Linda Bloom, LCSW, and Charlie Bloom, MSW, are bestselling authors and the founders and codirectors of Bloomwork. They have lectured and taught seminars on relationships throughout the United States and the world. They have been married since 1972. Their website is www.bloomwork.com. Below is a Q&A with them.
Q: Why do so many marriages end in divorce? Why do so many people live in unhappy marriages? Why don’t we see more examples of truly fulfilling relationships?
A: These are three distinct but related questions. In response to the first one, the simple answer is that the option to divorce is much more available and socially acceptable in our society these days than it has ever been before. There is virtually no social stigma around divorce as there had been in previous generations. In fact, in many communities, it is the child whose parents have not divorced who is perceived as “different” from others and often feels outside of the “norm”. There are other factors as well, including the shift in cultural values that holds women as having the right and even the responsibility to create a life for themselves in which they are defined by something other than their role as a supportive wife or loving mother. In addition, and this for many is a huge factor, there is a growing expectation that marriage should provide something more than material security and relational stability for both partners; that it should be a source of fulfillment, meaning, purpose, intimate connection, personal development, and fun. While the best relationships do fulfill many of these expectations, the belief that if one’s marriage fails to fulfill these desires, something is wrong, with one or both of us or with the relationship itself. This belief is a set up for disappointment, resentment, and/or guilt, because it is extremely unlikely that one person can ever adequately be the source of all of one’s most cherished desires. It is itself, an example of a myth.
These are just a few of the factors that predispose so many of us to opt for divorce when the going (inevitably ) gets tough. The problem isn’t so much that people experience unhappiness in marriage (and in life) periodically, but that they don’t always take responsibility for examining the factors that may be causing their unhappiness and tend instead to focus on their grievances with their partner in the (often ungrounded ) belief that if their partner would just change they would be happier. Efforts to change others, whether they are direct or covert tend to backfire because there is an implicit judgment behind one’s efforts to change another that they are in some way bad, wrong or defective and need to be ‘corrected’ by another who is wiser and therefore superior. These patterns often lead to cycles of hope, disappointment, and resentment. It is the hope that eventually things will some how ‘magically ‘ improve coupled with a tendency to adjust to unfulfilling circumstances that causes couples to become pain tolerant by shutting down their feelings of sadness or pain that prolongs the suffering for extended periods of time.
As to the second question as to why people live in unhappy marriages, again, there is no single generic answer that applies to all situations. This question is the flip side of the previous question which asks why many people are so quick to end their marriage without having given it their best shot. For one thing, the “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know” belief applies here. As difficult or painful as a bad marriage may be, many people hold a scenario in their mind of how living alone or ending the marriage might be worse. This belief can be particularly frightening to those someone who have been living in a relationship in which both partners have projected responsibility for fulfilling their needs onto the other and don’t trust that they will be able to adequately meet them on their own.
When we feel unhappy or dissatisfied but fail to take responsibility for examining the factors that may be causing these feelings, we often focus on our partner’s shortcomings, which are often quite easy to recognize. It’s easy to become convinced that “ if he .(or she) were different, I’d be happier.” then set out to try to change them, a strategy that rarely produces an improvement in the relationship. Efforts to change others, whether they are direct or covert tend to backfire because there is an implicit judgment behind one’s efforts that the other person is in some way bad, wrong or defective and need to be ‘corrected’.
The truth is (and this is not a myth), that creating great relationships usually takes more time, energy, and skill than most of us think it should. If we don’t grow up surrounded by examples of fulfilling relationships (and most of us don’t) we not only don’t know how to create them but we don’t even know for sure that such things exist outside of TV and Hollywood. But they do, and we can learn how create them It’s mostly on the job training, and the benefits make all the effort that it takes worth it!
Q: Ah, the myth of mind reading or: If you really loved me, I wouldn’t have to ask. How does one get around that one especially when the defense hackles go up?
A: This is one of the more popular myths and one that has caused more suffering than many others; not because it is intrinsically damaging, but because in buying into it we set things up for inevitable disappointment. What is especially attractive about this one is that it relieves us from having to risk the vulnerability and emotional honesty that we experience when we expose and express our needs and desires outwardly and instead assume that our partner’s failure to fulfill our unspoken desires is evidence that they don’t love us. The cost of making this assumption is that doing so denies our partner essential information that they need in order to know what our needs are.
Even if we are unable or unwilling to immediately respond to someone’s needs meet them at a the time that they are experiencing them, knowing what they are at least gives us an opportunity to consider making an offer to respond to them in another way or perhaps at another time, or to at least give a caring response.
When there is more of a willingness to more overtly express needs and desires, the likelihood of having a satisfying exchange is increased, regardless of our partner’s response. We can also express our feelings in the form of a request, such as, “I could really use some reassurance that you still find me attractive after having my friend refer to me as being an old lady” or “I was hoping that you would share my excitement and gratification with me after getting promoted at my job and it felt like you didn’t feel that way when you changed the subject after I told you about it.”
