For the Love of Lust: Part One

lust3Lust resides in the world of intense desire, sexual longing, yearning for intimate contact or erotic anticipation—it’s a powerful force and one that can have undeniable effects on our internal experience and our external behavior.  Time and again, lust exudes more power even than rational thought or strict morals.  In some folks’ estimation lust, acted out, destroys lives and relationships due to it’s oft untethered displays.  For others, lust is a prime driver toward the one thing that gives their life meaning—connection.

People get a little anxious around the topics of lust, flirtation, monogamy, and the lack of concrete rules by which we’re all supposed to abide.  And yet there really are no rules that suit the masses.

Some time back I posed a question via social media, exciting some intense and passionate dialogue regarding these subjects, along with a lot of angst and confusion around the difficult process of negotiating this paradox.  The amount of inbox messages I received was overwhelming!  A topic many people want to discuss… just not out loud!

Responses were filled with difficult scenarios of when lust—either theirs or another’s—lead to the destruction of relationships.  Story after story of relationship gone painfully awry in regard to “expectation vs. reality” filled pages, and spoke of broken and yearning hearts.  These responses also spoke to the confusing terrain of how lust arises and is expressed in—or out—of committed relationships.lust2

If we first take a look at the underpinnings of how relationship often unfolds, we can begin to consider why and how lust, and other aspects of our erotic natures, either are or are not welcome in our partnerships.

Our Fear of Lust

Many people feel untrusting, wounded, unable to completely yield to intimacy and risk the heartbreak of potential betrayal—many because they saw painful scenarios in their families of origin and more who experienced these life-altering betrayals firsthand.

Yet at the same time, our craving for intimacy is undeniable.  The feeling of seeing lust4ourselves reflected in the eyes of an adoring partner offers us an unparalleled bonding experience.  We can become more alive, more capable, and more available to all that life offers. Feeling “met” through intimacy can literally help us to transcend our fundamental aloneness.

So when we imagine opening, transparently, to another—sharing our hearts, our bodies, our lives in the vulnerable acceptance of love—our intimacy can be coupled with increasing fear.  Like it or not, that exact fear is often what drives much of our tight grip on our lovers and, ultimately, it’s that tight grip that can drive our lovers right out of our lives.

The mere idea of our partners wandering eye—or genitalia! —Can cause our relationship security to be rocked to the core.  And when we sense that lust—the automatic, powerful, chemical response—is at play, our internal response systems go into full-on protection mode.

Is Commitment Constraining?

Committing to be with one person for the rest of our lives can be a difficult agreement to maintain, for many.  To completely turn off sexual attraction, heat, desire, fantasy and intimate connection with all others, and still keep the heat up with the significant other is not, for many, the path of least resistance.  Often, we fail miserably.  We, the American society, haven’t quite resolved ourselves to fidelity and lifelong monogamy, even though most of us claim that’s exactly what we want.  So what gives??

When partners are transparent, designing their intimacy in a way that is congruent to both people, relationships can flourish!  They can be enlivened and engaging.  Often, however, one person alone “holds the reins,” so to speak, to the rules of intimacy.  When this is the case, fear, anxiety, and resentment can undermine the nurturance and care we’ve provided to our relationship.

Some may feel the need to “tighten down the hatches”—if we completely control the environment, we’re safe, right?  However, safe may be the exact opposite of what will fulfill the deeper needs of relationship.

Interestingly, science has found that while we imagine monogamy, in itself, to be a high predictor as to the health of a relationship, that is not necessarily the case.  In fact, some relationships which place monogamy at the foundation are the least healthy and least happy.  Certainly that doesn’t mean we should all join the nearest Swingers club.  What it does point to, however, is that our current societal views don’t hold the keys to thriving relationships!

When we look “below” monogamy—to the subtle nuances of fidelity in thought, in imagination, in exploration and flirtation, we see a surprisingly wide range of styles and behaviors that contribute to the health or dysfunction of a relational system.  So how do we construct those internal worlds in a way that helps us feel both safe and alive?

