responsible for is blurred. Parents can help erode gender-based stereotypes that foster unfair expectations in the next generation by being good role models, Ahn says. Kids who grow up seeing Super Mom do everything and Dad on the couch with a beer are more likely to recreate those scenarios when they grow up. So, it’s essential to not only manage the emotional workload, but also show kids that their parents truly share the work of the household and daddy doesn’t just “help out” occasionally to be nice.
One can also try to express more gratitude when their partner reminds them of tasks that need to be done and acknowledge that the completion of those tasks benefits the family. Part of that is being more mindful in your relationship, which, can be helpful in lessening your partner’s emotional load and therefore improve your marriage.
If it’s not something one normally does, they could, at some point in the evening, put their phone down and ask their partner to tell them about their day, and make an effort to really be present and listen, suggests Erickson. Such conversations aren’t about fixing problems, but letting her vent and being present, she says.
Another trick: establish a family Google calendar that both partners update – and share equal responsibility over. It can be helpful for men to see a visual representation of everything their partners have been keeping track of because it’s likely more than they realized, Ahn says. And by jotting something on a calendar, even though adding stuff does take a bit of work, outsourcing it, in a sense, removes the cognitive load of having to remember it and remind each other about it.
Ultimately, making emotional work more equitable isn’t just about making sure children are fed and toilets are clean, Erickson says. It’s about how one conveys caring for each other.
If frustration sets in about emotional labor within a marriage, it’s because one isn’t paying attention to their partner’s needs — and this is also a better time to ask than when she’s struggling to heft a heavy box of winter clothes on a closet shelf that you’ve been stepping around for a week. You can say something like, “I want to be a more equal partner to you but don’t always know what you need from me, so I’d appreciate your help to figure out what those things are, and I’ll try to anticipate them on my own as we go on,” suggests Lois.
Ultimately, making emotional work more equitable isn’t just about making sure children are fed and toilets are clean, Erickson says. It’s about how you convey caring for each other. Ask yourself what kind of relationship you want, she suggests. Is it a partner who’s exhausted and feeling unsupported and bitter?
“Men know they need to contribute with housework and childcare but often don’t understand how to have a conversation about the emotional work that needs to be done in a relationship,” she says. “Love is supposed to come naturally, but it takes work getting outside of yourself to show care and concern for another person by being attentive.”
“Love isn’t a feeling,” she adds. “It’s a behavior.”
If you’ve ever seen a romantic comedy, you’ve likely watched two people who find a way to be together — no matter what obstacles stand in their way. The reason is always simple: They’re in love. But off screen, love isn’t always enough to make a relationship last.
In fact, the feelings caused by romantic love can be so strong, they can convince people to stay in relationships that are unhealthy, unfulfilling and ultimately unhappy — whether they realize it or not. For example, when people looked at photos of their romantic partners, dopamine — a chemical associated with reward that makes people feel good — was released in their brains, a 2015 study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found.
The way these chemicals make people feel can make them overlook logical decisions like leaving an unsatisfying relationship, says Julie Wadley, founder and CEO of matchmaking and coaching service Eli Simone. “When people are in love, they’re driven off of the drug, the endorphins,” she says. “The chemicals that tell you you’re in love with this person are firing.”
Every person has different “requirements” that need to be met in a relationship, according to Wadley. These needs can be emotional, like wanting quality time with your partner, or functional, like requiring them to competently manage money.
When one partner feels that the other isn’t fulfilling a requirement, Wadley says, it’s important to communicate that. If that person’s partner isn’t willing to try harder to fulfill that need, it’s probably time to move on, she says.
One of the reasons people stay in relationships that don’t meet their needs stems from the negative views our society has about being single, according to Wadley. It may seem like if they leave the relationship, they may never find something better. But Wadley says that mentality wastes valuable time and perpetuates a person’s unhappiness. “You could be taking that time to find someone who will give you what you need,” she says.
You’re seeking those needs from others
When you get promoted at work or you’re faced with a family emergency, who is the first person you want to tell? In a fulfilling, healthy relationship, the answer to those questions should be your partner, according to Wadley.
It’s great to have trusted colleagues at work, but Wadley says if you’re constantly turning to a “work husband” or “work wife” for support, it may be a sign that you’re not getting the support you need from your partner. “If you’re like, ‘I have a choice between talking to my boyfriend and talking to my guy friend, the guy who is constantly giving you that emotional affirmation that I need — I’m going with the friend,’” Wadley says, “Something’s not right.”
If either you or your partner is seeking emotional or physical fulfillment from people outside of your relationship, Wadley says it’s a clear indication that it’s probably time to end the relationship.
You’re scared to ask for more from your partner
It’s natural to feel uncomfortable talking to your partner about what you need and may not be getting from your relationship. But Wadley says open lines of communication are essential to lasting, healthy partnerships.
“People may think, ‘That’s going to make me sound needy and emotional,’” says Wadley. Instead of speaking up, they suppress how they feel, continue on with their dissatisfaction and feign contentment out of fear of feeling like a burden.
“Then something happens that breaks the camel’s back,” she says. And the argument that ensues can wind up being more damaging to the relationship than it would have been if you had addressed it sooner. Hiding your true feelings about how your partner is treating you likely prolongs the unfulfilling relationship, rather than saves it, according to Wadley. If you can’t get past the fear of confronting your partner, it’s probably time to seek help or part ways, she says.
Your friends and family don’t support your relationship
Lindsay Chrisler, a New York-based dating and relationships coach says you should take stock of how your trusted family members and friends feel about your relationship. “If nobody in the community supports your relationship, that’s a red flag,” she says. If the people who love and support you see that the person you’re in love with isn’t making you happy, it’s a good idea to listen to their opinions, according to Chrisler.
If you decide push aside your friends’ and family’s concerns, it may lead to another sign that it’s time to let go of the relationship: “You’re starting to lie to your friends, you’re starting to lie to yourself,” says Chrisler. When you isolate yourself from your loved ones in order to avoid listening to their concerns, they’re probably right — the relationship probably isn’t, she says.
You feel obligated to stay with your partner
People are more likely to stay in relationships that they’ve already invested time and effort in, a 2016 study published in Current Psychology found. This is similar to a money investment phenomenon known as the “sunk cost effect.” A prior investment leads to a continuous investment, even when the decision doesn’t make you happy.
“When it comes to people and relationships, time does not necessarily equal success,” says Wadley, who added that many of her clients are reluctant to leave an unhappy relationship because they want to reap the rewards of their investment.
But simply investing more time in a relationship with someone you love won’t fix the problems. If both partners aren’t willing to work to fulfill the other’s needs, the relationship probably isn’t worth more time.
You’ve been working on your relationship for more than a year
Of course, when two people are in love and have spent years together or have started a family together, there is a stronger incentive to work out the problems, says Chrisler. Her advice is to seek couples’ counseling if both partners want the relationship to work. But she caveats that you should set a time limit of one year.
“If you spend too much time in indecision, it will erode the foundation of the relationship to the point where you can’t really make it back,” she says.
After about a year of actively working on the relationship and unsuccessfully trying to meet each other’s needs, the difficult decision to break up is likely the best decision, according to Chrisler.
You don’t like your partner
While it may sound counterintuitive, Chrisler says you can actually be in love with a person you don’t like. If that’s the case, you may get by day to day, but it will be nearly impossible to make it through difficult times together.
All couples have disagreements, but people in healthy, loving relationships keep the mindset that “this is my friend, and I’m going to get through this with this person,” Chrisler says. “And I don’t know how you get through those things without liking them.”
