Reflection 61: Women, Boundaries, and Sex

Radical Decency was created to answer this question: Living in an endemically indecent world, how can we create better lives and meaningfully contribute to a better world? In response, it offers – not an answer – but a process: Of reflection, dialogue, support and collaboration, trial and error, guided always by our values-based approach to living.

This reflection exemplifies this ever-exploratory aspect of the philosophy. Being a psychotherapist, you never stop learning – and never know where the next area of insight and growth will be. Some time ago, now, I realized that my practice included a group of powerful, assertive women who had, what I call, curious power outages. Often, but not always, it was around men: The felt need to placate or put a romantic partner, father, or other significant male first. Working with these women has heightened my sense of how the culture’s gender-based stereotypes play out in the lives of women, the topic of this week’s Reflection.

I have run men’s groups and written about men for many years, and do so with some confidence. Writing about women, however, is different since in key areas I lack the “gut knowing” that comes from shared experience. But assuming an unbridgeable gap in understanding between the genders would defeat our larger purposes. A radically decent relationship requires respect, understanding, empathy, appreciation, and acceptance. And these qualities can only emerge if we feel fully capable of understanding the other’s reality. So here are some of my insights about being a woman in this culture, gleaned from my journey of discovery, first of all, with my wife Dale – my teacher and partner in every sense of the word – and with the amazing group of women in my practice. I offer it with what is, I hope, appropriate deference.


Women are, without question, pushed by the culture toward care-taking dispositions. To illustrate this point, Terence Real and Carol Gilligan tell the following story. Ask an 8-year-old girl what kind of pizza she wants and she will tell you. Ask an 11-year old girl and she’ll say, “I’m not sure.”  Ask a 13-year-old girl – now fully socialized to her assigned gender role – and she is likely to ask, “what do you want?”

13-year-old girls – and 30-year-old women – don’t stop wanting their pizza with mushrooms and onions. But engrained in their habitual way of being is a reflexive instinct to compromise their needs to the perceived needs of others. So when it comes to setting appropriate boundaries in their relationships – boundaries that work for them – an inescapable conflict is created. Their wants and desires, often suppressed to the point of unconsciousness, are regularly at odds with their felt need to tend to others.

And even as girls are being socialized to be accommodating and compliant, a complementary process is pushing boys in the opposite direction: To be forceful and aggressive but to suppress their relational needs and desires.

When sex is added to the mix, this already confusing situation becomes even more complicated. Transacting the tricky business of sexual desire in this bifurcated world greatly exacerbates the conflict and confusion that women (and men) experience when is comes to setting appropriate relational boundaries.

Here’s how it works on the women’s side.

Teenage boys long for the relational closeness they are told they shouldn’t need. So starved for affection, touch and stroking, sex takes on inordinate importance – since it is the one place where they can get these needs met in a culturally condoned way.

Raised as men, they typically have no trouble asking for sex, often in deeply aggressive ways. The result? It is the rare women who, from her teenage years forward, hasn’t regularly faced significant male boundary crossing, much of it explicitly sexual.

Given this reality, here is the situation a teenage girl faces. Even as she struggles with her newly emerging sexual desire, she is required to deal with persistent male boundary crossing – and to do so in the context of an insistent, culturally groomed, internalized voice telling her to tend to her partner’s needs. This is a prescription for confusion and pain, not only for a teenage girl, but also for a 30-year-old woman, if she hasn’t cultivated the understanding and emotional tools needed to move beyond her engrained care-taking habits.

Note, very importantly, that this painful pattern plays out with equal force outside the bedroom as well. Men – engaging, unaware, in their part of this culturally dictated dance – regularly cross women’s boundaries in ways that are uninvited and overly aggressive: An unwanted sexualized look; a dirty joke; a rat-tat-tat of sarcastic comments that put the woman in her place; a fart followed by a smirking laugh. Given women’s boundary confusion, their ability to clearly and unambiguously respond to these sorts of behaviors is, all too often, compromised as well.


For women – and men – moving beyond this engrained cultural dance is a vital but tricky business. One significant obstacle is the fact that, while we internalize our gender roles, we are also deeply inducted into the pattern itself. So when women “turn the tables” – becoming sexual aggressors, skilled at emotionally dominating their partners – they do little to heal their boundary confusion. Instead, the pain of the culturally assigned woman’s role is exchanged for the confusion and pain of the man’s role – with the underlying pattern persisting with undiminished force.

The true path of healing requires disengagement from the pattern itself. Instead of fighting fire with fire – learning to be as aggressive and boundary crossing as men – women need to let go of their reflexive care taking habits. This does not mean that their nurturing acts of love should end. Instead, these acts need to become more and more volitional. She is should be able to warmly respond to her relational partner’s needs and longings but just as capably say no – to unwanted sex or to a pepperoni pizza.


What I see regularly see in my practice, even in the midst of my clients’ steady progress toward this new mindset, is a subtle and corrosive process that sucks them back toward their old ways.

So, for example, a woman, estranged but not separated from her husband, establishes a clear physical boundary and no sex rule. But instead of respecting her choices, the husband – in his instinctually male way – seeks to erode and push through her boundaries.  He makes her morning coffee, offers unsolicited back rubs, and insinuates himself back into her bedroom and bed. She, in turn, groomed by the culture to be a caretaker, yields to this relentless pressure, inch by imperceptible inch. In the end, the physical and sexual distance she needs to feel safe is compromised.

Another women struggles with a sense of being judged by her husband as the dirty clothes accumulate in the hamper. He, like her, is aware of their gender-based patterns and seeks to do better: Making requests and not boundary crossing demands; pro-actively taking on house keeping chores. But despite their efforts, the old patterns persist and re-emerge. Why? Because his tone of voice and emotional energy communicate far more impatience than he thinks. And she, in turn, is primed to amplify whatever tone of insistence and judgment she perceives in his words and deeds: “My job is to tend to my husband, home and family and in his eyes – and mine – I am falling short.”

A third woman – my wife – is planning to spend Saturday with her girlfriends even though this is a time we usually reserve for each other. Not at my self-aware best, I slip into male boundary crossing behaviors: Annoyance and pouting.

When Dale (my wife) is on her emotional game she comfortably, and lovingly, maintains her autonomy and integrity leaving me with a reassuring hug and these words: “It’s nice to know that my leaving matters you, that I’ll be missed, that I’m loved so much.”  But, at others times, my boundary pushing triggers her engrained care-giving habits of mind and – feeling guilty about her choice – she responds to my behaviors with defensiveness, anger, and withdrawal.


As these vignettes illustrate, women face an enormous challenge as they seek to move beyond their engrained care-taking habits of mind. The work requires new levels of understanding, awareness – and enormous persistence. It also requires the presence of mind and emotional bravery to make new, very different choices in the most trying of situations. But change is possible. Doing so, women can progressively let go of their old patterns, allowing their innate power and assertiveness to emerge.

Finally, because our gender roles are so enmeshed and reinforcing, we men need to recognize the vital role we can play in the growth work of the women in our lives. How?  By tending to, and healing, our own gender-based ways of operating.

Indeed, aspiring to be the best possible husband, parent, friend and co-worker, nothing less will suffice.

Reflection 57: Men – We Make Complete Sense!

Into my 40s, I did what a lot of men do. I kept my feelings mostly to myself – except with my girl friends and, then, my wife.

That said, my way of sharing with my romantic partners was not very skillful, to say the least. I was able to express anger and annoyance, but sadly – for her and me – my deeper fears and longings were expressed in equally reactive ways: “Why can’t you get off the freakin’ phone,” instead of “I’m missing you and hope you’ll be fully available to me soon.” I pretty much had it figured that I was an insensitive jerk: A victim of testosterone poisoning; not very good at that emotional stuff; hopelessly aggressive; far too focused on sex.

At lot of good things have happened in the ensuing years. One very important part of my healing journey has been time spent with other men – not at ball games or in the cushioning presence of our spouses – but in settings that allowed for frank and open conversation about life’s challenges and what it means to deal with them as a man.

