The Negative Laundry List: The Path to Nowhere

You’ve had some bad experiences in past relationships, and you’re making a list and checking it twice for all the things about your former partner(s) that were “naughty or nice.”

If you’re like many people, that list will be heavy on negative qualities, which will likely grow longer with each relationship. You might not think it necessary to include the good qualities, because they seem relatively simple and small in number. You want a “good person” with a sense of humor. You want him or her to be loyal, honorable, reliable, responsible, and physically attractive. It would be difficult and probably unnecessary to flesh out all the minutiae of those basic characteristics – the cute little personality quirks and details of character – that make someone adorable or admirable. But chances are, you won’t have any such difficulty listing details of negative characteristics.

If you’re like me, the list of bad or annoying things about a former (or current) love can be added on to effortlessly. It seems that there’s a near-infinite number of qualities in them that are either bad, questionable, or could stand improvement.

One thing that probably isn’t on your list are the qualities about yourself that are bad, questionable, or in need of improvement.

So you have this list which you may treat as both a cautionary tale and a blueprint for finding a more compatible partner next time. But while knowing which characteristics you don’t like in a partner may not be bad in and of itself, a laundry list of negative attributes isn’t very useful as a guide for finding “The One” because:

• It’s extremely long and unwieldy, requiring considerable time to check off each item, and also can easily be added onto in unpredictable ways in your next relationship (you may have “addiction to alcohol” on your avoidance list, but what about “addiction to cycling/exercise,” which you discover in your next partner?).

• The negative traits can be misleading – that is, a moody person might have good reason for being temporarily moody, as opposed to your chronically depressed ex.

• It dwells on the negative while largely eliding the positive things that actually cause you to fall in love with someone.

• It doesn’t answer to what degree you may be misunderstanding or contributing to negative aspects of a relationship.

• Negative characteristics can manifest in many, if not countless ways, so without an understanding of the underlying processes you won’t be able to eliminate them until you’ve already lived through them.

Mira Kirschenbaum, in her book Too Good To Leave, Too Bad To Stay, envisions this kind of list as bad and good items on a balance scale:

When it comes to relationships, the balance-scale approach is the problem, not the solution. It gets us into trouble, not out of it. How can you weigh the things you know about your relationship in the present against a huge uncertain future? How can you weigh a problem that’s bad for you against the knowledge a lot of people have this problem but don’t seem to be breaking up their relationship over it? How can you weigh a problem that makes you want to scream today against the possibility that it won’t bother you so much tomorrow?

With the balance-scale approach pieces of evidence keep sliding in and out of the picture. You try to add things up that don’t add up, to compare things that can’t be compared. Like a tenderfoot in the woods, the more you try to find your way, the more lost you get.

In my view, perhaps the most damaging element in laundry lists is that it frames the problem for your failed relationships as existing outside yourself. It is well-known in psychological circles that “other blame” and “negative externalization” in general (projection of the causes of bad things in your life into external things and circumstances, including people) are harmful to oneself.

Two basic problems are: 1)shifting responsibility to others (or other things) transfers the power of correcting those problems to others, disempowering yourself; 2) you deprive yourself of the fruits of self-examination. In addition, as David Burns has pointed out in his study of what breaks couples apart, “People who blamed their partners (or people in general) for the problems in their relationships were angry, frustrated, unhappy, and intensely dissatisfied with their relationships.” [Feeling Good Together]

If I had to summarize what I think is mistaken about the Laundry List strategy, I’d say it overlooks that which most fundamentally attracts us to other people (and vice versa). In other words, when you walk into a crowded room and someone catches your eye, and you find yourself drawn to them, that is not the result of cross-referencing them to a lengthy list. You have some basic qualities in mind, certainly – perhaps their expression, the way they smile or laugh or move, their general appearance, and so on – but you’re relating to them mostly on an elemental, wordless level. It’s what we call “chemistry.”

What a lot of people do, in my observation, is arm themselves against this kind of personal chemistry with lists of negative traits, because they’ve learned that while they may find a certain kind of person deeply attractive, this is insufficient for a good relationship. One problem is that they keep finding themselves attracted to people who eventually prove incompatible, and laundry lists of undesirable traits neither prevent that initial attraction (because people rarely demonstrate these qualities initially, and only incompletely when they do) nor address the deeper, more fundamental reasons why we’re attracted to these people in the first place. So after a great deal of pain and more items added to our list, we eventually break up with these people.

It seems to me that the initial attraction is where the problem truly lies. If you’re attracted to people who aren’t good for you (and vice versa) – if you’re drawn to “bad boys,” emotionally unavailable people, verbal abusers, or narcissists – you’re in trouble from the get-go. Employing laundry lists may only serve to place you on a never-ending unmerry-go-round of initial attraction – honeymoon/fantasy phase – identification of undesirable traits and growing dissatisfaction – and breakup, with yet more bad attributes piled onto the list.

The obvious solution is to be attracted to, and to attract, the right people from the outset. What could be simpler? :) The bad news is that may not be easy, and will likely involve addressing some core issues in your views of yourself and others. The good news is that there is a natural learning process for most semi-sane people, which can doubtless be accelerated by self-examination.

I’m sure many of us have noticed that we aren’t attracted to the same partners as we were in high school or even college. Over time, our attraction to “bad boys” or “emotionally distant women” may have waned. In much of high school, all I longed for was what I judged to be the most beautiful women, regardless of personality or intelligence, but a few years later I found other qualities far more appealing – intelligence, humor, depth of character, etc. – and would not have even looked twice at those high school “hotties.” Well, maybe twice – but the second look would be more of a glance.

