Okay, so let's talk about fleabagging. Of course, with a new year comes a new wave of dating trends that I need to get up to speed with so that I can understand what the heck my clients are talking about. One of these new wondrous experiences is fleabagging.
What is fleabagging? Well, I'm glad you asked.
The term 'fleabagging' comes from the hit BBC show, Fleabag, created by Pheobe Waller-Bridge. The character of Fleabag just kept dating people that were completely wrong for her. So, bringing it back to you, basically you start seeing someone, they treat you like shit so you end things. But then, the cycle repeats over and over and over again. You (or more likely your friends) can’t help but notice that you only seem to be interested in people you know are bad for you. It’s happening – you’re fleabagging.
We all have that friend who constantly dates the wrong person, don’t we? Maybe that friend is actually us, but for the purposes of self-delusion and denial, let’s pretend it’s someone else’s problem. So why do they do it? What continually draws our friend to these people who can never be "the one" – assuming you believe in such a restricting concept, more on this another time – and why can’t they date someone different for a change? According to a survey of its users by dating site Plenty Of Fish, half of singles feel they have consistently dated the wrong person for them and although at 63% the issue is more prevalent among women, it’s still very much a guy thing – 38% of men have fessed up to Fleabagging.
What if I told you there is Science around why some people are fleabaggers?
So of course the natural question to ask is "what leads us to fleabagging?" Can it possibly be all about bad-boy fetishes or a desire to annoy our parents? Maybe it's a belief that we should never be happy. Could that be it? Well, no, you’ll be pleased to hear that there’s actual science behind this one. I believe that one of the key reasons we consistently "pick the wrong person" comes down to our attachment style: either "Secure", "Anxious" or "Avoidant". Or, occasionally, a combination of the latter two.
"Half of singles feel they have consistently dated the wrong person for them and although at 63% the issue is more prevalent among women, it’s still very much a guy thing – 38% of men have fessed up to Fleabagging, according to dating site Plenty of Fish.
If we can understand ourselves in terms of the characteristics of these styles then we can shine some light on the dynamics of our relationships and so that we can begin to understand why what we think is accidentally repeatedly falling into the same style of relationships is, in fact, a pattern. It also helps us to not blame or use loaded language such as 'needy' or ‘cold’." These labels aren’t meant to judge, but they can help us understand why we behave we do in relationships.
Secure people, for example, are usually warm and affectionate and responsive to intimacy. Anxious people might worry their partner doesn’t love them back and need reassurance or feel jealous. Avoidant people tend to be distant and unwilling to commit, equating intimacy with a loss of independence. We are able to see that certain attachment styles often end up in combination with another. Examples of these combinations are secure-secure or anxious-avoidant. So, even if the person is different, you're still following the same blueprint.
How do you stop fleabagging? Keep reading.
Does it help to know that going from bad relationship to bad relationship isn’t just you blundering your way through life, but an actual personality trait? Maybe. But if you do find yourself with unsatisfying partners time after time I'm sure the one of the important things to do is to break the cycle. I mean, it is better to find someone who makes you happy, right? But if the way you behave is hardwired into your attachment style, does it mean you will never be content? Nope. It doesn't mean that at all.
The first step to doing things differently and breaking this Fleabag behavior is to gain an understanding and awareness of what you are putting into these relationship dynamics, not just blaming the other person. Relationships are a two-way street. It's likely that Fleabaggers are pretty rough on themselves, and the way you treat yourself also models how others treat you. So, naturally, if you aren't able to offer yourself care and respect, a partner will also pick up on that and may not offer you the same, which can create an unhealthy relationship dynamic.
To break these patterns, though, you might need a minute or two of tough love and introspection, by working out your own attachment style. There isn't a need to beat yourself up about it, but it's important to acknowledge your natural characteristics. Knowing what your attachment style is can really highlight what's going on for you and make alert you when you begin to fall into similar patterns. I recommend a book called Attached: Are You Anxious, Avoidant Or Secure?, which has all the info, along with quizzes to help you work yourself out.
Fleabag, herself, never quite got that happy ending, although I’d like to think that as she walked away at the end of series two it was toward a brighter future. If you look into yourself a bit more, acknowledge the way you think in a relationship and the effect it might be having on you, you can have a brighter future too.
In my private practice, I get the opportunity to work with many creative people who come to me feeling stuck. Often times, they are feeling stuck because they have some good ideas that they'd like to communicate with the rest of us but they find themselves up against some pretty overwhelming chasms that I (and some others who are smarter than me) call the three gaps of creativity.
My artist clients are often surprised by the gap that exists between how their idea feels in their mind and how it feels when they try to make the idea work outside of themselves. Since I'm also an artist, I understand the amazing feeling that happens when a good idea really gels. Scott Berkun says that "good ideas often come with a wave of euphoria, a literal dopamine high, and we’re joyously overwhelmed by it. It’s natural in that instant to overlook the dozens of questions that must be answered to bring the idea to life. We easily postpone those questioning thoughts, believing that if we can come up with the big idea surely we can conquer all the little problems too. An epiphany is a powerful experience, but the myth of epiphany is that it alone is all you need."
Isn't it frustrating that when we do sit down to work on the details of an idea, the euphoria fades away? The actual work of thinking about how to bring the idea into the world is was less fun that the fantasizing about the idea’s realization. It might take an hour or a day to put do, but soon the tasks necessary for bringing your idea to fruition feel really boring. Even though your elevator pitch is spot on, it doesn’t negate the effort required to complete all of the sketches, drafts and models required to flesh the idea out into its final form.