Still, it’s never easy to walk away from someone you love — even when the relationship isn’t working, according to Chrisler. The key, she says, is to listen to the logical part of your brain, instead of submitting to the euphoric chemical reactions that love can cause.
Your partner is abusive
It’s possible for people in an abusive relationship to love an abusive partner. One in four women and one in 10 men have been victims of intimate partner violence, according to a 2015 survey conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. A 2010 study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health found that more than half of the women surveyed saw their abusive partners as “highly dependable.” One in five of the women surveyed said the men possessed significant positive traits, like “being affectionate.” Researchers found that these views contributed to some victims staying in abusive relationships, among other reasons — like isolation, extortion and physical violence.
When it comes to abuse of any kind, Chrisler says it’s crucial to safely find a way out. “It’s difficult to get out of those relationships,” she says. “You have to really love yourself.”
Love relationships are fabulous when things are going smoothly, but when troubles begin, our often-unhealthy default communication techniques can cause even more harm. Unfortunately, these unhealthy habits can lead us into unproductive cycles that bring unnecessary struggle and pain into our romantic relationships.
If communication is not your forte, don’t worry. Below are 10 signs you can look for to help you increase your communication awareness and enrich your relationship in the most mindful, uplifting ways.
As you review the signs, strive to keep judgment of yourself or your partner to the side. The more objective you are, the more beneficial your insights will be. In fact, you might want to make notes as you read. If you—or your partner—engage in any of these habits, just make a note using a 1-to-10 scale regarding the severity of the issue. Remember: The goal is to raise your awareness in a positive way, so put on your “relationship researcher hat” and have fun!
1. One person needs to win.
If you find that you focus or your partner focuses on winning—getting your way or being “right”—in arguments, you’re on the wrong track. Healthy communication focuses on a collaborative, win-win attitude that makes room for both individuals’ perspectives.
Unhelpful:You are so irrational; your opinion is just plain wrong.
Helpful:Your perspective is different from mine. I’d like to know more about your thoughts so that I can understand you better.
2. Blaming and shaming are at work.
When one or both partners get into the shame-or-blame habit, communication—and the relationship—go downhill. Rather than blaming or shaming a partner, focus on the nature of the problem itself—not attacking the person who made the error.
Unhelpful:Our bills are past due again; if you were smarter, you’d get a better job, and we wouldn’t be in this situation.
Helpful:We’re a bit behind on our bills. Let’s sit down this weekend to work out a budget and payment plan. With a little bit of teamwork, I know we can get our finances under control.
3. Criticism instead of healthy feedback.
Although many people are sensitive to receiving feedback, almost no one appreciates being criticized. The difference between the two can be overt or subtle, so strive to get used to offering positive, healthy feedback rather than negative criticism.
Unhelpful: You’re completely inconsiderate and selfish. You’re not even thoughtful or responsible enough to let me know when you’re running late.
Helpful:I understand that the commute can be unpredictable, yet I feel hurt when you don’t let me know you’ll be late. I’d truly appreciate a quick text or call when you’re running behind.
4. Eye contact and body language are off.
Body language can sometimes speak volumes. It’s easy to slip into negative habits during conversations with a partner. From eye-rolling and looking away to folding your arms or walking away during a conversation, negative body language can signal disrespect, irritation, anger, and dismissiveness. These subtle and not-so-subtle behaviors are a passive-aggressive way of controlling conversations in a highly negative way.
Healthy communicators tend to focus on the speaker, make good eye-to-eye contact, and physically lean in during the conversation.
Unhelpful: Why am I snickering and rolling my eyes at you? Because you’re so irrational.
Helpful:I feel so connected to you when you hold my hand and really look at me when I’m talking. I feel seen, valued, and understood.
5. Multitasking gets in the way.
It’s a busy world, but short-changing communication by multitasking generally results in fragmented attention; this leads to misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Multitasking also sends this message to a partner: Whatever else I want or need to do is more important than giving you my undivided attention.
Unhelpful:What’s wrong with you? Can’t you just let me do other things while you talk?
Helpful:You’re my priority, and what you have to say is important. Let me stop what I’m doing to focus on our conversation.
6. Angry, passive-aggressive, or passive tactics are in play.
When anger, passive-aggressiveness, or passive behaviors are the norm, positive communication is almost impossible. Angry comments—verbal assaults—are a sign of trouble. Sarcasm and jokes used as weapons are passive-aggressive strategies that create dynamics. And passive behavior—not speaking your truth or shutting down—gets in the way of healthy communication.
Unhelpful:You’re f-d up. And you think you’re a good partner? Why don’t you just get out of here?
Helpful:I feel really angry when you dismiss opinions. I need a break right now to re-center; I’m taking a walk around the block and will be back in 15 minutes.
7. Interrupting is the norm.
Interrupting sends the message that another person’s message is unimportant or incorrect. If patterns of interrupting are chronic (or getting to be), frustration and resentment arise.
True, active listening involves slowing down to actually hear what another person is saying without interjecting an opinion. In fact, interrupters are generally very poor listeners; rather than listening, their own internal dialogue—which spews out as an interruption—is proof that their attention is self-focused rather than other-focused.
Unhelpful: Stop! What you’re saying is absolutely wrong! Let me tell you how it is.
Helpful: I listened fully to what you had to say. Is there anything else? I want to make sure you’re finished before I share some thoughts.
8. Disagreements become fights.
As a firm believer that partners in healthy relationships tend to disagree rather than fight, it’s important to notice whether a difference in opinions quickly escalates into a fight. Fighting creates a warlike atmosphere where anger and resentment thrive; fights rarely end with a positive solution. Disagreements, however, often bring couples into a space of feeling mutually seen and heard. These couples know that they can safely disagree on topics without being attacked.
Unhelpful: You always want something. If it’s not a new car or your latest hobby, you’re after a trip somewhere. Now you want to redo the backyard. Isn’t enough ever enough for you?
Helpful:I’m feeling a little stressed about redoing the backyard right now. I’ve looked at our budget, and it would be a struggle this year. What do you think about holding off until next spring? We can set money aside and really do it right. How does that sound to you?
9. Technology interferes with face-to-face time.
From cellphones and computers to ever-present television screens, it’s easy to get lost in the world of technology. If you find yourself retreating to technology (or any other activity) in favor of face-to-face time with your partner, it’s a sign that your communication—the desire to really bond with your partner—is suffering. And intimate communication, like any skill, needs regular practice to stay in good form.
Unhelpful:Giving the best of yourself to your work or personal interests and leaving little energy to communicate with your partner.
Helpful:Setting aside time every day to talk with your partner. Whether by taking a walk together, sitting down to share coffee, or having dinner at a table together (instead of in front of the TV), your communication—and your relationship—will flourish.
10. Resentment and unsolved issues lurk in the background.
If one or both partners stockpile issues instead of addressing them as soon as possible, trouble is brewing. Some people hold on to issues to use as weapons in later arguments; and even when the other partner tries to resolve the issues, the passive-aggressive person often chooses to maintain the stockpile. Others compartmentalize issues in the hope that the problem will go away.
While some minor issues do fade if left unaddressed, many are recycled issues that are never solved. When core hurts, resentments, or irritations are not addressed, it’s a sign that positive strategies are needed.
Unhelpful:I’m not going to forgive. I don’t care if you apologized and made things right. I want you to pay for what you did for the rest of your life.
Helpful:I’m hurt and feel like we need to get to the roots of what happened. My fear is that you might hurt me in the same way again; it’s important to me that you are genuinely accountable for what you did. I think it will do both of us a world of good to gain more clarity and understanding. We can then start fresh.
Taking next steps.
