Monthly Archives: July 2016

A Difficult End to Your Relationship Tips to Success

Unless everyone is in agreement that a parting of the ways is a good thing, the farewell process can be challenging. Perhaps you’ve decided it’s time to break up with your long-term partner, or that a person you’ve hired isn’t working out so well. We know that one of the key features of a successful ending is that the person being “ended” is allowed to save face. A new paper by Irish organizational psychologist Corina Grace shows, from apsychodynamic standpoint, why we find endings in general to be so tough.

The area that Grace examines—corporate mergers and acquisitions (M&A)—is not typically grist for the psychoanalytic mill. She points out that despite the most optimistic predictions, M&As rarely go as planned. This is because, she proposes, “M&As are highly emotional events for all concerned and can stir up very primitive responses” (p. 135). A merger, she believes, triggers feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. When you have to say goodbye to one corporate structure, even though it may be large and impersonal, you risk feeling abandoned. However, because corporations try to put a positive face on these processes, the people involved don’t feel that they have a safe outlet for expressing their feelings of loss.

M&As are made even more difficult when they occur, as they often do, without sufficient time to prepare all parties involved. In part, the rapidity with which these are entered into reflects a desire, Grace argues, to defend against the anxiety that accompanies the entire corporate restructuring. The “quick-fix” mindset leaves everyone poorly prepared to go through their own, as she terms it, “grieving” process. As a result, they can become depressed, both as individuals and among the group as a whole: “In organizations this shows up in such behaviours as burnout, absenteeism, low morale and decline in performance” (p. 138). It’s up to the leaders, the CEOs, to provide an environment in which employees feel supported as they work through this process.

In the case analysis Grace conducted, Company A took over Company B with a vengeance. The message Company A communicated was that Company B was essentially dead. The bosses came from Company A, as did all the policies including petty ones (or not so petty, depending on your point of view) such as how people paid for their morning cup of tea. This “symbolic annihilation” (p. 140) feels like death and loss to those of the vanquished Company B. When Company A took over the physical offices of Company B, furthermore, the downtrodden Company B employees felt the “terror of engulfment.” This is pretty strong stuff.

In the wake of all of these powerful, negative emotions, it was no wonder that those Company B employees who remained in their jobs were miserable (many of them left after the M&A). Had they been listened to instead, these consequences could have been avoided, in Grace’s analysis: “Staying near and present, listening at all levels and providing containment to the individual’s trauma and distress is an important function of anyone working with such groups” (p. 146).

Moving from the corporate to the interpersonal sphere in general, Grace’s article gives us one important guideline to following helping people through an ending. Combined with what we know about that process of “saving face,” we can arrive at these five tips to get you through those difficult endings in your life:

  1. Recognize that any ending has meaning: The Grace article shows us that endings trigger feelings of loss and potentially death. To sweep people’s anxieties and fearabout the ending can leave them vulnerable to feelings of sadness and grief.
  2. Don’t run roughshod over the other person’s rights: If something as petty as the coffee money can become a source of irritation in a corporate takeover, imagine how people feel when they have important relationships taken away.
  3. Give people you’re ending things with a chance to express their feelings.Whether it’s guilt or impatience that leads you to want to pull the plug on the relationship as quickly as possible, other people involved need to be able to let you know how they feel. You can’t give them everything they want, but you can alleviate their sense of abandonment by being there as a sounding board.
  4. Provide a face-saving exit: Even if the person you’re ending things with has been completely terrible, in your opinion, there’s no point in being ruthless. Help the person form a narrative that preserves his or her sense of identity. The ending, though painful at the time, can eventually be rewritten with a less dire interpretation.
  5. Take the high road: If you know you’re ending something that has to end, do so graciously. Perhaps you’re asking your partner to move out of the home you’ve shared and built together. All of a sudden, the things in your house that you haven’t cared at all about become of primary importance. Your soon-to-be-ex starts to claim the fake Tiffany lamp that you’ve never particularly liked, and now you can’t imagine yourself living without it. Let it go. Or if you have a newfound desire to hang onto it, then find a way to discuss, maturely, how to handle the situation.