The effort gap
This is the effort gap. No matter how great your idea is, there will always be energy you have to spend and effort you have to put in, often on relatively boring work, to deliver your baby to the world.
Berkun says that "the instinctive reaction to the realization that your amazing idea has led to ordinary work is to retreat. We feel we are doing something wrong if delivering on the idea isn’t as stimulating as finding the idea itself. Somehow we believe the feeling of euphoria should remain throughout the entire project, and when it doesn’t, and we have to choose to put effort in, we assume something is amiss." Hollywood often skips from the discovery of the idea to fame and fortune, but in real life we have to close that distance ourselves. Or maybe, if we're more honest with ourselves, we just don’t want to work that hard, preferring to return to the excitement of thinking up more ideas rather than doing anything about them. I don't think that there's anything wrong with this but the problem shows up when we beat ourselves up by denying the fact that we have less ambition than we wish we had.
Many people suffer from creative cold feet and a fear of commitment. I know that I have. Sometimes we're afraid of closing the effort gap. We want to be creative but without taking any risks. We know there is a chance that we can put in a lot of time and effort only to see the project fail at the other end. So, we prefer to keep the idea locked inside our minds. When someone else produces something with a similar idea, maybe we claim false possession, exclaiming, “I thought of that years ago!” But guess what? The only way to possess an idea is, as Berkun says, "closing the effort gap and actually putting something out into the world." As it turns out, coming up with the idea is the easy part.
The skill gap
Sometimes the problem is realizing that while the idea is super good, and you’re willing to put the effort in, the skills you have aren’t good enough to deliver on it.
The natural assumption is that the ability to have the idea is the harder part, and if the idea is good it assumes you have all the required abilities. Unfortunately, we learn once again that assumption makes, well, you know what I'm talking about. For example, while I can imagine performing quadruple backflip dives and singing five-octave melodies, that imagination has no bearing on my body’s ability to do those things.
Berkun calls this the skill gap, "the distance between the skills your idea requires and the ones you have." Often it’s only through putting effort into a project that we discover our skill gaps.
When we see work from our heroes, it’s easy to forget they once had skill gaps too. We imagine they were born with the abilities we know them for. The problem is our view of other creators is backwards. We know them after they became famous and after they learned their craft. The works we know best are rarely an artist’s early works but rather those considered masterpieces. When we see a Georgia O’Keeffe painting in a museum, or a J.R.R. Tolkien novel in the bookstore, we see the creators at their best and likely in their prime. We don’t see their many experiments, their uncertain output during the long years they developed the skills they’d become famous for. The many artists that I work with truly struggle with insecurity. The reason that we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else's highlight reel. It takes a lot of digging in the recesses of a person's studio to find their behind-the-scenes work.
Nobody tells people who are beginners, and I really wish someone had told this to me… all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste.… there’s a gap… for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good…. It’s not that great.… It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good.
Many talented people never develop their skills because they hate the feeling of this distance. They’re embarrassed and tortured by it. They expect to improve at a pace that comes only from wishful thinking, and when they fail to meet it they fall apart. Sometimes we lack the commitment required to find out, through practice, exactly how much skill we might be capable of. It's always tempting to search for an easy and guaranteed path despite the fact that none exists, especially the heroes that we all look up to for inspiration. The tough news that Ira Glass suggests is that it’s easier for our ambitions to grow, as that happens only by consuming good works, than it is for our skills to improve, something that requires dedicated effort.
One way that I've been able to encourage my clients to remain motivated in closing skill gaps is to study the history of masters they admire. The early works of Claude Monet and Jackson Pollock are super different from the styles they became most famous for. Brad Pitt’s first “acting role” was in a chicken costume for a Mexican fast food restaurant. And, really, who knows how many awful plays young Shakespeare wrote that he burned? Honest biographies of nearly every famous musician, writer or entrepreneur will highlight in painful detail how they worked to close the skill gaps in their careers.
The quality gap
Once you’ve got your skills locked in, how you choose to use them becomes a matter of style. Style, or quality, gaps are the most subjective of all. Unlike effort and skill gaps, a quality gap is a subjective opinion about the quality of what is made. When Picasso began working in his cubist style or entered his blue period, it wasn’t because of a lack of skill. There was a specific quality, a feeling, a tone, an effect he wanted that he struggled to obtain. Depending on what idea you have in your mind, even if you work hard and have the right skills, you will still experience quality gaps as you work on projects.
Some really famous creators struggled with their own opinion of their work, even after their public success. No matter how popular they became, they felt their work was flawed, not good enough, and maybe worst of all, never reaching the standards that they set for themselves. For example, Bruce Springsteen once called the Born To Run album “the worst piece of garbage” he’d ever heard, and didn’t want to release it. Berkun mentions that "artists are often victims of their own perceived quality gaps. They struggle to match the ideas in their minds to what they can manifest in the world."
Some very successful creators never close the quality gap, at least not on every project, and you likely won’t either. This is fine, perhaps even good. Continued growth requires that when you finish a project you’ll see it differently than when you started. And in the very things you find lacking or wish you had done differently you find the motivation for the next project, and the one after that. "To be perfectly satisfied with something you made likely means you didn’t learn anything along the way, and I’d rather be a little disappointed with projects now and then than experience the alternative of never learning anything at all" (Berkun).