Be patient with yourself and your partner as you venture into the often-unfamiliar world of healthy communication. Keep at it, stay mindful, and do your best one day at a time. Before you know it, your practice will pay off by bringing you and your partner closer than ever.
Ask these. Stare intensely. Fall in love. (Apparently…)
By Jasmine Lee-Zogbessou
“Tell your partner something that you like about them already,” is the 31st question I ask this usually very nonchalant guy over FaceTime. We’re two hours and thirty minutes into this video call, testing out the ’36 questions to fall in love’ theory. He tells me he likes my smile and I can’t help but blush at that response. When asked, I share something more superficial, telling him I like his body, precisely everything about it and, in that moment, I feel a sense of coyness that I hadn’t felt in a little while.
36 questions to fall in love
Created in 1997 by psychologist Dr. Arthur Aron, 36 questions to fall in love is a study, conducted at Stony Brook University, New York, that tests accelerated intimacy between two strangers. Dr. Aron conducted this test by bringing a heterosexual man and woman together with a list of 36 questions to test out, followed by four minutes of sustained eye contact. This couple got married six months later.
Adrian Rodriguez Garcia
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Broken up into three sets, each section gets more and more personal. From ‘Question 1: Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?’ to ‘Question 36: Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.’
The point of the study is to test the social psychology of relationships and create closeness, although Dr. Aron states that the closeness is intended to be a temporary feeling. So, you’re not expected to immediately fall in love as soon as the 36th question is answered, but you should feel something. Right?
“The questions allow people to understand that we’re all human, and that is so connecting”
Before testing the study out for myself with a guy I used to date, (I really wanted to try out these questions and had no one else to ask, okay?), I was curious but cynical. I’ve never believed in love at first sight or when characters in movies become obsessed with one another within three days, so I didn’t expect a miraculous surge of adoration to wash over me but I was keen to discover something new about someone I already knew and ask questions I wouldn’t tend to ask.
The advantage of the structured 36 questions
Our answers to ‘Question 9: For what in your life do you feel most grateful?’ was the same – family, while ‘Question 16: What do you value most in a friendship?’ revealed our compatible need for thoughtfulness and having people around us that have our best interests at heart. These questions were some of my favourites.
There are three questions out of the 36 that centre friendship, including ‘Question 20: What does friendship mean to you?’ and ‘Question 27: If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.’
I personally think that a good romantic relationship should have a good friendship at the foundation as the friendship element is what makes your bond strong, meaningful and genuine, not attraction and a couple of shared interests.
“Psychological intimacy is a prerequisite for passion”
It was particularly useful for us to have a list in place with questions neither of us had created or over analysed. I spoke with relationship psychotherapist, Matt Davies, who seconded this notion for first-time daters. “When you’re first meeting, if you don’t have a structure, what you’re doing is you’re generating all kinds of superficial chat,” he says.
“Psychologically you’re assessing, ‘Do I like this person or not? Do I feel safe with them?’ But, with that out of the way, the questions provide you access to finding out whether you feel comfortable and safe with them.”
The 36 questions are key in unlocking that vulnerability and genuineness that a lot of people struggle to show generally, let alone when seeking love.
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Questions like ‘18: What is your most terrible memory?’ (my answer nearly made me tear up) and ‘30: When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?’ tested how honest and open we could be with one another, which aren’t traits that are often explored early in a potential relationship, due to fear of opening up or sharing personal things ‘too early’.
Dr. Davies says, “Psychological intimacy is a prerequisite for passion. [The questions] allow people to understand that we’re all human, and that is so connecting. It’s the opposite of alienation, where we might think somebody is better than us or we’re one down or one up. I think that is really important to help with intimacy.”
And ignite intimacy it did – while we were already comfortable and familiar with one another, we both learnt something new. Forget the simple things like our favourite colours or favourite movies, we unlocked deeper, emotional experiences such as my sister being in the hospital being one of the worst times of my life and him crying in front of a previous partner.
Do the 36 questions to fall in love work?
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The initial cynicism I had definitely eased up as the questions progressed, although I didn’t like every single question due to their vagueness and repetition. However, perhaps that’s what’s needed. The vague elements of some questions allowed us to be as open-ended as possible, while the repetition of the questions that asked us to say positive things about one another fulfilled my biggest love language.
Once we finished the questions, we joked about whether we were in love yet. Well, we’re still not dating but the enhanced closeness we felt has got to mean something.
Full list of 36 questions to fall in love
1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?
3. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
4. What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?
7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
11. Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
14. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
16. What do you value most in a friendship?
17. What is your most treasured memory?
18. What is your most terrible memory?
19. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
20. What does friendship mean to you?
21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?
22. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
25. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling …”
26. Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share …”
27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
28. Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
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29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
31. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
33. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
34. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
36. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.
In the early days of online dating, there was an easy fix to ensure you felt comfortable meeting up with a complete and total stranger: hop on a phone-call pre-date to make sure the vibes felt right. Fast-forward 15 years and the vast majority of us forget that our mobiles even have a phone in it. The idea of chatting prior to a first date can seem charmingly old-fashioned at best, and ridiculously quaint at worst…or downright terrifying if you’re one of the many millennials and Generation Z folks who are petrified of talking on the phone. So what’s up with the sudden return of the pre-date phone-call? That’s right: the pre-date call appears to be back in a big way, with more and more people of all genders asking for that chat. But why is this happening now? And how do we feel about this?
WHY ARE YOU CALLING ME?
I asked Friend of a Friend Matchmaking matchmaker Claire AH if she had any insight into why this old-school practice has become so popular again. “There’s especially been a jump with people in their 20s and 30s,” she agrees. And why? “People are looking for a little more human connection. Part of it is just to add a little bit of certainty that they’re not going to be flaked on at the last minute. Speaking with a person on the phone might make them feel a little more secure to that end. Plus it’s another chance for them to suss out if they want to go through with an in-person date. More and more people are a little dubious about how anonymous and impersonal online dating can be. The phone isn’t necessarily the best way to get to know someone, either, but it fosters more familiarity than moving straight from the app to face-to-face. Dating is about putting yourself out there, and even a little bit of added security goes a long way.”
It can also be a quick way to prevent catfishing, which, according to Camille Virginia, author of The Offline Dating Method, is on the rise these days. “The pre-meeting phone chat is definitely becoming more common. With people lying about age, looks, and social skills becoming increasingly common in online encounters, people want to make sure they aren’t wasting their valuable time on a dishonest person.”
Men may be particularly prone to ask for the call, as they may be the target of regular catfishing or pros soliciting paid dates, says Jess, 41, a heteroflexible communications specialist. “A lot of the men I encounter are terrible on apps,” she says. “They play the numbers game and ignore things like profiles and red flags, end up on porn sites, and begin to assume that every woman is a bot or a catfish. I think that a lot of them actually just want to verify that I am a woman, that I’m real.”
Or maybe, says Steph, a 36-year-old bisexual content manager, it’s a response to the Tinder graveyard—men often get hundreds of matches with no conversation. “If you speak to someone on the phone,” she says, “they become more real than a face you swiped on a screen.” And it might make us feel just a little more safe, especially if we date men.
“The phone isn’t necessarily the best way to get to know someone, either, but it fosters more familiarity.”
We checked in with a bunch of other women and non-binary folks to see how they feel about the pre-date phonecall.
There are also folks who require a pre-date phonecall for accessibility reasons, like writer Kerry, 35. “I do it because I am blind and can’t see pictures. Voice is a big part of attraction for me. I’d like to hear the voice before I would meet in person,” she says. “I understand that urge to only want to communicate by texting, but I can’t see and voice matters. I have a way I need to do the whole online dating thing and, as I can’t see photos and conversations tell me a lot, an on-the-phone talk before meeting up is essential to me. It is nice to hear a real person’s voice, even if I am always nervous when initiating that first call.”
