Tag Archives: struggling with life

Finding Your Marital North Star

premarital counseling charleston scOften times when I work with premarital couples I ask them what characteristics they would like to see in their marriage. I encourage these couples to take time to think about what is important to them in a relationship, write it down and look back on in frequently.  I then talked to couples about using this list as their North Star that will guide their behavior in their marriage.


During the good times we don’t need this list as a guide. We can easily see the good in our partner and are open and loving. But when things become difficult we quickly lose sight of what is important to us and we get pulled off course.


In difficult times many people will begin to use their partner’s behavior as a guide for their own behavior (i.e. you hurt me so I will hurt you back, you are disrespectful to me so I will be disrespectful back, you withhold from me so I will withhold from you). One can see how this would become a vicious cycle for disaster.


We get pulled away from what we really want in our relationship if we base our behavior on someone else’s behavior.  This is because behavior is not a constant in any relationship. Additionally, our perception of behavior is not constant so all it would take is our perception being off for us to be pulled off course.



I was having brunch with an unmarried pregnant friend recently. During the course of brunch she was telling me that she was in a difficult position about what last name to give her baby who was soon to be born. She was no longer with the baby’s father in the romantic sense and she was not happy with all of his life choices.


On the one hand she was not particularly attached to her last name and she did not feel compelled to give the baby her name for any personal reason.  But, on the other hand she was not sure if she wanted to give her baby the father’s last name because she felt as if she was rewarding him with that honor.


We talked about it a little and I asked her if she wanted a friend answer or a therapist answer. She said she would like to hear both. As her friend I told her, “F- him” we laughed and than I told her about what I talked about above.


I asked her to think about what kind of relationship she would ideally like to have. What characteristics would it have? I encouraged her to use these as a guide during these difficult times so she did not get pulled away from what she really wanted in her relationship.


There is one mistake that people commonly make with this exercise. They make their list and then expect their partner to do it. Or, they give these things only if they feel their partner is doing the same thing.


What ever you want in your relationship give it to your partner, but give it freely with no expectation of getting it back or needing it back. When we need to get the behavior back in order to give it we fall into the trap of using our partner’s behavior as our guide. This will lead us off course.



There is one phrase that helps me when making difficult decisions in my life and I use this as my guide in all my relationships, whether personal or professional. My go-to phrase that helps me is “Is it loving?”


This phrase helps me when I get off course and even though I am not behaviorally perfect and forget this phrase, it is always there to help when I am ready and open to accept its strength and wisdom.


The phrase, “Is it loving?” does not mean I become a doormat in every situation. It might be more loving to leave a situation then it would be to stay. If I am married to someone who hits me and my children the most loving thing might be to leave. This person hitting me cannot see that there is a better way to live. As long as I stay I may be holding them back from seeing another way to manage their anger.


It might be more loving to stop giving financial support to my child so they can learn how strong they really are. It might be more loving to let my child struggle with the consequences of poor decisions. Being expelled from school and grounded for drinking at school helps the child learn appropriate behavior. It may also keep them from progressing their behavior of drinking that later develops into driving under the influence and killing someone else.



“Is it loving” can also be applied to the thoughts I think about other people. Thinking unloving thoughts about any one has a direct effect on me. I don’t like the way I feel when I think of someone else being the “bad guy”. When we can see the innocence in another it has a different effect. When I can see the person as doing the best they can in that circumstance the emotional pressure is released.



Examples of Characteristics People Report Using as Their North Star in Their Marriage:



  • Respect
  • Listen to understand not to dispute
  • Kindness
  • Forgiveness
  • Understanding
  • Not nitpicking faults
  • Open to suggestions
  • Giving partner space to be exactly the way they are
  • Taking responsibility for behavior
  • Willing to admit when they make a mistake

Not One Thought You Have Is Completely True: Opening to another possibility

“Not one thought you hold is wholly true. The recognition of this is your firm beginning.”finding happinesss

– A Course in Miracles (The Problem and the Answer)








There once lived 4 blind men who went to visit an elephant. They were all very curious about what exactly an elephant was. They had heard people talk about elephants many times but being blind from birth they had never seen one with their own eyes.