These three gaps, effort, skill and quality, will be constant companions. Have patience in how you deal with them. As a creator you are part of a challenging trade where it takes time to develop your craft and that development never ends. If you really believe in your ideas and potential, stay the course and commit to the long, and only realistic, path to fulfilling your ambitions.
If you can, take pleasure in making things for the sake of making them. If you feel love for your craft, honor it by showing up, even when it’s hard...especially when it’s hard. Working when it’s hardest often teaches rare lessons that will earn you easy rides now and then. Take pleasure in small amounts of progress when you experience it and remember, as Berkun writes, "those hard-won gains are the only way anyone in history has ever achieved anything noteworthy—for themselves or for the world."
References: The Dance of The Possible: the mostly honest completely irreverent guide to creativity. (Scott Berkun)
Although an affair can disrupt your relationship in almost any area, there are three broad domains that frequently show negative impact from the affair. For some couples, one or more of these areas was already a source of difficulty before the affair. For such couples, the additional stress of an affair often leads to severe dysfunction in that particular domain.
Following a betrayal trauma, nearly all couples need to address the issue of how to regain some sense of equilibrium in one or more of the following areas, which vary on a continuum of vulnerability from instrumental, task-oriented activities to more emotional and intimate activities.
The three broad domain areas are:
Following a betrayal trauma, nearly all couples need to address the issue of how to regain some sense of equilibrium
Disruption of Daily Tasks
Often, after an affair there is a breakdown in daily routines, household chores, and patterns of interaction. This happens for a number of reasons:
Typically, both partners contribute to the relationship and complete various tasks for the wellbeing of the couple but after an affair many individuals, particularly the injured partner, no longer put forth the same effort they had previously. After an affair, motivation to expend extra effort to benefit the other partner is compromised. So, shopping for and preparing meals, doing laundry, cleaning the house, putting gas in the car, along with many other activities are no longer taken care of as usual. If partners are so upset with one another that they can't even talk to each other about the issues, then their lives become more stressful and daily needs are not addressed.
It is important that the aspect of daily, household tasks and responsibilities are addressed.
Disruption of Companionship Activities
An important aspect of most intimate relationships is the partnerships that couples share, engaging in a wide variety of enjoyable activities together.
Every couple has routines for relaxation or play, such as going to the movies together, enjoying a play, exercising together, inviting friends over for the evening, or taking short weekend trips out of town; however these activities are frequently disrupted in the aftermath of an affair.
The injured partner might feel too upset and angry to propose that the couple go to a movie together. Likewise, the participating partner might believe it is too presumptuous to suggest that the couple continue with their previously planned vacation.
On the other hand, both partners may retain a strong wish for these activities. The participating partner might want to show how much he or she wants to be with the injured partner and suggest a lot of “togetherness” activities. Similarly, some injured partners seek reassurance from shared activities or fear that they have not been a “good enough” companion and now try to make up for it by suggesting lots of ways to spend time together.
Often, there is some confusion between partners about what is acceptable, so it’s important to raise the issue. Remember that the desire for companionship with the other person will likely change over the course of recovery and partners might have different desires at various times. Therefore, it’s important to be patient during these interactions and be mindful of the variety of emotional responses that might come up during these interactions. Make a good-faith effort to be positive during these interactions and tell the other person if an activity becomes unpleasant or aversive.
Disruption of Intimate Interactions
While companionship activities might be ones that someone does with a friend, other activities that couples enjoy involve more intimate interactions, typically reserved for a romantic, committed relationship. This category includes:
Moreover, given that the trauma of an affair involves sexual interactions with a third person, sexual interactions between the participating and injured partner may seem meaningless or aversive.
I make no single recommendation to couples regarding intimate or sexual interactions, but these issues need to be raised during therapy. Don’t engage in intimate behaviors that make either person highly uncomfortable. Instead, try to understand that after an affair, there are many decisions to make, including how to interact with each other while assessing whether to maintain the relationship longterm.
Guidelines for Decision-making Discussions
Couples regularly face a wide range of issues requiring joint decisions. For example, these decisions can range from management of couple- and family-focused daily responsibilities, engagement in companionship activities, and consideration about whether or not to engage in more intimate interactions. The general decision-making skills outlined below can be helpful for many couples facing difficult decisions after an affair.
State the issue clearly and specifically.
Clarify why the issue is important and what your needs are.
Discuss possible solutions.
Decide on a solution that is agreeable to both of you.
Decide on a trial period to implement the solution, if it is a situation that will occur more than once.
TJ Walsh, MA LPC NCC
TJ is a licensed professional counselor in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and board certified by NBCC as a National Certified Counselor. His primary clinical focus is trauma, emotional abuse, affairs and betrayal traumas, existential crisis and restoration/deepening of the relationship one has with him/her/their self. He is also an artist and educator in Counseling Psychology at Eastern University in Saint Davids, Pennsylvania.
Loss can take many forms and some loss is more devastating than others.
When our spouse tells us that they want a divorce, when a close friend or family member dies, when we get laid off from a job or when we become disabled by illness or injury, or when there is tragedy in our community—our lives can be sent into a tailspin.
Loss forces us to face several psychological challenges, but by incorporating the arts into our lives, these new challenges can be used as a tool for gaining momentum in the healing process.
As we reconstruct our identity to match our new circumstances, we must at the same time be adjusting our belief systems. As human beings we naturally try to make sense of our experiences in life. Some of us articulate it more clearly than others do, but we each have our own way of understanding how the world works, a unique set of beliefs and assumptions that form the lens through which we view the world and our individual place in it. Loss and grief can challenge these basic assumptions and make us question everything that we thought we knew. We are flooded with doubts and questions; often the simplest question is simply—why? It is our challenge to find ways of making sense of what happened and adjusting our belief systems accordingly.
