Tanya Younce, M.Ed., LPCC


Making the Ordinary Extraordinary – My Take On Fifty Shades

I fell victim to the curiosity of one of the most talked about book trilogies this past month – “Fifty Shades of Grey.”  From what I saw and read in the news, blogs, and various articles, these books were being touted as “mommy porn” but that they were also “spicing up marriages everywhere.”  So, being the ever-inquisitive therapist and relationship guru that I am, I decided to read them (for research purposes only!  LOL!) to see what all the buzz was about.
To give you a quick summary, this is a story of a relationship between a Seattle-based, 28 year old multimillionaire named Christian Grey and a virginal recent college graduate, 22 year old Anastasia (Ana) Steele.  He originally is attracted to her as a potential “submissive”, proposing an offer (which she later rejects) to be her “dominant” by way of co-creating a contract that specifies rules and limitations of the so-called “relationship.”  She is taken off-guard when she finds herself strangely attracted to his domineering personality, and he is equally taken off-guard when he not only learns that this would be her first sexual experience, but that she is the first to question and challenge his sense of authority.  The story unfolds to reveal many other firsts for Christian, as well as for Ana, which ultimately leads to one of the most intimate and beautiful love stories I’ve ever read.
Despite the surface of the story being built upon sensual escapades between Christian and Ana, I found six other deeper developments that take place that actually may be at the heart of why some marriages are benefiting so much from the story.
The feeling of being cared for
Throughout the trilogy, Christian and Ana demonstrate their desire to take care of each other.  Of course, Christian is wealthy enough to provide Ana with many material items — fine clothing, a laptop, a blackberry, a car (actually two!), and many other gifts.  But he also tends to her when she’s sick, hungry, lonely, cold, scared, or in need of his protection (who wouldn’t want that??).  He repeatedly tells her that it’s his desire TO take care of her.  Ana, in turn, takes care of Christian by providing repeated reassurance of his essential goodness, gentle touch, thoughtful gifts, and the safety and unconditional love he needed to finally trust her and become vulnerable.
The Dance of Anger
You learn very quickly that Christian is a controlling and often angry man when anyone causes harm to him or those for whom he cares; he likes to be in complete control.  At first, Ana is intimidated by this, but as their relationship develops, she learns that she, too, can express her anger toward him when he has crossed her boundaries and make him better understand her needs and the (often) inappropriateness of his demands.  It’s through these honest expressions of passionate emotions that they consequently bare their true Selves, learn the give-and-take of needs, and ultimately grow closer.
The Equality of Power and Limits
The original contract that Christian proposes to Ana explains general rules that he expects his submissives to follow, as he will be the one in Power.  But it does allow for identification of “soft” and “hard” limits – soft ones being ones the submissives can negotiate, hard ones being ones that are non-negotiable.  The relationship he ends up having with Ana shows Christian that all of his previous rules had to be taken off the table and, instead, become an evolving recognition of and respect for sharing power and identification of each others’ soft and hard limits. 
Open and Honest Communication
One of the best aspects of this relationship, in my opinion, is the constant communication that Christian and Ana have.  Whether it’s via email, text, phone, or face-to-face, the attentiveness they show each other is a paramount ingredient in demonstrating how important they are to each other.  If one is quiet, the other tunes into it and asks what’s going on, inviting them to share whatever might be bothering them.  Each of them create a safe environment that ultimately helps them open up and be honest about what they’re thinking or feeling, bringing them much closer together.
Sexual Intimacy and Creativity
OK, so not everyone will be comfortable with the limits that Christian and Anastasia take their sexual relationship to, but the fact is that they are willing to take some safe risks and, again, tune into each others’ needs.  Christian realizes Ana’s need for what he calls “vanilla” sex (i.e. making love), and Ana sees Christian’s need for what she calls “kinky fuckery.”  Both explore each end of the spectrum with enticement and curiosity, and they end up creating a happy medium — a private and intimate way of loving each other physically that is unique and mutually gratifying.  It’s a dirty-little-secret kind of lifestyle that keeps the fire of their relationship going throughout the trilogy.
Self Revelation and Acceptance
All of us have baggage that is brought into relationships, and many have serious demons that have destroyed them.  In this story, Christian is one of those people.  He has hardened himself into a power-hungry, over-protective, uber-controlling individual because of an emotionally and physically abusive childhood he endured early on.  This is where the title comes in, as he warns Ana that he’s “fifty shades of fucked up.”  When she hears this, she has immediate compassion for Christian but also realizes that he’s going to be a complicated and difficult man to get close to.  As the story develops, she helps him slowly and safely break down his defenses in order to better understand the roots of his personality and behavior.  It took a lot of patience, gentle prodding, consistent affirmation, and reassurance on her part to get him to do this, but it eventually allowed him to experience true love and happiness for the first time in his life.
I really think this is a good story to use as a springboard to some candid discussions together about the various qualities of your relationship.  What limits can be pushed in your relationship?  What risks are you willing to take?  Can you find a way to be more honest about your feelings and needs and express them openly with your partner?  Where can you provide more care and attention for each other?  Are you sharing power and control in a way that’s mutually agreeable?  Do you know what each others’ soft and hard limits are, and are you respecting them?
So despite the books being marketed as an erotica trilogy (that are actually inspired by the author’s obsession with the Twilight series, btw), I believe they also demonstrate how an intimate relationship can make the ordinary extraordinary, pushing one beyond their own limits in a safe and loving way, that draws in a richer and more emotionally, physically, intellectually, and spiritually stimulating interaction with another human being.  There is a HUGE amount of power in that kind of connection and it’s very rare.  If only we were ALL able to get that close!

