Category Archives: Intimate relationships

Is it OK to stay in touch with an ex?

Sometimes people ask me if it’s OK for them or their partner to be in contact with an ex after starting a new relationship. If you have been reading my posts and articles for a while, you will know that I avoid categorical judgments about “right” and “wrong”,  except when it comes to abuse and malicious crime. I believe in judging each situation individually and in seeing different perspectives. However, there are some thoughts I will offer on this topic:

I know people who have stayed in long term friendly contact with ex partners and spouses, without it having any bad influence on a new relationship. However, I think that intense emotions, especially when long lasting such as infatuation and love, create neurological paths in our brains, similarly to habits. A habit once learned can easily be re-learned, especially when coupled with hopes, dreams and memories. There are plenty of stories about couples who reunited after decades of separation.

The key question, IMO, is if a relationship came to its “natural ending”, or was it interrupted and left unfinished? If it ended after a long time of drifting apart, cooling down, loss of illusions and perhaps disappointment, people usually feel that the story is truly over and they can focus on a new relationship without looking back.

However, if a relationship ended abruptly, if there is a feeling that things were somehow left unfinished, especially if two people were separated by external circumstances, then old hopes, dreams and illusions can wake up rather easily. It’s easy to idealize one’s past, even if it was everything but ideal. In such a case, I wouldn’t recommend to stay in touch (or to initiate contact) with an ex, especially if the new relationship is happy and healthy.

 

Falling in love with “bad guys” (and girls)

A significant number of men encourage each other to believe that women want dominant men who will overpower them and show them their place. It is true that women are often biologically attracted to confident, even dominant men. The instinctive, usually unconscious hope behind this attraction is that such a man can be a safe place, perhaps even protection from the danger in the world (wild animals  if you like prehistorical terms; enemy warriors if you like medieval terms. As for the modern world, there is still enough stupidity, aggression and ignorance going around that a safe place to relax is more than welcome).

The reality is usually quite the opposite and quickly sobering: dominance as a biological and character trait (regardless of gender) is logically accompanied by a desire for dominance and power. To justify such urges, a dominant person often ends up perceiving other people (especially people who don’t fight for dominance) as less valuable, less respectable – less people. Overconfidence and empathy don’t go well together – to be overconfident, you usually need to disregard opinions and feelings of other people – that is, you cannot include their perspectives into your experience – you cannot use much empathy.

This doesn’t exclude their families – quite the opposite, the families might bear the brunt of it, because most people express their worst sides in a safe environment such as a family provides. Thus a woman who chooses a dominant man will usually find that she has to protect herself from the very person she hoped to feel safe with.

Once a dominant person develops such psychological patterns, it’s very unlikely that they would be motivated to change and control their own urges for power as well as excuses they create for seeking power.  After all, dominance often results in emotional pleasure as well as practical and social benefits. Few people are strong enough to give all those benefits up in the name of “abstract” ethical ideals such as responsibility.

On the other hand, many women complain that men prefer “bitches” and so they encourage each other to play games with men. When men are attracted to unhealthy (selfish or aggressive) women, there is also a biological aspect to it – it’s a human instinct to look for a desirable and “high value” partner. So if somebody acts in ways our primitive brains can interpret like they value themselves, even if this means arrogance, criticism and emotional unavailability, our “reptile” brains might say: “Hey! A high-status potential mate! Go for it!” It’s in our biological nature to value confidence over competence – just look at the political scene in pretty much every country.

However, our environment has the decisive influence over which of our instincts will we follow. I’ve already written a lot about how our families influence our emotional patterns in intimate relationships. If we were raised by ethical, compassionate parents, this will be normal to us and we will look for similar partners. In such a case, an instinctive attraction to dominance or arrogance will often be overridden by a healthy family model. The problem is, most people are still unhealthy or immature in some ways, so most children receive immature models on top of immature biological instincts.

The good news is, with dedicated work on self-improvement you can undo such programming and train yourself to notice real quality in potential partners. A pleasant little exercise: instead of fantasizing about somebody who doesn’t treat you well, start fantasizing about a relationship which is everything you want. Get your brain used to the idea.  But do not imagine such a good relationship with the same person, or any specific person. Create the space in your mind to allow somebody new.

