There are many theories about what makes a good and lasting intimate relationship. In our present age, where romance seems to dominate the way we look at a long term partnership, many criteria have been called absolutely necessary for the survival of romance.
Some people believe that our partners have to continue to inspire us when things get boring and we crave novelty and excitement. Others talk about the absence of negativity, and how important the containment of aggression is for a lasting bond.
I personally agree with most of the approach of relationship counseling pioneer Sue Johnson. Her main criteria for a functioning relationship is quite simple: safety and stability. “Adult love is a bond, an emotional tie with an irreplaceable other who provides a secure base from which to confront the world and a safe haven – a source of comfort, care and protection”, she writes.
Yesterday, I heard the same sentence three times from three different women on one single day: I am tired of molding myself into a person someone else wants me to be!
Since I believe in synchronicity, I couldn’t just let this be without thinking more about it.
Most women who grapple with this tend to mold themselves mostly according to the expectations of an intimate relationship: a husband or life partner, a parent, even a child. Then of course there are also the expectations of bosses and colleagues, friends and relatives.
Many of us had mothers who did just that: always trying to tend to their family’s wishes, maybe even being afraid of or intimidated by their spouses at times. It becomes ingrained into our view of the world, and it takes an effort to correct it. We’ve all heard that the advice: Just be yourself! Well, if it only were that easy.
Here are three examples how to go about starting to change:
DESIRE: First, we have to become aware when and how we do it. Often it’s not even conscious. We are so used to asking everyone else “what do you want to do?” that we forget to check in with ourselves. Pause and ask yourself: What is it that YOU want?
BOUNDARIES: Start saying no. No, I don’t want to plan another dinner party for your friends because you can do it also. I can’t run that errand because I’m already overstretched. I don’t want to have sex every day (yes, it’s important to have sex, but ask yourself: what is right for you as opposed to your partner? Is there a way that both of you can be happy? It all depends on the degree of boundary violations. The key word is balance.)
SUPPORT: A lot of women don’t feel strong enough to say No. Too much seems to depend on making other people happy. If you don’t feel confident try to get support. Open up to someone you can trust. Share with a girlfriend or a relative. Join a support group (there are tons of free groups on Meetup.com). Get a therapist.
You CAN stop the cycle of molding yourself into someone else at the expense of your own identity.
I recently went on a retreat to try and cure a moderate physical condition that I’ve been grappling with. The healer’s gift lies mostly in connecting the dots of underlying and unresolved emotional dynamics that manifest in physical symptoms. The results after telling my story was somewhat astounding to me. The reason why my body is out of balance, so the healer, is unresolved grief.
Grief is something that accompanies us all our lives. We lose people that were dear to us. We lose certain aspects of our physical prowess as we age. We lose friends and communities, money and opportunities. Sometimes we lose hope that a certain life path we had set out to follow, isn’t really attainable. Loss is a part of the way. For every gain there is a loss. For every new relationship we forge, every new home we move into, another one is lost, or at least somewhat diminished.
In our culture, we focus all our attention on the gains we are working towards and forget to acknowledge the shadow side of it. Who ever really cries after a failed job interview? Who feels the pain of a rejected attempt at making a new friend? Of entering a new community and not exactly feeling welcomed with open arms?
Instead, we suppress the sadness of a lost opportunity. We go shopping, or drown our sadness in alcohol or sweets. Our society values that we “move on” from any kind of misfortune quickly. Women who frequently cry openly are called “emotional”, and men who cry at all are judged as weak.
Frequently our suppressed grief comes out when we watch a movie that touches a nerve, and we don’t even know why. A romance full of obstacles that was finally fulfilled. A sad movie about a dying pet. A sports hero who after many hurdles is finally celebrated by his peers.
Some losses go way back, and we’ve never really looked at them. The early death of a parent. The lack of never having had a warm and welcoming childhood home. Many depressive episodes in our lives have to do with unresolved grief. That’s what much of the work in psychotherapy is about. To have the space where these losses can be mourned without being judged or shamed.