Part of that learning process does involve, of course, an identification of what we like or dislike, and while I won’t attempt to outline one clear strategy for learning to instinctively like people who are good for us, I feel safe in saying that abandoning your Laundry List and trying to see the deeper issues at play are very positive first steps.

Mr. Unavailable and the Fallback Girl by Natalie Lue

In Mr. Unavailable and the Fallback Girl, author/blogger Natalie Lue leaves few if any psychological stones unturned in examining the relationship between an emotionally unavailable man and his female equivalent – or partner in crime? – the “fallback girl.”

The end result of this less than perfect union is what Natalie calls an “unavailable relationship”:

“Unavailable relationships arise when you have two people with emotional
unavailability issues. It could be two temporary, two habitual, or one of each,
but either way, it adds up to an unavailable relationship. There’s always one,
more powerful party who dictates the relationship on their terms – the driver –
and the other party who goes along with it – the passenger. The combination of
Mr Unavailable and the Fallback Girl is what happens when you hide your
often unknown unavailability issues behind his somewhat more obvious ones.
You allow him to take you on a messy journey through an unavailable
relationship.”

Mr. Unavailable, is, for a variety of possible reasons – including narcissism, fears about responsibility, intimacy, and commitment – emotionally unavailable for a healthy relationship. His counterpart, the Fallback Girl, suffers from similar relationship drawbacks. Together, they complement each other’s fear of a committed relationship in a symbiotic fashion.

I think it’s worth pointing out that Mr. Unavailable, in Natalie’s lexicon, does not truly mean unawailable in some all-encompassing, Unabomber sense. Senor U. is available, in varying degrees, for companionship, sex, ego-gratification, friendship, and so on, but he tends to shy away from serious commitment of the “let’s plan on spending our lives together in an exclusive relationship” variety. He is not completely emotionally available in the sense of not wishing to share his deepest emotional self and also in not wanting this from his partner.

The Fallback Girl is also not emotionally available in this serious sense – which is why she consciously or unconsciously chooses an emotionally unavailable man – but at some point in the relationship, according to Natalie, she typically desires more.

This is when Mr. Unavailable may deploy a multitude of stratagems to insure the relationship stays on the level that he prefers. Natalie has gone to considerable length to uncover these tactics, which include: “blowing hot and cold” (becoming more aggressive in the relationship when his partners pulls away, then distancing himself when she comes close), “future-faking” (creating a mockup future for the benefit of his partner which he has no intention of fulfilling), “perfection-seeking” (blaming his partner’s lack of certain qualities for his lack of commitment), “fast-forwarding” (a dizzying, passionate-filled rush to intimacy intended to dazzle his partner into going along on a self-serving emotional rollercoaster ride), “sob stories” (he trots out sad stories of failed past romance or other traumas intended to excuse his current relationship behaviors and attitudes), “crumb-giving” (offering strategic concessions to his partner to keep her in a relationship), “timing” (he’s chronically busy, rationing off time to keep the relationship at the desired level), and “wanting to keep it casual” (often saying this upfront, and then pointing this out when his partner becomes more serious).

While the book is mostly a primer for women seeking to identify emotionally unavailable traits in men, Natalie doesn’t spare women. A central theme is that women “dine off the illusions” presented by men, which means that the array of tactics men employ to maintain their favored style of “Relationship Lite” require acceptance from their women partners to work. And often, according to Natalie, the Fallback Girl is an active co-conspirator in keeping a relationship on a less committed and intimate note.

One such tactic is what the author calls “Miss Independent, Miss Self-Sufficient” (or MIMS):

“It’s become patently obvious that not all women want to settle down,
many of us like sex and it doesn’t have to be in a relationship, and shiver me
timbers, we can even hold down careers, businesses, buy homes, take solo
holidays, not want children, solo parent, and basically take care of ourselves.
This is great and quite frankly our right, but our choices are not always
positive. What we don’t often feel comfortable admitting is that we’re either
scared shitless and distrusting, or that we have such distorted ideas about
what having it ‘all’ means and what a man who ticks our boxes should be like,
that our options get closed off to a limited, conflicted man – Mr Unavailable.
Characterised by short dalliances, long spells of singledom or very ambiguous
‘arrangements’ that can run into double-digit years, Miss Independent/Miss Self-Sufficient (MIMS) is resolutely single but “open” to dating. The most ‘similar’ to Mr Unavailable in habits, you also often overvalue your qualities and characteristics. Although you may initially be the ‘driver’, you wind up being the ‘passenger’, which makes you very insecure. Conflicted with trust issues, you secretly hope to be loved and are still in search of that “feeling”.

Other variations of “Ms. Unavailable” are “The Buffer” (she chooses men who aren’t emotionally available because of recent relationship loss – often those who aren’t quite over their exes), “The Renovator” (she takes on unrealistic projects of changing/improving men), “Florence Nightingale” (she chooses wounded men to nurture but who are generally not available for a serious relationship), and “The Yo-Yo Girl” (who has “unfinished business with everyone from exes to dates,” and thus avoids putting herself out there for serious relationships).

I usually find typecasting and labeling to be opposed to truth-seeking because they attempt to reduce extremely complex phenomena – in this case, human psychology – to simplistic formulae and terminology that end up obscuring some fairly important elements. Natalie avoids this to a large extent, I think, because she devotes 367 pages to fleshing out how each avoidance strategy works in considerable detail, thus creating some much-needed dimensionality to her personality types. She also invents a lot of colorful terms like “future faking” and “fast-forwarding” that make remembering them easy and almost fun. Anyone who’s had a less-than-perfect relationship will likely recognize many of the characters and behaviors described in the book.

Having focused on painstakingly identifying types of emotionally unavailable men’s behaviors for most of the book, Natalie devotes her final sixty pages to techniques for improving both one’s view of oneself – a step she quite sensibly regards as critical to being truly available for a healthy relationship – and one’s skills in choosing a partner.