Wired for Lust

We are most definitely a species hardwired for love and connection—for bonding that denotes security and safety.  But not solely—we are also wired for LUST.  One of the primary emotional centers in the brain, in fact, is specifically related to that particular circuitry.  According to a well-known researcher in the field named Jaak Panksepp, there are intrinsic systems in the brain, called Executive Operating Systems that are related to neuro-evolutionary foundations for our emotions and behaviors.  There are seven of these systems.  They’re not emotions, per say, but circuitry that govern the processes of our emotions.  These seven executive operating systems include:  Fear, Rage, Seeking, Care, Play, Panic and Lust

Lust, as researchers are noting, is part of our life force.  It is a necessary aspect of our evolved brain and body, and part of how we are uniquely designed.  And the complex neurochemical processes of lust are not, as we might sometimes like them to be, simple passing moods.  Lust is a brain state that activates a cascade of neurochemicals, which follow a well-groomed path in the brain and body and, when activated, are ultimately overriding most everything else in an effort to achieve a goal.   And maybe because, at some level, we all know the signals of lust, we can feel a little bit powerless in it’s midst.

Lust—An Evolutionary Advantage

In intense human relationships, part of the brain called the Limbic system is highly active in the formation of memories, and in imprinting our brains with patterned recognition, or categories, of “good” and “bad” in regard to relationships—hardwiring us to find certain things, such as physical characteristics, qualities, even smells more or less attractive.  The limbic system is related to our unconscious motivations—driving us forward to an object of desire, at times, based primarily on our brain’s early circuitry of memories that seem “relatable.”

These attractors, which are essentially patterns imprinted on the limbic system, when reflected in the resonant limbic response of another, can serve to regulate aspects of our physiology.  What this means is that when lust is reciprocated, our physiological systems—our bodies, and even our health—can become better regulated and overall, more functional!  Lust clearly has some evolutionary advantages.  Not to mention, science continues to explore how we generally lust after those who would be a positive genetic match for us—supporting our most basic collective need, to procreate!

Can Intimacy and Lust Coexist? 

We do all that we can to develop intimacy, because we yearn to be known, loved, cherished for all that we are.  We crave connection that delivers all sorts of juicy, yummy, feel-good bonding chemicals to our bodies and minds.  We strip away the layers of inhibitions, delving into the bond of creating bliss with another.  But then the very thing that we strive to create brings us to a point where our equally innate yearning for eroticism—for Lust—is often required to go into submission so as to protect the union we’ve created, or acted out in ways that counter our intimacy goals.  Sadly, through the development of intimacy, we’ve let go of mystery.  And to open ourselves to mystery once again, our intimate bond can feel threatened.

NoLust1So often, I hear from clients and friends that they don’t have any sense of lust or eroticism in their committed relationships—and sadly, this is simply equated with a monogamous lifestyle!  Given over to the ideas that lust is snuffed out with age, with family and responsibilities, and ultimately through monogamy, it’s essentially lost it’s “neural-home.”  Sometimes, lust is denied due to not fitting into our moral code or because it has only previously existed in more risqué scenarios—not alongside monogamy.  However, just like other primary emotional centers that are denied—that are not nourished—lust will find it’s way!  Sadly, without mindfulness, that path can be wrought with confusion and heartache.

If you’d like to continue exploring this very potent emotion and how it can become a powerful resource for your intimate relationship, watch for part two of For the Love of Lust as we speak of the actual practices that will help you to cultivate the fruits of Lust! 

Until then…

For the Love (and Lust!) of your life!

Angie 

Relationship Skills Training

When I was a personal trainer working with people striving toward their fitness goals, my initial focus with them was most often on form and function. Beyond those basics, I would help to motivate them to then practice their new skills daily or weekly, consistently bringing them back to the subtle messages from their bodies and minds—those things that would further inform their practice. What I knew from my own training, experience with clients, and what the experts said, that’s what works!

I certainly had clients, at times, who were looking for a “quick fix,” Yet I don’t remember ever having clients that actually believed that simply gaining “awareness” of their form and function, without practice, would yield the same results—they knew they couldn’t just read a book, look at some pictures, and have it down or transform their bodies. And what they became aware of rather quickly, with instruction, was that to make an actual difference, they would need to be pushing their bodies through some pretty intense physical feelings—they would be strengthening not only their bodies but their ability to tolerate a variety of powerful sensations.

Relationship Training

It’s almost humorous, and tragic, how often I hear people books1
working toward relationship success who are seduced by the belief that relationship habits will alter through simple awareness—That by reading the right book or article, by having some enlightening conversations with a therapist or friend, their core style of relating to their partner will magically transform.

Now I will grant that awareness—the didactic part of our learning—is a necessary foundation for change. And yet there is so much more.

