Getting Along with our Lover in the Age of Social Distancing

I’ve worked extensively on what I called The Strategies of Intimacy, a project that modeled successful relationships to determine what makes them work when they do, and what makes them fail when they don’t. In the course of that research, I often would politely interrupt a couple who seemed to be getting along well and ask them questions. The information was by definition anecdotal, yes, but let’s be honest: surveys always are. I was in a hotel in Seattle, having coffee one morning before heading to a client’s site when I noticed an older couple who behaved as though they were newlyweds…almost. Intrigued as I people-watched, I became very curious as to how a couple in their seventies just met and fell in love.

I smiled at them several times and once they’d smiled back, I approached them and, as politely as I could, told them why they intrigued me, told them my interest in successful relationships, and confessed that their “honeymooning” attitudes had me smiling. The joke was on me. They’d been married forty-two years! Serendipity is a funny thing, so, though I was taken aback, they apparently took pity on my utter failure in assessing their relationship. They kindly spoke with me about the things that had made them successful. The things that made them appear to be newlyweds. That conversation, as so many like it, yielded wisdom it would have taken me many lifetimes to have found on my own.

I thought about them the other day when I realized that so many of us are working from home, if we’re fortunate enough to be working at all. Being home-bound presents challenges many of us have never experienced before. A relationship with a spouse or partner that flourished with multiple “breaks” from one another throughout the day and week now may be challenged with no such breaks at all…

Haven’t you heard of a person retiring, being at home all the time, and his or her spouse threatening to kill them? There is a system they created and maintained for years, possibly decades, and now that system has been grossly disrupted. Now, “he’s always HERE, in my face!” That’s a quote from another couple I interviewed, and some of you can relate to it, having either known a couple going through it…or perhaps you yourself are living it!

So what about this so-called age of Social Distancing? We no longer run out to the store to get a breather, a moment of even the illusion of independence. We no longer have “girls’ nights out” or the male equivalent. Those things are from another era at this point! Now…we are home…and so is our partner. All. The. Time.

This is our partner, a person we count on, and who counts on us. So we don’t want to leave this to chance. Let’s talk about a few things you can do to maintain your sanity as well as your relationship, as we all get through this crazy pandemic business!

Since our attention here is quite focused–getting along with and appreciating our partner when in close quarters (as in, during a crisis)–we won’t go into every strategy I learned from all those amazing couples. And there were literally hundreds. Further, many more than I could have met in person were gracious enough to answer via questionaire, providing we students with the wisdom we need to accomplish what they have.

Also since our attention is focused here, I’m going to assume that your kids are grown or you don’t have any. Dealing with two adults working in close quarters is tough enough without adding children to the mix. We can explore that at another time. Let’s just deal with the relationship you share with your significant other right now.

I’m going to split this situation into one of two scenarios. This article will focus on you and your partner both working from home. In the next, we’ll explore when only one is doing so. For those of you who’ve tried working from home alongside your partner, you’ll understand why this differentiation matters. Working in that scenario introduces a multitude of new complexities we may never have encountered before.

Okay, so you and your partner are working from home, doing calls, etc.

And they are always there. Think about that. Granted, if this is your situation, you likely already think about it. A lot! Humans are social creatures, true, but we all need at least a little alone time. During a crisis such as this pandemic, that may be in shorter supply than working ventilators. (That joke will only be funny for about 60 days, so I reserve the right to edit it out once that time has passed.)

Work is one thing. Each of you needs a place to work where you will be uninterrupted. If you’re fortunate enough to have a separate room dedicated to this, great! That room is now your workplace, and your partner must agree to respect that. Meaning no running the vacuum or music nearby without checking in. It may be necessary to close the door, and it’s important that both of you appreciate the uniqueness of this situation. If you are both lucky enough to be working, I’d suggest focusing on that fact instead of butting heads.