The author’s key steps for a “recovering Fallback Girl” are:


*Desire, willingness, and actual need to feel your emotions.

*Emotionally engaging consistently, not just in short bursts.

*Having fears but addressing and not living by them. Being
emotionally honest and allowing yourself to feel means taking mini, medium,
and sometimes big risks.

*Not relying on newness, drama, or the prospect of losing the relationship
to feel desire.

*Removing the limitations on yourself and actively working to challenge
unhealthy beliefs.

*Embracing true intimacy and accepting that love and a relationship
requires vulnerability.

*Accepting what results from emotionally engaging with others
instead of sabotaging. No creating drama, disappearing, sprinting from the
scene of the relationship, and putting up walls.

*Being yourself in relationships because it would feel too damn awkward for
you to be anything else.

*Loving yourself and avoiding negative self-talk blame and shame, while
building compassion and understanding.

*A low bullshit diet. No excuses because you don’t lie to yourself.

*Removing your walls and opening up.

*Never apologising for having standards and boundaries.

*No desperation.

*Walking instead of hanging around waiting for him to become
available.

The author fleshes out these positive steps in nearly as much detail as her descriptions of unavailable behaviors – there’s even a workbook included for identifying your relationship patterns – and by the time you’re finished you may feel, as I did, that you’ve been taken on a tour de force of relationship rehabilitation.

This final section is chock-full of suggestions for improving your relationship lot, and while many are fairly standard relationship book faire, there are frequent flashes of the originality and creative thinking which typify Natalie’s writing both in her books and on her excellent blog, Baggage Reclaim.

One example among many is her idea, which she calls “elevator pitching your relationship,” of creating a condensed synopsis of your relationship – perhaps even reducing it to a one-liner so beloved of book editors and agents! I think this is a great antidote for those of us over-thinkers who tend to obsessively re-hash past relationships in our heads, hoping to solve every mystery of went wrong and perhaps would’ve gone better if only we’d done something different. I think it likely that while we can pore endlessly over the details, there really are very basic, simple reasons why our relationship failed. Attempting to “elevator pitch” our past relationships forces us to focus on the true essentials of what went wrong. Having actually done this prior to reading Natalie’s book I can attest to both how liberating and insight-producing this can be.

Natalie dedicates her book to “my girls” – probably a reference to her own daughters, though it may also include her many women readers and fans – but I believe this book is for everyone who wants to understand and improve their relationships. As a man, I’ve seen more than a few women employ tactics such as “fast forwarding” or “future faking” or “hot and cold” (particularly the latter!), so this book could prove very helpful indeed to many men. The same suggestions for becoming emotionally available she gives to women apply equally to men. We have the same capacity to learn and improve and to open ourselves emotionally to truly intimate and fulfilling relationships. Sadly, as Natalie herself has noted, men in general do not read relationship books.

I’m not sure what Natalie Lue’s educational background is, but she clearly has a Ph.D. in emotionally unavailable relationships from the School of Romantic Hard Knocks. She has lived and breathed these troubled relationships, not only through personal experience but also through a finely tuned ear for her friends and readers’ testimonies. Many have endured the ecstasies and agonies of emotionally unavailable relationships, but few have devoted the time and energy to understanding their whys and wherefores as the author has, and even fewer have done so with the Natalie’s creative flair and intellectual acuity.

Reminiscent of Steven Carter’s superb meditation on commitment-phobic relationships, HE’S SCARED, SHE’S SCARED, Mr. Unavailable and the Fallback Girl, if lacking Carter’s commercially catchy title, offers a far more comprehensive field guide to emotionally unavailable relationships. For that reason, I strongly recommend this book to anyone who has been in unsatisfying relationships and would like to find that deeply fulfilling relationship at the end of the romantic rainbow.

The “Win Back Your Ex!” Craze

If the one hundred million blogs, videos, books, and essays about winning back your ex are any indication, many people both regret their breakup and seem to believe that re-establishing their relationship is a viable option.

I’m surprised by the sheer volume of advice on “getting back your ex.” I’m not sure if this is a recent trend or has been with us for some time. In my personal experience, and in my readings on several dating lists and elsewhere, “there are reasons your ex is an ex” is usually treated as a self-evident truism. Attempting to win back your ex is considered to be the height of folly, akin to trying to go back to high school or make a NBA comeback at age fifty. “You can’t go home again,” as the saying goes.

Many popular relationship writers and therapists suggest that most relationships – even those which seem broken beyond repair – can be saved. I’m unsure about how much this relatively new optimistic paradigm has percolated up into the general consensus, but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t have some bearing on this (seemingly) new trend.

I think the idea of redeeming a past love is appealing because most of us want to believe in “forever love.” We like the idea of love overcoming all odds. The idea that love is transitory is scary, I think, on many different levels. And perhaps now, besieged by proclamations of the temporariness and failures of romantic love, a kind of “bunker” mentality has set in among those who prefer a more optimistic view of love.

To the extent that resisting this pessimistic gospel fuels the “win back your ex” movement, it may be a desirable corrective. Surely it’s reasonable to consider how beliefs and attitudes and personal issues may affect our relationships and possibly lead to their unnecessary demise?

So when might it be reasonable to consider renewing a relationship with a former lover?

I think the first question might be: Do you still love and highly value this person? If the answer is no, then do not pass go. If yes, then: Did you break up over serious differences in personality or values, or did misunderstanding, bad circumstances, unrealistic or questionable beliefs and/or attitudes play a pivotal role? If it’s the latter, then you may have broken up for unsound reasons.