To grow, we have to find within ourselves a way to ascribe meaning to the events and discover a new purpose to steer us into our new existence. A helpful exercise for redefining our belief systems is to take a piece of paper and write down everything that we thought that we knew, and all the beliefs that we held on to. Once you have scribed all of these beliefs and assumptions onto the paper, paint over them. Once the paint dries, inscribe your new beliefs and your new perspectives over top of the old ones.
Recovering from grief and loss takes time but the best way to treat our psychological injuries is to take on these challenges at our own pace, confronting and overcoming them one by one.
"I could never do what you do. How do you listen to problems all day?"
This is a question that I get all of the time. But you know what? I don’t see my job as listening to problems at all. Rather, I spend my time being witness to resilience.
I hear painful stories. I see pain. I feel it, too. Sometimes, after I hear a story I need to close my door and cry a little bit.
But, I also see the beauty of life. The strength of human resiliency. The need to find acceptance and offer grace in the unpredictability of it all.
I don't see my job as listening to problems as all. Rather, I spend my time being witness to resilience.
Each day, I get to see how people can change. I get to watch as they recognize unhelpful patterns and shift them. I also see how people in many ways often stay the same. I see them sitting in my office as the sweet child with dreams and where fun and joy can pop up, almost unexpectedly.
In my job, I get to also be a student. I am taught great lessons every day by my clients. I am regularly reminded to count my blessings. But, also, to grieve my losses.
I am offered the beautiful opportunity of my own struggles being normalized. I get to see what life is truly like for most people behind closed doors.
This offers me permission to be human. It also grants me the great reminder to never forget that other people are human, too.
My job is a great honor. And whether we connect in my office or through here, I am inspired by you.
I want to share with you something that I know from getting to know so many people so intimately:
You’re not the only one. Someone else has faced something similar. There are other couples out there that are struggling in the same way you are.
Other individuals feeling similar feelings that you feel.
People all over the world worrying, grieving, and crying, and just trying really really hard. And also surviving and thriving.
You’re not alone in your struggles. And, at the same time, you’re beautifully unique and the world needs you and your experiences, perspectives, and presence.
The term gaslighting originated from the 1944 Ingrid Berman movie Gaslight, where a husband slowly manipulates his wife into thinking she’s gone insane. The term resurged in popularity in 2016 thanks to a viral op-ed in Teen Vogue; it was a runner-up for Oxford dictionary’s 2018 word of the year.
Gaslighting is a real phenomenon—and it has actual consequences for its victims. So what is gaslighting? And what are the signs you’re in a relationship with someone who’s gaslighting you?
What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting psychological manipulation of a person, typically through lying, until the victim questions their sanity and begins to accept the other person’s version of reality. It's an abuse of power to dominate another person.
If the gaslighter is good enough, the victim may not even realize that it's happening. Gaslighting undermines a person’s confidence in who they are and what they believe, and it can lead them to do things they don’t want to do.
Sometimes otherwise mentally stable people gaslight in a certain situation—say, to cover up an affair. But people who persistently gaslight tend to be narcissistic (they’re extremely self-centered) and sociopathic (they ignore other’s people’s perspectives and disregard their rights). These people seek to control another person to meet their own needs or desires in a way that’s manipulative or dishonest.
Here are seven signs of gaslighting in a relationship, and what to do if you think you’re being gaslighted.
Gaslighting undermines a person's confidence in who they are and what they believe, and it can lead them to do things they don't want to do.
Signs of gaslighting in a relationship
Some of these signs (lying, making false promises) tend to be more strongly associated with gaslighting than others. But several signs taken together is evidence enough to suspect gaslighting. With some of these signs, the victim doesn’t notice them at first. The person needs to gain evidence that it’s gradually occurring over time and put the pieces together to see the symptoms for what they really are.
They lie—and keep lying even after they've been caught
Does your friend never seem to be wrong? If that's the case, they are definitely lying, because we’re all wrong at some point or another. Lying is a key sign of gaslighting.
Of course people lie for many reasons. But gaslighters lie to change another person’s reality. Whatever the gaslighter wants to get from one person, they'll get one way or another through lying.
Gaslighters typically start with small lies, then build up to bigger ones. When they’re caught, even with proof—like text messages—they refuse to admit the truth. They’ll keep denying and lying until you question your memory and ultimately believe their version of events.
It becomes a real mind-you-know-what if the person who’s lying is so confident and unwavering in their position.
They play on insecurities
A gaslighter gets to know your vulnerabilities. Your vulnerabilities include your insecurities, successes, and beliefs. They’ll consistently critique these things, and make snide comments to hurt and control you. Then they will tell you to "get over it," so you begin to believe your perspective isn’t valid or important.
These comments cut down your sense of self-esteem and over time gives the gaslighter the upper hand. The person who is being gaslit will question their worthiness and identify with the gaslighter’s perspective.
Actions don't match words
Even though the gaslighter says that they care about you, they ultimately flake on plans time and again, then swear that the plans never existed in the first place. They’re telling you what you want to hear, then doing whatever it is they wanted to do in the first place.
When someone says they’re going to do something, you should be able to trust they’ll do it. You should question your trust in a person who gives you lip service—particularly if it’s a pattern.
