Do you suspect that you someone you love might be a narcissist? Or have you been told that you might be a narcissist? What can you do to bring a narcissist (or your own narcissistic tendencies) back into balance? What is the difference between healthy self-esteem and narcissism? Today we’re talking to Dr. Craig Malkin, author of Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists, and one of the world’s leading experts on how to heal when narcissism impacts you. Our conversation will teach you how to recognize true narcissism and what do do about it. You’ll also learn why a certain amount of narcissism is good for you and your relationship. And if you’re on the opposite end of the scale, an “echoist” in relationship with a narcissist, you’ll discover how to safely reclaim your own voice, without necessarily blowing up your connection.
As always, I’m looking forward to your thoughts on this episode and what revelations and questions it creates for you. Please join us in the Relationship Alive Community on Facebook to chat about it!
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Check out Craig Malkin's website
Read Craig Malkin’s book: Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists
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www.neilsattin.com/narcissism Visit to download the transcript, or text “PASSION” to 33444 and follow the instructions to download the transcript to this episode with Craig Malkin.
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Neil Sattin: Hello and welcome to another episode of Relationship Alive. This is your host Neil Sattin. This has come up a lot lately where you hear people talking about one of the most pernicious epidemics to affect society and relationships - it's the epidemic of narcissism and the reason why I call it an epidemic is not because I came up with that, it's because it's been labeled an epidemic with a lot of fear attached to it that perhaps the way that our society is, the way we've been raising children, the way that we are on social media, that that has fostered a whole generation of narcissists and perhaps because we've become more actively seeking help when we're in trouble, then it's easier to see what's going on around us and see perhaps if those people around us are affected by narcissism because it has a profound impact on us.
Neil Sattin: That being said, the way that we've looked at it has been pretty black and white. In that black and white view of what narcissism is, there hasn't been a lot of room to actually know what kind of things you can change, what's actually healthy and what isn't.
Neil Sattin: If narcissism is this inflated sense of self, do you want to not have a sense of self? How does that even work? Are there places where narcissism is actually good for you or for your relationship or for the world? These are the kinds of questions that we are going to be addressing today with our esteemed guest, Dr. Craig Malkin.
Neil Sattin: He's the author of the internationally acclaimed book, Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. Dr. Malkin is a clinical psychologist and he's a lecturer at Harvard Medical School. He's been featured on NPR and Fox. He's covering the whole spectrum there.
Neil Sattin: You might also get a sense that this is a particularly relevant conversation for today's world. I'm super excited to have Craig Malkin here with us today. I just want to let you know that as always, we will have a detailed transcript available for today's episode which you can get if you visit neilsattin.com/narcissism and if you don't know how to spell that, feel free to Google it.
Neil Sattin: No one is going to make you feel bad about that. Neilsattin.com/narcissism or you can always text the word passion to the number 33444 and follow the instructions. I think that's all the details, let's get on with the conversation. Craig Malkin, I'm so excited to have you with us here today on Relationship Alive.
Craig Malkin: Oh, thanks so much for having me Neil.
Neil Sattin: I was feeling this hint of irony as I was ... Because every episode I start with, I tell people, "If you want to just text the word passion to the number 33444, you can get a transcript." As I was saying the word passion, I was reminded of how in your book you talk about the link between narcissism and passion and how much perhaps we owe to degrees of narcissism in our world.
Neil Sattin: Obviously, it's expressed really malevolently at times and other times, it's so beneficial to our world. What do you ... This is maybe a really tough place to start, but I'm curious for your take on that. What's required and why is there this link between narcissism and passion?
Neil Sattin: After all, that's often what draws us into relationships with narcissists is that heightened feeling of passion and intensity that we experience with them.
Craig Malkin: It is a tough place to start, but it's an important place to start. Really what you're asking about is what we have come to call a healthy narcissism. We'll get into more detail about this, but briefly, 50 or 60 years of research demonstrates that the average happy, healthy person around the world, this is cross-cultural research mind you including China, the average happy healthy person doesn't view themselves as average. They view themselves as exceptional or unique to some extent.
Neil Sattin: Yeah.
Craig Malkin: Yeah, they see themselves through slightly rose-colored glasses. This is what we think of as healthy narcissism. In the research I did with my colleagues, the research that others have done because at this point there are four measures that tap into healthy narcissism.
Craig Malkin: Also called moderate self-enhancement. I want to make a point here, this is not self-esteem. Narcissism and self-esteem are not the equivalent. Even healthy narcissism and self-esteem are not equivalent because healthy narcissism is tilted slightly towards the positive.
Craig Malkin: What turns out in this research is that people see themselves through these slightly rose-colored glasses, feel happier, they're able to persist in the face of failure, they're able to maintain big dreams. There's that sense of passion where that comes in and they may even live longer because there's some tie in between moderate or healthy self-enhancement and health measures.
Craig Malkin: What we're finding is it's just that ability to maintain a little bit again those slightly rose-colored glasses just enough to be happy, healthy, maintain some intense engagement in your ambitions or your visions for yourself and others that can provide a fuel.
Craig Malkin: If we get too focused on other people to the exclusion of ourselves, then we lose some of that passion. That is to some extent that passion and engagement comes from being able to let other's needs and feelings fade from huge or small enough to keep you going, but not so long that you become deeply self-involved. That's a good way to think about healthy narcissism or moderate self-enhancement.
Neil Sattin: Right. You can be present and you can even be internal, but you don't lose connection.
Craig Malkin: Precisely. Another way to think about this is secure attachment that is our ability to feel like when we're sad, scared, lonely, blue, we can safely turn to others, one special person or even people like a group and depend on them for mutual caring and comfort and support that we're safe to some extent in their hands.
Craig Malkin: Secure attachment in the research is tied very closely to this healthy narcissism. What's fascinating is people who are securely attached don't become so driven by that drive to feel special that they lose sight of other people's needs and feelings or even behave in a hurtful fashion.
Craig Malkin: It's like secure attachment both brings out those rose-colored glasses for ourselves and others. I go into great deal in rethinking narcissism is about this. It both brings out those rose-colored glasses and it also keeps us tethered so that we don't tip into dangerous territory where we are so addicted to that experience of feeling special that we go out of our way to get it including hurting other people.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. I loved how ... It was interesting that you mentioned in your book that there was this study done that one of the most ... One of the strongest indicators for longevity and happiness in a relationship was a couple's ability to see each other as better than they actually are. There's this healthy relational narcissism as well.
Craig Malkin: Right. Those rose-colored glasses that people lined up developing. Again, closely related to our ability to safely depend on others to securely love. They extent to our partners. There is this large scale study of 40,000 people you're referring to what's sometimes called the pickle study I think because of the variables that were identified to be strongly related.
Craig Malkin: One of them was PI, positive illusions, that was the strongest. Way more than self-esteem or what you might think of it was a winning personality. It was one or both partners seeing their partner as better than they were by objective measures. That sounds odd, but there's lots of objective measures like intelligence.
Craig Malkin: There was a recent replication of this study where happy healthy people viewed themselves as ... I think it was a funny number, 80% of people in this large scale study over 2,000 believe themselves to have above average intelligence which of course statistically is impossible.
Craig Malkin: What we're talking about is just again, slightly tilted towards a positive and it turns out that's helpful. It's like the roots, there's a place for it in healthy relationships. I make a distinction between extreme or addictive or pathological narcissism and the playing with positive illusions is that really what we're talking about is being special to a partner as opposed to special for the world or for others which is performative. We feel like the gleam in their eye, they feel like the gleam in ours. That's a very loving, secure relationship.
Neil Sattin: It reminds me of a time when a friend of mine who had just gotten out of a challenging relationship. It happened upon a book about narcissism and in reading this book, she had this huge revelation that, "Oh my goodness, so many of my problems in this relationship were that I was with a narcissist."
Neil Sattin: While it was great that that gave her some relief to know that, what I noticed was that I started noticing lots of people labeling others as narcissists. For me, that's caused me to wonder, "Are there really that many narcissists out there? Are they all as bad as all that? Or is there this spectrum of what people actually ... What we can expect people to act like and behave like."
Neil Sattin: Some of those things being really problematic and other things being something that you could actually work with. That's why your book on rethinking narcissism was such a relief for me because it really addresses that head on. I'm wondering if you could talk for a moment about what is this spectrum of narcissism and where can people land on it and where is it workable and where is it not?
Craig Malkin: Absolutely. Happy to talk about the spectrum. The first thing I should say though is the way I described the spectrum is not the way it has often been described in the past although a lot of people are adopting my version of it because it's more inclusive, it helps explain all types of narcissism and it explains some other problems that we can get into.
Craig Malkin: The way it's usually viewed as is think of narcissism as this pernicious, obnoxious, arrogant, self-involved personality trait and you start with a little bit of it that's pretty bad and then you go all the way up to the extreme where it's disordered and there's many, many problems.
Craig Malkin: It starts out as bad and there's more bad, but as we already covered, the problem with that view is for a long time really since the inception of the concept of narcissism, we have this idea of healthy narcissism, there's plenty of evidence for it.
Craig Malkin: Again, think of it as having slightly rose-colored glasses for yourself, at least feeling exceptionally unique compared to seven billion people on the planet even if privately. The problem is that there's all ... That's only associated with positive measures of self-esteem, of capacity for relationships and our study for empathy.
Craig Malkin: If you look at people who have zero narcissism and I'll introduce my term for that in a moment, that's a problem as well. It's really where people lack any healthy narcissism or healthy self-enhancement or they self-enhanced too much where it become disordered.
Craig Malkin: We want to think of imagine a spectrum at zero. If there are problems at zero, imagine a spectrum at 10. There are problems at 10, this is where people are so ... If you think of narcissism as this pervasive universal tendency, the drive to feel special, these people at 10 or so addicted to it, they turn away from love, relationships, truth.
Craig Malkin: Again, lie, steal, cheat, do whatever it takes to get their high. They soothe themselves by feeling special. Then in the center is where we find the moderate self enhancement or what I've called healthy narcissism. As soon as you start viewing the spectrum that way, a lot of things become clear including the fact that we also know people can be extremely high in trait narcissism without being disordered.
Craig Malkin: Think of some narcissists as someone who's dependent on her addicted to feeling special if they become so addicted that they have diagnosable problems, that's when they have narcissistic personality disorder, but not all narcissists are diagnosable with a disorder of some kind.
Craig Malkin: I think I want to address your question in pieces, that's really the first piece, helping people understand that there's a spectrum and that we can lie along any point within that spectrum and if people are interested or who are listening in where they fall, actually my colleagues and I developed a measure for the narcissism spectrum scale.
Craig Malkin: I have a brief version of it on my website that you can access just by going to the thenarcissismtest.com or drcraigmalkin.com and click on the test tab. If you have trouble spelling narcissism, in fairness I often did early on, but now I've spelled it so much that it's second nature, but you can also get to it through my website.
Craig Malkin: You can take it and I'll give you feedback and test results. You can see where you fall in the narcissism spectrum as I've described it.
Neil Sattin: I took the test and fortunately, it was such a relief to me to find out that I'm not way up at the top of the spectrum though I had a feeling I probably wouldn't be, but you take those tests and you're like, "I really hope that this doesn't reveal something that everyone else around me has known for quite some time and I'm going to discover right now."
Neil Sattin: I was slightly above the average number though because you have the test in the book so that was the diversion of the test that I took. It was interesting for me to see that and to see fortunately I think, I was pretty good in the healthy narcissism category.
Neil Sattin: It made sense to me of my experience and then even when I thought about, "Okay, I was a little above average in the ... I guess it's the extreme narcissism category, that actually helped me make sense too of some moments especially when you quantify it as this is an addiction to feeling special." When I think about certain times in my life, when let's say that was compromised, my feeling special are important.
Neil Sattin: Now that makes a lot more sense from the perspective of, "Oh, there I am. A couple points above average in the narcissism test that you offered."
Craig Malkin: But not above the cut-offs in the book you're saying or it gives you the cut-offs for a score where this relates to where you want to keep an eye on how to keep yourself in a healthy range? Are you saying that ...
Neil Sattin: No. For example, you said if you scored 27 or below, stay where you are on your spectrum estimate. Then you said if you scored 35 to 41, move yourself up a notch. I actually scored a 29. I was in the gray zone between the 27 or below and then the next one that you described the 35 to 41.
Craig Malkin: I see. Okay. Yeah, that's more or less the same of course because all of those, the ranges I described, this will help anybody who reads my book too, you really want to look at those specific cut-offs because that difference of a couple of points isn't really, it's not statistically significant if I'm understanding what you're saying.
Neil Sattin: Got it. Yeah.
Craig Malkin: I would have to ... It's been a while since I looked at the cut-offs myself, but as long as you are below that next cut-off, you're just in that first range even if it's a couple of points above.
Neil Sattin: Oh phew.
Craig Malkin: Okay.
Neil Sattin: I recommend that you take a test. Do you think someone could actually accurately fill it out for another person if they were trying to figure out what was going on with someone else in their life or is that really not an accurate thing to do?
Craig Malkin: I think you can fill it out. A lot of times, these self-report measures are used that way where a partner fills it out. It changes the nature of the test. I will say that we have not tested the narcissism spectrum scale by asking partners to fill it out, but here's what you should know about the answer to that question is it turns out that we're actually really good at picking up.
Craig Malkin: At least when it comes to a very specific type of narcissism. We haven't talked about the types yet. Along that spectrum, there were going to be lots of different ways to feel special and that's what explains the different types. When it comes to more outgoing, charismatic, manipulative, arrogant, chest-thumping narcissists.
Craig Malkin: As I say, the narcissist ... I often say the narcissists we all know and loathe. Everybody recognizes that type and it turns out in the research that if we see somebody like that on social media or we have interactions with them in person or we just observe in any other context that when we rate them on narcissism, our ratings are pretty accurate compared to when that person fills out self-report or is assessed clinically where it turns out we're pretty good at spotting that more outgoing kind of narcissism.
Craig Malkin: When it comes to filling out the test for somebody, if you're with a partner or a friend and you're wondering about them and the vain preening, primping, loud version of narcissists, you're filling out of that questionnaire is going to bring-
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Craig Malkin: Filling out of that questionnaire is kind of gonna bring you pretty close to an accurate picture.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. Yeah and let's talk a little bit about some of the more subtle versions that someone might kind of experience but not entirely be aware that that's what's going on.
