What do you do when you’re in a relationship and your partner cheats on you? Or what if you’re the partner who has stepped out on your relationship? Does infidelity mean that things are over? Or...how do you bring things back into balance and heal your relationship - perhaps even get it to a place that’s better than it ever was?
My hope is that you’re getting the tools that you need to thrive in your relationship here on the podcast. Of course I also want to ensure that you have the information that you need in order to repair your relationship when things go wrong. Perhaps no problem impacts relationships more than infidelity. So whether you’ve experienced it in the past, or it’s going on in the present - this episode is for you. And, if you’re thinking about having an affair, I want to take a moment to encourage you to find a way to address the problems in your relationship directly. Believe me, even though a relationship that survives infidelity can be even stronger than it was before, it’s way easier to just tackle things head-on and avoid all of the hurt and trust issues that come from an affair.
Today’s guest is one of the world’s experts on the topic of infidelity - and how to heal in its aftermath. Her name is Dr. Janis Abrahms Spring, and she is the author of the Bestselling book “After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner has been Unfaithful”. She is also the author of two other books: “How Can I Forgive You, The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To,” and “Life with Pop: Lessons on Caring for an Aging Parent.” Her book “After the Affair” has sold over 500,000 copies, and is full of insightful, relevant information about what to do if your relationship has been impacted by infidelity.
Today, Dr. Janis Abrams Spring and I cover the following:
What constitutes infidelity in a relationship? There is no one definition for what constitutes infidelity; rather every couple must define it together. Infidelity is not necessarily about sex, it is also about secrets, intimacy, and trust. Whatever someone’s definition of cheating is, most people know when they are violating their partner. Feeling unsure if you are crossing a boundary? As a general rule, imagine that your partner were in the room looking over your shoulder- if you are uncomfortable with them witnessing what you are doing, saying, or how you are being then you can assume you are doing something that would hurt them and is violating an implicit sense of trust in your relationship.
Create a secrets policy. Don’t wait for something to happen, speak early and openly with your partner about infidelity, and come together to create a working definition before any situation or threat occurs. Talk about what is permissible and what isn’t, and see how your perspectives align. Some couples have understandings and permissions around certain secrets, while others choose to share everything. Be proactive in your relationship by starting this dialogue now! Working out these agreements does not necessarily have to come from a fear-based place, but can instead be a loving and empowered step towards building resilience, and trust.
NOTE: Don’t forget to include cyber affairs in this conversation. What constitutes an affair when you don’t actually meet or touch the other person? What level of flirtation is okay with you? There is no blanket rule here - each couple needs to define the boundaries together and make sure they are on the same page.
Why do people have affairs? While apologies, recommitting, and choosing monogamy are all important steps in repairing after infidelity, one of the most critical tasks post affair is to understand why the affair happened in the first place. Likely there were multiple reasons. This is going to require taking an honest and deep look at yourself, and your relationship and be willing to get very clear about your vulnerabilities. It will not be easy, or comfortable, but try to create a list/an inventory of contributing factors - and search to find out what your actions say about yourself, your partner, and your relationship. Remember that affairs are often less about the attraction to the other person, and more an attraction the unfaithful partner has to certain parts of themselves and the way they get to be with this new person. They may feel seen, validated, care for, and desired in ways that they have long been aching for.
Degree of responsibility: Repairing after an affair requires the couple to come together in an effort to collaborate, clarify, and recommit. It takes two to tango, as they say, and nothing is a one-way deal in relationships. That said, it is important for the hurt partner to also take the time and risk of looking at themselves and understanding what responsibility they had in contributing to the vulnerabilities that may have let an affair occur. Each partner must willingly search for ways they each contributed to the space between the couple that made room for another person to come in. This is sobering work and a challenging process, and must be addressed and explored with compassion and passion so that the hurt partner does not get double slammed, first by the affair itself and then with the belief that somehow they are to be blamed for it happening. Though painful, there is enormous potential for growth and transformation in the process if the couple is open to learning from the affair and working to create a new beginning! Willingness leads to recovery!
Share your concerns and your vulnerabilities with your partner. One of the most empowering and effective ways to avoid an affair, is to willingly take the risk of communicating your needs and desires with your partner, before they take on a life of their own. If you are feeling unheard, unloved, frustrated, disappointed, etc., go to your partner and say something like “I love you and want to be in this, and yet, what is happening right now is challenging for me and is making me vulnerable to look for someone else’s attention! I want to look at this together and figure it out”. This way you are voicing your concerns early, enrolling your partner in a collaborative and creative process, and allowing your partner a chance to respond and change their actions accordingly.
Infidelity does not necessarily mean the end of your relationship. There is no way to predict whether you are in a relationship that can weather an affair or not, however there are some key questions you can consider. Ask yourself and each other- Are we willing to do the work that is necessary to rebuild our relationship? Are we really ready to understand each other’s hurts and needs? Are we willing to change the way we treat each other? How willing am I to learn from this catastrophe and grow from it? If you do choose to stay, you will necessarily and inevitably learn to be a better partner, and you will have a new marriage to the same person (this time, with new skills).