And yes, sometimes our partner does get defensive when we give them feedback, perhaps because they hear it as evidence of their failure to be a caring person, or because they hear our words as criticism and judgment rather than an expression of disappointment that is designed to help them to become more sensitized to our needs.
We can use these breakdowns as opportunities to deepen the trust and respect in our relationships. Recognizing that all relationships need on-going feedback is an essential aspect of all fulfilling relationships. The key to practicing that kind of communication lies in our willingness to drop our defensiveness and speak our truth. Vulnerability can be disarming.
A: Chronic annoyance generally tends to be less an issue of the viability of the relationship than it is an indicator of a failure to adequately address issues that are unresolved. We refer to these as “incompletions”. While there tend to be many reasons that couples leave unfinished business unfinished, one of them is the belief in the previously stated myth that “if you loved me, I wouldn’t have to ask you to talk about this”. In another words, love not only means that I not only don’t have to say that I’m sorry, but that I don’t need to take the initiative to address issues that feel incomplete. So if my partner isn’t talking about this, they must not care about me.
People who make this assumption also quite often tend to be guilty themselves of withholding feelings that are relevant to the relationship, yet they don’t see that this tendency makes them an accomplice in a process that ultimately generates annoyance, disappointment, and resentment.
Bringing up the difficult issues is, well, difficult, primarily because there is always the risk that your partner will become defensive and or hostile to what he or she may hear as an accusation that they are guilty of having failed to make you feel happy, secure and well-loved. This perception can activate a fear of loss, rejection, or abandonment in the “guilty” party. For many of us, the response to this situation is to immediately transform this feeling from fear into anger.
When these disappointments and upsets don’t get addressed, they can cause one or both partners to obsessively focus upon grievances and judgments of each other that poison the environment of the relationship. As we become more skilled in our interpersonal communications, these patterns gradually dissipate as both people begin to feel more respected, accepted, and understood.
Feelings of annoyance need to be acknowledged and taken seriously, not because they reflect a deficiency in either person, but because they are likely to point to incompletions that need to be addressed and patterns of denial or avoidance that may be obscuring important concerns that require attention. When this happens, annoyances ‘magically’ begin to dissolve and are replaced with feelings of gratitude and appreciation, often without anyone’s outward behavior changing much at all!
Q: Charlie, tell us about your experience with Myth 13: Little things aren’t worth getting upset about.
A: That used to be one of my favorite ways to invalidate the complaints and grievances that Linda would express to me when she felt let down or disappointed when I had failed to honor my word or keep promises to her. For instance I might justify my failure to be ready to leave for the airport at 8 o’clock by saying something like “why are you getting so upset over a small thing? We’re not going to miss our flight. Can’t you lighten up a little and relax? Why are you making such a big deal out of such a small thing?” or “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill (that was one of my favorite ones!) when she would remind me that I had promised to pick up some groceries on my way home if I had forgotten.
Linda used to be much better about keeping her agreements than me. When I finally realized that little things do matter, I became much more committed to not only being consistent in my determination to keep my word, but less defensive at those rare times that Linda would remind me that I hadn’t.
The truth was that when I tried to invalidate Linda’s feelings with my judgment that she was the one with the problem of being too uptight, I was trying to make her wrong so that I wouldn’t have to feel bad about letting her down. I was angry at her for bringing into my awareness that I had in some way failed her. My strategy for dealing with this was to go on the offensive and put her on the defensive. and rather than accept the legitimacy of her feelings, I got offensive and put her on the defensive.
To her credit, Linda was not deterred from giving me honest feedback when she was subject to these assaults (that’s what they were) and didn’t just shut down or back down. She also didn’t argue and criticize me or make me wrong or go on a counter-attack. She just firmly and respectfully held her ground and told me that she wasn’t trying to make me wrong, although yes, she was disappointed and that she was just telling me so in order to bring more trust and understanding into our relationship. She also acknowledged that she could at times be a little obsessive about certain things but that she was working on loosening up and that I was an example for her.
As I came to recognize my complicity in what eventually became a huge barrier to the trust level of our relationship, I took more responsibility for accepting Linda’s feedback non-defensively, and eventually even thanked her for giving it to me and bringing to my attention the consequences of my behavior. In the process, I have tightened up my standards, and I like myself more for having done so, and since I have stopped making Linda wrong for “making a mountain out of a molehill”, she has, surprisingly enough, loosened up. While we’re not exactly on the same page now, we’re much closer than either of us ever thought we would be. And that’s a good thing!
Q: You say that intimacy depends on the ability to be separate. That sounds contradictory. Can you explain?
A: The ability to be separate refers to the experience of being comfortable in one’s own skin. Cultivating this capacity requires us to know and accept ourselves without judgment and seeing ourselves through eyes of honesty and compassion. To the degree that we do this we can bring this experience to others as well. To the degree that we don’t, we don’t.
The experience of being separate is distinct from the experience of being disconnected emotionally. We can be physically separated from someone yet feel very connected to them. By the same token, we can be in the physical presence of someone and feel disconnected from them.
