One of the wonderful gifts we can give to one another in relationships is the gift of being a great listener. Good listening creates intimate conversation, trust, and love! How can we practice this? I have found it helpful to give couples straightforward exercises to help them learn how to do this.

Here is one: Take turns asking your partner the following questions. Then use the following short lists for specific things you can ask or say to help you learn to be a great listener.

good conversation

Tell me what in this world is currently making you: 1) angry; 2) sad; 3) afraid or worried; 4) hopeful; 5) happy; 6) stressed.

Questions You Can Ask As You Listen:

  1. How did all this begin, what was the very start?
  2. Do these feelings and needs have any spiritual, moral, ethical, or religious meaning for you?
  3. Who are the main characters in these feelings? 
  4. How are you thinking about how all of this fits into your life as a whole?

Statements to Explore Feelings and Needs As You Listen:

  1. Help me understand your feelings a little better.  Say more.
  2. If you could change the attitudes of one of the key people in this situation, talk about what you would do.
  3. Help me understand this situation from your point of view.  What are the most important points for you?

Expressing Empathy and Understanding As You Listen:

  1. You’re making total sense.
  2. I understand how you feel.
  3. I wish I could have been with you in that moment.
  4. I see.  Let me summarize: What you’re thinking/feeling here is…
  5. Wow!  That must have       (hurt; made you feel angry; been a relief; etc.).
  6. No wonder you’re upset.
  7. That would make me feel       (hurt; angry; upset; sad; happy; relieved; insecure; etc.).

active listening

The goal here is just to understand.  Remember to avoid being critical, judgmental, defensive, and don’t engage in put downs or superiority (there are prior blogs on the Four Horsemen and how to avoid them).

These are great conversations to plan to have, perhaps once a week to practice listening to one another.  Give it a try!

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We all want more intimacy in our relationships, since feeling close leads to more good things in our life (like romance, passion, and sexual intimacy). One way to do this is to be intentional about creating shared meaning in our relationship. Here are four easy steps to build more of this into our relationship:

  1. Have a conversation about how you can support one another in your central life roles (mom, dad, son, daughter, brother, sister, friend, worker, etc.). Take turns listening and speaking about this, interviewing your partner as if you were a reporter gathering information (it is helpful to take notes!).

  1. In the same way, have another conversation about how to support one another in your central values and symbols (e.g., what is “home"?,  what does “love” mean to you?, what does “family” meant to you?). This can be several conversations. Take your time and explore with one another what each means.

symbols

  1. Think about what it means to live ethically in the world. What might it mean to do this together as a couple? After talking about this, decide on one way you will do so, intentionally, together.

perspective on life

  1. I like the concept of Tikkun Olam, which is Hebrew for making the world a better place because of your life. What might it look like to work on this as a couple? What legacy would you like to build together?

illuminating the world

These are great conversations to have on a date night! Or perhaps have an evening a week when you both know you will talk about one of these things — come prepared with some pre-pondering done to share with one another. When we know each other more deeply and feel supported in important ways, good things will happen in our relationship!

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Loneliness has been discussed recently as a major problem, not just for our society, but for our health. It is a predictor of premature death and is a bigger risk factor than obesity in this regard; it is the equivalent of smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day (according to Julianne Holt-Lunstad at Brigham Young University). Those of you who are married will know that being married does not protect you from loneliness. 43% of adults who participated in a 2012 study, which followed 1,600 adults over 60 for six years, reported loneliness, and more than half were married. Why is this, and what can be done?

The research done by Dr. John Gottman on marriage and relationships, both the ones that are healthy and the ones that are not, sheds some light on this. What we have discovered is that couples who begin to have trouble enter into what we call a Distance and Isolation Cascade as is shown in the following diagram:

the distance and isolation cascadethe distance and isolation cascade

When couples are not able to nurture intimacy and manage conflict in such a way as to use conflict as a path to closeness they can enter into this Cascade of negativity/flooding, feeling dismissed, use of the Four Horsemen in conflict discussions (criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling), and then can enter emotional disengagement and loneliness in the marriage, which eventually leads to parallel lives (roommates, at best) and then divorce. What we have learned from successful couples is how to avoid this cascade through staying connected in our everyday lives, talking about differences and irritations in gentle ways, and repairing interactions when they go imperfectly. What is encouraging is that these skills are what every day folks can use, not just in our long-term relationships, but in every important relationship we have as an antidote to loneliness and disconnection.

For more information on how to learn these skills, check out upcoming dates for couple’s workshops or set up a time to discuss one on one how to learn these skills for yourself.

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"What makes sex exciting is really the sense of someone allowing you into their life...it's exciting because it's permission."

– Alain de Botton (from an interview with Debbie Millman on Design Matters, 27 June 2016)

 

We know from the research that's been done that a good sex life for a couple depends on how well the friendship is going lately. I've talked before about how to keep passion alive with consistent moments of connection (enter: Date Night!). What I love about Alain de Botton's perspective here is that, in the context of a long term relationship, there are hundreds of ways to think about our connections as good foreplay. How do we let our partners into our lives? Are we intentional? Does it stop or have an expiration date? It certainly doesn't have to! If we are keeping up our friendship, learning and exploring about one another, the excitement and permission never have to stop, they can deepen.

Poem

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Here are some statistics about cheating compiled by Menstuff®

  • 2% of married men have strayed at least once during their married lives.
  • 14% of married women have had affairs at least once during their married lives.
  • Younger people are more likely candidates; in fact, younger women are as likely as younger men to be unfaithful.
  • 70% of married women and 54 percent of married men did not know of their spouses' extramarital activity.
  • 5% of married men and 3 percent of married women reported having sex with someone other than their spouse in the year 1997.
  • 22% of men and 14% of women admitted to having sexual relations outside their marriage sometime in their past.

two broken heart cookies Note that the above adultery statistics of the prevalence of affairs were made more than a decade ago; so based on changes in society during the intervening years, the current percentage of the population who have had affairs is probably somewhat HIGHER. For instance, the continuing increase of women in the workplace and the increase of women having affairs on the Internet means that the numbers for women having affairs is probably similar to those for men—about 60%.

We all know, or suspect, what some of the effects of infidelity are for couples, children and families. The cost of divorce, the stress for all involved, the time it takes to recover (if one recovers), all make for grim consideration. Is it possible to recover? If a couple wants to stay together, is it even a good idea to try?

It is possible for couples to rebuild their relationship. There is no guarantee (there are so many variables, like the willingness of each partner to put in the work required, the severity of the infidelity, etc.), but there are couples who are able to rebuild a healthy relationship after the bomb of infidelity has struck. Notice I mention the word "rebuild." Once the betrayal of trust most certainly involved in infidelity is experienced, the couple must start from scratch. The first relationship (pre-infidelity) is destroyed and relationship #2 must be built. But couples have been able to do exactly this, and have been able to build a relationship that is healthy and thriving.

This takes a tremendous amount of work and most couples need support to accomplish this. It is wise to seek both professional help and any kind of other support that is available to take this task on. But given the cost of divorce and the other costs involved, it may well be worth it to try.

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LeMel Firestone-Palerm, LMFT, LPCC, CGT
LeMel Firestone-Palerm, LMFT, LPCC, CGT About LeMel...
SFBayCounseling.com
LeMel Firestone-Palerm, LMFT, LPCC, CGT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist MFC 42162
Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor LPC 1534
Certified Gottman Therapist