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    The Power of Curiosity, Empathy and Emotional Safety in Long-Term Committed Relationships

    Emotional intimacy is fraught with many challenges. Loving feelings toward another are precious, and can be fragile and difficult to sustain. Many times when a couple enters my office in a crisis, the issues and problems they bring up in therapy have developed over a period of years, and have become compounded by a recurring cycle of disappointment, feeling wounded, and being ignored or taken for granted. However, the many demands of your outside life may interfere with nurturing what was once precious, and is now wasting away. Often times the drive, energy and focus devoted to one’s career and children leave us exhausted, and little is left over to cultivate the love between one another. As a result of this neglect, a valuable life built together begins to crumble. Every divorce or ending to a long-term committed relationship is tragic, even when it’s the right decision.

    Is your relationship in crisis?

    Is your relationship in crisis? Do you live in fear that it may be unravelling? That it’s over? Are you unable to picture a satisfying future together? Does it feel like the two of you are buried in the dust of too many arguments that never get settled, or that you are already emotionally divorced from each other? These are tough and scary questions to contemplate, aren’t they? As you think about the answers, it is important that you open your eyes to what you believe is really going on, and where and when things got off track.

    In the Gotye song, “Eyes Wide Open” it is the end of a love relationship, where everything the lovers had and did is “buried in the dust” and all that is left of their story together is “dust.” The reference to “only a few ever worried” may relate to the complacency with which many of us treat our love relations, assuming that a relationship on cruise control will survive and prosper. This is a mistaken notion, as love and trust are delicate and may diminish and perish without us even being aware, until it may be too late to resurrect these bonds. If worrying about your relationship leads to steps to protect, preserve, and improve upon it – and precludes your becoming complacent – then it is worthwhile.

    Perhaps, as in “Eyes Wide Open,” you too had no idea that your relationship had deteriorated prior to its reaching a crisis point, or perhaps you have grown accustomed to living in fear of your loved one, or have begun to give up on the dream of a happy future together. Perhaps your eyes have just opened to how distant you feel from your significant other, how disconnected, how alone. A committed love relationship or marriage can be one of the loneliest places on earth – more lonely than being on the outside – because your longings and yearning for an emotional connection – one that once existed or at least appeared hopeful – now feels hopeless.

    How can you and your partner change the way that you are living together, and avoid a tragic end?

    How can you and your partner change the way that you are living together, and avoid a tragic end? Answers will begin to emerge if you ask the right questions, and focus on how to listen, truly listen to your partner.

    Listening has an enormously powerful effect when a loving relationship has been damaged. When you are feeling hurt and angry with your partner, listening may be the last thing on your mind. You may want to lash out angrily, or retreat. These feelings are understandable, yet they perpetuate the emotional damage, and a cycle of repeated hurts, recriminations, feeling emotionally unsafe and untrusting, and wanting to keep a distance.

    Don’t be afraid to be the first one to try this method

    Here are some ideas to help you understand and implement these principles in more detail. And don’t be afraid to be the first one to try this method, even if you are holding out due to wounded pride.

    • The most effective type of listening is best characterized as empathic and compassionate. Listen from your heart. Pay attention without interrupting. Take note of what is being said, and really try to understand what you are being told, even if you vehemently disagree with it. Put yourself in your partner’s place and work hard to understand what he or she has experienced. Listen with a spirit of curiosity and cooperation, of jointly embarking on a journey of discovery, even when it is emotionally painful. Convey your understanding without hostility, and whenever possible, where it is true, take responsibility for what you are being told about your own destructive or neglectful behavior.
    • Be willing to take the first step and alter your own behavior, to hopefully encourage your partner to follow suit, thus ending a negative downward spiral where each of you refuses to budge, and holds out waiting for the other to change first. Become curious about what is going on inside of your partner – what is in their heart, and on their mind – what are they feeling and thinking about?
    • Empathic, thoughtful, and respectful listening creates a feeling of safety with one another. A readiness to blame your partner is the surest way to reinforce feelings of vulnerability and rejection, and discourage the honest sharing that is needed. How often in our lives do we feel listened to and understood by those we care about? If you are honest with yourself the answer most likely is “not very often,” or sometimes even “never.”
    • The healing power of empathic and compassionate listening should never be underestimated. By injecting a needed dose of hope into the relationship, it enables one’s partner to feel special, and loved. True listening helps to restore a caring emotional connection and positive momentum, particularly when it is followed up by behaving in a way that is more giving and loving, and demonstrates that you have heard what was said and are willing to honor and respect it through purposeful responsive action.