Craig Malkin: So important. Yeah, I often start conversations about narcissism and narcissist just as we did ... this is sort of the opening of Rethinking Narcissism, my book, I explain narcissism's not a diagnosis, we've talked about that. Neither is narcissist, the only diagnosis is Narcissistic Personality Disorder and when most of us think of narcissist or narcissism, we do tend to think of that vain, preening, primping, boastful, bragger. The problem is, it's really a caricature of a stereotype. The reality is that not all narcissists care about looks or fame or money and some can be extremely quiet.
Craig Malkin: So, if you get too focused on those features or those traits, you missed signs of difficulty or trouble that have nothing to do with vanity or greed. So, very simply, if you think of narcissism as a drive to feel special, narcissists as people who are addicted to or dependent on it and the level of disorder they're severely addicted. Many ways to feel exceptionally unique compared to the other seven billion people on the planet. So, we've talked about the obvious, it's often called or overt, I prefer Extroverted Narcissism as the term, I think it's more precise. And they tend to agree with statements like, "I find it easy to manipulate others and I think I'm pretty special." Things along those lines. And they answer them in the extreme.
Craig Malkin: So, these are people who might feel special because they accumulate lots of wealth or they accumulate fame. Again, they're really out there. But there's other kinds of ways of feeling special. Like you can feel like the most misunderstood person in the room. Introverted Narcissists don't particularly care about fame or money most of the time. They agree with statements like, "I feel I'm temperamentally different from most people. I have problems no one else seems to understand." Sometimes they think of themselves as an undiscovered genius. If people only knew me, they would see. And there's yet a third, I'm sure there's gonna be more as we continue to research called, Communal Narcissist. These are people who agree with statements like, "I'm the most helpful person I know and one day the world will know me for the good deeds I've done." So obviously, this is someone that doesn't care about vanity or greed. So, if you just think of it, this is really about becoming too reliant on feeling exceptionally unique compared to other people, you can now start to imagine it doesn't have to be for positive reasons.
Craig Malkin: I mean, you can meet someone who feels like they're the ugliest person in the room and they're deeply invested in that and that's their way of feeling exceptionally unique.
Neil Sattin: Yeah and this might be a good time to talk about something that's so important because lest we focus too much on the label or even why, like this desire to feel special, let's go maybe deeper to why would someone have this desire to feel special? Apart from the fact that we all have it and this is something that I've addressed on the show before but that's, I think, one of our universal needs. To feel loved, to feel special, to feel certainty, to feel ... it's just, it's in there, in the mix and yet, you talk about this and I think it's so important when we start the conversation about how you actually reach someone who might be up somewhere other than healthy on the narcissism spectrum, which is what's underlying that need to feel special and maybe that will help us find some compassion and connection for people who are struggling with this issue.
Craig Malkin: Absolutely, I mean, I work with people in my practice, I have both with couples and individually worked with people who are so extreme in the trait that they do have Narcissistic Personality Disorder and even that, there's sort of a range of where you can feel some hope. We have to enter the conversation, first of all, by recognizing that before we even think about, "Can I reach this person?" You have to think about safety. That is not if it were the case that everybody who was narcissistic was abusive and dangerous to be around, we would have that as part of the diagnosis. It's not part of the diagnosis.
Craig Malkin: The reason is that there are plenty of people who either are narcissistic or even have Narcissistic Personality Disorder who aren't abusive but I always like to refocus people's attention, if you're thinking about, "Can I reach this person?" You want to think about what I talk about is the three stop signs in rethinking narcissism first and that first is, abuse. Emotional and physical abuse. If you have a partner who calls you names, who puts you down, who relentlessly demeaning, dismissive, that's emotional abuse. If they are physically aggressive, it's not really crucial to figure out why they're abusive, people get distracted by that. People can become abusive because they have an addiction that's fueling it, they can be abusive because they have tension over some other problem like gambling and they can become abusive because they're extremely narcissistic. But if you see abuse, you want to address that. It's not on you as a partner to end abuse, it's on somebody who's being abusive. So if you see that, a reason I call it a stop sign is that until the abuse has ended, you can't be safe in the relationship trying to reach your partner in different ways or trying to make changes. This is such a part of my training as a therapist and a couples therapist that if we see, if we hear signs of abuse, I'll typically meet with a couple one on one so I can ask them about their safety in the relationship so, I can get a sense of just how safe they are. If you see signs of abuse, you really can't even work together as a couple until that's ended.
Neil Sattin: Yeah.
Craig Malkin: So you want to get help figuring out next steps. If you see denial, whether the problem is a partner who has a substance abuse problem, or gambling, or extreme narcissism, it can't change. It's not gonna change until that person is willing to at least say, "I think there's something wrong that I need to work on, I need to get some help." And the third stop sign is psychopathy, that's a pattern of remorseless lies and manipulation. Not all people who are extremely narcissistic are psychopathic but people who are psychopathic, actually, their neurology is different. They don't just have empathy blocks as we see, where that drive to feel special gets in the way of thinking about other people's needs and feelings when somebody is narcissistic. People who are psychopathic actually may not be able to experience empathy in the same way. So, if you see those three stop signs, you want to get help thinking about next steps. We were really talking about if you don't see those stop signs, if somebody's in the milder range where they might have Narcissistic Personality Disorder but none of those other signs, this is where you might be able to reach them.
Neil Sattin: Yeah okay, and what are some of those ... what are things that you might notice where you'd think, "Oh okay, this isn't the extremely vain chest thumping narcissist or preening narcissist but this is one of the more subtle kinds." What are some of the warning signs that you might notice where you'd be like, "Oh, this could be what's going on with this person?"
Craig Malkin: It's a great question because one of the reasons I wrote Rethinking Narcissism is to also direct people to more reliable signs of difficulty or even danger and when you think about extreme narcissism, even in the milder range say when it doesn't tip into disorder as an attempt to manage attachment insecurity. Once again, attachment insecurity is when you're feeling sad, scared, lonely, this is a person who for whatever reason has come to mistrust, not feel trust that they can turn to somebody for comfort or care in mutually supportive ways so, they see themselves of feeling special instead. As soon as somebody does that, I think of it as kind of doing an end run around healthy vulnerability.
Craig Malkin: They loathe to be vulnerable in any way because that means you have to be open to being in somebody else's hands. That's part of what attachment security is about. So there are predictable ways of doing that. One of the most common that I see is what I call, playing emotional hot potato. You want to think of this like playing hot potato only with feelings of insecurity. An example I often use is I had a woman I saw whose husband would stand over her shoulder while she was applying for jobs and say, "Are you sure you want to do that one? Maybe that one's out of your reach or they're out of your league." So, he wasn't really sure what he was doing in his life, he felt in a really unsure place himself but rather than turn to her with that and look for some kind of soothing instead, he made himself feel like he was in the know by casting doubt on her certainty about herself and what she was doing.
Craig Malkin: Think of that as I don't want to feel insecure, here you take those feelings so, the person says and does things to stir those up. That's a way of bypassing any of those feelings of vulnerability and doing it in a way that makes that in that case, the husband felt like, again, he was special, he had some special knowledge, he didn't even know about the job market she was looking at, that's how extreme it was. But you can see, that's not overt abuse but it does undermine somebody's confidence. So, that's one example that can come out very early on and it's not so severe that it's obvious like the other things people talk about.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, that reminds me of a couple of the other warning signs that you mention because they surprised me, honestly, I was like, "Oh yeah, I've experienced that and I see how it could be what you're talking about." And those two that I'm thinking about, they seem a little connected. One is placing other people on a pedestal and then there's that like twinning phenomenon like, "We're exactly like each other and isn't that amazing?"
Craig Malkin: Yeah, this is again, it cuts if you have to rely on feeling special, instead of depending on people for sense of feeling good about yourself or soothing, it means always bypassing those vulnerable experiences so, putting people on pedestals, again, I mention this study, it's worth going back to and rethinking narcissism, the study of 40,000 couples, where one or both partners viewed each other as better than they actually were, smarter, warmer, funnier and objective measures. It was just like, "No, you're about average or below." But the partner thought otherwise, that's putting people on a pedestal and it seems to be a part of normal love relationships and it actually keeps people together. But if it becomes so rigid that you feel like you're being cemented to a pedestal, like you can do no wrong, it's not okay for you to make mistakes, now that's a sign that this person is struggling with subtle or maybe even extreme narcissism because what they're doing is they're trying to avoid feeling vulnerable. If they've convinced themselves that you're so special like you're a God or an idol, you're perfect, perfect people don't disappoint.
Craig Malkin: You can never let them down and if somebody is so narcissistically driven that they're afraid to be vulnerable, then if there's no disappointment, then there's no vulnerability and they can feel safe from that experience, they never have to fear feeling that at all. The problem is, of course, that it's not a real relationship, disappointment is part of relationships, working that through is part of a secure, loving relationship and working it through in healthy ways and inevitably, we get knocked off the pedestal, often in anger. Because it's not a sudden realization, "Oh my gosh, not just that you're not perfect," but it's this sense of that the anger is partially, "and I don't want to be around you because I might be vulnerable."
Neil Sattin: Yeah.
Craig Malkin: So, that's the pushing off the pedestal. And then why people engage in the twin fantasy where if somebody's narcissistic that you're close to, they focus on everything that's the same between the two of you, "Oh, we love the same movies, we love the same books," some of that is fun, again, some of it has roots in something normal where it's a special relationship to be a twin, one mind in two bodies. But you can see, if it becomes insistent, then it's about, again, bypassing doing an end run around an experience where, "Oh my gosh, you mean you don't see things the same as me?" Because that can be kind of a letdown, you're not on the same page. And that requires being open to feeling vulnerable about the fact that, "Oh my God, you mean this person isn't always gonna agree with me?" And being able to work that out instead of feeling like you never have to fear that the two of you are ever gonna disagree on anything.
Neil Sattin: Right.
Craig Malkin: So you never have to face it.
Neil Sattin: Yeah what this reminds me of is, well, for one, I think you're right, that some of these things are part of healthy relating, particularly in the beginning stages when we've got that oxytocin and dopamine coursing through our veins with our new beloved and that to me, just suddenly I had this light bulb flash where I was like, "Oh, that's why people who have narcissistic qualities do get into relationships." I mean, it makes sense on the level of that's one great way to feel special but these two in particular, the pedestal and the twinning, that's something that actually does bring you together and being on the receiving end of that like knowing, "Wow, it feels great to be put on a pedestal for a little while," and it feels great to have someone being like, "Oh, we're so much alike," it kind of reinforces your own sense of specialness, right?
Neil Sattin: So to me, that explains why narcissists actually do end up in relationships. But then what we know about relationship development and we actually just had Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson on the show talking about this is that you have to go through that place where you're no longer in symbiosis with your partner to get to the healthier horizon of having a good mix between being differentiated and being securely attached and so, that's where the problem, it sounds like, of narcissism really emerges because you're trying to do something natural in a relationship, which is to be different from each other and then the system that really needs those things that reinforce specialness can't take it.
Craig Malkin: That's exactly right, that's exactly right. I forget where I read this years ago but this can all be summarized as no conflict, no closeness. Very early on in a relationship, it is normal to idealize each other, that honeymoon stage, yes, when the oxytocin is flowing and that it's fun and it's wonderful. These early warning signs can appear in ... we all engage in them sometimes and again, a certain amount of it is healthy and normal, it's when you see it rigidly and frequently and across the board that you have to start worrying and wondering how much can this person handle the normal experience of, "We are different people." And that means that I might not always see things the same way and can that be anything but catastrophic and dangerous? Can we still remain connected? That differentiation you're talking about. We're two separate people but we are securely attached and if there's this rigid insistence on always feeling special in the relationship or that twin ship effect where we're always the same, then you can never progress beyond that. And you never really learn is this person capable of negotiating needs and seeing me as a separate, complete, whole other person that they can still be close to?
Neil Sattin: Right, right. And that reminds me of the warning sign you mentioned of someone trying to kind of control you. But it's not necessarily overt control, it's this stealthy, behind the scenes, because then you never have to meet each other in vulnerability to actually have a conversation about something as simple as where we're gonna go for dinner or something bigger like are we gonna move to Tanzania together?
Craig Malkin: Exactly.
Neil Sattin: Yeah.
Craig Malkin: Yeah so, stealth control comes about. Again, you can see the common thread throughout these, if somebody's so narcissistic that they can't handle any feelings of vulnerability, sadness, feelings of rejection or disappointed, they're all normal and if they can't handle that, then it's gonna be very hard for them to directly ask for what they want to engage you in a conversation about, "I would like to do this." So the more narcissistic someone is, the more likely they are, sometimes in subtle ways, to go around that all together through what I call, stealth control, by arranging events to get their needs met. And the classic example I provide of this ... I think I even talk about this in Rethinking Narcissism is the ... I was working with somebody whose partner would come in at the last minute, say with concert tickets or something really fun and sweep them off their feet and they didn't really have time to plan and it was fun, of course, and exciting, you can just imagine the thrill of this surprise but anytime she wanted to go somewhere like check out a new restaurant or go to this movie, his answer was, "Well, I'm bored or I'm too tired or I'm bored with Chinese food," or whatever. There was always some reason not to do it.
Craig Malkin: And she slowly realized that she was sort of orbiting his preferences organized around what he liked to do without his even asking. It's like a slow, subtle attrition of your will. It doesn't become a part of the conversation, they're just doing what this other person wants.
Neil Sattin: Right and that, I think, almost brings us to the opposite end of that narcissism spectrum, right? Where the co-partner that's most appropriate for a narcissist is someone who more and more erodes who they are and what they want and that's kind of the only way it can work. And I'm putting work in quotes because it's obviously not really working.
Craig Malkin: Absolutely. So yeah, the nice segue to one of the most important contributions that I worked on in Rethinking Narcissism that people find so helpful, especially people in relationships with somebody who's narcissistic is this idea of echoism. We talked about healthy narcissism. In Rethinking Narcissism, I introduce the term, echoism, you want to think of these as people who lack any self-enhancement, they rarely or never feel special, usually they've had experiences that lead them to fear that they might become a burden. Growing up, say they had a fragile parent who was depressed or rageful so, they worried about having too much of an impact or too much effect on that parent so, people who develop echoism agree with statements like, "I'm afraid of becoming a burden and I'm at a loss when people ask me what I want or what I need." And you can see, the reason I came up with this term is that in the original myth of Narcissus, Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection due to a curse. Echo was a nymph who fell in love with Narcissus and she was cursed to have no voice of her own, she repeated the last few words that she heard, that was all she could do.