I have learned a lot. One of the central lessons: We men are fully capable adults in every sense of the word – emotional as well as practical, empathic as well as assertive.

In this Reflection I focus on an issue that has become one of my abiding passions: Why we men make complete sense and why, understanding this, we are fully capable of pushing back against the gender based myths and stereotypes that consign so many of us to sad, isolated, and reduced existences.


The key to mounting an effective response to our assigned gender roles is to remember that biology is not the issue. In Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps and What We Can Do About It, Lise Eliot reviews in detail the evidence of gender based biological differences. Her conclusion? The differences in our physiology are minor and, standing alone, inconsequential.

So what is going on? As James Carville might put it, “it’s the culture, stupid.”

We live in a world that accentuates these small genetic differences, pushing each sex toward certain capabilities and vulnerabilities and away from others. In the process, it shrinks the humanity of both. When it comes to gender, the culture’s message – relentlessly reinforced – is that for girls, intimacy and nurturance are fine but assertiveness isn’t and, for boys, the opposite is true.

To illustrate this point, Terence Real and Carol Gilligan tell the following stories. Ask an 8-year-old girl what kind of pizza she wants and she will tell you. Ask an 11-year old girl and she’ll say, I’m not sure. Ask a 13-year-old girl – now fully socialized to her assigned gender role – and she is likely to say, “what do you want?”

On the other side of the equation is the 3- year old boy who falls down in the supermarket, his eyes filling with tears. What happens? An adult rushes to tell him everything is fine, brush it off, be a little man; a response that is far different from the hugging, cuddling and gentle stroking a 3-year old girl would typically receive.


The message that is communicated to our boys through a myriad of cultural cues, incentives and sanctions – and with increasing intensity as the years go by – is this: Suck it up, be strong and tough, don’t be needy, hide your fear and vulnerability. And never forget that intimate sharing and emotional comfort are unmanly, the province of girls and sissies.

Needless to say, the emotional price we pay as boys and men – like the price our sister’s pay as they absorb their assigned story – is enormous.

This intense cultural conditioning makes sense of so many of the male behaviors that women, often with withering judgment, find so perplexing. And, understanding that they are learned behaviors is a powerful reminder to us men – and to the women who love us – that they can be changed. As the women’s movement has so persuasively demonstrated, our culturally defined gender roles are not a life sentence.

Working through the implications of our assigned gender role, here is an explanation of why some of the things that we men do, in key areas of living, make complete sense.

  1. Our sexual behaviors.

By the time we reach puberty, we boys are already emotionally isolated; having long since learned not to cry, not to seek physical comfort, not to share fears and vulnerabilities.

But we can be sexual. Indeed, our emerging sexuality – at least insofar as it means scoring with girls – is seen as a badge of honor. So what we learn as boys, and carry into our lives as men, is that hugging, stroking, and nurturance are not ok – except in the context of sex.

Viewed in this context our pre-occupation with sex is entirely understandable. It’s not because we are pigs, ready to “screw anything that moves.” It’s because this is the only socially sanctioned arena in which we can get the physical nurturance we long for.

It also explains the male tendency to leave after having sex or to abruptly disappear from a relationship. While the sex is going on things are simple. Singled-mindedly focused on the sex act, we men naively (and, often, inaccurately) assume that is she as well. In our minds, there is nothing to complicate the equation, nothing to be said, no complicated choices to be made.

But then orgasm occurs and everything changes. Now suddenly we are naked, and nose-to-nose, with another human being. Moreover, this is a person whose experience with intimate interactions is far greater than ours. From that post-coital moment of transition forward, we are prone to feelings of confusion, unease, and vulnerability. So we flee, not because we are insensitive louts, but rather to avoid the uncomfortable feelings that flood us, now that we are forced to inhabit this far more complicated world of intimate interaction with another human being.

  1. Our ways of being intimate.

Because of the ways in which women are raised, intimate conversation is, for them, a place of comfort. But for men, with their very different socialization, it is an invitation into unfamiliar and, therefore, emotionally unsafe territory. When our spouse says, “we need to talk,” it signals, for us, the risk of being judged and shamed. Small wonder, then, that our instinct is, so often, to resist the invitation.

Our socialization also explains our typical ways of interacting. Talking sports, cracking jokes, exchanging insults, hanging out – doing these things, we are creating companionship at a distance that feels comfortable. What we create are shame-free zones where the danger of being judged has been banished. In this environment, no one is shamed, even when he gets falling down drunk and vomits all over the bathroom floor.

  1. Our aggressiveness.

Given our cultural conditioning, we men are far more conversant with aggressive emotions – assertiveness, anger, annoyance, and frustration – than we are with more vulnerable emotions such as hurt, sadness, fear, and confusion. But what is less obvious is how we use our aggressiveness to shield our selves from these less familiar, less comfortable emotions.

As Steven Stosny points out, anger is like a little hit of crack cocaine. Its negative consequences are severe, but in the moment it actually makes us feel better. Why? Because it shifts our body into action mode. Adrenaline and cortisol are pumped into our bodies and blood rushes to our large muscles groups, giving us a sudden jolt of energy. In addition, the reasoning parts of the brain – the parts that could breed indecision at a moment of crisis – shrink, leaving us with a heightened sense of clarity.

So a typical man, trained to be assertive but not open and vulnerable, predictably falls into this emotional pattern: When, as is inevitable, more vulnerable emotions come up, he “fast forwards” through this unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory, seeking instead the short-term relief that anger and annoyance offer. And, over time, this pattern becomes so engrained and automatic that many men are not even aware of the underlying hurt, fear or confusion that triggers it. In this area as well we are not perverse, inexplicable beings. What we are doing is an understandable – if flawed – adaptation to our culturally assigned gender role.


Knowing that the ways in which we act are culturally and not biologically determined brings with it this vitally important understanding: We men are not flawed and limited beings. To the contrary, we are fully capable humans who can become, if we do our healing and growth work, comfortably conversant with the full range of our emotions and entirely capable partners in intimacy.

A description of key, “how to” aspects of this vital work are explored in Reflection 69: Moving Beyond Patriarchy, and Reflection 72: Men’s Moment(s) of Truth.

Reflection 53: Effective Fighting: Practice Pointers for Couples

When my wife and I started couples therapy in the mid 1990s, after 10 years of marriage and almost 50 years of living, our gifted therapist, Sunny Shulkin, described the way most couples fight. She speaks and he listens – but in a special way – carefully sifting her words for ammunition so that, when her mouth stops moving, he can fire back. And as he counter-attacks, she, in turn, is busy collecting her own ammunition so that, when he stops talking, she can return the fire.

The description was sobering, uncomfortably accurate. Over and over, Dale (my wife) and I would take turns explaining why we were right and the other wrong, with our frustration and vehemence increasing with each exchange. The predictable endpoint?

A complete breakdown in communication and mutual misery, followed by reconciliation – not resolution – and, in due course, a repeat performance.

And the years slipped by.

Why was Sunny able to describe the process of this new couple, sitting in front of her, with such eerie accuracy? Because we live in a culture where the relentless message is that successful people are winners; competitors who strive and, ultimately, prevail. With these values permeating our approach at school, work, and so many other areas of living, their habitual appearance in our intimate relationships is utterly predictable.

It is all so sad. We know to a certainty that the great majority of our teenagers will organize their lives around a committed intimate relationship. Nevertheless, there is virtually no effort to teach them alternative skills that would allow them to be more effective romantic partners.

But a better way does exist. And for Dale and me, one of our great joys is to share what we have learned, with others, in our therapy practices. In this Reflection, I offer some guidelines for effective fighting that we have teased out, in our work with couples – and with each other.


Radical Decency is an approach to living that encompasses all areas of living, from the most private and personal to the most public and political. And, needless to say, the same attack/counter-attack habits that couples engage in are practiced with a vengeance in the public arena – with devastating consequences.