“Infidelity is often the deathblow to a relationship. But it can also be a wake-up call, challenging couples to confront the issues that led to the affair and build a healthier, more intimate relationship than before.” Janis Abrahms Spring
Will I ever love and trust my partner again? This question is where the process of healing usually starts. The beginning will likely be like walking through a black cloud - there will be times when you will lose your way and time when you will feel that you cannot recover. While it is not in the best interested of each couple to recover, the couples that do succeed are the ones that keep walking through the difficulty. Not skirting around it, not going under it, not trying to rise above it, but drudging through the thick of it. Even through the despair, the pessimism, the unloving moments, they continue to hold on. It can take a year and a half of rollercoastering before people really feel like they are going to make it.
Watch out for emotional reasoning! Our feelings do not necessarily forecast the future. If you feel desperate and hopeless this does NOT necessarily mean there is no hope. If you feel distrust this does not necessarily mean your partner is untrustworthy. If you find yourself really confusing thinking and feeling, or projections with reality, slow down and take time to look inward and outward from multiple perspectives.
Revealing an affair- Again, there are no rules when it comes to if, or how you tell your partner you are having an affair. As you consider whether you will reveal cheating, it is important to be very thoughtful, and to remember the fact that the person you share a secret with is the one you are closer with, meaning that by keeping your partner in the dark you are continuing to choose to be emotionally connected with the person you had an affair with. By coming clean with your partner you allow them the freedom to make their own decision about what they want to do. Whether or not you tell your partner, you still must figure out why you cheated and be willing to look at your internal stuff and share any grievances and needs with your partner in order to allow the relationship to grow and to avoid continued infractions.
What is TMI (Too Much Information)? As the hurt person you might have an initial instinct to want to know every single detail about your partner’s affair. It is usually not required or generative however for you to need to know everything. Breathe, and ask yourself: what is good for me to know? Is knowing this/that going to help me or hurt me? If there is nothing good that is going to come of a specific detail, it is best to leave it for the time being, as you can always ask more questions down the road. By looking at the motivation behind your questions, you can avoid unnecessary hurt and pain and details that will live on in your dreams and in your psyche. As the unfaithful partner, it is your responsibility to trust your partner’s questions, and to try your best to answer their questions on the level they are asking them. And always be respectful with the truth.
Getting the other out of your life and out of your relationship - Whether the affair person is literally in the picture or not, they will continue to remain present in the couple’s life, and in their bedroom, psychologically and emotionally for quite some time. That said, another important step in the healing process for a couple reuniting and repairing after an affair is to cut ties with the affair person. Ritualize this and make it as clean and concrete as possible. Perhaps this means having a symbolic funeral for the lover in which you make a formal ending. This can be in many forms - the essential elements being that you clearly state the expected and intended ending of your affair.
Often the unfaithful partner will write a letter or an email to the person they engaged in the affair with, stating that they are no longer going to contact or accept contact. Be respectful - it is counterproductive to be cruel, or to minimize what happened. Allow your partner to read over what you write and discuss it before sending. Transparency, now, is key.
Trust is built on concrete behaviors. Trust is not built on verbal reassurances (“Trust me, honey”) but on concrete behavior that communicates to the hurt partner that they are now safe, and hopefully will allow them to feel more comfortable and connected. The list of behaviors and gestures that help to rebuild trust relationships are vast, and most effective when personalized and defined through dialogue in the couple. Create a list together! Examples include telling your partner immediately when you have heard from or encountered the affair person, acknowledging anniversary dates and places related to affair, and letting your partner know when you are experiencing emotions that have been triggers for escape in the past.
Read Janis’ recent book After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful
Read her other book How Can I Forgive You?: The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To
www.neilsattin.com/affair Visit to download the show guide, or text “PASSION” to 33444 and follow the instructions to download the show guide and qualify to win a free signed copy of After the Affair.
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Many of you have written in wanting me to address the impact of children and parenting on relationships, and as you might expect - the impact is considerable! How do you take some of the ideas we’ve been talking about here on the podcast and apply them to how you interact with kids? How do you get away from fear-based tactics of command and control, rewards and punishment - and instead switch to a form of parenting that’s trust-based?
Since we focus so much on conscious relationships on the show, I wanted to tackle the topic of conscious, growth-oriented parenting with one of the nation’s experts on the topic. Alfie Kohn is the author of fourteen books on education and parenting, including “Unconditional Parenting”, and the newly re-released “Myth of the Spoiled Child”. He has been featured in Time Magazine, and on Oprah, and he challenges much of the conventional wisdom about parenting. You can find out more about Alfie Kohn at his website, www.alfiekohn.org . My hope is that you’ll see how this approach to parenting ALSO has something to offer you in your relationships - Are you fostering playfulness? Curiosity? Cooperation? Or compliance and resentment?
