Monday, December 27, 2010

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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Thankfulness

ThanksgivingThanksgiving is a time for, well, thankfulness. It is a time for reflection on those blessings we have in our lives. We probably need this holiday because our tendency is to be ungrateful and to take our blessings for granted. We are better at complaining than expressing gratitude.

One of the biggest complaints that men and women share is feeling taken for granted in their relationship. Often both parties in a marriage feel this way! “I don’t feel important to my partner. I don’t feel he/she values me.”

Expressing gratitude isn’t casually expressing love, having sex, going to the movies, or taking out the garbage. Gratitude includes all of these but also includes the message, “You make a difference in my life.”

Try this exercise. Find a time to sit quietly without distractions (I know this is more easily said than done). Sit for a couple minutes and allow a feeling of relaxation to come over you.

After you feel relaxed, let yourself fantasize the loss of your partner in your life. The important part of the exercise is to follow yourself through your day, your week, and the year without your partner. The more you can focus on specific scenes in which your partner is missing, the better this exercise will serve you.

Now notice your tension level. For folks in harmful relationships, the exercise can be a pleasant fantasy, but those in healthy, satisfying relationships will notice increased tension. This is a normal reaction to loss - even imagined loss.

Now you are prepared to let your partner know how he or she enriches your life. Don’t wait until your anniversary to deliver this message in a card. Tell your partner what he or she means in your life. Do it today!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Don’t Touch, I’m Sensitive

Snuggling Kitties

Do you consider yourself to be sensitive? Are you sensitive to others? Do you want others to be sensitive to you?

Those who are most sensitive  are often the ones who complain that their partner’s are insensitive. Why is this?

Well you can attribute this to your partner’s sex – all men are insensitive. Or you can suggest that your partner has the insensitive gene, “she just not a sensitive person.” In either case, you are saying that your partner is unable to be sensitive.

Yet, there is evidence that contradicts this. Think back to an earlier time in your marriage, even to an earlier time when you were dating. Were you attracted to an insensitive person or did your partner attract you with his or her sensitivity to your views, feelings, and desires? I’ll bet you committed to a person you thought to be sensitive and caring!

How did you attract your partners sensitivity and what has changed? Sensitive individuals hide their sensitivity behind a wall of cold indifference or anger after they have experienced intense pain in their relationship with their partner. It is as though they are protecting their soft spot from any further pain.

The result of this protective stance is emotional distance - the exact opposite from what you desire. Instead, the sensitive individual must learn to communicate pain so that their partner is challenged to respond in a caring manner. Hiding your pain behind a wall of indifference or anger will not address your needs.

“But what if my partner does not care if I have been hurt?” The basis of a healthy relationship is commitment built on caring for each other. If your partner does not care, then it is important to know this. However, avoiding this issue by hiding your feelings ensures emotional distancing. Being emotionally distant from a partner that does not care is appropriate, but you must ask yourself if you have asked for caring in an appropriate way.

The real challenge is to present your sensitive feelings in a manner that they can be understood. If you “package” sensitive feelings in anger, then your partner will respond to the anger, not the feelings. If your message is “packaged” in an attack, then your partner will respond defensively, not with caring.

Rehearse before you share your feelings. When you practice, ask yourself, “Does my tone of voice and my message both convey a desire for sensitive caring or am I being aggressive?” I think you will find it more difficult than you think to share your feelings in a vulnerable tone. We become accustomed to challenging our partner and our tone becomes demanding, angry, aggravated, etc. – all which push our partner away.

Let me know how it works.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Political Differences vs. Marital Differences

Vote

If you are like me, you tire listening to political arguments well before voting day arrives. What makes the arguments so tiring is how the opponents must strive to make the argument about taking sides.

We are actually wired to respond to such arguments. Before food became plentiful, it was important for groups to band together to cooperate in hunting food. The lone wolf would die from starvation. So today you can look around and see all types of groups in which you belong. These groups may form around social, religious, ethnic, racial or family identities.

When such identities are formed, they are then protected. Even as differences are small, they can create much heat in debating those differences. The differences become important because they mark the unique identity of the group.