LIFE IS BUSY
“Dates with complete strangers take energy!” laughs Kirby, a heteroflexible 34-year-old. For the super-busy TV producer, pre-date phonecalls were a key part of her dating strategy during her single days, as total time-savers. “I was showing up for dates and realizing within five minutes the guys weren’t a good match for me, but I’d gone to the effort of doing my hair and makeup and generally looking cute. And then I’d have to sit there for another hour or whatever out of politeness. It’s not like you can just walk out,” she remembers. “So after a bunch of those I started asking guys for calls first, to see if we clicked in conversation as easily as we did online. A lot is lost in written messages.”
Cara, a straight 29-year-old food stylist, agrees. “Dating is tough and I am an extremely busy person, so one thing I don’t want dating to be is a waste of time,” she says. “Before I did phone calls, I definitely went on some dates that could have been avoided.” These calls make her feel more comfortable going on a date with someone: that way, “I’ve had a proper conversation with them, not just random texts throughout the day.”
DO THE WORK
Unlike texting, talking on the phone like this also takes actual effort, which can be a great test for potential paramours, according to Starr, a 48-year-old straight actor. No matter their age, it seems, many men have difficulty putting any effort into dating these days, or even wanting to actually meet up. “I use the call to gauge actual interest and drive; I feel so many men – women, too, I’m sure – use the apps to ego-stroke, kill time, and fill a need to constantly be on a device,” she says. “I’m not a big small talker and I’ve had men just want to text and chat at me – not to me, because that type of personality wouldn’t pepper me with dozens of check-in, no-content texts, which completely turns me off.” With younger men, she says, she’s been stunned by their lack of emotional intelligence, and understanding of intimacy. With men her age, many of them are just out of long-term relationships that failed and they’ve yet to do any personal work around their experiences. “They just want to hop into another comfortable long-term set up and keep on keeping on,” Starr says.
“A phone-call can create greater intimacy, and fast.”
Who among us hasn’t endured the endless stream of “hey how r u” texts over a series of days? Or weeks? A phone-call can create greater intimacy, and fast, according to pansexual project manager Resi, 27. “Hearing a voice brings about more of a visceral connection to a person than texting behind a screen,” she says. “It’s harder to pivot when someone’s on the other line asking a question or making a comment. People have to reveal a bit more about themselves rather than what they may in a text message behind a screen.”
THE INTIMACY ISSUE
It also lets you reveal more about yourself in a less stark setting. Folks tend to be more sympathetic to others in person or over the phone; it’s distressingly easy to dismiss someone’s pain when it’s just words on a screen. Jess, for example, has found great comfort in speaking over the phone pre-date as it allows her to share a bit about her new post-therapy dating approach. Hearing her say it, rather than reading her say it, can help the message go down a little easier. “The last person I met for a date, we’d spoken by phone once or twice, and I think it made me more comfortable meeting up with him,” she says. “Explaining how I’ve been seeing a therapist and learning about attachment styles would be complicated over text; since I was able to explain things about my dating approach, and how it’s changed made me feel more relaxed in person with him.”
Texts are, after all, the perfect medium to be funny and smart and entertaining – even if you’re, uh, very much not IRL. This is why Kendall, 53, prefers the phone, where it’s immediately apparent if you’re actually jiving with someone or not. “I do it to try and avoid the false sense of intimacy I get from texting. If a text exchange seems to go well, i.e., is enjoyable or even funny, I start to fill in the emotional blanks with warmth and camaraderie,” she says. “Then when I meet the guy in person, it’s a bit of a shock to realize that we are actually strangers with no connection.” Recently, for example, she was smitten with a man who seemed totally hilarious. Come the pre-date call, however, he was revealed to be a jittery, over-talking mess.
Over-talkers: another scourge of the dating world! Resi recently endured a phonecall where the guy who simply would not stop talking about himself: how great he is, how everyone in his office loves him, and on and on and on. “He wouldn’t allow me to get much of a word in,” Resi says. “I pointed it out to him, but, alas, the narcissism continued.” Something good came out of it after all, thankfully: “It helped me decide not to go on the pre-arranged date and save myself a seat to the one-man show!”
JUST SAY NO
Despite the advantages that some women and non-binary folks enjoy, others still rankle at the request. Thirty-four-year-old queer biologist Tilly says she typically can tell by text if potential dates are duds or not, and she’s had all kinds of horrible experiences with the men requesting the pre-date call.
“Ugh, it’s a bit annoying,” she says. “It feels completely judgemental. My guess is that people are jaded from online dating and wasting time on dates. I know, I’ve been a serial dater and it takes up a lot of time, so I think people do the pre-date calls to quickly weed people out and save on time so they can quickly move on to the next and efficiently spend their energy elsewhere. But, at times, it feels so formal and judgy. Like an over-the-phone job interview with the HR intake coordinator.”
Then there was the dude who had a “skill-testing question” for her. “If you arrived at a party and there was a dog there, who would you greet first: the dog or the humans? She said the dog. “Good,” he replied. “Because if you said humans then I wouldn’t have gone on a date with you.”
Another one told her that he called to find out if she had an annoying voice, or “sounded dumb.”
“And,” says Tilly, “I cannot tell you how many guys I’ve talked to on the phone who jump head-first into the sexy talk.” They ask her what she’s wearing, what positions she likes in bed, how sexually adventurous she is. “They lower their voice into what they probably think is a soft, sexy tone,” Tilly shrieks. “Ohhh, puhlease! Barf. I need more than that.”
Steph has also experienced this low-key harassment as well. “Years ago” she remembers, “a man felt the need to ask me if I wore tights or pantyhose. He had a fetish and decided a pre-date phone call was a good time to talk about it.”
Consent-wise, she’s also noticed an increase in people calling without asking first. She doesn’t like the pre-screen call (“I find phone calls with strangers more awkward than meeting in person”), but she’ll do it if it’s important to them. So what if you absolutely hate talking on the phone?
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“Ask yourself what specifically you hate about talking on the phone. Is it that any type of contact with a potential mate that isn’t done from behind a screen gives you anxiety?”
SO,WHAT IF YOU HATE IT?
Film costumer Cristina, 29, for example, never asks for a pre-screen call. “Talking on the phone causes me great anxiety and I don’t want to inflict that on other people,” she says. What if someone asks her for one? “I usually tell them upfront that I’m not comfortable speaking on the phone and prefer to meet up in person first.”
It can be a good exercise to figure out just why you hate the phone so much. Virginia recommends asking yourself what specifically you hate about it. Is it that any type of contact with a potential mate that isn’t done from behind a screen gives you anxiety? “If so, then it’s not the phone you hate, it’s something deeper, like a fear of rejection or even social anxiety,” she says. “In that case, the phone may actually be the perfect next step for you because you can start to practice your connection skills minus the handicap of a screen, without yet being face-to-face with someone. It allows you to not only screen this person but also get comfortable with them by connecting more personally, so the next step of meeting face-to-face feels more relaxed and fun.”
But what if you’ve always hated the phone…but are comfortable with (or even prefer!) in-person interactions? Then it really is a phone-specific thing, she says: “I suggest setting up a video call, like FaceTime or even a Zoom video conference call between you and your match, to mimic the in-person experience without committing to a full evening or afternoon with each other in the real world just yet. That way you can see what they look like, read into their body language, etc. and get some of your preferred in-person connection benefits.”