Try on your kid’s perspective! Perspective taking is the process of getting out of yourself in order to imagine how the world looks from someone else’s perspective. Sometimes this might be in the literal/spatial sense, but more importantly it is about imagining how another person thinks and feels. This is different than empathy, because you are just trying to understand how they think and feel, rather than feel what they are feeling with them. Doing this with your children both helps to promote this skill in your kids, and is a key characteristic of good parenting! When you can imagine how things look from your kid’s point of view, you are much more likely to be responsive to their needs. Allow your children to explain to you their take on the world so that you can gather important information needed to better understand their behavior.
Working WITH approach instead of a Do TO approach: When it comes to parenting, rewards and punishments are an easy one-size-fits all approach that lets people go into auto-parenting, but unfortunately does more harm than good. While rewards and punishments may get the short term reactions we are looking for, there is a lot of research and evidence suggesting that this parenting style ultimately damages and holds children back. The alternative is not just the absence of bribes and threats, but an entire complex network of guidelines - the most important being that you let your kids know that you accept them no matter what. With this attitude you can begin to work WITH your child, getting to know their perspective and world, and bring them into decision making. Children learn to make good decisions by making decisions (and learning), rather than learning to follow directions (on making good decisions).
In the long run, what do I want for my kids? Ask yourself “what do I actually want for my children in the long run?” This will help you set long term goals that will guide your parenting intentions and decisions. Do you want them to develop into adults who are happy, ethical, caring, compassionate, self-reliant, creative, or have other qualities? Once you have your dreams for your children defined, you can reflect on how you are actually parenting in the present, and how what you are doing is or isn’t bringing about these results. Are your actions supporting your intentions?
You may find when you reflect on this question that some of your present actions are negatively impacting future possibilities. For example, if you want your child to share and you reward your children with a lot of praise when they do, then this could actually lead to a certain level of self-centeredness as your child’s attention will move away from learning to give and take with generosity, and towards doing whatever is needed to get rewarded. Children are highly tuned into ways they can change their behavior in order to get the love they need, and will therefore go to great lengths to meet adult expectations. However, do you want your child to feel like they have to perform in order to receive your love?
What does my kid need? This is a very different question than the one most parents ask, which is “how can I get my kids to do what I want them to do, when I want them to do it?” Universally and fundamentally most children (well, all of us) have a need to not merely be loved, but to be loved for who they are. Conditional love, the kind in which we offer love when an expectation is met, can be quite damaging as it develops a sense of conditionality in the child’s own sense of self. Punishments and rewards do not help a child learn right and wrong, nor does it help them develop their own sense of motivation and volition. In this way, rewards and punishments usually promote opposite skills and qualities from the intended effects. In order to avoid this power dynamic, in which both you and your child may lose their sense of self and connectedness, it is critical that you learn to love your child with openness, acceptance, and curiosity.
Practice unconditional love. How are you showing your children that they are loved unconditionally? That you love them for who they are, not what they do? If our love comes with strings attached, than our children will not be able to develop a secure attachment to us, and ultimately to themselves. This can be translated into our adult relationships as well. Nobody wants to be loved by another adult contingently. It should be noted that there is a degree of conditionality in adult relationships (it is okay to have behavior boundaries) that is different than in our relationships with our children. When it comes to our kids, we have to to be there for them no matter what they do or say.
Turn praise into questions that elicit thinking. Praise is a form of judgement. When we overpraise our children, we further create children who are compliant versus caring. If, for example, your child draws a picture of an animal - instead of saying “I like how you drew that animal”, try just verbalizing what you notice so that they can reflect on what they did. Or, say your child shares a toy with another child, instead of “I love the way you are such a great sharer!”, try asking something along the lines of “Why did you decide to share that toy?” In an effort to build your child’s capacity for independence and confidence, turn your praise into questions, and occasionally reflect on and point out things you notice. This is all a way of working WITH your child, and it models respect, curiosity, and engagement with much more impact than a patronizing pat on the head will do.
Parenting is about when you are at the end of your rope- somehow you have to manufacture more rope! For the most part we have good instincts for what our kids need, but we have trouble responding all of the time, especially when patience is running low. It is helpful to remember that when we ourselves are stressed out we often revert to older patterns of behavior, and this might look like trying to hold on by wielding power. When we do, our children’s nervous systems usually go into collapse or fight or flight mode, further escalating the situation.
Take responsibility for your auto-parenting habits, and work to reframe the immediate frustration within a longer term context. Of course there are situations where compliance does become essential, but when we become dependent on demanding and expecting to be obeyed immediately and mindlessly we are going to illicit pushback from our children. Be selective in your response, and build in extra time for talking with your children. Your child doesn’t want to go somewhere? Instead of immediately focusing on how you can make them change their mind, pause and take their perspective. Is there a good reason for your child to feel that way? When we do more asking than telling our kids tend to be more likely to say “okay” in situations when we really need them to go along with it.