Marital arguments can assume a similar me versus you stance. You argue to protect your unique views, feelings and desires. “How much of me do I have to give up to be with you?” Such differences can become so large that we label a reason to divorce as “irreconcilable differences”.

The basis of a strong bond in marriage must begin with the development of a strong “we”. This “we” is something that is part of each partner’s individual identity. He or she describes the relationship as important to his or her partner, family and friends.

Nurturing the “we” also requires special effort to foster mutually enjoyable time together, verbal and nonverbal messages of belonging, and celebration of the “we”.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do I let my partner know how important are relationship is to my identity?
  2. Do I offer messages that identify the important role my marriage plays in my identity?
  3. Do you take time to nurture the relationship, both through setting up mutually enjoyable activities and by setting aside time to nurture understanding by sharing your views, feelings, and desires.
  4. Do your children, extended family and friends hear you describe your relationship as something you value?
  5. Do you celebrate the “we” once a year or several times a month?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Putting a Price on Love

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You must have value to be valued. Do you expect your partner to value you? What messages do you receive from your mate that he or she sees you as a person of worth?

I often hear partners complain that they do not feel that their partner listens to them. They describe this as a communication problem, “I told him what I needed but he just ignored my wishes.” The “communication” problem may be better described as a failure establish your worth in the relationship. We attend to that which we value. The partner who is always forgetting your birthday or other important events in your life is giving you a message of your worth.

Do you tolerate messages that devalue you? These messages may be disrespectful statements but are more likely to come in more subtle nonverbal messages. Does your partner look you in the eye when you are giving your views or sharing your feelings? Does your partner’s expression suggest your views, feelings and desires are important? If not, do you tolerate such messages of disregard, thus limiting your worth.

Take a minute to clarify your worth. What do you offer a partner? Are you kind, caring, sensitive? Do you share the demands of each day? Are you an enjoyable companion and friend? Are you a source of support and encouragement? List your good qualities and remind yourself of your worth.

This isn’t a list for your spouse to see. This is a list that establishes your worth for yourself. Your partner may disagree and not value you as a partner or he or she may not have been challenged to acknowledge your worth because you have tolerated being diminished and disrespected.

Challenge your partner’s view of your worth. Inform him or her that you will not tolerate the verbal or nonverbal messages that suggest you are anything but a valuable partner. Start today!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Ten Questions for a Marriage Performance Review

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Bosses are commonly criticized by their subordinates for only giving feedback when something is wrong. The workers want a fair evaluation of their strengths as well as the areas in need of improvement before things go terribly wrong.

Are you and your partner guilty of doing the same thing in your marriage? Many couples don’t stop and evaluate their relationship until something is terribly wrong and emotions are high. Do you and your partner ask, “How are we doing as a couple?” on a regular basis?

I frequently hear partners say, “I had no idea that my spouse felt that way, or I didn’t know he was unhappy about that.” This is a symptom of a lack of feedback in the relationship. You can prevent more serious problems by taking a few minutes to evaluate your relationship on a regular basis.

Here are a few questions that can get you started:

  1. How would you describe the amount of time you have together to emotionally, physically and sexually connect ? Does your time spent together properly reflect the importance of your relationship?
  2. How would you rate the quality of the time you spend together? Is this time rewarding for each of you? Do you feel that your needs are being met?
  3. Do you discuss the future? Do you feel as though you are working together to meet these goals?
  4. Do you feel valued by your partner? Does your mate help you become a better person or do you feel diminished in the relationship?
  5. Do you have a physical connection with enough affection?
  6. Do you have a sexual connection? Are the majority of your sexual encounters mutually enjoyable?
  7. Do you feel like a team when making financial, parenting, and other important decisions?
  8. What is most pleasing about your relationship?
  9. What one thing would you change about your relationship?
  10. If you had it to do over, would you marry your partner or choose another person?

Think of other questions that may be good for evaluating your marriage/relationship. Feel free to post suggested questions under comments to help others.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Wanting to be Strong, Wanting a Strong Relationship

StrongTrue or False? “Strong people have strong relationships.” On the surface this statement appears to be true. You shouldn’t have to sacrifice your personal strength to be in a relationship.  Insecurities interfere with having a close relationship.