We’ve all had them.
As a couples therapist, I get to observe how people relate to each other when they are unhappy. Men tend to act out their frustration by either withdrawing or becoming angry. Women most often resort to a coping mechanism that is equally harmful: criticism.
We criticize our partners for not living up to our expectations, for not bringing in enough money, for not having the same feelings we do. We get more and more frustrated when we can’t get through to them, which leads to more criticism. Which makes them more angry, and more withdrawn. I’m not saying it’s all the women’s fault. Most certainly not. But when it comes to changing things, we can only control our own behavior.
I’ve been in the same boat. Years ago, when my husband didn’t get around to fixing up the house (for many reasons, but mostly because he works long hours), I kept pestering him with my needs for attention and my anger about his broken promises. That led to a huge crisis, and eventually a power shift in the relationship.
I learned that I am equally responsible for what happens with the house as he is. Yes, he knows more about structural repairs and whether to buy 2 by 4s or whatever else. But I can chose to learn. I can start talking to people about home improvement and estimated costs. I can take charge of some tasks in the house, and in the process understand the frustration of dealing with contractors and their broke promises. After many arguments and periods of standstill we finally got the project under control. And we both changed our way significantly in the process.
Empowerment does to mean cajoling and criticizing and pushing another person into making them do what we want. It means to grow into our own, to take responsibility for what can be done, and to let go of what can’t.
Many women obsessively want to change their partners because they are too dependent - financially or emotionally - to leave the relationship. Dependency is a state of disempowerment.
Many women resort to criticism and blame, because they don’t feel in control of their life. A lack of control, which often comes with feeling depressed and hopeless about your life is a state of disempowerment.
Many women hold on too long to situations they have no control in, hoping that things will change if they only work hard enough, or long enough. Being stuck in an unhappy relationship is a form of disempowerment.
This isn’t meant to make you feel bad about yourself, but to raise awareness of the many forms of feeling powerless. All change starts with awareness.
The ultimate remedy against disempowerment is to soothe your own self criticism with self compassion, and then to build your self worth. When you are in touch with just how valuable you are as a person, you don’t have to depend on people who aren’t reliable. You can accept others for who they are, because you can accept yourself. You can stand in your own power without constantly looking to validation from others because you know who you are.
Empowerment is a gradual process, and the feeling comes and goes. Nobody feels fully in charge every minute of the day. But if we are depressed or anxiety ridden, we have to work towards feeling in control at least more and more often.
A good way to begin to build self worth is to remember: what’s the most important thing about me? Maybe you are a genuinely compassionate person. Maybe you always look to better yourself. Maybe you are someone who loves to connect with others. These are amazing traits that you can always choose to remember when you feel low.
You already have the foundation to empower yourself.
The Power of the Group Can Transform your Life as Well
Some months ago, a middle aged lady - let’s call her Rose -, came to me because she was unhappy in her marriage. Her husband of 20 years had been unfaithful multiple times. Every time his transgressions became known, he had vowed betterment. Every time he had broken his promises.
Rose was desperate. She worked very hard to improve her marriage. She took him to counseling, went to see a therapist herself, made all kinds of changes. But nothing helped.
Yet she felt she was stuck with him because he was the only person who supported her against her unsupportive family. She had grown up believing that she wasn’t good enough to get the kind of relationship she really wanted. That her own needs weren’t important. That she had to take care of herself because others weren’t reliable.
We did a lot of good work together, but she still couldn’t get away from her disloyal husband.
That changed when one day she came in and announced the she had joined a group. Many of the other members were divorced, or in the process of separating. They understood each other. They exchanged helpful tips and lent support every way possible. Rose began to enjoy what had eluded her most of her life: true friendship and honest support.
From that day on, Rose became markedly stronger. It felt like she had a constant invisible circle of people around her who wanted the best for her, propped her up when she was down, and expressed warmth and affection when needed.
Today, Rose is in the process of selling her home. She successfully negociated a separation agreement with her husband, that ensures her a secure retirement. Her group is always there for her. Her new life is waiting, and she has regained hope and self confidence.
