We Avoided a Date with Disaster

Last month, i shared some ways couples can recommit to their intimate relationship after becoming parents. This month, i’m back with a new article about intimate relationships and i’m sharing a story about my own trials and mistakes.

It’s been a few months since my partner and i have had a proper date. And by that, i mean getting dressed up and going out on the town. We make the intention to have lots of quality time and also sneak in mini-dates into our life regularly. And yet, we do need that special kind of date from time to time.

And so when we put the plan together to go to a new cute drinks spot, i was pretty excited. It was a Saturday night and i dressed up – i wore heels and a dress, and pulled out a vintage clutch instead of my usual purse. It was an added bonus that is new spot was in our own neighbourhood.

Neither of us wanted to drive because we wanted some tasty drinks and it was too close to deem a taxi worthy. So, when we walked a mere 2 blocks from our front door, i couldn’t help but wonder if the clouds in the night sky looked daunting, and more than just natural darkness.

Let me back up and explain that it’s my partner who is the ‘weather guy.’ He has an app he always refers to, and we ask him every morning to tell us the weather. He’s our go-to in-house weather forecaster. So, i guess a part of me assumed he already looked at the weather and deemed it worthy of the walk.

The first mistake is that i assumed this. The second is that i didn’t explicitly ask him to drive because i didn’t want to. The third mistake is that i didn’t look at the weather app because i wanted to wear heels and i dress – i don’t have to rely on others for this.

And so, we decided to keep walking and take the risk. We were barely past our own street when the rain started. Our wishful thinking and glass-half full perspective did not keep the clouds away.

And the rainclouds sure opened. We had to run for cover and wait out the rain for a few minutes. We were too far gone to go back, and i knew if we were to go home our night (let alone date and good humour) was spoiled.

You’d think the heat rising from inside me would have been enough to keep me dry.

So, it took me a few minutes to catch my breath and bearings, and to also sit with what i was feeling. Sure, i was mad and maybe a bit rage-y. I was also disappointed and frustrated. And my partner was too.

In the past, my bad mood may have made us turn around and go back home. Not only because i was wet and didn’t want to go out, but also because i would not have been pleasant company. This time, i noticed how i was feeling, and what resources i had within me to self-regulate and get back to Self energy. I knew my partner was grateful for this and he also wanted to go on the date, and it wasn’t his fault it rained on us. And he also was entitled to want a drink, and not have to drive for once. I knew this in my heart, so i was able to quiet that critical voice and my Inner Complainer, so that we could keep walking and enjoy our night.

And we did – we got to the bar, the rain stopped (in that order), and we had a lovely night.

I’m sharing this because i want to be transparent as a human who also happens to be a therapist who supports couples, and has a partner who is trained as a Non-Violent Communication facilitator who works with men. We are imperfect works in progress. And, we are witnessing our own healing and progress in real time.

Recently when my partner told me that he was afraid to tell me that an ember burned our pillow, i realized the narrative i have about myself being easy to talk to and easy-going is not necessarily true. That is absolutely true as a therapist and yet it can still be hard for my partner to be vulnerable with me, especially when he has to tell me something he did. My Inner Fiery Dragon was a strong protector of me, and yet she can be scary for others to repair things with. I get that.

So, what can we do, you ask?
Remember, it should not be a given that a relationship is inevitable, let alone happy indefinitely. All relationships take work simply because we are constantly evolving as humans, or at least we hope we are. So, get ready to learn, read, talk, question, and reflect on how you are doing on your side of the relationship coin.

A great place to start is to learn about your relationship with conflict. Do you know what your conflict style is? I’m not the type of therapist who will do personality quizzes with you. Partly because i find them simplistic, and also because i don’t think they showcase our full story. And yet, one way to really sit in the discomfort about the role we play in conflict is to notice a pattern. Do i hide my head in the sand like my pet turtle? Or do my teeth glare out like a shark or tiger? Does my body become soft like a fawn or teddy bear or is there wisdom in my response like an owl? Maybe instead of using animals as a mirror, how about looking at these typical ways we respond to conflict: Accommodating, Avoiding, Compromising, Competing, and Collaborating? Do any of these sound familiar to you – be honest! If you’re stuck, this article can be a great start to look into this more.