In either case, Virgina recommends warming up your social skills (and vocal cords) before getting on that pre-meeting phone chat. “That could be as simple as calling or meeting up with a friend right before your call with your online match. Then, while you’re on the call with your potential date, try standing up and even walking around, or go for a walk outside while you chat! This gives your nerves a natural outlet so they don’t build up inside you, or worse come out through your voice.” She also recommends smiling, especially when you first start chatting: people can hear it in your voice and it will put both of you more at ease.
If you really don’t want to take that pre-date call, that’s okay, too. I, for example, loathe talking on the phone most of the time and, if I was on the dating scene again, would probably refuse. How do you compromise? Just tell them you prefer to meet up in person, but are happy to do it as a quick coffee so there’s no big time-spend on either side. This move might even give you a feeling of empowerment and will also help you establish that you’re comfortable setting boundaries, right off the top. If they really want to meet you, they should, hopefully, be okay with compromising for your conditions.
Introversion, fear of rejection, pragmatic reasons (like a health problem), low trust, lack of time, and being too picky may make building new friendships difficult.
One study found that the most important factors were “low trust,” followed by “lack of time” and “introversion.”
Older people were more likely to report that lack of time and pragmatic reasons prevented them from making friends.
In recent research published in Personality and Individual Differences, researchers conducted 30-minute semi-structured interviews on 20 participants in a university laboratory seeking to discover what makes adult friendships difficult to create. Once the interviews were complete and coded, an open-ended survey on the matter was conducted on 108 new participants to further probe and validate the responses given in the semi-structured interviews.
The following 40 reasons were revealed, structured into six broad categories:
I am introverted
I feel embarrassed when meeting new people
I do not speak easily to people I do not know or have just met
I have a disability that makes it difficult for me to socialize
I have a health problem that prevents me from socializing
I have psychological problems that prevent me from making friends
I live in a country whose culture is different than my own, which makes it difficult for me to make friends
I am in a tight-knit group of friends that prevents me from making new friends.
I live in a place with few inhabitants and I do not meet new people
I do not trust others easily
I am cautious
I am suspicious
Lack of trust due to bad past experiences
I feel that others approach me with a purpose other than friendship
I am very selective with whom to make friendship
It is difficult for me to find people who are really interested in friendship
Lack of time
Lack of time
I work long hours and have no time for friendships
I devote all my time to my partner and have no time for friendships
I do not feel like making new friendships
My age: I feel I have grown old enough to start new friendships
I do not easily give others the opportunity to become my friends
I easily reject people as potential friends
It is difficult for me to find people with who we have common interests
I find it difficult to find people who match
A follow-up study conducted with 622 participants (with a mean age of 33.7 for women and 34.1 for men) revealed that among the 40 reasons, the most important factors in the prevention of making friends were “low trust,” followed by the “lack of time” and the “introversion,” further discovering that “low trust” was a primary driver for women in comparison to men. Older participants were more likely to find lack of time and pragmatic reasons preventing them from making friends, in line with evolutionary reasons.
Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock
About the Author
Mariana Bockarova, Ph.D., is a researcher at the University of Toronto.
If a partner gradually becomes less attentive and caring, there may be a mismatch in emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence involves three components: self-awareness, social awareness, and empathy.
Healthy relationships require ongoing empathy and understanding for long-term success.
Initially a partner seems attentive, sensitive, and adoring. Yet these traits diminish as the relationship unfolds. One person feels the emotional chasm deeply and is desperate to recover the bond. The other seems cold and indifferent. As one party attempts to dig in and address deeper issues, the other claims everything is fine and avoids any discussion about what he or she is feeling.
In this situation, the person who is left in the dark often feels as if he or she is to blame. Questions like, “Was I too needy, too demanding, or too insecure?” might consume the person. These thoughts are understandable when a partner, without explanation, withdraws love.
Yet the person missing their partner may not have done anything wrong. The rift may be the result of a mismatch in emotional intelligence. Three hallmarks of emotional intelligence include self-awareness, emotional attunement to others (social awareness), and empathy.
At the outset of a relationship, both people are on their best behavior to woo the other. Supportive, complimentary, and kind, a partner may seem as if he or she embodies the characteristics of an emotionally intelligent person. Yet if several key characteristics do not endure, it may indicate he or she lacks the essential ingredients necessary to maintain a healthy and hearty relationship. Three signs may indicate a partner has a low EQ and, therefore, difficulties sustaining closeness in a romantic relationship.
First, the partner lacks self-awareness. He or she is unaware of the impact that his or her words and actions have on a partner. After saying something insensitive, he or she is often shocked and angry to hear the statement affected the partner negatively.
For example, Shannon and Rick are eating lunch with friends. Shannon brags to the group that she is the breadwinner and that she and Rick wouldn’t be taking their trip to the Caribbean if it were not for her.
In the car on the way home, Rick explains that he was embarrassed and hurt by her comments. Shannon fails to see how her words impacted Rick and she defends herself: “I was just telling the truth. I’m not going to lie. If you don’t like it, you need to get a better job.”
In this scenario, Shannon refuses to see how her behavior affects Rick and instead deflects responsibility and projects blame onto Rick. Her inability to look at herself and glean insight exemplifies a deficit in self-awareness.
Alternatively, if Shannon is self-aware, she reflects and attempts to see the situation from Rick’s perspective. Realizing she devalued Rick with her statement, she immediately feels remorse and says, “It was selfish of me to say that. I was wrong. I was trying to impress them and it wasn’t okay to throw you under the bus. I am so sorry.” Due to Shannon’s self-awareness, she is able to quickly resolve a conflict in the relationship.
Detachment from uncomfortable emotions may also indicate a deficiency in self-awareness. Frequently a partner will deflect and project in an effort to avoid uncomfortable emotional states such as accountability and remorse in addition to withdrawing from a discussion to escape feeling discomfort. Both responses may lead to an inability to own one’s part in a conflict and identify the feelings that compel behaviors that hurt a person. The lack of insight may cause this partner to continue repeating the mistake in the relationship.
Second, a partner who is not emotionally attuned to his or her partner may be missing an essential ability necessary for remaining close. Recognizing a person’s emotional state usually leads to a conscientious response. A failure to do so may breach the connection.
For example, Jane arrives at Taylor’s house after work. Taylor is cleaning her oven and does not notice Jane’s sad expression. Taylor chats about her day and tells Jane to “speed things up” because Jane needs to pick up dinner. Taylor is not sensitive to Jane’s demeanor. Jane quietly confides that she lost her position as lead manager on a project she is passionate about. Taylor, indifferent to Jane’s disappointment, glibly says, “That’s too bad. We’ll talk more tonight about it. You need to go pick up the food.” Later that night, Jane goes home devastated because Taylor forgot to re-visit the issue.
The following day, Jane waits for Taylor to remember she needs support, but instead Taylor texts her and shares the news that her new Yoga matt arrived in the mail. Jane explains to Taylor that she is hurt that Taylor has not offered support. Taylor turns on Jane and tells Jane that she is not a “mind reader” and Jane is “too sensitive.”
On the other hand, let’s say Taylor is in tune with Jane. She notices Jane’s sad expression and quiet demeanor immediately when she enters the kitchen. Taylor drops what she is doing and goes to Jane. She asks if something is wrong. Jane explains her situation and Taylor empathizes, “You are so disappointed. I get it. I would be too. She hugs Jane and says, “Let’s pick up dinner together. We can talk more in the car.”
In this example, Taylor is emotionally attuned to Jane instead of consumed with her own immediate feelings and needs. This allows Taylor the opportunity to be there for Jane. She is conscientious, supportive, and empathic which sustains the closeness in the relationship.