Craig Malkin: And people who struggle with echoism, like Echo, tend to fall into relationships with extremely narcissistic friends and partners or at least they have trouble recognizing it and pulling themselves out because they're already afraid of seeming narcissistic in any way so, they become adept at echoing the needs and feelings of others so, it makes for yes, a match, not a happy one for either partner sometimes but people can get very stuck when they struggle with echoism and they wind up finding a partner who's more in the extreme range of narcissism.
Neil Sattin: Right, yeah. I thought that was so beautiful how you brought that in and that is such an important part of the myth as is recognizing that echo just fades away to nothingness where that's all that's left is her voice and repeating and so, I really appreciate the dynamic there that you illustrate and also to me, I was like, "Oh right," and that is probably one reason why just thinking back to my friend, when she got out of that relationship, she felt this huge reclaiming.
Neil Sattin: She felt this huge reclaiming of who she was that had been undermined, and I realize that I'm talking about a friend who's a woman, but there are narcissists who are women, too, and men who find themselves in this role. So it's not a gendered thing, right?
Craig Malkin: No, it's not gender, and what's interesting is I think we might find a slight gender difference, just a note on the research on traits. We tend to think of men when we think of narcissism and extreme narcissism, in particular, and while men outnumber women in extreme range, they only slightly outnumber them. The rates aren't that high to begin with, and men outnumber women 2:1 when it comes narcissistic personality disorder. But when we're just talking about the subtle range, somebody who qualifies as above average in narcissism enough to be called a narcissist, there's only slightly more men than women. I think we'll find the same with echoism. Just because echoism is really about attuned to other's needs and feelings often at the expense of your own, in general, on average, women are more socialized, focused on relationships and caring, and others that what we found, and I think this speaks to your point, is we didn't find a gender difference in echoism, so far.
Neil Sattin: Interesting.
Craig Malkin: So it might be slight and we haven't picked it up yet.
Neil Sattin: There are two important things that I want to make sure that we cover before we end. One of them is … The one that we're going to cover second is talking about what you do, because I think that's a really important part of your book and you go into it in detail. I love how you talk about being in relationship with narcissist, but also like how to do it in your family, how to cope and strategize at the workplace. So there's a huge scope in your book that we're not going to be able to get to here. We're going to focus on the relational component. But before we do that, I want to know, like, if you are listening to this and you're hearing all these words and you're like, "Holy mackerel, like that might be me. I might be kind of veering into the narcissistic end of the spectrum." For one thing, like I don't want you to feel horrible. I want to celebrate that you're hearing this and thinking like, "Oh my God, that could be me." It's probably worth taking that test that Craig was mentioning earlier. But, Craig, what could you offer someone who's sitting here, listening to us and thinking, "Wow, that actually might be me. I might be doing that in my relationships. What do I do?"
Craig Malkin: I can offer hope to people who are listening and identify with the experience of extreme narcissism, because as long as you have that awareness, I mean a big part for me of change and growths and healing is really compassionate self-awareness. I really try to help people get to that pace. If you're, at least, aware, "Okay, this might be me," we already know from the research that what keeps people, as I said earlier, tethered to the center, that is where they might have just moderate self-enhancement is secure attachment. We know from the research that extremely narcissistic people aren't securely attached.
Craig Malkin: So to the extent that you can start to become comfortable with normal vulnerable feelings owning them in yourself when you're sad, scared, lonely, testing out in relationships, sharing those feelings directly and trusting that people actually care even if you don't nail it at work, even if you don't make tons of money, even if you're not an undiscovered genius, that people still care about what you're feeling. So working with therapists who are trained, I think what we're learning is based on … I'm going to throw a fancy phrase out … communal activation. It's an area of research that shows that, especially in this subtle range, or the milder range of narcissism, that people who struggle in that way, they're not missing empathy, it's blocked. It's blocked by this drive to feel special.
Craig Malkin: There are therapies, I practice these forms, that are rooted in attachment research, again, helping people relate in ways when they are feeling vulnerable, that they can trust they can depend on others. Therapies like schema therapy, accelerated experiential dynamic therapy or AEDP, EFT for couples, Dr. Sue Johnson's model. All of these therapies are helping people learn how to relate in securely attached ways. If you can do that, you're not going to rely on feeling special. You're not going to tip into the extreme because to the extent that you can truly depend on people on healthy emotionally mutual ways, you won't be addicted to feeling special.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. This reminds me a lot about Alex Katehakis' work. She was on the show back in Episode 116, and she was talking about how the pathways of addiction get created and she describes how, when you're young and your attachment bonds aren't necessarily being fostered the way they ought to, how it becomes really easy to find shortcuts to feeling better rather than what you learn in a securely attached environment, which is that, "Oh, if I get connected to someone and feel safe and vulnerable and open, that's another way." It's a more sophisticated way of feeling better. It's not quite the easy pathway that then can get hooked into any kind of addictive behavior, where you get quick rushes of dopamine to the system and that helps you deal with your discomfort.
Neil Sattin: So, I'm thinking about that, and, yeah, how powerful it is that while relationships can bring out the dysfunction, there's so much potential in relationship if you have that awareness to lean in and either create or reinforce that other pathway of how you deal with your discomfort and your disregulation by regulating with each other.
Craig Malkin: That's absolutely right, co-regulation, regulating with each other. We heal and experience deep healing in relationships when we experience the person that we're with in a way that we maybe didn't experience growing up as someone that we're safe in their hands and they experience us in the same way. That changes us. This is what we're learning from this research, and yes, when people have had an experience where they don't have that basic sense of trust where they're insecurely attached, they turn to all kinds of substitutes. Drugs are one; gambling, pornography, and an addictive drive to feel special, self-soothing in that way.
Craig Malkin: Again, I want to come back to this, this is a central idea when we're thinking narcissism. Speaking to anybody who's listening who thinks they're struggling with extreme narcissism or somebody who has a partner when they're not seeing those three stop signs, that learning how to relate in a securely attached way is the answer to the extent that you can rely on people, love and depend on them, you will not rely on feeling special. What we're doing is replacing feeling special for the world or for others with feeling special to a partner or even a group of people, if it's a religious group that you're a part of, where you feel special in their eyes.
Neil Sattin: Got it, yeah, because that kind of connection actually reinforces an intimacy, reinforces a specialness that's not quite so fragile.
Craig Malkin: That's exactly right. It's more lasting. Those addictive replacements are addictive because they're controllable. One of the reasons people turn to say alcohol or other drugs or narcissism to soothe themselves if precisely because unlike people, you can buy and sell money. With narcissism, to some extent, you can control your looks by dressing really nicely and making yourself up as best you can. Even the research, it turns out that people who pride themselves on their looks narcissistically, they engage in something called effective adornment; that is, they're really good at putting selves together but it turns out they're no more attractive than the average person when they're not allowed to do that. So these are controllable ways of feeling special.
Neil Sattin: Now, let's just … I love the hope here because that's, I think, one of the unfortunate things about earlier approaches to narcissism is by lumping everyone together. I think it didn't give people a lot of hope that someone could change or that a situation like that where you've involved in with someone who has narcissistic tendencies, that there's any hope for change.
Neil Sattin: So let's assume that we're not seeing those stop signs that you mentioned of abuse, denial, psychopathy, and what might I do if I'm saying, "Okay, this is my partner. I want to know that I have given it my all before I leave because I don't see being with the narcissist forever, like that doesn't sound my idea of happiness, but I'm inspired by Craig Malkin's view that there is hope here and change is possible. So what could I do to help try to bring my narcissist back into the healthy zone?
Craig Malkin: Such an important question. Yeah, I know, there is hope. Anybody who wants to change can change and I firmly believe that if they're willing to do the work. We can invite people to a healthier range where they can meet us in mutually, satisfying, caring ways. I go over all of the research and rethinking narcissism, I mentioned earlier communal activation. I think of this as lighting up areas of the brain devoted to relationships and caring and connection that we're born with this. Human beings are social creatures. It's part of how we survive. This is the attached-
Neil Sattin: Right, I even talked about how, when you're using the pronouns like "we" and "us," that that is activating those parts of the brain.
Craig Malkin: Yeah. There's over a dozen, I mentioned in my book, but there's even more now, just simple things like using communal language: we, our, us; flashing images of a mother holding an infant; of a teacher helping a student; of asking somebody who test as narcissistic, who actually scores on a test as a narcissist or maybe not disorder, maybe they are, but they're in the extreme enough that they test high and you can ask them to put themselves in the shoes of an abuse survivor that they're watching, for example, in a video and it's called empathic induction. They'll actually show a reduction in our narcissistic traits. It is like it's reactivating the attachment system.
Craig Malkin: Again, we are social creatures. We're meant to survive by being with people so we have this … Attachment system is part of our evolutionary survival. It's early experiences that interfere with its full expression. So if somebody is in the subtle range, I wanted to offer very simple ways of tapping into that communal activation, lighting up that area of the brain by inviting secure attachment experience. So I describe what I call empathy prompts. This is what you can try.
Craig Malkin: There are two parts to an empathy prompt. The first part, part one, is to voice the importance of the relationship. This is where you're reminding the person that they're special to you. In some way, shape or form, this is attachment language. Then you voice your vulnerable feelings. We tend, when we're feeling disconnected in relationships, sometimes we go to anger. Sometimes we shut down and move away, instead of saying what we're feeling underneath, which is "I'm sad and I'm lonely. I'm afraid. I'm worried," whatever it is. That's the vulnerable piece. An example would be I would often coach a client to say something like, "You are my husband and my best friend, and you'll always be important to me. That's why I feel so sad when you give me the silent treatment. It's like I am losing the person that I love the most."
Craig Malkin: So that would be an empathy prompt. You're reminding the person of their special relationship with you and the place that you hold in each other's lives, and then you're sharing the impact that they're having on you. Most people, if they're capable of empathy, they'll melt when they hear statements like this. It really is an invitation to hear what you're feeling on the inside. Another example, I'll go back to the husband who's looking over the woman's shoulder, commenting, "Oh, isn't that out of your league?" or when she's applying for jobs, I might help her say something like, "Your opinion means the world to me. You're my husband. I look up to you. When you suggest I only apply to easy jobs, I'm afraid you don't think that much of me, like I'm not that important in your eyes."
Craig Malkin: So these are examples of empathy prompts. If you do not see shifts with these, I even say in the book, like within the three weeks, don't hold out a whole lot of hope because then you might be dealing with a more extreme situation. Certainly, don't hold out hope if you don't seek out a couple's therapy where people would help changing the nature of the relationship between the two of you to a more securely attached one.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, so you're looking for that melting or that person like actually having some understanding and maybe even taking some responsibility for how their actions have affected you.
Craig Malkin: Absolutely. You want to hear things like affirming statements like, "I love you, too, and I don't you to feel sad" or "How long have you felt sad like this?" or "I'm sorry. I never want you to feel like a failure," apologizing even, right? Validating, "I know my sarcasm hurts you," and you want to look for signs that this person is not shifting. You're doing your part. This is as much as anybody. I'm not ever going to ask somebody to be like a therapist to their partner. These are ways that we should talk to our partners anyway, based on the research.
Craig Malkin: So I want to make that point. I often say, if it doesn't work with somebody who's not narcissistic, it's not going to work with someone who's narcissistic. These are things that are just known to help invite a more securely attached way of relating. If you get responses like, "Why are you saying this to me?" defensive, attacking, or "I get busy, that's all. What's the problem?" or "What about what I've been going through?" sort of hijacking the conversation. Or worse, blaming you: "You're just too sensitive." Those are really, really bad signs because if you lead with how important that person is to you and follow-up with, "That's why I feel sad" or "That's why I feel afraid," you should see signs of empathy.
Neil Sattin: Got it, yeah. Is there any way to tell someone, "I think you might be kind of a narcissist," in a way that's ever generative or helpful in a relationship?
Craig Malkin: I don't recommend it because, for the same reason I approached both individual in couple's therapy where the focus should be on what your experience is and sharing that with the person that you're trying to remain close to. If you're describing their behavior, if you're labeling them, again, if it doesn't work with somebody who's not narcissistic, it's not going to work with somebody who is. So as soon as you say here is what's wrong with you, even if you try to do it in the most loving way, it immediately puts people on the defensive. They're far less likely to be open to hearing what you have to say. It's better to simply share that when they criticize you or raise their voice or question your choices, that it leaves you feeling like they don't … leaves me feeling like you don't think much of me. You want to talk about the impact it has on you, the specific behaviors. Let's leave the diagnosis and the labeling to whoever they go to for help.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, yeah, and if you find yourself going to therapy, it sounds like that'd be a great idea to get help and support in a situation like this. If your therapist is open to influence and they haven't already read Craig's book, Rethinking Narcissism, you might want to just kind of surreptitiously pass it off to them so they have a chance to read it.
Craig Malkin: I have clients who have come to me because their partner gave them my book. Over the years, I probably had, in the last couple of years, I've probably had, at least, five, I would say, come to me because their partners said, "I think you should read this book," and then they come see me.
Neil Sattin: Wow. Well, that must be profound to see that your book is having that kind of impact as well where people are willing to come forward like that.
Craig Malkin: Yeah. I feel honored and grateful that it's having that kind of impact and I find it very moving when somebody calls me up on the phone, and that's happened too, and says, "I read your book. I felt like I'm lost through all my life and I've left some wreckage in my relationships, but I really want to change this and your book gave me hope." I get calls like that, too.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, awesome. Well, I do want to mention that you brought up Sue Johnson as someone whose couples work you recommend to help people build attachment in a secure attached relationship. She's been on the show a couple of times, so you can listen to Sue Johnson in Episode 27 and in Episode 82. Actually, she was also on an Episode 100, but those two that I just mentioned are probably the most relevant for this conversation that we've been having today.