How make a commit with your mate

If I’m being honest, the ultimatum wasn’t areal ultimatum.

After five years of dating, I told my boyfriend that if he didn’t propose by Christmas, we were over. At the time, I considered this less a threat and more a way to expedite the inevitable—marriage, family, an otherwise perfect union. I was inspired by a friend of mine, who had made a similar, albeit less eloquent demand to shit or get off the pot to her now-husband. In her case, it had proven a successful strategy.

That my boyfriend wouldn’t choose me and marriage was unthinkable, unconscionable, unbelievable—and yet that’s exactly what happened. On the final day of the ultimatum, he presented me not with a ring and a proposal, but the promise of one day soon. When I expressed my disappointment, he chided me for giving him an ultimatum at all. He saw me as an emotional terrorist holding our relationship hostage—and like the U.S.government, he did not negotiate with terrorists.

It didn’t matter that countless times before, he had actually said he wanted us to get married and or that he couldn’t imagine a future without me. Nor did he acknowledge the fact that we were quickly approaching our mid-30s, nearing the end of my prime childbearing years. It was irrelevant that he had already hinted at a proposal the year prior. To him, none of these were good reasons. They were for me.

Don’t Threaten Me

As much as I’d like to play the victim in this situation, it is 100 percent my choice to stay in this relationship. And I have made my share of mistakes, the most egregious of which was presenting him with the ultimatum in the first place. Talk radio host Laura Schlessinger writes on her website, “The reason most ultimatums don’t work is that the person making it is not ready to follow through.” In other words, the only rule of ultimatums is to make sure you’re willing to follow through.

Clearly, I wasn’t.

A few lines later, Schlessinger adds: “One of the dumber ultimatums I hear people make is, ‘If you don’t marry me, I’m leaving.’ It’s just ridiculous. Who wants to get married to someone they have to threaten into marrying?”

Like I said, I’ve made my share of mistakes.

It’s been about nine months since my demands were not met. They still have not been met. We’ve engaged in dozens of fights and quarrels—the particularly bad ones escalate to days of silence or camping out on the couch. We are still together, but our situation is tense and tentative and has all the fun of living by an active volcano.

Love Without Marriage

A couple years ago, I wrote about my disappointment in not being married yet. The pieceresonated with other women in long-term relationships with loving partners who just couldn’t seem to take their relationship to the next, legal level. I received—and still receive—emails from women asking me if I’m married yet and how long I was willing to wait. I answer no, and I don’t know.

I’ve looked to science, and asked relationship experts and friends both married and unmarried for better answers. What I’ve found is that there isn’t one. When it comes to your relationship, only you and your partner can decide what’s right and wrong. How can a third party, even in his or her infinite wisdom, ever fully grasp or understand what goes on either of your hearts?

They can’t. No one can—except maybe someone who’s going through it too.

Enter Abby*, a 31-year-old from Alberta, Canada, and the first woman I’ve met in a romantic situation that resembles mine. Abby reached out to me after she read my first article and shared with me her own situation: After nearly 15 years with her boyfriend—including a decade living together—the prospect of marriage is still nowhere in sight. Out of fascination and, perhaps, fear, I knew I had to learn how and why she chooses to stay in this relationship, despite her obvious desire and his obvious reluctance to get married.

Abby met her boyfriend in high school. He was one year younger than her but she knew right away that she “didn’t want to be with anyone else.” Still it wasn’t until their mid-20s, several years into their relationship, that she started thinking about wedding bells, though it seemed like she was the only one. “He has never come out and said he doesn’t want to get married. He has said that he would like to get married but that it’s not something he has to do with his life,” she says.

While her boyfriend is open to talking about marriage, Abby says, he does not like to linger on the subject. And she doesn’t press him either: “I feel scared to ask why. Maybe I’m afraid of what the answer might be.”