As always, I welcome any reactions to or experiences from my perspective on this and other subjects. 


Who’s in the Driver’s Seat of Your Life?

So are you a Danica Patrick or a Miss Daisy kind of person? 

This is the topic I’d like to discuss today, not only because the Daytona 500 Race was this week, but because I believe many of us have gotten stuck in the rut of faulting  our crappy situations on outside sources — feeling powerless and like someone or some thing else is obviously in charge and has control: the economy, our boss, our kids, the weather, our health, the government, lack of time, the list goes on…

Ok, so here’s a little Psychology lesson for you.  In 1954, an American psychologist named Julian Rotter developed this concept called a “locus of control,” out of his social learning theory of personality.  He said that one’s “locus” (Latin for “place” or “location“) can either be Internal — meaning the person believes that they have the control of their life, or External — when they believe that their environment, a higher power, or other people have the control of their life.
I’ve found myself asking a lot of my clients lately, “Who’s in the driver’s seat of this situation?” and, depending on their answer, I can tell whether they feel internally or externally controlled.
If they have more of an external locus of control, people have what I call the classic ‘BAD’ way of responding to their negative situations — they want to Blame, Accuse, and Defend.  That tells me they have an (often unconscious) belief that outside sources are more responsible for their current consequences or situations than they are, and that they have little to no power to get back on track.  As a therapist, it makes me wonder if somewhere along the course of this person’s life, they were given the message that the world was a hurtful and dangerous place and that they have little to no power to change it.
On the other handthose who have a more internal locus of control, will respond in what I call an ‘ACT’ way — they’ll Accept, Correct, and Take charge.  They’ll see themselves in the driver’s seat and recognize opportunities to control their surroundings, believing they are entitled to a better situation.  Somewhere along their line, they were given the message that the world is their oyster and that they have the scuba equipment  (so to speak) to go after it, full throttle.
In relationships, it’s really important to know wherein each of your controls lie. If you are a Danica Patrick kind of person, you are motivated to grow, move, compete, experience, stretch, and problem solve.  But if you’re in relationship with a backseat rider, they could weigh you down, bum you out, burst your bubbles, find your faults, and argue that your idea(s) won’t work.  The backseaters will also put you in the position of being their cheerleader.  When they complain that they’ll never lose weight, for example, you’ll find yourself saying “Aww….c’mon, babe!  You can do it!  Get motivated!  Stay positive!  Just set small goals!  Get to that gym!”  You’ll brainstorm ideas to make more money, or to get a bigger house, or even get a more rewarding job — but the externally controlled partner will almost always push against it, refusing to believe they have any power to get behind the wheel and take charge of their lives.  OR….they’ll just ride your coattails without lifting a finger, and you just can’t respect that.
If you’re BOTH externally focused, life will kind of be like riding on a raft in the ocean.  You’ll have ups and downs and maybe you’ll tip over sometimes, but it’s the ocean that ultimately rules the flow of things.  Your only real power is to hold on as best you can and stick together.  You weather the storms and you can bask in the sun when it’s out, but you have no oars or headlights to see what might be coming up next.  You could live paycheck-to-paycheck, or you could win the lottery.  These are people who may have strong beliefs in a Higher Power, trusting that whatever happens to them is what’s supposed to happen — be it good, bad, or indifferent.  The up side to this is that no real effort is required, but the down side is that if life hands you lemons…honey, you just get lemons.
Finally, if you are BOTH internally focused (think Danica Patrick with Jeff Gordan), believing you each have control over your destiny, you each have a toolbox full of skills to circumvent many of life’s obstacles,each of you hungry to achieve.  But this relationship could go one of two ways — either you fight for that power, pushing each other out of the way so that you can grab the wheel, OR…you see each others’ strengths and cheer each other on toward a plethora of goals.  You brainstorm together, solution-focused, when something goes awry or when one of you has an inspiration for a great idea.  You energize each other and you feel safer in knowing that both of you are capable of holding the other up, if needs be.  The operative word being CAPABLE (i.e. able to hold or contain).

If you find that you are a backseat rider (Miss Daisy), it doesn’t mean you have to go to the opposite end and become a Control Freak.  It just means that you may consider tempering your normal reactions with thoughts that are more empowering for you and your partner, because believe me when I tell you…it means a lot to have a partner who can take the bull by the horns during stressful times, when solutions and dreams need to be developed and realized.

In the end — a combination of Danica and Daisy may be the safest bet for us, but I would advise it being a 70/30 load.  Think about it and let me know your thoughts.


Relationships as a Mosaic

If both of you are the same, then one of you is unnecessary.”  –Wayne Dyer
When I was about 9 years old, I used to think that English was the only language in the world, and that people who spoke other languages were just bilingual.  I couldn’t understand, when my parents invited a Venezuelan college student to rent a room from us in 1977, why he couldn’t just switch his language back and forth from English to Spanish!  Of course, it was a very ego-centric way of looking at the world, but no one had ever really explained it to me, so how was I to know??