Our Relational Design

Our style of relating to intimate partners has been designed into our minds, our bodies, our nervous systems—having literally been “wired” into us—from as early as our very first neural “firings.” The automatic pathways that our brain mechanisms follow in response to all sorts of human interactions is something that is related to processes that occur, most often, without our conscious awareness. These processes are immediate, unconscious, and follow “well-groomed” paths within our neural networks like the ruts in an old dirt road—and each time we allow them to flow without attention, those ruts become deeper and deeper, and much more difficult to alter. There’s some benefit to these processes, of course, especially when they’re related to things like…. Oh, walking, for example—the billions of functions that our brains control each and every day that we couldn’t possibly be aware of constantly. When it comes to relationship dynamics, however, those automatic processes often don’t serve our higher desires for intimacy and relational health.

Our perception of truth and reality, likewise, is so often immediately NeuralImage1
categorized by our brains and relegated to “good,” “bad,” “right,” “wrong,” etc., without our minds conscious engagement, that we have often decided something is just so, without considering the possibilities that would require a lot more work—and ultimately discomfort—for our brains. This is where Brain Training comes in.

Pragmatic/Experiential—it’s What Works

In terms of Relationship Training, we learn the “what” of skills through the pragmatic work, through reading and research and dialogue and psycho-education. Then with a trained observer who can provide reflection, support, encouragement, challenge, curiosity, and “coaching;” we can begin to learn the form and function in our bodies and minds—coming back to those subtle sensations, messages, triggers, and automatic responses, with more awareness and more ability to make different choices when it’s most important.

We can begin to feel into the internal shifts of observing our thoughts as we engage in new relational behaviors with a person practiced in the field of our learning. And as neurons begin to fire in distinctly new patterns—because that’s what’s happening when we practice new skills, connecting new behaviors to certain brain states—these pathways begin to carve new “grooves” into our neural networks. It’s like a workout for the brain! We are “wiring” new and healthier relationship habits into our neural networks. And yet, just as is true in the body, a single workout just makes us hurt—it doesn’t create lasting change!

Basic Neuroscience

Neuroplasticity is a popular buzzword right now—and a powerful one at that! The idea that the brain is moldable and changeable in response to behaviors and Mindful Attention–both in processes and shape–challenges the long-standing idea that the brain is physiologically static.  The direction that neuroscience has catapulted the realm of psychology has countered decades of the simple analytical, cognitive, and cognitive/behavioral work of our psychological heritage. It’s time that we—as practitioners of change—develop our emotional and relational fitness, strengthening neural pathways because we are choosing to develop not only awareness of our automatic responses, but to engage the most evolved parts of our brains. It’s time to build brain mass!

It’s exciting, really, that we have so much to say about how our internal worlds might respond to stimuli—those triggers that have previously caused us to feel powerless. And now we’re coming to grasp a power that, prior to the last decade or so, we’ve not fully understood. The idea that we can alter not only the functioning of our brains but the literal form—that’s just damned attractive in my world!

On this note, I want to share a recent experience based on these exact principles—I think it might be helpful for some people who are in the process of making the “implicit” “explicit”—bringing awareness into experiential practice and noticing the subtle shifts. This is the work of transformation.

The Language of Love

Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre DameCurrently, I co-facilitate an adult relational skills group, called Developing the Language of Love, based on the scientifically sound approaches of Dr. Brent J. Atkinson, author of Emotional Intelligence in Couples Therapy: Advances in neurobiology and the science of intimate relationships. It’s work that literally gets my heart pumping and makes me want to shout from rooftops—we CAN develop the types of relationships that we’ve all dreamed of. Just as the fact that we CAN create fit, healthy bodies if we have the right tools. And this… this is one of the right tools!

This is an eight-week group, and we are more than halfway through the first round. Already, the results are evident to all of the participants and powerfully affirm our work as therapists and educators.

Two weeks ago my co-facilitator, Robin, and I modeled a “healthy dialogue” sharing some tools for approaching conflict with some well-grounded principles for getting our partners to treat us well. We demonstrated a conversation where both partners were tapping into skill. The modeling was well-received in the group and, also, a request was made that we share what a similar dialogue might look like if one partner is practicing “skill” and the other partner continues to dismiss, criticize, or respond negatively.