Neil Sattin: Meanwhile, Craig, I'm so appreciative of your time and the vast wisdom that you have on this particular topic. I know that I feel hopeful, not only from having read your book, but also being able to hear it from you as well, that this is something that we can shift in our world, that it doesn't have to be an epidemic; that it can be something that ultimately helps us find more pathways to connection and feeling special in sustainable ways, because there's nothing wrong, I think, with feeling special. It's just doing it in a way that actually brings us closer.
Craig Malkin: That's exactly right. No, I'm so glad. I'm glad I can offer some hope, and that is truly the way I see it. Really, the image I want to leave everybody with is think of attachment security as a tether and it keeps us rooted in a healthy place while they were trying to make sure we don't become too tipped into narcissism or too tipped into echoism. So, yeah, no, I don't believe for all kinds of reasons that we're in danger of being taken over by some narcissism epidemic. I am encouraged by the efforts I see to educate people about emotions, about attachment, about managing and recognizing emotions. As soon as you do that, you are already moving into an area where you're not going to tip into either of these extremes.
Neil Sattin: Great. Well, if you are looking to find out more information about Craig Malkin, you can visit DrCraigMalkin.com, it's D-R-CraigMalkin.com. Definitely pick up his book, Rethinking Narcissism, and we will, of course, have links to all those things and to the narcissism test in the transcript, which you can get, again, if you visit NeilSattin.com/narcissism, I think, is what I said. Or, you can just text the word "Passion" to the number 33444 and follow the instructions. Craig Malkin, thank you so much for being here with us today.
Craig Malkin: Thank you so much for having me, Neil. It's been a lot of fun.
You know those things in your relationship that you don't talk about? Over time, they will drain the energy, passion, and vitality from your connection. In today's episode, I'll walk you through the process of how (and why) to communicate about the things that you avoid - to give you the best chance of finally resolving those things and moving on. You can tackle something big first, or you can start with something smaller and build on your success. Either way, my goal for you is to be able to collaborate with your partner on getting through the challenging conversations - so that you can have more energy for connection and growing your relationship.
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If you’re in a same-sex relationship, do the rules change? Or are there universal principles of relationship that foster intimacy and passion no matter what kind of relationship you’re in? Today’s guest is Rick Miller, author of Mindfulness Tools for Gay Men in Therapy and Unwrapped: Integrative Therapy with Gay Men. Rick Miller has also been featured at the Couples Conference, and is on the faculty for Esther Perel’s Sessions Live 2018. Rick and I chat about the unique challenges faced by same-sex couples, particularly gay men in relationship. How do you address the uniqueness, while at the same time staying true to what we know about what works in relationships? In this far-ranging conversation, we cover the particulars as well as what we can all learn from how to have a successful same-sex relationship.
As always, I’m looking forward to your thoughts on this episode and what revelations and questions it creates for you. Please join us in the Relationship Alive Community on Facebook to chat about it!
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www.neilsattin.com/miller Visit to download the transcript, or text “PASSION” to 33444 and follow the instructions to download the transcript to this episode with Rick Miller.
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Neil Sattin: Hello and welcome to another episode of Relationship Alive. This is your host, Neil Sattin. We've had so many relationship experts on this show, and there have been times where we've talked about the principles of relationship and whether they apply or not to everyone, and particularly to same-sex relationships, are there these universal rules of relationships that apply? And up until now, the best answers we've come up with have been things like, "Well, yes, of course." But it's not necessarily based on any empirical evidence, or just a statement that's... And of course, these things apply to same-sex couples as well, you just have to make a few adjustments, that sort of thing. So, you hear that enough times and if you're me, you start to wonder, "Well, what is different?" I think it's important that we know, both for you, if you're listening and you are in a same-sex relationship, and I think there's something for all of us to learn as we learn about each other in this world, in this project that is so important, of just understanding other humans, and how we operate and recognizing that we don't all think about the world in the exact same way, and we don't all have the same kinds of experiences.
Neil Sattin: So today's conversation is meant to be helpful on so many levels, and I hope that it is. We have an esteemed guest with us today, his name is Rick Miller, and he is a clinical social worker from the Boston area, who I found out about when I was chatting with Jeff Zeig about this topic, and you may remember Jeff Zeig, he was on the show back in Episode 102 and in Episode 114. We were chatting about, "Well, who would be an awesome person to have on the show to chat about this?" And he mentioned Rick, who among having presented at the couple's conference on this topic of gay male relationships, he's the author of, Unwrapped: Integrative Therapy with Gay Men: The Gift of Presence, which is a book primarily for therapists, and then another book, Mindfulness Tools for Gay Men in Therapy. Both books are amazing in helping you really wrap your brain, and I think that's kind of ironic, right? 'Cause we're talking about unwrapping. But it helps you wrap your brain around just how different this experience can be, and also where the similarities lie.
Neil Sattin: So, I'm really excited to have Rick with us today to talk about gay male relationships. We will as always, have a detailed transcript of today's episode, which you can get if you visit neilsattin.com/miller, as in Rick Miller, M-I-L-L-E-R. Or you can always text the word, "Passion" to the number, 33-444 and follow the instructions to download your transcript. I think those are all the details, so let's dive in. Rick Miller, it's such a pleasure to have you with us here today on Relationship Alive.
Rick Miller: Thank you for the great introduction!
Neil Sattin: You’re welcome! So Rick, perhaps a good place to start is this question of where we all might share principles of how to have an amazing relationship in common. Then from there, we'll go into the places where we diverge. What do you see as the principles that hold true, no matter who you are in trying to have a successful relationship?
Rick Miller: I do believe that there are universal principles that are a part of every intimate relationship, and some of them include vulnerability, self-expression, expression of intimacy and sexuality, dealing with conflict, dealing with trust, dealing with betrayal, so many things like that. I think what's unusual for male couples is that they were raised as boys and as men. So the development of the gay male is different from a man and a woman who end up being together.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, and it also, from reading your book, Unwrapped, I was struck by not only are gay men raised as men, but then there's also this underlying dichotomy or tension between being raised as a man and what it's like to grow up gay in a world that doesn't fully support people who are gay.
Rick Miller: Yes. So I have a lot to say about you're pointing this out. First, and most important is that for the majority of gay boys growing up, they know that they're different, they feel different, they feel ashamed of being different, on some level they're attuned, probably unconsciously attuned to their parents and their society, aware that they're not the child that their parents want them to be. So by the time they reach adulthood, they've learned to constrict themselves and they've become masters at hiding. So, what do you do in an intimate relationship when you've been accustomed to being so hidden all these years? And then suddenly it's expected that you'd be communicative, open, unguarded, and all that stuff.
Neil Sattin: Right. Where those are really the essential ingredients in staying connected when things get challenging?
Rick Miller: Yes, yeah.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, it's a great question. One thing, one nuance that I really appreciated that you brought up in your book was that it comes even literally down to how I might feel in my body and distancing myself from that. So that even that might be a challenge to overcome, this feeling at home and at peace in my physical experience.
Rick Miller: Absolutely. One of the points in the book, and a lot of the work that I do, and the trainings that I do is that gay men and gay boys dissociate from their bodies because their bodies are dangerous to them, partially because of the conflict of growing up gay and feeling disenfranchised and shutting that off, or partially because many gay boys are not good at athletics, and they don't trust that their coordination will get them where they want.
Neil Sattin: So there's this need to build trust with your body?
Rick Miller: And so many people don't even recognize this tension that I'm describing, and I do a lot of hypnosis with my clients, which is a really fascinating process and a part of what it includes is relaxing, going inside, noticing what's taking place inside the body and creating space for openness, warmth, and resourcefulness. Frequently, what comes out for many gay men is that they've been tightening themselves and hiding themselves and dissociating themselves without even realizing that they've been doing it because it's their automatic go-to place for day to day life.
Neil Sattin: So listening right now, how would I know? How would I know if that is part of my normal state of being, and I wasn't even aware that that was happening for me?
Rick Miller: Well, the easiest way to know is simply to take a moment and put your attention inside of yourself in your body and notice what is your breathing like? How are you holding yourself in this very moment? Are you tightening up a particular part or a particular place of your body? What are your neck and shoulders like in this very moment? Even as I'm asking you these questions, what are you noticing? So if you'd like to be the guinea pig, perhaps you can answer these based on your own observations.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, well, I'm happy to be a guinea pig, and what I was noticing was just as you were talking, that there was a smile developing on my face.
Rick Miller: Nice.
Neil Sattin: And at the same time, I always feel a little... It's a combination of nervousness and excitement as these conversations get underway. I was feeling that like an unevenness to my breathing as opposed to just like a regular, smooth breathing. Yeah.
Rick Miller: So one of the lucky things is that our cameras are not connected to each other, so I can't make any observations or have you here. So I'm gonna go at face value with what you're saying. I like the openness that you have, that a smile can come to your face. And if I were sitting across from you, I might point out little things that I'm seeing, and ask you to make slight adjustments, and all that kind of thing. It's exciting. What's interesting about really being attentive to the body is that there are so many answers that we have available inside of us that many of us don't even pay attention to.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. Yeah, and it's coming to me really clearly right now and just so you know, and you listening know this, this is not planned, but I just became suddenly aware of how when I was reading your books and getting prepared for this conversation what it was like to grow up in this world, and I'm a product of the mid to late '70s and the '80s, I was born in '74, now I'm truly dating myself here and recognizing in relation to this dialogue, what my experience was, which is, I would not say that I'm gay and yet at the same time, I did experience a lot of, I think more things that might be considered more feminine and more connection to emotions. I'm realizing now just how much the fear of being labeled a certain way impacted me in terms of being fully in my expression of who I am. I wouldn't say that's the case for me now, but I think what came up for me was even a little bit of grief in recognizing like, "Oh, yeah, this was actually an obstacle for me in truly connecting with myself and with the people around me because I was afraid, afraid of being labeled."
Rick Miller: I totally appreciate your openness in talking about this, and I think the experience of feeling different or even being noticed as being different is universal for people, but everyone has their own reason why. You strike me as a male who is sensitive and able to be open. That, especially back then in the '70s was perceived as possibly being gay. Fortunately, we live in a time now where being an expressive man is no longer a curse of being gay. It's allowed, it's encouraged. I'm very interested in the whole topic of masculinity in general, and what straight men can learn from gay men and what gay men can learn from straight men and how gender can be so fluid at this point in time.
Neil Sattin: Absolutely.
Rick Miller: Times are exciting and things are changing. The problem is, is that many gay boys who grew up in the era that you're referring to, or gay boys growing up now who live in very conservative areas still have the same difficulties that I grew up with and that you grew up with.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, yeah. And even in parts of the country that are more liberal, I wouldn't say that, it's not like homophobia has been eliminated or discrimination, or just even people's maybe unconscious but still expressed biases around same-sex relationships in society.
Rick Miller: Well, I'm glad to hear you say it because I do a lot of training, and frequently people come up to me and say, "The world is so much better. Why are you doing these workshops? Gay men don't have to worry anymore. Everything is fine." On one hand, I guess many gay boys or gay men don't have to worry about being killed or being abused, but it's still an issue. People are still struggling and my premise, as you know, is that people are struggling without even realizing how much they're struggling. That's my job as a psychotherapist when I work with people, but it's also my job as an educator to let people know that deep down, there are still parts of the self that are vulnerable and protective.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, so that brings us back to where we were, which was this inner inquiry and experience of our bodies and how that would show up if we were shutting down or having ways in which we are hiding our experience.
Rick Miller: So sometimes it's a physical sensation that people are aware of. Sometimes it's a thought that comes up in the mind, or sometimes it's an image, our ability to use imagery is pretty profound. There are moments where things just pop into our awareness and we may not understand why or what it means, but if we dig a little bit deeper, we can usually make sense out of these things.
Neil Sattin: There's something that I love about hypnosis, among many things, and one is the way that it gives our inner world permission to communicate with the outer world. So there's something about that inviting that you just mentioned that is I think is so powerful. It's the willingness to just be open and then to experience what comes your way as a message and what does that message tell you.
Rick Miller: Well, what a beautiful way of describing hypnosis. Given that so many people are afraid of what's gonna happen and what they'll end up doing. Excuse me, it's pollen season in New England. So, the way that you described hypnosis was so non-threatening and so inviting, so I love that. As I do hypnosis with gay men, again, the constriction that has been part of their lives suddenly transforms itself into a beautiful openness and a self-reliance that is incredibly magical just to see.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. So I would love for you to share with our audience why you've been using hypnosis as a therapeutic tool, and in particular the tension between like why using hypnosis is so helpful? And on the flip side, why someone might resist wanting the experience that hypnosis is giving them?
Rick Miller: Sure. I forgot the first question. The first question...
Neil Sattin: Yeah, the first question is, what is it about hypnosis that you've found to be so valuable in working with clients?
Rick Miller: So I've always done guided meditation and guided imagery, and I never got formal training in it, and yet I was doing it with my clients and amazing things were happening. So when I decided to get more formal training, it was based on some of my friends that loved hypnosis, that I ended up pursuing it. What I realized as soon as I started doing it is that it's something that we all know how to do, and it's something that we do in our day to day lives over and over and over again without realizing it. For example, when we hear an old song on the radio and we immediately begin to have flashbacks about where we were, how we felt, who we were with, what our lives were like, that's one example. Another example of being hypnotized by ourselves is a scent. So today is a spring day and I can smell the pollen and I can smell that beautiful spring afternoon, and suddenly I have memories of being a child late in May as it was getting warmer outside, and I'm flooded with amazing memories. So that's another example of being hypnotized. So when I work with people in hypnosis, I'm helping them achieve a state inside of themselves, or to shift a state away from unpleasantness into comfort, or pleasantness or resourcefulness.
Neil Sattin: And how does that makes such a huge difference particularly for gay men who are dealing with maybe this problem that we were talking about initially, which is around dissociation from their physical experience?
Rick Miller: I think in general, anyone who is open to trying these things will love hypnosis, whether you're a gay man or not a gay man, but given how limited our experiences has been as gay men to be able to go inside and recognize that enjoyment is there, is revolutionary. The other generalization about gay men being men is that many gay men are type A, over achievers, and have compensated for feeling inadequate by overdoing things in the work setting or in academic settings and of course, the price that we pay to do that is not always paying attention to what's happening inside. So having the opportunity to slow down to connect with oneself is a pretty important gift, and it's overlooked way more than it ought to be.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. And you talk about that in terms of hypnosis and Milton Erickson and his viewpoint that all of his clients had the resources within them to do whatever shifting was necessary in their lives.