Another, more recent, wake-up call I got was when I met my husband, Tim.  In his first marriage, he hadn’t had any children, and when it came time to meet my two children, he literally told me that he was “half petrified” to do so.  At first, I kind of laughed and dismissed it, telling him it would be just fine.  I had full confidence that some dormant instinct would awaken and he’d know what to do and say when he met them — no problem.  Umm….no.  He honestly did not have a clue how to tune into their worlds and know how to act or what to say.  Fortunately, with time, it’s become easier for him, but the point is that I learned that not everyone has the parenting instinct, just like not everybody speaks English.  Huh! :/


Which leads me to talk about what comes naturally for some and not for others.  When we are in relationship with someone and they have opposing views about something — let’s say they don’t see the need to keep a house as clean as you do — it’s our impulse to get angry or upset.  Why?  Because somewhere inside of us, we expect that person, deep down, to feel the same way we do.  And if that’s true, then that must mean they are purposely going against us!  
C’mon, you know that’s true.  Count how many times your arguments have started with you asking “How could you not know this?”  I bet there are a lot of them!  Or maybe you just get sarcastic, saying things like “Oh no….don’t bother getting up from the TV and helping me with the groceries….I’ve got it” while inside you’re seething, knowing they are purposely being lazy.  I mean….HELLO!?
There are thousands of times we’ll feel this way with our fellow men and women — people driving slowly in the fast lane, people who take forever ordering  when there’s a long line of grumpy patrons behind them, people who don’t say “Bless you” when you sneeze, or people who don’t stand up and offer a pregnant woman a seat when the bus or subway is crowded.  To us, certain social mores are obvious, but we have to remember that not everyone speaks English (so to speak).
This understanding is never more important than when you are in an intimate relationship.  When you first meet each other, it seems as if everything clicks.  On the surface, it appears that you have many more commonalities than differences.  People will even say “I’ve met my SOUL MATE!” as if they were cut from the same cloth.  
After the honeymoon stage fades, you’ll start to see the differences, and you’ll need to not only expect them, but be prepared to understand them as well.  Assuming the belief that behind every behavior there is a reason, here are a few possible reasons for your clashes:
  1. Ignoranceif you know your partner’s family and/or ask questions about their upbringing, you may discover that your partner was simply not exposed to learning certain lessons or holding certain values as important.  The more you know about how things were different, the less surprised you’ll be when they react in a way that goes against your grain.
  2. No Motivation — sometimes your partner may know that what he’s doing is probably inappropriate, but no one has ever called him on it, there were no consequences, so there was no motivation to stop.  It’s your prerogative to speak up and say something about annoying habits (general table manners, being considerate and helpful, etc), and it’s your responsibility to confront seriously bad behavior that’s never been reprimanded (any addictive behaviors, explosive outbursts, or condescending and disrespectful treatment of you).
  3. Lack of Empathy — there are people who have more difficulty seeing things from another person’s point of view.  Certainly there are mental health diagnoses that apply to these people, but for most others, it’s more like a muscle that just needs to be better developed.  For example, if I see this in one of my clients, I might ask them to pretend it’s “Freaky Friday” and that they’ve woken up as their partner.  Then we talk about what it might be like to live a day in the life of that person, giving as much detail as possible.  But if your partner honestly cannot see any other view than their own, then they can’t really be anyone’s “partner.”  They’re better off alone so they don’t ever have to compromise or share anything with anyone else.  It’s pretty much a deal-breaker.
Whatever the reason, it will be important for YOU to have the empathy to try and see these differences from your partner’s vantage point.  Using firm but non-threatening communication is usually the best way to approach your request for change:
  1. Throw them a bone first, praising or thanking them for something positive that they’re already doing.
  2. Then ask nicely for whatever it is you’d like to change, explaining how the negative behavior is negatively affecting you.
  3. Offer the assumption that they may not have meant any harm.  This will help eliminate any defensiveness on their part, because they won’t feel accused of doing anything on purpose (even though they actually might be).
  4. Tell them how this will benefit both of you.  It’ll help them see what their effort could earn them — less nagging, freeing you up to be able to do more for them, etc.

Finally, remember that everybody has at least some degree of ignorance, a lack of motivation, or inability to relate to others.  You’re not perfect either and, despite what you may think, your way of being raised was not “The Way” every child should have been raised.  We live in a culture of multiple lifestyles, beliefs, socioeconomic statuses, religious differences, and other diversities.  You know, the United States used to be called a “melting pot” of all these diversities, but now they call it a “mosaic.”  See your relationship also as a mosaic — a comfortable culmination from each of your backgrounds to create one agreeable lifestyle.  Healthy relationships see the beauty and growth in adapting to new experiences and beliefs, ever expanding our Selves and each other.  🙂

2012…Pregnant with Possibility

Happy New Leaf!! 

There’s a breath of excitement in the air, all around me!  Many people I’ve spoken with lately have said that they sense that something positive is finally going to happen this year.  The same smell and atmosphere you sense right before a soft, white snowfall is resonating with people who feel as if 2012 just might hold something special for them.  Those bigger goals or more daring dreams that have been on the shelf for a while, just may find a way, this year, to hop down and take root somewhere in our lives.

