Have you ever been in a relationship that was missing
something, or some things? Maybe your partner didn’t communicate well enough or
maybe there weren’t enough times your partner made you feel special. Maybe your
partner became complacent and you just didn’t feel wanted anymore. Maybe your
partner was too self-absorbed to be a good listener. Maybe your partner’s
physical appearance changed and you were not as attracted to them as you once
When these situations occur, it’s not uncommon for someone
else to come along that meets those previously unmet needs. It’s easy in those
situations to see that new person as a breath of fresh air, and to believe that
perhaps they are just the perfect fit for you. So, you decide to leave your
current partner to be with this new wonderful person who makes you finally feel
the way you’ve wanted to feel in your current relationship. If the new person
feels like such a perfect fit, why then do these new relationships almost
always fail? The two main reasons are an inherent lack of trust, and what I
call the Swiss cheese effect.
The trust issue is obvious: if you fall for someone while
with someone, you have shown yourself to be capable of betraying your partner’s
trust. Committed relationships come with an understood contract that you will
have eyes, and feelings, only for your partner. How can your new partner trust
you when they know you were lying to your former partner in order to develop
your new relationship? The trust issues created by these situations are very
difficult to overcome, and could alone be enough to sabotage the new
relationship. But if not, rest assured that the Swiss cheese effect will do the
In order to understand the Swiss cheese effect, you must think of your current relationship as a slice of Swiss cheese. A slice of Swiss cheese is held together in a solid form but has holes in it just like many relationships. And when a new person comes along that fills the holes, it can feel as if that new person can provide all that is necessary for a whole relationship. However, once the Swiss cheese is gone, all you have left is the filled holes, and this presents a major problem. You will be left with only pieces of a relationship and not enough to hold the relationship together. Many who fall for the holes find themselves longing for the cheese they have left behind.
So, rather than leaving your current relationship because there are holes and someone comes along who seems to provide what you think you are missing, take a minute to evaluate your relationship as a complex combination of many factors. Decide whether the holes in your relationship are things that can be improved through communication, and whether this new person really offers all that you think they do. I’m not saying you should stay in a bad relationship, but I am saying watch out for the Swiss cheese effect! Seriously consider whether it’s worth leaving your current relationship for one that is doomed to fail.
Wouldn’t it be nice if describing the source of your anxiety were as easy as describing the show you watched last night or the book you just finished reading. Asking an anxious person to describe the source of their anxiety is asking for a rational explanation of an emotional experience. Anxiety is usually not rational and its sources aren’t always clear. It’s not as simple as I’m afraid of spiders or snakes so now I feel anxious. Anxiety is most often caused by a combination of thoughts that don’t always make sense even to the person experiencing the anxiety.
Anxiety is often rooted in deeper fears that are more challenging to identify, such as how a person fits into the world or one’s ability to continue to provide for his or her family. One thing that is almost always true of thoughts that produce anxiety is that they are projections into the future. If your thoughts are focused on the present moment and you are feeling anxiety, you better run!
For the most part, depression exists when our thoughts are focused on the past and anxiety exists when our thoughts are focused on the future. Peace exists in the present moment, and the more time we can spend there, the more insulated we are against negative or painful emotions. As responsible humans, we don’t have the luxury of completely disregarding the future, but we are able to take time each day to force ourselves to live in the present moment.
One strategy that many of us have used to remove or reduce
the impact of traumatic experiences on our lives is to push them into the
recesses of our minds and just not think about them. There is the belief that
pretending something didn’t happen, or concealing it from our conscious mind
reduces its impact on our decisions and experiences. This decision is usually
made either because the traumatic experience seems too painful to think about
or too hopeless to address. I often describe these experiences as piles of poop
in the mind, and find them to be some of the most productive areas to explore
in therapy. Let me explain…
If you have a dog, you have most likely walked into a room
of your house at some point in your life and found that the dog has dropped a
deuce on the floor. At this point, you have a few options of how to handle the
situation. You can turn around and go to different part of the house and hope
that someone else walks in, finds the mess, and cleans it up. This approach can
work sometimes, but will lead to resentment from others who find themselves
tasked with cleaning up messes that they know should have been your
responsibility. Another potential problem with this approach is that life can
become quite dysfunctional when no one comes behind you to clean up the mess
and you end up living in a world of poop.