But there are many times when individual strength conflicts with relationship strength. Imagine your partner has said or done something that is so insensitive that you feel hurt and angry. Now imagine your response. Are you more likely to express your hurt or your anger?

I find that many choose to express their anger because they feel stronger when they express anger. Even passive individuals will store up anger, then feel stronger when they explode.

Yet what is stronger for the individual isn’t what makes a relationship stronger. Anger creates distance in relationships. Anger triggers defensiveness from those who feel attacked. Anger does not attract change, in fact, it makes change less likely to occur.

Your partner is more likely to be motivated to change and meet your needs if you resist expressing anger and challenge him or her to care for you. This requires you to express your views, feelings and desires in a vulnerable tone of voice. You must replace anger with an expression of hurt feelings.

Notice how uncomfortable it is to express vulnerable feelings. Anger feels more comfortable because you feel stronger, yet vulnerable expression creates a stronger relationship. It’s your decision to make – a stronger you or a stronger relationship? 

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Cooperating or Competing to Get Your Needs Met?

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Psychologists and economists have set up experiments in which two folks are challenged to play a game in which they share money. If they compete for the money, one will win more than the other. If they cooperate, they will share equally in the rewards.

The important issue is that when they compete, they lose money in the effort to win, but when they cooperate, they keep all of the money. Which do they choose? You guessed it. They compete because they want the bigger reward, not the most money to be distributed between them.

These experiments have huge implications for our world, but they make me think about how couples negotiate their differences. When you commit to a relationship, you believe you will be better off than if you remained single. You believe you are entering a cooperative relationship where you and your partner are making an equal effort to build each other up.

Yet all couples recognize early in their marriage that they have different views, feelings, and desires. In a healthy relationship, these differences must be negotiated so that each partner has an equal influence on the relationship. The type of relationship you have reflects equally on each partner’s views, feelings, and desires.

Do you compromise your desires for your partner or do you try to maximize what you want? Many folks would rather avoid tension than negotiate for their desires to be met. They often say they don’t have strong views, feelings or desires. However, they also become dissatisfied with the relationship over time because their needs go unmet.

Others would rather have their way than experience intimacy. These folks still marry, but are uncaring in their negotiation strategy. They often pair with a passive negotiator. The controlling spouse enjoys a short-term win, but over the long run, the relationship is not satisfying for their partner.

Controlling and passive approaches establish a win/lose model for the relationship. Neither approach will lead to a satisfying relationship. If you get your way, then your partner will ultimately be dissatisfied. If you give in, then you will fail to negotiate for what you want in the relationship.

Partnership requires giving as much as you receive and winning your partner’s trust that his or her views, feelings and desires will be responded to. If you find yourself feeling short-ended examine how you negotiate for your views, feelings, and desires to be attended to.

Do you communicate clearly? Do you communicate directly? Are there consequences for your partner not considering your input? You should be challenging your partner to care, not trying to muscle your way in the relationship. If your partner fails to care, then this should ultimately lead to increased distance in the relationship.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Together or Separate: Why I See Couples Together for Marriage Counseling

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Many marriage counselors tell the couple that comes to them with marital problems that they each have issues that must be addressed individually in order for their relationship to improve. What does this mean?

It may mean that one partner’s mood or personality is judged to be so disturbed that marriage counseling is unlikely to be an effective strategy for change. Or it may simply mean that the therapist is more comfortable doing individual therapy than working with couples. I typically see couples together. Why?

After doing marriage counseling for more than 30 years, I believe that most couples seeking help for their marriage are bringing in a broken relationship, not two broken individuals. The broken relationship is reflected in how the couple relate to each other. Initially, I focus on how the couple interacts, not why they interact as they do.

Most couples will point to their partner’s faults during our initial sessions in the mistaken notion that I will be able to change their partner. They quickly learn that a blaming stance only creates a defensive posture from their partner. Only when couples examine their contribution to their relationship difficulties are they able to begin to rebuild a new, more intimate relationship.

Think for a moment, where did you learn to negotiate an intimate relationship? You probably had the same training for this important task that you did for parenting and a sexual relationship. You were expected to pick it up naturally without any direct instruction. You learned by observation of those close to you, yet those lessons are often a lesson in how not to behave, not how to attract your partner to cooperate in building the closeness that you each desire.