They manipulate your relationships
Gaslighters manipulate how you see important people in your life. They tell you that your father doesn’t love you, your friend is talking behind your back, or your sister is lying to you. They also develop relationships with some of these people, then convince them that you’re crazy in order to manipulate them into supporting the gaslighting process.
By convincing everyone around you that they are the only person who can be trusted, a gaslighter becomes the master manipulator. When you’re cut off from people you trust, you don’t have access to other perspectives that might help you to question what’s happening.
They question your sanity
After lying and manipulating you, a gaslighter will question your version of events, telling you that you're paranoid or imagining things. The goal is to make you feel like you’re going insane.
Constantly questioning your reality is a way to make you feel like there’s something really wrong with you. In the end, you’ll believe you actually need the other person’s perspective to get by.
They accuse you of doing the same thing
Known as “projection” in therapy-speak, gaslighters accuse their victims of their own behaviors.
How many partners accuse their partner of cheating because they’re the one who’s cheating? The person who’s cheating sees the world in a distrustful way because they’re distrustful. They’re attempting to wiggle their way out. If their partner doesn’t have a good sense of self, they’ll buy the projection and act it out by actually having an affair.
You feel increasingly unsure of yourself
Over time, a gaslighter’s behaviors cut into the self-confidence of their victim. You might think everything’s your fault and apologize all of the time, then wonder if you’re too sensitive. Maybe you feel anxious and isolated. You may question your impressions, thoughts, and feelings, and have a hard time making decisions.
What should you do if you're being gaslighted?
\\If you think believe that you're being gaslighted, find a person to confide in, a person that you can trust. You need to get out from under the influence of the gaslighter and have your perspective heard and understood.
It’s entirely possible to fall for someone and realize that they’re gaslighting you after a date or two. Get rid of them. If this isn’t the first time you’ve been attracted to a gaslighter, therapy might be in order. Consider how you become attracted to this type of person. Ask yourself if you're playing a subservient role, and was that something that person smelled out? People who control are looking for people they can control.
Things get more complicated if you’re being gaslighted in a long-term relationship.
If gaslighting is linked to specific circumstances, like covering up an affair, there’s hope to salvage the relationship if the person is truly sorry and willing to try couple’s therapy. If the gaslighter recognizes what they are doing and changes, and you determine why the cheating happened and address those issues, there’s a chance you can recover.
Many people who have affairs never thought they would and are grasping for ways to make it go away or pretend like it never happened.
If, however, a person is slowly gaslighting you, and they aren’t remorseful when you confront them, they may have a serious personality disorder. You may also be grappling with insecurity yourself or seeking a strong connection during a vulnerable time of your life.
Changing this type of behavior in a person takes time and a lot of motivation. It’s much more complicated and often never occurs.
So much of my time spent with people is about communication. Why is that? I think it’s because we know that communication is one of those things that all of us can seek to improve.
Communication is also something that when changed, can have immediate and positive benefits on your relationship.The Gottmans are famous for their research on the dynamics of relationships and communication. Their book The Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work has become a best-seller because it focuses on many of the practical aspects of relationships that you can begin to make changes in.
One of their most popular couple communication concepts is the idea of the ‘soft start-up’.
What is the soft start-up?Simply put, the soft start-up is about approaching a conversation with your partner in a soft way, so that your partner can better receive what you are saying. Many couples fall into the trap of initiating communication with a harsh start-up such as, “Why didn’t you clean the kitchen?!” [said with a blaming tone].
The Gottmans found out through their research that when you start a conversation with tension or harshness, it’s almost certain that you will end the conversation with tension. Maybe you’ve noticed this yourself?
When you start a conversation with tension or harshness, it's almost certain that you will end the conversation with tension.
So, how do you communicate with a soft start-up?
Here are several tips that can help you start a conversation or bring up an issue in your relationship by utilizing the soft start-up approach.
1. Choose your timing carefully
Before you even think about bringing an issue to the floor or beginning a difficult conversation, make sure you’ve got your timing right.
Don’t choose a time when one or both of you are stressed, rushed or dealing with other matters, and avoid noisy and crowded environments. You want to make sure you’re both relaxed and able to focus on one another without any interruptions.
2. Start with something positive
Starting your conversation with a positive statement can make a gigantic difference to how you are received by your partner. It also sets the tone for your conversation.
For example, saying, “Sweetheart, I want to let you know that I really appreciate how hard you’re working at the moment to save money for our deposit”, before you discuss a financial concern can help you get off to a strong start.
3. Own your feelings and use “I” statements
Another important part of the soft start-up is to own your feelings and use “I” statements.
This has a two-fold effect. First, your partner will be less defensive because you’re sharing your own feelings, not commenting or interpreting the feelings of your partner. Next, using “I” statements helps because when you take ownership of your experience, it’s less likely to be heard by your partner as blame.
For example, “When you left this morning and didn’t turn the dishwasher on, I felt annoyed when I came home” is much more palatable than “You are so lazy and forgetful- why didn’t you remember to turn the dishwasher on like I asked you?” The former is more likely to get you a positive response and the later is more likely to have your partner defend their position and attack back.
4. Watch your tone of voice
Be mindful of your tone of voice, this can help with the soft start-up and establish a positive outcome to your conversation.
As humans, we are wired to be sensitive to threat, and threat can be perceived through the voice and it's tone. There can be fine line between assertive communication and aggressive communication.
