Many people believe that self-growth and dating are mutually exclusive. I used to believe that myself until I learned two concepts that completely changed my perspective. The first was that the purpose of life is to expand consciousness, heal, and evolve. And the second was that the purpose of a relationship is to show you the parts of you that need to be healed and transformed. Based on these two new concepts, I created my own personal worldview that we need relationships to achieve our life purpose. In reality, self-growth and dating are not mutually exclusive, rather, they are mutually beneficial.
Being in a relationship is like holding a mirror up to yourself in that it shows you your weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and triggers. As relationship coach Dan Smith puts it, “Being triggered in a relationship is a healthy and biologically predictable response based on your unique life history. It’s what happens afterward that can be problematic. Make friends with the uncomfortable sensation in your body when triggered, it’s seeking your attention, it’s trying to teach you something, and your freedom awaits.” A relationship is the best opportunity to do “the work” on yourself.
The book Fierce Intimacy by Terry Real is the perfect example of this. He uses the entire first part of the book to describe a concept called the Adaptive Child vs the Functional Adult. In your Adaptive Child, you adapt to what is happening to you as a child. For example, if your mother is intrusive and controlling, you construct walls in an effort of self-preservation. On the other side of the spectrum is the Functional Adult who boasts healthy self-esteem and boundaries. Throughout the book, Real shows us how we can move toward being a Functional Adult by using our relationship as a tool to evolve. Here is an exercise you can do to understand and let go of your Adaptive Child. Write a letter to your Adaptive Child with the following parts:
- Say thank you, ie: "Thank you for saving me in that crazy-ass family."
- These are the things you gave to me, ie: "You’ve given me independence and drive. I appreciate them."
- These are the things you’ve cost me, ie: "You’ve cost me vulnerability, intimacy, and speaking up for myself."
- Take charge by saying, "I am here now, the Functional Adult. I will take care of both of us. You can relax. I’m in charge."
Another vital part of working toward our Functional Adult is becoming aware of our two types of consciousness. “First consciousness” is our automatic, fight, flight, or fix response. When our inner child is triggered, we go into our first consciousness. Our “second consciousness” occupies the pre-frontal cortex and allows us the space to reflect and choose, cultivate and learn, and be centered. True freedom is when we achieve freedom from our inner automatic responses and act from our second consciousness.
There are three types of people: people who don’t know how to set boundaries (zero boundaries), people who have sealed themselves off within their boundaries (“walled off”), and people who have healthy boundaries. Without any boundaries, you are exposed to being hurt very easily by your partner (or anyone in your life). In a boundary-less environment, you care so much about what your partner says or does to you and can become reactive or triggered at any moment. On the contrary, you can be completely walled off. When you are walled off, you have constructed as many walls and boundaries as possible to protect yourself. With so many walls, you don’t let anything through. You don’t listen to anyone, and you don’t care about what anyone says to you. When you’re in balance and have healthy boundaries, you are connected and protected at the same time.
Core Negative Image (CNI)
Objective reality has no place in relationships. Who is right and who is wrong does not matter. What matters is how you both solve the issue in a way that you’re both OK with. In other words, the perfect partner does not exist, and the most important element of any relationship is the capacity to work through issues together.
I talk a lot about “seeing your partner with new eyes” in my work. The concept of the “Core Negative Image” reinforces the importance of seeing your partner through a new lens. Most couples will have the same fight for forty years. From the first disagreement, each partner will adopt a story about why the other behaves in a certain way and vice versa. They are essentially creating connections and paving neural walkways in the brain, and each time they have the same argument, each partner’s neural pathways are deepening and reinforcing themselves. (By the way, this is for any habit or behavior in life).
When you see your partner in his or her worst light, you see your partner through the lens of your Core Negative Image. It is an exaggerated view of your partner at his or her worst. Most people will have this same lens throughout their entire relationship. And again, each time you argue, your CNI gets mutually triggered and reinforces both partners’ perspectives.
Try this exercise to discover your and your partner’s CNI:
- Write down your partner’s CNI. These will be his or her most exaggerated negative traits. For example, “My partner can be irresponsible, selfish, and egotistical.”
- Now write down your CNI. These will be your most exaggerated negative traits. “I can be controlling, irrational, and impatient.”
- Understand that your CNI is leading you away from where you want to go.
- Practice behavior that is opposite of your CNI. Use your partner’s CNI of you as your compass: it will tell you exactly what you need to do or not do.
- What are three behaviors you can practice to undo your CNI?