When couples learn that an intimate relationship can be built through changing their interaction, their defensive posture slowly fades while they take small steps to reach out to one another. But old patterns die slowly and couples often neglect to maintain changes in how they relate to each other, especially when under stress.

Take a minute to consider one thing you could do differently to change how you and your partner interact. Apply this today and see how it affects your interaction with your partner. You’ll be surprised how small changes can produce big results!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Five Reasons to Stop Avoiding Tough Issues

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In my work as a marriage counselor, I find that I work harder to encourage couples to approach issues than I do to subdue arguments.

Are you avoiding a tough conversation? Do you tell yourself that you don’t want to rock the boat? Does it feel scary to approach the issue? Yet, you find the issue keeps eating at you. It is as though there is a battle going on inside where one side wants to get it out on the table and the other side says, “Run away (from the issue).”

Let me make a case for approaching those tough issues. Here are five reasons you should address the issue:

1. The tension of avoiding the issue will undermine your happiness. While addressing the issue will create tension, you will be happier in the long run by getting the issue out in the open.

2. The relationship will be better if you address the issue. Relationships don’t improve by avoiding tension; they only improve if issues are addressed, then dealt with in a way that is satisfying to both partners.

3. Your value will increase if you address the issue. By forcing your partner to address issues important to you, you are saying, “My views, feelings, and desires are important. I expect you to address them and be willing to compromise your views, feelings, and desires in order for the relationship to be mutually satisfying.”

4. You cannot get what you want in the relationship unless you learn to negotiate with your partner. It may seem as though you are behaving in a loving manner by being passive, but you are actually being a poor negotiator for what you want. Your partner will not see you as loving, but as giving (and ultimately as weak). Making expectations increases the “cost” of being with you, but also increases your value. Value increases as we pay more!

5. Ask a couple whom have been married for many years and are close what has been the major factors in building closeness and they won’t tell you about their enjoyable vacations or the bigger home they purchased. Instead, they will tell you about the tough times they survived by pulling together. If you do not address issues, then you are not providing the opportunity to draw closer to your partner. The goal is not to avoid tension, but to build an increasingly intimate relationship with your partner.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

“I’m no longer attracted to you – you’re too fat”

 

MP900443614I’ve been thinking about guys that say they aren’t  attracted to their partners because their partner’s appearance has changed for the worse. I have always been uncomfortable with such a message, but why? Doesn’t such a statement reflect on the fact that men are more visual than women? Don’t women participate when they spend much time and energy on appearance?

I think such a statement makes me uncomfortable because it is the opposite of what I expect someone in a committed relationship to say. A committed partner should be motivated by caring. A caring partner wouldn’t simply not make such a statement because it would hurt their partner’s feelings although that also works for me.

Instead, I expect appearance to be something that fades in importance as a couples bond grows. When a partner focuses on appearance, then I suspect that there really is not much of a bond and caring has always been limited – even before the change in appearance happened.

So if your partner complains about your appearance, ask yourself whether he or she is concerned about your health, your pride in your appearance, or is the message really, “We’ve lost a connection we once had.” If it is the latter, then respond, “I’m wondering how you feel about our relationship in general?” rather than going on the defensive about your appearance. You may find that working on your connection improves your appearance – at least to your partner.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Loss of Sexual Desire in Marriage

j0444014How many times have you heard men complain that the  frequency and enthusiasm their partner exhibited for sex changed with marriage. Then, the women counter with how romance has drained from the relationship since marriage. If each is true, then the question is why would the relationship change simply by getting married.

You might reason that romance and sex would improve with the security and commitment that comes with marriage vows, that is if sex before marriage and after meant the same thing. The fact is that sex before marriage is part of a message that says, “I desire you, I want to spend time with you, and most importantly, I want a future with you.” Both men and women respond strongly to such a message.

After marriage, the message of sex changes. In one study, 35% of women and just 13% of men cited love and emotional intimacy as goals of sexual desire. Seventy percent of the men and 43% of the women said that sex was the goal of sexual desire. Research has clearly demonstrated that men think about sex more, pursue sex more, place more importance on sex, and masturbate more.