Of course! …thought Robin and I. Because most often isn’t that the exact way things play out? Quite wisely, our group was begging the question, “But if I show up well, and my partner is still an ass, then what?”

The Relationship DancerelationshipDance1

This is a much more common occurrence within relational dynamics, right? Consider how often you have approached your partner with a need to either launch a complaint or discuss an emotional need and you plan to do so with skill—maybe you’ve even practiced prior to the dialogue—and the response you get seems very unskilled—in fact, you might even feel mistreated and dismissed or, worse yet, your partner justifies their behavior or belief and actually purports that whatever issue you’re discussing is your fault!

Aggravating, isn’t it? We can walk away from such interactions feeling as if, “I did it right! My partner, like usual, is the one who just blew it!”

We leave these conversations, often very resentful of our partner, feeling that he or she simply doesn’t get it—they just don’t have the skill that matches our own.

And guess what? This very reaction, no matter how “true” it feels, is a breeding ground for contempt.

…But Back to the Story

Robin and I took our group’s request to heart, loosely designing a scenario where one of us (me) had developed some skill to get my partner to treat me well, even when my partner (Robin, in this instance) continued to criticize, dismiss, and blame me. And you know what? It worked! Even via role-play, it became apparent to everyone there that, had this been a real life interaction, with the skills I was demonstrating, it would be incredibly difficult for Robin, or anyone, to continue to act in the way he was consciously TRYING to act—badly!

Then the bigger questions came: Did I feel the automatic responses in my body that might have made me want to react negatively, and what did I do with those? What were my internal thoughts about Robin’s behavior? How was I able to “calm my nervous system” consistently, while Robin was saying some pretty harsh things?

Real Life Happens

Now, let’s get clear on something—Just like most people I, too, have difficulty in this area of my personal life. I continue to cultivate the skills to stay present and I do my best to practice new habits but, WOW! …Let’s just say, I thought creating a fit body was difficult! Nothing compares to the exhaustive work of developing sound relationship skills. So I’ll just say, this is, of course, much easier within a role-play! And, the story continues…

After our group, I continued on with my night and as synchronicity would have it, had an opportunity to practice these exact skills FOR REAL.

Now, maybe because it was so fresh in my brain and body, maybe because I’ve been immersing myself in developing these skills, I was able to consistently bring my focus back to the more advanced part of my brain—my prefrontal cortex, which resides at the forefront of the brain and is implicated in social and emotional regulation.

Essentially, my mind was able to tolerate a bit more intensity because I’d been “training” the exact function I needed just hours before. –Let’s consider the body once again: When I’ve been training a specific muscle, that muscle learns to tolerate more weight, more intensity, right? The same is true for structures in the brain.

I became involved in a dialogue that required some regulation of emotion, some acknowledgments of deep, somewhat painful feelings between two people, and a solid balance of validating my own truth while also acknowledging a legitimately different perspective of someone else—without making the other person “wrong.”

The dialogue that ensued is one I literally know “by heart,” and while the distinctive movements may look different from the outside, the dance is well rehearsed. The “dance” being the pattern of activation—mirror neurons from one person to the other engaging in a willful and well-choreographed tragedy that repeats itself over and over. For many, including myself, this is often the seductive dance of relationship.

Rewiring

Somehow, this night, I was able to feel my feet on the dance floor, feel my pelvis, my belly, my chest, all responding to conscious breathing and mindful presence. So when I approached the dialogue with skill, and then received what felt like a defensive, critical response, something happened. And this is the piece I want to dissect a bit.

Automatic, Subtle Responses that WRECK our Relationships

Most of us have had moments when we’ve approached a difficult dialogue with some skill, right? We’ve maybe done some work around “personal development” and feel better equipped to handle relationship distress. And it’s a boost to the ego when we feel as if we’ve done ourselves well and acted with integrity. And often, we just don’t get what we want in return. Sound familiar?

Then What?

Here is a very common response—we have some internal dialogue going on, which sounds something like this: “I’m doing my best here to stay present and he/she just can’t do it. Why do I always have to be the more mature/more skilled/more evolved person? He/she can never understand what I’m talking about.” Any of that resonate? Something with that general flavor ever cross your mental palate during an intense dialogue with a partner?

I know I’ve had those moments—many of them! And I usually leave those arguments not only frustrated but resentful. I further justify that the whole situation is “mostly” his fault. I mean really, do you want to know what he said??

(Familiar scenario?)