I myself am going to give birth to a new “baby” in 2012!!
The baby is going to be an online counseling practice which I’ll be launching in the next month or so!  I’ll be offering online psychotherapy via webcam or chat, through a brand new website that is developing in the womb of my designer as we speak. 😉 So I will definitely keep you posted on that!
In addition, I’m expanding my office practice in Mason, Ohio, to include a new Women’s Relationship Group, which will be meeting twice a month.  It will be for the women I’ve talked about in my previous blogs — women who are struggling in their roles as a girlfriend or a wife, having gotten to the age where their children are old enough to take care of themselves, or maybe a different life transition has occurred that has snapped them out of the facade of the “happy face family” or just a comatose existence.  It’s for women who are looking at their partners and wondering if they want to make the effort to stay in the relationship or just jump ship.  It’s also for women who have already jumped ship and are still trying to heal their wounds and learn healthier behaviors, thoughts and feelings to bring into new relationships. 
What’s really cool is that my new website will include a private chat room (password protected) for the group members to communicate in between sessions.  It’ll also be a way for me to share information (i.e. interesting articles or quotes), make comments, answer questions, or make announcements about upcoming group events.  It will start as a pilot program and, based on the results, may grow into something I can also do online to incorporate a much wider audience, which is très excitant.  🙂
In the meantime, a tingling wintery mix of newness, good fortune and leaps of faith are infusing the air this month, letting you know to stay awake and be open to whatever surprises and challenges may land on your doorstep.  In the face of true self discovery, many of us have moved mountains and blown our own minds by stretching our limits and learning what we’re capable of!!  I’m a big (BIG!) fan of the show The Biggest Loserwhich illustrates this beautifully.  Let this year be the year you get REAL about your relationship and about your individual life.  If there are unresolved issues in your life that you haven’t dealt with, do not take them out on your spouse and blame him for making your life unhappy!  Your individuality comes first, so face the music, grab the reins, shed the unwanted baggage, and AMAZE yourself!!  Then you can look at your partner and see if they’re standing in awe of you and are capable of supporting your accomplishments.  If not, then you’ll be stronger and better able to cut the cord and be the better role model for your children.  Life’s just too short, dear one.  🙂
If you are in the Greater Cincinnati area and are interested in joining the Women’s Relationship Group, respond by post or email me at tanya.younce@yahoo.com and I’ll give you the phone number to call.  The group starts February 6th and will run through May 21st.
May you give birth to beautiful things this coming year! 

The Real Gift of Love

OK, so I finally read “The 5 Love Languages”, by Dr. Gary Chapman, this past week.  I must be one of, like, 4 relationship therapists in the world (it’s been translated into 38 other languages) who hadn’t read it yet, and I’ve been ashamed to admit it until now, but I can now join the rest of my colleagues and other readers in discussing Dr. Chapman’s insights.  Yay me!
The book basically explains that we all have unique ways of receiving and interpreting love from others.  Just as a teacher would need to determine the best learning style for each of their students (i.e. visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc), we also need to tune in to how our partners best recognize and feel that we truly love them.  There’s a quiz at the end of the book, to determine which of these five are your primary and secondary languages:
Words of Affirmation,
Quality Time,
Receiving Gifts,
Acts of Service,
 and Physical Touch.  
The notion is that, after discovering which ones each of you have, you then discuss them and make requests of various actions the other could take to make you feel loved and appreciated, using your particular language.  Dr. Chapman does a great job of giving case examples so that you can see which scenario you and your partner might fit into.  For instance, despite the fact that you might not be a naturally “touchy-feely” person, you may need to learn to become more physically affectionate — making a point to touch your partner when you walk past them, hold their hand on a walk, or rub their shoulders or feet as you watch TV.  The expectation is that they’ll respond to you more positively and be more likely to “speak” your love language because they feel more fulfilled by you.
So this made me wonder how many of my clients, wrestling with relationship problems, were even aware of what their partner’s love language was — much less their own.  I mean, you may think you know, but you might be wrong.  For example, I knew my husband’s would most certainly be Physical Touch (I was right), but I thought my love language would be Words of Affirmation, first and foremost, but it turns out that I primarily like Receiving Gifts —who knew??
It’s interesting to discover this because it probably goes back to how you were loved as a child.  On my part, the gifts discovery made sense after I reflected on how my dad used to show his affection.  When I lost my first tooth, he bought me a way-cute, brown-plaid outfit for my Kindergarten picture (LOL….it was the 70’s, ok?).  When I stopped biting my nails, he bought me an amethyst ring.  When I was going through a particularly rough time one summer during college, he bought me a single white rose to show his support.  My second strongest love language was Words of Affirmation, which makes total sense because my mother was (and still is) extremely complimentary and affirming, always telling me how proud she was of me, how special and smart I was, or how thoughtful a gift to her was, etc.
So…whatever your language is, it can probably be traced back to something you were either used to, growing up, or maybe it’s something you were starved of, as a kid.  If you didn’t have physically affectionate parents, and missed out on hugs and kisses, you might now be someone who can’t get enough sex from your lover.  Or maybe some of your fondest childhood memories are times you had just hanging out, making cookies with your grandmother, or gossiping with your best friend — and now you love spending time cooking dinner, or reading and discussing the Sunday paper, with your partner.
If you don’t want to buy the book, I do encourage you to go to the 5 Love Languages website and take the free assessment, so you have an opportunity to really think about how you best receive love from others.  Then take stock of which people tune into your language.  On the flip side, have the important people in your life (partner, friends, siblings, coworkers, etc) take the assessment and then talk about what they discovered.  See if there are changes you can make to express your love and affection differently, to that it better meshes with those languages — then see if that enhances your relationships!
As we head into the holiday season and think about gift-giving, I think it’s the perfect time to consider a more appropriate gift for those you love: 
  • a weekend getaway, for a Quality Time person
  • an original love poem, for a Words of Affirmation person
  • an hour-long massage, for a Physical Touch person
  • a month of doing all the grocery shopping (or other chore), for an Acts of Service person
  • a well-thought-out gift, wrapped in special paper with a fancy bow, for a Receiving Gifts person
Someone once told me that they believed that when you die and go to heaven, God’s first question isn’t going to be whether you were “good” or “bad,” but rather “How have you loved?”  Even though that’s from a Christian perspective, I have to wonder if, generally speaking, that’s the biggest purpose of our lives –not just if you were loved, or if you loved others, but how did you extend yourself to do it?  
At the end of your life, will you be able to say that you: a) communicated to others how you would like to be loved, and b) tuned into and accommodated others’ love radars so that you participated in a multitude of genuine love exchanges?
Dr. Chapman is clear about the fact that it’s a choice.  And it does take effort.  
But the reward, he says (and I have to believe), is that a mutual appreciation for making those choices and efforts takes root and grows into a deeper love than what most people experience.  Try it and see…I’d love to get any feedback about personal experiences.
Finally, as “glad tidings” means good news, information, or intelligence, so I offer this post to you, my readers, as my expression of love and well-being, during this holiday season.  I hope you find it motivating and beneficial in some way. ♥
☮ ॐ ☯ ☀
Happy holidays, 