Rick Miller: Correct.
Neil Sattin: It also reminds me a lot, and I think you talk about parts work as well. It reminds me of Dick Schwartz in Internal Family Systems. Again, all about enlisting our inner resources to come online so that we don't feel like we're deficient in some way.
Rick Miller: So, let me say a little bit about parts work.
Neil Sattin: Please.
Rick Miller: Which is, inside of us are all these different parts. We're so busy living our lives trying to either be our best self, or trying to ward off parts of ourselves that are unformed or more primitive and the harder we try to push something away inside of us, the more it comes out in a way that we don't want it to. So in doing parts work, what we do is we welcome all parts of ourselves that exist inside. And as a psychotherapist, what I do is I work with people to have them bring these parts forward to allow each part to have an equal voice, the part of yourself that does greater work, the part of yourself that feels like an awkward adolescent, the part of yourself that feels like a five year old who's naughty because you know that you're different from other boys and I'll ask each part to recognize what they need or what they experience, and with this is a sense of integration and from this, there's a sense of well-being and mental health that is absolutely necessary.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, I love it. Let's bring that now, imagining that we've miraculously totally resourced ourselves [chuckle] in the past 15 or 20 minutes, and let's bring it to the question of relationships. We started out with identifying some of the universal principles underlying relationships, the ability to be vulnerable, to be courageous, to be who you are, to repair in conflict. What have you noticed that's particular to relationships between men that is different, or that makes their particular situation challenging in a way that a heterosexual couple might not experience?
Rick Miller: So the first image that comes to mind is, "How many gay male couples have arrived at my psychotherapy office sitting on opposite ends of the couch?" Of course, any couple can do that, but there's a particular way in which men can kinda shrink in and hope to disappear, which of course doesn't happen in a couple's therapy office and the ability to be tender and vulnerable and to listen carefully and closely as opposed to providing quick and instant solutions is something that a lot of men struggle with. The other thing is that men, as I said, are not experts at allowing vulnerabilities to come to the surface. So when you're in a male couple with two men who are fighting vulnerabilities, it's hard to know what to do when one or both are either feeling conflict or feeling scared. Another common issue that comes up a lot is that men frequently are lacking role models about how to be tender and intimate and loving towards their partners, and having growing up in a world of masculinity, it's not considered cool to do those things. But then suddenly when you're in an adult relationship, it's one of the necessary ingredients for a relationship to flourish.
Neil Sattin: Now you also talked about the impact of the mythology of gay culture, and as I was reading about that I was thinking about, "Yeah, that must be so challenging to on the one hand be part of this larger culture that looks at you one way, but then to have this idealized version of what it means to be a gay man that you also might not fully resonate with, but it at least gives you a place to go."
Rick Miller: Well, there's a lot of pressure to be a certain kind of gay man and what's interesting is that before we had the internet or phone apps, being gay perhaps was more regional. That we were informed by where we lived and how people did things where we lived. Now, it's a worldwide experience and gay men are looking at other gay men all over the world and the pressure to be young, to look a certain way, to be professionally successful is what is driving many men in their desires to be successful. The problem with that is that many men are very successful in a variety of ways, but they don't feel like they measure up to this gay-male standard. It's a lot of pressure and frequently men will buy into this without even recognizing that it's what they do.
Rick Miller: So when I do trainings, frequently people will raise their hands and say, "Well I have many gay male clients that live outside of the city, and they live in rural areas, and they don't buy into what you're talking about." and I'll come back and challenge them by saying, "Do they go online? What are they looking at? What are the pornography sites that they're looking at? What are the websites that they're going to as gay men were they being informed about what their life ought to be like as a gay man?" I make the comparison of how women will look at fashion magazines regardless of age, regardless of their size, and then experience this uncomfortable feeling inside of themselves based on not meeting those standards.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, and how do you help a couple who were maybe one or both members of the couple is struggling with that issue? How do you help them support each other in finding who they really are in the midst of all of that?
Rick Miller: Well, one of the things is to verbalize what I just said to you about noticing how some of the pressure to be a certain way is coming from outside of themselves, and that they're internalizing that without even realizing it. So one of the gifts of being a couples therapist is that I get to help people shift their focus inward, and to be the person that they really are, and accept who they really are, rather than trying to be a stereotype of who someone is supposed to be. The other thing that I do, which is part of the same process as going inside, is helping people to identify what they want, what they need, what they expect from their partner, and to also learn how to give parts of themselves that they didn't know they could do or didn't allow themselves to do because it wasn't considered masculine.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, one thing that you mentioned, I think, in maybe the presentation that you gave for the Couples Conference that I can totally relate to, because I happen to think that just about everyone could use a bit of a sexual re-education. This idea that there's a discovery of what it really means to us as individuals to be healthy, to be sexual to... What gives us pleasure, what doesn't. And to really be able to explore that enough that we can take a strong stand for who we are in that, as opposed to just buying into some prescription that's been handed us.
Rick Miller: Part of the prescription that's been handed to gay men is that there are certain ways that we're supposed to be sexual and that we're all supposed to have open relationships and that every gay male cheats on his partner and that belief system reinforces something that may not necessarily be okay. If a gay male couple chooses to have an open relationship, that's their prerogative, but it needs to be done very carefully with a lot of questions and communication.
Rick Miller: The other aspects of sexuality that's very important with individuals and also with couples, is by being aware of sensory experiences. So here we are, going back in inward again, listening to the body. Each body, each person has their own preferences that feel good to them. Instead of having the norm of gay sex, have sex that you as an individual enjoy. What are the ways that you enjoy being touched? Where do you like being touched? How do you experience that? How do you like to give to each other, and what does your body tell you in these circumstances? Erection issues are common for all men and gay men tend to think that other gay men don't have erection issues. That's not true, but no one is talking about it because it's not a standard that's very cool to talk about. The harder you try to be sexual and pull off a great sexual act, the least likely you'll be able to be to have a great erection. It's like sleeping at night time. If you have sleep anxiety and you're trying to focus on sleeping well, you're gonna stay awake out of anxiety.
Neil Sattin: Do you have... 'Cause with what you were just talking about, and I think in this ideal world, we would be able to just be... Well, for lack of a better word, be innocent with each other and have that exploration. To me, the big word that leaped out when I was having that thought, was shame, and how shame becomes an obstacle to being a willing explorer.
Rick Miller: Yes. Yep, so shame, of course is a central experience for growing up gay. It's the backbone of one's being, and so as an adult, how do you rate yourself of something that's been embedded inside of you all this time? And so part of your approach in just being and finding comfort is a great way of working with shame and healing shame. So that's the good news about being in a relationship, is that the closeness and the tenderness that can be achieved is going to erode away these layers of shame. I also had an image of how men treat their animals, which is that they're able to speak in a high tone of voice. They're able to be very gentle, they're able to cuddle with them. Frequently partners will say, "If you treated me like you treated the dog, I would be so happy." and clearly, it's a less conflictual relationship. It's all about pure love, and for many men, they're not worried about being masculine with their dog. If only they could do the same with their partners, maybe they wouldn't need me.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, yeah, that's a really interesting thought that brings me in so many different directions. [chuckle] Yeah, I'm curious about one thing in particular that... And I'm just wondering if you can shed some light on this, because as you've described it, one of the key possibilities for someone growing up gay is this sense that, "There's something not quite right about me," or, "a shame about who I am," and I think in 'Unwrapped', you described a client who was struggling with this question of choosing a relationship simply based on someone accepting them and what it feels like to actually be with another gay man and be like, "Wow, it's actually okay to be gay," versus taking it to the next level where someone isn't just accepting you, they actually want what you want and you truly have a symbiotic relationship. Is this a common problem in gay relationships where someone might kind of settle because they finally at least feel accepted even if they're not really getting the relationship that they want?
Rick Miller: You're touching so many things that I could go in about 10 directions on [chuckle] but I think, again, the norms of the gay male sub-culture are such that gay men frequently are seeking out beauty over other qualities. The prize of a gay male is being with someone who turns heads and beauty is only skin deep, and what else is there? So in an ideal world, we don't just look for a partner who looks great on the outside. We look for a partner who complements us, who challenges us, who brings us tension and joy. One of the things I love about relationships is that there's an expectation that it's all smooth and hunky-dory and hearts and roses, when in fact, the truth about intimate relationships is that they're challenging, they're difficult, and there's a certain edginess that comes with this that's truly intimate, truly exciting, and keeps a certain freshness going. So this is much more about the insides of who we really are rather than how we appear on the outside or how people view us from the outside. I always say that every couple has their own particular hell that they keep secret from the rest of the world because they fear that if other people know, they're gonna blow the cover. But there is no such thing as a relationship that doesn't have this.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, and for someone who at one point relished the fact that they were accepted, but now is recognizing, "Oh, this isn't really a relationship where I'm being fully met, but I don't have hope that I could find what I'm looking for in another partner." How do you create a light of optimism there for those people?
Rick Miller: Basically, I will reassure them that the Hell that they're experiencing is normal. [laughter] So I have a timeline that I frequently tell people, which is that the first four months of any intimate relationship, not just men, is a time of such excitement and a time of great projection. During these moments, the rest of the world goes away when we're together and the other person is fulfilling all that has been unfulfilled, and it's so dreamy and it's so magical and obviously, there's a strong intimate and sexual component during this period of time. And around eight months or so, people really begin to see each other for who they really are, and this includes warts and all. So as people become more real, the challenges present themselves more and more regularly and frequently between this and about two years couples think that because this is happening, there's something wrong and a majority of people end the relationship because it isn't perfect when in fact, this is exactly what needs to happen.
Rick Miller: And when couples experience this, separating out their love and respect for their partner, along with what their hopes and expectations were, and experiencing disappointment, knowing that this is part of what the big picture is about, it enables people to move forward and really accept who they are, who their partner is, and what their couplehood is about. And that is what true intimacy really is. And so, again, going back to male couples, a part of this recipe is also in accepting our own limitations based on how we feel inside of ourselves, how we were raised, what was expected of us as men, and how to give a soft, intimate loving part of ourselves to another person when we haven't really been taught how to do it. If we use our mothers as our role model, then we're losing our masculinity. If we use our fathers as our role model, then we may have a struggle with how to be soft in these certain ways.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, that makes me think about the pull between the importance of attachment in relationship and creating safety and then the ways that we handle a lack of variety or things being maybe too safe in our relationships. Maybe this is a tension inherent in that stereotype that you mentioned. The stereotype that there are a lot of gay relationships where people have multiple partners or poly or open, and how that must be creating some tension and polarity with what's required to create a secure bond between two people.
Rick Miller: It's so fascinating to me that frequently gay couples come into my office and say, "I think we need to open up our relationship." And I'll say, "Why is that?" And they'll say, "Because we're having a horrible time with each other." Since when would opening up a relationship be the solution to a struggle that has nothing to do with the outside role that has everything to do with the two people working on these vulnerabilities? So I frequently try to slow people down and to allow their focus to be between the two of them and themselves long before running out and making life a little bit more complicated. In terms of thinking about attachment, what we expect and need from our partners is for them to have our back. Our partners become a safe haven in the world. Our partners become a representation of our parents, or they even become a representation of the ideal parent that we never had. So as our partners tolerate us and love us and care for us, they're compensating for things that we didn't get when we were younger. And frequently, partners, men and women, need to be taught how to do this in a context of couples therapy or in the context of educating themselves in order to be more fully available.
Neil Sattin: And when you say learning about how to do this, are you talking about really being aware that that is part of maybe the unspoken expectation in relationship and then deciding how you're gonna respond to that? Or will you be that ideal parent as much as possible? Or will you shine a light on that dynamic and try to dismantle it so that neither of you is putting that expectation on each other?
Rick Miller: No. I will shine a light on that dynamic saying that this is what it is, this is what a truly intimate relationship is, and that each person in the world that's in an intimate relationship has some challenges with how to be a parent figure to your partner, 'cause that's not how we go into it. So how do you learn how to do that and know what to do? And so that's what I mean, is that we all have to learn how to nourish and nurture other people, especially our partners.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. And what are your thoughts on how that creates... And I love this, we keep uncovering these little places of tension in relationship. Because as we show up more like a parental figure for our partners with unconditional love, unconditional support, not judging them, helping them through hard times, it sounds really great. At the same time, we potentially create a schism that makes problems with sexual polarity 'cause...
Rick Miller: Sexual polarity and all other kinds of polarity.
Neil Sattin: Yeah.
Rick Miller: First starting with a sexual polarity, how do you feel sexual toward someone that you've exposed so much of yourself to, and still keep things hot? And again, going back to sensations and sensory awareness is that sometimes what feels good sexually is a physical sensation, and people don't always pay enough attention to that.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. I wonder, are you familiar with Marnia Robinson's work?
Rick Miller: No, I'm not.
Neil Sattin: Okay. She was on the show, actually back in Episode 5, so a long time ago. She wrote a book called, Cupid's Poisoned Arrow, that's all about the biochemical effects of orgasms. And in particular, her whole thesis is based on this idea that if you have an orgasm, you're flooding your system with dopamine, and you're also creating this process by which you become desensitized to that dopamine and to your partner. So as we're talking about this and what keeps sexuality alive, it reminds me of her work because her whole thing is about how do you explore sexuality without orgasm in order to keep the sexuality alive and to keep the sexual chemistry going, as opposed to just repeatedly flooding your system with dopamine to the point where you're habituated to your partner and need to seek another person in order to get excited.
Rick Miller: So if you talk about gay men, gay men learn to be sexual as men, and of course, men's motive during sex is to have an orgasm. And frequently men have orgasms very quickly. So the suggestion that Marnia is discussing and that you're talking about, is something that I frequently assign to couples for homework. And it's very, very hard for people to actually do this, which is to spend a lot of time taking turns with each other and exploring each other's bodies without focusing on orgasm and without having an orgasm, so that they can really learn to identify other great feelings, how to give to each other, how to receive, how to instruct each other and to learn about what else feels good inside the body.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, and there's so much to learn there because I think for so many of us, men in particular, orgasms are a great way to dissociate from life and our pain and our shame and whatever stress we're feeling in the moment. So if that has become your gateway to sexuality, then you really do have to learn something new in order to give up the temporary relief and release that orgasms give you from something that we've been talking about for this whole hour is the question of shame and how that affects how we show up.