And then not only is the interaction finding it’s way into well-grooved neural pathways, we actually strengthen these habitual responses each time we mentally replay the interactions in our heads with a similar mental content or share the story with friends—that our partners are the ones to blame.

If you allow yourself to play this scenario out, I have a sense most of you know exactly where it leads, and it’s just no good. Sure, we can get a little release from bitching to friends and family about how inept our partners are and about our powerlessness to create actual change. And then we come back home and start the same scene tomorrow—it’s a little like “relationship groundhog day.”

The Brain Workout

So the shift for me came in that exact moment when I did notice something in my desire to “fight back”—to engage with the same energy I felt I was experiencing from my partner which, by the way, is referred to as negative affect reciprocity—the tendency to respond to one’s partners’ expression of negative affect with one’s own negative affect.

And here’s a little tidbit here, which many of you will grasp. I was feeling mistreated. Whether I was being mistreated or not isn’t really important! What’s important is HOW I RESPOND. That, in and of itself, is the determining factor of my personal ability to ultimately create and maintain a healthy relationship. The problem is that we most often get caught in justifying our response due to our partner’s perceived misbehavior. And ultimately, that does little for us, or our partner’s ability to respond more positively. (More on that later.)

Right now, some of you may be thinking, “But it is important whether or not our partners are mistreating us! We can’t just let them off the hook!” And what I’m saying does not negate the importance of that—I promise. Right now, however, let’s focus on our own ability to strengthen our relationship skills.

So I noticed something beginning to shift in me and further tuned in to my internal state—a process known as interoception—“checking in,” essentially. And thankfully, in that moment I realized that THAT—what I was noticing—was the somatic response that I generally have when I get activated! Here was the answer to my group’s question.

Automatic Somatic Response

The moment I felt I was “doing relationship” just a little bit better than my partner, here’s what happened: My breathing became shallow, my chest kind of “froze,” my shoulders collapsed just a little, but in a somewhat defensive, protective stance, and I felt a lot of energy right in the back of my throat, as if I could raise my voice or rapidly justify my perspective.

And I realized in about a nanosecond that I had an opportunity to re-pattern some neural networks that have known a solid and singular path for years.

One thing to note: It is in the moments when we most need to access more advanced parts of the brain—when we most need to use new skills, that they are the least accessible to us. We need them when our brains are so triggered, we’d rather throw all our damn skills out the window because we feel so hurt or angry. And those are the EXACT moments when we need to ground ourselves in the knowledge that we can do it differently. This is similar to the moment when training a particular muscle pushes us to a physiological “edge”—and we have the experience of every ounce of our being believing we can push no further. Then something shifts and we somehow push through and far beyond our perceived limitations. This is when the body begins to KNOW how to transform.

The most important time for us to practice new relational skills is when they are LEAST accessible to us–when they are the most difficult to access!  We can all feel pretty “skilled” when we feel we’re being treated well, right?  It’s when we feel we’re NOT being treated well–this is the moment of truth!  These are the exact moments–opportunities really–that will set us apart from those who continue to set themselves up for failure.  Just as in training our bodies, it does little good for us to train with weights that don’t push us to our “edge.”  We have to train our bodies when we feel we are exercising not only our muscles but our focus, attention, and will.  

So… it was one of those moments. And here’s the kicker—I noticed the automatic thought patterns as well. I heard the little voice in my head wanting to believe that my “dance partner” clearly wasn’t following my oh-so-skillful lead. I felt myself wanting to make him wrong, and ultimately “less skilled” than I was.

And then the jolt. Ahhh….. there it is—the wiring that I have for contempt. And damn, is it a well-grooved path in my neural networks!

In that single moment of awareness, something so subtle shifted internally. It was like the moment where, during a workout, “pain” transforms into “sensation” and we realize we have believed a limitation that doesn’t really exist. “Ohhh…..” I thought. “This is where I normally get off track. And I can make a different choice—and it’s difficult.”

The Reason it’s Called “Practice”

NeuralImage2The work in these moments is so incredibly subtle, so consistent. We need to keep bringing our attention, our focus, back to the present moment; noticing what wants to “steal” our attention and bringing it back to the part of our brain that can make a different choice—the pre-frontal cortex. And some might think this is just far too difficult and maybe even silly to focus so much on these subtle sensations. And again, just as in a physical workout, sometimes that subtle shift in “form” is the difference between strengthening and injuring.