As a couples counsellor myself, one of my favourite resources about befriending our conflict style comes from the work of Sue Johnson and Emotionally Focused Therapy. She shares that we need to learn a new dance with others in order to break stuck patterns, be it an intimate relationship or other kind of connection. So a good place to start is to take a kind self-critical lens and really think about your own pattern when conflict shows up.

I know many of us are afraid to think about worst-case scenarios, and we may avoid looking at the cobwebs in the corner. I think knowledge is power so i appreciate knowing why a relationship may struggle or fail. A few main reasons are: a lack of growing, developing and evolving in parallel ways; getting stuck on differentiation, lack of repair after rupture that leads to emotional pain and trauma (triggers still alive); or lack skills and support to help them move past this stuckness.

So it bears knowing that developmental hurdles happen as a couple, whether it is after becoming parents or if one of is on a new journey in life. We may struggle with Differentiation, which is a manifestation of true individualism. This means we can acknowledge and trust that our inner experience is separate from someone else’s, and that’s not only okay but valuable. Our attachment style can impact our ability to trust that our opinions and thoughts about something doesn’t have to be questioned or minimized by someone else if we don’t share the same idea. In this article, Dr. Ellyn Bader shares more about what differentiation looks like.

I’ve been reading Dr. Tracy Dalgleish’s new book, I Didn’t Sign up for This. In it, she shares stories from her own marriage as well as other relationships to help the reader know they are not alone. The book is filled with resources and support, and i found her 4 C’s especially useful. This comes from her own work and research as a couples therapist. It describes the ingredients of Collaboration, Compassion, Connection, and Curiosity as important felt sense experiences to help couples get back to their Selves in a relationship. This connects to the individualism that is necessary for healthy relationships, and are the catalysts to repair after ruptures.

I also really value John and Julie Gottman’s work with couples and families. In fact, i have done training in their appraoch as a therapist and their research has become an integral part of my own growth and development as a human in a committed relationship. Since i didn’t have my own healthy models to look to growing up, learning this was important for me. They have a plethora of resources and have been on many, many podcasts and shows. Here is just one recent podcast that i found to be a great resource.

Oh how I wish this was taught in school. Back then for Little vania and now for my own kids now.

My Inner Dragon is Growing Up: Learning How to Not Abandon Myself

Recently, i was involved in a small conflict with someone at work. As a sole entrepreneur, this doesn’t happen a lot these days. In fact, this doesn’t happen in my life in general. It highlighted for me that even though i may be a therapist who specializes in healthy relationships, boundary work, and communication skills, i am also a work-in-progress. I am not exempt from conflict or making a mistake.

This incident was medicine for me as it really helped me take stock of how far i have come, and the work that is yet to be tended to. In some ways, starting the year off with this is a great reinforcement of my commitment to my Word of the Year: Embrace.

I need to embrace that conflict is a natural aspect of being human because we will be faced with people who have competing ways of tending to their needs. This is a reminder to all of us that anger and conflict are not inherently bad, rather it’s how we respond to it that matters.

I won’t go into the depths of what happened here. Rather, what stood out for me was how i handled myself and what i gleaned from the person who had a competing need.

To start, i was able to reflect on how i have evolved in my personal relationship with conflict. I grew up in a home where my needs were not heard, and i felt that they didn’t matter. Having a voice and opinion was something that took many years to grow. I, like most people, am conflict avoidant most of the time. I am not averse to it because when i am able to notice my needs, i can get into the messiness and still address what it is i need, even if it is flawed.

It’s one thing to know that you have needs and that they matter. What is also necessary to be the steward of said needs is to have skills to handle conflict or competing needs that will inevitably happen.

