Monday, October 19, 2015

"Wasn't Expecting That": Treasuring Your Partner

The poet Mark Nepo speaks about splashing your partner with love. It's a beautiful image. What if we lived every day with the awareness that we need to celebrate and appreciate our partner? What if we were conscious of the passing of time and intentional about savoring the joy available in the little details of life together as a couple or as a family?

Over the last 25 years, I've done grief counseling with many individuals who've lost their life partner. It's made me reflect on all that is to be learned from a strong, long-term marriage. If only we could each take a lesson on love from people who've endured such a loss.

I was touched by this short video clip of English singer/songwriter Jamie Lawson of his song, Wasn't Expecting That. This sweet song sets the right tone for focusing on appreciating your partner while you can. Whether you have 10 years together or 60, the same rules apply. Here are a few of the things I've learned from individuals and couples over the years about making your partnership extraordinary:

1. Don't sweat the small stuff. Most stuff in daily life is the small stuff. Don't be petty. Exercise more restraint instead.

2. Be fun to live with. Dr. Phil asked people on his show, "How much fun are you to live with?" Choose to be a beneficial presence in your relationship and your family, not difficult or cranky.

3. Stay curious about your partner. Don't assume things. Each of you keeps growing and changing, so you will never fully know each other. Enjoy the ever evolving mystery.

4. Express your feelings.

5. Be strong enough to be vulnerable. Own it when you are feeling needy, tired, moody, worried, sad or difficult.

6. Ask for what you really, really want. Don't settle for a mediocre relationship.

7. Follow through. Do what you say you will be doing. Show your partner they can trust you because you live life in an honorable way.

8. Express your gratitude.

9. Treat your partner even better than you do your dearest friends.

10. Make yourself available to spend time together. Enjoy high energy fun together.

11. Freely admit when you mess up.

12. Share in life's work. Don't under-function at home so that your partner feels burdened and overwhelmed. Many tasks are more fun together, like cooking, gardening, or washing dishes.

13. Protect your relationship by setting clear boundaries. Don't confide in friends or family about your relationship concerns. Be brave and go direct, or go together to couples counseling with an emotionally focused therapist if you get stuck. Don't keep secrets that could jeopardize your relationship.

14. See the good in your partner. Shine a light on it. Comment on it. There are numerous studies that show that the happiest couples see each other in a consistently favorable light, even better than they are. Try to see your partner's good intentions when possible. Don't be the critic. Build up and encourage your partner's best self when you see it.

15. Try to see it their way. I'm always encouraged with people in couples counseling when they can demonstrate genuine empathy for how their partner might be feeling.  There are often several right perspectives on things, not just yours. Demonstrating empathy and compassion for your partner is a sign of emotional maturity. It means you can transcend self.

16. Use loving touch and affection. Hug and kiss hello and goodbye each day. These are part of the thousand little threads of connection between you. Cuddle. Hold hands. Give your partner a backrub when they are stressed. Both men and women like to have their partner initiate affection, so don't get stuck in gender roles on this one. Call each other when you are apart. Write love letters.

17. Don't get so wrapped up in raising the children that you forget the sacredness of spending some time focusing on just the two of you.

18. Take responsibility for making yourself interesting and happy and splashing it out on your partner. Don't expect your partner to make you happy. It's an inside job.

19. Learn to disagree respectfully. It's been said that every marriage has a couple unsolvable problems, and what counts is how you discuss it. Fight fairly. You each have your own brain and will see some things differently. This is normal.

20. Embrace your differences. You are different people and we raised in different families with their own patterns and traditions. You will likely have unique interests. This keeps the relationship interesting, especially if you support each other's individual interests. Actor Paul Newman and actress Joanne Woodward were a great example of this. She loved the ballet while he liked to race cars as a hobby. They loved each other deeply for 50 years before Paul's death, but could individuate from each other.