Relationship writers commonly point to misunderstanding as being a key breakup factor. Byron Katie, for instance, has made a career out of instructing people on techniques that clarify your partner’s statements in order to remove such misunderstandings. Acting on false beliefs about your partner can only lead to inappropriate behavior. It’s critical, Katie, David Burns, and others argue, to know what your partner is truly saying.

So, if:

  • You’ve misinterpreted your partner’s views on important subjects, and that the correct interpretation is much more to your liking, then you have grounds for reconsidering your relationship.
  • Your circumstances were unfavorable – for instance, if either of you were still entangled emotionally and financially with an ex-spouse or lover, had conflicting responsibilities (e.g., caring for elderly parents or a problematic child), or perhaps lived in different countries – then you have grounds for wondering what your relationship could be like absent those circumstances.
  • You held wrongheaded beliefs about relationships – for instance, that the honeymoon phase should last forever, or love should be effortless, or pressuring your partner to change rather than accepting them is the ticket – then you have reason to suspect that your relationship could’ve been dramatically improved by altering those beliefs.
  • You have habits or attitudes that are off-putting – for example, not picking up after yourself or practicing regular grooming, spending too much time at work or drinking with buddies, or being overly critical – you might consider the possibility of changing them and what effect that could have had on your past relationship.

Any of the above, I believe, would be grounds for considering the possibility that you and your former partner broke up unnecessarily, and therefore could benefit from giving your relationship another try.

Friendly Advice?

At some point or another most of us turn to others for relationship advice. Whom should we tell, and how much should we reveal? How seriously should we take their suggestions or assessments?

Perhaps the first thing to bear in mind is that it is extremely difficult to present a fully accurate “three-dimensional” picture of your relationship to someone else. Also, unless you bend over backwards to create a balanced picture, you will likely emphasize your relationship’s negative aspects. After all, you probably won’t be asking your friends and family for advice about things that are going well. Instead, you’ll be asking about how to correct some problem. And usually that problem will be your partner’s bad behavior(s).

If you want truly helpful advice: you must present both your and your partner’s viewpoints in as balanced a manner as possible. Otherwise, any advice you receive will be either useless or actually harmful, for the same reason that telling your doctor only half of your symptoms would lead to an inaccurate and possibly dangerous diagnosis.

Now that you’ve wisely decided to make your relationship picture as clear and unbiased as possible ;) – with whom should you discuss your relationship?

Just as you should consider your own biases, you should consider the possible biases of those you confide in. For example, what’s their relationship history? Has he or she had good, long-lasting relationships, or disastrous ones?

Asking someone who’s a veteran of dysfunctional relationships for relationship advice is like asking a contractor whose houses regularly collapse for construction advice. If you follow their suggestions, their disasters may well become your own.

How have your advice-givers related to your past partners? Did they get along with or approve of them, or were they often at odds? Did your past partners like your advice-giver? In cases where the person who’s giving you advice has a history of not liking your partners, you may rightfully suspect either that they don’t have your best interests at heart, don’t share your tastes in romantic partners – or they are accurately seeing a negative pattern in your relationship choices. But if you notice that you and your advice-giver are not seeing eye to eye on your choices, that’s probably something you should figure out before placing much store in their evaluations.

Also, your chosen advice-giver may have personal reasons for wanting your romantic relationship to fail. For instance, if you’re talking to an ex-lover about your current relationship, they may still have feelings for you, or may perhaps feel competitive with your present lover. Your parents or siblings or best friend may fear being displaced by a significant other.

Your friend may also envy your relationship success, and not wish, perhaps unconsciously, for you to succeed. Your best friend may want you to join them in perpetual bachelorhood or old maid-hood.

Your friends will probably see their role as their defenders and sympathizers. It’s great to receive support and sympathy, but assuming an adversarial stance with respect to your partner is not likely to produce a fair-minded, truth-seeking perspective of your relationship.

There are so many good reasons for being wary of receiving another person’s advice that one might wonder if the idea itself is suspect.

I think it is. A better approach, in my view, is to discuss an issue. In my experience, a good friend listens more than advises. They well-appreciate that the decision is up to you – and that it’s rarely wise to speak critically of someone you love (even if it’s deserved).

But let’s say you’re satisfied that the person you’re asking about your relationship is reasonably healthy and unbiased and has your best interests at heart. How much should you tell them?

I agree (mostly) with therapist/writer Dr. Arnold Lazarus (Marital Myths Revisited), that we ought to feel free to tell a best friend or most trusted confidante pretty much everything – even some things you wouldn’t share with your romantic partner:

“Many people contend that marriage is a relationship that carries the principle of friendship to its ultimate and most intimate degree. I think they are mistaken.

“The structure of marriage overlaps with friendship but is not synonymous with it. Marriage is intimate sharing, whereas friendship is shared intimacy. Friends typically do not live under the same roof year in and year out. As such, their shared intimacies are intensive, rather than extensive. Spouses share many daily events in which the feeling tone of one partner has a direct effect upon the other. Consequently, it is easy to overload the system. Moreover, friendship emphasizes the needs and interests of two independent people, while the focus of marriage usually ends up being on the family.”

I’m not sure having less intimacy with our partners than with our best friends or others is desirable. Rather – and I think this is the true gist of Dr. Lazarus’s analysis – it’s not the amount or even intimacy of the information shared, but rather the kind of information shared. For example, mentioning a past lover’s superior sexual performance or venting all your anxieties to your partner seems destined to prove unhelpful, but such venting might be fine with a friend. In general, I think, issues which are likely to introduce anxiety or upset into your relationship without any tangible upside are better reserved for others or perhaps for your own thoughts.

What should be discussed with your partner, even if causes upset, are important issues which are specifically relevant to your relationship. If you’re discussing these kinds of issues with others but not your significant other, then you’re probably doing your relationship a disservice.