Rick Miller: I think one of the joys that can happen for couples, and I'm thinking about this a little bit more detailed as you've been discussing this, is how good it feels to be with a partner and to help him be able to have an orgasm and if both of your minds approach sex from a similar vantage point, then it's a sense of power and conquering that two people experience with the help of each other. That's a pretty amazing feeling and even if it doesn't last that long, it's a great metaphor for success in a relationship.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. How would you suggest someone when they're in a sexual situation with their partner and they notice shame coming up and starting to get in the way, their own sense of thinking that something going on with their body is gross or unacceptable? How would you suggest someone work with that in the moment with their partner?
Rick Miller: By exactly what you were just talking about and what Marnia talks about, which is to de-emphasize orgasm. I also ask people to not worry about whether they have an erection. Frequently, what happens is that as men feel vulnerable, either about how they feel physically about themselves, or how they're performing as a partner in comparison to how people are supposed to be performing, they lose their erection. And then, as they begin to lose their erection, just like the sleep thing, they worry about it and then their partner may get frustrated and then the mind takes over and they're gone. So really, what I have people do first and foremost is slow themselves down. It's okay if you lose an erection, it's okay to keep doing what you're doing, keep exploring the sensations and take a break if you need, and worry less, enjoy more, be in the present, allow expectations to drift further and further away 'cause they only get in the way.
Neil Sattin: I am so appreciative that you brought this up because another person whose work I so respect and admire, her name's Diana Richardson, you may have heard of her, she does a lot of work around Tantra. And her version of Tantra, she also calls it "slow sex", is all about just that, how you slow things down. One of the things that she talks about that I think is actually really missing from the common dialogue about what you do when you have problems maintaining an erection is this concept of, she calls it "soft entry." It's not the most glamorous term in the world, [chuckle] but it's this idea... Well, it's not an idea, it's a practice of if you don't have an erection, you can still get lubricated, and with the assistance of your partner, you can still actually be inside your partner even if you're not hard.
Rick Miller: That's great.
Neil Sattin: So you're overcoming this barrier and I'm making those finger quotes in the air around the word "barrier," you can overcome the barrier to intercourse by simply using some lubrication, some patience, and really gentle movement to actually penetrate your partner and to rest there.
Rick Miller: And what a difference that makes to not have to rush so quickly and how freeing it can be. I don't know the statistics, but what percentage of people then experience erections as a result of allowing themselves to softly enter and be relaxed?
Neil Sattin: Yeah, I wish I had the statistic on that. But...
Rick Miller: Good one.
Neil Sattin: I gotta think that it's a lot. It's a lot because what you end up giving yourself is that time and relaxation and the presence that you need to ignite that part of your system.
Rick Miller: Can I shift gears for a moment?
Neil Sattin: Please.
Rick Miller: Because I'm thinking of a specific couple that I work with, where one of the guys frequently would lose his erection because he felt as though he wasn't being as good or as strong of a partner as he ought to be and through some exploration in my office, what was clear was that expectations were driving their sex life and it was getting in the way. Part of being more real included talking about sex more, but also sharing fantasies. It was hard for them to do that because it was considered naughty for them to be talking about these fantasies and ironically, gay men love porn. So instead of keeping it out of the relationship, why not bring it in and share the enthusiasm about it to help things along? So this particular couple started talking more about their fantasies and sharing the visual images of the pornography that they really liked, and their sex life transformed itself really quickly because they were no longer keeping a part of themself a secret from their partner. Instead, they were bringing it back home and it worked beautifully.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, I love that and that sounds like a very healthy, strategic use of that kind of pornographic stimulation to bring a couple together.
Rick Miller: It was great.
Neil Sattin: I'm wondering though when you brought that up, it also made me think about... You used the word "expectations," their expectations of each other, and the ways that this is true across the spectrum now, especially because of the prevalence of pornography.
Rick Miller: Yes.
Neil Sattin: The way that people think they're supposed to be when they're being sexual.
Rick Miller: That's right.
Neil Sattin: And I'm wondering how you encourage people to abandon the scripts that aren't serving them?
Rick Miller: Good point. Everything goes back in a circle to listening to your body and the pornography industry is thriving, and people are pursuing it and losing fact of their own humanity as they're doing so. I'm saying that not as a moral judgement, but more as a mind-body clinician who wants people to function highly and successfully inside of themselves. Again, it all comes back to the body. I'm constantly slowing people down, asking people to notice what they enjoy, what turns them on, what their fantasies are, and to use pornography as a help or as an aid for themselves, rather than as a way of being in the world. And incidentally, another thing that's happening is that many men have an unrealistic view of what their penis should look like, because they compare their penis to pornography who frequently hire men who are very well endowed. These days, men are barely naked in front of each other, locker rooms are more segregated and separated, and men don't have an opportunity to see other men's dicks to realize that there isn't a problem there where they think it's their own problem that they feel ashamed about.
Neil Sattin: Right. Yeah, yeah. And even if you are seeing dicks, you're probably not seeing erect dicks, so...
Rick Miller: Right.
Neil Sattin: That's another place where you wouldn't necessarily know where you stack up against the average that's out there.
Rick Miller: It's kind of incredible how much private shame people are living with and not doing much about it.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. Yeah, and that makes me wonder in your book Unwrapped, you offer, for therapists reading that book, scripts to help them guide their clients through trance experiences, to give them that sense of safety and being alive in their bodies. Obviously, we can't do a hypnotic induction right here for the show. I'm wondering though, if you have some hints around language that partners could use with each other in a intimate situation, let's say, in the bedroom, language that they could use to help invite each other into that experience of being alive with each other, being present, or let's start there and then I'll maybe add on to that.
Rick Miller: Yeah, so I think language is actually too limiting, because what I'm imagining as you were describing this is a shared moment together where there's plenty of time, where maybe soft music is playing, where there's no rush, and the experience to enjoy is what feels good. And sometimes it isn't through words that we can convey to our partners what it is that feels good. We can take our hand and move our partner's hand, or we can move our body in such a way that communicates what feels good. So I guess I would use the word language in a very broad metaphorical way, which is to expand the language that we experience sensations, and experience, and expand the ways in which we communicate our pleasure in these sensations, so that our partners can enjoy what it is that we're enjoying, being perfectly clear to convey that we're enjoying it.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, so that's perfect. I love that notion of expanding language and expanding the ways that we're communicating in those moments. How about... And it makes perfect sense too, in the context of, that you said, I loved the soft music and I was kind of painting the picture for myself there.
Rick Miller: Yes. Yeah.
Neil Sattin: Too bad my wife is out in California right now.
Neil Sattin: And, but what about... Because now we're coming back to shame, I don't wanna end on shame, so but what I do wanna do is, there's gonna be this dynamic where if you're being really present with your partner in sex, then you're either gonna maybe have moments of shame that you might recognize in yourself, or as the partner you might perceive that something is going on with your partner, that your partner's experiencing shame. What, again, we'll use the word language but broadening it to mean how would you communicate in a situation where you notice that your partner is in shame about something?
Rick Miller: So this is when language really does come in handy. Frequently, what I suggest to people is if they don't need to focus on being sexual, don't worry about ending the act and ending in orgasm. Let it be. Let it be fine. Sometimes sex is great. Sometimes it isn't great. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't work. So with language what I suggest is when things are a little bit more neutral and a little more okay, to have a simple basic conversation about what it is that one is noticing, either in themselves, or observing in their partner and just converse about what it is that's coming up. And so, again, we've gone full circle to how we started today, which is to be able to talk openly and honestly about what experiences are taking place and what partners are noticing in themselves and in each other.
Neil Sattin: And is there something that you've seen as you work with clients around issues of shame, as like a common theme and for some reason, I don't know why this is coming up for me, but it's this question of something about my body that I don't necessarily like, as to why those things stick with us? Because intuitively, that doesn't make any sense. It's our bodies, they're... We were gifted these amazing vehicles for living in the world. Yet, sometimes they betray us, like you lose your erection when you wish it were there, or you fart at the wrong moment, or whatever it is, or your gut's a little flabbier than you wish it were. Do you see some commonalities around what makes those thoughts about ourselves sticky? And what the path is to letting them go?
Rick Miller: Yep. So first, about shame, what I frequently do will generalize the experience of shame as a gay man and remind people that this is a common universal experience. It isn't just you, this is what most gay boys have experienced and internalized while growing up. So, that's at the baseline, and then in the here and now in terms of body image or sexuality, again, focusing on sensation rather than images of perfection, figuring out why it is that people are experiencing a sense of self-consciousness and shame. I love doing this with couples. I ask them, "When your partner gains five pounds how do you feel differently about him? And how do you feel differently about your sex life?" And, for the most part, what happens is that people don't care. Partners don't care.
Rick Miller: At a certain point in the relationship it isn't necessarily the abs that are creating great sex, it's the connection, it's the way in which people communicate with each other, it's the way in which people give to each other, the way in which they're attuned to each other and they enjoy these sensations. That's what sex is, and that's what makes it nice. In all long-term relationships, beauty dies down in a certain way and being with the same partner has a certain level of predictability. So, regardless of how hot one is, or how one is perceived at the beginning of a relationship, over time that hotness shifts and changes into a much truer kind of intimacy. So again, we go back to expressing what feels good, aiming towards pleasing oneself and pleasing each other, and enjoying the moment for the moment, and enjoying the moment in the moment.
Neil Sattin: I love it. I love it. Rick, thank you so much for all of your thoughts, and...
Rick Miller: Absolutely.
Neil Sattin: And I think as we've been dancing, we are really weaving the sense of where there's overlap and where there isn't, and I feel like we've just covered such valuable terrain in today's conversation.
Rick Miller: Thank you, we could go on for hours, I'm sure.
Neil Sattin: We absolutely could, but in lieu of doing that, I would love for you to share what you're working on, how can people find you. Of course, we will have links to all of your stuff in the transcript and show notes, but I'd love for people to hear from you directly.
Rick Miller: Absolutely. So my website is rickmiller.biz, B-I-Z, rickmiller.biz. I'm working on a great project and maybe it's about how gay men learn to be intimate in the first place called, Gay Sons and Mothers. So it's gaysonsandmothers.com. I'm also on Instagram. I have a Facebook page, Rick Miller Psychotherapy+. I have a blog on Psychology Today called, Unwrapped. Where else can I be found? I think those are the main ones.
Neil Sattin: Great. Great. And you're obviously in private practice, so people can see you.
Rick Miller: That's right.
Neil Sattin: And then you're also involved in doing trainings for therapists as well?
Rick Miller: Yep, I do a lot of mental health conferences all over about working with gay men.
Neil Sattin: Great, and I think you mentioned that you have some coming up, the Brief Therapy Conference and the International Society of Hypnosis. So there're a couple ways, but you probably have your events listed on your website as well.
Rick Miller: I do, and I welcome any questions and any emails from people, so give me a holler.
Neil Sattin: Awesome. Well, Rick, thank you so much for your time again today. If you are interested in downloading a transcript, you can visit neilsattin.com/miller, M-I-L-L-E-R. You can text to the word "passion" to the number 33444 and follow the instructions, which will also help you download the transcript, and we'll have links to Rick's site and all the ways that you can get in touch with him and to learn more about his work. Other than that, thank you so much for being here on the show with us today Rick.
Rick Miller: Thank you very much. Take care.
Neil Sattin: You too.
Are you someone who blames yourself when things go wrong? Or do you tend to blame other people? Even though we might think of blame as a negative thing, in today's episode I'm going to show you how to use your blame (whether it's self-directed or pointed at others) to truly learn and grow when things don't turn out quite as you're expecting. This 4-step process will transform your experience of blame, so that it becomes a way to deepen your connection with yourself and others.
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As your relationship changes, are things getting better and better? Or have you gotten stuck along the way? If you get stuck - how do you get unstuck? And no matter what happens, how do you foster a sense of collaboration, of being on the “same team” with your partner? Today’s guests, Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson, have charted the course of how relationships develop - in fact, they created the “Developmental Model” for working with couples. Along with practical experience from having helped many couples, Ellyn and Peter are among the leaders in the field of training couples therapists to become more effective. Their book for therapists, In Quest of the Mythical Mate: A Developmental Approach to Diagnosis and Treatment in Couples Therapy is a classic that has stood the test of time - unlike many other books and theories that have come and gone. Today you’ll learn how to figure out where you’re stuck in your relationship, and how to be on the same team as you steer things back in a healthier direction.
Also, please check out our first episode with Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson - Relationship Alive Episode 24: Why We Lie (and How to Get Back to the Truth)
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www.neilsattin.com/development Visit to download the transcript, or text “PASSION” to 33444 and follow the instructions to download the transcript to this episode with Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson.
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Neil Sattin: Thank you so much for being with us here today on Relationship Alive.
Pete Pearson: It's good to be here, Neil.
Ellyn Bader: Yeah, really happy to be with you again, Neil.
Neil Sattin: Awesome. Yes. It's been a while since episode 24, which was when we last spoke, when we're now in the 150s here. So ...
Pete Pearson: Oh my goodness.
Neil Sattin: I know, I know. So Pete, we were just talking, and we were talking about the ... Before we started officially, we were talking about this question about what people do when they get triggered, and you said, "That's not the most important question for people to be asking." And so I'm curious, from your perspective, what is the most important question that people should be asking?
Pete Pearson: See, here's what's interesting, Neil. In just about every couple that we see, a couple will get an insight into where they're stuck, how they're stuck, and why they're stuck. And the next question almost inevitably is, "Well, what do we do about it?" And that's an understandable question. And I used to think, "Oh, they're asking me for advice. I'll give them advice about what to do right now." And then they will leave, they will practice what I just expressed, they will come back, and they will be on bending knee thanking me for my wisdom, intelligence, smarts, etc.
