Misery Stabilizers in a Relationship – What are yours?

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What is a misery stabilizer? It is a behaviour or activity that helps us avoid, deny, distract or move away from pain within ourselves or in our relationships.  Since pain or vulnerability  is uncomfortable, we might choose a “misery stabilizer” because it is pleasurable. What is your favourite activity or pleasure that keeps you from facing a relational

issue? Is it Netflix, Facebook, your phone, shopping, kids, friends, gambling, reading, sleeping, cleaning, exercise, food, hobbies, prescription drugs, alcohol, sexual compulsivity, or “busyness”? 

Why are they harmful?  They may stabilize your relationship; however, keep you from the opportunity of intimacy or deep engagement. If you want more passion and connection flowing in your relationship, you and your partner need to remove the crutches that hold in you in inertia.

John and Mary have had a long term relationship. Mary likes her job a lot. In fact, she could be at her desk 24/7 doing the real estate deals that she loves. She enjoys meeting the potential buyers, taking the folks to different homes, watching their faces light up as they describe their experiences going through the homes. With all that excitement and enthusiasm, she spends her time at the office and with the other real estate agents drawing up contracts and closing deals. She is filled with fulfillment and satisfaction of happy families moving in their new homes. This is her professional life and she loves it.  

Mary has been spending more and more time focusing on her work life than at home. When she is at home, she is reminded of her poor sex life. Her husband John doesn’t touch her like he used to. In fact, he has been going through some depression. He was let go a year ago due to a downsizing of his company.  Unfortunately, John is overqualified for the many positions that he has applied for and feels useless in the world and at home.  Unable to offer much provision for his family, he spends a few pleasurable hours a day playing tennis. He has always loved tennis and is good at it. The sport gets his endorphins ignited, while experiencing the positive feelings of something he can excel at. When focused on tennis, he is not thinking about how much he feels like a failure within himself and around his wife.

John’s tennis partner is a woman. They have known each other for years. She was married to another fellow that used to play tennis with John. They are now going through a divorce. After her and John play their usual round, they meet for coffee and she shares the updates on her divorce proceedings, all the messiness, sorrow, and confusion.  John can relate to her on some level at this time of his life. Because of the basic need for human connection, they form a bond. He tells her about his innermost world and she listens and empathizes. She commiserates on her challenges and he offers support. They are connected.   

So, what are the misery stabilizers in this couple? Mary’s misery stabilizer is her work. She receives numerous accolades and fulfillment with her clients and work experiences. She is avoiding the pain and loneliness of not being in a fun,  positive relationship with John.  His sad, morose, complaining demeanor registers as a cue for danger in her nervous system. This brings up a feeling of discomfort within. She has little tolerance for anything negative in her outer or inner environment.  In her early childhood, if she were sad, her parents immediately dismissed her feelings of sadness and said, “Oh it’s not that bad”.  Any negative feelings were denied or suppressed. Trying to always be positive, they claimed that pain and suffering were a ‘waste of time’ and encouraged her to focus on her achievements. High achievers themselves, she learned from them to move away from negative feelings and focus on something pleasurable.

John had a parent who was depressed, his mother.  She coped with life by drinking alcohol. John grew up in home of feeling neglected and ignored. As a child, he learned from his mother to look for something on the outside to mask and soothe the pain.  Craving attention as a kid, he carries this unmet need and low self-esteem into his adulthood.   John’s drug of choice is an outside relationship when dealing with uncomfortable feelings. With Mary spending more time at work, his feelings of neglect, loneliness, and unworthiness are triggered. His tennis partner gives him attention, and then he feels comfortable and okay. However, it doesn’t resolve his situation with Mary, as it is a diversion from her.  Not revealing to Mary all of his intimate conversations that he is having with his tennis partner is a recipe for an “emotional affair” potentially leading to a sexual affair.  Ultimately, this could cause more harm, hurt and betrayal in the future.

As we can see, misery stabilizers contribute to the creation of an “Invisible Divorce”. Even though the misery stabilizers make the situation a little more bearable and comfortable, they don’t offer a great connected relationship. Taking a stance to turn around, face a partner and deal with the misery in the relationship requires courage and commitment.  Talking about the truth of ones’ innermost feelings with each other in a respectful, loving and constructive way is key!

If you are serious about changing a relationship, you will need to cut back altogether or stop anything that emotionally removes you from the reality of it. Putting away the diversions, turning around and facing your partner may not be easy, but you will be happy that you did.   

Expectations are the Downfall of Relationships

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Why do couples bicker? Why does it start in the first place? A possible short answer is expectations. Expectations are biased and subjective and can differ from person to person. One partner may expect their spouse to take the garbage out and turn the kettle on for the morning tea. They may even expect that you will have breakfast on the table every morning. The problem with these expectations is that they are subjective and each person has their own personal opinion. Thus, they often don’t match up to the other’s person’s thoughts and opinions. This can create a spiral of negativity.