Third, a partner’s lack of empathy may sabotage the closeness in the relationship. Empathy is the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes in order to attempt to truly understand their experience. Resonating with a person’s feeling state allows the partner to feel understood, less alone, and connected to the person who “gets it.” Empathy does not require a partner to fix a person’s problem or provide advice. It simply equates to resonating and communicating an understanding of what the person feels.
For example, Ron is getting out of the shower and he slips and falls. He lands on his hip. Shelly is in the next room and doesn’t get up to check on him. While staring at the TV she snickers at his clumsiness and yells, “Be careful!” Ron hobbles to his room and gets dressed. The pain subsides but he is stunned that Shelly appears unconcerned. When he enters the living room, Shelly says, “You need to get a better shower door. That one leaks. No wonder you fell.”
Conversely, Shelly hears a thud. She runs to the bathroom door and asks if Ron is okay. When Ron opens the door, she says, “That must have hurt. It sounded like you went down hard. I bet you’re sore.” She sits with him for a minute to make sure he is okay.
Getting close is easy but staying close requires that two people possess certain emotional capabilities. A discrepancy in emotional intelligence may cause a division. An emotionally intelligent partner may face the issue head on and work hard to mend the relationship while a partner with low emotional intelligence wishes to avoid the discomfort necessary to resolve conflict. His or her response may be to abandon the relationship. Two people with low emotional intelligence may be a match, but often the union is superficial and based on a mutual fueling of egos. Nonetheless, if a person feels emotionally abandoned by a partner, it may not be his or her fault. It may be the result of a mismatch in emotional intelligence.
“Respect is an important component of every healthy relationship, yet it’s absolutely critical for the long-term success of a romantic relationship,” Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist, tells Bustle. “When a sense of solid respect is present, partners tend to feel more appreciated, seen, and safe in the relationship. When respect is not present, partners will tend to feel wary, angry, and deeply resentful.”
Disrespect can take many forms, but it typically has the same outcome. Studies have shown that a lack of respect is one of the main predictors of a breakup. And while breaking up is often the best course of action when a partner is rude, disloyal, and uncaring, it may be possible to inspire positive improvements.
As Manly says, “This dynamic can be changed with conscious effort. Respect — like most key principles in relationships — is an attribute and a skill that can be honed with mindful attention.” It might mean pointing out areas that need to change, going to couples therapy together, and — if you’re willing — giving a partner a chance to change.
It’s up to you what happens next. But experts say if you spot any of these signs, it’s a sign your partner doesn’t respect you, and that means the relationship needs work.
Drs John and Julie Gottman have studied couples for over 30 years using the scientific method. They have created two categories of couples: the Masters & the Disasters. In this series, learn 3 behaviors that the Masters practice to keep their relationships healthy and strong. This week, I discuss the Master’s first behavior: Building Love Maps.
And the two walls holding up the house are trust and commitment, which are essential to all relationships. The first level of the Sound Relationship House is Build Love Maps. The principle of building Love Maps is simply this: knowing the little things about your partner’s life creates a strong foundation for your friendship and intimacy.
Why Love Maps are so important
The research found that emotionally intelligent couples are intimately familiar with each other’s worlds. This is having a richly detailed Love Map: the term for that part of your brain where you store all the personally important information about your partner’s life.
These couples made plenty of cognitive room in their minds for their relationship. They remember the major events in each other’s histories, and they keep updating their information as the facts and feelings of their spouse’s world change. They know each other’s goals in life, worries, and dreams. Without such a love map, you can’t know your partner.
From knowledge springs not only love, but the fortitude to weather marital storms. Couples who have detailed love maps of each other’s worlds are far better prepared to cope with stressful events and conflict. Partners who are already are intently aware of what each other are feeling and thinking aren’t as thrown off course by changes and stress in each other’s lives. But if you don’t start off with a deep knowledge of each other, it’s easy for your relationship to lose its way when your lives shift with the challenges and stressors that come to you over time.
How to build Love Maps
Start creating and strengthening your Love Maps today. Try to answer the following questions about each other and find out how much you know about your partner’s world.
Love Map Exercise:
Name your partner’s two closest friends.
What was your partner wearing when you first met?
Name one of your partner’s hobbies.
What stresses your partner right now?
Describe in detail what your partner did today or yesterday.
What is your partner’s fondest unrealized dream?
What is one of your partner’s greatest fears or disaster scenarios?
What is my favorite way to spend an evening?
What is one of your partner’s favorite ways to be soothed?
Name a person your partner dislikes.
What is your partner’s ideal job?
What medical problems does your partner worry about?
Asking these questions will help you develop greater personal insight and a more detailed “map” of each other’s lives and worlds. However, getting to know your partner better is an ongoing process. Updating your love maps regularly together by sitting down and catching up. Remember, the more you know about each other, the more you feel a strong connection, and the more profound and rewarding your relationship will be.
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I recently went through a mental health crisis triggered by burnout, then a breakup, both right before lockdown. I feel good now, and I know a big part of what got me here is having consistently done the work to honor my inconvenient feelings over the past half-decade. I have worked with a therapist to unpack how my childhood fuels my perfectionism, I work every day to cultivate self-compassion for my deeply flawed self and others. I’m 30, and though I love solitude and I’m too pessimistic about climate change to procreate, I also believe that being in deep, sustained relation with another person is one of the big wonders and joys of being alive. I know at some point I’ll start dating again. That’s where I falter.
My relationship was the serious, cohabiting type. People were probably expecting some kind of schmaltzy Instagram engagement announcement from us any day. Neither of us cared about these heteronormative milestones, but we had different expectations of what it takes to make a long-term relationship work. I may not have been set on marriage, but I did want a partner that actively showed up to connect with me on an emotional level, with each of us mining the depths of our own bullshit to learn how to better relate to one another and build a productive and joyful life together. My ex, on the other hand, was confused about why I always wanted to make things more complicated than they needed to be. He wanted to coast through life, never feeling the depths of despair but never quite reaching the height of joy either.
I live in the U.K., and I’m struck by the fact that a significant number of women I know are in some form of this exact relationship dynamic: emotionally avoidant men who are disinclined (both culturally and personally) to see any reason to fix that, partnered with emotionally evolved (if anxious) high-functioning women who are secretly harboring hope that their partner one day decides to Do the Work to make the relationship better. I hoped my ex would Do the Work for so long. We started going to couples therapy in the last few months of our relationship, but by then it was too late. As someone who thinks doing your own shadow work is the most fascinating and urgent part of being alive, it was hard to find myself dating someone who more or less saw the whole thing as a frivolous lark. My feelings sent him into fight or flight mode every single time we had conflict.
As the dust settles, I’m wondering: Is it okay for me to categorically state that I will never again bind my life to someone who hasn’t been through therapy? I know therapy may not be for everyone on earth, but I’ve yet to see an alternative that is rigorous and practical. If I do move forward with that belief, I have to acknowledge that my dating pool will be almost comically small.
Friends say I just need to get over this one; we all fall in love again. And sure, maybe one day I’ll fall so madly in love with someone that I’m able to overlook the warning signs of their emotional avoidance. But I’m not sure I actually want that to happen. Nothing feels more important to me than being able to honor the full spectrum of my big, inconvenient, and complex feelings for the rest of my life, without any shame or suppression — even if that means I have to do that while steering my own ship.
Am I the Avoidant One?
In my experience, most men are avoidant, most people in Western societies share the belief that vulnerability is weakness, and many high-functioning professionals have a stunning ability to gloss over emotions and back away from human complexities — in themselves, in others, in the world. Our disjointed, individualistic, workaholic culture feeds us the myth that personal achievement and personal wealth are the foundations of human happiness, and anything that slows or blocks a person’s path to riches and glory is an inherent waste of time or, at the very least, a questionable use of one’s resources.