    A famous author once commented that “A successful marriage means falling in love many times, always with the same person.” Falling in love once again with your partner protects and enhances the life you have built together, and is energizing and rejuvenating. It can bring newfound satisfaction and joy to the other areas of your life as well.

    In crisis and on the verge of separation

    Sharon and Ben were a couple in their early fifties who had been married for ten years, in crisis and on the verge of separation. She was an attorney, and he was a university professor. For the first ten years they had felt happy with one another, sharing many loves. They enjoyed shopping for and preparing gourmet meals, while sampling fine wines. Each would take turns selecting what recipes to prepare, and delighted in surprising one another with something new and unexpected to plan for, prepare, and savor together. A love of travel took them from major European capitals to wilderness adventures including African safaris and treks through Patagonia. Opera and symphony productions were shared at the Kennedy Center, and they would take turns selecting restaurants as they explored the many fine dining experiences in the Washington, DC area. Their deep affection had appeared rock solid, until an issue that had been quietly festering blew up and threatened their commitment to one another. As it turned out, the foundation of the marriage was not so solid after all.

    The crisis was precipitated by Sharon’s continuing friendship, and deep emotional attachment to two former lovers. While Sharon denied having had any sexual involvement with these men since she had met Ben, and Ben believed her, the relationships had become a lightning rod for escalating arguments between the two of them.

    The friendships had been ongoing for many years, and the tradition was that Sharon would have lunch with each of the men once or twice a year to reminisce and catch up on their respective lives. At times Ben would tag along, and while he was never altogether comfortable with this arrangement, he nonetheless acquiesced out of his love for her.

    These infrequent social engagements had not posed a significant problem until recently, when Ben had “discovered” an e-mail from Sharon to one of her former lovers, Jim. She had responded to an e-mail from Jim where he had professed his tender feelings toward her, admired her looks, and suggested that they get together. In the e-mail Jim asked Sharon to wear the dress she wore to their lunch the preceding year, as he had become enamored with the way she looked in it. Upon discovering this email string, Ben became extremely jealous, angrily insisting that Sharon break off the relationship; and Sharon in turn was extremely angry that Ben had spied on her by invading her private e-mail correspondence. The crisis escalated when Ben admitted that he had been routinely hacking into her emails over the past ten years out of his longstanding feelings of mistrust of her.

    Sharon was disinclined to break off the relationship with Jim, as Jim’s son Todd had recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and she felt a moral obligation to provide Jim and Todd emotional support in the face of this catastrophic news. Prior to meeting Ben, Sharon had lived with Jim for five years, and Todd had frequently stayed overnight with them under a shared custody arrangement with Jim’s ex-wife. As a result Sharon had developed maternal feelings toward Todd, and had become grief-stricken when she learned of his terminal condition.

    Sharon had initially lied to Ben, claiming first that she was not in contact with Jim, until Ben confronted her with the e-mails. Complicating the situation was the fact that Ben had an affair with a prior lover eight years ago, and Sharon had an affair with a former lover during the first year that she and Ben had been dating.

    Ben and Sharon had each been married before. Sharon’s first husband was prone to drinking to excess, and had a history of menacing her while intoxicated. They had two children between them. He had also cheated on Sharon several times during the marriage. Ben had been married twice before and in each instance his wife, much to his shock and surprise, had announced that she was leaving him. He had fathered a child in each of the two marriages, a son and a daughter, both of whom were estranged from Ben and would have nothing to do with Sharon, either.

    Their network of relationships was complicated indeed. There was a lot to untangle.

    By the time they came to me for couple’s therapy their relations had deteriorated to the point where they were either shouting at each other, or silently walking around the house, and sleeping in separate bedrooms. Each was about to consult an attorney to initiate divorce and the division of jointly held assets. It was a huge mess for us to try to unravel, and we began working together in couple’s therapy on a weekly basis.