The general availability of sex and the routine that forms in the sexual relationship (and in the relationship in general) after marriage apparently leads to a decline in sexual desire for the woman more than it does for the man. When the woman’s desire declines this is typically more detrimental to the relationship than if the man’s desire recedes.

I have often heard married women suggest that sex has become unimportant to them, except as a means of pleasing their husband. Yet, when they become involved in an affair, their sexual desire is rekindled. Why is this? Women having an affair seem to respond to the novelty of being pursued by a man who finds them interesting, attractive and sexually desirable.

Marriage may undermine the woman’s sexual desire if she comes to feel she is nurturing her husband rather than attracting his desire. Husbands must show their wives that they desire them, find them attractive in many ways and that they are interested in creating an improved relationship in the future. The most common complaint I hear is for that the woman (or man for that matter) to say she feels taken for granted. This suggests that she does not feel valued.

Fortunately, sexual desire can be rekindled if each partner accepts responsibility for improving the relationship…not just the sexual relationship.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

More Thinking Does Not Mean a Better Decision

Question MarkImage by purpleslog via Flickr

An experimenter tested the decision-making ability of two groups by measuring their ability to choose the best car to buy (for the experiment, one choice was better). The groups’ decision-making differed by the number of variables they had to take into account before making the decision. You would think that the group given more variables would make a better decision, but you would be wrong. The experimenter found that our decision-making ability improves up to a point, but too many variables overwhelm the brain’s ability to process the information and the quality of decisions declines.

Those who had an overload of variables to consider when choosing the best car to buy made better decisions when they were distracted by a word puzzle, thus leaving them time to only rely on their intuition. Research suggests that you can get so bogged down in processing variables that your decisions become worse, not better. Business refers to this as paralysis by analysis. Deciding to commit or recommit to a marriage can be overwhelming when you try to examine all of the positives and negatives associated with the decision. On top of that, the decision looms large because it affects many people over a long period of time.

When you find yourself overwhelmed with a relationship decision you can minimize the variables by focusing on just a few issues or you can overwhelm yourself by trying to take into account all the variables, particularly everything that can go wrong with the decision. The result can be that you are unable to make a decision or make a poor decision.

This is why it is important to take care of yourself while you are trying to make difficult decisions. In order to make a good decision, you must trust your decision-making ability even though you cannot control the outcome of your decision.

Self-care means focusing on healthy behaviors that build personal strength. Look for relationships with those that value you and want the best for you, rather than polling others for their opinion. Avoid escaping stress through use of alcohol or testing your feelings through an inappropriate relationship. Instead, eat well, rest, and exercise. Give yourself permission to just be in the moment, even if that moment is filled with doubt and questions.




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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Normal Marital Crisis???


When your partner's commitment to the marriage becomes uncertain, it seems as though your world is in uproar. You can accept problems in the marriage because they can be addressed, but your partner's statement, "I'm not sure I want to be married" or "I'm not in love with you" is not as easily addressed.

In my first post (6/8/08!), I outlined the elements of a commitment in marriage. Feelings can change. Passion ebbs and flows. Anger explodes. Disappointment arises. But commitment is supposed to remain throughout. The loss of commitment seems to be a sign of a marriage in its death throes.

In fact, an uncertain commitment to marriage is not a symptom of the death of the relationship. However, it is a condition that can be likened to a body that is seriously injured in an accident. The body must be handled very carefully in order that it is not harmed in the process of getting it to the hospital. Similarly, a marital crisis is a situation that calls for delicate treatment.

In my ebook, Understanding Your Distancing Spouse (http://tinyurl.com/y4ugjva) I help you to understand that the partner who is uncertain about his or her commitment is going through a decision-making process - a process that can lead to a new, improved marriage as well as divorce. However, it is easy to respond to the crisis as though it is a personal rejection and a prelude to divorce.

If you see the crisis as rejection and a prelude to divorce, then you will naturally respond to protect yourself. If you see the crisis as a decision-making process, then you can choose to respond in a manner that facilitates good decision-making. You can also work to influence the decision by showing your partner that the relationship can be improved.