Abby and her boyfriend have shared major life events, including buying a home together, going on vacations, and adopting a dog. They’ve also supported one another through two economic recessions. These are all healthy, normal hallmarks of being in a committed relationship, right? At least this is what she tells friends and family who have been “breathing down [her] back weekly for the last five years” wondering why she still isn’t married.


What is the secret of sex over time

Most people in a romantic relationship yearn for a passionate sex life. And at the beginning of the relationship the heady honeymoon phase or the days of early elation passionate sex usually comes easily. Alas, over time, as routines set in and other pressing matters grab our attention, passion wanes and sexual satisfaction decreases. Thishappens to many couples.

But not to all of them. Some couples manage to keep their fires burning hot through their many years together. What’s their secret? What distinguishes them from couples who have lost their mojo? This question is important not only because most of us want our sex life to be satisfying and long-lasting, but also because satisfaction in sex is a major cause of relationship satisfaction and stability.

According to the research, one factor affecting sexual satisfaction over time is the partners’ relationship orientation—how each of them views their interactions. Research has focused on two approaches in this context: exchange orientation and communal strength orientation.

Exchange-oriented people tend to think of the relationship as a “what’s in it for me?” quid pro quo. They focus on the trade-off aspects of being together and look to give as much (or as little) as they expect to get. In contrast, people high on communal strength orientation tend to focus on the needs of others. They do this out of love and a desire to improve the relationship, not out of obligation or fear.

People with a sexual communal-strength orientation are more likely to maintain the initial sexual enthusiasm throughout a long relationship, mainly because they are attuned to the needs of their partner and find real satisfaction in meeting those needs. If your partner considers your orgasm no less important than their own, then your sex life will be better, now and in the future. Communal bonds are more satisfying than business transactions. This is as true on the street as it is in the bedroom.

Are you high in sexual communal strength? Here’s a quick quiz offered by the Canadian researcher Amy Muise that can be used to measure people’s levels of sexual communal strength (rated 0=not at all, 4=extremely):

  1. How far would you be willing to go to meet your partner’s sexual needs?
  2. How high a priority for you is meeting the sexual needs of your partner?
  3. How likely are you to sacrifice your own needs to meet the sexual needs of your partner?
  4. How happy do you feel when satisfying your partner’s sexual needs?

Another ingredient in the recipe for maintaining sexual satisfaction over time is physicalhealth. Good sex may happen, as they say, chiefly between the ears; but it also happens between the legs. “All you’ve got is your health,” said your mother (OK, mine). And she was right, again—even in regards to sex. Good blood flow (a function of physical health) is no less important for good sex than good communication, because good blood flow makes sexual function possible in men and women.

For example, in 2009 Julia Heiman of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University and her colleagues published a large study involving more than a thousand couples from five countries (Brazil, Germany, Spain, U.S., and Japan) who were in long-term relationships (the median length was 25 years).

High levels of sexual function (erection for men, vaginal lubrication for women; high desire and orgasmic capacity for both) predicted satisfaction during sex in men and women alike. Not surprisingly, higher frequency of recent sex predicted increased sexual satisfaction for both men and women. (Interestingly, and contrary to conventional stereotypes, a lower number of sexual partners predicted higher satisfaction among men. The authors speculate that these results may be due to the fact that unsatisfied men change partners more often, or that experienced men may be less content with the relative monotony of marital sex).

Because adults with secure relationship styles are trusting and self-confident, they are rather slow at responding to the smoke. And especially if others are present, they’re slow at evacuating the room. They seem to put the needs of others before themselves, and they see to it that their colleagues are ready to leave before they do so themselves.

Deciding as a group how to respond to an emergency can take time. And in some cases, a group response can be too slow. But here’s where people with anxious and avoidant relationship styles contribute to the survival of the group.

