Relationships and Intimacy
How is it that just when you feel everything is going great in relationship, conflict rises up and there you are – stuck! When you’re close to someone, getting along can feel so great- with so much sharing and compatibility. Yet inevitably as there are 2 different people involved – the differences become more apparent and before you know it your beloved partner can start appearing as the enemy. Compromising or finding a peaceful solution to the conflict can feel like the ultimate challenge.
As a couples counselor, I see this especially in relationships where there isn’t a set pattern of dealing with issues. If there is always one person in relationship who avoids conflict and is the accommodator, then conflict is easily resolved as one person usually gives in and goes along with the other. But if you have two very independent, strong willed people – power struggles and the need for negotiation will be much more frequent.
So what works? How does a couple navigate the treacherous path of conflict??
There are ways an individual can create more of an atmosphere that feeds peace instead of strife. Here are a list of skills that aid in conflict resolution.
1. LISTEN. Put away your side of the argument and just listen for awhile. Let the person know they are being heard. Sometimes just a little acknowledgement of the other side can go along way to stop the impasse.
2. STAY HEART-CENTERED. This can be challenging but it really works in promoting more harmony. In the midst of conflict, it is easy to lose track of your heart and go into your head- rationalizing and explaining your part. But that doesn’t promote heart-to-heart cooperation.
3. BE OPEN. Frustration leads to being closed and fixated on being right. With an attitude of open-ness or even I-don’t-knowness, we are open to solutions that may not be immediately apparent.
4. LIGHTEN UP. Lightness can take away from the serious positioning that is so deadly to loving compromise. It’s like being in a dark stuffy room and someone opens up a window to let in fresh air and light.
5. TAKE A BREAK. It is possible to work an argument to death. When you see conflict isn’t going anywhere, sometimes it helps to stop the direction, take a break and make a plan to come back at a later time. It helps to be concrete here and come to an agreement as to exactly when it would work to revisit the issue.
These are all just suggestions that may or may not fit your situation. It is important to note that healing conflict is POSSIBLE. Compromise and learning to co-operate is a skill that can be developed over time . When it happens after feeling stuck, it indeed can feel like a miracle. It reinforces the power of love to persevere in the face of difficulties and makes relationships stronger and more resilient.
Feeling secure on your own is the best way to cope with the pressure to find a partner. Once you are in a relationship, it is very helpful to feel like you could survive a break-up and continue to have a meaningful life. If you find someone you are very drawn to, the fear of loss can be very anxiety producing. Learning how to have a good life as a single person is recommended.
It is helpful to work with yourself about what other people think of you. It is so easy to worry and project that others think you are a failure or that something is wrong about you. How can you soothe yourself, believe in yourself more, and learn how to turn what seems like failure into learning experience? There may not seem to be an easy way to do this. One suggestion is to understand and discover how you feel about making friends, both with yourself and with others. It may sound trite, but John Gottman, a noted marriage therapist and relationship researcher says that one of the most important parts of a relationship is the friendship of the partners.
If you find that you have good friends, both male and female, it is important to give yourself credit and find optimism for yourself. If you need help to have more friends, this is a goal you can work on. Even if you experience shyness, have had rejection, or difficult endings with friends, it is never too late to examine how you are in relationships with others and find ways to improve.
If you are single and looking for a partner, it can be very hard to know when to continue seeing someone and when to move on to someone else. A big part of this difficulty can be the fear that there will not be anyone else if you let go of the person you are with.
What can help you decide if you are investing in someone who is not right for you? As a start, ask yourself, does this person have personal qualities I respect and value aside from money or looks. Does he/she listen to my concerns and make an effort to meet me half-way when conflicts arise? Do they show signs of addictive behavior without any desire to address this? Do I ever feel afraid that the person would physically hurt me?
Although of course no one is perfect, certain behaviors/problems can cause serious relationship problems. However, if you are tired of looking for someone, have had a history of relationship disappointments, or feel wowed by someone physically, it can be tough to decide to turn away from them or return to single life that seems so much less than having a partner.
Although women have many more freedoms and rights in our society currently, there are still ways that women can feel “less than” men. If a woman wants to be in a relationship and doesn’t find someone, she can easily feel there is something “wrong” with her. It can feel like the whole world is in a couple except for you. And the pressure to find someone can be very intense.