This day was very special for all of them because they would have the opportunity to explore an elephant with their hands and finally discover what it was people were talking about.


The first blind man grabbed the elephant’s ear. He felt how it flapped around and was large and flat like the sail on a ship. Oh… this is what an elephant is. An elephant is similar to the sail of a ship.


The second blind man approached the elephant’s leg and began his examination. He felt the massive girth of its leg. Oh…this is what an elephant is. An elephant is like a tree.


The third blind man came close to the elephant and grad a hold of its rough tail. He lifted that tail and felt the fibrous hair. Oh… this is what an elephant is. An elephant is like a rope.


The fourth man had his turn to meet the elephant. He approached the elephant’s face and grabbed his heavy, malleable trunk. Oh… he thought this is what an elephant is. An elephant is similar to a rolled up cotton rug that can grab objects.


All four men walked away from the elephant satisfied that he finally knew what an elephant was. They had not gone very far before they began to discuss their experience.


“Who would have thought an elephant was like a rope?” asked the third blind man.


“It most certainly is not like a rope,” argued the other 3 blind men.


“It is like a tree”, remarked the second blind man.


“No, not even close. It is similar to a sail on a ship,” rebutted the first blind man


“How could you even think that, when it is obvious that is comes closest to a large coarse rope?” added the third.


The blind men fought amongst themselves for quite sometime until they stopped at a tavern for dinner. They made the decision to ask the keeper of the tavern who was right. Was the elephant like a sail, a tree, a rope or a rolled up cotton rug?


The tavern keeper laughed, “You silly men. None of you are correct but neither are any of you fully wrong. You have all described parts of the elephant that make up the whole. All parts are equally important to the whole elephant but none, by itself, is the whole truth of what an elephant is.”


I really like this story (obviously, or I wouldn’t have shared it). It’s a helpful reminder to me when I feel an exceeding amount of self-righteousness brewing in me or when I don’t like (or agree with) something my partner is doing or saying.


It can be challenging to let go of the belief that we have the whole story and are fully capable of passing judgment on another. But in truth, we never have the whole story and we pass judgement based on only partial information.


“She is so selfish, she should be spending more time with my family.”

“He only thinks of himself.”

“They never want to have sex with me, that’s not what a good partner does.”

“I would never hurt them the way they hurt me.”


Do any of the above sound familiar? If you haven’t heard yourself say or think these or something similar to these at least once in your life you may want to check for a pulse or denial.


Usually we try to blame others to get ourselves in a better place.  The thinking goes, if I can make them wrong, by default I am the innocent one. We bring others down so we can temporarily feel slightly superior.  But, we don’t always think it through all the way.


When we choose to see the other as wrong, the bitch, the scoundrel, it has its effect on us. It leaves us feeling like a victim.  When we choose to see them as an individual who is doing the best they can with the resources they have we can begin to see their innocence.


Would you rather be with an innocent being or a no good scoundrel? Whatever you are looking for in your partner you are guaranteed to find it. This by no means means that you need to put up with unconscious behavior.  The best thing to do may be to leave, but you have a choice in how you see the person you are leaving.

Can Someone Really Make You Feel Bad?: How responsible are you for your own feelings?

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” -Eleanor Roosevelt


The above quote is one I refer to often when working with people. The problem is never coming from the other person, but we continuously give away our power by putting the responsibility on someone else.


It is difficult to believe that the pain we can feel when interacting with another person is actually coming from us, but it is. It doesn’t matter what the action, if you feel an emotional reaction to it, know that it comes from you.  Let’s do a short exercise just for the sake of clearing up this point.


For a minute, imagine the last person you became upset with. Got them in your head? Now, imagine that you are in an altercation with this person and they call you a “purple unicorn”.


They keep calling you a “purple unicorn” over and over again. Would it upset you being called a “purple unicorn”? My guess would be no. I have yet to run into a person who says being called a ‘purple unicorn’ feels damaging in some way.


Most people admit they would think that the other person was crazy because they know they are not a purple unicorn. I imagine you would say something close to that.  In this example of another person calling you a “purple unicorn” you can see that the behavior is clearly about them.