What is the solution? Instead of focusing on the differences and having expectations, choose to appreciate what the other person does “right”. Conflict is inevitable in any relationship! We are different!  Even though your partner cuts the vegetables in a different way from you, does it make them wrong? Of course not. Each person sees things differently, does things differently and is unique unto themselves. Thus having expectations of how your partner does something will only lead to disappointment and disillusionment. Instead move to appreciation. This will mitigate the nagging, the bickering and mounding resentment.

It is often said; what we are arguing about isn’t what we are arguing about. Let’s have a look underneath the expectations. We may have been conditioned to do something a certain way because that is the way we were taught. If we didn’t follow the rules or expectations of others, we may have been punished, shamed or rejected.  Hence, we may carry this into our adult relationships, and project those same imposed expectations onto our partner. You must do it this way (or something bad will happen) is the subtext. Thus take a pause and consider:  Is the way your partner is folding the towel really worth the disturbance you are experiencing? Probably not. Is something bad going to happen if the towel is not folded in the way you wish? It may be time to let go of expectations past and present? The solution again, is to move beyond this framework of expectations and appreciate the things we like in the other and honour their differences.  Positive thoughts and appreciations spark a release of chemicals like serotonin and endorphins, resulting in a feeling of stability and security. On the contrary, the chemicals of bickering, disappointment and negativity are adrenalin and cortisol and result in a feeling of danger and perceived threat, triggering the flight/fight/freeze system.  Your choice, which would you rather have flowing throughout your body and brain? Here’s how it may look, your partner may not have done the dishes the way you wanted, but at least they tried. You can appreciate their effort. When you train yourself to pay attention what is right and positive, you can ALWAYS find something to appreciate. Turn your expectations into appreciations and your whole relational life will change!  This sentiment can put an end to the bickering in your relationship for good. Enjoy your safe holiday with all that you appreciate.  

Staying Connected with Your Partner When Life Gets Busy

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(Adapted from Stan Tatkin)

Summer is over, and it’s back to the regular routines. This can mean scrambling to get out the door in the morning. Heavier traffic with longer times to get where you need to. Juggling kids activities including getting their homework done. Doing things at the same time, like multitasking while making dinner. Life can certainly get busy with the change of season.  During these hectic times, it’s especially important to stay connected to your partner and experience the connection between you. We suggest staying connected throughout your busy day-to-day life by creating rituals you and your partner can do together throughout the day.

“In the course of daily life, romantic relationships tend to pivot around separations and reunions. How you handle these transitions can have a big impact on your relationship! The rituals for connection can give a sense of stability, predictability, and purpose in these hectic times.

For example, in the morning when you wake up, spend a minute gazing into your partner’s eyes before you start your day.

When leaving for the day, say “Goodbye” in a heartfelt way. This may include: “I love you”, a hug and a kiss or “You mean a lot to me, and I look forward to seeing you tonight”.

In the evening, after a long day, do the “Welcome Home” reunion ritual: When one of you comes home, the other partner puts aside whatever he or she is doing and takes the time to fully greet the returning person. Look into each other’s eyes, embrace, and don’t let go until you feel the other fully relax.

Fun bedtime rituals include reading to each other, telling each other the story of your day, or sharing daily gratitude. These are things we often do with our children and as adults, we need them to.

These rituals may take only a few minutes…How long? Maybe a minimum of 10 minutes in total.

They can reinforce your sense of feeling connected to your partner, especially when life gets busy.

The Best Things in Life are not Things

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As I reflect on this carved wood inscription in my living room, I am viscerally reminded of what this really means. My best girl friend is leaving her body after a having a diagnosis of cancer that has metastasized to her organs. Sitting in the grief for the past while has informed me – “that the best things in life are not things”….they are Relationships. As I do a review of our friendship, the places I messed up, the things I did or not do, the regrets I have, I am able to find a place of sacredness and peace within because of our ‘eternal love’ for one another. I am very aware that her process of giving away her material possessions, ie clothing, jewelry, car etc. – those things that she will no longer need on the other side have lessened their importance. Things are just not that important on this level or perspective. What is important is what is left in my heart.

Facing this day has been hard and not easy at times. Accepting and letting go is never easy, however, when I do arrive at the place of acceptance of what is….. something emerges in me – that greater love, the greatness of our friendship and the gratitude for what we have shared together. All purposeful, timely and meaningful. She was my maid of honour at my wedding to Robert and her vitality and aliveness at our wedding showed her true essence – all that love she emanates from her soul.  Thank you sweetheart for all you have brought to my life. You will be missed and always loved. Your imminent death is moving me towards an appreciation for this life and all that it offers like never before.