This interaction—and what I was attempting to do—took a while, it wasn’t immediate and it wasn’t pretty and it certainly wasn’t perfect. But it was different. Most importantly, the instant I brought attention to my internal dialogue, there was a shift, not only inside of me, but within the system of interaction.

Similar to the role-play interaction with Robin, above, my partner simply wasn’t able to mistreat, or even seem like he was mistreating me. You see, when we believe our partners are more to blame, we make it just about impossible for them to change. In fact, our belief that they are more at fault than we are is like the kiss of death to our relationships! And so when I, or you, can release the attachment to the belief that we’ve held so tightly, it’s like giving breath to our partner’s unique experience of interaction with us—because sometimes, that’s no joy ride either, right?

Learning to cultivate responsiveness in our partner, when we have long standing patterns of blaming them, is the one path out of relational dysfunction. Most often, even the discovery of this path requires a certain receptivity in us, to stretch our perceptions of reality—of our partners reality, as well as our own—to go beyond the paradigm of truth that we know, and develop a new way of seeing.

If you have questions or reservations about what I’ve shared here… if it’s not sitting right with you, or if it is, I’d love to hear from you!

For the Love of Your Life!

Angie

Contempt–The Kiss of Death

I shared a post on Facebook today regarding infidelity and the profound impact that our response can have toward our capacity for creating healthy relationships in our futures.  And I felt that the intensity and amount of responses deserved more time than a simple reply.  Ultimately, I’m honored to be sharing in the dialogue with so many passionate, well-educated people who are willing to dig a little deeper, look a little closer at something that impacts us all on a profound level.

The post was this:

Consider this: If your partner (or an ex-partner) has cheated on you and you have, in response, bad-mouthed that person, the research on relationships would say that your actions are actually MORE DAMAGING than the act of the other person. Difficult to grasp, right? And you might think, well, I don’t care because I wouldn’t want to be with that person now anyway! And yet, statistically speaking, that “emotional habit” of yours puts you smack dab in the middle of a group of people destined to continue to have unsuccessful relationships. So…. How’r them apples??

I appreciate all of the passion and emotion behind this dialogue!  I had a feeling it might ruffle some feathers!  The best conversations do, right?  And I love the variety of opinions, the support being offered, the challenge and wisdom behind so many of your personal experiences.

That begin said, I’d like to offer some food for thought.

Number 1)  Let’s consider the difference between “someone who’s cheated” and “a cheater.”  Right off the bat, the idea that someone has cheated immediately calls to mind (for many of us anyway) the most disrespectful kind of person.  And the facts just don’t support that.  The people who cheat are….  Well, “all of us.”  Certainly there are the “serial cheater” types—those who use infidelity like they do any other addictive behavior or drug—as a means for avoiding life and intimacy.  However, most people who cheat, or who have cheated, are people just like you and I…  they are people doing their best to live happy, productive lives.   They are the next-door neighbor, your kid’s school teacher, your best friend, the woman who sings in your church, the lawyer, the student, the house wife, the doctor, a parent!  People—real people, good people—cheat.

And that doesn’t negate the intensity of emotions that you’re all sharing and that so many feel when confronted with this topic, let alone the embodied experience of betrayal.  Infidelity–Sexual betrayal–can wreck us at such a deep level.  It can break our hearts and tear open our lives.  It can take us to the edge of who we are.

So often, either working with someone in therapy or simply sharing intimate dialogue with a friend, I’ll hear the words, “I would NEVER cheat on my partner!”  And those same people, sometimes, are eating their words a few years later.  Not to say that everyone has or does ever cheat on a partner but I’d challenge that most of us have either been cheated on, have cheated at some point in our “not-so-resourced” lives, or know someone very well who has cheated or been cheated on.  And of all “those people”…  “they” are not all despicable, right?  They are not all “worthless human beings who don’t belong on this earth.”

The significance of this statement, however, is more about the foundation–and ultimate potential–of the core emotional habit and what science claims it represents in a person’s “relationship potential.”  Whenever a person has the feeling that they simply “do relationship” better than their partners, that belief represents contempt–And what science has found, over decades of research, is that contempt is The Kiss of Death for relationship–like one person stated in response to my post, Contempt is like Relationship Kryptonite!