For example, when I did this exercise, my CNI was, "I can be controlling, irrational, and impatient.” Three behaviors I can do to undo my CNI are the following: (1) Be supportive of my partner's goals no matter what they are and don’t try to set goals for him. (2) Show gratitude for what we have without complaining about our home, car, or where we live. (3) Go out of my way to accommodate him and his plans.
Five winning strategies for shared, happiness, connection, and success
Go after what you want
There are three phases to this strategy:
- Fight for what you need
Many people think that you shouldn’t have to work at the relationship, that things should just come easily and naturally, and if you have to work hard at something, then it’s “not meant to be.” This is nonsense and I’m glad Terry Real agrees with me. He goes on to say that many people, especially women, think that if they have to ask for what they need in a relationship, it doesn’t count and that their Prince Charming should just know. Terry’s response is, “I’m sorry girls, let me tell you something. Cinderella’s dead. Prince Charming probably just got out of rehab. And if you want something, you’re going to have to roll up your sleeves and fight for it, not just once or twice, but ongoing in the relationship. And that doesn’t mean aggression, it means assertion.”
- Help your partner succeed
You must work to “shape your relationship.” In this phase, you are going to switch from passivity to assertion and speak up for what you need. Men tend to be problem-solving listeners and women tend to be emphatic listeners. Therefore, women, if you want your man to be more of an empathic listener, tell him up front. “I don’t want you to fix my problem. I just want you to listen and support me.”
- Make it worth their while
In this phase, you will support your partner by encouraging and rewarding them when they show improvement. Remember to always, always show gratitude when you see they are trying to improve their behavior.
Speak to make things better
I am going to make an obvious statement. When we are in an argument, we are speaking and actively using our words. Yet, so few of us stop to thoughtfully choose our words and ensure they have a chance at making an impact. Terry urges us to ask ourselves the following question before speaking, “Am I in my Adaptive Child or Functional Adult?” When you are in your Functional Adult, you will speak from a place of centeredness and love. He also recommends using the following acronym before speaking: WAIT, or “Why am I talking?” This brings us back to our center and focuses on a positive future focus, not a negative past focus. We are trying to habituate the act of asking for a request (future-based), and moving away from the act of complaint (past-based). It involves shifting the focus from what he or she did, to what he or she could do. It’s helpful to use subjective language such as “I” and not objective language such as “you” or “that.” Remember to be respectful and hold yourself and your partner in high self-esteem, and understand that your request may not be granted. There are three modes of asking: invitation, request, and demand. Demand should never be used in relationships unless it’s an emergency or an ultimatum.
The serenity prayer written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, says “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” You fight for hell for what you want in the relationship, understand that you may not get it, and if you do not get it, you know you will survive. This is called having “detachment from the outcome” and is a concept that has helped me personally in my own life. When you are detached from the outcome of a particular situation, you can focus on what you can do at that moment, and know that you will be okay no matter what happens. I know that I can only control myself and my thoughts and behavior, and when I’m acting with integrity, then I know I will feel good no matter the outcome. I know that I cannot control other people or situations, and this process of “letting go” of the outcome has brought me immense peace in my own life and relationships.
There are times when you will be triggered and act out of your Adaptive Child, and other times when your partner will be in his or her Adaptive Child. The key is learning how to bring each other back into your Functional Adult. This is an essential skill in what Real has coined “relational living.”
The Feedback Wheel
Terry urges us to use the "Feedback Wheel" approach to improve our communication with our partners when in disagreement, as follows:
- This is what I experienced.
- This is the story I made up about it.
- This is how I feel about it. (Don’t use your ‘go-to’ feeling first, rather lead with the feeling you’re not used to).
- This is what I’d like you to do right now.
- Let go.
Listen to understand
The more I talk with people, the more I realize how so few of us listen to what the other person is saying. During an argument, rather than listening to the other person, we're crafting a “rebuttal” inside our minds until it comes blurting out and perpetuates the combative pattern. What if we choose a different way? What if we intentionally listen and enter into our partner’s experience? What if we take the role of a journalist? What would perk your curiosity? What questions would you want to ask? Terry uses the analogous description that your relationship is your biosphere. You cannot escape your biosphere, you are a part of it, not outside of it. If you express anger, your partner may express resentment, and you will breathe in that resentment. You cannot pollute your biosphere. This is what Real calls “enlightened self-interest.” If your partner is in despair, it is in your best interest to help him or her move back into harmony. You both are a part of the same biosphere. The next time your partner (or any person in your life) comes to you with a problem, try responding in this way: “I understand how you could see it that way…” You will begin to see points of contention lead to points of curiosity.