I did not grow up with the best models of conflict resolution skills. In fact, i felt afraid by my parents’ anger and difficulty to tend to their own emotions. I learned that walking on eggshells was not just a practice but a survival skill and it has taken me years to evolve from that trauma response. With that in mind, i have had to do a lot of work to heal from my childhood as well as update my skillset around conflict. It can be hard to not regress when we are with our families of origin, especially when the work is not reciprocated. So, when my dad’s default of attack and then withdraw tactics get activated, i have to work hard to stay grounded. I have to hold two truths – that his childhood context will always be in the room with us, and i know how to take care of myself now.

A good place to start when you are wanting to evolve your relationship with conflict is to remember that it is tethered to how often we are up against wounded Parts, not necessarily our best Self. Conflict happens when protectors come online inside us, and we are in conflict with flawed yet well-intentioned Parts of other people. Our parts are in the conflict – not our most evolved Selves.

Because i did not feel safe with my needs or standing up for myself, a Part of me used to come online whenever i was in conflict. She was my Inner People Pleaser. She later grew up to be sassy and a bit of a dragon because i so desperately wanted to stand up for myself. But what i lacked was the skills to stay rooted and assertive – i became passive aggressive instead. I knew i didn’t want this but it was a way to not stay stuck – my new-found Inner Warrior was also not wise enough to notice the impact i had on others.

Working on this really helped me be mindful of how experiencing conflict felt in my body – i got hot in my core as well as wanted to bow my head down, or be deferential. I would have shallow breaths that inhibited my ability to say something – to speak up. My whole body got in my own way in fact. Through somatic healing work, i was able to attune to this and have more clear mindfulness when this response showed up in me.

We are all works-in-progress as humans: We are supposed to be. One thing i have learned is what i need to stay present during a conflict. I’ve noticed that having steps and a path is really helpful for me because it acts as a guide and keeps me grounded as well as attuned. Here is what i have come up with: 1)Notice your Reaction in your body 2)Take stock of what you need 3)Ask yourself if it is worth addressing – what is at stake? 4)Reflect to stay Present – is this old or new? 5)Resource with skills and self-soothing to help stay grounded and 6)Use I-statements so you can be objective and not reactionary. What these steps do is help me slow down – and not reactive but rather respond with a mindful awareness. I have been catching myself do this more and more when with others, and it need not take more than a few minutes – we DO have time to to do this, i promise you.

It is also important after a conflict occurs to process what happened and your role in. Remember, it take two to tango so there will also be something you did that contributed. The lesson is to learn from your contribution, even it is unintentional – to make you a better human. So, make time after a conflict (remember they are inevitable after all) to 1)Reflect on what happened and what you could do differently and 2)Forgive yourself and accept you are not responsible for others’ feelings.

When we take time to do this, we remove any residual baggage of misaligned guilt and it keeps us moving forward with intention. This is one way i have been standing up for myself instead of self-abandoning my needs. Surely, it is not easy especially after a lifetime of people pleasing and fawning. That’s why one other important resource is to learn the difference between belonging, fitting in or fawning for safety.

In a recent I’m Not Your Shrink podcast episode, Dr Tracy Dalglesih speaks about the polarity between giving up ourselves so that we are not abandoned or rejected by others. We will do whatever we need to fit in or fawn towards someone. This is a safety need, that stems from our nervous system. We are social creatures and being in community is a survival skill. It was built to keep us safe and now our job is to discern if the danger is real or not. Anyone with unhealed relational trauma may have a harder time addressing their needs because it may put our relationship at risk. Dr. Tracy goes on to share the concept of Differentiation: where we can get a felt sense of separating someone else’s needs from our own, instead of being stuck in enmeshment: The antidote to self-abandonment is the practice of differentiation.

The role of anger and defensiveness as a reactionary impulse is our body’s way of telling us a boundary was violated.