Disconnection Hurts, Repair Heals

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Young couple in love outdoors

When we can’t repair or reconnect with our partner, we feel alone and isolated and unable to feel safe and secure. Lasting love and togetherness is a process in which individuals and couples connect, go through disconnection and then find each other again through the reconnection. When we don’t respond to a partners’ emotional hurts, we can get stuck in an angry response or shutting down, resulting in persistent unresolved conflicts that can lead to divorce or separation.

The moments of disconnects are palpable and painful. Recall a time when you reached for your partner or friend and they weren’t available or responsive to you. What did you do? What did you feel? How did you react? What did you tell yourself about you and the relationship? How did your reactions and dance moves then trigger your partner to be angry or turn away from you?  There is a predictable dance that humans go through at the moment of disconnection, whether we are coming from a young age just out of the cradle or approaching end of life. This response comes from the mammalian part of the brain and invokes each of us to reach and protest the disconnection through blame or criticism or withdrawing or turning away. Much of this dysregulation in the system occurs when the brain is flooded or hijacked by the triggered “panic alarm”, located in the amygdala. This panic invokes a reaction (ie flight, fight or freeze) with associative thoughts “Where are you? “I am alone”.  “I must get back into connection or I will die”.  Infants or partners left alone in isolation perceive this pain equal to DEATH and without touch, security and comfort will eventually die. Whether you are an infant or an adult, what is most important following the distressful, disconnections is an attuned response, in other words a REPAIR! Turning back towards one another, engaging, smiling, giving a hug or speaking in a soft voice: “I am here”, “I love you” are examples. The benefits are high as this makes a huge difference to the “panicked” brain. It can now settle and restore its equilibrium returning to a calm relaxed state. Nature designed it this way. We need each other to co-regulate our nervous systems.

As I write this, I am often reminded of scenes in movies that portray an individual that goes mad in isolation after time spent in “solitary confinement”. This makes so much sense. We are social creatures that are wired for connection. With the other, we feel relaxed, and cared for. Thus we will do much better and get along easier in the world when we are confident that “one” person has our back. Going against nature and trying to live in isolation or independently can be the basis or foundation for crime, poverty, and violence. The solution is responsiveness and attentiveness towards someone’s distress and their need for security and comfort. Relationships are the source, the root and the strength of our happiness. May you find relaxed joyfulness in a close connection with a primary partner, lover, a good friend or family member. We are wired for it. The END

How to Get out of the Disconnection Dance

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Loving young couple embracing and kissing on a summer day outdoors. Man hugging his girlfriend. Enjoying their summer vacation.

If you want to get out of the disconnection dance, blame and withdrawal are two behaviours that won’t allow this to happen. Even though both of these coping strategies are somewhat effective in giving space and being self-protective, they both lead to distancing and can trigger the other partner making the cycle worse. Moving away from each other is not the solution. Being more exposed, vulnerable and open (ie taking risks) leads to connection.

What is difficult for partners in relationship is taking risks, being open and more vulnerable. Blaming and withdrawing are easier and self-protecting. We learned these in our early days in childhood. Most of us learned these behaviours as they served us on some level. To be invisible could avoid punishment or to blame, (ie point the fault towards a sibling) also avoided punishment or pain. Wired in to avoid pain, these strategies can have a more adverse effect in relationships. When using these avoidance patterns they don’t allow you to take responsibility for your feelings nor do they invite you to reach for your partner for closeness or connection.

To avoid pain, evolution has also wired in another reason to not risk reaching for another when there is “risk of rejection”. What if we did reach for our partner, risk and be open and vulnerable and we are rejected or abandoned. These underlying fears are the crucibles to keep the blaming and withdrawal behaviours alive in our primary and most intimate relationships. To risk and to be rejected is synonymous to “death”. Brain scans show us that rejection is registered and experienced in the brain as if we were physically hit by a 2’x4’. The pain registers the same.

Turning away or not being there for someone when they most need the comfort and closeness is also painful. For example, a woman discovers she is having a miscarriage and her partner doesn’t know what to do when he sees the blood. He freaks out when she calls him. Instead of going towards her, he leaves to calm his nerves and goes into task mode, ie calls the hospital and taxi. In her most vulnerable moment, he moves away from her, and she feels rejected. What happens next is: she makes a decision, “I will never allow myself to need you that much again” and she shuts down from her partner, pulling in to never risk exposing herself. For years this goes on. She is no longer vulnerable or open to her partner.

Ultimately, he experiences her distancing behaviour, feels her lack of warmth, comfort, also experiencing his own version of

Side view of a couple standing on forest trail and hugging

rejection/abandonment. Not ever revisiting this event in a heartfelt way, they co-exist in their marriage dancing between their defenses and lack of openness. She is nasty and nitpicky, using blame as a way to keep herself protected and distant and he does the same. They become the “Bickersons”, living a life of judging and blaming, undermining one another.