Check in on your tone as you start to speak. Is there an edge to it? Is there a harshness? If so, see if you can soften your tone. If it helps, notice any tension in your voice and consciously relax your throat and vocal cords.
As humans, we are wired to be sensitive to threat, and threat can be perceived through the voice and it's tone. There can be a fine line between assertive communication and aggressive communication.
5. Share a complaint, but don’t criticize
It’s normal to have complaints of our partners. In fact, a complaint can be healthy for partners if you make it clear what outcome you want to achieve.
The problem starts when complaints turn into criticisms. Any attack on the character of your partner, including global statements of their failings (“you never” or “you always”) can railroad any productive conversation very quickly.
Focus on specific behaviors and make it clear what you dislike, how you feel and how you would like them to change.
6. Make requests for change
Furthermore, complaints without any requests for change are also unhelpful. If you just share your feelings and complaints, your partner may not understand what it is you want.
Let your partner know the specific change you’re wanting. For example, “When you leave your clothes on the floor I feel irritated because I have a need for a clean house, so I’m asking you to please put your clothes in the basket”.
You might have noticed that in this example, the speaker also expressed their need. An expression of your greater need—like a need for cleanliness and organization—can help your partner understand where your irritation is coming from. This understanding can help them be more mindful of your values in the relationship and what will please and displease them.
The soft start-up can be a very effective tool to use when you have to have a difficult conversation. Try it out and see what happens to the communication the next time you need to raise an issue. You might be surprised by the results.
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son. (1668), Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg
Rembrandt's “Return of the Prodigal Son,” painted in 1668 toward the end of his life, and now hanging in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, is a truly astounding work of sacred art. I haven't seen the original (it is a large painting 8” by 6”), but even the prints convey that which is almost inexpressible.
Others have painted this gospel parable that appears in Luke, chapter 15 many times. Rembrandt’s version stands out, however, from all the others (including James Tisor’s The prodigal son in modern life: the return, painted around 1882, which portrays the son as a wayward sailor returned to his father’s arms on a dock somewhere).
In Rembrandt's version, the father and prodigal son are in that ever-so-soft-and-delicate light of Rembrandt (not the highly intensified and focused light like Caravaggio) against the backdrop of a black surface. The ragged, dirty robes of the son contrast with the father’s ochre tinged with gold robe.
One can move downward from the light on the father’s face to the son’s feet, filthy, with one sandal lying on the floor. The son is almost bald and repellant: he has squandered his inheritance and has even descended so far into degradation that he lived with the pigs.
In another painting of this biblical story Rembrandt caught the prodigal son in the tavern. He painted himself and his wife, Saskia, into the merry-making of wine and song in a raucous pub (of course, Rembrandt as prodigal is wearing a sassy Dutch hat of black felt, with sword dangling at his side).
There are sketches, too, of scenes from the story. Albrecht Durer sketched The prodigal son among the pigs in 1496. This sketch sets the prodigal son smack in the middle of a pig’s trough. These pigs, and their piglets, have the largest snouts I have ever seen. Durer is a matchless wood-cut artist and crafter of sketches.
But it is the father’s features that keep my eyes fixated on the Rembrandt painting, perhaps the way Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa still strikes silent awe in our hearts. How could he paint such an enigmatic smile? Rembrandt’s solemn scene of reconciliation paints the father’s look with such utter tenderness, compassion and love.
Part of the way he does this is by the contrasting light on the old man’s eyes: his left shaded with black, the right eye full of light, the head tilted to the left, the arms extending out of the scarlet robe (revealing extraordinarily beautiful undergarments) and hands placed with utmost tenderness on the son’s back (his head, though turned, is resting on his father’s chest).
Rembrandt has caught the moment when the father has just so, so carefully placed his hands on the son. One can almost imagine that this dirty wayward prodigal had just walked in, and the father moves to meet him, with the son falling at his father’s feet. The psychological depth of this painting is remarkable. The son has come home, the feast is about to begin.
But Rembrandt does not forget the elder brother. He is the “good son” who stands at the side to his father’s left, with two figures, barely visible, in between (another stands behind the father). The light is on the elder son’s face. Unlike his brother, he is standing, hands folded, a walking cane in his front. A red cape drapes his shoulders. He doesn’t seem particularly overjoyed.
The universal meaning of this unsurpassable painting is that light flows into the darkness and sin-weariness of the world though compassion that accepted the wounded and humiliated with total encompassing. The father embraces the wayward one without question. In his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son: a story of homecoming (1994), Henri Nouwen, the contemplative priest and spiritual director, discusses his encounter with Rembrandt’s painting. His story began in the fall of 1983 in the village of Trosly, where he had been spending time at L’Arche, the community founded by Jean Vanier for mentally handicapped people.
Henri had been traveling around the United States lecturing and protesting the war in Central America. He was exhausted, restless, and needy. One day he went over to visit Simone Landrien in the community’s documentation centre. He says, “As we spoke, my eyes fell on a large poster pinned on her door. I saw a man in a great red cloak tenderly touching the shoulders of disheveled boy kneeling before him. I could not take my eyes away.
“I felt drawn by the intimacy between the three figures (one, very, very faint), the war red of the man’s cloak, the golden yellow of the boy’s tunic, and the mysterious light engulfing them both. But, most of all, it was the hands—the old man’s hands—as they touched the boy’s shoulders that reached me in a place where I had never been reached before.”