Many of us won’t have that luxury and we’ll have to appropriate a room to that purpose. It may be a dining room, a living room…some place where one person’s conference calls won’t interfere with those of the other. In such a situation, the separation is even harder. So it becomes more crucial that we respect one another’s work. If your partner is in the dining room on a business call, it’s important that you not trudge through, speaking on your cell phone, then pop into the kitchen and start the microwave oven–resulting in annoying beeps and other sounds that could make your partner appear less than professional. Respect is very important here.

Another note is that if you have a “home office” you can use for this purpose, it’s relatively easy to put the work away after the work day is done. Not quite as simple when you were using the kitchen or the den. Now that workspace shares duties with family meals or entertainment. Respect for one another is just as important, but you also much learn to respect the differentiation of those roles. Once work is over. it’s vital that you allow that room’s typical purpose to reclaim the space. Otherwise, you may begin to feel that much of your home has become a work area, and your desire to retreat after work and recreate may suffer. We all need recreation every bit as much as we need work itself.

Further, when work is “over” for the day, you are uniquely positioned to benefit. No commute back home, no traffic, what’s not to love? Simple–that person has been around you all day and…here they still are! Time to consider it from another perspective.

And before we do that, let’s play a quick game that takes seconds–and as you begin using it, you will reap massive rewards. The game is simple: you look at a present situation and you consider: What will the outcome be if nothing else changes, in one year? In five years? In TEN years? Do you see the point?

Let’s say I’ve been stuck in a small home office (or a make-shift one) and am at wit’s end. I just want to scream in frustration, and my partner, who’s had a great work day, is even wondering whether after this pandemic business has passed, whether they can continue to work from home because this is so great, pops in and say, “Hi, Hon!”

I may want to vent my frustrations. But if I do, how will that make her feel? What will be the immediate impact on the woman I love, with whom I’m sharing my life? Then, if I don’t change that behavior, and I keep doing it, what will the outcome likely be in a year? What would the cumulative effect on her be if I kept snapping at her, hurting her, in five years? Assuming she stays that long, anyway. That little game, which once you’ve taught your mind to do it, can happen in mere seconds (your brain is much faster than you think), and might you wind up choosing a different course of action when you did such an exercise? I’d hope so. That game is just a “fast-forward” if you will. In NLP, we call it a “timeline” and some brilliant innovators have developed a number of different techniques to use with such timelines. Use this game, notice the benefits before taking an action and it will save you from impulsiveness and rash decisions. Such as saying things you will later regret. And perhaps have a lifetime of consequences.

So the work day ends. After perhaps a few rough starts, you’ve learned to respect one another’s work space. You’ve learned that you can in fact work in the same place and not go crazy. Good start.

But now what?

The work day has ended. Now all the post-work tasks are ready for you. Who starts dinner? Who clears away all signs from the common living ares of any evidence of work? That part is not to be overlooked, by the way, as anyone who telecommutes can verify. See a reminder that you could get a jump-start on that project that really doesn’t need to begin until tomorrow, and you may be tempted to do just that. You as an individual need down-time. But as the focus here is on your intimate relationship, your relationship really needs some down-time as well. Time together for recreating. If you’ve managed your work days well, it shouldn’t feel as though you’ve been around one another all the time. So this should feel much as it does when you each return home after the work day is complete. Conversation, flirting, sharing, whatever is your norm–this is the time. Maybe you make dinner together, maybe you divide the tasks. But you go through what works for you and you have some more down-time. Do you watch TV? A movie? Do you take some alone time to pursue a hobby? Maybe he builds model ships or is studying a nascent technology that will likely be relevant at work soon enough. Maybe she’s working on a genealogy, a photography hobby that may one day be a side business, or writing a book. Whatever that is, clear communication is vital. Each must understand what the other is doing and why it matters to them. Preventing misunderstandings and hurt feelings is always relevant, but more so in a time of crisis. The stress can make monsters of us all unless we guard against that. Or direct that energy more positively…

Do we make love? Talk in bed? Whatever it is that feels right for us–do that. And here’s a big one. Ask yourself often: “What do I love about this amazing person beside me?” Remember that questions direct our minds. So asking a high-quality question will lead us in a direction we wish to go. Consider where your own mind goes when you ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What is really great about my partner?
  2. What does my partner do that makes me smile every time?
  3. What makes that person the greatest person for me in the whole world?
  4. What makes me want to kiss that person every moment? A laugh? A smile? They way they speak to me?