    It was immediately apparent that each of them had been betrayed by their former spouses – a betrayal that was furthered by the unsettling emails from Sharon to Jim, and Ben’s invasion of Sharon’s privacy by repeatedly hacking into her computer to read them. Issues of basic trust were paramount in explaining how Sharon and Ben had arrived at this crisis point. Thinking about my parents’ marriage, my own marriage, other couples I had treated over the years, and one’s basic emotional needs, I first looked at Sharon, then at Ben, and began…

    “We’ve just met, but I would like to share some preliminary impressions. Each of you has felt betrayed by the other at various times in your relationship, and some of those feelings are based upon actual betrayals. There is a deep mistrust of one another that has been developing for quite some time, and the crisis in your relationship originates at least in part from this mistrust. Trust is the bedrock of any successful committed relationship. Trust is difficult to establish, and is fragile. In your relationship we have a failure to develop basic trust with one another, or perhaps once upon a time there was a level of trust that was shattered by some of your behaviors toward one another.”

    “It is also possible that each of you may sabotage the development of trust because you harbor basic fears of emotional intimacy, dependency, and vulnerability – issues that inevitably arise in a love relationship. Some of these fears may have developed in childhood. Others originated in previous relationships. These are some of the issues that hopefully we can explore in our sessions together.”

    I went on to note that perhaps their hearts had been broken and never fully mended from the prior betrayals and losses, and that this had contributed to difficulties in developing emotional intimacy in this relationship. These observations resonated with Sharon and Ben, and they agreed to commit to at least six months of couple’s therapy, which is the minimum I request of all couples who are about to enter therapy. Though some therapists may not ask for that type of commitment, many would agree that it really takes at least six months to untangle some of the underlying sources of conflict in a committed relationship. My personal experience definitely bears that out. Sharon also agreed to give up contact with Jim and her other former lover during this six month time frame, which provided some reassurance to Ben. She sent each of them an e-mail respectfully asking them not to contact her until further notice, as she was fully devoting herself to working on her relationship with Ben.

    I began to encourage each of them to become curious about one another, and to listen, truly listen to each another, as we explored the underlying emotional issues that drove them apart. We began exploring why Sharon’s friendship with former lovers were so important to her. She described how these two male friends had enabled her to survive the severe emotional distress she had endured in her first marriage. An essential aspect of her positive self-regard was also the value she placed on loyalty, and being emotionally available to old friends in need. Finally, Sharon felt that Ben was not as emotionally attuned to her as her former lovers, and that he lacked compassion and empathy. He was unable to meet her deeper emotional needs.

    As Sharon was speaking, I was thinking about Ben’s behavior in our sessions, and how narcissistic he was – focusing almost exclusively on his needs and his wounds and upsets – and yet in rare moments he seemed to genuinely appreciate how Sharon was feeling. This contradiction was somewhat puzzling, yet it was also encouraging, as at least Ben had some capacity for empathy. However, he generally lacked compassion for Sharon, and it was time to try to help Ben develop more consistent empathy for her (if that was even possible).

    I worried that might not be feasible, despite his obvious love for her. “Ben, perhaps you can now understand that Sharon’s friendships with these men once saved her life, in an emotional sense. She was deeply depressed and filled with despair throughout her abusive marriage, and was barely able to keep herself afloat. It was so bad at times that Sharon even felt suicidal. Her two male friends became her lifeline, and were there for Sharon in ways that enabled her to emotionally survive and move on in her life, and not drown in her depression. Please take a moment and put yourself in her shoes. Imagine how powerful an experience this must have been for her, and how hard it would be to give up relationships that were life-saving, particularly in the context of her lack of trust in you?”

    Ben indicated that this made sense, and he took her hand and held it in his own, and told her how much it saddened him to learn just how bad it had been for her in her first marriage. I felt heartened by his response, and hopeful.

    Then it was Ben’s turn, and he described how he never felt important enough to Sharon – that he felt that she had always placed her work accomplishments, her two sons, and her granddaughter ahead of him- that in fact he felt that he came in last place in her life, even behind her former lovers. I said to Sharon, “Ben loves you and wants to be number one in your life, yet feels he comes in fifth place at best. Do you agree with how he feels?” She thought about it for a moment, and then nodded her assent.