Immediately Nouwen wanted to get a copy—at Simone’s insistence. The picture stayed with him over the years. There is little doubt that for Nouwen, the coming home to a secure and safe place swelled up from his spiritual depths. Three years later, Henri had opportunity to visit the Hermitage in St. Petersburg where he saw the original painting for the first time.
“I was stunned by its majestic beauty. Its size, larger than life; its abundant reds, browns, and yellow, its shadowy recesses and bright foreground, but most of all the light-enveloped embrace of father and son surrounded by four mysterious bystanders, all of this gripped me with an intensity far beyond my anticipation. There had been moments in which I had wondered whether the real painting might disappoint me. The opportunity was true. Its grandeur and splendour made everything recede into the background and held me completely. Coming here was indeed a homecoming.”
Dive deeper into the painting
The painting revealed to Nouwen the deepest yearning of his heart. The story of the prodigal son is the story of a God who goes searching for us and who doesn’t rest until he has found us.
3 phases of the spiritual journey:
1. The younger son.
Practical tips & things to pray about
Recently I posted a video by Esther Perel where she provides a brief guide about communicating about love in this day and age. In the video, Esther discusses the phenomena of ghosting, icing, and simmering. In this post, we’re going to look at these terms, why to stop engaging with them if you’re a culprit, and how to deal with the emotions of being ghosted, iced or simmered.
Rejection has always been a part of the relationship landscape. But are the new trends of ghosting, icing and simmering increasing our acceptance of ambiguous ends? These tactics of maintaining unclear relationships and prolonging break-ups all produce what I refer to as stable ambiguity. When we are stably ambiguous, we're too afraid to be alone, but unwilling to fully engage in building intimacy. This behavior creates a holding pattern that affirms the undefined nature of the relationship, which has a mix of comforting consistency AND the freedom of blurred lines.
Esther says that "we want to have our cake and eat it too. We want to have someone available to cozy-up with when it’s snowing, but if something better comes along, we want the freedom to explore."
In this relationship culture, expectations and trust are constantly questioned. The state of stable ambiguity will undoubtedly create an atmosphere where at least one person experiences a constant cloud of uncertainty, and neither individual feels truly appreciated or nurtured. We do this at the expense of our emotional health, and the emotional health of others.
"Ghosting, icing, and simmering are manifestations of the decline of empathy in our society — the promoting of one’s selfishness, without regard for the consequences of others," says Esther. There is a person on the other end of our text messages (or lack thereof), and the ability to communicate virtually doesn’t give us the right to treat others poorly.
So what is ghosting, icing, and simmering really? Let's take a look.
Ghosting is simple. The other party simply becomes a ghost. They stop responding to calls, texts, or DMs. Typically, ghosting happens once you’ve already met the other person.
If someone just stops responding to your messages within an online dating site and you haven’t met yet, it's probably one of three things:
Do you ghost?
People who are “into you” don’t “just get the hint” when you stop responding. In some cases, they actually worry. If you’re someone that ghosts others, consider stepping up a little and treating people with a bit more respect. Everyone wants to be respected. You’re not going to be respected if you don’t respect to others. That’s just the way the world works.
Have you been ghosted?
Being the victim of a ghoul sucks. Plain and simple. Many ghostees live in within the gray area between anger and worry. Particularly if they really liked the ghost.
But, it’s not you. That didn’t help, did it? But the reality is, is that someone who can’t send you a message letting you down isn’t someone you want to be with in the first place. How far do you want to go with someone unable to take responsibility for their own decisions?
A client of mine recently came in to their session in tears because the person that they had been seeing for last two months finally reached out to them a week after they left them a voicemail, saying they'd gotten busy. My client hadn't been ghosted. They'd been iced.
Icing is when someone suddenly behaves very cool towards you. Their responses become sporadic and will become increasingly more generic than specific. Trying to make plans will yield responses like “let me get back to you.”
Do you put people on ice?
Stop. Really, people are not toys. It’s OK to call it like it is. Keep a good friend vs. just being a jerk.
If you're prone to icing people, try; this instead: So, here’s the thing: I like you. I like that you _____, and you would probably be great to be friends with.
Warning: If they agree to be friends, make the next four or five connections be group interactions. Test that friendship is going to work. Constant advances aren’t OK. Maintain your agreed upon boundaries.
Have you been put on ice?
I guess the good news with icing is that the other person is kinda into you. They do like you. Otherwise, they’d ghost. But chances are, they aren’t so sure whether the like you like you. That’s worth a little bit of effort, right? So that's why you're on ice.
Icing is weird. People do get busy. But if someone wants to spend time with you, they make the time. At very least, an “I wish I could see you, but I’m booked” text will fill the space and help take the edge off.
Dealing with icing takes a bit of commitment. Give yourself a strategy and stick to it. Set boundaries and limits. A strategy that I teach my clients is 2/4. I recommend that they reach out twice, four days apart. So, if my client reaches out to someone – phone, text, email, DM – and they don’t respond in four days AND they really like them, call and ask a hard “when can we get together again?” But, that’s it.
If my client is truly being put on ice, their second call is going to go to VM. If their crush answers, chances are icing isn’t what’s going on – something else is.
If that second call is met with something other than a “let’s get together x,” most likely it's not worth continued pursuit.
Simmering is the worst. It is literally putting a relationship on the back burner and letting it sit there. And you're in the pot. You're plan B. They're really looking for x but, if the can't find it, maybe they'll settle for you.
Do you let people simmer?