In this area, however, the shift to more effective fighting is far more difficult since key qualities that can jumpstart the process for couples – good faith, trust, and a shared desire for a better way – are in short supply. That said, one of Radical Decency’s central beliefs is that application of its values in one area will lead to creative insights in other areas as well. For that reason, I invite you consider how the practice pointers for couples, described below, might be adapted and applied to our efforts to create a more decent and constructive public discourse.

Point 1: You’re not fighting about what you’re fighting about.

Couples bicker about chores – how to handle the children – love-making – money, the list goes on and on. But when a couple shifts to fight mode, the struggle is – almost always – about one thing: Each partner feels unheard and unseen and, with that, fears the loss of the safe, nurturing love that he or she longs for, and depends upon, from the other.

For those of us who instinctually default to the fight side of the fight/flight dichotomy, the typical fear is that the most important person in our life will abandon us. For those on the flight side, the fear is of being overwhelmed and engulfed by that person and his needs.

Because the substantive issue at hand has triggered your partner, it needs to be treated with respect. But don’t dwell on it. Make your point about how dinner chores should be handled, listen to his, and then shift your attention to the real issue: The ways in which you and your partner are not feeling loved and appreciated.

Remind yourself that, notwithstanding her harsh words, you are not at imminent risk of losing her good opinion of you. You are, after all, the love of her life. Instead of trying to prove your worth by “winning” the argument, look for ways to reassure her of your abiding love and respect – by making her feel that her point is really being heard by you.

Note, importantly, that the practical cost in adopting this approach is actually very small. In most cases, the outcome on the substantive issue is of no consequence. Her way of doing it is fine and, so too, is his. Either way, no babies are dying.

The bottom line: Focus your primary energy on your partner’s emotional needs and longings – and yours – and not on the intricacies of how and when to do the laundry.

Point 2: Winning is not the goal.

When your partner yells, or goes cold and judgmental, he has not turned into an unfeeling monster. Despite appearances, he feels lousy and is at his most vulnerable and unsafe. Just like you. Understanding this, it makes no sense to inflict additional pain through a counter-attack, especially since the point you are about make, with such urgency, is almost always a point you’ve made many times before, in past fights.

Not falling into this habitual, reactive way of responding – in the middle of a fight – is excruciatingly difficult. But it is the holy grail of effective fighting: To replace our instinctual fight/flight reactions with loving acts and, equally, to be receptive to our partner’s efforts to do the same.

When emotions escalate, job one is to tend to our physical and emotional safety and integrity. But consistent with that priority, there are many moments, even in the middle of a fight, when loving acts are possible.

Seek to understand and empathize with your partner and, importantly, share these efforts with her in ways that she is able to hear. Let her know, as best you can, that you know what it feels like to be her. Equally, important, strive to warmly accept loving initiatives from her side, even when they are tinged with a residue of anger and resentment. And resist, with all the discipline and presence of mind you can muster, the urge to get in the last shot.

Point 3: Don’t defend yourself.

When a fight starts, one of the first casualties is context. Despite her harsh words and cold looks, you are not an awful person. In fact, you are the most important person in her life; the person she has chosen to grow old with; the person she has stayed with for all these years; the person she trusts with her life – and the lives of her children.

Remembering this, defending yourself is really beside the point; a non-issue. Notwithstanding his momentary annoyance about the clutter you have created in the spare bedroom, you are, and remain, someone he loves and esteems. So, instead of justifying the clutter, acknowledge it and look at the cleanup, not as an annoying chore – or an admission of guilt – but as a ready-made opportunity to love him.

Point 4: Time is on your side.

When we are in the middle of a fight, we too easily think that everything has to be said – NOW. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, we have all the time in the world; with any luck, decades.

With this thought in mind, keep the conversation simple and stay focused on the issue at hand. If she complains about your getting home late for dinner, don’t respond by pointing out that she is chronically late when you have plans with another couple. That is changing the subject, pure and simple. She wants to talk about dinner and, ignoring that, you have shifted to a second topic.

This is where the realization that time is on our side is so helpful. Your annoyance about the routine on Saturday night is real and needs to be dealt with. But it’s best to raise it at another time – tomorrow or next week. Why? Because the alternative doesn’t work. When you change the subject and link issues, your partner – feeling unheard – is likely to do the same. This, in turn, will invite further linking by you, and so on, in an escalating, difficult to interrupt cycle.

When you and your partner fight, the goal should be to do less and to do it well. Then, stop and acknowledge your success, knowing that the tools you have used in this “good” fight, today, will help you to deal more effectively with the next issue – tomorrow, or next week, or next month.

Point 5: Scan for the positive.

What gives the guideline, first offered by Terence Real, its power is a simple, underlying truth: Your partner makes sense. Given his experiences, skills, disposition, hopes and dreams, this is how the magnificent person you have chosen as your partner operates in the world. And she is a package deal. The stuff you love and the stuff that drives you crazy are inextricably intertwined.

So when, in the middle of a fight, your partner takes his best shot, “scan for the positive” – for what you agree with – and begin your response there. Let the part where she calls you insensitive and thoughtless slide by, without comment, and agree with her that you did indeed fail to clean the kitchen before the guests arrived.

Doing so will remind you that she make sense; that her needs are real and legitimate. It will also act as a powerful brake on your instinctual, fight/flight driven rush toward defensiveness and reactive counter-attack. And, finally, it will invite her to join you in this shift toward reciprocal acts of understanding and love that are the hallmark of more effective fighting.

Point 6: Measure yourself by your successes and not by your failures.

I close with this thought. Being a good romantic partner, always difficult, is never more challenging than when you are in the middle of a fight. As hard as you try, there will, inevitably, be many moments when you fall short. So always remember to measure your progress by your successes and not by your failures.

Reflection 44: Intimate vs. Strategic Relationships

A gifted supervisor – when you can find one – is one of the great benefits of being a psychotherapist. I was lucky enough to find one in Carol Brockmon. One highly useful tool she introduced me to was the distinction between intimate and strategic relationships.

In this Reflection, I explain that distinction and elaborate on some of its more important implications.

Here is a typical interaction in a strategic relationship. Needing to make a key decision, a department head at a conventional, mainstream business convenes a two-hour staff meeting at 1 p.m. Being an enlightened leader, she encourages an open and vigorous exchange with each team member freely stating his or her beliefs. Now, it’s 2:59. The discussion ends and the department head makes her decision. Whether they fully agree or not, the rest of the staff is expected to fall in line.

Here, by contrast, is a typical intimate interaction. A husband and wife sit down at 1 p.m. to discuss where to send their son to school. Now it is 2:59, after a lot of back and forth, no agreement has been reached. What happens? A decision is deferred. The couple keeps talking.

The difference? In the first scenario, the priority is on achieving a goal – getting something done. In the second, the highest priority is on the relationship itself – on creating and maintaining an empathic, loving relationship.

Note, importantly, that these categories are not mutually exclusive. Strategic relationships work better when tools of intimacy are used. The department head could have simply sent a memo saying, this is what we’re going to do. But she understood that an open exchange of ideas, properly managed, improves the staff’s morale, its willingness to embrace the ultimate decision, and, more often than not, the overall quality of the decision as well.

Similarly, there are many strategic aspects to an intimate relationship. A decision about their son’s school has to be made. The couple can’t keep talking until November.

What makes this distinction so useful, however, is that it clarifies our confusion on both sides of the equation.


Discussions in which couples kill each other, arguing over what to do – in this situation or that – are endemic. Over and over in my practice, I remind couples that, 90% of the time, either choice is acceptable. A visit to mom or a day at the beach with the kids; how much cleaning is enough; how and when to pay the bills; the toilet seat up or down – there really aren’t any “right” and “wrong” decisions.

So, I repeatedly urge couples, put outcomes on the back burner. Remember that this is an intimate relationship and, for that reason, the far more important part of the discussion is not the subject itself but your emotional needs and those of your partner.