Life goes very quickly. We are each more fragile than we realize. Make it your intention to really focus, breathe and take in the joy of day to day life with your partner and your family. Like in the Jamie Lawson song, it will end one day when you don't expect it. Go for an extraordinary relationship starting today.You want to ensure that you have wonderful, sweet memories left behind. Splash some love and happiness around generously now while you can.

Monday, October 5, 2015

When Your Adult Children Need Limits

Imagine if you had children and nurtured them, but they grew up to be adults and treated you badly on a consistent basis. What if your adult children used, abused, and dumped on you? Are they calling and telling you all their problems? Depending on you financially long after they should be independent? Still beating you up about their (long over) childhood? Now is the time to set some new, healthier boundaries and expectations.

You would end a friendship or love relationship with another adult who consistently treated you badly. We can have blind spots with our adult children where we allow mistreatment and emotional abuse we wouldn't accept from anyone else. Some adult children necessitate you taking back your own personal power, and stepping away from enabling their bad or weak behavior.You don't want to be codependent with your adult child's emotional immaturity.

What if your adult child blames you for all their unhappiness? Certainly I believe in apologizing for any mistakes you made, but enough is enough at some point. Some adult children get "stuck" in the blame or victim role and can't move along. Maybe they are well into adult years now, and have had more years on their own then you did raising them. You may have to set some limits about how far and long the blaming goes on. They might be enjoying the secondary gains of not moving on, rather than beginning to do the hard work of taking responsibility for building their own positive, productive life now.

Parents can be manipulated by their adult children, as they get their guilt buttons pushed. It is important to set your own limits about what you are and are not willing to do. You may be willing to help with finances for a limited amount of time. You may not want them to move in with you and become a child again in an open-ended way. It may be better to help them with a specific cost, such as educational expenses, or help with their own rent for a specific amount of time that has an ending. You may be happy to speak by phone or spend time together, but have a  prepared exit strategy if a pleasant interaction turns abusive or toxic. You may not be willing to stay with them if it is upsetting each time. Shorter visits may be preferable.

You may have to give your adult child some space if they are misusing you. Call less often. Meet up at a neutral location, such as a restaurant for a meal. Prepare a broken record response if they begin to verbally attack you, such as, "I understand that you are unhappy with how your life is going, but this isn't going to help." You may be willing to help your adult child in a time-limited fashion, if they are taking demonstrable steps to help themselves. You may want to reframe by asking them what they think they can do to create a positive change in their life. You could also redirect the conversation to something else. You could not be immediately available at all times. Give less: time, attention, financial support.

Explain that it puts you in an awkward position if they repeatedly call you to bash their partner. It may be healthier to redirect them to talk directly to their partner, and not triangulate you in the middle, or see a therapist. This is changing your own dance steps. You are not a dumping ground or a doormat. Realize that to be someone else's doormat, you do have to lie down (be passive and allow it).

You have certain rights as a person, too. When you had children, you didn't give up your need for personal dignity or respect. You have a right to move closer emotionally to people who treat you well and are supportive. Put more distance between yourself and people, including your adult children, who mistreat you. You have a right to peace, and not being anybody's emotional punching bag. Some adult children have elevated and unrealistic expectations about you always being at their service. You are a part of the problem if you enable their bad or weak behavior. Your own health will suffer if you don't set boundaries.

Having children can be an incredible blessing. As your children become adults themselves, it is essential to shift gears in the parent-child relationship. You love them, but you also have firm and clear limits about what you will and won't do, and what behaviors you cannot accept or encourage. Being respectful of others and requiring respect back from others is something that only you can do.

It's a healthy response to develop the backbone to not be an enabler. This is reworking your part of the parent-child dance, doing your best to help your adult son or daughter stop blaming, and start addressing the issues in their own life. This takes strength, but it's really the most loving and helpful thing you can do for your adult child: loving them, but stepping away from the drama, setting firm limits, and not feeding the problem. Maybe you're still parenting, but shifting to an appropriate stance for your adult child's situation, and encouraging their strength, health, and emotional growth.