In the next installment I will discuss how to cope with the pressure to find someone.
I wonder how women are deciding about when and how to be sexual when they are dating. It seems to run the gambit from no physical contact and “just friends” until you feel you know the person well, to intercourse at the first date or at a party. Here are a few guidelines that might help you decide what feels right to you:
1. Consider how you think and feel about your sexuality. Are you able to enjoy yourself or do you feel inhibited, shy, or ashamed? Do you find yourself worrying about how your body looks so that you are self conscious and not able to let go and relax?
Sexuality combined with anxiety is usually not very satisfying. Sometimes women who feel anxious about sex use alcohol or drugs to help calm down and let go. Although it can seem to be helpful, there are risks associated with using substances to relieve anxiety. It is important to recognize what you are doing and think honestly about whether it is working well for you.
2. Consider how far you want to go in a sexual encounter. You may feel pressure from your date or more generally from our culture to have intercourse or oral sex. However, there is something to be said for kissing and cuddling. Sex is not only about the “end result” but also the sharing of intimacy and emotional connection. If you feel pressure to go further and you are not sure you want to, I believe it is perfectly legitimate to want a partner who will accept and respect your decisions especially when you are dating and getting to know each other.
3. In high school and college these days there are risks that are important to understand and protect yourself from. Kelci Lynn in her article, “College Dating, 10 tips for dating safety” has some great ideas for taking care of yourself. Her main point is to have contingency plans in case you feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Some of these include letting someone else know where you are going and when you plan to return, going out with a group, being careful not to drink too much, watching your drink to make sure it doesn’t get spiked, and having cell phone contact with a friend who can rescue you from a bad situation.
It is unfortunate that women are thinking more and more about strong protections in the world of dating. It’s important not to feel too discouraged.
If you do want to be sexual and don’t have a steady boyfriend, how do you feel after sex with people you don’t know well? It is important to be able to distinguish between the need to have sexual encounters because you feel lonely, insecure, or social pressure to act a certain way, and engaging in sexual activities because you enjoy it and can make sure you are safe and respected. Remember, it is perfectly okay to say “no” at any point. If you find that you are unable to stop yourself from having sex with people when you really don’t want to, then it is very helpful to get some help, possibly therapy, about this.
Many women prefer to know the person they are being intimate with. This adds to the safety and mutual respect of the experience. I would also recommend some discussion about history, physical and sexual. This can feel extremely uncomfortable, but not impossible! Remember that all sexually transmitted diseases cannot be prevented by using condoms!
It may feel like dating has become a minefield of danger and complication these days. It is important not to give up on figuring out what you want for yourself to stay safe and have positive experiences. It is also very important to learn how to forgive yourself if you had a bad experience or an STD scare and to learn from that experience. And of course, it is also important to have a trusted method of birth control in place.
The first step to healing co-dependent behavior is being able to recognize it. This can be confusing as there is a healthy aspect of relationships where we are mutually dependent on each other. We naturally want to express our love and help people we care about. The unhealthy aspect of co-dependency is when the caring or expression is at your own expense- where you consistently think of yourself last and don’t consider your own needs…Sometimes you can be so used to doing it that you don’t even know you are left out. You won’t know until you find yourself burnt out, unhappy, angry or resentful. The behavior can have a compulsive quality to it – it is just what you do…
For example, someone asks you out to dinner because they want to connect with you. Without even thinking if it works for you or not, you just say ‘Yes’. You may not realize till later that you were really too tired to enjoy it and another nite may have worked out better. That is the compulsivity always thinking of the other without stopping to consider yourself.
At other times, there may be a controlling aspect to it. You may unconsciously do it – be overly helpful, knowing or directing – to keep things in control. You don’t trust that if you don’t do it, things may get out of control or it will not be done right. But this way of being in the world can lead to feeling exhausted and under-appreciated. You may wonder why people don’t take care of you in the same way you take care of them. This is how resentment can get stored and create a general feeling of deprivation and unhappiness. Basically co-dependency can take the joy out of giving. It is possible to change! It is possible to have more choices and to consider yourself when interacting with others. Recognizing how each one of us contributes to creating the problem is the first step toward recovery….