Put your important values and needs first. It’s fine (and often necessary) to make a compromise about secondary  values, but as soon as you start compromising your important values, you catch yourself in a web from which you might have trouble freeing yourself. You feel you betrayed yourself, you trust and appreciate yourself less – and you feel strangely bonded to the relationship: once you invested so much effort into it, it can feel difficult to give it all up and start anew.
If you hope that the other person will appreciate your sacrifice … well, they will probably notice and feel good about it, but few people are able to control their own primitive urge to exploit those who allow their boundaries to be overstepped. So they will ask for more and more, step by step, until you feel like a puppet on a string. In the same time, they appreciate you less and less because you show that you don’t value yourself enough.

So do you need to become cold, dismissive and insensitive to attract a partner? No – you can show that you value yourself without betraying your integrity and becoming bitter and cynical. Being honest, clear and consistent about your values and boundaries is a clear sign of a healthy self-esteem. This is something you cannot fake. If you want a healthy relationship, you cannot say “These are my boundaries”, and then proceed to compromise them. You truly have to be willing to let people go if they are not compatible with your values. You also need to behave like that in the rest of your life and relationships, not just towards a (potential) partner.

You don’t have to hate or despise the other person to recognize he or she is not right for you and say good-bye. Many people stay in relationships because of their partners’ good qualities, while hoping that the bad ones would somehow change. It would be simple if people were all good or all bad, wouldn’t it? You need to value yourself enough to decide that some good qualities are not worth staying, if you are not happy with a certain person as who they are now.

One way or another, you will never be able to change a “bad guy/girl”. You are not the cause of the problem, so you cannot be the solution. The sooner you accept this and make your own values and boundaries more important than a relationship, the better a life you can create for yourself. This might require some work on improving your self-esteem (which will probably be rewarding in many other ways).

Should you choose a “nice guy/girl” then? If you listen to people and read online discussions, you might get the idea that people fall either into a “jerk” or a “doormat” category and there is nothing to choose from in between. Often people who compromise their values and lack self-esteem are labeled as “nice”, although they are not healthy either. The healthiest (and most attractive) people are those who are both confident and true to themselves, as well as reasonably kind and compassionate.

You might say it’s not easy to find such a person. This is true. Between selfish biological instincts, chaotic upbringing and deeply unhealthy society, few people manage to find that kind of internal balance. Yet, perhaps you might have trouble recognizing true confidence and strength, as it’s usually not so flamboyant and superficially charismatic as overconfidence (arrogance). Perhaps drop some of your more shallow criteria and look beyond the surface for people you can truly respect. In the same time, work on becoming a strong and internally balanced person yourself. Perhaps you can turn yourself into a person your dream partner dreams of.

Internal issues and external solutions

Even when we are well aware that our strong emotions might be awakened memories from childhood, we might still find it very difficult to focus inwards to resolve those emotions. The urge to blame people around us and seek to change or control them can be overpowering. Why is it so difficult to recognize the truth even after spending much energy in vain, causing stress to ourselves and others by trying to change who they are? Even if we know that the real cause of our emotions is probably in our pasts?

As babies and toddlers, it’s our biological instinct to turn to other people to solve our problems. Hungry? Mommy will nurse you. Peed yourself? They will change your diapers. Bored? Scream energetically enough and they will do their best to amuse you. Tired? They will do just about anything to avoid waking you up and enjoy some well deserved peace. Even children of toxic parents inevitably learn that sooner or later, no matter how much pain and struggle experienced in the meantime, at least their basic needs would be fulfilled by others. Thus the biological instinct is reinforced and grows into an emotional habit.

When we age regress into childish emotions, this instinct can be awakened alongside them. Age regression includes forgetting or temporarily losing touch with our adult resources. What would be more natural in such a state than to turn to the solutions experienced in childhood? Thus we may once again feel as if our emotional well-being or even survival depends of those around us. This essentially means that we confuse other people around us with our parents.