Their actions are coming from them and it has no effect on you because you know you are not a “purple unicorn”.


But let’s change things around a bit. Let us change the name “purple unicorn” to something else. What if we changed it to “jerk”, “bitch”, “incompetent”, “selfish”, or any other name that gives us a little sting? Now we might be looking at a different story. We all have names we react to, but have you ever thought about why you react to them?


We react to “negative” things people say or do because it triggers a belief we already have about ourselves. “P.U. ” doesn’t affect you because you know you are not one, but other names do affect you because it is an idea we secretly harbor about ourselves.  People can only supply a stimulus; how we react to this stimulus reflects a lot about our belief system. 


Many people will respond by saying, “Well my partner doesn’t call me names. I am angry because he doesn’t do ______________(fill in the blank with what upsets you).


Some say they are upset because of the cheating, or lack of sex, or lack of attention.  One often times looks at their partner and quickly evaluates them on how well they are doing as a partner by whether or not they give that person want they think they want.  Very rarely does an individual take a second look and ask the important questions. Questions like: “Why do I believe I need my husband to listen to me (tell me I’m beautiful, tell me what a good job I’m doing, etc)?”, “Do I really need him to talk to me?”, “What would my day be like if I didn’t have the expectation that he should talk to me?”, Would I be happier without this thought?”.



When we refuse to take a deeper look we are left powerless and unhappy. We are letting our happiness ride on a factor we have no control over, someone else’s behavior.


If we begin to question, really question, why we think we need that other’s attention we can return to our only place of power- ourselves. Why do I need my partner to give me attention? If we truly look at this and want a real answer, we will get it.


Often times we don’t want a real answer. Often times we just want to be right. Many people answer angrily and says something like “because she’s my wife and she should be having sex with me 3 times a week”, or “I’m not crazy for wanting my husband to show me love” or fill in your choice answer that makes you look right.  Ask yourself, “Would I rather be right or would I rather be happy?”


When we truly want an answer to questions like “Why do I really need my partner’s attention?” we’ll start to get answers like: “Because I believe if someone doesn’t recognize my worth it’s not there”, or “I don’t feel lovable if someone does not show me attention”, or “I am putting my own desire for something over my partner’s desire to not do something. I am acting out of fear of not having enough and not from a place of love”.


It can seem impossible at times when we are hurt to start asking these questions with the hopes to get real answers. It is tempting to make ourselves “right”. When we are upset we feel like this is our only option if we want to heal. But being “right” rarely helps anyone. After the short-lived high wears off we are usually left with an uneasy feeling of isolation.


Should You Accept Your Partner’s Bad Habit?: How accepting your partner benefits you

Many people are afraid that if they fully accept their partner, bad habits and all,  that the act of acceptance will leave them open to being taking advantage of or becoming a doormat. They are worried that if they accept a person the way they are that it will mean giving up a part of themselves. Or they may worried that if they turn the other cheek, so to speak, that they will become vulnerable to being used. relationship counseling


For numerous people accepting someone exactly the way they are is frightening.  Many are afraid of really look at acceptance because of what they think it means.  Without taking a closer look at acceptance and what it means the whole idea will remain a touchy subject.


Why accept my partner the way they are, warts and all?

On the surface acceptance of our partner looks as if it is to benefit them and while the other person may experience some a positive effect from our non-judgment of them there is an additional bonus for us.


When we accept something just as it is, without judgment, with out manipulating it to be something else or without a label, we experience peace. Think for a moment about a time you found yourself enjoying nature. You may have been hiking in the woods, or looking at a river or the ocean.

Nature can help us experience peace because we don’t have expectations for how it should be. We don’t look at a babbling brook and think it should be flowing the other way. No, we just see it for what it is.

We don’t find a rotting tree in the forest and think this should not be. No, we see the dying tree as it is. We don’t judge it as bad because it is in a particular part of its life cycle.

We don’t stand on the edge of the ocean and complain that it is too big, too salty or not quiet enough. When we find ourselves at peace it is because we are accepting the situation as it is without judgment.