The more you focus on your child’s behavior the more you are missing your child!
What matters are the needs, motives, reasons, and values that are underlying and informing your child’s behavior, more than the behavior itself. Don’t focus only on the observable outcomes (what you can see and measure) but on the whys of the behavior. To understand the deeper levels, it is necessary to enroll your child in a conversation to help give you a sense of their perspective. Asking your child will not only elicit helpful eye opening information that will help you better set guidelines and limits, but it will also help them develop reflection skills.
Talk less, ask more!! This very wise bit of council is as relevant in our relationships with our kids as it is in making us better spouses, lovers, managers, and friends. Our tendency to want to impose our beliefs onto others gets us in trouble, alienates us from the connections we crave, and ultimately undermines our ability to form trusting bonds. The process of asking another to share their feelings and thoughts with you, not only models curiosity and respect, but it brings to life this concept of unconditional love!
Check out Alfie Kohn’s website for more information and his public speaking schedule
Visit www.neilsattin.com/parenting to download the show guide, or text “PASSION” to 33444 and follow the instructions to download the show guide to this episode with Alfie Kohn.
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Have you ever wondered what exactly is happening in your body when you get triggered? Why do we go into rage, or feel like leaving, or completely shut down? Have you ever experienced conflict and thought something like “If only my body could just CALM DOWN then I might be able to actually resolve this?” - Or have you experienced that moment of getting nowhere in a conversation with your partner because they are triggered?
There’s a reason that we keep coming back to this issue of safety and being triggered - that’s because both your ability to feel safe in the container of your relationship, and your ability to restore safety when, inevitably, you aren’t feeling it is at the heart of your being able to do relationship well - especially once the “honeymoon” stage of your relationship is over. Creating safety with your partner is at the heart of the work of people like John Gottman, Sue Johnson, Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt, and Stan Tatkin - and creating safety within yourself is at the heart of the work of Peter Levine, Dick Schwartz, and Margaret Paul. In other words, we’re diving deep because this understanding is KEY to helping you in almost every aspect of your relationship with others and your relationship with yourself.
Today’s guest is Dr. Steve Porges, creator of The Polyvagal Theory, and a distinguished university scientist at the Kinsey Institute and a Research Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina. For more than 40 years Steve has been working on this theory of how our vagus nerve works and his work has completely transformed our understanding of how we respond to obstacles, adversity, stress, and trauma. How the very same nerve pathways that support our health can also be recruited for defense, and create health problems. If you’ve heard of “fight/flight and FREEZE” - that’s all based on his work - and you have some idea of what I’m talking about. In today’s episode, we’re going to not only get a better understanding of how and why the body does what it does, but also get even more clear on how to come back into balance so that you can be in a state of healthy responsiveness, playfulness, and curiosity - not triggered and just trying to deal.
Developing a neurophysiological understanding of our defense systems. A basic understanding of our autonomic nervous system provides insight into why we react the way we do in conflict and crisis, while also laying the framework for what we can do to help bring ourselves back into a physiological state in which we are available for connection, love, and intimacy. To begin, it is helpful to know that as humans we have developed (through our evolutionary history) two different major autonomic defense circuits:
Sympathetic nervous system: The mobilization defense system is dependent on the activation of our sympathetic nervous system which is responsible the fight or flight response we know so well.
The immobilization response- Our most ancient (meaning we share it with virtually every other vertebrate that has evolved) defense system is that of immobilization and shut down in the face of fear. This physiological state is regulated by the vagus and includes reduced oxygen demands, reduced metabolic demands, and can include dissociation, passing out, and defecation. Immobilizing in the face of fear is an adaptive behavior that allows us to disappear. Those who have experienced, or work with others who have experienced trauma, know this state well.
There is no conscious input in how these systems activate- the concept of consciousness in this context can be very damaging because it suggests a degree of volition that can lead people who experience major trauma like rape, threat, or force, to feel ashamed of how their bodies reacted. Unfortunately our culture sometimes asks questions like “why didn’t you fight?”, or, “why didn’t you leave?” These questions do not respect the implicit and reflexive activity of the body to defend itself by freezing - based on these inherited circuits.
Neuroception- Neuroception the term that Steve Porges created to describe how our body can sense something and react to it without it necessarily entering our conscious awareness. Our nervous system makes decisions and changes our biobehavior without any level of conscious awareness- despite the fact that we are profoundly aware of the impact on our physiology we are rarely aware of the triggers causing these state shifts. If our body detects risk or danger features in the environment we might have a sympathetic excitation (sweat, jumping out of our skin, etc)- we might not be aware of the cues, but our body is informing us!