If you feel equally stuck and in need of support, join one of my women’s empowerment groups. Two new ones are starting in January. One will be face to face in my Ridgewood, NJ office, and one will be online.
During our 8 weeks together, the main topics will include how to effectively cope with stress, anxiety, overwhelm, depression and depletion. You will learn to understand what beliefs drive you, and how to change these beliefs. And the importance of setting boundaries to avoid feeling tired and run down.
Maybe the most healing aspect of the course is that you are learning with the support of up to 8 other women who will join you in the group. Studies have proven that being around like minded peers is extremely effective for your mental health, and for many people it is even more powerful for your growth than individual work on self improvement.
In our meetings together, we start with a check-in, where everyone shares a little about their state of mind. Then we move on to a pre-set topic, for example how to develop self compassion, followed by a guided meditation. After a debrief, we finish every meeting with a healing meditation that centers around the needs and desires of one group member.
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Please forward this anyone you think might benefit from it.
Most of us have a fraught relationship with money. Our Western culture notoriously tells us that we never have enough. Not enough stuff, not enough romance, not enough safety, not enough success, not enough happiness. We are made to believe that we need much more of - fill in the blank - in order to be happy, and that requires resources.
Many people come from families where money was not reliably available in abundance, and they carry the burden of feeling chronically short changed. They might have learned that it’s impossible to get out of a bad job, and that a sense of lack is a part of life. Many people feel they can’t achieve or even don’t deserve a better life when it comes to money.
The most important thing we can do to start changing our relationship to money is ...
Everybody talks about having healthy boundaries. But what if our boundaries are too thick?
For a long time I woke up in the middle of the night and worried if I had enough friends. Never mind that I have good relationships with family, neighbors and several communities, of a spiritual and professional nature. But somehow in the wee hours of the morning, when lots and lots of people seem to lie awake and worry, none of this counted. I felt lonely. I made lists of people in my head I should be calling. I analyzed why I could possibly feel this way. I the morning these thoughts had disappeared. But then they came back, during another sleepless night.
Loneliness is maybe the number one cause of most mental health problems. It lurks in the background of most depressive states, causes anxiety and panic attacks, and leads to addictions and premature death. Mental health experts have long found that in order to live a meaningful life, we need healthy relationships and a network of strong community ties.
So why are we so lonely? Isn’t ours one of the chattiest and most extroverted cultures on the planet?
Some time ago, one of my husband’s family members had a bad accident. The family was awesome. Everyone rushed to his bedside, visiting, praying, showing up at the hospital at any odd hour of the day.
But as the weeks dragged on, the most important person at his side was always his wife. It was she who held his hand when he went through depressive states. It was she who advocated for him to the nurses and doctors. And she received the brunt of his anger when the pain got to be too much.
And she felt it. She got more and more tired, more and more depleted. And even though lots of people still checked in with her, she had trouble asking them for help. At the end of the day, she remained the person who picked up most of the slack.
Lots of women have trouble with that. They give and give and can’t help but feel responsible for everything. The might allow others to help, but emotionally are so tied into the other person’s needs that they can’t really relax. They keep worrying even when things seem to be under control.
Ask yourself: Is it hard for you to withdraw your supporting energy from others even just temporarily, and take care of yourself? Do you find yourself becoming the go to person to help others, again and again?
One way to change that is ...
Ask most women what brings them pleasure, and you will meet at least one moment of silence. Lots of women don’t even really know what self care and having fun for themselves means any more. There is so much focus on the family (younger and older), on getting things done, on making money and taking care of the house, on cleaning up other people’s messes, that there’s not even mental space for her own needs.
Years ago, I too could barely come up with anything beyond the typical “take a long hot bath”, or “eat lots of ice cream”.
The mere sight of a tree or a houseplant may seem unlikely to offer any significant benefits, but thanks to a growing body of scientific research, it has become clear the human brain really does care about scenery — and craves greenery.