Sidenote:  To point to one difference in perspective—cheating means different things to different people.  For some, it is actually cheating only when one is married, or only if one has vaginal intercourse.  (Oops, now what about those in same-sex relationships?  Different rules?)  For others, if you’re in a partnership—on-line sexting equals cheating.  There are no hard and fast rules, right?  Is emotional infidelity as damaging as physical?  Some would consider it almost more so.  And so when we have black-and-white opinions about who another person IS, based solely on an idea of that person “having cheated,” a little caution and self-reflection might be in order.

The Reality of Infidelity

Very often, when people cheat, it is because they are absolutely CoupleFighting4“at their end.”  They are miserable, done, and don’t have the coveted resources—or strength, or understanding—to know how to ask for what they want.  And often, they don’t have the strength to walk away. And maybe, just maybe, there is a profound opportunity in their staying.  Research shows that we choose our mates based on internal qualities of equality–meaning we tend to choose people who have equal capacity to “show up,” to be emotionally attuned and available.  And while some people’s bad emotional habits are easier to see, more obvious, we tend to contribute just about 50% of the damage to our relationships.  This idea, for many, is a hard one to grasp.

Does that excuse infidelity?  Absolutely not.  In fact, infidelity is at the top of the list as one of the most damaging things that one person can do to another, within an intimate relationship.  This is an act that is clearly wrong (in most people’s opinion).  However, it is not “the kiss of death.”  And actually, the odds that a partner will feel remorse, or conversely, that the partner would commit a similar act in the future, are both directly related to the response given by the person who was betrayed.  What’s also determined by that response is the probability for the betrayed person to experience a similar betrayal in the future, by their current partner or by someone else.

Here’s the tricky part—those people who have had happy relationships for eons…  the ones whom researchers have looked at and said, “what are you guys doing differently, that we could all learn from?”  Those folks actually have some infidelity in the mix as well!  In successful, happy, long-term marriages, infidelity has sometimes occurred.  In fact, for some, it provided the necessary turning point that made their relationship success a  possibility!  So….  Clearly, infidelity is not the end-all-be-all issue for everyone, right?

The thing is, one emotional habit these folks do really differently than the folks who don’t ultimately have successful relationships is that when their partners screw up, and when the screw up is “that bad,” they respond without contempt.  Meaning—they don’t make their partners into horrible people for having made a mistake.  They look at what they were also doing to contribute to the downfall of their intimacy.  And …big one here:  They stop business as usual (Atkinson).  They don’t just cow down and play like the innocent victim.  They take ownership of both what they’ve done as well as what they want—and they put a stop to what they won’t tolerate.

Sometimes infidelity ends relationships.  And for folks who’ve had unfaithful partners and choose to leave—without contempt—those people are set up for future success, at least in that regard.  However, not more so than the people who stay but ultimately do the same thing—put a stop to “business as usual,” take responsibility for their own part, and don’t make their partners into bad guys.

What We Think is More Powerful–And More Important–Than What We Say

Here’s my number 2)  The things we’re thinking about our partners (or our friends or our children’s other parent, or, or…) are much more powerful than the words we use.  I’ve had so many clients and friends say critical or sometimes “mocking” kinds of things about their partners and then say, “But I’d never actually say that to him/her!”  And I challenge them with the very real facts that our internal voice comes out loud and clear.

Research shows us that there are universal forms of body language and subtle facial expressions that we are reading, literally every nano-second.  We have strengthened these skills since first entering the world—knowing how to read the subtle non-verbal cues of others is a survival mechanism.  So…  do you not think your partner knows exactly what you’re thinking when you say, “Oh, nothing’s wrong honey,” when inside you’re fuming because, once again, he’s left all the condiments out on the counter or because, just like “always,” she’s nagging about everything you didn’t do?

Contempt is TOXIC

—Weather spoken or not.  Actually, it can be much more damaging when we hold it in, as it will find it’s own way out…  somehow and someway.

Most of us have been taught to have contempt for most of our lives.  This is an unconscious teaching—not many of us would actually admit to being contemptuous, right?  Consider some of the phrases we’re given throughout our lives when faced with certain challenges:

  • Be the bigger person
  • Don’t lower yourself the his/her level
  • Take the high road
These statements are really the epitome of contempt.  In fact, to share a bit of personal history—I was a master for most of my life at being the victim…. And being the victim goes right along with having a contemptuous attitude.  The wrongdoings of others were so “obvious” that how could I have done anything different?  (This was an unconscious attitude).