We can have the same peace in our relationship when we learn to accept our partner’s behavior without judgment or without trying to change them in some way. Letting go of our expectations of how we think they should be sets us free and we experience peace.



Do I have a hidden expectation?


Often times I encourage people to look at the expectations they have for a situation or relationship. And, often times I will hear the person say, “I didn’t have an expectation. I just wanted them to_________” (fill in the blank with your choice phrase- we all have one).

It can be very difficult to see our expectations when we are so close to the situation. They can sneak in without us recognizing it.  A few tell tail signs that we actually had an expectation leak in is if we are disappointed, angry, feel rejected, fearful or even annoyed.  If you feel any of these emotions (or something similar to one of them) it might help to ask yourself one question-“How is he/she supposed to be?”.

When we ask ourselves, “How is he/she supposed to be?”, we can quickly identify what our expectations actually are.  There are a number of ways people usually answer this question and they often times try to justify their response.

-She should not be so selfish.

-He should take out that trash when I have had such a hard day.

-She should wash the baby.   After all, my mother just died.

-The price of gas should not be going up.

-They should not cheat on me.

-It should be warm for my vacation.

-They should not be drinking so much.

Does accepting my partner the way they are mean I have to put up with their behavior?

Just because we accept a person as they are does not mean that there won’t be times when we have to move away from unconscious behavior.  You can accept the fact that the forest is on fire but it does not mean you have to stay in the forest and become consumed by the flames.

The same is true in a relationship. Your partner may be acting unconsciously and it may be putting you and your family in danger of being hurt physically or it may be causing some other form of damage. You can accept the person fully and what they are going through while still moving away from harmful behavior.

A strong message in many religions teaches us the message of loving the sinner and hating the sin. Love the person, see through their unconscious behavior to their true nature, which is innocent.

Sometimes it can be difficult to tell if we need to move away from a situation or just take a different perspective on it.


Acceptance can help facilitate change.

Have you ever felt like someone was trying to make you do something or forcing you into something you weren’t ready to do? Spend more time with them, have more sex with them, be cleaner, stop drinking are just a few that come up in therapy.


When we feel like someone is forcing us into something, we often times force our heels into the ground and refuse to budge.  Or maybe we grudgingly give in just to shut the other person up, but it is not a long-term change.


What happens when we feel like the pressure is off of us and someone is not trying to get us to change?  Acceptance creates a space around another person. In this space healing or change is easier for that person. We feel it is much safer to change when we are accepted as a whole and not because we act in a particular way.


In truth, you can’t change your partner. 

There is nothing you can do to change your partner. If there was a way to make them do something most people would have figured it out by now. After all, most of us spend enough time trying to get them to change.

It is craziness trying to get someone to do something. You can’t change them. The only power you have lies in your acceptance of them.


We are all doing the best we can. 

The idea that our partners are doing the best they can do is difficult for many people to grasp. But the truth is we are all doing the best we can do at anytime.

Our life experiences up until this point affect how well we handle stress and what we do to when faced with fear. Swami Dayananda Saraswati says:

“Accommodation (of others) is an understanding that the other person behaves as he or she does because the person cannot act contrary to his or her background. You have no right to expect something different from someone just because it suits your needs. If you think you have the right to ask someone to change, then that person equally has the right to ask you to let him or her live as he or she does.  In fact, only by accommodating others, allowing them to be what they are, do you gain relative freedom in your day-to-day life”.

Our life experiences and temperament predict how well equipped we are to handle certain stressors that present themselves. Some people drink to handle the difficult situation, while other people lose themselves in work or children or their role as a helper.

People use all kinds of things to help them when they experience fear. For many people it is terrifying to give up that buffer. Things naturally fall away when we don’t need them anymore. Just as you outgrew the toys you played with as a child, people outgrow their vices when they no longer need them.

Don’t ever give up anything before you feel ready to give it up. It may still be serving a purpose.  If you give up something before you are ready you will find something else to substitute in its place.

Don’t try to force someone to give up something before they are ready. You can’t make them give it up until they are ready. This may mean that you need to work on acceptance and at times move away from unconscious behavior.