Viewed from this perspective, you should clean the dishes before leaving the kitchen, not because it’s the “right” thing to do but because you are stretching to love her in a way that is meaningful to her. Conversely, the reason for asking her to leave earlier for the airport has everything to do with your emotional comfort and nothing to do with good planning. After all, in all the years before she became your partner, she always managed to be in her seat when the plane took off.

When your priority is on the emotions that inform your intimate discussions, and not on outcomes, the results are dramatic. Focused on each partner’s needs and desires – yours and his – your empathy, patience, and skill at loving and being loved will grow and grow. At the same time, those seemingly inevitable, repetitive flare-ups will become less common and easier resolved.

And, guess what? Regardless of where you come out on the substantive issue – her solution, his, or a compromise – everyone will survive just fine.


On the strategic side of the equation, our confusions are just as great. What I notice, here, is the frequency with which we become wedded to emotional outcomes in situations that are plainly strategic.

The most obvious place where this occurs is at our mainstream places of business. Work could be a place where intimate relationships are the norm – a possibility I wrote about in Reflection, #43. Unfortunately, in our culture that is rarely the case. Hence that Reflection’s title: Radical Decency in Business: A Fairy Tale.

For this reason, the hypothetical that follows deals with what is – and not what could be.

Lou works in a small department and one of his co-workers – call him Fred – is harassing him. Fred refuses to provide Lou with information he needs to do his job, does everything he can to undercut Lou’s credibility with the boss, and even – deliberately, it seems – clutters their common work area with his files.

While important, Lou’s job is not his life’s priority. That would be his wife, kids, and private passions. And yet, he gets sucked into this unsolicited war, registering repeated complaints about Fred’s conduct, creating extensive written rebuttals, and obsessively plotting ways to “win” the battle for his boss’ good opinion by strategically pointing out – at staff meetings and endless water cooler conversations – why he is right and Fred is wrong.

The problem, of course, is that Lou – like so many of us – is unable to maintain emotional clarity about the context in which he is operating. At a typical work place, the priority is on getting things done and not on dealing with people’s feelings. But in seeking to win his battle with Fred, Lou is seeking an emotional outcome – an acknowledgment that is anger is justified and that he is held in high regard by his co-workers and boss. And in service of that goal, he deeply engaged at an emotional level.

Ideally, Lou would treat Fred’s behaviors as he would the acts of a stranger – unpleasant, unwanted but, ultimately, of no emotional significance. Maintaining that distance, he would no longer be caught up in responsive anger and anxiety about becoming an outcast in this work “family.” And with these uncomfortable and distracting emotions out of the picture, he could deal with Fred’s behaviors as a purely strategic challenge; crafting counter measures that, unencumbered by extraneous emotions, would more effectively neutralize the very real threat that Fred’s behaviors represent to his perceived value to the department and boss, and to his ability to do his job well.

Taking this approach is, needless to say, difficult. When we are attacked, our brain is wired to respond quickly, powerfully, and in kind. And once our fight or flight response is activated, it is exceedingly difficult to turn off. But to have mastery over our choices, we need to cultivate the ability to emotionally engage only in those situations where it is appropriate. And, while this is a difficult task, it is worth the effort. Ultimately, we will feel better and be to operate more effectively in difficult, strategic environments.

Note, importantly, that this tough-minded approach to strategic relationships in no way compromises Radical Decency. Prudent boundary setting, a cautious and measured approach to emotional disclosure in unsafe environments, and effective counter-measures are indispensable aspects of decency to self. But with across the board decency as our highest priority, we also need to remember that these self-protective choices are not an excuse to dispense with other attributes of decency – respect; understanding and empathy; acceptance and appreciation; fairness and justice – in dealing with the Freds of the world.

So while Lou should not ignore Fred’s conduct or “make nice” with him – in the name of these values – he should strive to be civil, even in the face of Fred’s provocations; to avoid the temptation to demonize him; and ideally, understand and even empathize with whatever emotional demons are driving Fred’s behaviors. His larger goal should be fair treatment all the way around – to himself and to Fred –– and not revenge.


There are, obviously, many relationships that have both intimate and strategic dimensions: The friendships that flower in work environments, the co-parenting relationships that many former spouses share; the very different sort of workplaces that Radical Decency envisions; and so on. Hopefully, however, focusing on the very different challenges, presented by these twin poles of relationship, will support us in making choices in all of our relationships that are more loving, appropriately self-protective – and radically decent.

Reflection 38: Three Dimensions of Love

As a psychotherapist in private practice, coaching couples is one of my abiding passions. Indeed, it was the transformative couples work that my wife, Dale, and I did in the 1990s that was the catalyst for each of us becoming a therapist.

Intimate romantic relationship is a recurring theme in the Reflection series. I have written about its enormous potential for healing and growth (#33), and how to fight more effectively (#53). I have also offered strategies for more effectively being with your romantic partner – at times of conflict (## 3 and 86) and, in calmer times, when things are going more smoothly (#10). I have also written extensively about the challenge of moving through the patriarchal patterns that are so engrained in our culture and so deeply affect our intimate relationships (## 57, 61, 69, and 72).

My goal in this Reflection is to pull the lens back and to describe the multiple levels at which committed romantic partnerships operate.

There has been so much really good thinking about romantic relationship in the last 20 years or so, and practicing therapists have been at the forefront. It is easy to see why. Couples therapists are on the firing line every day of their professional lives; dealing with real issues, in real time. They need to search for better ways – now.

And the feedback is immediate. We can see, all too vividly, what works and what doesn’t. In this context, the old cliché definitely applies: Necessity is the mother of invention.

But the context in which couples therapists work – helpful as it is – also has a distorting perspective. Because our sample is skewed toward couples in active crisis, we tend to become experts in relationship breakdowns. And since the urgent first priority is, so often, to re-establish a workable level of communication, our attention tends to be skewed toward those issues. The result: Much of what we therapists teach to couples focuses on active listening and other techniques to improve communication.

This, I believe, is unfortunate. Once the crisis is over, couples still long for guidance in building a more lively and joyful relationship. Getting from here to there – as Dale and I have discovered in the years since our own work with a couples therapist ended – requires far more than the communication skills that are the bread and butter of couples work.

In seeking to guide my clients as they explore this upside of coupledom, I have evolved the following multi-level view of relationship:

  1. Listening and Sharing (Communication);
  2. Loving and Being Loved;
  3. Claiming and Being Claimed.

In the discussion that follows, I discuss these factors in the context of intimate romantic partnership. Note, however, that their value extends beyond the couples context. While the levels of intimacy and boundaries you set will differ – depending on the person involved – these same principles will also enrich your relationships with other family members, friends, and members of your communities of choice.


To say that communication is only one aspect of the couples equation does not, of course, detract from its foundational importance. Indeed, living in a world that models and rewards shrill assertiveness, our engrained deficits in this area are endemic. Given this cultural context, special attention to listening skills is a vital corrective.

Good listening requires more than just hearing the words. It also requires a patient assimilation to the mood or “music” of the communication. In addition, hearing your partner is not enough. You also need to ensure, as best you can, that your partner “knows that you know.”

Still another a vital aspect of good listening is not to change the subject prematurely. As well intentioned as an “I’m sorry” can be, for example, it needs to come after your partner feels that his or her grievance has been fully heard. For a fuller discussion of this aspect of listening and sharing, see Reflection #82 Intimacy – Not Changing the Subject.

With all of our well-deserved emphasis on listening, we also need to remember that communication is two-way street; that we, in our turn, need to be open and vivid with our thoughts and feelings. A generous and patient listener who fails to disclose his or her difficult or unpleasant feelings may feel virtuous – and is often seen as the “good guy.” But if intimacy is the goal, that approach is flawed. Absent honest and contactful sharing on both sides, a true meeting of two people – the essence of intimacy – is impossible.

A final point on communication: Like every other level of relationship I discuss in this Reflection, there is a rhythm to the back and forth of offering and receiving that is, in the end, art and not science. Taking turns may work – but it may not. It all depends on the “dance” that the particular couple evolves over time. Indeed, in some of the most constructive, intimacy building conversations that Dale and I have had, one or the other of us has been a marathon “sender.” On this point, the most that can be said is this: Be alive to the issue, open to possibilities, and patient and trusting of the process.