What is the vagus nerve? The vagus nerve (a major component of our parasympathetic nervous system) is a large nerve in our body that originates in our brain stem and goes to nearly every organ in our body. If you are interested in the mind-body connection, then you are interested in the vagus nerve. Amazingly, 80% of the fibers of the vagus are used to bring information from the organs to the brainstem, the other 20% is for information being sent from brain to the body. This means that our organs really carry the majority of our bodily information. The vagus has two branches- an older branch that can be recruited for defense as it goes to the organs below the diaphragm and elicits immobilization behaviors, and another newer more evolved branch that, when functioning, keeps “fight/flight/freeze” in check, and supports our health, growth, and restoration! It is the part of our autonomic nervous system that is responsible for allowing us to connect, self-soothe, be playful, and be in relationship. This newer vagal circuit is linked to the features of the face (ears, eyes, mouth), enabling us to express our bodily state in our facial expression, in our voice, and to detect the intonation of other people's voices to screen for safety. This newer system has myelinated nerves which respond to voice intonation, smiling faces, playfulness, social referencing, and reciprocity.
Hierarchy of defense systems: We use our three phylogenetically evolved systems of regulation in a hierarchical pattern. In an effort to create safety, we first use our most newly developed system (the myelinated vagus) to connect, when this fails we go into sympathetic mobilization (fight or flight), and if this fails we head into our most ancient defense system of parasympathetic immobilization. Our entire autonomic nervous system (ANS) is built to support health, growth, and restoration. The key way that we ensure that we are using our ANS in this way is through the vagal brake. Our newer myelinated vagus has the potential to inhibit the defensive structures of the other autonomic nervous system (ANS) pathways. This means that when we know how to recruit our vagus we can prevent ourselves from being hijacked by the more reactive and destructive patterns of either full mobilization or immobilization.
Survival through cooperation: While being a mammal is a pretty great deal, there are a few things that we do not do very well. Namely we are not wired to deal well being by ourselves, and any extended or intensive isolation is not good. Mammals evolved to co-regulate - meaning that we help each other regulate our states through caregiving and reciprocity. It is important to remember that Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest has been long misinterpreted, and that we survived due to cooperation, and not through aggression.
Observations that may indicate that your system, or your partner’s system, is being recruited for defense: Is there reciprocity in facial expressivity? Eye gaze? Intonation of voice? Also ask whether the vocalization patterns lends themselves to reciprocal dialogue or are you stepping on each other’s words? Our culture is so focused on syntax and words that we have forgotten that one of the most important ways we detect safety is through prosody (varieties in tone/timbre/rhythm) in voice. It can be incredibly helpful to keep this in mind in your relationship and interactions.
Every relationship has some minor to severe level of arguments - meaning people feel some semblance of danger and they get angry or scared. When this happens the neural tone of the muscles in the face is reduced which changes the tone of the middle ear - and literally people will have difficulty hearing you. In arguments with partners or children, it is likely the other person is having difficulty understanding you, because they are actually having difficulty hearing you!
While communicating with your partner, regularly check in with not just what you are saying, but how you are saying it - what is your tone? What is your body communicating? And is your partner is a physiological state in which they are open to engage and hear you?
It is the experience and not the event. Trauma leads to a lack of feeling, or difficulty feeling, one’s own body. Trauma histories have very little to do with the actual events that occurred, and more to do with the physiological responses that occurred. When considering your, or someone else’s trauma history, focus less on the objective events or facts of the experience, and become curious and become witness to their subjective experience. This will lead to an understanding of how and why the body is reacting in certain ways.
If we don’t feel our own body - we have difficulty related to other people’s bodies. A feature of trauma histories is the lack of feeling one’s own body. In order to get a sense of how present you, or your partner is in their body, it is helpful to look at how well are you/they playing? Does the person have the ability to be spontaneous, reciprocal, and spontaneous in the interaction? Are they responding to cues?
In addition to the question of how well you are playing, the other important question is how well are you pooping? This is important because the whole area below the diaphragm holds and reflects the effects of trauma on our bodies. Trauma is linked with IBS, constipation, and furthermore, the nerves that regulate this area also regulate the genitals. When we bottle up feelings in the subdiaphragmatic area, our sexuality is also impacted. Highly anxious or tightly wrapped individuals will have digestive systems that reflect this, and likely their sexual responses to intimacy will reflect these features as well.
Our autonomic nervous system is there to support health, growth, and restoration! It is only when it is used chronically for defense that we begin to have dysfunctions and disorders manifest in our organs.
Repair- We have violations of expectations ALL the time! However, when you have a violation it creates an opportunity for a repair. It is important to remember that it is not the words of an apology that matter as much as it is how the apology is said: the gestures, the words, and the intonation of voice. Your partner will only respond to a valid apology when the nonverbals are in concert with the intention. It is not the words! Culturally we function so much on syntax in our culture and not enough on the intonation of the words - in your relationship shift your attention to how you are interacting and how your body, and your partner’s body is responding to intonation. Remember to ask - how am I creating safety in this interaction? Am I speaking with prosody in my voice that will create comfort for my partner?