Many people today seem to believe that feelings are inconvenient and thorny and need to be swept out of the way as smoothly and efficiently as possible. Moreover, some people treat therapy more like a SoulCycle class: less a way of exploring their darkness, and more a way of becoming a more smooth and efficient animal.
And as you know, efficiency is somewhat at odds with the patience and openness required by deep self-discovery. When you’re Doing the Work, exploring past traumas, understanding your own shadow, cultivating an inner life, and excavating your shame, you’re seeking out new mysteries and new layers all the time. Being surprised or embarrassed or alarmed by what you find inside yourself is part of what makes it all so rewarding. It’s part of dare I say the FUN of therapy and of independent self-discovery. So in my opinion, that’s the big question you want to ask when you encounter a prospective mate. More than “Is this man avoidant?” or “Is this man in therapy?” you want to ask, “Is this man curious and open to learning new things — about me, about himself, about his past, about my past, about the world?”
When someone really wants to understand how your mind and heart work, it shows. People like that ask open-ended questions and listen to the answers. They’re attracted to the workings of your mind, thrilled by the big ideas you throw into the mix, excited by the process of excavation itself. In contrast, less curious people will attach tight little morals to the things you say — “You got through it, that’s the important part.” “Sounds like a good learning experience.” “Boy, that’s a lot. Glad it all worked out fine in the end.” People who talk like that are anxious to wrap everything up and then close the book, put it back on the shelf, and never think about it again.
I’m guessing that’s not remotely your style, based on your letter. It’s not my style, either. And when I’m dealing with someone who keeps pushing me to reach some predetermined conclusion, like it’s not just uncomfortable but it’s aggravating for them to have to stay in some exploratory nowhere land with me, I usually don’t end up investing as much in that relationship. I prefer conversations that spin out and remain open ended. I like people who get excited when they encounter new wrinkles and layers and ideas along the way. I love curious people who enjoy rambling, collaborative conversations about emotions and ideas and everything else under the sun.
But let me also say this: I really like avoidant men (and avoidant people in general). Everyone in my family of origin is avoidant. They feel like my tribe. So my favorite people tend to be a weird blend of these two worlds: intellectually and emotionally curious people who are pretty open but still just a tiny bit shut down and insecure in various ways. I like people who are conflicted but curious, who lead with their intellect but who are also trying to evolve emotionally in spite of not knowing what the fuck they’re doing on that front most of the time.
It can be a little limiting to think of men as either totally avoidant/unavailable or completely available, open, sensitive, feelings-embracing. The truth is much more nuanced than that. I would caution you to use those labels to describe just one dimension of what you’re looking for, with a lot of men falling somewhere in between the two extremes.
And also? Pay close attention to what you find attractive! These days most of us are so cautious about labeling other people as good or bad, my type or not my type, healthy or toxic that we forget to trust and also explore our own attractions and desires without judgment. “Oh no, I’m chasing another remote man!” we tell ourselves, only to discover that the man in question isn’t all that remote, and in fact, we’re naturally drawn to men who are just absent-minded or preoccupied because there’s a lot going on in their heads. Likewise, it’s easy to write someone off as too confessional or sensitive for you at first simply because your initial conversation just happened to start off that way, but if you got to know the person more slowly, they’d seem more balanced over time.
Now, it’s true that the world is packed with emotionally incurious people. And why wouldn’t it be? It takes a certain amount of confidence and security to want to know more about trauma, darkness, and layers of emotional complexity, in yourself or others. It takes a crisis or a major loss for most people to face themselves or to want to understand their own desires and needs. Something big needs to go wrong: a career setback, a divorce, the death of a loved one, a scary health diagnosis, a big falling out with friends. Otherwise, why go looking for trouble, particularly if other people have hinted that you’re a little shutdown? Most people are pretty insecure and pretty afraid of finding out the truth about who they are. They don’t even want to know what their true desires are, because what if those desires don’t align with how they’re already living or where they’re pointed? The risks of slowing down, stalling out, and questioning everything are too great.
Even though most people value human connection enormously, they often don’t realize that what’s blocking their path to happiness is their inability to feel their own emotions and connect meaningfully with the people around them. Many people struggle with intimacy. There’s a panicked voice inside that kicks in any time they’re about to get closer to someone, that urges them to move away from any strong connection. Even if they start out showing up, their buried insecurities and traumas make them increasingly remote and cold with the people who are, ironically, the closest to them emotionally. Some part of their brains is always trying to keep them safe from all emotional investment.
Some of these people are avoidant and some are anxious, but mostly, they’re afraid. They don’t want to be vulnerable, they’re afraid to connect, they don’t want to be seen by others. Their underlying belief is that once they have enough friends, find a mate, and start to succeed at their careers, happiness will magically be theirs. They have to hit the wall sometimes to realize that they don’t feel happy because they’ve put their feelings aside for so long that they can’t access them anymore.
So part of what you’re looking for is actually bravery: someone who’s curious, engaged, interested in ideas, and unafraid of the unknown. Are men like this common? Definitely not, but they do exist. Should you lower your standards or cast a wider net simply because men like this are rare? I don’t think so. I think you should dare to believe that the kind of man you’re looking for will materialize before your eyes if you open your heart wide enough. Is that deluded? Is it magical thinking? I don’t personally care that much if it is. I’ve seen it work too many times not to believe in it wholeheartedly.
If you want to fall in love again, it doesn’t help to tell yourself a story about how rare it is to find someone worthwhile. Instead, you have to keep believing in your own process of self-discovery and keep enjoying the folds of your mind. When you embrace all of the possibilities offered by the world and enjoy the endless potential for passion and joy within you, you stand out to other people who are trying to do the same thing. Just taking that leap and believing in joy is sometimes the most important step. This world is big and full of beauty. Keep reminding yourself of that, every day, and watch yourself become a sparkling model of the love and the joy you seek.
A few years ago, 32-year-old Kari* formed “a deep emotional bond that began to border on romantic” with a woman she met over Twitter. She was in a relationship at the time so she didn’t take it further. But after leaving her boyfriend earlier this year, Kari decided to reconnect with her.
“Things quickly became intimate between us,” she recalls. When the woman sent her a thoughtful gift in August, Kari decided “it was time to really try and make something out of this and show her I care.”
Kari promised to travel across the country to visit the woman for her birthday (COVID permitting). She’d take her to a spa and a fancy hotel, they’d explore a quaint town together. “I told her I’d handle everything – the planning, the finances. I was getting a bonus at work so it wouldn’t be a financial burden.” The pair stayed in touch in the weeks leading up to the birthday and Kari confirmed the trip was still happening.
The kicker? “Her birthday came and went and I planned nothing, did nothing, said nothing.”
Kari is giving us an insight into the mind of an avoidant woman, an attachment style more typically associated with people who identify as men, whether it’s the elusive dreamboat on Hinge who ghosts you several dates in or the commitment-phobic boyfriend who pulls away, claiming to feel “suffocated”, every time you initiate closeness.
“Children who have some of their needs met but many neglected tend to develop an avoidant style.
”In the 1950s, British psychologist and psychiatrist John Bowlby developed attachment theory, a framework for understanding how our earliest relationships with our parents or primary caregivers can affect our lifelong social and emotional development. It has since been applied to adult relationships, notably by psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dr Amir Levine and the psychologist Rachel Heller in Attached, a guide to using attachment theory to find love. By identifying your own attachment style and that of your partner or potential partner, Levine and Heller argue, you can build stronger, more fulfilling relationships.