Global Insults: How to Destroy Communication Via Accusation

In touring the internet relationship blogs and dating sites, as well as considering my own experiences and those of my friends and family, I’ve noticed that certain key phrases or terms keep cropping up.

In relationship blogs the emphasis often seems to be on characterizing problematic boyfriends by types as a protective measure. Men are “assclowns,” “commitment-phobes,” “controlling,” “narcissistic,” “insecure,” “co-dependent,” “jealous,” “too sensitive,” or “abusive,” and so on.

I’m by no means suggesting that such people don’t exist, or that we might not benefit from being forewarned about them, but I see several dangers in relying too heavily on such labeling.

First, it can empower an unhealthy urge to blame others rather than take inventory of ourselves – including our own problematic behaviors. It’s easy and seductive to attribute your relationship difficulties to others, and the quick-fix of name-calling offers a facile solution.

Second, because people are complex, attempting to fit them into tidy little categories is a tempting method of achieving a faux understanding of people. It may feel satisfying to assign a psychological term to a person, because that both demonizes them *and* reduces their complex behaviors to an easily understood one-size-fits-all personality-type.

Third, categorizing others in this way – especially your partners – is engaging in something I call “global insults.” Again, I’m not suggesting that global insults are always wrong. What I am suggesting is that when you accuse someone of a global failing – whether it be dishonesty, over-sensitivity, irresponsibility, insecurity, controlling behavior, or similar general faults – you’re making an accusation that is virtually impossible to reasonably counter. Because global insults – as opposed to being accused of a specific failing, such as forgetting to take out the garbage – cover such a vast territory of personality and character, your discussion options are limited to either a vigorous and lengthy self-defense or simple denial. Neither of these options encourage honest, heart-felt, compassionate, or informative discussion.

Which I think it pretty much the point of global insults. Their purpose is not to encourage productive discussion, but rather to issue a complaint or vent anger (or, more appropriately, to serve as reasons for ending a relationship). While it’s theoretically possible that a global insult might inspire someone to reconsider their behaviors and perhaps change, that’s usually going to be a solo venture rather than a cooperative process by virtue of the adversarial relationship such accusations almost invariably create.

When a partner levels a charge like this, there is no jury or judicial process which can guarantee a fair “trial.” Your partner has now become your prosecutor, not your ally, and as such is likely to provoke a “defense attorney” mentality centered on exonerating yourself rather than making a balanced inquiry into your relationships issues. What can there be to negotiate when your partner has accused you of being bad in some overall, fundamental way?

While global insults are often expressions of anger or frustration, they can also be used as smokescreens to block uncomfortable lines of discussion. Your girlfriend questions you about the time you’re spending with your private secretary, so you call her “jealous and controlling” rather than acknowledge your inappropriate feelings. You have reservations about marrying someone, and they call you a “commitment-phobe” because they’d rather not face that your reservations might be justified. You’d like to devote more time to your interests, and your partner claims you’re “selfish and narcissistic” rather than discuss his insecurities about your declarations of independence.

But what if your global accusations are true (or you believe they are), and you’re sincerely trying to jar your partner into changing their behaviors? I think the above makes clear why globally insulting your partner is the wrong strategy if this is your goal.

If you want to improve your relationship, you must find a cooperative, non-adversarial approach in your discussions.

Blame Vs. Causal Force

“Which attitudes were the most important [for relationship satisfaction]? Other-blame was by far the most important mind-set. People who blamed their partners (or people in general) for the problems in their relationships were angry, frustrated, unhappy, and intensely dissatisfied with their relationships. In addition, this mind-set accurately predicted what would happen in the future. Individuals who blamed their partners for the problems in their relationship were even more miserably unhappy three months later.”

- David Burns, Feeling Good Together

Dr. Burns is referencing a series of studies he did to identify attitudes that lead to happy and unhappy marriages. More than 1200 individuals from all walks of life participated, including gay couples. The participants took Burns’ Relationship Satisfaction Test. He also personally interviewed troubled couples. Finally, the participants completed an “intimacy inventory.”

Burns and his colleagues made a variety of predictions before they analyzed the data. They programmed the mainframe computer at the University of Pennsylvania medical school to evaluate every possible combination. While he was expecting age, education, religious affiliation, income and other attitudes to be among the top factors in relationship satisfaction, it turned out that blaming your partner was the number one predictor of relationship dissatisfaction.

Dr. Burns hammers home the point that therapists universally make: blaming your partner for problems in your relationship is highly destructive. But in taking this to heart, some partners may call any form of explanation involving their behaviors as “blaming,”

Acknowledging negative factors need not involve casting blame. We can instead view these factors neutrally as “causal forces.”

It’s simply true that any number of changes in your attitudes or life circumstances will affect your relationship. If you live down the block from your partner, your interactions will be different than if you live five hundred miles away. If you believe that romantic love means an eternal honeymoon of passionate trysts and adventure you will not behave the same way toward your partner as you would if you believe that love means closeness, comfort, and security. If you work ten hours a day, seven days a week, your relationship will be different with more free time. And so on.

Causal force may appear to fly in the face of such cherished psychological-therapeutic maxims as “we are responsible for our own emotions; no one truly makes us do or feel anything,” or “you cannot blame your bad behavior on others..” To say, “But I wouldn’t have done X if you hadn’t done Y” is usually condemned as casting one’s self-responsibility onto your partner.

And yet, I think, the claim that what we do does cause our partner to do something is clearly true. For example, if a man hadn’t cheated on his wife, his wife wouldn’t have lost her temper and called him some unflattering names. Now I’m not suggesting that the wife is not responsible for calling him bad names, or that she was necessarily justified doing so , but the fact is that she wouldn’t have called him those names if he hadn’t cheated.