The next option involves the out of sight, out of mind
principle. You can decide to push the poop into the corner so it is out of the
way and put a newspaper over it so you don’t have to look at it. The problem
here is that out of sight doesn’t mean out of smell. So now, even though you
can’t see the poop, it still stinks. And that stink will not only affect your
peace of mind, but will keep others from wanting to be around you as well. It’s
hard to enjoy life while holding your breath or hiding your face in your shirt.
This leads us to the final option. You can directly address the problem, which involves acknowledging that the poop is there, picking it up, scrubbing away any mess left behind, disinfecting the floor and taking out the garbage. This approach is no fun! I’ve never met anyone who enjoys the sight or smell of dog poop, or the feeling of picking it up even through a bag. However, this is the only way to appropriately and adequately handle the situation. This is the approach that minimizes the impact that the poop will have on your life, and the lives of those who are close to you.
So, while you may be tempted to avoid your piles or to push them away to be dealt with on another day, my advice is to hit the nastiness head on. Think about the piles that exist in your mind and start cleaning them up one by one. Expect to be uncomfortable and don’t be surprised if your eyes water a bit, but know that your short term discomfort will minimize the long term negative impact of those experiences.
What if? Those are the first two words in almost all anxious thoughts. Anxiety is generally created when we are thinking about some future event. Anxiety can exist in the present, but in those situations my advice is to run because you are obviously in some kind of danger. The reason we feel anxiety at all is to protect us from danger so that we may survive. So, when you find yourself feeling anxious and your physical safety is not in danger, you are most likely thinking a “what if” scenario. “What if” is speculation, “what if” is expectation, and “what if” does not exist…yet. If you choose to think about what is, rather than “what if”, you will be more productive and likely happier. “What is” really is all that we know for sure.
Don’t paint on my blank canvas!
When one experiences negative feelings or insecurities about self or situation, a belief can develop that others share that opinion as well. This is what is known as psychological projection, and it can cause a person to believe that he or she is being viewed negatively by others. When one applies meaning to words and actions of others in an irrational way (without proof), and accepts that meaning as confirmation that personal insecurities are being seen and believed by others, dysfunction occurs. When I say, “Don’t paint on my blank canvas,” it means don’t view my neutrality as confirmation of your insecurities. Don’t assume that I’m thinking what you’re thinking. It’s important that we seek to identify, understand, and work through our own insecurities and resist the urge to project them onto others. Don’t paint your insecurities onto anyone’s blank canvas and all of your relationships will benefit.
What would you do?
When we read or hear about other people’s experiences, there is a temptation to imagine how we would have handled their situation differently than they did. “Well if that happened to me, I would’ve…,” but really that isn’t fair to the person who actually experienced it. When aided by the benefit of hindsight, we almost certainly come to a different decision than we would have in the moment.
One of the first things I say when I’m asked by a client, or a friend, what I would have done in any particular situation is, “It really isn’t fair for me to pretend to know.” I’m glad to offer my thoughts on a past decision but I’m careful to admit that one doesn’t know how they would react to any given situation until they are actually faced with that situation. It’s easy to look back and see where others have made bad judgments and to wonder how such decisions could have been made, but we must remember that the benefit of hindsight is only afforded after the event has occurred.
So, hold back your judgment and resist the urge to tell others how much better you would have handled their situation than they did. Remember that we all do the best we can in any given moment and we all make mistakes.
Being a step parent is challenging. And also the sun is hot and the ocean is wet and all other things that are true beyond words. If you’re lucky, you never have to hear your step child yell, “You can’t tell me what to do!” “You’re not my father/mother!” It can be very difficult for a child to learn to take direction from a new parental figure and this can lead to great stress within the home. It can also be difficult for a stepparent to learn how to interact with a child in ways that are firm and consistent, but also kind, accepting and loving. Kids have a way of seeing through people so a step parent’s efforts must be genuine or the child will resist and possibly rebel.