About eight years ago now, I did my first post graduate training with Dr. Brent Atkinson, a leading researcher and psychologist dedicated to helping people rewire emotional habits in their intimate relationships.  As I was learning all about contempt, for the first three days (I’ll humbly admit) my primary attitude was, “Wow, my partner really has a lot of contempt for me!”  (!!!)  Midway through day number three, it was like I got slapped in the face with a brutal truth—my own contempt became glaringly clear.  And wow, that was one of the most painful–and rewarding–“aha!” moments of my life.

The thing was, I hadn’t been willing to see it before because being a victim served me.  I got my friends involved, I felt justified and vindicated and supported and assured.  And I was still “doing my work” but that necessary piece hadn’t yet come to the surface.  I feel that now, in my work as a partner, a parent, and a therapist; I am constantly practicing getting clear on how contempt can quietly creep into my thoughts and take up residence.  I still have some hardwiring to work through!  And I’d put the challenge out that most of us do.

In fact, the research out there states that only about 1 in 4 people have actually developed the habits necessary for really creating healthy, thriving relationships.  These habits include being clear on how powerful contempt is, and how to avoid it.  I’ll be getting to other skills in future posts!  And the beauty is that the habits and skills necessary for cultivating a positive response from our partners is all stuff that can be learned!

My final thought:  Number 3)  Remember my initial post

Consider this: If your partner (or an ex-partner) has cheated on you and you have, in response, bad-mouthed that person, the research on relationships would say that your actions are actually MORE DAMAGING than the act of the other person. Difficult to grasp, right? And you might think, well, I don’t care because I wouldn’t want to be with that person now anyway! And yet, statistically speaking, that “emotional habit” of yours puts you smack dab in the middle of a group of people destined to continue to have unsuccessful relationships. So…. How’r them apples??

My challenge in rereading this would be this:  I’m simply stating research—not making infidelity okay, not sharing a belief that it is not an act of complete betrayal, and NOT—definitely not stating that one should stay in relationship when it has occurred.  I’m sharing thoughts to inspire all of us to look at creating healthy relationships in our futures.  I’m sharing because so often when infidelity occurs, and we look at the “betrayer” as the sole culprit in the downfall of relationship, more than likely we’re going to recreate similar situations in future relationships!  (Another fact research would support).  And so my intent in looking closely at these facts and sharing is to deepen our understanding of the power we hold in responding in ways that set us up for relationship success in our futures—whether with the same or different partners.  We are undeniably powerful and sadly, we sometimes react to emotional pain by giving our power away.

Modeling Healthy Relationships

As far as modeling healthy relationship patterns to our children?  Again, when they see us giving our power away and becoming victimized—when they see us giving sole responsibility to “the other person,” they learn how to do the same.  However, when they see us owning our own part of relationship downfall, when they see us not tolerating bad behavior and simultaneously being able to love their other parent—(we did choose them, right?  We did help to create these beautiful beings with them, right?  When our kiddos experience us making their other parent out to be “the bad guy,” they can internalize some ugly feelings toward themselves, since they are “half” of each of us).  –When our kids see us modeling the steps necessary to create healthy, authentic, empowered and passionate relationships in our future, they have the foundation to do the same.

I read about people having anger toward those who have been unfaithful, in response to my post.  And questioning whether I believe anger is okay.  (And just to point out, while I have a lot of experience and education in these areas, and a passion for understanding—I don’t claim to be the expert.  I do, however, like to share dialogue about what the experts have found!)

So…  We can get angry—anger is a core emotion and is a necessary aspect of a healthy ability to feel and to express our inner worlds.  The ability to express anger is part of a healthy emotional repertoire.  Yes!  I’d say infidelity would require some really intense anger!  I know it would from me anyway.  And like some others pointed out, there is a big difference between anger and contempt.

Community–communing with our clan, our family, our friends, sometimes especially when we feel betrayed; this is something that can bond us and help us feel “a part of” something bigger.  I believe it’s actually a very necessary process to healing, for most of us anyway.  Some, of course, need to reach out more than others.  And again, there’s a big difference between sharing with those we love–with those who can help us to hold the hurt and help us process and vent and heal, and making the other person into a villain and giving away our power.

I’d like to invite further dialogue and exploration into the sharing…  this is one way, for me anyway, of expanding my own emotional repertoire!

 

For the Love of Your Life!

Angie