If you’re a simmerer, just say you’re not interested. Maybe you kind of are, but do everyone a favor, just say you’re not. If you’re not interested right now and have the courage to state it, you might have the chance with the person later if you become interested, because you were honest before. But, if you simmer someone, you’re just being a jerk. Even if you believe you have good intentions.
Are you on the back burner?
When you’re being simmered, you have to be the strong one. That puts you in the awful position of having to bail on someone you actually like.
But, here’s the thing: you’re only around for their ego. Even if things would escalate to a relationship, chances are, you’re only arm candy for their ego.
Don’t tell the simmerer, but the reality is quite simple: they’re just not ready for an adult relationship. In an adult relationship, you like someone and you want to give it a shot… or you’re not willing to give it a shot. For some reason or another, simmerers just aren’t willing or ready to give it a shot. And that's okay, but you don't need to stick around until they are ready.
Ghosting, icing, and simmering are manifestations of the decline of empathy in our society — the promoting of one’s selfishness, without regard for the consequences of others. There is a person on the other end of our text messages (or lack thereof), and the ability to communicate virtually doesn’t give us the right to treat others poorly. (Esther Perel)
I encourage you to end relationships respectfully and conclusively, however brief they may be. Act with kindness and integrity. This gives both people the chance to enter into their next relationship with more experience and a clear head, rather than filled with disappointment and insecurity.
Ideas to incorporate into a final conversation:
Of course, couples living in the realm of stable ambiguity don’t always end in a breakup. Sometimes this state is the training wheels period needed for one or both parties to realize they want something more. This is normal for a brief, beginning phase, but not as the defining mode of a relationship.
Many people stay in self-defeating relationships too long because they are they are afraid that they'll be alone or that they are responsible for the happiness of their partner. They may say they want out—but they end up staying. Other people may actually be successful in leaving the relationship but inevitably repeat the same or similar self-destructive pattern in a new relationship. The adrenaline rush that they experience when they feel passionate toward someone can be addictive. For many people, the reason behind excessive emotional reliance on a partner is co-dependency—a tendency to put other's needs before their own.
Recently, I asked a client this question: "What is it that stops you from getting what you want out of a relationship?" Her answer was: "It's too hard to go through a breakup and to be alone." My response went something like this: "Maybe it's time to examine your fears and the ways you might be self-sabotaging." I often realize that my clients aren't always aware that they may be excessively dependent on their partner to feel good about themselves.
So what can you do if you are paralyzed by fear or unable to risk leaving a relationship that is unhealthy for you? The first thing that you need to do is acknowledge it. Fear doesn't go away by itself—you must stare it in the face—it tends to morph into something else. If you sometimes find that you sabotage your own needs in relationships, there could be many reasons. However, codependency symptoms are common for people who grew up in a dysfunctional home—especially if you took on the role of a caretaker.
According to codependency expert Darlene Lancer, most American families are dysfunctional—so you're in the majority if you grew up in one. She writes, "Researchers also found that codependent symptoms got worse if left untreated. The good news is that they're reversible."
Fear doesn't go away by itself—you must stare it in the face—it tends to morph into something else.
As strange as it may sound, for many of us, conflict in relationships is comfortable because pain is what we know. For those people for whom this is true, the fear of getting hurt emotionally may cause them to flee a healthy relationship or engage in some form of self-protective behavior by staying in an unhealthy one. Dealing with an unavailable, distant, or inappropriate partner is their wheelhouse. A partner who wants nothing more than to be with them and make them a top priority is a foreign concept.
Do you find yourself falling into one or more of these codependent relationship patterns?
Nothing erodes self-esteem quicker than an unhealthy relationship. Many [people] remain in dysfunctional marriages because they are convinced that this is what they deserve.
Many of the people with whom I work describe themselves as independent, loyal and conscientious. These individuals are hardworking, trustworthy, and self-reliant—and pride themselves on these traits. They often feel self-assured and autonomous—confident they can take care of themselves while others can't. The truth is that in spite of these wonderful characteristics, many of these people find themselves being attracted to troubled, distant, or moody partners at some point in their lives.
I sat down for a session with Jessica* one afternoon. An outgoing and lively twenty-something, she has found herself in an on and off again relationship for seven years with a guy she just can't seem to successfully break away from. Over the course of my time working with her, I have learned that Jessica never wants to be responsible for a relationship ending. And when her partner, Jackson*, doesn't treat her well, or devalues her love, she wonders why she wasn't worth fighting for. Jessica dreams of a boyfriend who offers her love, security, and respect. But she says whenever she runs across a man who could potentially give her those things, she isn't attracted to him. All she knows is the cycle of inadequacy and mistrust.
Author Allison Pescosolido writes, "Nothing erodes self-esteem quicker than an unhealthy relationship. Many [people] remain in dysfunctional marriages because they are convinced that this is what they deserve." In some cases, there is no need to end the relationship. In my work and life, I have learned that relationships can heal if people change. But in order to heal from an unhealthy pattern of codependency, it's important to regain control of your thoughts and make your needs a priority.
Steps to reclaiming healthy love in your life:
Take a moment to consider that you might be attached to the feeling that being in love brings pain. If so, you might be self-sabotaging your chances of having a healthy relationship where you can get your needs met. Your fear of being alone or taking a risk, for example, may be preventing you from finding the love and happiness you deserve. Maybe you're blocking out the opportunity to love someone who can meet you half way. Author Karen McMahon writes, "By focusing on your healing and personal growth you will energetically transform your life and begin to attract others (friends, bosses, companions) who are your emotional equals."
*Names have been changed to protect privacy