And then there is the challenge of co-parenting with the biological parent. Sometimes the biological parent is resistant to the stepparent taking too much of a role in areas such as discipline, education and emotional well-being. This can lead to hurt feelings and become a major source of conflict within the relationship if both parents are not flexible and reasonable. The step parent must respect the boundaries established by the biological parent, and the biological parent must respect the need of the step parent to be involved in decisions related to the child. This delicate balance can only be established and maintained through kind and patient communication.
Step parents are important. We become important figures in our step children’s, and our partners’ lives and it is up to us to respect both of those roles. We must understand that we are not, and never will be, that child’s biological parent but we are a parent. Our feelings cannot be hurt by the boundaries, roles and influence of the biological parents. We should strive to fit into the parenting system rather than to change the system entirely. Ask for what you need but be flexible and understanding. And if, like me, you are blessed with a great step child and an amazing partner, be grateful and let them know how much you appreciate being a part of their system. Because, did I mention that being a step parent can be challenging?
Put simply, self-pity is you feeling sorry for you. It’s those times when life feels hard and you allow negative thinking to take over. It’s those times when you choose to focus on what is lacking in life rather than what is there. Self-pity is a feeling that leads to a lot of dysfunction. Self-pity leads to substance abuse, relationship problems, depression and anxiety. The medicine for self-pity is gratitude. Gratitude is appreciating the good rather than focusing on the bad. It is nearly impossible to feel self-pity when you are focusing on all the things for which you are grateful. So, when you notice that you are feeling down and focusing on the bad, take stock of all that you have. Be grateful and choose to think about the positive instead of the negative. Then, sit back and enjoy the change that takes place as your life becomes filled with more and more things for which to be grateful.
All about the money
It’s amazing how often finances become a source of stress in marriages. Sometimes, it’s because there just isn’t enough money to pay the bills and sometimes it’s because one partner makes more money than the other. Sometimes it’s perceived spending habits and sometimes it’s just plain irresponsibility. However, other times, it’s because one partner wants to control the money and shuts the other partner out of all things having to do with finances. He or she begins opening one credit card to pay for another and hiding debt rather than talking about financial concerns. When asked about finances, the controlling partner deflects by launching a verbal assault designed to discourage asking any questions in the future. “Why don’t you trust me?” “All you care about is money!” “Why are you looking at the bank statements?” The asking partner learns quickly that any attempts to discuss finances will be met with extreme negativity, defensiveness, and aggression. Eventually the questions stop because who wants to fight all the time? And then things are fine, until they’re not. Watch out for people who demand to be in control and become belligerent when challenged.
People have different ideas about what to share with regard to finances in marriage. Some believe in sharing everything and others feel maintaining separate accounts is the way to go. My personal belief is that finances should be shared. I believe this because transparency is good for building trust, and trust is good for relationships. What do you think?
Where’s the metamorphosis?
For many people, life has to become quite overwhelming, scary, frustrating or sad in order for the difficult decision to get sober to occur and stick. When a person makes that commitment to really try, often there are high expectations for the impact this decision will have on their life. Many feel so sure that because so many of their problems revolve around their substance use, quitting is sure to make life so much better. While it is true that sobriety does open the door to true happiness, it is unrealistic to think that it alone will get you there. One of my favorite sayings is, “Sobriety can’t get you to heaven, but it can release you from hell.” Getting sober is only the first step on the path. It then becomes necessary for the individual to figure out how to heal the wounds that have required covering up for so long. So, if you decide to get sober, feel good about that decision, but don’t expect that alone to solve all the problems in your life. However, know that you have taken the first and most important step on that journey. Enjoy the “Honeymoon period,” when that decision really does make you feel so much better. But, be prepared that more work lies ahead and that complacency becomes the enemy.