Anxious adults are constantly on the look-out for potential threats. In relationships, this means that they’re suspicious of their friends and intimate partners, and their repeated demands for proof of commitment tend to drive others away. This, of course, only confirms their prior belief that other people are not to be trusted.

In the smoking computer experiment, though, anxious adults noticed the smoke faster than the secure or avoidant adults. And when they were in groups, they were quick to voice their concerns. Thus, anxious adults serve the role of sentinel, looking out for potential threats to the group.

Avoidant adults tend to view themselves as more capable than others. Hence, they prefer working alone to collaborating, and this aloofness is often interpreted as self-centeredness by others. The relationships that avoidant adults enter into tend to be shallow and easy to break.

When avoidant adults took part in the smoking computer experiment, they were slow to interpret the smoke as a danger, but once they did, they quickly evacuated the room. In group situations, they tended to leave without warning others. This seemingly selfish behavior, however, benefited the group. That is, avoidant adults are extremely good at self-preservation, and once they detect a means of escape for themselves, others quickly follow.

How to through the Securely Attached

It’s an old truism that everyone’s unique. And yet, for more than a century, psychologists in the field of individual differences have sought a small number of categories or dimensions for dividing people into personality types.

Based on the personality theory of Carl Jung, the popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator classifies people into sixteen personality types. The Big Five, perhaps the most widely accepted personality theory today, proposes five dimensions of personality, with each of us having a unique score on each of the five dimensions.

Another way to classify people is in terms of their relationship styles. In the mid-twentieth century, British psychologist John Bowlby developed his well-known attachment theory, based on his studies of orphans during and after World War II. The theory was further developed by his student Mary Ainsworth.

Attachment is the deep emotional bond that develops between the newborn infant and itscaregiver, almost always the mother. Most children develop a secure attachment with Mom, knowing that they can rely on her as a safe base from which to explore the world. But others form an insecure attachment. On the one hand, children with anxious attachment are clingy and fussy—they don’t trust Mom, and they lack confidence to strike out on their own. On the other hand, children with avoidant attachment are aloof and independent—they also don’t trust Mom, but they’ve learned how meet their emotional needs by themselves.

It’s generally assumed that childhood attachment serves as the model for adult relationships, and there’s some evidence from longitudinal studies that support this notion. At any rate, we can certainly see secure, anxious, and avoidant relationship styles playing out in adult interactions. Secure adults form trusting relationships with others, anxious adults often drive others away with their lack of trust, and avoidant adults remain aloof and fiercely independent in their relationships.

As a description of relationship styles, there’s nothing wrong with labeling people as secure, anxious, or avoidant. All too often, though, we treat one category as “normal” and the others as “deviant.” If you recognize yourself as having an anxious or avoidant relationship style, you’ve no doubt experienced shame and a loss of self-worth for your “abnormal” behavior.

In a recent article, Israeli psychologists Tsachi Ein-Dor and Gilad Hirschberger argue that it’s high time psychologists recognize that adults with anxious or avoidant relationship styles are not broken or in need of fixing. Rather, they play important roles in human society that those with secure attachments cannot fill.

Taking an evolutionary approach, Ein-Dor and Hirschberger build on the arguments of U.C. Davis psychologist Jay Belsky and his colleagues. Belsky has proposed that under certain environmental conditions an insecure attachment style may be more adaptive. When resources are scarce, demanding children may get more than their fair share. And when Mom is overwhelmed, children are better off learning soon how to fend for themselves.

Ein-Dor and Hirschberger argue, however, that it isn’t just in extreme situations that insecure attachment styles are adaptive. Rather, even in ordinary circumstances, all of us benefit from having some anxious and avoidant types in our group. This is especially true when the group as a whole is faced with a threat and needs to decide how to respond.

The researchers set up a mock-dangerous situation to see how adults with different relationship styles respond when they are alone and in groups. As participants sat at a keyboard completing a task, non-toxic smoke started to spew forth from the computer. The researchers were looking to see how long it would take them to recognize the potential danger and to leave the room.