Love is Risky Business

To remove or lower the defenses of blame and withdrawal, one must be willing to feel ones’ own vulnerability, be open to sharing this vulnerability and take risks. Using vulnerable language versus blame/criticism invites a partner in…. “I feel sad when you don’t look at me”, I long for you to hold me after we make love so that I can feel connected”, “I get afraid when I don’t hear from you while you are on the business trip” Of course, there is a risk in being this open and vulnerable. What if my partner thinks I am too needy? What if he won’t come to me when I call? Will I hurt more than I do now? Love doesn’t come without intimacy and therefore the very thing we are avoiding: “intimate connection” leads to disconnection.

You cannot heal wounds that you can’t open

Everybody is afraid of intimacy. Intimacy means exposing yourself. Intimacy brings you close to another. Dropping all of your defenses makes intimacy possible. However, the fear is we drop all our defenses, who knows what the other it going to do with you. Thus we are hiding from others and ourselves. It feels safer to keep the defense because the other can take advantage of your weakness, your vulnerabilities. Intimacy is an essential need. Everybody longs for it and wants the other to be intimate versus taking the risk to become intimate first. However, to heal our wounds, they must be seen, felt and held. Exposing these long held hurts and vulnerabilities is the path to liberating oneself from the endless suffering and energy it takes to suppress our vulnerabilities. Being intimate is a scary and risky, yet a necessary part of having authentic human connection.

10 Characteristics of a Conscious Partnership

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by Harville Hendrix – taken from Getting the Love you Want

You realize that your love relationship has a hidden purpose – the healing of childhood wounds

Instead of focusing entirely on surface needs and desires, you learn to recognize the unresolved childhood issues that under-lie them. When you look at relationships with this x-ray vision, your daily interactions take on more meaning. Puzzling aspects of your relationship begin to make sense to you, and you have a greater sense of control.


You create a more accurate image of your partner

At the very moment of attraction, you began fusing your lover with your primary caretakers. Later you projected your negative traits onto your partner, further obscuring your partner’s essential reality. As you move toward a conscious relationship, you gradually let go of these illusions and begin to see more of your partner’s truth. You see your partner not as your saviour but as another wounded human being, struggling to be healed.

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Be a Safe Harbour for Each Other This Holiday Season

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With the season upon us, the experience can be alive with energy as well as overwhelming for many. There are those who love the Holiday season and those who don’t.

Depending on memories from our past – unresolved family feelings may arise and occur.


So, what can you do as a couple to maintain the integrity of your relationship when the “going gets tough”.

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Conscious Couples Appreciate and Give Gratitude to One Another Daily

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In any relationship, there are many things to be grateful for about your partner and the relationship. Taking the time to acknowledge and declare to one another is a necessary step in cultivating a place of appreciation and gratitude. Conscious couples do this regularly to maintain and sustain their vitality and aliveness.

As we have passed by the festive time of Thanksgiving aka “Giving of Thanks” – I am reminded of Gratitude, the Mother of All Emotions.  Why is gratitude the mother of all emotions? It is because with Gratitude, we experience, joy, our heart connection with another.   Furthermore, feelings of gratitude directly activate brain regions associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine.
Dopamine feels good to get, which is why it’s generally considered the “reward” neurotransmitter.
Can Gratitude be a launch pad for the heart connection we so desire in our primary relationships?  Expressing gratitude to a relationship partner has been positively associated with enhancing the expresser’s perception of the communal strength of the relationship. Being openly grateful for a relationship increases the motivation to respond to the partner’s needs and allows room to address any issues negatively affecting the relationship while framing the relationship in a positive light, therefore providing a route to strengthening the relationship even further.

And can we cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude to help foster and enhance our joyful aliveness and connection? Having a grateful heart for your partnership and your partner can make all the difference. Let us first explore think about the opposite of gratitude in relationships.

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Tune In To Your Children

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There is a NEW Imago Parenting Program in Alberta called Connected Parents, Thriving Kids. These workshops are facilitated by 2 colleagues of mine and help parents create a deeper connection with their children by better understanding their unique needs and feelings.

This workshop will teach you how to be a more effective and responsive parent and how to attune to what your child needs from you. Best on the bestseller “Giving the Love that Heals” by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D and Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph.D, the weekend workshop incorporates Imago Relationship theory with insights from the latest research into neuroscience and child development.

They are currently being offered in the Edmonton area (St. Albert) and in Calgary with weekend dates and times. To learn more check out the following brochures.

Calgary Imago Parenting Program                                          St. Albert Imago Parenting Program