Focus Boards in Pirouette Times

Since I work with a lot of clients who are “on the fence” with whether or not to stay in or leave their marriages, I thought it was would be a good idea to share one tool that I’ve talked about in several of my sessions with them — a Focus Board (aka Vision Board).
If you’re like most people faced with a major decision, you might draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper and list pro’s and con’s.  In this case, you may even have The Clash’s song “Should I Stay or Should I Go” playing in the background.  
But it’s really not that simple…is it?
I prefer to get the client more engaged in considering both sides by not only talking a lot about it, in therapy sessions, but also creating a visual aid — a collage, of sorts — as a homework assignment.  Despite it feeling like an old arts-and-crafts project, it actually can be quite an eye-opening and healing experience.
Start by getting either some foamcore or poster board, then gathering a bunch of old magazines, scissors, glue-stick, and fat markers.  The process of going through magazines and discovering what you’re drawn to, may be therapeutic in itself.  Many people have lost sight of the things they’re naturally drawn to, because they’ve become accustomed to adapting to someone else’s tastes or choices.  Go with your gut on this experience — don’t question or edit why you like a certain picture or person or phrase — just cut it out and put it in a pile.  In a way, this is like Freud’s old technique of “free association,” so don’t give it much thought.  It may take several days to do this, and make sure you have a variety of magazines so that you can tap into as many attractions as possible.  
Once you have your pile of pictures, words, and phrases, sort through them and see if there’s a pattern to them.  Notice the colors, the themes, the sceneries that keep coming up.  These very well could be your inner desires.  Place them on the foamcore or posterboard and arrange them in a way that makes sense to you or is pleasing to you.  Once you have this, you can glue them all down.  Then take a step back and really look at your project.  Notice where you might need some more color or some artistic decorating to bring it all together.  Here’s an example of one:
I call this a Focus Board because when you’re going through the turmoil of circling in and out of your marriage, you often feel dizzied by the lack of focal point.  You know how dancers need a focal point when they do pirouettes, so they don’t fall down?  It’s the same concept with this type of sensation.   
GRAB A FOCAL POINT so that you don’t fall down.  
This project can not only do that, but can also help you see what your heart is aching for (so that you can ask for it, in your marriage/relationship), OR, it will show you what it might be like should you decide to leave the relationship and fulfill your own desires.
What I stress most, in this phase of indecision, is to go back to the root of who you are as an individual.  Explore that, because if there’s a big tangle in your marriage, then you need to trace it back to the source, which is YOU, as an individual.  Here are three things you might discover in this exercise:
  • You might be unfulfilled in your job or other area of life, so you’re projecting that emptiness onto your marriage and blaming that on your spouse (which isn’t fair).
  • You may have unresolved issues of abandonment, control, low self esteem, an inability to self-soothe, etc, that you’re expecting your marriage to fix (which also isn’t fair).
  • You may realize how much you’ve been missing out on Life, and feel like you need this change.
If….no, WHEN…either of these discoveries surface, you need to work with a therapist or life coach to deal with them.  Be honest with them and be authentic in your individual or marital counseling so that you can safely determine if these needs can be met in or out of your marriage.  
Peeling back the layers are essential in facing this crucial decision.  Bring forth your inner artist to get a visual understanding of what your heart is asking for — only then can you ask your spouse for the same thing(s).  If they can’t meet them, and you don’t see that they ever will be able, then it’s safe to say that you should leave the relationship.  
A Focus Board can also be used after you’ve made the decision to leave.  It helps to keep your “eye on the ball” in the midst of the emotional roller coaster that a divorce will push you onto.  Most of the time, the divorce process is like being tumbled by the hyper waves of an ocean — but remember to keep your eyes on your future, not your past, because that’s the direction that you’re going — forward, not backward.