There are three main attachment styles: secure, anxious and avoidant (take the test yourself to find out your own). Secures are comfortable with intimacy and are usually warm and loving, while the anxiously attached are preoccupied with their relationships and struggle to feel secure with their partner. Avoidants like Kari are independent, emotionally distant and tend to equate intimacy with a loss of independence.
“Children who have some of their needs met but many neglected tend to develop an avoidant style,” explains clinical psychologist Bhavna Jani-Negandhi. As a result of their experiences, these children learn to rely on themselves to meet their own needs and come to believe that they don’t need others for intimacy and emotional support.
As adults, avoidants may select emotionally unavailable partners or be emotionally unavailable themselves, says chartered clinical psychologist and Counselling Directory member Dr Jane Major. They may “struggle to voice their needs and emotions or share their vulnerability due to a, perhaps unconscious, fear of being exploited, abandoned or left alone with unbearable feelings, based on past experiences.”
While Kari says she “had every intention and every desire to follow through”, she couldn’t. The woman ended things soon after. “She said she couldn’t do this anymore – I’d hurt her too deeply and had shown no accountability.” Kari apologised and reluctantly accepted her need to move on.
Then, a few weeks ago, the woman reached out about her dog passing away, giving Kari a final chance to make things up to her. “I didn’t respond.” Kari explains herself: “It wouldn’t have been fair for me to emotionally engage her, it would’ve been selfish, bordering on taking advantage of her painful experience, because I knew I’d just continue to lean in to my avoidant attachment style.”
Kari first discovered she was avoidant when she started therapy 12 years ago. The therapist thought learning about attachment styles would help her understand some of her “bad interpersonal behaviour” (Kari’s words) which tainted her earliest friendships and evidently continues to blight her romantic life. “Everything in my life suddenly made sense – why I couldn’t form the same close bonds as others, why I never reached out or felt lonely, why I was obsessed with video games.”
“I realise there are some complex and difficult things I need to tackle before engaging others in the future. It was a painful lesson that I wish I never had to learn – or at least, not with another person that I cared about involved.
”The day after Kari ended things with the woman, she brought up her avoidant attachment style in therapy again. “Now, I realise there are some complex and difficult things I need to tackle before engaging others in the future. It was a painful lesson that I wish I never had to learn – or at least, not with another person that I cared about involved.”
Kari says it was “the worst thing I’ve ever done to someone” and left her feeling the lowest she’s ever felt. Yet each time a relationship, like that one, ends, she admits to feeling “relieved and happy to be alone again. I get exhausted and am glad that they have some perceived fault I could hyper-focus on so I don’t have to carry on the relationship.”
Kari pinpoints the origin of her own avoidant behaviour to her relationship with her mother: a “career-driven [and] emotionally aloof” woman who gave birth to her too young and, as the sole provider for the household with a prestigious marketing career, was unable to care for her during the early years.
As a kid, Kari was constantly labelled a “flake”, “aloof” and “unreliable”. She never showed up for plans with friends, even if she really wanted to go. “My friends joked that they always had to physically come and get me. My mum even paid me to leave the house.”
Kari’s avoidant attachment style also affects her familial relationships – she missed her grandfather passing away because she “felt uncomfortable about the emotion involved with [her] family” and several adult friendships have dissolved, too.
“I’ve burned many friendship bridges down when the issue of accountability for my unreliability comes up and my inability to reciprocate feelings in a traditional way.” She’s had to learn to manage expectations with new people who come into her life – they need to know that she’ll rarely attend birthday parties, go to the cinema or show affection towards them (despite perhaps wanting to). Warning people of what they can expect from her as a friend – that is, very little – “is key to living a happy life for me, so I try to invest in explaining myself to people I want to keep around.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re my soulmate or the coolest person in the world. My brain simply doesn’t know how to attach and all I can do is work to reduce the harm it can do.”
Although Kari’s story is testament to the fact that women can have an avoidant attachment style, avoidant behaviours are typically associated with men. Psychotherapist and Counselling Directory member Anne Glynn says that while avoidant attachment appears to be more common in men, she’s worked with “a significant number” of avoidant women. “In most cases they will have experienced childhood trauma, such as sexual abuse, neglect, abandonment, parental violence or the death of a parent.”
Glynn has also worked with several men in relationships with avoidant women, “who have suffered because of their attempts to maintain intimacy and trust with them.” The reason that avoidance is more typically associated with men, Glynn believes, is because some of the attitudes we associate with this style can seem ‘masculine’, such as toughness, lack of emotion and independence.
“We all recognise the stereotype of the hard-to-pin-down ‘commitment-phobe’ and this term is usually reserved for men. We imagine that women will want to seek relationships, love, commitment, intimacy and motherhood and it is perhaps unsettling for us to think of women who don’t conform to our expectations,” Glynn concludes.
But as with any behaviour that you’re committed to stamping out, it’s possible to change your attachment behaviours. Therapy is highly recommended, says Barbara Honey, senior practice consultant at Relate, to understand how you first developed this trait. “Taking small risks, like daring to express an emotion or gradually allowing yourself to get closer to someone” can also help avoidants change their patterns.
And if you’re in a relationship with an avoidant, “you may frequently find yourself anxious and afraid that your expectations of security and clarity are unreasonable.” Glynn reassures: “They aren’t. Levine and Heller [the authors of Attached] say, ‘You are only as needy as your unmet needs’.”
As for Kari, she encourages her fellow avoidants to try therapy and be completely honest in their sessions. “Maybe one day you’ll be able to form neurotypical emotional bonds, maybe you can overcome the vast distance between you and others. I haven’t reached that part of my journey. I don’t think I will. For now, communication is the key to my happiness and the key to not hurting others around me.”
*Surname withheld to protect interviewee’s identity
Psychological flexibility (also known as “emotional flexibility” and “mindful flexibility”) refers to being mindful and present when faced with an interpersonal conflict or stressful situation. It encompasses having a tool kit of life skills to help you manage any points of tension that may arise. And, according to licensed marriage and family counselor, Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT, psychological flexibility allows you to see things from a bigger and broader perspective, even when relationships become challenging.
“Being psychologically flexible allows you to see the other person’s side and work on a compromise.” —Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT
“Being psychologically flexible allows you to see the other person’s side and work on a compromise,” says Thompson. “This can bring safety and trust into a relationship and allow [someone] to feel heard and seen. It also allows you to be able to have difficult conversations to work toward a deeper feeling of intimacy. Being psychologically flexible in relationships is necessary for keeping the relationship feeling balanced, fair, and intimate.”
This grace under pressure can be especially meaningful for couples. The research also found that psychological inflexibility—which is marked by inattentiveness, avoidance of difficult thoughts and feelings, and getting derailed by various setbacks and experiences—can have potentially damaging results, like lowered satisfaction and emotional support, and increased conflict and aggression.
Basically, when you focus on increasing your emotional flexibility, you increase the freedom and space to find your own truth while simultaneously hearing out the other people in your life. You’re also better able to gracefully pivot when things, uh, don’t necessarily go your way in a given situation. So, how can you increase your ability to practice psychological flexibility?
Essentially, psychological flexibility encompasses a variety of mindset switches, including the following five:
Being open to new experiences, no matter how hard they might be
Having a mindful awareness on the present matter at hand in day-to-day life
Allowing yourself to process feelings without clinging to them
Making contact with core values, even on particularly stressful days
Persevering toward goals, even in the face of setbacks
If any of those factors are things you typically have challenges with following, the best strategy for increasing your psychological flexibility is to increase your own self-awareness. “The more effective and best way to be more psychologically flexible is to do your own inner work,” says Thompson. “This could look like psychotherapy, meditation, or any other inner reflection. Or, it could simply involve taking time just for yourself and getting clear about how you feel about certain things.”