Pete Pearson: What I discovered is, and they say, "God you're so wonderful, what other advice do you have? And we're gonna tell all our friends about you, because you're so smart. " Well what I discovered was, it didn't happen that often. But yet they asked, "What do we do about it?" And then I discovered, the what do we do about it is a good question, but it's a premature question. Really the question that comes before is, "How motivated are you to do something about it?" See, it takes a strong motivation, a bigger picture that pulls us forward, and that bigger picture, that stronger motivation is what allows us to unhook from those triggers. And if the motivation is puny, then no matter what I say that could be effective, will not be applied.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, we had David Burns on the show, and he was talking about how surprised he often is that when it gets right down to it, a lot of couples that he's worked with, actually aren't willing to change. Even though they are coming to couples' therapy, they would prefer being stuck where they are, versus whatever's required to change the direction.
Pete Pearson: Well I think that's true for one part of them. Here's what I mean. And I think the dilemma of change was summed up brilliantly by James Baldwin, the playwright and writer, when he said, "Nothing is more desirable than to be relieved of our affliction." And that's the motivation that brings couples into therapy. "Nothing is more desirable than to be relieved of our affliction, and nothing is more terrifying than to be divested of our crutch." And that I interpreted as, "nothing is more terrifying than to be divested of our coping mechanisms. Our self-protections."
Pete Pearson: So couples are in a terrible bind. They want to be relieved of their affliction, yes, and it's terrifying to be divested of their coping mechanisms.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, and you speak also in your work about the importance of both people recognizing that there's something in it for them, whatever it is they're experiencing. I'm thinking right now of the example you give of people, and we'll explain this a little bit more as we go, but people who are in a symbiotic and practicing relationship. Where one of them is working to be more independent from the other, and the other one is like, "No, come back here. Be with me." And it creates all of this tension and conflict and it's easy for the practicing partner to overlook the fact that they actually benefit a lot from that symbiotic welcome home, that they get from their partner, even though it's confounding them in their quest for independence.
Pete Pearson: Ellen, you want to speak to that?
Ellyn Bader: Yeah, but I'm not sure what the question is. I can speak about that type of couple, but Neil, did you have a question there?
Neil Sattin: Yeah, good point. So the question in there, I think it was more of an observation that this is a situation where people are invested in the problem, or invested in the crutch as Pete was talking about. Maybe the question is, what are some strategies you have for helping people become aware of their role or of the crutch that they have in the moment, even if they think, for instance, that something is all about their partner's problem?
Ellyn Bader: So I think what you're asking is, first of all, at least to me it's like, how does a person take a look at what they're doing that's getting in their own way, and can you get some acknowledgement that a particular thing somebody is doing, is actually getting in their own way of being able to realize the dreams that brought them together or being able to accomplish something they want to accomplish. So there's the question of, "Okay, what are some things you do to help somebody realize it?" So that's one piece. Then the second piece is what Pete was talking about, is "Can you lay out what it's going to take to change it, and then increase motivation? Or is there motivation to actually do the work or put in the effort." And then certainly you want the couple to be able to collaborate and work together on that process of change, so that they are reinforcing each other as they go through what is challenging and difficult for them to do.
Ellyn Bader: So when you can get all three of those things really solidly in place, you're gonna have a couple that's motivated and working with you in the therapy process. When any one of those things, is missing, you're gonna have a much harder time, and therapists often report having sessions that are repetitive and seem to go nowhere and the couple comes in week after week with the same fight or the same dynamic. So I think you have to look at all three of those, and make sure that you've got them all in place.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, where do you feel would be a great place to start? I mean, what's popping into my mind immediately, is your concept of developing a strong future focus for a couple, based on where they are developmentally?
Pete Pearson: See, that's an important place when we start to figure out the steps for change. But to get people to own their part, I find now is, what I do in the first 10 or 15 minutes of the first session, is to have people own their part. But I do it in a rather indirect way. It's like it's traditional for most therapists, when a couple comes in for the first session to ask, "Why are you here," or "How can I help?" And at that point most couples launch of barrage of cross complaints about, "Well, I'm here because my partner is insensitive. They're a slob. They're not affectionate. They're not responsible. They don't follow through." Etc., etc. And so they trade blames.
Pete Pearson: And then after a few minutes, everybody in the room is feeling miserable, I know that because I've been there so many times. And then I found there's a much better way to get to the bottom of what they struggle with without any blame at all. And I will say to them, "It's typical for most therapists to ask when we start the first meeting, is to say, 'why are you here?'" I say, "I don't want to do that, because it just ends up everybody blaming everybody. So what I'd like to do is ask you guys a diagnostic question, and it lets me know how well you've been listening to each other. Which also lets me know how hard you're gonna have to work in here. So Joe, tell me what do you think are Sue's major complaints about you are? And Sue, what do you think Joe's major complaints about you are? And it doesn't matter who goes first, because you both get a chance to express that."
Pete Pearson: And at that point, Joe will say, "Well Sue will say that I'm too preoccupied with my devices. I don't spend enough time with the family. I don't call if I'm gonna be home for work. I just, and I want affection without being nice during the day or the evening, and ..." And then I'll say, "Oh, man, those sound really good, Joe. What else?" And he says, "Well, I think she thinks I'm not very careful with money." Well I'll say "Dynamite. Those are good. Joe, how confident are you on a scale of one to ten that Sue's gonna say you nailed it?" Joe'll say, "Well about a seven or eight." And then I'll say, "What those complaints you just mentioned, is there some legitimacy to her complaints?" And he'll say, "Well, yeah." But I don't go into detail.
Pete Pearson: See at that point, and then I'll say, "So Sue, how good has been doing?" "Well he's been listening, and frankly, I think he's listened better than I thought. I'd give him about a seven or eight on that or maybe even a nine." "Sue, do you have any appreciation for Joe, listening so well to you? Now why hasn't he done anything is why you guys are here. But is there a part of you that appreciates that at least he's been listening?" And she'll say, "Well yeah." "Well tell him." "Joe I didn't know you listened so well. Thank you for listening."
Pete Pearson: So instead of being defensive, now they're collaborating and giving each other compliments, and each of them, when they do that, have just laid out what the problems are by owning their stuff instead of having their partner do it for them. Almost nobody Neil, nobody wants to meet somebody and within 10 minutes start being ripped by their spouse about all their flaws and faults. All that does is create shame, embarrassment and guilt. But doing it this way, people claim their stuff for themselves, I don't have to work as hard, I get to understand the problems, and the atmosphere in the room is a whole lot better.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, I can see how that would get things started off on the right foot. Both with giving you a sense of what's going on for them, and how well they listen, and also, the degree to which they're able to see their part or take responsibility for at least what they think their partner is complaining about with them.
Pete Pearson: Exactly. And that can only be done in the first 20 minutes.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, yeah. That's perfect. I'm curious. Do you still ... You talk about the paper exercise in your book, The Inquest of the Mythical Mate. Do you still do that exercise with couples?
Ellyn Bader: Actually, you're right where I was gonna go. Because that exercise is an absolutely fabulous exercise. In five minutes a therapist can see and then can help feedback to the couple where they break down. It's an exercise that's designed to help you and couples ... And a concept the we talk a lot about is the concept of differentiation. And basically, the way the exercise goes is the therapist hands the couple a piece of paper and asks them to hold it between them, and gives them up to five minutes to decide who gets to hold the paper without ripping or tearing it. They can do it verbally, they can do it non-verbally, they can do it anyway they like, but at the end of five minutes, decide who has the paper.
Ellyn Bader: And then you get to sit back as the therapist, you get to sit back and watch for five minutes, and then in watching, you're going to be giving the couple feedback about how they do. And the exercise, I can give you a few highlights right now. It's a very wonderfully sophisticated exercise for getting to leverage stuck places in couples' relationships. But I mean, you're looking for whether people self-define. Whether they avoid conflict. Whether they're able to go into the conflict. Whether they have skills to negotiate and move a conflict forward.
Ellyn Bader: And so when you can talk to a couple about, "Hey, here's what I saw. Does this make sense? Here's what I think each of you did that was positive and great and effective, and here's where I think you're stuck, or here's where I see you getting stalled. And usually what you see in terms of how couples are getting stalled in that exercise, are similar to what they do at home, that prevents them from solving problems or sets them up to be angry at each other. And it's a very not-threatening, very sort of collaborative process that you can get into with couples when you do that exercise with them.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, and what I loved about reading your book, was not only the recognition that I had about, "Oh, okay. Yeah. I recognize having been in a relationship that was stuck in this place or that place," and let's, before we go too much further, we'll define them so that people know what we're talking about. But I also love
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Neil Sattin: how, I think it's easy to, let's say, someone here says, "Well, I'm going to try that with my partner. Let's grab this paper and see if we can figure it out." And then for some reason they can't or they have a huge eruption or at an impasse to feel like, "Wow, we must be really horrible as a couple because we couldn't even do this paper exercise right."
Neil Sattin: But what I love is that it just is simply a way of getting insight into where you are, but that each place where you might be stuck simply represents a place where you need to grow and growing past that place gives you a pathway to a new level of intimacy and being able to handle conflict better and being able to stand really strongly in who you are while still enjoying intimacy with your partner.
Ellyn Bader: Oh, absolutely and one of the things that I think is so valuable about it is that it's easy when you're in the midst of it with your partner and you're like going home after work and you're having fights or you're not getting along well on weekends or you're fighting over disciplining the kids. It's easy to think you have a whole lot of problems, but when you can find the leveraged place, the place that repeats, and you learn how to do that differently, then you start doing it differently in all the different areas that you have conflict. So you don't actually always have to go back and solve every single problem that you think that you have if you change the process of how you talk and the process of how you approach things that are stressful.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. That makes perfect sense. How much do you feel like awareness, before we dive into it, briefly, of the developmental model, how much do you think that awareness is helpful for a couple to be able to see, like, "Okay, this is the span of how couples develop looks like and this is where we're at." Is that enlightening or confining? From a couple's perspective versus the therapist's perspective.
Ellyn Bader: I can tell you what the therapists in my online training program report. And so, I have therapists who work with me, basically, who are in countries all over the world and many of them report that their clients feel relieved when they see the process. We have little brochures that we use and that a lot of therapists give to their clients which layout the stages and sometimes they'll send a couple home to look at it and figure out where they are. Sometimes they'll just talk about it. But when couples can see, hey, there is kind of a normal progression that a lot of relationships go through and either we're right on track, which is sometimes the case, or hey, we got stuck here and this is what our challenge is so that we can move forward. And what we always say is, when couples get unstuck, then they can get back into their own developmental process. They don't need a therapist all the way through their whole development.
Neil Sattin: Right. So, would you be willing, or I could do this too, but because I don't want to put you on the spot completely, but to give sort of the two to three minute overview of, what are we talking about, the developmental stages that a couple goes through?
Ellyn Bader: Pete, do you want to do it or do you want me to do it?
Pete Pearson: Go ahead, Ellyn.
Ellyn Bader: Okay. So, the quick version is, two people meet, they fall in love. In the ideal world, everything is beautiful, wonderful. They have that incredible falling in love period, which I sometimes call a period of temporary psychosis. But it's a period in which there's bonding and attachment and not everybody starts that way, but a lot of couples do. And then it's normal by about two years into the relationship, sometimes a little sooner, sometimes a little longer, but it's very, very normal to hit a period of disillusionment when the partner is taken off that pedestal and instead of being seen as wonderful, all of a sudden the flaws start to show up and that disillusionment period is normal.
Ellyn Bader: And then what people have to contend with is, how do we work out who are you and who am I given that we not only have parts of ourselves in each other that we love, but parts of each other that we find sometimes disgusting or we don't really want to be around or we don't like and that's all normal. But what's hard for couples is to learn how to manage those differences effectively instead of ineffectively. When they handle it ineffectively, they start to blame, accuse, or withdraw and then they get into some negative patterns.
Ellyn Bader: So the second stage of relationship is the stage of differentiation. It's a stage in which partners do learn how to come to terms with their differences. When that goes well, actually people are able to have a lot more independence than they had in the first two stages because there's a base of connection and a base of, hey, we know to solve things. We solve them well. And then they can be out in the world more. They can be doing more independent things, enjoying other things that they're bringing back to help nourish the relationship, and so there's often a period in which that can go on for many, many years in which each partner is developing their own self-esteem apart from how the relationship is fairing.
Ellyn Bader: And then at some point often there's a period of reconnection or of returning to the relationship as a source of greater nurturance and often couples at this time tend to focus more on their sexual relationship or on different aspects of intimacy when they're reconnecting. And many couples who get through all of this end up wanting to create something together and so we even talk about a last stage being a synergistic stage. A stage in which one plus one is really greater than two and they support each other in ways or goals or projects that are meaningful to both of them. So that's a very quick version of sometimes what I teach in a whole morning.
Neil Sattin: That was great. And I'm thinking back to how you mentioned that you're working a lot with entrepreneurial couples these days and I'm curious to know how you draw distinction between couples who are working together from a synergistic place that one plus one is more than two, versus couples who are coming at that from a more enmeshed place where they're not ... It's about just not being able to be without each other.
Pete Pearson: I guess, that gave me, what a great question. If couples want to start working together and they haven't been able to work out yet how to manage their differences or their disillusionments, boy, are they in for a wild ride. If you think about all the different areas of interdependence that couples have when they're not even working together, where they have areas of interdependency, our family and friends and finances and fitness and food and fidelity and faith and man, there are a lot of F words in an interdependent relationship.
Pete Pearson: And each one of those areas require a set of negotiation problem solving skills and working together. And then you add all those areas of interdependency with all the areas of interdependency at work, when they're working together. What could possibly go wrong? So, the problems just are geometric when you work with your partner, your spouse, and yet, more and more couples are working together. There's a lot of entrepreneurs out there on the internet or doing franchise operations and their spouse is involved and that just really doubles the opportunity to collide. It also doubles the opportunity to synergize your strengths and abilities.
Pete Pearson: So, it really, the push and pull is enormous to deal with the differences and it's ... Sometimes I will say, I will ask couples, "Would you want to be married to a personality clone of yourself?" Most couples say no. And I'll say, "Well, why is that?" And the category it's generally falling to, "Well, if I'm married to a clone of myself ... If I married a clone, it would be like World War 3." Or, "If I married a clone of myself, it'd be really interesting, but nothing would get accomplished." And as one woman said, "I would have all my problems times two."
Pete Pearson: And so the good news is, they're smart enough to know that differences can enhance a relationship, but the same differences can also corrode a relationship, but we want to marry somebody who is different. And that's the good news and the bad news.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. I'm just thinking too about how time, being such a limiting resource in many respects with everything that people are trying to accomplish in today's world and so I could see that providing incentive for people to want to work together as a way to actually maybe be able to spend more time together.