Intimacy With A Piano

Me at age 16
I started playing the piano again this week.  My mother-in-law is graciously selling me hers, in order to make more room in her house, so in anticipation of it coming, I’ve been warming up by tinkering around on my electric keyboard. Aaaand it’s very clear that I’m hopelessly out of practice.  🙁
My parents got me started with piano lessons at 8 years old, when knee problems prevented me from being a “peewee” cheerleader, like all the other girls in my class.  I played until I was about 16 years old and during that time, I had teachers who pushed me hard and cracked the whip, as they entered me into all kinds of competitions and recitals.  Truth be told, I grew to hate the stress and facade of it all.  The discipline that it took to practice up to 4 hours every day was remarkable (and in my opinion unfair), for someone so young.  But despite the anxiety that nearly brought ulcers, and all the social sacrifices, I learned that I was capable of accomplishing something extraordinary.  Something very difficult that ultimately resulted in something deeply meaningful and beautiful, to then be performed (albeit “offered”) to a live audience to share.
Yeah, I don’t think peewee cheerleading would’ve done that for me. 😉
I may be going out on a limb here, but it was probably the first experience with intimacy that I ever had.  I became, in a sense, “married” to the piano.  For better or for worse, I was in a dual-relationship with it. I dedicated myself to learn, understand, and bring out its potential beauty and, in return, it gave me something I desperately needed at the time — a sense of “specialness” with its own language.
Of course, we fought a lot, and I often wished for a divorce, calling it quits when it demanded more of me than I thought I could give.  As a budding teenager, the pressure to be like my other peers was mounting, not to mention my gravitation toward boys and being in a much easier relationship than this.  But my piano was a lover in a league of its own, and worth standing by.  It immersed me in its bath of emotion, allowing my body to move with it and live vicariously through Chopin’s sweet Preludes and sensual Nocturnes, Beethoven’s brilliant Sonatas, and Mozart’s intense Concertos, among others.
I have a deep appreciation for the tenacity, patience, and vulnerability it takes to perform something that really moves people.  I mention vulnerability because in order to be a true artist,  you have to open your heart to your conduit and let it inside of you. What I thought were unrealistic expectations demanded of me, were oftentimes just the natural resistance one gives when coaxed beyond their comfort zones.  If you’re open to it, you can potentially stretch into new stratospheres of skills and experiences.  If you’re closed, and only play the easy songs, then you can’t really be surprised if you one day look back at all the time you’ve spent together and see very little progress or fulfillment.
Not many kids (or adults, for that matter!) I know today can claim active participation in a commitment like that.  Their attention span is much too short and there are far more interests to juggle in this culture.
Learning how to bear hard work in a relationship is an incredibly valuable trait.  There have been times when I’ve asked clients to list any major accomplishments in their lives that required hard work and discipline.  I ask if anyone in their lives ever pushed them beyond what was expected, seeing something in them that was worthy of growing.  That’s a big part of the experience of intimacy.  Do you selflessly love the other person to help them go deeper, try harder, reach higher, and open wider to what life may have in store for them?  And…are you allowing them to return that gift?
Even though I didn’t go on to Julliard or The New England Conservatory (as I’m sure my parents would have loved), I still took the ethics of hard work and high expectations into my adulthood.  Having learned the language of music, it was also easier for me to pick up on foreign languages in school, understand other works of art, and do well in Math.  But mostly I enjoy the benefits of being an open person who is capable of being intimate with something or someone beautiful.  One who can feel special, gifted, and intelligent in unique ways. 

Of course, it would have been easier to have a traditional childhood and adolescence, with perhaps a faster experience of passion from various other interests (i.e. boys!).  But psychologist Robert Sternberg once said “Passion is the quickest to develop, and the quickest to fade. Intimacy develops more slowly, and commitment more gradually still” and I have to admit…I’m the luckier for having tapped into a deeper understanding…through music.

Marriage Maintenance

There’s a trend that I’m seeing in my practice that is worthy of, if not in need of further exploration:  people becoming disenchanted with their marriages, feeling stuck, wanting out, but trapped by the guilt of hurting the spouse, disrupting the family unit for their children (if there are any), facing the financial uncertainty, dealing with the extended family reactions, and thus resorting to being in a sort of “limbo” state of living.  
What tends to end up happening is that some kind of major event occurs — be it an affair, turning a certain age, losing a job, having to live apart for whatever reason, an illness or death in the family, etc. — that shines a huge spotlight on one’s marriage, seeing all of its flaws and smacks us in the face in order to wake up and deal with the reality of our relationships.

Many of us live on auto pilot, in our day-to-day lives; we go through the same routines over and over.  This inevitably dulls our senses and keeps us from really seeing and feeling the true nature of each other.  Sometimes we sleepwalk through years of our marriages before this “wake up call” happens — we buy houses, change jobs, have children, raise the children, go to PTA meetings or soccer games, build a community of friends, and establish ourselves as a “family unit”.  Our culture doesn’t allow much leftover time to spend cultivating our marriage, rediscovering our partners, engaging in mutual interests together, or appreciating all the efforts we make to keep up with the daily rat race.  So it DOES sometimes take a shocking event to snap us out of auto pilot!  Like it or not, if you don’t take advantage of the opportunity to fix whatever flaws are going on in your marriage at the time, another event will inevitably occur. 