    “So at least a part of what drives Ben’s mistrust of you is his fifth place standing, and feeling that he really doesn’t matter that much to you – that he doesn’t hold a very important place in your heart – which in turn makes him want to keep a distance from you to protect himself. Does that make sense?” Sharon agreed that it did, apologized to Ben for hurting him in this way, and committed to try to make him feel more special. As a result of this early progress I began to feel really hopeful, and yet a little voice inside warned me not to become too enthusiastic. There was a great deal of damage that had been done to their relationship, and the nascent therapeutic alliance they had developed with me had yet to be tested.

    Sharon went on to reveal that Ben’s temper (he would shout but never strike her) nonetheless reminded her of her first husband’s physical abuse and made her feel really scared. And as we dug deeper, she disclosed that she had been physically abused by her father as well. As Sharon wept, recalling how frightened she felt at these times, I commented, “Ben, is it possible for you to understand how your anger outbursts could reawaken some of the traumatic experiences that Sharon had endured with her first husband and her father? Of course you have never struck her or even threatened her with physical harm, yet anger is an area of sensitivity for Sharon. Perhaps you can work on putting your anger into words without shouting or screaming. Sharon, if Ben put his anger into words and lowered the decibels, would you be able to listen without feeling afraid?” She wasn’t sure, as even a raised voice would make her feel frightened. We agreed that they would work on this issue between sessions, and Ben committed to Sharon that he would enter anger management therapy if he could not learn how to stop shouting when he was angry with her.

    At the beginning of our work together, both Ben’s and Sharon’s revelations were met with defensiveness and anger on the part of the other, who felt attacked. The sessions were heated – highly emotional – and it wasn’t clear at times whether we were making any progress. Yet between sessions they began to get along better, with less shouting, and the return of some humor. Over time I began to help each of them listen more empathetically, literally asking them to try to explain out loud what they understood about what their partner had just revealed, and helping them to clarify their understanding of one another through my own empathic listening. Through using my own curiosity and empathy to explore what each of them was feeling and thinking, I modeled a way of relating that they might emulate, to begin to heal their relationship.

    Gradually, Sharon began to develop compassion for Ben as he described how lonely he felt in their relationship; while Ben needed more educating about how to empathize with Sharon (Ben was a brilliant computer science professor more comfortable with machines than with people, at least initially). Yet he was a willing student, and would eagerly ask me questions about empathy and feelings, and how I arrived at certain interpretations of what one or another of them might be feeling. He was an ardent student, and his emotional IQ began to slowly rise.

    Then we hit a serious obstacle to further progress that almost derailed all of our work to-date. Sharon was contacted by Jim, didn’t inform Ben, and arranged to see Jim while Ben was out of town on a business trip. Ben learned of this upon his return (he became suspicious when Sharon wouldn’t look him in the eye) and was furious with her, and threatened once again to leave and end the marriage once and for all. We held a crisis session to explore what had happened and why Sharon had sabotaged the initial progress they had made. It was clearly unconscious, as Sharon felt horribly guilty and regretful, and deeply apologized to Ben, yet was completely in the dark as to why she had behaved this way. We had begun to develop some trust between the two of them, which had now been destroyed. We were almost back to square one.

    For this reason I referred Sharon to a colleague to enter individual therapy to explore the unconscious determinants that sabotaged her happiness, while she and Ben continued the couple’s sessions. We had agreed upon the selection of a male therapist, as the opportunity for Sharon to develop a safe and trusting relationship with a man would support further emotional growth, and, through the transference feelings that she would develop toward her male therapist, it would enable Sharon to work through a number of unconscious emotional conflicts related to her father, her first husband, and Ben.

    The couple’s sessions were now dominated by Ben’s outrage over what she had done – lying to him as she had – and then his angry feelings gave way to extreme hurt and disappointment. What emerged in Sharon’s individual therapy, which she then shared with Ben and me, was that in part her self-sabotaging behavior related to Sharon’s unresolved angry feelings over Ben’s prior affair, the affairs of her ex-husband, and her feelings that Ben tended to dominate her in this relationship, insisting upon choosing the social events and restaurants they would frequent.