Pete Pearson: Right.
Neil Sattin: And yet, from what you're saying, I also gather, like, wow, it is so important in that case to be able to identify, oh, here we are not handling conflict very productively and here are all the signs of that. Whether it's increased resentment or increased ... Just increased conflict that gets explosive versus actually resolving. And that comes from what you were talking about, right Ellyn? That sense of, have you differentiated effectively enough so that you can stand in who you are, but actually meet the other person as a whole person unto themselves and have a collaborative way of being on the same team as you navigate those places where you're not in alignment.
Ellyn Bader: Yeah. One of the things, Neil, that I find really interesting, as I said, I've started doing some more work with entrepreneurs and their spouses and particularly, I love working with the couples who are fairly new to going into business together because one of the things that they know they have a ton at stake because if they don't make it, their business is going to have problems or have to be split up as well as their marriages or their committed partnerships. And so they actually have, in some cases, a much higher motivation to get it right at the beginning, and also sometimes it's easier for people to get the concept that in business, our roles and responsibilities need to be really clearly defined.
Ellyn Bader: And that's also true on the home front with a lot of couples, but couples don't tend to think about it that way, they tend to think about it as, well, if our relationship is good, everything will just go smoothly and we can move back and forth smoothly.
Neil Sattin: Right. It all just works itself out.
Ellyn Bader: Exactly. And so they know-
Pete Pearson: That's the hope.
Ellyn Bader: Right. That's the hope and the belief that it should be easy. But yet, when you have clearly defined roles, it mitigates a lot of conflict.
Ellyn Bader: Here comes our gardener making some noise I'm sorry to say.
Neil Sattin: I can hear it, but it's so faint in the background and you're coming through so loud and clear that as long as you're able to concentrate, then I think we're good.
Ellyn Bader: Okay.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. So, I love that. So, one potential option if you're having trouble motivating to actually change is to start a business together.
Ellyn Bader: Well, except if your relationship is a mess, it's not a great time to start a business together.
Pete Pearson: You'll have all your problems times two.
Neil Sattin: Just kidding. But it does bring us back to that question of how you get people to buy-in. To like ... Okay, this is actually going to require something of me to create change in our relationship.
Ellyn Bader: Yeah, and most people who have worked in the workplace understand that there are different roles and responsibilities that come with a job and they've been in jobs where they've had people on a team who are doing different aspects of the work. And so they've had that experience and it makes logical sense. But then when they go home and they think, there's just two of us, they don't think about saying, okay, who's responsible for organizing childcare? Who's responsible for our finances or is somebody paying the bills and somebody else doing the investments? Who's responsible for cooking dinner on Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday or does somebody always cook and somebody always clean up? And they get into patterns, but often it's not really clearly delineated.
Neil Sattin: Right. So, is there a process that, if I'm listening to this and thinking, "Oh, you know, some of those things we haven't actually figured out," or "I wonder if we've differentiated effectively?" How could I diagnose myself or our relationship to know if that's happened or not?
Pete Pearson: Well, the easy way to know that it's happened, Neil, is, what does my partner do that annoys me? And when you start from a place of, what does my partner do that annoys me in what area of stuff around the house, I would bet that it's because you haven't clearly delineated and agreed upon the roles and responsibilities of that area. Couples kind of normally fall into those patterns in kind of like happenstance, but there's a lot of slippage and a lot of boundary confusion or unclarity about who is really responsible for what and who gets the deciding vote in that area. And that's when our annoyances almost always come from expectations, "My partner's not meeting my expectations." So, the annoyances have to do with expectations of partners that haven't been clarified very well or agreed upon.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. Or assumptions that you're making.
Pete Pearson: Assumptions, yes.
Neil Sattin: So, I'm curious for couples who say, think, "Well, generally it works out okay, but when we try to have that conversation, it doesn't go so well, like either ... That could be an explosive argument, or it could be I just always have to give in, because we can't have that conversation. What are some ways that you offer couples to help them have that conversation in a way that's more generative, and you talk about ... I think you talk about fighting fairly or conflict ... I can't remember the exact phrase that you use, but agreements around how you have conflict.
Ellyn Bader: Well, before we even go there, let's say that when couples are trying to negotiate, they make some mistakes. One of the big mistakes that people make is caving in too quickly and they don't realize that when they hit that place of tension, that's actually the place where it's important to stay with it a while longer and figure something out and not see that tension as something bad, but see that tension as where their growth edge actually is.
Ellyn Bader: And so, it's a long story, and we won't go into all the details, but Pete and I talk about many years ago, when we ran workshops together, how we reached a point of conflict, and where we each wanted something very different and it took a full year to sort it out and a full year of actually having to work with the tension, until we came to something that worked for both of us and enabled us to keep working together, because otherwise we would've had too much conflict and not been able to continue working together, running workshops together. People think they should get through stuff faster sometimes than is actually possible.
Ellyn Bader: The process of getting through it is a process where both you get to know yourself better, and you get to know your partner better, if you can stay curious about why something matters to your partner, stay curious about why is it so important to you, learning how to ask really good questions, learning how not to cave too fast. There's many different capacities that are involved in successfully differentiating and successfully managing conflict that get strengthened. The emotional muscle gets built as couples go through that together.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, yeah, so I could almost see, like for instance, if you sense that your partner is just caving in, because you've hit that point of tension, to have the willingness to say, “No, I don't want to just get my way here. Let's figure out a way to have this conversation, as long as is required.”
Ellyn Bader: Right, right, and you know, people who tend to be very active and assertive often end up with partners who are a bit more passive than they, themselves, are and for a while it may work to let the more passive person just cave in, but then, over time, instead of having clear roles and responsibilities, what you actually have is the active person doing way, way, way, way more, and the other person doing less, and resentment building. You need to be able to stop that caving in process early.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, yeah, what's ... Maybe we could talk briefly about a structure that could be helpful for people, when they realize they're at this place, a point of tension that's where they tend to get stuck. What might-
Pete Pearson: Hey, I have an ... Ellyn, I have an idea. Neil, if we could post somewhere, where your listeners could go to and get a four-page document called, “Super Negotiation for Couples.”
Neil Sattin: Love it.
Pete Pearson: It's a really step-by-step process for how to negotiate and how to avoid the two big problems of negotiation, which is either caving in too quickly or pushing yourself too hard to get what you want, at the expense of the other. I can give you a link where your listeners could go and get that document.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, that would be great, if it's easy. We can always post it in the transcript of the show, as well.
Pete Pearson: That would be great, but very quickly, and then we'll send you the link, and it could be posted in the transcript. It's couplesinstitute.com/blog, and then in the blog, it's Super Negotiation for Couples, couplesinstitute.com/blog, and the blog is “Super Negotiation for Couples.” It's four pages, which is really good, a step-by-step process to lead you through what can be negotiated, and, interestingly enough, what cannot be negotiated, and even more importantly, how to prepare ahead of time to make an effective negotiation.
Neil Sattin: Great. I can already envision enlisting Chloe and doing it experimentally and recording ourselves for the podcast-
Pete Pearson: Oh, cool! Yeah.
Neil Sattin: So that you can hear us live going into negotiating or not, something really sensitive for us.
Pete Pearson: Oh, that would be interesting.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, yeah, totally. I appreciate your sharing that link, and we will definitely have a direct link to that in the transcript and show notes, as well.
Pete Pearson: Terrific.
Neil Sattin: I guess that saves us from having to go through the whole thing here.
Pete Pearson: Right.
Neil Sattin: One thing that I want to touch on is when people get into relationship and, Ellyn, you mentioned, very often, not always, but very often there's that initial falling in love or that feeling of merging, or we're the same, or we're meant for each other. This is perfect. Then the disillusionment happens, where you start realizing the person isn't perfect. Yet, towards the end of the developmental process, when you're actually in that place of synergy, I don't think you're going to feel like you're the same again, but you will feel an intense level of intimacy and closeness that, in some ways, is at least a variation on the theme of that kind of intimacy that you experience at the very start of your relationship.
Neil Sattin: I want to bring this up, because I feel like, so often, the struggle for people is wanting to hang onto what they experienced at the very beginning out of fear of moving like that, in the differentiation process, they're going to lose each other. How do you keep people connected, while they're differentiating?
Ellyn Bader: First of all, one of the ways that I explain this, and I think it's a visual that people really get, is you know the disco balls that have mirrors all around them?
Neil Sattin: Yes.
Ellyn Bader: I keep a disco ball in my office. What I say is a disco ball represents each person, and all the mirrors on the ball are different facets of yourself. When you two met and fell in love, the disco ball mirrors that were facing each other or were setting each other off, and you were falling in love, and all the brain chemicals got going, are those places where you really felt like you were the same, like you were meant for each other, like everything was just perfect.
Ellyn Bader: Well, because everybody has so many different facets of themselves, it's inevitable that those balls are going to spin. There's going to be a period in which the ones that are facing each other are actually the ones where you don't get along so well, or you're not the same, and where you have growth that needs to take place, in order to keep the connection. Over time, the balls are going to continue to spin, and you will learn things that will deepen your connection and, actually, the kind of intimacy that most couples experience when they get to the other side of that is a kind of intimacy that feels more real and more grounded than that super-exciting, temporary psychosis that went on at the beginning.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, I mean the disco ball isn't terribly effective when it stays in one place. It needs to spin for-
Ellyn Bader: Exactly.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, it makes a ton of sense.
Ellyn Bader: Now, and a relationship needs juice. It needs energy, and some of that energy comes from the differences, as well as from the similarities.
Neil Sattin: I suggest that you, at home, you pick your favorite disco tune, and you can hum it to yourself when you're in a moment of uncertainty about the direction that you're headed. I'm already getting it might be the night fever, we know how to go it.
Pete Pearson: Cool.
Neil Sattin: There's that reassurance that you're headed towards that place, and yet it can feel really scary to give, to grant, freedom, or to take freedom, let's say, to take that independence. Is there a specific way that you encourage people to do that, to enter into that required process, but to maintain an awareness of the other person's heart and how they're affecting them, but not in a way that leads to codependence?
Pete Pearson: That question, Neil, brings us full circle back to where we started. Instead of saying, “Here's how you do it,” or, “Here's the way to do it,” it's like, “What is your motivation for doing it? What are the advantages for put ... Why would you put forth the effort? Why would you take the emotional risk? Why would you take the sustained effort to bring that about?” Then we can talk about how to do it, but let's first talk about the "why" you would be willing to do it. It's the why that gives us the motivation to do the work.
Ellyn Bader: Pete, I think of some of the stuff that you've been doing lately around couples as a team also is part of an answer to Neil's question.
Pete Pearson: Totally, because we first have to identify where we get stuck, where the pain is. That's easy for couples to do.
Pete Pearson: “Here's where I get triggered. When my partner does X, this is what happens, and I get triggered.”
Pete Pearson: I say, “Great, let's look at what you feel/think when you get triggered.”
Pete Pearson: They go, “Oh, that's easy to do.”
Pete Pearson: Now I will say, “Let's shift, because we have to shift from where you are in that emotional brain, that lizard brain reflex, that self-protection, and let's talk about how you aspire to be instead. If you come from your higher self, your transformative self, you're better self, what would that look like? Instead of responding from a defensive, blaming, accusatory, withdrawing place, what would be a better way of responding?”
Pete Pearson: Most of the time, people can say, “Well, I'd be better if I was calmer, if I was curious, if I was a little more compassionate, if I was a better listener.”
Pete Pearson: Then here's, I say, the key question, which is, “Why would you be willing to make the effort to go to that future focus, that forward focus? Why would you be willing to do that?” Then, that gets us to all the benefits for change. People only change for three reasons: to avoid a greater pain, for the benefits involved or the rewards involved, and to live more within our integrity about how we aspire to be. We talk about why they would be willing to make the effort.
Pete Pearson: Then, I'll say, "When you get stuck, when you get triggered, I want you to clasp your hands together and squeeze. That will, first of all, distract you from being looping in that emotional, lizard brain response. Then, think about how you would aspire to be, and why you would change and be that way. When your partner sees you clasping your hands, that's a signal to your partner that you are struggling to change your response and come from your better self. Then your partner will say to you, 'Oh, thank you. I appreciate your willingness to try to avoid going into that old place and do something different. I really appreciate that. What can I do to help that? What can I say or what can I do right now that would be helpful?'" I say, "When you guys do that, now you're working together as a team."
Neil Sattin: Perfect, and that being the whole goal is recognizing that, even as you progress through these stages of togetherness leading into greater independence, leading back to greater interdependence, that you're on the same team with each other.
Pete Pearson: Yes.
Neil Sattin: You're not out to get each other. You've got each other's back, and you can help each other through that process.
Pete Pearson: Exactly.
Neil Sattin: Well, Pete Pearson and Ellyn Bader, it's been a treat to have you on the show again, just like the first time around. I wish I had read your book, In Quest of the Mythical Mate, years ago, but I'm so thrilled that I read it now. I would say it's required reading for any couples therapist out there. You're doing a lot of work, training couples therapists, as well as work helping lay people just do better in relationships, through your work at The Couples Institute.
Neil Sattin: Thank you, again, for being with us here today. I'll make sure we have links to your website, so people can find your work. I just want to say how grateful I am for the work you're doing in the world, and for your willingness to come and share it with us here on Relationship Alive. We could talk more, and hopefully, we'll get that chance again sometimes soon.
Pete Pearson: Thank you, Neil, so much, for what you're doing to bring the message to the people out there.
Neil Sattin: My pleasure.
Ellyn Bader: Yes, thank you, Neil. It's always a pleasure talking with you, and I also will mention that I'm going to be doing a free online workshop between August 13th and 25th, so if any of your listeners want to participate in that, I can send you a link for that, as well.
Neil Sattin: That would be great, and I can actually send that out to my mailing list, as well, so that people can find out about it that way.
Ellyn Bader: That would be fantastic.
Pete Pearson: Thank you, Neil.
Ellyn Bader: Yeah, that would be great.
Neil Sattin: Absolutely. Well, we'll be in touch about that, and always great to talk to you guys. Take care.
Ellyn Bader: You, too.
Pete Pearson: Bye-bye, Neil.
Ellyn Bader: Bye.