So how can you prevent the shocking events from occurring?  Well, some of them you just can’t.  But, if you look at it from the point of view of taking care of your car, it can make more sense.  If you don’t take your car in for oil changes or regular maintenance checks, then your risk for driving down the road and your engine light coming on, smoke billowing out of your front hood, and incurring a major repair expense that could have been prevented if you’d taken better care of it.
Same thing with your health.  If you take good care of your body, you have a lower risk of getting life-threatening diagnoses, right?  But if we are smoking, not exercising, not eating right, maintain high stress levels, then sometimes Life wakes us up by giving an early warning sign, so we have the opportunity to turn things around and get on the right track.  People who have had heart attacks, or a bout with cancer, or have been diagnosed with diabetes, etc, are being given the same kind of wake-up call.  And hopefully they’ve done the work to put their life on a different course, as a result. So why would it be any different with our most important relationship — the one with our spouse??
We need to pay attention, roll up our sleeves, rally our supports and go to work, if faced with a “tragedy” or major life change that jars our relationship into a state of shock.  There’s a reason for everything, guys.  If something has turned your marriage upside down, it’s probably because you’ve been sleepwalking and not dealing with some distance that has grown between you.  In other words, you haven’t done enough regular maintenance.  It’s painful — of course — but these are growing pains, and you can honestly look at the situation as an opportunity for redefining your relationship, rather than ending it.  I’m not saying that all marriages can be saved when these issues arise, but I do think that it’s worth the effort to at least learn something from the experience — even if the marriage ends — so that you can take the new knowledge to your next relationship.  
One of my earlier posts was about recalibrating your life — and I think it can also be applied to your relationship.  As we age, have children, and go through various life experiences, we become different people.  We’re no longer the 20-something person that our spouse first fell in love with.  Maybe you’re in your 40’s or 50’s now and things are a lot different — you’re not as physically attractive, you’re not as fun-loving and impulsive, there are many more worries and responsibilities on your mind, so you have little room to think about your spouse (much less yourself!).  So, every year or two, I think it’s worthwhile to take stock of each other, see where things have changed, and how you can adapt better to each other.  A relationship that lasts is one that is constantly adapting and evolving.  If you’re not doing that, then don’t be shocked if 10+ years later, you look at your partner and say “who the heck are you anymore?”
So take time to be alone together, talk to and touch each other, share new experiences together, ask each other where they are, how they’re doing, and what you could do (if anything) to make things better.  Check in, now and then, to make sure you’re both still a united front with your children and/or what you value (because those will shift sometimes).  Support each other if one of you shows a new interest in something.  Do not discourage personal growth — it’s one of the fastest ways to create distance between you!  And don’t forget to notice and thank each other for all your efforts — find your spouse’s positive traits and bring them to light, rather than constantly pointing out their faults.  These things alone can literally preserve your marriage.  
In short, make the time to do the work, guys — before the engine light comes on unexpectedly and ends up in a costly loss.

Adding ‘People-Energy’ To Your Life

Here’s what’s been new for me lately — I’ve joined a yoga studio and have started taking classes.  With other people.  It means I’m no longer doing my DVD’s at home by myself.  This is huge for me.  There were various reasons why I hadn’t joined before — time, money, location, other events that were more important at the time — but there was also the excuse that I didn’t want to look stupid in front of anyone.  I know.  This even sounds juvenile to me, as I write it.  But I believe there was a secret part of me who wanted to make sure I was good at it before I let others see what I could do.  Let’s call that my big, fat EGO!  Shall we?  God, it reminds me of when my mother would straighten up the house before the cleaning lady came.  Sheesh!
OK.  So anyway, my first trip down to the studio was stressful because I had a hard time finding the place and it made me later than expected.  I was a bit nervous, anxious, and agitated as I walked into this little ranch-style house which had been converted into 3 separate yoga rooms of various sizes.  But it was quaint and very Bohemian-looking, so I immediately started to relax.  The instructor (and co-owner) Pam was very welcoming and warm and told me not to worry at all about being late.  So I relaxed a little more.  Soon afterwards, I was rolling out my mat and glancing around to check out the other yogis who’d come.  There were 6 of us, ranging from an attractive, professional-looking 50-something woman who had, what I call, “good yoga arms”, to a rumpled 30-something woman who looked like she never left college, to a heavier man who kept joking with Pam and appeared to be new to yoga.  No one was super fit, or skinny, or muscular.  In fact, I was in a room with normal, everyday people who just simply enjoyed doing yoga.  So I found myself wondering what my apprehension had been about.
The class was good and had a nice balance of easy and challenging poses.  Pam used a good part of the time doing meditation, though, helping us all focus on the more mental and spiritual benefits of yoga, as well as the obvious physical ones.  That was something that my home practice had been missing.  Here’s what really hooked me, though — I felt like I belonged there and that I was somehow part of something bigger than myself.  Even if it was just 6 local people and a kind-hearted instructor.  It was the energy and sense of cohesion that was created by simply showing up for an activity we all found important to us.  People say you don’t realize what you’ve been missing until you find it, and this was definitely an Oprah “aha!” moment for me!  
I showed up again for the next class, and felt even more connected.  People knew my name and greeted me.  There were things I could reference from last week, like joking with the hippie, overgrown college woman about her drinking a beer before class, and asking the professional woman how last week’s presentation had gone.  I was more familiar with the routines and didn’t feel at all “lost”.  I also learned a few new tricks on how to hold some of the more challenging poses, which thrilled me!
The lesson here is this — find a place where you truly belong, where people identify with you and can stretch you a little.  Being around like-minded people is important to our psychological well-being.  Two of our existential human needs is to belong somewhere and to grow.  And believe this…you are just as important to them as they are to you.  Your energy, love, talent, traits, and efforts can be very valuable to some people, so it’s not one-sided, by any means.  
I often say that yoga is my religion.  And this experience did sort of make me feel like I’d found the right “church” for me.  Some of you do feel this sense of belonging, reciprocated love, support, and enlightenment from your churches, synagogues, or mosques.  That’s wonderful!  But many clients I see do not have this in their lives.  They tend to live busy yet solitary existences within their immediate family, associating with their co-workers, venturing out occasionally to have dinner with a friend or attend a necessary event of some kind.  But these are fleeting connections, and oftentimes superficial.  I mean, how many people even really know their next door neighbors anymore??
Even if you’re any introvert (like I am), I encourage you to reflect on your values and interests and see if you can find a group out there with which to connect.  There’s a website called www.meetup.com that might be a good place to start.  Take advantage of the support that others can provide for you.  And let yourself be open to others benefiting from yours.  
We tend to forget sometimes that we are interdependent.  As John Donne wroteNo man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”  Find your support group and wrap yourself in it as best you can.  The added dimension is natural therapy for the soul.