Marlena Kushner, MFT
Women’s Therapy Services
If you are just beginning to date for the first time, newly single, long-term single, or somewhere in between, there are many facets of dating that can be both exciting and challenging. For example, when to have sex? And what does “having sex” actually mean to you? Do you want to be friends first and leave all physical contact for after you get to know the person or go with the flow of expressing your sexuality as you choose to? Or, how do you decide something that is in between these two? How has this worked out for you? What about all the physical complications and what about birth control?
Besides all the questions above, there is also the question of attraction. How does attraction work? Why do you keep meeting the same “type” of person even if he/she is not working out in the long run? How important is the physical side of things for you? How much do you worry about your own looks?
For straight women, it can feel like men have the advantage in the dating world. Women often wonder why the man didn’t call back, even after a very nice time. Women worry about how much to call, how assertive to be, how to get the man’s attention. On the other hand, some women find it hard to be friendly with men because of the unwanted aggressive attention that comes with that.
For gay women, it can be hard to find comfortable ways to meet other women, and to have privacy in an often interconnected world where many of the people you might be interested in have already been involved with you or each other!
There is more to write about, but for now I will close with something I feel is very important as a goal for dating: how to feel safe and keep your self esteem intact. As a start you may want to think about what these two factors– safety and self esteem mean to you.
It is helpful for a couples therapist working with clients involved in 12-Step Recovery to have some knowledge of 12-Step program, values and traditions. A common struggle for any couple is creating intimacy and support balanced with allowing for individual differences and autonomy. Maintaining mutual respect for separate choices while having shared goals and values is essential in a long-term relationship.
Problems can arise when partners may have started out in a 12 Step program together and one decides to leave or has a relapse. Other issues arise when from the beginning , one is involved in 12 Step and the other is not. It can be natural for one to feel the loss of mutual support or even feel their own recovery is at risk. A therapist who is familiar with the spiritual foundation of 12-Step Programs and who is comfortable with the structure, language and model of recovery, then can help a couple trying to navigate through the difficulties in relatioship that arise from such differences.
Marlena Kushner, MFT
Women’s Therapy Services
Successful long-term intimate relationships or marriages can offer us certain forms of comfort, security and stability. Within the framework of commitment, we have cherished routines that perpetuate the sense of togetherness. These shared expectations in how we spend our time together (what, where and when) can form the foundation of a good intimate relationship – one that mutually meets our needs. We develop rituals based on shared goals, values, likes and pleasures from the most basic like how we get up in the morning, when and what we enjoy eating at meals to more intimate time together in the bedroom. The things we do together help us bond in intimacy and companionability. For example, one couple may feel their special quality time on the weekend is when they bike ride together – something they both love to do with one another. Another couple may look forward to the quiet time in the evening when they are reading at home or going on an outing with the kids. It doesn’t matter exactly what it is…But each couple finds their own routine that they can look forward to regularly and appreciate as “bonding time”. Problems arise however when that time is disrupted.
Life is about change. Sometimes that change is caused by circumstances beyond our control like the loss of a job, an illness or extended family responsibilities. Other times it is by choice or part of a natural maturation process like expanding a business, starting a family or going back to school. Either way life’s changes are stressful and can have profound effects on relationship. The structures in our daily routines that form the web of connectedness in relating get disturbed and challenged. Even a relatively small change can have effects that we didn’t anticipate. For example, consider when someone in a marriage decides to go on a more restrictive (and healthier diet). That person wants and expects support and encouragement in making that change. Yet they may find their partner (though wanting to be supportive) is basically disappointed – the ritual of eating together, cooking and enjoying certain food gets disturbed and there is a feeling of loss. This kind of pattern gets acted out on a much larger scale depending on the circumstances. When someone’s work schedule is shifted to more travel, later hours or weekend work, the bonding time of being together can feel very threatened. Feelings of abandonment, fears about the future, pressure to succeed – all add to the stress level. It takes energy to make changes to adjust to new outside circumstances. Each partner can have different needs and desires that all deserve attention. This is in addition to actually making the practical real life adjustments. It can just feel absolutely overwhelming!
Successful marriages seem to have the skills to cope with the life’s stresses and even have it add to the intimacy… How do they do it??? One way is allowing for differences. Each partner is respectful of the other and able to communicate in a safe, open way. That is the dance of intimacy – getting that right balance between separateness and togetherness.
by Marlena Kushner, MFT
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