The second level of intimate relationship – loving and being loved – is not as obvious as it may seem. One very common problem is the confusion, heavily promoted by the messages of the mainstream culture, between love the noun and love the verb.

We are all familiar with the first, that feeling of being powerfully drawn to another person. But all too often in our culture, the declaration – “I love you” – is offered as though it answers all questions.

It doesn’t.

In the movie Chasing Amy, the Ben Affleck character, gripped by that “in love” feeling impulsively turns to Amy and declares his feelings. Amy, with remarkable clear headedness, is furious calling him out on the thoughtlessness: “I am a lesbian. I have a life. And you are messing with it.”

Her point: A feeling (love, the noun) does not negate an insensitive act (love, the verb).

Seeking to love your partner, in this action-oriented sense, is a skill that needs to be cultivated. Growing up, we are habituated to a particular style of loving and offering love in that way – the one you know best – is important. Since your partner’s “channels of love” are typically different from yours, you are in this way acting as his teacher, expanding his repertoire for loving. But to be fully effective, you also need to offer love on your partner’s channel as well.

The second aspect of “love, the verb” – one that receives far too little attention – is to warmly accept your partner’s acts of love. Indeed, many people instinctually see aspect of loving as an act of selfishness and self-absorption; something to be soft-pedaled, even avoided.

What you need to remember, at these times, is the wonderful feeling you have when you successfully love your partner. Recalling these moments, the importance of being a warm and active receiver of her acts of love – allowing her to experience that same feeling in return – will become obvious.

A significant challenge, here, grows out of a key difference between loving and being loved. The first is an active sport. You do something. You initiate an action. Being loved, on the other hand, is more passive. You need to be open and receptive to what your partner offers. Implicit, then, on the being loved side of the equation is the challenge of trusting and letting go – no small thing for many of us.

Finally, remember this: To accomplish this vital goal of a mutually loving relationship, an essential precondition is to consistently ask for what you want and need. Why? Because offering this vivid roadmap for how you want to be loved, sets your partner up for success as your lover. The key, however, is to avoid any sense that your “asks” are veiled (or not so veiled) “demands,” since the joy of loving only comes when it is offered as a gift.


The final level of intimate relationship, “claiming,” typically shows up as a visceral, passionate, take-no-prisoners declaration – expressed verbally, energetically, and through bold acts:

You are mine, fully mine, no matter what.

Our longing to be claimed is inextricably bound up with our need to cope with the realities that frame our existence as self-conscious beings, aware of our fate. Simply put, we are here through no choice of our own; we, and everyone we love, will leave, again through no choice on our part; and there is no roadmap for what to do, while we are here. Given these unalterable facts, we long for a feeling of belonging that – in its sheer passion, power, and completeness – can offer psychic surcease from these grim existential realities.

Needless to say, claiming is an aspect of relationship that lends itself to abuse through domination and control. But if I am are right in assuming that it is a deeply engrained, human longing, the appropriate response – faced with these risks – is not to avoid claiming but to manage it with maturity and wisdom.


Being more fully aware of these different dimensions of love expands our view of what is possible. It also allows us to better name our varying skills – his at claiming; hers at sharing; his at listening; hers at being loved. Doing so, we are better able to see our partner, not as an adversary – to be challenged when he fails to do what we do so instinctually and well – but as a teacher who brings his own special aptitudes and skills to the relationship. And with this growing awareness, we increasingly become partners in creating a relationship that nourishes and soothes both partners’ deepest needs and longings.

Reflection 33: Couples Work – What It Is, Why It’s Important

We live in a world that heavily supports and promotes marriage. And, happily, this is one instance in which our culture’s values can support us in doing important, life-affirming work – if we are lucky enough to stumble onto this insight. In this Reflection, I discuss the nature of couples work, its power, and its importance.

The possibilities inherent in couples work grow out of three factors. The first is biological. We humans are wired to do our most important healing and growth, not through study or contemplation, but in the crucible of relationship.

The other factors are cultural. On one side is the culture’s fortuitous support for the institution of marriage. On the other is its marked absence of attention to our psychic needs in most other venues. Thus, for most of us, romantic relationship offers the best opportunity for doing the vital work of healing our childhood wounds.


From the moment of birth, we are all – all of us – confronted with an insoluble problem: How do we adapt to an environment that can’t possibly meet all of our needs. Why is this dilemma universal? Because we are raised by humans – flawed and limited creatures – who are, moreover, compromised in their focus and clarity of purpose by the incessant pressure to get by in our competitive, win/lose culture. And, if these impediments weren’t enough, remember that our needs are unbounded. Even perfect parents, in living a perfect culture, would fall short.

The result? We emerge from childhood with deeply embedded hurts, frustrations and longings. And, to deal with these wounds, we also leave childhood with equally engrained coping strategies: Demanding more – or wanting less – to deal with the pain of an inattentive mother; reactive anger – or placating behaviors – or silence – in response to a controlling father.

At one level, these adaptations are good since they allow us to survive childhood. But because they are crafted by infants and small children, they are almost always over stated and, therefore, damaging in important ways to our vitality and sense of well being.

Given these realities, healing our childhood wounds and replacing these early coping mechanisms with more modulated and effective strategies are essential aspects of our adult journey.


Finding a venue in which to do this work is one of life’s great challenges.

In theory it can take place in the context of a nurturing community. But the culture, with its relentless emphasis on individuality and self-aggrandizement, makes it difficult to create and sustain these environments.

Intent on getting ahead in the world, the time and energy left over for communal engagements is limited – carved our of already overloaded nights and weekends. In addition, we live in a culture in which the accepted (and acceptable) norm is to simple walk away from a communal involvement when it no longer comfortably fits into our schedule due to a new relationship, a change in our work schedule, or a move to a more distant suburb.

These same cultural pressures infect our romantic intimate relationships – hence their high rate of mortality. But because only two people are involved, and because they care so much, couples have a slugger’s chance to create an environment in which this necessary adult work of healing and growth can occur.

Unfortunately, a roadmap for doing this work is hard to come by. So most couples do what they know best, slipping into the competitive mindsets that permeate the rest of their lives:

  • Knowing that her way is the right way, she judges his inability to talk about feelings.
  • With equal certainty, he judges her constant telephone chatter and neediness.
  • In the resulting stand off, each partner tolerates the other’s differences, sometimes with bemused grace, far too often with anger and resentment.

Lost in this process is the opportunity to leave our childhood’s legacy of hurts and fears behind – by crafting new, more effective strategies for loving and being loved.

The good news, however, is that a very different dynamic can take hold.

Here’s how.

Step one is to chose a suitable partner.

Here, nature lends a hand, at least in the initial phase. A man goes to a bar and is attracted to a particular woman – not the best looking or wittiest – who “just has a way about her.” Why? Because, in his evolutionarily wired brain, he instinctually associates her with the people who raised him. This, in turn, feeds a further unconscious fantasy: With her, I can recreate the formative wounding scenarios from my childhood and then – crucially – craft a different ending.

So if the man in our example was raised by a physically distant mother, he is primed to appreciate an affectionate woman. But with this woman – viscerally linked with his unaffectionate mother – the effect is far more powerful. When she embraces him, it is as though his mother reached into his crib and, cradling him in her arms, offered the physical affection he so deeply longed for and never received. This is the “bam” we feel when we fall in love. In choosing a partner, we need to trust it.

But to fully realize the deep healing and growth that marriage can provide, more is needed. In particular, there are three inextricably interwoven factors – trust, shared values, and a priority commitment to the relationship – that are the fertile soil in which this work can flower. And then, of course, the final, indispensable element is the ability and willingness to do the work.