Be more playful! Using gestures of engagement, and more playfulness, helps to regulate each other’s physiological state. The notion of connectedness is a biological imperative. The goal as mammals, and as good spouses, is to interact in a way that regulates each other’s physiology. It is a responsibility for individuals to interact to make each other feel safe. It is not just healing, and enjoyable, but it has great impact on our mental and physical health because it supports the circuits of health, growth, and restoration!
Somatic experiencing: In efforts to recover from trauma, it is critical that we learn how to separate physiology from events. This occurs when we have the opportunity to be in the same physiological state in which we experienced the trauma, however in a way in which we have the control we did not have when we were in original event. It will not happen by telling someone to not get upset or not worry when they are triggered, but instead letting them experience their body reacting, but this time in a safe context. Doing this begins to take power away from the implicit body memories.
Change your breathing pattern: Have you noticed how when you are upset with your partner, you begin to huff and puff? This is your body physically preparing to mobilize for a fight or to run. Can can change your physiological state towards social engagement through shifting your breathing. Long inhalations removes what is called the vagal brake and it allows us to get more mobilized. In an effort to slow down, we need to have long exhalations. Try extending your exhalations through intentional breathing and through singing. Singing is wonderful because it uses muscles of social engagement system. Another way to play with voice in your relationship is to improvise songs, and use gibberish in moments of tension to help change your intonation and move the focus away from the meaning of words, and towards how the voice can help build repair and closeness.
Escalation is not coregulation! In most relationship conflicts, both individuals feel like victims - in order to de-escalate a situation and move in the direction of play and connection, one person must step up and take charge of noticing the pattern, and changing the way of engagement. This means meeting your partner on their level - often through touch, gentleness, and a prosodic voice. Hug your partner - not in an effort to fix, but rather in an effort to connect and bring back safety.
Be respectful of your physiological state: Respect your body’s behaviors without judgement, and without justifying or making personal narratives. Our bodies are constantly sending us information about the world - be respectful of your body shifts, even in moments when your body is reacting in a way that feels exaggerated or maladaptive. Also be respectful of how your body state shifts affect those around you - knowing they are going to react to your shifts, whether you intended for that or not. Taking responsibility for your physiological state is not only about learning how to downregulate your system, but it is about communicating your state to those around you. We are human, and are not always going to be able to perfectly respond in a situation that triggers us, but what we can learn to do is to verbalize what is happening in our body to others! If you are angry about something that happened, or feel the signs of being triggered, share this out loud. This will help your family, your spouse, your partner be able to not take the visual and bodily cues you are sending personally. This will SAVE your relationship!
Last bits of advice: Remember to change the prosody of your voice, bring in gentle touch, and see yourself as a vehicle for healing and safety for you and your partner! Before you react, listen! Don’t use the physiological state you are in as the motivator for behavior, just pause for a moment and get a better evaluation of the context. Add in a few long exhalations, and you will be more able to stay present and get back to a physiological state that allows you to be responsive, engaged, and connecting with your partner and those in your life!
Visit Stephen’s website for more information, a list of public speaking events, and links to previous interviews!
If you want to gain an in depth understanding of Polyvagal Theory, read Stephen’s book The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation
www.neilsattin.com/safety Visit to download the show guide, or text “PASSION” to 33444 and follow the instructions to download the show guide to this episode.
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What does it mean to forgive, and is there a way to do it that truly works? Why is it essential to practice forgiveness in your life, especially in your relationship? And how does the practice of forgiveness change when it’s something BIG you’re trying to forgive, vs. the everyday things? Did you even know that forgiveness can help you get through the everyday ups and downs of life with your partner?
In relationship, it’s inevitable - big, or small, one of you is going to hurt the other. So then, the question is: what do you do? HOW do you repair, and find your way to forgiveness. In today’s episode, we’re going to explore the topic of Forgiveness with one of the world’s experts on the topic, Dr. Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, and author of the books “Forgive For Love: The Missing Ingredient for a Healthy and Lasting Relationship” and “Forgive for Good” - which are both eye-opening journeys into how the process of forgiveness works in the context of life and love. Fred Luskin has worked with couples, and has also worked with people from war-torn countries - so his forgiveness methodology covers a wide range of the human experience.
When we talk about forgiveness- is it necessary to have someone on the other end who is saying they’re sorry? It certainly is easier when we can directly respond to someone offering us an apology, however this is often not the case. Either that person does not believe they did something wrong, they are no longer in our life, or they are incapable for some reason or another. The crux of forgiveness is when you wanted a certain outcome but that outcome did not occur. Forgiveness is about making peace when you don’t get what you want - and about how you reconcile your desire for something with the reality that it did not happen.