Or perhaps your wife left on a sabbatical and had an affair while gone, and upon learning of her affair you also embarked on one. Or you decided to divorce her. Or, in a desperate rage, you emptied your joint bank account to fund an excursion to Maui. None of these things was absolutely required because of your wife’s infidelity; on the other hand, none of those actions would’ve occurred had your wife not had an affair.

That’s how causal force works in a relationship. Everything either of you say or do necessarily affects the other. This doesn’t mean we can predict exactly what that effect will be, or that we can claim we’re somehow “forced” to do a particular thing Causal force just means that if you do something, there will be a consequence – an event that would not have occurred if you hadn’t done that thing. An event that can either be good, bad, or indifferent.

Though everything you do necessarily affects your partner, you are not necessarily responsible for your partner’s actions. You may have changed their behavior – or they yours – but you are both ultimately responsible for your behavior. This is how you can recognize that your behaviors may negatively affect your partner – and vice versa – while neither casting nor accepting blame for them.

In practice, unfortunately, attempts to point out cause and effect in relationships are likely to be treated as negative accusations. This is where intellect comes into play as a counter to our feelings. You may naturally feel defensive if your partner points out that your long business trips and work days caused her to seek solace in another man, because you see her as blaming you for her affair. And if she did blame you, that would merit feeling defensive, since she had other choices and was responsible for her decision. But at the same time, it is in fact true that your lack of attention to your wife was a strong causal factor in her choice to seek extramarital companionship. It may be true (though not necessarily) that had you reduced your business activities and spent more time with her that she never would’ve considered an affair.

So on one hand we are not blaming you for your wife’s affair; on the other, we are saying that your behavior had “casual force” – that there would be *some* consequence of your being away from home all time. Perhaps instead of an affair she might’ve just pulled more and more away from you emotionally, or perhaps distracted herself with other activities. But there would be some consequence of your frequent absences.

The hypothetical husband might choose to ignore his causal role and instead surrender to righteous anger and blame his wife for the demise of their relationship, but in doing that he is depriving himself of several positive possibilities, including: 1) understanding that being chronically absent in a relationship will likely lead to dissatisfaction in his partner; 2) saving his marriage, if he and his wife are still in love; 3) re-examining his priorities and discovering a happier lifestyle for himself.

This is the positive power of the “causal force” idea: it enables us to candidly acknowledge how we affect our partners without either blaming the other or ourselves. Lacking that negative stigma , we may avoid or ameliorate the usual anger, guilt, and defensiveness which accompany assignations of blame, and thereby forge new productive understandings about relating to our partners.

Your Significant Opponent: Competitive Romantic Relationships

I’m not speaking of a friendly game of tennis or billiards. I’m talking about a kind of competition which runs through the very fiber of your relationship. Your whole relationship, or some large part of it, is a kind of grueling competitive sport – perhaps more akin to a battlefield – where you and your partner constantly seek “wins” over each other.

Dr. Arnold A. Lazarus, author of Marital Myths, has this to say about such competition:

“Competition is corrosive: it insidiously gnaws away at the very fabric of togetherness and trust that forms the basis of any good marriage. A competitive attitude tends to diminish the mutuality, joint striving, and common goals that characterize the interactions of successful couples.” [101]

And adds:

“If a husband and wife are not a collaborative pair, the main purpose of being married is violated.” [103]

The basic competitive attitude can perhaps be summarized as: “You and I have opposing goals, and I wish to score against yours!” For opposing hockey or football teams, that serves an entertaining purpose. For a couple that means one person – the winner – might be entertained. If someone wins, that means someone loses.

Opposing teams don’t collaborate – at least not intentionally – and neither do opposing partners. You cannot aspire toward common goals when you are on different teams.

What kind of people compete in this way? How does it get started? What does it look like?

First, a competitive relationship requires two players. No competition can occur unless both partners are “game.” What this games looks like is both partners more or less constantly attempting to “score” on each other through one-upmanship. If you say something funny, for example, your partner will either attempt to say something funnier or deny that what you said is funny (score a point or deny that you scored a point). Any perception that you’ve been bested will lead to anger and plots of revenge. In the most competitive relationships, it looks like two people who fight a lot and don’t care for each other much.

I think the kind of people who get trapped in this endless cycle of one-upmanship are usually those who feel threatened by another’s good qualities, because they believe their partner’s positive attributes cast a bright light on their own failings. They see their partner’s strengths as somehow coming at their expense. Why they feel these things is an enormously complex topic – the subject of countless psychology books – but the basic gist of it is that they lack self-esteem. They have, to one degree or another, what was once popularly called an “inferiority complex..”

To get started, all you need is the desire of both partners to demonstrate that they are better than the other. This isn’t simply about getting your way. This is about proving your superiority. If you believe you are a better person, that means in some overall sense your will must triumph over theirs. The better person, in the name of all that’s just and good, must prevail.

There are infinite ways partners can attempt to undercut or one-up each other. Your girlfriend tells a funny story, so you attempt to tell a funnier one, or perhaps critique the story. Or you find some way to steal the spotlight from her. Your husband thinks he’s the accountant, so you show there’s an error in his math. His loss, as your Significant Opponent, is your gain.

You can also score points on your partner without directly competing over a particular item; anything that subtracts from their joy or satisfaction is a win for you. He’s exuberant over a promotion; you burn his dinner or make cracks about how easy his job is. She thinks her new dress looks great, and you point out how much better she’d look if she’d work out regularly like you. In this competition, you’re only limited by your sick, twisted imagination.