Trust does not mean that you tell your partner everything. Instead, the touchstone is a “no surprise” rule. Because the partners have each shared their most intimate feelings, repeatedly and in depth, no act – if disclosed – will shock the other or shake his or her emotional foundation. The obvious corollary: When in doubt, disclose.

For this approach to reach its full potential, the next two factors are also needed.   When trust is not supported by shared values, couples run the risk of a permanent sense of grievance, with the wife (for example) resenting his time at the office, and the husband feeling perpetually judged as a father and spouse. Because he puts career first and she puts family first – two perfectly acceptable but very different value choices – their ability to rely on the other, when the chips are down, is forever compromised.

When their values are congruent, however, partners can be thoroughly connected and, at the same time, feel free to express their individuality. He can work through the night to close a deal, and she can leave a party to tend to a sick relative, with each confident that their choice (even if not disclosed in advance) will have the other’s warm support.

Trust is also jump-started when each partner puts the relationship first: He accepts her need to fuss with her makeup when they’re 10 minutes late; she listens, with warmth, to the same joke for the umpteenth time. In these examples, each partner is placing as high a priority on their partner’s needs and desires as they do on their own. Doing so, they are able to lovingly manage their impatience when things don’t go their way.

Notice also how, in their turn, trust and shared values reinforce this “relationship first” rule. In their absence, each partners’ generosity of spirit can easily degenerate into a felt sense of being manipulated or bullied into putting the other’s needs first. With trust and shared values in place, however, the fear that a deferral of your needs you will compromise your integrity is dramatically reduced.

These three factors, together with the strong tug of romantic love, create a setting in which more positive and productive patterns of love can emerge. And as this process accelerates, the partners’ outmoded intimacy strategies – designed to protect them from their childhood wounds – progressively wither and shrink.

Note, however, that even when all of these factors exist, an ability and willingness to do the work is still essential. What does that look like? Key aspects are described in Reflection #3, Why Can’t You Do the Dishes?: Reflection #10, Romantic Love – Making What’s Good Better; Reflection #53, Effective Fighting – Practice Pointers for Couples; Reflection #82, Intimacy – Not Changing the Subject; and Reflection #84, Loving Intimacy – The 4 Voices.


I close with an example from my own marriage.

In a typical scene, 25 years ago, I arrive home from my law office and find my wife, Dale, making dinner and tending to our young daughters. Harried and preoccupied, I sit down and turn on the TV. Equally harried, Dale asks why I’m not pitching in. My response – crafted to defend myself from a mother who could lash out in anger, at any moment – is a toxic mix of exasperation and defensive:

“I just got home. I had a tough day too. Give me a break.”

If I knew then what I know now, my reaction would have been very different. Understanding Dale’s emotional needs, I would have apologized and jumped into the tasks at hand.

For Dale – who learned as a child not to ask to for what she wanted – this would have been a corrective healing moment. And, for me, there would have been a corresponding moment of growth since, acting in this way, I would have actually been the loving, non-defensive partner and person I longed to be.

Consciously and repetitively practiced, these interactions – his growthful choices healing her childhood wounds; hers healing his – are at the heart of effective couples work.

Reflection 18: Men and Women/ Similarities and Differences

Radical Decency is a relational philosophy, challenging us to be in mutual and authentic contact with our self, others, and the world. For this reason, it impels us to be tireless detectives. Why? Because a deepening understanding of our feelings and motivations, and those of others, is essential if we hope to make better choices in the service of this goal.

Unfortunately, there is little support for this investigative frame of mind in the mainstream culture. Motivated by a competitive, win/lose mindset, we instinctually find a handful of stories that work for us and stick to them. I am a tough guy; or a nurturing wife and mother; or a hard working but unappreciated employee. You are funny and fun loving; or emotional and artistic; or hard driving and critical.

With these stories in place, we become progressively less open, curious and speculative about the enormous complexity of factors that inform our feelings and motivations — and yours. Instead, we cherry pick the evidence, noticing behaviors that support our stories, using them to deepen and harden these views. And what do we do with evidence that contradicts? In the typical case, since it doesn’t fit into our pre-existing frames of reference, it simply disappears from view.


Our gender stereotypes are an especially pernicious example of this phenomenon. Even though it is frequently left unsaid in our current, more politically correct environment, women continue to struggle with the assumption that they are overly emotional, and with as other stereotypes as well; e.g., assertive women are bitches; the Madonna/whore dichotomy.

Also prevalent are the stereotypes that men have to live with:

  • They are insensitive, shallow, self-absorbed louts who need to be placated and handled by women – rather than met and understood.
  • “Testosterone poisoning” makes them overly aggressive.
  • They are sexual “dogs,” ready to “screw anything that moves.”

These stereotypes deeply hamper our ability to understand and empathize with the opposite sex. And since we tend to internalize the stereotypes assigned to our gender, they hamstring our self-understanding as well.


So how should we understand our similarities and differences as men and women? Here are a few orienting, context-framing thoughts.

  1. Our common humanity

Yes, we are different but not in the sweeping, judgmental ways that are our received cultural “wisdom.” Since both sexes experience the full range of human emotions — anger, vulnerability, sexual desire, empathy, and so on – it is implausible to assume that our different styles of emoting are hardwired and immutable.

More fundamentally, our differences are of little consequence when we remember the larger existential context we share. We are all, men and women alike, here through no choice of our own. We, and every one we love, are going to die. And with no agreed upon roadmap to tell us how to behave while we are here, everything we do – while we are here – is made up. Finally, and crucially, we know all this.

Like soldiers on the front line in a meaningless war, the need to deal with these unforgiving contextual realities shapes a commonality of experience that eclipses our differences.

  1. Gender-based differences; origins and implications

But there are gender-based differences and understanding why they exist enhances our ability to be more attuned, loving and empathic to the opposite sex – and to our selves as well. As I have explored these differences in my own life, and as a therapist, an overarching conceptual frame has emerged that explains many of these differences far more persuasively than the easy gender-based stereotypes that dominate in the mainstream culture.

We have existed as a distinct line of primates for 7 million years and as Homo sapiens for about 300,000 years. And for all but the last 10,000 years or so, we existed in small groups of hunter/gatherers. Not surprisingly, then, so much of what we have become through the process of natural selection evolved in the hunter/gatherer context.

Steven Stosny points out that, in order to use our energy efficiently, women evolved as the group’s early warning system, as the folks who scan for danger. Thus, even today, it is the woman who typically bolts up and bed and says, “I think I heard something.” And, since duplicating the women’s process made no sense, men evolved as reactors, not to the environment, but to women’s emotions.

Given this evolutionary division of labor, men and women developed different emotional sensitivities. Continually scanning for danger, women became especially susceptible to safety issues. Men, by contrast, molded in this evolutionary dance to respond to women’s needs, became more susceptible to the shame that results when they fall short as providers, protectors, and lovers.

This distinction explains a lot.

A couple comes into my office and she is upset. They hosted Thanksgiving dinner and, while he did the discrete chores she “assigned” to him, he seemed to shrug off her far more focused and intense concerns about how the house looked and whether the guests were being graciously attended to.

Why is this couple struggling? Because no one told them that the woman – wired to be more sensitive to safety issues – had an experience that is very different from his. For him, a few folks were getting together for dinner. For her, the warm and nurturing “safe” sanctuary that she is emotionally wired to create was being opened to her entire clan. So he, without any understanding of the gut-level depth of her feelings, thought his behavior was just fine while she felt unseen and unappreciated.

Needless to say, analogous situations happen in reverse. Wired to be a provider, protector, and lover, powerful feelings of shame come up for him when (for example) his competence at work is challenged. Now she is the one who doesn’t understand. Why is work so important to you? Why are you so withdrawn and preoccupied? He, in turn, feels misunderstood and alone – for reasons he only vaguely understands.

Notice also how this evolutionary artifact explains women’s alleged over emotionality. Challenges to a man’s core sensitivity – shame – tend to be discrete and boundaried. He loses his job. His wife is sexually disappointed. His competence is questioned. However, the events triggering a woman’s core sensitivity – perceived danger – are more diffuse and pervasive. So, perhaps, women aren’t more emotional. It’s just that we live in a world in which their triggering events are far more prevalent.