Quest For The True Self

I’ve been reading a book called Yoga and the Quest For The True Self, by Stephen Cope, and he talks about this mad, frantic effort to maintain this persona that we’ve developed in our mind — this “False Self” — that he says is initially borne of our adaptation to our parents’ or other caregivers’ expectations when we were little, and then merged with media expectations and other feedback from people or events in our current worlds.  Anyway, we have this Sisyphian drive to preserve this “image ideal” that we think we should be — whether it’s thin, handsome, pretty, sexy, wealthy, cool, powerful, successful, brilliant, witty, etc.  The list goes on, with endless expectations of ourselves, and then life becomes a dizzying cluster of plates on sticks that we have to keep spinning!
On one hand, I think “Well, but that’s a good thing!  We need to have an inner drive, some healthy ambition, and a sense of growth, right?  I mean, aren’t we designed to grow — just like plants?  Becoming one thing, and then the next, and the next, ever-straining toward the sun?  If I didn’t have an “image ideal” for myself, I wouldn’t have a master’s degree, my job, my car, my house, or even my husband!  I’d just be living one day at a time, maybe as a deeper thinker or a more intuitive feeler, but not actively engaging with the world around me.  Many of us would be bored to tears, and probably lonely, feeling guilty and wondering how we would have turned out had we not taken some given path.
On the other hand, there’s a primitive side to our True Selves, protesting like a child, throwing temper tantrums over the tough demands we put upon it.  This could be experienced as drinking or eating too much, being unable to sleep, mind racing, self sabotaging, overt laziness, or any irresponsible, reckless behavior that rebels against the image that we’d like to be.  Because we don’t pay attention to our real, human needs, those needs bully their way through, in order to be heard.  In the book, Stephen writes about learning to relinquish the attempt to dominate the body, when he says:

 “At the core of the false self is the experience of being dominated…in the most primitive way — in our bodies.  We learn how to deny and override the cues and needs of our own organism rather than how to respond to them.  We begin to do to ourselves what was done to us.  A deep level of exhaustion often surfaces, and the obsessive attempt to override the body begins to collapse of its own weight.”

I think of the clients who have told me they are crash-dieting for the approval of their peers (despite how hungry they are), or are working 50-60 hour weeks to maintain a higher standard of living (despite how tired or unfulfilled they are), or are staying in an abusive relationship to keep up appearances (despite how lonely and afraid they are).  These all stem from virtues expected of us as children, then transplanted into our adult lives.
Be attractive
Be successful
Be quiet
Be perfect
…and don’t cry
So be a driven individual with goals, but be true to your inner nature.  At what point does the scale tip?
I remember an old Shirley MacLaine movie called “Out On A Limb” (1987), which was based on one of her books that talked about her spiritual awakening, and there was a quote in it that is forever stamped in my brain: “We are mind, body, and soul — and we have to feed all three”.  She found that if one of those three were “starving”, so to speak, the other two would find a way to let her know.  It’s in that sense that I believe we know when we’ve tipped the scale.  In the 12-step world, they use the acronym HALT as a starting place to tap into what you might be ignoring — are we Hurt, Angry, Lonely, or Tired? 
Freud called this primitive side our Id, and it might take ages to identify all the things we have ignored, suppressed, or otherwise sacrificed, at the behest of our Image Ideal.  Once we recognize and respect it (i.e. “feed” it), however, I believe we consequently nurture our True Self.   If we can find a way to be internally motivated, rather than externally motivated, we can still grow as whole people are meant to, and nurture our true selves at the same time.
Man, what would it be like if we found new messages to strive for, letting the plates fall where they may?
Be gentle
Go slower
Have compassion
Be patient

Find joy!