This is visible in many parts of adults’ lives. People try to solve their emotional problems through all kinds of external means. For some people, money can be a weird substitute for parents, as it provides safety, comfort and toys (often other people’s attention, too). Others might turn to religion (heavenly father), magic or New Age bioenergy theories. Food can be a temporary emotional comfort, reminding us of the pleasure of being fed on our mothers’ breasts.

Where this instinct of seeking external solutions is most obvious, are intimate relationships. They are often created as substitutes for parent-child relationships from the start, and when problems arise and we regress into childish states, it can be extremely difficult to take responsibility for our feelings. The old instincts from childhood awaken again and we can start expecting our partners to provide solutions – which usually means expecting them to change.

It never rains but pours – and usually in an intimate relationship, both people experience childish states from time to time. This means that both start demanding the other to change. The problem is, even if our partner tries to change, the childish parts of us will always want more – just like, as children, we always needed more from our parents.

Depending of how much time people spend in such states, their relationships will deteriorate and they will start accumulating resentment. If good communication skills are lacking, too, a crisis is almost inevitable. If an age-regressed state is intense, it can take exceptional self-awareness and responsibility to avoid blaming your partner and pull yourself back into an adult frame of mind.

I hope this can help you understand an aspect of relationship behavior which very few people are aware of. Simple understanding won’t bring automatic change – but it might help you deal with your childish issues in the moments when this is most important.

 

Beauty and marriage

Many women are worried about their looks. I don’t really have to explain much about it. Sufficient to quote someone from endless forums around: “I’ve never seen a woman who would be truly beautiful without make up.” Personally, I think it’s ridiculous. Many people wouldn’t, though. This is where being endlessly bombarded by photoshopped pictures brought us.

However, there is something that I’ve noticed observing people in life and in my therapeutic practice: while beautiful women might receive more attention, it’s often the average (and sometimes below-average) looking women whose marriages are usually much happier and long lasting.

Cynics might say it’s because such women demand less of men because they want to keep them around. There might be some truth in it, but in my experience, it’s certainly not the detrimental part of the truth. It would seem that men who choose such women as life partners generally have good quality values: they appreciate the essence rather than the surface, the woman’s personality rather than her looks.

In such a situation, both partners are probably more realistic and less concerned about status and appearance. This makes for a good start! Quite a few not-so-good looking women told me about their partners’ kindness, consideration and patience. Often those are the marriages that are truly “till death us do part”. The surviving partner usually cherishes the memory of the departed one.

So, ladies, if you think yourself not beautiful enough, this might give you more hope for your present or future relationships. Consider going out without make up sometimes – perhaps that would be a good filter for potential partners! Not many men might be attracted to you – but those who are, might be worth it.

Do you feel taken for granted? Abuse and unconditional love

A common pattern in unhealthy relationships is when (at least) one of the partners takes the other for granted, perhaps being aggressive, manipulative or dismissive – but when the other partner decides to leave, the first suddenly starts acting like an abandoned puppy. The abuser then apologizes, pleads, brings gifts, swears eternal love, promises to change, often brings up horrible stories from his/her childhood to provoke pity and guilt.

The other partner (usually caught up in his/her own childhood needs, hoping to finally resolve with this person what was left unresolved with parents) decides that the relationship is worth giving another chance and stays. Within days, the abuser’s behavior is back to what it was before: perhaps insults, lies, undermining the partner’s self-confidence, or even physical violence. After a while, the victim decides it’s enough and tries to leave again. The abuser is again devastated. And so the cycle can continue for years – sometimes for lives.

Does this sound familiar? Something important to understand if you are in such a relationship, is that if your partner sees you as a parent substitute, as soon as the relationship is safe and back to routine, (s)he will continue to take you for granted. The normal attitude of a child towards parents is to take parents for granted – unless parents threaten to leave (or perhaps get sick or similar). An emotionally childish person will act in the same way towards an intimate partner.