    She also talked about how she continuously lived in fear of Ben’s anger even though he had never struck her or threatened her physically. Thus Sharon was acting out of unconscious feelings of anger and hurt over prior betrayals earlier in her life, and asserting herself in a rebellious fashion such that she would “never again” be victimized by a man she loved.

    I began to formulate in my mind what I might say to Sharon at this moment. Memories of my father’s rage-filled outbursts began to enter my consciousness, along with memories from sessions with prior patients, and with a keen appreciation of the power of the unconscious, and the pattern of Sharon’s behavior now becoming clearer, it was time for me to interpret it to her. “Sharon, there is a paradox in how you’ve been behaving which relates to how you are sabotaging your relationship with Ben. You understandably feel hurt and betrayed by Ben and your former husband for their frightening outbursts and unfaithfulness, and by your father for his failure to protect you from his emotional explosions. As a little girl you had longed to feel safe and secure with him, yet he behaved in ways that terrified you. You loved each of these men, and they broke your heart and destroyed your trust in them. At the same time, more than anything, you long to be in a relationship with Ben where you feel emotionally and physically safe, and where you can fully trust his love and commitment to you.”

    “Yet you behave in ways that feed the flames of mistrust when you commit to cutting off contact with Jim, yet surreptitiously contact him and see him in person. You betray the trust that Ben began to place in you, and undermine the very foundation of the intimate relationship that you say you desire. You want Ben’s unconditional love, yet your lies about Jim are devastating to him, drive him away, and make him feel that divorce is the only option. You end up destroying what you covet more than anything. Would you be willing to share with us any insights you may have developed as to what is behind these self-sabotaging behaviors, to help Ben understand what is driving them, and to try to prevent them from furthering the damage that they have already caused?”

    She openly wept and looked like she was feeling scared, ashamed, and guilty. At least Ben hadn’t walked out of the session. Sharon spoke of her rageful feelings toward the three men she had loved the most in her life, that she had felt “dicked around” by them, and unconsciously had vowed that she would never feel dominated by any man again, and therefore would rebel against men and do whatever she pleased. This included seeing Jim. And she came to understand that lying to Ben about seeing Jim was both her way of identifying with each of the men who had committed adultery, and a form of payback. (“If they could do it to me then I can do it to them!”) She apologized to Ben, asked for his forgiveness, and promised to bring her angry feelings to him directly, rather than rebelling against him behind his back.

    Ben in turn began to address some of the difficulties he had in depending upon and trusting women – initially related to Sharon’s betrayal – and then exploring what had happened in his first two marriages where seemingly out of the blue his ex-wives announced they were divorcing him. Ben began to understand that his self-centered lack of empathy for their emotional needs was a significant contributor to the breakups. He began to talk about the effects of divorce upon his children, each of whom had sided with their mother against him, given Ben’s proclivity to commit adultery. He felt sad over his estrangement from them, and longed to rekindle a closer relationship.

    And so we began to explore the origins of Ben’s self-sabotaging behaviors. His mother had been a cold and unempathic woman, impossible to please. Ben recalled feeling unloved by her. He could never trust her with his feelings, and grew up feeling all alone. His heart had been broken by a number of women, first by a mother who was unable to return his love, and then by his two wives. As a result he kept an emotional distance from Sharon to protect his heart from being devastated yet again. Paradoxically, part of the reason he felt lonely in their relationship was because of the emotional distance he maintained, which in turn accentuated Sharon’s feelings that she was not being treated in a compassionate and empathetic fashion by Ben (she felt he was not “emotionally present”) which further fueled her anger and resentment toward him, drove her even further away, and made her seek empathy and compassion from her former lovers.

    As these insights emerged I commented, “Ben, just like Sharon, you also find ways to sabotage emotional intimacy. Your attempts to control Sharon, which drive her away; your anger outbursts which make her feel unsafe; and your refusal to listen to and understand her feelings, instead attempting to argue them away; all serve to destroy what you desire the most – becoming number one in Sharon’s life. Your temper outbursts have improved a lot, which is a tribute to how hard you are working in here, yet the next step is to learn how to really listen to Sharon, and not become so defensive when she brings up feelings that are upsetting.”