We all need to have the experience of solitude, which is being in our own uninterrupted space as well as the experience of connection that allows us to feel that we’re not alone in the world. We all have different balances of each with which we are comfortable. If we can’t tolerate being alone with ourselves without being uncomfortable, we will bring a kind of neediness and possessiveness to our relationships that will feel burdensome oppressive to our partner. This feeling will diminish the quality of connection in the relationship.
Intimacy has to do with creating a mutually fulfilling connection with someone in which our respective uniqueness is mutually expressed and appreciated. Through our separateness, we bring a greater capacity to merge into the experience of true intimacy.
Q: Loneliness. It’s a pervasive problem today. What do you say about the myth “After I’m married, I won’t ever be lonely again?”
A: The myth that I’ll never be lonely again after I’m married is one that continues to persist even in these so-called “enlightened times” of the 21st century. Many of us wrongly equate marriage as the antidote to the experience of loneliness because they see it as the “solution” to loneliness.
Loneliness has very little to do with being in the physical presence of other people, but is more aptly described as a condition in which we feel uncomfortable in being present with ourselves, often because of aspects of ourselves that we haven’t fully accepted or come to terms with that we judge and even punish ourselves for. Being with others provides a much-needed distraction from the inner negative self-judgments that plague us when we are in need of our own forgiveness, compassion, or acceptance.
When we have come to terms with ourselves more fully and accepted even our so-called “shadow parts”, we can become more comfortable being alone with ourselves. And this, as the previous myth suggests, is a necessary state of being for any successful relationship.
A: Not so well at first. Linda and I were for several years, true believers in the theory, popular in the 70’s and early 80’s that “getting it all off of your chest” was the way to deal with your feelings. This idea prompted a school of psychology and psychotherapy that encouraged people to, for lack of a better term, “let it rip!”
The results were, for us, and many others, destructive. Many people lost their relationships due to the degree to which they indulged their desire for revenge and their urge to punish their partner with their anger and rage, justifying their assaults with the rationalization that “I’m just being honest with you.”
Honesty, Linda and I eventually discovered is distinct from judgments, opinions, attacks, and shaming remarks. Although we were among the fortunate ones who managed (just barely) to avoid the divorce court, we created a lot of suffering for ourselves, not to mention the clients with whom we worked during those years, that was both unnecessary and harmful. We’ve actually discovered, (and substantial research has proven this over the years) that in fact the opposite of this theory was actually true. That is, what is called for is not the expression of rage and anger directed towards the other person, but rather a responsible and respectful way of honoring our feelings without disrespecting the threatening the other person which only serves to amplify hurt and angry feelings.
Linda and I both found that indulging our desires to be hurtful or vindictive towards each other was much easier (although much more costly) than being disciplined enough to express our feelings responsibly. It took a while for us to break the habit of “letting it all hang out” but after that habit broke things have radically changed for us. And we’re never going back to those bad old days. Ever.
Q: Apologies. Breakdowns happen in relationships despite our best intentions. How does one offer an effective apology? What are the necessary components?
A: Yes, the myth that “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”. Fortunately, the number of people who have bought into this myth has dwindled since it was first uttered in the movie Love Story 46 years ago. Unfortunately there seems to still be some folks out there who believe this saying, much to the detriment of their relationships.
The fact is that we all make mistakes, do or say things that we later regret, have our moments, unintentionally say or do things that are hurtful to others, and wish that we could take back words that have already caused harm. We don’t do these things because we’re evil or horrible people, but because we there are times when we are not at our best for any number of reasons and we put our worst foot forward. Fortunately, there are ways in which we can repair these inevitable occurrences. If we’re possessed by the belief that saying “I’m sorry” or apologizing is never necessary, we deny ourselves this powerful antidote to our partner’s hurt feelings.
When we are free from the grip of this myth we are able to correct a breakdown in perhaps just a few minutes that otherwise might fester for days, weeks or longer if we fail to repair things.
Here are the elements of an effective apology:
- Acknowledgment that there’s been a breakdown that has occurred in your relationship
- The willingness to be vulnerable that comes from trusting that neither of us will be judged, shamed, or attacked for anything that we say.
- Holding an intention to bring about a healing of whatever harm may have been done.
- Taking responsibility for your part in the breakdown rather than focusing on the other person’s part.
- Responding to your partner non-defensively rather than trying to justify you actions.
- Speaking with sincerity and respect rather than out of an intention to get the other person to forgive you.
- Acceptance of your partner’s feelings, even if you don’t both see eye to eye in regard to the exact details of the situation.
- The patience that is required to resist the temptation to rush the process and to allow your partner to make the time that they feel they need to get complete and not feel pressured.
- The humility that allows you to hear things that are difficult to receive in a respectful way.
- Gratitude to them regardless of the outcome of the dialogue, for their willingness to hang in there and make the effort with you to move towards reconciliation.
Not all situations can be resolved in one conversation. It may require two, three, or even more efforts to successfully repair a breakdown that has occurred between you. But bringing a commitment to restoring trust, respect and integrity to your relationship will pay off in ways that far exceed whatever it requires to get the job done!