Someone i support recently told me that i am the Queen of the Reframe and i am boldly claiming that title. I don’t love demeaning and pejorative words to describe someone. I find them violent and discriminatory, reductive and slamming. And yet, i do love the reparative work of reclaiming words. For instance, many moons ago, i learned the reframe of the word BITCH – a woman who Believes In Taking Care of Herself. And so, sometimes when i notice i am upset about something that someone did that impacted me, this word is a perfect tool to help me notice the impact on me: A boundary was violated and my anger is actually a proportional response. Even that is huge – my anger can be a valid and understandable response.

I am a social creature who thrives off connection and relationships. So it makes sense that I may not want others to use that term against me, or call me selfish. And yet, i think what makes these labels unhelpful is that the person using them doesn’t also reflect on what they have done to cause my reaction. It gives them an excuse to not do their own work of critical self-reflection. So a huge part of this journey with conflict for me has been embracing (see what i did there) that i am not responsible about what others think about me. I am also okay with accepting that not everyone will like me. This is especially true when it comes to being proud of my truth and the boundary i placed with them.

“As good girls, we’ve been socialized to believe we’re victims and not the heroines of our own lives. This socialization can put is in a passive stance, feeling as if the world, relationships, and events are happening to us, robbing us of our agency and will.” Majo Molfino

This is the golden ticket for me as i am maturing into adulthood: I would rather disappoint someone else because my need matters to me, instead of having regret for not speaking up. This is one way we can work on not abandoning ourselves. For many of us (especially women), this has been a hard truth to come to. Our inner people pleasers and Good Girls struggle to put our needs first, let alone on the table at all, if it means having someone be upset with us. And yet, if it means that every time i revisit the argument later or am faced with it again, a little part of me holds shame and resentment. This is not the way i want to live. I am moving on from my Inner People Pleaser and Good Girl. Yes, it’s been messy at times, but it’s also been reparative, transformative, and is getting me back to honouring my own needs.

What is this really about? We need to zoom our lens out from what we think the problem is. It may not be what’s right in front of you: It isn’t necessarily about the parking ticket or table in the office, but rather old wounds that have become a pattern for us. Often, it is around an attachment rupture or confrontation that someone is putting their own need above mine. In her book, Break the Good Girl Myth: How to Dismantle Outdated Rules, Unleash Your Power, and Design a More Purposeful Life, Majo Molfino shares more insight into this as well as great ways to evolve from our Inner Good Girl. It includes a self-care plan as well as unpacking the myths of sacrifice and perfection.

Another helpful healing practice is to get to know what Healthy Aggression feels like. Remember, our felt sense of anger is a message from ourselves that a boundary we need was violated or minimized. I like to think of this inner knowing as my Inner Warrior coming online. She is wild and also has healed from the attack mode she used to need. Kimberly Ann Johnson has been a teacher for me about this. In her book, The Call of the Wild: How to Heal Trauma, Awaken our Inner Power, and Use it for Good, she shares that it is imperative to have a felt sense of our boundaries: It’s not enough to just think our way through this work. We also need to reclaim our right to bear our teeth a little, even if it’s just in front of our mirror. These somatic resources can be a great support to help us adapt with healthy maturation.

I do this healing process in incremental steps, so that both my mind and body are in agreement. That means, i work to own my feelings with I-statements. I have a simple somatic practice called Strong Back Soft Heart to hold space for my needs with a Strong Back, and also the feelings of the other person with a Soft Heart. When we hold our own needs with the same level of respect as how we hold other’s, even if the outcome isn’t 100% our dream ending, we can feel at peace with it.

As I’m embracing my mid-life emergence, that means also reclaiming that i will get upset with others because we cannot always have aligned goals or needs. Moving into the Virgin era of my life means embracing the gift that comes with old(er) age – i don’t have to care what others think about me anymore. I don’t have to accept the role they want me to play for them. While a part of me can’t wait for that to be fully embraced, i know that i still have work to do in order to integrate these parts to be more humane and respectful even when i disagree with others.

So, i will let myself roar – i will not silence myself anymore. I just won’t do it with a fire but rather a soft fierceness.