    At the time of this publication Sharon and Ben’s couple’s therapy is still a work in progress, and I feel optimistic that they will once again share enduring love and affection. Their capacity to be curious, listen, and empathize with one another has grown considerably. Nonetheless there is a great deal of work yet to be completed. Each of them suffers from problems with basic trust dating back to childhood, amplified by what transpired in their earlier marriages, which complicates the development of trust with one another, foments devastating betrayals, and contributes to the demise of emotional intimacy. This “layering” of issue upon issue is not at all uncommon in our human heart, and only with painstaking and persistent work can the myriad sources of distress be identified and untangled.

    It is not enough simply to listen to and understand your partner’s upsets and emotional pain

    As their story illustrates, it is not enough simply to listen to and understand your partner’s upsets and emotional pain. Here are some additional steps to improve you prospects for intimacy. Please take out your workbook to enter your thoughts:

    • Step 1 – While curiosity, empathy and listening are important first steps, what needs to follow is purposeful action to improve how you behave. Paying lip service to what you have been hearing and understanding, without taking steps to improve your behavior toward your life partner, is an empty exercise. List five ways that you can behave toward them in a more loving fashion.
    • Step 2 – To restore the integrity of the relationship, you first need to restore your integrity with your partner. One definition of integrity is that you should always deliver on a commitment you have made, and if you can’t, give advance notice and make sure the reason is compelling. Heaping disappointment upon renewed hope is a recipe for further anger and feelings of betrayal. Write down three commitments you can make to your partner, where you will follow through and begin to restore your integrity with them.
    • Step 3 – If your own particular repetition compulsion (a compulsion to repeat self-sabotaging behaviors) continues to interfere with making progress in the relationship, be willing to get into individual therapy to work on these issues and resolve them, so that they no longer contaminate future possibilities with wounds that began in childhood. List at least three patterns of behavior where you repeatedly sabotage your happiness.
    • Step 4 – While undoubtedly some of the anger and disappointment that you feel relates to how your partner has treated you, some of it also derives from earlier relationships where you were let down, disappointed or betrayed. Try to examine your relationships with your parents, and how they behaved toward one another, to analyze how these influences may be affecting your feelings and behavior toward your partner. Engage in self-reflection and then write down what you have learned about yourself.
    • Step 5 – A good relationship is rebuilt with many small steps. Think of at least five ways that your partner makes your life a little bit easier or better and write them down. The more the better. Then thank him or her for each of these ways that they give to you. Don’t focus so much on what you aren’t getting, but rather begin to feel grateful for what you are being given through their small acts of love. Create a “Gratitude List.” Each day write down one attribute of your partner that makes you feel grateful that they are in your life, and share it with them.
    • Step 6 – In response to positive developments, such as improvements in the relationship, progress in restoring loving feelings, and good things that are happening in your outside life (like a promotion at work, celebrating and sharing a child’s success in a particular area, getting good news about one’s health, etc.) give your partner a kiss, a caress, a hug, and other small displays of affection to begin to restore feelings of physical closeness. These can also (provided you are ready) lead to more sexual intimacy as the emotional intimacy is restored. List at least three recent positive developments in your lives.
    • Step 7 – If these techniques don’t bring about a positive momentum in your relationship, the next step would be to enter couples counseling, to surface and explore the root causes of conflict and distress; reconstruct how, when and where the relationship went off-track; talk through misinterpretations that became amplified over time; and learn how to implement new tools for more effective problem solving. Understanding one another can help to reduce the feelings of anger and hurt, and break the negative cycle that threatens to destroy the bonds that were once so strong.

    Establish an atmosphere of emotional safety with one another through listening

    Ultimately, how are loving feelings toward one another restored in a relationship that has been battered over time? The most important ingredient is to establish an atmosphere of emotional safety with one another through listening, truly listening to one another in a spirit of curiosity and empathy; conveying to one another your understanding of what you have learned; and finally, demonstrating a willingness to change your behavior. Consistently behaving in a more responsive and loving fashion (and ending all threatening comments or behaviors) will put a stop to the downward spiral of despair, anger, emotional distancing, and aloneness; help to establish trust in one another; and begin an upward trajectory toward a new beginning, and falling in love once again.

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