This evolutionary difference also explains why men avoid conversations about feelings. For women, an ongoing intimate dialogue is an anxiety reducer, allowing them to monitor the situation moment by moment; to confirm that all is well or, alternatively, that danger exists. For men, however, no such emotional pay-off exists. When his wife says, “we need to talk,” his evolutionary wiring signals risk only: The possibility of disappointment, judgment – and shame.


It also explains why men – when they get together – talk sports, exchange insults, and leave pizza boxes and crushed beer cans on the couch. Looking for surcease from the risk of shame, they are creating shame-free zones where nothing he does will be judged – unless of course he acts like a girl (hence, the far greater prevalence of homophobia in men?).

There are, of course, many factors besides this danger/shame dichotomy that shed light on our gender-based differences. Focusing on cultural influences, for example, Real and Gilligan explain how boys are pulled away from intimacy but are allowed their power, while girls maintain intimacy but are pushed to relinquish their assertiveness. Understanding these pressures, we no longer need to see either sex as inherently limited in the areas they are culturally pushed to relinquish.

Thus, for example, we can let go of the view that boys and men are hard-wired to be angry and aggressive. It’s just that for them anger and aggression are more socially acceptable than vulnerability and tears. In short, these are learned behaviors.

Similarly, men’s preoccupation with sex is more accurately viewed as an understandable pre-occupation with one of the few places where they can receive the hugging, stroking, and nurturing they learned to retreat from at such an early age.


With a deeper understanding of our gender differences, here is the hopeful news:

  1. Because we are dealing with learned behaviors, our culturally engrained habits and mindsets can be unlearned. Men and women alike can grow into more fully human ways of living; and
  1. An increased understanding of the true nature of our gender-based differences can naturally lead to a greater sense of understanding, empathy, acceptance, and appreciation for members of the opposite sex – and for our own gendered journey as well.

Radical Decency promises – and demands – nothing less.

Reflection 10: Romantic Love: Making What’s Good Better

Reflection #3, Why Can’t You Do the Dishes, discusses how couples can make different and better choices when they are fighting; how, instead of talking about what triggered the fight – whether the keys should be hung on the hook; whether your partner is back seat driving – they can re-focus on:

  • Why each partner is triggered; and
  • How to minimize the episode’s duration and effect.

Notice, however, that the skills discussed in that Reflection only come into play when things have already broken down. Equally important – and less discussed – are the positive things that can be done to strengthen the relationship when things are going smoothly.

Effective work in the good times is vitally important. It means fewer ruptures in the relationship and, therefore, less need for repair work. It also improves your ability to offer and accept love, day by day; creating in the process a more nourishing relationship.  And, the skills you cultivate with your spouse are vitally important in your ongoing efforts to improve other important relationships in your life as well.

Here are some key guidelines for doing this work. Note, importantly, that they assume a relationship where trust is intact; that is, where each partner has an abiding belief that the other is deeply invested not only in her own well being, but in his as well. For this reason, while the guidelines are relevant to your interactions at work, in politics, and in other public venues, their applicabilty in these contexts come with important qualifications. See Reflection #66, Doing Better at Work, In Authoritarian Relationships; and Reflections ##75 and 76, Toward a More Civil Political Conversation, Parts 1 and 2.

1. Become the world’s expert on who your partner is.

When I say this, it may seem like an obvious point. But, in reality, most of us take it for granted. “Of course I know who he is, I’ve lived with him for the last 10 years.”

But each of us is an incredibly complicated being. We can literally spend a lifetime understanding who we are, never mind who another person is. So the easy assumption that I know this person since, after all, I have seen her in the morning without her make-up, or have witnessed his meltdowns is not – and will never be – true. Indeed, when this becomes a settled habit of mind, it invites a corrosive complacency in the ways in which we interact with, and treat, our partner.

Understanding this, what better way to honor and love your partner than to make knowing her, more and more deeply, one of your life’s primary vocations? John Gottman, a man who has spent a lifetime studying what successful couples do, calls this building a love map of your partner.

The key to doing this work is to make questions of curiosity a regular habit:

  • What stresses you?
  • What is it that you like about that friend? What do you like to do with him? Why?
  • How would you like our relationship to be different?
  • What do you like about our house?
  • What’s one adventure you’d really like to have?
  • How do you feel about being a dad?
  • What are some of the highlights of your career?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • What would you change in the bedroom?
  • What are your hopes and dreams?

The list is, of course, endless. And weaving open-ended questions, such as these, into the fabric of your interactions is a classic win/win: Your partner will feel seen, appreciated and loved; and you will be cultivating a habit of curiosity and appreciation that nourishes and enriches you, not only in your intimate relationship, but in every other area of living as well.

2. Lean into bids.

This simple but powerful tool comes from John Gottman as well. When you think about it, we are all continually bidding for our partner’s attention, interest and affection, in large ways and small: Telling a joke, sharing a stressful event, putting a hand on her shoulder. Indeed, even our criticisms are bids for attention. Why else would we bother to mention it?

What Gottman has observed is that successful couples habitually “turn toward” each other’s bids. After 6 years, couples that ultimately divorced engaged in this behavior 33% of the time while still married couples did it 86% of the time.

So when your partner bids for your attention: Put your mobile phone down and offer full eye contact; really listen and build on what he has said; if you have nothing to add, at least acknowledge the comment. And, of course, work really hard not to “turn away” from her bids; e.g., by not responding at all, or responding with a distracted “huh?” or a cutting and dismissive retort.

3. Ask for what you want.

When you ask for what you want, you provide your partner with a vivid roadmap for loving you. Failing to do so, you deprive him of that guidance.

And since effectively loving your partner is one of life’s greatest joys, providing this roadmap – regularly telling partner what you want and need – is one of your core responsibilities as a lover. There is, quite simply, no better way to support him in his ongoing effort to find really effective, soul satisfying ways in which to love you.

For people on the flight  side of the fight/flight reactivity equation, this can be a difficult stretch. They often have what I call a “Mother Teresa complex,” thinking that putting their needs second is a virtue and, thus, that asking for what they want is selfish.

Neither is true.

Note, in this regard, that asking and demanding are very different things. If the goal is to be the best possible lover, demands almost never work. In the typical case, they provoke annoyance and, at best, grudging compliance.

With trust in place, however, you already know that your partner, eager to love you, wants to respond positively to your requests – subject only to his core needs. So demands are not only unhelpful, they are also unnecessary. Clear and positively stated requests, by contrast, offer the promise of a pleasurable result for both partners.

For people who are more typically on the fight side of the fight/flight equation, this “always ask, never demand” guideline is also very challenging – but in a different way. When fighters are reactive, they demand agreement. And even when they try to rein in this tendency, the music of their “ask” is often so forceful that, to their partner, it still feels like a demand. So fighters need to work diligently to make the words and music of their communications match. For them, explicitly reassuring their partner that “no” is a perfectly acceptable response is, often, a helpful step.

4. Model what you hope to receive.

This guideline may seem complicated, but it isn’t. What we want most of all from our intimate partner is to be seen, accepted, and loved. So “modeling what we hope to receive” means that and nothing more. Strive, always, to see and love your partner when she is at her best and, equally, when she is at her worst.

One area in which the challenge of this guideline regularly comes up is when we are seeking to implement the third guideline, just discussed. With exquisite care you phrase your need as an “ask” and not a “demand.” But your partner, despite your efforts, hears a demand and responds with reactivity and defensiveness.

Needless to say, if the roles were reversed (and they will be!) you would want your reactive response to be accepted with understanding and equanimity – that is, with the acceptance and love you long for – even in the face of your provocative behavior.

So, in that moment, you need to model what you hope to receive. In other words, avoid the easy trap of telling your partner that she shouldn’t be reactive; that she didn’t do what she was supposed to do under the guidelines. Instead, trusting her commitment and intention, strive to maintain your loving presence without editorial comment.