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

If you find yourself in this god-awful mess, and you’d like to escape it, what can you do? The first step is to acknowledge, as is almost invariably the case, that you are part of the problem. “But she starts all the fights and is always picking on me! I’m just defending myself!” That may be, but you are defending yourself as a competitor in a game of “who is better.”

You can’t have a competition with just one player, any more than argue when no one is arguing back. You have met the enemy, and he or she is you.

If you wish to remain in the relationship, your only escape is to stop or reduce your competing. I think that’s your only realistic chance of getting your partner to tone down. Leaving your Significant Opponent for a new, less competitive partner may also solve that particular problem. It’s true that being with a competitive partner fuels your own competitiveness.

But if you do that, you’ll be left with the same problem – a lack of self-worth – that causes this behavior. Perhaps being with a “gamer” is an opportunity to dig deep and try to get to the bottom of your need to one-up others?

Is Love Enough (and other quandaries)?

Therapist authors almost universally agree that love is not enough to sustain a relationship. Some therapists such as Helen Hunt and Harville Hendrix or John Gray take a decidedly optimistic view of the power of love, but caution that romantic love sometimes requires the right tools to survive and flourish.

Harville and Helen, in particular, believe that almost all relationships can survive where love and the willingness to learn useful relating strategies are present. These authors suggest that all partners have differences, and the solution lies more in handling those differences than in seeking someone with more common interests. Therapist-writer Arnold Lazarus, however, emphasizes the need for compatibility, and argues against “working too hard” on a relationship.

In response to rising rates of marriage and relationship failure, the view that relationships often die for lack of relating skills has gained popular traction. It is now considered a truism that relationships require work, even hard work, in order to succeed. That has been my view as well.

However, Dr. Arnold Lazarus, in his book, Marital Myths Revisited – and this telling quote from one of his patients – caused me to reconsider my views:

“When we first came to you about four months ago we were in a canoe about to plunge over the rapids. You gave us paddles. Now we have rowed pretty far upstream. But the current is so strong that we dare not relax and enjoy the scenery. If we stop paddling, even for a few minutes, we will be swept downstream and go right over the rapids!” [36]

I find the notion that “hard labor” might not offer a better alternative to constant arguing or ending the relationship to be compelling. Lazarus draws a distinction between constant “paddling” – hard labor – and effort. Effort is making the necessary adjustments and compromises and negotiations required to form a successful conjugal union; it is not a never-ending struggle to paddle upstream.

I agree. But it seems to me that falling in love with someone with whom we’re not compatible (compatible enough to avoid constantly battling against the relationship “grain”) raises puzzling questions of its own.

The usual explanation is that people, drunk on hormones and/or romantic myths, lose their ability to critically perceive their partner. Or perhaps they’ve deceived themselves into believing they’re in love rather in lust – or even are merely in love with the idea of being in love. Given the power of self-delusion, it’s clearly possible to fall in love, or believe you’re in love, with someone not truly compatible.

For me, this doesn’t quite eliminate the basic quandary of the purpose of love itself. I would think that nature would’ve instilled some form of safeguards against such a destructive tendency. Surely no one would consciously choose someone knowing that they would make them miserable and that there was an expiration date attached to their relationship? Perhaps someone who has never experienced the emotional and often financial devastation might innocently embark on that journey, but what about for the majority of us who have? To fall in love without some assurance of permanence, without the strong belief that we can be together harmoniously, to me seems akin to jumping out of an airplane without inspecting one’s parachute or even being certain that there is one.

Perhaps it’s merely evo-biology at work: our genes don’t care about our feelings except insofar as they lead to their propagation. Romantic love, often initially based on superficial values such as physical attraction, serves to bring us together temporarily for reproduction. Yet surely there would be a heavy genetic price for mating with someone who abandons you – far more so in the past than now, I would think.

So here’s my hypothesis at present: for those couples who fall in love largely sans self-deception, their love in itself represents an answer to questions of compatibility and the potential for relationship longevity. My premise is that it is not possible, or at least likely, to fall in love with someone you have little in common with, barring self-deception. For people who are reasonably self-aware, intelligent, and sane, love will naturally grow from perceived common values, personality traits, and other compatibilities.

Now this is quite a qualification, and even if my hypothesis is true, it is by no means a simple matter to disqualify self-delusion in love process. Nor is it an easy hypothesis to test. My argument is that it is natural for us to be drawn to people who share many things in common with us – things we can enjoy talking about and doing together. It seems to counter common sense to believe people will naturally tend to seek out partners who are unhealthy or incompatible with them; it seems more logical to suppose that if we choose incompatible or harmful partners that we are not doing so for rational reasons.

So my answer to “Is Love Enough?” is this:

Love may not be enough to guarantee a successful relationship, but it may be enough to guarantee the potential for a successful relationship.

What we do with that potential is another issue.

Are Self-Help Books, Intensive Analysis, and Lengthy Discussions About “US” Helpful?

Clearly those of us who write about relationships – and we are legion! – believe that such analysis can be beneficial, though we may differ on the particulars. On the other hand, many people have little interest in this kind of enterprise, and they are perhaps even more legion.

My own experience and observation is that the vast majority of women and men are not interested in long, involved discussions analyzing their relationship. This despite the stereotype of women generally being the initiators of “relationship talk.” While women are doubtless more comfortable discussing emotions, there is quite a divide between trying to divine how one’s partner feels and a detailed, in-depth analysis of why they behave in certain ways.

I don’t know of any study on the effectiveness of relationship books in general, so we are firmly in the realm of personal speculation. My opinion, based on observing and participating in countless discussions about relationship books, it that a slim majority believes they are not generally helpful. But that leaves a sizable minority who believe they’ve been helped to one degree or another by such books.

My own view is that relationship books are largely ineffective. Is that because they don’t contain useful information and insights? Not at all. I’ve rarely read a relationship book that, in my judgment, didn’t contain lots of good advice.