Practicing forgiveness: For most of us, true forgiveness, the deep acceptance form (rather than the ‘sorry’ and ‘it’s okay’) is challenging! People don't want to forgive, and often don’t know how. It requires an acceptance that the relationship matters more and that owning one’s own weaknesses matters more than whatever grudge you are holding. This is difficult for our egos to accept. It is a a releasing of focusing on our own hurt, and a switch to being able to say ‘you might have harmed me but I am going to release that image of you as someone who does harm’. It is hard to battle away the power of our self-absorption, for many of us this has become a great defense strategy, but you will find that your life and your relationships are more successful when you do make the shift.
Temporary grief is necessary. It is easy to be caught in the habit of wanting to stay in the hurt and the blame, versus choosing to do whatever it takes to release that feeling. It is not just that it is a habit - there are good reasons to feel the hurt, initially. Grief is a necessary experience - that moment of really feeling that thing you didn't get that you wanted or needed. When you don’t get the love you wanted, OUCH. It is hard. The struggle, however, helps shed light on our desires, stuck places, expectations, and opens our awareness. That said, this period of hurting is not necessarily bad - it can be necessary to experience grief, on some level, in order to grow!
Choose to grow. Grief becomes negative when it becomes chronic. This is often caused by being stuck in an inept or unuseful schema of how life should be. Throughout your entire life you have a choice on how you are going to move on from hurt - are you going to use this as a chance to grow, or as a chance to remain bitter?
Creating new ways of thinking about things: The understanding of what happened requires creating some new cognitive schemas around events. For example, instead of the thought ‘they owed me’, a new schema could be ‘I don’t always get what i want’. In order to have adult relationships we have to accept that we are all flawed human beings. It is important to grow out of our immature and young schemas that hold that we should get everything we want. These old schemas can be replaced- it just takes time! Thanks to neuroplasticity our brains themselves change as we change these long held stories and beliefs.
The process of forgiving does not depend on what you are forgiving! The easiest way to practice forgiveness is to practice on the little things. If you want to become more forgiving in your relationship(s), you can choose minor things that your partner does that you don’t like as a way to develop your skills. This way, when the bigger things come you have already developed the skills and created the brain pathways that you are going to use! We need these new pathways to help us handle disappointment - work towards building this ‘muscle’.
Moving away from blame. In order to move out of the grudge and blame cycle it is essential to shift your perspective from THEM to YOU. You have to take responsibility for your own part and your own life. It is not always about finding out what you did wrong, but rather about taking responsibility by saying “my nervous system, my moods, my brain, these are all up to me and not that other person!” Even though your partner sends out a lot of information and stimulus that can be frustrating and triggering, you are responsible for knowing how to handle yourself and your life. This sense of efficacy in handling yourself is what forgiveness helps lead us towards. If you do not practice this shift in perspective than you suffer due to constant fear of what others can do to you.
Reframing really traumatic and difficult experiences: While it may seem counterintuitive at first, when it comes to the more damaging and traumatic experiences in our lives, the most helpful thing we can do for ourselves is to reframe our hurt in the context of all humanity’s wounding. Devastation and hurt are ubiquitous on planet earth, and it may be one of the aspects of being human that we have to struggle with. Be careful not to exaggerate your experience by seeing it as unusual - yes, your individual wounding may feel distinct, but reframe it within the context of the amount of human suffering. Focusing in on the uniqueness of our specific hurt can cause incredible extra suffering. By reframing your suffering in the greater sense of human suffering it is possible to feel connected to a greater universal truth and power. From here you can more easily access a sense that change and obstacles are a part of life. The question then becomes, given that suffering is part of life, am I going to, in my present life, let these things have power over me and control my life? You have the choice on how strong and capable you want to be when it comes to your own hurt.
Blame, in the context of love: Much of the reason that couples blow up is due to the fact that everyone has been hurt, and everyone has a lot of anger, and we are all looking for places to put this anger. When we find something wrong with our partner, part of us focuses on this so that we can channel the bigness of our frustration that existed - long before we had a partner! Their mistakes and flaws become a place to blame so that we do not have to directly address our deeper dissatisfactions - in other words, our partners actions become ammunition we use to protect ourselves from our own disappointments. To break this cycle we have to choose to be a loving person, even in the midst of hurt. We have to look at our own flaws simultaneously. It is not a matter of “how am I, perfect and whole, going to deal with this broken person?”. No, the question instead is: how do two flawed humans get along? This question moves you away from blame, and out of the victim cycle of someone doing something to you, and moves you towards the true creative challenge of figuring out how two people trying to work with their own weakness can learn to love each other!
You cannot actually push forgiveness - you can sneak around to it though! Forgiveness lives in the part of the brain we have access to when we are calm and centered. It is a natural response to life, but you have to cultivate conditions to bring out that natural response!
The 4 practices towards forgiveness:
Your anger may be automatic, but you still have a choice: When you are upset and triggered your sympathetic nervous system reacts and will take over if you do not learn to calm it. When you are on the adrenal pathway, you are going to say the same stereotypical things to yourself, and you will likely revert to older and more immature patterns and habits of reactivity. There are of course, certain experiences in which it is appropriate to use your adrenaline to react so that you can protect and defend yourself, but most often in relationships we are not dealing with actual fight or flight situations.