5. Be grateful for what you are offered in return.

This guideline requires you to remember how much you are loved and how motivated this person is to love you. So if her response falls short of your fantasy – and it will on a regular basis – you need to see this as an indication, not of indifference, but of difference.

When what your partner offers is viewed through this prism, cultivating gratefulness for what you receive in return will, in fact, open you up to the possibility of a response that is even better than your fantasy. Why? Because, coming out of his unique and different sensibility, your partner will, on a regular basis, be offering a kind of comfort and love that – before you became intimate with this person – was literally beyond your capacity to imagine.

Here’s how that process works.

Growing up we instinctually let certain behaviors and sensibilities atrophy in order to fit in and survive in our families of origin. Harville Hendrix teaches us that romantic love is nature’s way of bringing us together with someone who is more gifted in these neglected areas; someone who, by their very nature, offers a roadmap for our healing and growth. So, for example, left brained thinkers will, with regularity, find more intuitive sensing partners and vice versa.

With this in mind, being alive to the possibility that you do not understand the gifts being offered by your partner seems especially important. Gratefulness for what you receive is precisely the habit of mind that will allow you to dwell in this possibility and, over time, to more fully understand his or her special gifts.

But even in the absence of this dynamic, you still need to remember that your partner is a package deal; that the limitations you perceive in him are also an expression of who he is. Loving him means not just appreciating the many things he can do, but also accepting with equanimity the ways in which, in your eyes, he fall short.

As Gottman points out, the path to success is to cultivate gratitude – to get really interested in catching your partner doing something right – and, on the flip side, to avoid the corrosive and all too common habit of feeding a critical habit of mind toward this person who is, after all, your great love; the person you have chosen to spend your life with.

Reflection 3: Why Can’t You Do the Dishes

Central to Radical Decency’s approach to living – its vital pulse – are habits of mind that allow us, in every interaction, to express our needs in constructive ways and, equally, to hear the needs of others. Because we are innately empathic beings, a sustained cultivation of these skills will allow us to more easily and instinctively move toward more decent choices in all areas of living.

The formulation sounds simple. But as I have discovered in my work as a psychotherapist and coach, and in my own relationships, its application is frustratingly difficult. The reason? Because, when disagreements arise, we are culturally wired to lapse into the fight or flight ways of being that the predominant culture’s “compete and win, dominate and control” mindset have so deeply engrained in our habitual ways of being in the world.

In this Reflection, I work through one very common example of this phenomenon. A husband is about to leave for work and his wife, looking at a sink filled with breakfast dishes, says, “Why can’t you do the dishes?” His response: “Look, I’ve had a really busy morning. I usually do them. Give me a break.”

Even assuming a relatively restrained tone in the “music” of these communications, their fight/flight motivation is unmistakable. Both partners are focused on the recent past and – intent on rehashing what just happened – are locked into judgment mode; a hallmark of fight or flight mindsets.

Thus, the wife’s relatively neutral words are in fact words of judgment and attack: You didn’t do something – something you were supposed to do – and (by reasonable inference) something you all too frequently fail to do.

And how does the husband respond? Equally focused on the past, he counterattacks.  Instead of dealing with the merits of the issue – who should do the dishes and when – a response that would invite further dialogue – he seeks to disqualify his wife’s position: You are wrong on the facts AND emotionally out of line in even raising the issue (“give me a break”).

What very often happens next is – nothing. Each person, being subtly attacked, feels disconnected and sore. But the interaction is, in their minds, too minor to be worthy of further discussion. Better to absorb the pain and move on.

The other likely result is not, unfortunately, an honest, problem solving discussion; that is, mutual and authentic contact. Instead, if the couple chooses to get into it, the far more typical outcome is a cycle of escalating attacks and counter-attacks.

  • Her: “You’re always have an excuse!”
  • Him: “You never stop complaining, get off my back!!”

And round and round it goes, until one or both of them goes cold and withdraws; that is, retreats into the flight part of fight or flight.


When it comes to our romantic partner, most of us have some sense of how to charm and seduce; an unsurprising fact given the endless stream of books, movies, and ads that promote and teach these ways of interacting. And yet, at the same time, we have little guidance in the art of lovingly engaging with our partner at our points of sensitive difference – even though much of the hard work of relationship needs to be done in precisely these small moments.

So why does this strange dichotomy exist? Why do we, as a culture, neglect this vital relational skill even as we celebrate and promote romantic seduction? Because “charm and seduce” – a wonderful gift, when done with judgment and respect – is also entirely consistent with our culture’s predominant values. In this all too typical version, seduction is an effort, through a series of manipulative moves, to get our partner to feel and act in specific ways; ways that very much suit our purposes – but not necessarily theirs.

By contrast, a loving engagement with our partner in tense times is the antithesis of this competitive/manipulative mindset. For this reason, the predominant culture has an unacknowledged but powerful interest in minimizing this skill; an interest unerringly reflected in the marginal attention it receives in popular culture.


Thus, one of the key challenges, implicit in Radical Decency’s approach to living is to learn to fight well, weaning ourselves from our current fight or flight ways, replacing them with more mutual and authentic ways of interacting.

What would that look like in our example?

First, and very importantly, both partners would focus on the near future and not the recent past.

As a child of our fight or flight culture, the wife, ever vigilant to the possibility of attack, sees the dirty dishes as evidence of danger: That her needs are being ignored; that love is being withdrawn. With her fight or flight physiology activated, her words seek to deal with the perceived source of the attack: Her husband, evidenced by his past behaviors including, very particularly, the choices he’s made in the run-up to this current interaction.

On his side, the husband is equally focused on the immediate past; moving into defense mode; judging and criticizing the words that just came out of her mouth. Why? Because in his culturally reinforced, overly vigilant state, he also feels under attack: Unappreciated, devalued, unloved.

What is so sad in all of this is that there is nothing to defend – on either side. As a functioning couple, they have each put enormous amounts of time and energy into the relationship and are vitally invested in seeing it continue. Beneath the bickering is a vast reservoir of trust and love. So, the perceived attacker isn’t a source of danger at all.  He/she is, instead, the other partner’s staunchest ally in life.

Given this reality, the couple would be better served by focusing, not on illusory dangers from the recent past, but instead on the near future. Why? Because they each want to increase the love flowing back and forth between them, and the best way to do that is to focus on what they do next, rather than picking apart choices already made.

Here’s how it would work.

The wife wants to be loved in a specific way – by coming home to a clean kitchen. So she would ask for what she longs for: “Honey, it makes me feel great when you do the dishes before you leave in the morning.”

Now, he is set up for a positive, loving response (“sure, I’ll do my best to do it”) rather than a defensive counter-attack (“I am not a bad person for forgetting to do the dishes this morning”). Alternatively, he might acknowledge her desire but say, “My mornings are really tight. Taking time to do the dishes is tough.”

Note, importantly, that if this second alternative is his authentic response, the couple is still set up for a positive outcome. With defensiveness eliminated and the needs of both partners on the table – hers, for a completed chore (and concrete expression of love); his, for a routine that accounts for the pressures he feels – creative problem solving can flow from the common goal, shared by both partners: How can I best meet my needs AND the needs of this partner I dearly love?

A similar transaction can also be initiated from the husband’s end of the conversation.  Instead of rising to the bait of her nascent reactivity ( “why can’t you do the dishes”) with a counter-attack, he can thank (yes, thank!) his wife for raising the issue. Why? Because he now has a more vivid roadmap for loving her. And in this frame of mind, he will be able, once again, to move toward a forward-looking outcome that attends, with equal attentiveness, to his needs and hers.


While this different way of treating our intimate partner may seem a little unusual and strange it is only because we are so relentlessly pushed toward very different ways of thinking, feeling and acting. The sad reality is that these more contactful and loving techniques are seldom taught and find precious little reinforcement in our culture.

Hopefully, initiatives such as Radical Decency can act as healing correctives in our intimate relationships – and in all other areas of living as well.