A childish partner might expect you to behave like a perfect, idealized parent – to fulfill and even anticipate anything they might desire, while allowing them to do whatever they want regardless of your own desires and needs. In the same time, they might vent at you all the anger and resentment they felt for their own parents, but didn’t feel safe to express to them. (It’s quite common to express our unresolved emotions from past towards people we feel safest with. Sometimes the target becomes the intimate partner – sometimes one’s own children.)

Such a childish person might defend their attitude with the idea of “unconditional love”, meaning that YOU should love THEM as they are (but they are not willing to give the same in return). This is again a kind of love a parent would give to a child. It’s normal and healthy for parents not to expect their child to share their responsibilities, or to pay back for their gifts and efforts. But this is NOT a healthy partnership of two adult people, especially if they plan to have children.

In such a situation, when a child is born, things get worse, not better. The childish partner becomes resentful of new responsibilities and demands, as well as lack of previously received attention from their spouse, which is now focused to their child. A childish parent might become jealous and resentful of his/her own child, with predictable consequences for the child.

Some people in troublesome relationships are not quite sure whether they should trust themselves of their partner’s words. This requires a quick course in knowing your own emotions and distinguishing between adult and immature emotions. Perhaps, while growing up, you were discouraged from trusting your instincts and giving importance to your feelings and needs. Your body will warn you if your fears, doubts and guilt are not realistic – but you need to learn to recognize such signals.

You are probably taken for granted if:

– your partner dismisses your emotions and needs, and refuses to communicate about them (or communicates through insults and refuses to consider your point of view)

– your partner is not willing to forgive or tolerate small mistakes

– your partner does not invest similar effort into your relationship as (s)he demands of you

– he or she refuses to compromise – but expects you to give up your desires and values

– he or she repeatedly disregards your previous agreements

– he or she expects you to take over most of the adult responsibilities (housework and/or finances)

– you don’t like your partner’s behavior, but you stay in hope that (s)he would change.

Of course, each of these ideas can be misinterpreted and twisted in many creative ways, so approach them carefully. Almost everybody has some moments of taking their partner for granted. This is to be expected – after all, whatever and whoever becomes a normal part of our lives, our brains try to fill them under “routine” and forget about them – so that we could focus on learning new things. In partnerships, we have to keep reminding ourselves not to take others for granted. A lapse here and there is understandable. But if somebody behaves in these ways more or less all the time, it’s time to seriously consider if this is what you want your foreseeable future.

If you allow somebody to treat you as described above, you were probably raised not to trust yourself too much. Perhaps you were a child of an irresponsible person, so it became normal for you to take more responsibility than would normally belong to you. Or you had so little experience with unreasonable people that you cannot imagine somebody who would behave in such selfish ways without a good reason.

Check what do you hope for if your partner would change. If you hope for recognition, approval, acknowledgment… perhaps this is something you always wanted to receive from your parents, but never did? Consider that perhaps you are trying to finish something with your partner that was left unfinished with your parents.

Such emotions from childhood need to be resolved first. After that, you might need to practice trusting your feelings and expressing them in mature ways. If that doesn’t give results, you might need to end the relationship, except if you prefer to suffer. Fortunately, once you clarify your childhood emotions, you won’t feel anymore that your current partner is the only one for you and that your life would feel empty if you separate. You can go on and find a true adult relationship.

Therapy with clients from healthy families

While more than 90% of people’s emotional problems appear to stem from childhood (or are at least enhanced by early family), from time to time it’s an interesting experience to work with people who come from healthy, caring and rather mature families. (Some people who claim so might be in denial, of course, but during therapy that usually becomes clear through their non-verbal communication or some of our diagnostic strategies). I hesitate to claim that there are definite patterns, or a kind of “box” for this group of people. Yet I noticed a few interesting similarities in some of these cases.

The key might be that children from healthy families might grow up relatively unprepared for a much less healthy environment in the rest of society. Even if they probably have some problems and conflicts with their peers in school or neighbors, the parents would still be the ones to primarily shape their expectations of people in general. Children of healthy parents might expect most other people to also be reasonable, consistent and honest – and the rest of the world might be greatly disappointing. In this way, even the best parents might create some problems for their children. This article goes into detail about how to avoid this trap by providing your children with adequate challenges.