Instead, what is often happening is that your partner does something that makes you enraged, and your nervous system reacts as if you are ACTUALLY in danger. You can learn to change this response. The habitual response to hurt is often “Wow! I am so angry because they did that horrible thing!”, but the deeper truth is you are upset because you have been practicing certain kinds of thinking and being, expectations, that can lead you to being upset. In blaming your partners for our upset (which is often connected to a very old hurt) and focusing on how it is their fault, you feel helpless. This helplessness is what is so dangerous. The more awareness you learn to have around your automatic reactions, and the more you learn to calm your nervous system, the easier it will be for you to make the shift. You will be able to say, in the midst of hurt, “Oh! I am upset”. And sometimes you just need to feel this upsetness for what it is.
Calming yourself: It is important to continually practice ways of calming yourself down so that when you get to a triggering situation, you can rely on known and developed abilities and strategies. There are endless options here! Get creative, explore, try things out - find what feels good to you and your nervous system. Heart centered breathing, for example, is a meditation technique of bringing attention to your abdomen, and noticing its expansion on each in breath. Deep breathing is critical as it helps get our parasympathetic nervous system to kick in and calm our sympathetic nervous system. After a few breaths you can bring in an image of something loving or positive. This quick practice gives your nervous system a reset, and gives you the mental bandwidth that you did not have 30 seconds prior! When you are angry and stressed out you do not have much bandwidth at all, and are unable therefore to make much sense of what is actually going on. From a slightly more centered place you will now be able to think to yourself “oh boy, I’m getting upset, I’ve been upset about this 500 times before, isn’t it enough?”, or “Hmm...I am getting upset again, is there another way to deal with this?”
You have a choice in how upset you get: Once you know that you can calm yourself, despite who said or did what, you gain choice and freedom! As long as you are blaming others for the actions of your nervous system, it is going to be very hard to have any clarity. Once you take responsibility though, for your own physical, mental, and emotional reactions then you have the choice: do you want to go back to contempt? Or do you want to try something else?
Unenforceable Rules: You can want the sun to rise in the west, but if you get upset when it rises in the east, then you KNOW you are holding onto an unenforceable rule. In relationships these rules could look like, “they cannot lie to me, they shouldn’t drink, they must be home at 8, they should want sex as much as I do”.... We can think this, but we do not have control over the decision our partner makes.
Often these unconscious rules show up when we become upset. The anger helps to highlight where it is we are engaged in a futile attempt to keep a rule that cannot be enforced. Generally, when you notice that you are getting very upset and there is not any immediate danger, then likely there is an unenforceable rule in there.
If you are in the middle of the same argument you have had a million times, then recognize there is something going on in your head that is not helping. Step away- even if it is just psychically, and take a deep breath. Turn your body away for a second. Ask yourself seriously - do they have to do what i want? The answer is always no. So how can I take care of myself? Usually the answer has to do with calming down so that you can get your brain back! Once you are back in a more regulated space you can get curious - what is truly happening here? What can I do differently?
When you do this process of caring for your reactions, it is called forgiveness. You are no longer just getting upset and staying upset - you are taking back control of yourself so that you can have a more successful relationship and successful life!
There are going to be lots of things you just have to live with. The research on successful relationships shows that forgiveness is at the top of necessary qualities to thriving in partnership. Even if there is nothing atrociously wrong with your partner, the interaction of two good people sorting life out is going to create all sorts of conflict! Your expectations, temperatures, biological rhythms, and upbringings are all different and the integration of two different people into a functioning unit is hard. There are inevitably going to be gears that grind, EVEN if you REALLY love each other. If you use the differences as ammunition, you will be miserable. If instead you can recognize that there are many places where you are just going to have to make peace with the fact that you are different, and that there are places you just won’t agree on, then you have a much better chance of openness and happiness. Furthermore, these differences and stuck areas will work out much more successfully once you get out of the mental head space that there is something wrong. Try thinking “we are different, and this is the person that I chose”. Just this thought alone can move you out of the blame and victim cycle, and into the possibility of change.
Create a positive story that you tell about your relationship. Try on this frame of mind: What a remarkable thing it is that someone would try to love me! That as flawed and difficult as I am, someone would take me on! The effects of this kind of humility and humor are profound and allow us to be in relationship successfully!
NOTE: Don’t forget to take some time now to create an image that evokes love and gratitude for you. Find it, develop it, and practice visualizing it often so that it is available to you next time you get angry and need help calming your nervous system!
Read Dr. Fred Luskin’s practical and powerful book: Forgive for Love: The Missing Ingredient for a Healthy and Lasting Relationship
www.neilsattin.com/forgive Visit to download the show guide, or text “PASSION” to 33444 and follow the instructions to download the show guide to this episode with Fred Luskin and qualify for a signed copy of his book.
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