Respond with generosity
Let’s talk more about communication within an argument. Remember, your words can either escalate or deescalate the issue. The first step to moving back to harmony within your biosphere is admitting to fault, offering a sincere apology, and saying what action you will take to rectify the issue. This is what Real calls “the spiritual practice of intimacy” and involves leaving your ego at the door. The next concept discussed is something he calls "Relational Jiu Jitsu." There are two different fighting styles in Western and Eastern cultures. In the west, there exists an urge to confront an issue head-on and oppose, resist, or compete with the opponent. There exists a different way in the east: yielding. Rather than confront an issue head-on, one yields or surrenders to their opponent. What if we can utilize an eastern fighting style to improve our relationships?
Yielding or surrendering is very difficult for men. Men are taught that yielding is submission. Real believes that men don’t fear intimacy, rather, men don’t know what intimacy is. To men, they are either dominating or dominated, controlling or controlled. Within this patriarchal framework, men don’t fear intimacy, men fear subjugation, which in turn fuels defensiveness. There is a whole new paradigm emerging in our culture of what it means to be a man, led by therapists and authors such as Terry Real. In his teachings and training with male clients, he teaches them the balance of strength with elegance and how to meet aggression with vulnerability. We have made large strides in feminism in the past 50 years which have led to a more widely accepted concept of women nurturing their “masculine energy," however, we have made very little progress in helping men embrace their femininity. It is vital that men find this balance between masculinity and femininity in order to be open and vulnerable in their relationships.
In my podcast interview with Dan Smith titled Masculine Feminine Polarity & Biggest Dating Challenges For Men, he explained a concept called “The 3 C’s” that had a huge impact on my relationship. He said the three C’s are controlling, criticizing, and competing. “Those are three things that, coming from a female partner, will cause a masculine to shut down. Men thrive on appreciation. We just want to see a smile on your face. So we try super hard to make you happy and safe and relaxed. And then you turn around and criticize us. It's just like, we've just been stabbed in the heart and it’s so deflating.”
Personal empowerment vs relational empowerment
Western culture values individualism and the sanctity of the self and lacks teachings on relational living and empowerment. Commonly, couples therapists will empower the individual at the expense of the relationship. Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall portrays this pattern perfectly in a split-screen scene of the couple talking to their therapists. The therapists ask, “Are you sleeping together often?” Alvie responds, “Hardly ever, maybe three times a week” and Annie responds to her therapist, “Constantly, I’d say three times a week” to which both therapists slam their fists on the table and proclaim, “That's awful, I wouldn’t put up with that if I were you!” This isn’t only common within therapy, it’s even more common in friendships. How many times have you called a good friend to complain about your dating life or relationship, and your friend responds emphatically, “I can’t believe he did that!” It’s common and even encouraged, to side with your friend's point of view even when it’s at the expense of the relationship.
There’s another way: Create a relational subculture. In this subculture, you empower yourself inside the relationship. And you can train your friends and family to give you this kind of relational support. An example of a friend providing relational support might look like this: “I see your point of view. I see his point of view. Now let’s see what YOU can do differently to move your relationship back into harmony.” I don’t know about you, but I would love this kind of support system in my friend circles. Sure, sometimes you may just need to get things off your chest, but make sure your conversations always end with a positive future focus on what you can do differently to get your relationship back on track. Remember, your job is to only focus on your side of things, not your partner’s.
Cherish what you have
The fifth and final strategy Real says is “more powerful than all of the other principles combined” and calls it a “powerful change agent.” Here it is: The key to getting more of what you want in a relationship is to appreciate what you already have.” I know, I know, it’s an incredibly simple phrase we’ve heard a million times, but for good reason. Gratitude is the most powerful tool for creating the relationship (and life) you want. Or as Tony Robbins puts it, “Where focus goes, energy flows.” This means that whatever we focus on expands and intensifies.
We tend to gravitate toward what’s going wrong and attempt to fix problems, yet, it’s equally important to tend to what’s going well. However, the more trauma you have in your past, and the more you’ve seen intimacy through a negative lens, the more difficult it will be to change your ways of being. For those that come from dysfunctional homes, “being happy” and being intimate with someone can even trigger pain, anxiety, and vulnerability.
Coming full circle, you must break generational trauma and patterns to open up and become fully vulnerable in your relationships. As relationship coach Dan Smith recently posted, “Do you want to know why the deep healing work you’re doing can feel so challenging? You’re carrying the weight of your entire lineage… all of the trauma they didn’t heal got passed down to you, and you said ‘It ends with me!’ You’re not only doing this work for you you’re doing it for your children, your children’s children, and their children too… take a moment today to recognize yourself, take a breath, celebrate yourself.”
So, while “doing the work” might be the most challenging thing you ever do, isn’t it worth being able to truly experience rich and fierce intimacy?