I regularly wonder how many marital crises become destructive divorces simply because the partners' misinterpreted the crisis as something that cannot be overcome and survived. I hope that other therapists that read this blog will educate the public to understand that a marriage crisis can be survived. I hope that when you or your friends' commitment becomes uncertain that you, family, and friends will respond in a manner that normalizes the situation and helps the partner use good decision-making skills.

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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Distancing From Your Partner to Gain Closeness


"It doesn't make sense. How can a separation help our marriage." "How will you know if I have changed if we are not together?" "If we separate we might as well file for divorce." Separation can be frightening and many objections must be addressed before a couple is sufficiently comfortable in making this change.

Couples typically choose a separation to help them reduce tension and improve their ability to determine whether their is hope that their marriage can be mutually satisfying. Many couples separate in a destructive manner. These couples choose to separate because they are angry and end the separation quickly, often in one day!

In my ebook, Marital Separation: Establishing a Cooperative Relationship With Your Partner During a Marital Crisis, I detail how a separation can be useful to the couple trying to determine whether or not to divorce.

Separation can reduce tension. Tension surrounds couples when one partner is pursuing the other's commitment to the marriage, yet the ambivalent partner is uncertain whether or not to remain married. By creating distance, the ambivalent partner feels a sense of relief from being pressured for a decision.

Separation also removes time pressure. A separation should give the couple sufficient time to examine how their relationship has fallen short and to develop specific changes for improvement. That is in the long run, but in the short run, a separation affords the couple the opportunity to cooperate. It is often a challenge to finances, parenting and determining how to approach family and friends.

I find that couples who separate in a controlled (rather than emotional) manner find that a decision forms naturally if they allow sufficient time. Either a connection forms as they work through the process of separation or increasing emotional distance leads to an emotional (and eventually a legal) divorce.


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Monday, February 8, 2010

Regaining Respect Following a Marital Crisis


In my marriage counseling practice, I see many couples whose marriage is in crisis following a variety of hurtful behaviors such as having an affair, gambling away savings, or striking out in an abusive manner. In my e-book, Deciding What You Want, I give some guidelines for deciding whether or not to reconcile the relationship following a marital crisis.

This is a very personal and difficult decision; some couples find a pathway to forgiveness while others at best forge a cordial distance never to be truly reconnected, even if they remain married. I find that the path to forgiveness and a loving connection is likeliest when the offending behavior can be isolated as not reflecting the person’s character. It is most difficult when the offending behavior leads to a reevaluation of the person’s character, often expressed as, “He’s not the person I married,” “She’s not the person I thought she was,” or “I feel as though I have been married to someone I barely know.”

Can you love someone you don’t respect? We can certainly be attracted to and even marry someone with undesirable traits, but you would say his or her good qualities outweigh the bad. During a marital crisis, that balance can change and the very behaviors that once attracted you now lead you to reevaluate your partner’s character. Now you are not distancing from your partner’s hurtful behavior; you are distancing from a person you no longer value as a partner.

Can respect be regained after it has been lost? After you have decided that your partner is not someone you would choose again, can you regain respect for his or her character? Often I have observed that the offending partner sets out to “prove” they can offer their partner an improved relationship simply by reassuring their mate that the offending behavior will not happen again. This is ineffective because the issue is much larger than whether the offending behavior will be repeated.

Can you respect yourself? Respect from others begins with self-respect. Are you able to forgive yourself and feel that you are basically a good person deserving of other’s respect? Or do you feel you have to “sell” yourself by manipulating other’s impression of you. Respect is not something that changes quickly or easily. Are you patient as you wait for your partner’s assessment of you to gradually change or do you press for reassurance of your partner’s love?

The way you handle a marital crisis can become a more important measure of your character than the promises you offer to your mate. Your partner’s negative beliefs about your character lead to unfavorable predictions for how you will handle the crisis. It is important to be unpredictable. By this I mean that you must behave in a manner that does not support those negative beliefs.

If you have struggled with a loss of respect for your partner or have struggled to regain your partner’s respect, I hope you will share your experiences with me – either in comments or by email at horton@officememphis.com. I look forward to hearing from you.





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