It’s not uncommon for such people, even as adults, to start taking  too much responsibility for problems they have with other people, sometimes to the point of becoming very insecure of their own feelings or character. This happens because they expect new people in their lives to be as reasonable as their parents were, and it might be difficult to imagine or understand that many other people have emotional issues that defy any reasoning. Interestingly, such self-blame and inappropriate responsibility are also a normal early reaction of almost all young children in unhealthy families, while they still trust their parents to be right, until they grow old enough to know differently.  It’s almost like sooner or later we all have to go through such confusion and conflict, until we learn enough about both ourselves and others.

Let’s say we have two people in an intimate relationship, Jack and Jill. Jill comes from a healthy, balanced background. Jack comes from an angry, manipulative, blaming family. Jack, of course, has some great qualities too, which Jill is initially attracted to. Jack might have good intentions and try to be a good partner. But eventually, Jack’s dark side comes out: suppressed childish emotions, perhaps jealousy, anger, blame, unreasonable requests, controlling attitude. Sooner or later, Jack will feel safe enough to express towards Jill whatever was left unsaid or unfinished in his relationship with parents; this is one of the most common pattern in intimate relationships.  If Jack is looking for a substitute parent in Jill, he might soon start taking Jill for granted, or switch between neediness and disinterest – it’s quite natural for a child to take a parent for granted, so Jack, who is emotionally still rather childish, will continue such pattern instead of working on mutual adult responsibility.

Jack might expect Jill to be a perfect “parent”: to be forgiving, understanding, responsible and generous – while allowing Jack to essentially be a child; to do what he wants without restrictions and conditions. This is an extreme situation, and all kinds of varieties are possible. Also, this kind of conflict is often present in couples who both come from immature families, too. I never said it was simple!

Such behavior will create confusion and inner conflict in Jill: why would Jack do and say such things if he didn’t have a good reason? He is basically a good person, I know that, I must have provoked such reaction somehow. Perhaps if I explain my thoughts and feelings to Jack, perhaps if I try a bit harder, we’ll come to an understanding, just as I always managed to do with my parents!

But Jack doesn’t understand, doesn’t accept other perspectives, refuses to go to therapy, because Jack’s emotions are not caused by Jill; Jill is just a trigger. Jill can break her back bending over backwards to accommodate Jack, she can drain her heart and soul trying to make peace and be responsible, but Jack won’t change. Jack is essentially stuck in his childhood; a lot of the time he reacts to people from his past rather than Jill. Words and reason cannot reach such deeply ingrained emotions, almost instincts by now.

Unless Jack starts to show honest, consistent awareness and responsibility to deal with his past and communicate like an adult, Jill will have to leave if she wants to stay sane and find happiness. Luckily for Jill, it’s usually an easier decision for somebody from a healthy background, than if Jill also grew up in an immature family. If Jill was from an immature family, she would react with her own childish issues to Jack’s childish issues and they would spend an eternity (or what feels like eternity) tormenting, blaming and obsessing about each other, hoping that the other one would change in the way their own parents never did.

A healthy person (Jill in this example) can often relatively easily update his/her expectations of the world, learn a lot about people from this experience and move on wiser and stronger.  If Jill also has a big emotional baggage, then disentangling will take more work, but it can be done with proper motivation and perseverance.

If you consider yourself a good parent, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your children’s lives will be all sunshine and flowers. Perhaps they might need therapy because you were such a good parent! Life gets us sooner or later, there are always advantages and disadvantages in every situation. It’s interesting for me to notice  how similar relationship problems can sometimes have completely different origins – how a basically healthy person can sometimes get stuck in the same kind of problems that are normally common for less healthy people. Maybe this can help some confused people understand what is going on in their lives.

 

Note: initially I wrote this post to be strictly gender neutral, but quite a few people told me that made it difficult to read. So I wrote about Jack and Jill based on some people who came to me for therapy. I hereby declare that I’m well aware that it could have been the other way around (or any other variation) just as easily. Let’s not get into pointless arguments.