Most books that I’ve read agree on several key points. It’s almost certainly true that if couples follow the basic strategies outlined in these books, such as “active listening” communication, mutual respect, tolerance, honesty, and commitment that they would greatly increase the chances of success.

The problem doesn’t lie with the books, but rather with the people. Most people don’t read relationship books, so any sampling of their effectiveness is going to be biased against them from the outset. Many, usually quite mistakenly in my view, harbor the belief that they know all that’s necessary to know about relationships, or simply believe – again, quite mistakenly, in my opinion – that healthy relationships don’t require any work.

Those who do read them often seem – again, in my personal experience and observation – to be looking mostly for a ratification of their current complaints or views. If you went into couples therapy or personal therapy with the goal of merely hearing your beliefs and complaints echoed back at you, I think it reasonable to expect you would make minimal if any progress. The same truth applies to reading a relationship book with the intent of having your views justified.

Those few who read relationship books with an open mind still face the daunting challenge of incorporating their insights into their lives and relationships. It’s not easy to change, and it’s even more problematic to persuade others to change. You can understand something in abstract, and agree with it, without applying those learnings. If you try to apply them with an uncooperative or skeptical partner, it’s easy to be discouraged.

So for a relationship book to work, you need these factors: 1) understanding and agreement with the salient points; 2) the ability to act on those new understandings; and 3) a cooperative partner. On (3), while it’s surely true that you can initiate changes in your relationship through unilateral changes of your behavior, ultimately your partner must be responsive and interested in working with you.

Considering the above, I don’t think it’s surprising that relationship books are largely ineffective. That by no means demonstrates that they don’t have the potential to be hugely effective.

Similarly, attempting to engage in lengthy relationship discussions with a partner who is not interested in detailed analysis will fail. If you have thoughts on your relationship, and your partner isn’t amenable to these kinds of discussions or analysis, is all hope lost?

Not necessarily. First, you can be selective in what you express to your partner – confining yourself to a few key insights; second, you can apply any new insights to your own behavior without long-winded discussions. Lead by example, in other words.

While an occasional serious and lengthy discussion is probably necessary and a good thing, making a habit of it seems unlikely to produce good results. First, if you need to have regular serious relationship discussions, that means you are failing to resolve important issues of disagreement, and the constant, often critically pitched, repetition of unresolved complaints seems destined to produce increasing dissatisfaction and frustration.

Relationship books tell us that relationship discussions, in order to be productive, must follow certain rules, and one of those is to avoid beating a dead horse. Instead, they promote active listening techniques (to avoid misunderstanding), and “I feel” statements (to avoid critical judgments), as well as a host of other techniques and attitudes conducive to successfully negotiating points of difference.

Feelings Vs. Intellectual Assessments

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

- Maya Angelou

We have many feelings about our partner and our relationship with them. We feel happy, excited, blissful, amused, and loved. We may also feel unhappy, bored, fearful, unloved, and even abused. One of the great truths in modern relationship theory is that we should accept, if not respect or cherish, our partner’s feelings.

Other related truths are that feelings should never be denied or repressed, in ourselves or in our partners; also, that feelings are perhaps the most accurate guides to truths about ourselves and others.

Most therapists accept that “I feel” statements, as opposed to “you are” statements, are the way to go. “You are” is a judgment of the other, whereas “I feel” is simply an expression of your feelings.

It’s well-understood by the psychologists and therapists that a “feeling” statement is only a claim about one particular truth: what you’re feeling. Cognitive Behaviorists such as Dr. Aaron Beck call the belief that our feelings are always justified and tell us the truth about others “subjective reasoning,” and classify it as one of many “thinking errors” that occur in relationships. Unfortunately, the modern-day veneration for feelings has led some to believe that their “I feel” statements also qualify as truth-claims about their partners.

If you feel fear or hurt in the presence of someone or something, it’s only natural to blame that someone or thing for those emotions ((Dr. David Burns calls this “emotional reasoning”). Yet it’s clear that one can feel fear inappropriately, or be hurt because of a misunderstanding. I may feel that something is a threat to me or has harmed me, but whether or not that is in fact the case can only be determined through intellectual examination. To feel afraid, for example, does not prove that there is something to be afraid of. To feel loved by your partner does not prove that they love you; nor does feeling hated demonstrate that your partner hates you.

This reasoning can provoke interesting responses, in my experience. Sometimes it’s taken to demean emotions. But to me in illustrating the critical difference between “I feel” and “you are” statements – one being a truth about your emotions, the other a truth about external reality – it shows why “you are” statements are so potentially harmful: they make your own internal truths a springboard for inaccurately or inappropriately judging others, often to the extreme detriment of a relationship.

You may feel many things around your partner, and in order to avoid unnecessary strife it is important to understand that your feelings about your partner are an interpretation of their behaviors. If they smile and say nice things, you may feel loved, but that feeling is based on an interpretation of those behaviors. If they say something angrily, your feeling that they hate you is also an interpretation. You are making a judgment about the reasons for their actions. Your feeling that something’s wrong (or right), then, should be the starting point of your investigation, not the end result.

Appreciating the distinction between feelings and evaluations allows us to be more accurate and fair-minded in our approach toward our partners. It opens the door to “Active Listening” – likely the most powerful and useful way of communicating with a lover, especially on emotion-charged subjects where opportunities for potentially disastrous misunderstandings abound. Relationship authors such as Byron Katie have made a career of showing how we can benefit by separating the truth from our interpretations.

So while how we feel may be the most important thing in a relationship – and it may indeed be what we remember the most after a relationship ends – it is also important to remember that what we feel does not tell the whole truth about our relationships.