Versus, notice how the following questions direct your mind in a very different direction:

  1. What does my partner need to improve?
  2. What is wrong with my partner?
  3. Why doesn’t my partner listen?
  4. What makes me wish my partner would just go away so I could find someone better?

Do you notice the different direction your emotions take you when you seriously consider those different classes of questions?

Not that each doesn’t have a place. If you want to fall out of love with your partner, that second group is a great place to begin.

For the rest of us, we have a head start toward dealing with a complicated situation and growing closer to our partner.

(To be continued, as there is much more to do!)

Priorities Shift in the Age of Social Distancing

Maslow's Hierarchy

This pyramid reflects Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, which suggests that until the base need is met, humans will not concern themselves with higher-level needs. Those will be likely ignored or neglected, resulting in a dissatisfied human.


Nearly all the articles on this site are self-contained and can be taken individually. However this time of pandemic, of Coronavirus and Covid-19, have shaped our world very dramatically. We have seen a whole new set of challenges (and possible opportunities) present themselves, and this article serves as a segue into possible solutions. This arose from a conversation with a colleague recently who said, “Hey, you do that NLP stuff to help make changes happen quickly and easily, right? Why don’t you talk about the social challenges we’re facing during this pandemic?”

Why not, indeed? So I planned a set of articles that would coincide with a book that I believe will help people cope with this challenging time. The book itself would be concise and inexpensive, something practical and easily utilized. So that’s where this begins.

Most of us have had some exposure to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs. Maybe not since a Psychology class in college, and we may have chosen that class as an elective that seemed easier than Home Economics (a questionable assumption, in my opinion). Meaning that we weren’t all that focused on the subject matter in the first place. Without delving too far into it, and at the risk of oversimplifying things, let’s just establish Maslow’s Hierarchy as a list of human priorities.

By way of quick review, most of us would agree that being loved is important. Though we would prioritize finding and enriching our love with another person highly as long as we had already met our basic needs. If you don’t have a place to live or food to eat, you are not likely to prioritize finding true love over those concerns.

Accordingly, I recognize that during a time of uncertainty, like being home-bound during a quarantine, we might not speak of finding love too loudly. Consider that through all the conflicting messages hitting us daily—is the virus man-made? Is it a form of chemical warfare? If I catch it, will it kill me? Is this the end of civilization as we know it?

Sure, at this point, seeing (we hope) the end of the worst, these questions might seem melodramatic, but think about where your mind was during that time. It was scary.  Uncertainty can be a frightening thing. Add to that facts that themselves are scary, and you have the conditions for real trauma.

Massive unemployment came like relentless waves pummeling us as we tried to reach shore. Companies shut their doors, whether voluntarily or under orders from the government, with no idea when or if they might reopen. Stimulus money approved by Congress to (hopefully) shore up the economy revealed to the rest of us what economists already knew: Yes, consumer spending makes up a huge amount of our economy. But if that shot in the arm is to make any real difference, it has to be one massive shot. Far more than even an enormous stimulus package could achieve.

So it is (or was) a time of great uncertainty. Many of us were laid off or furloughed, not certain whether we would even have a job when this finally blew over. The cascading effects of that, including loss of health insurance, hit many families hard.

I review this ugly set of circumstances for a reason. I want to remind us all that at some points in life, things can seem hopeless.

I’m writing this for two reasons. At this moment, people around me are still scared. Most are honest, admitting that they don’t know what to expect. Others are in a state of lovely delusion, believing that we are being continually told the truth and that everything is going to clear itself up, as if by “a great miracle.” That’s a quote. I trust you remember who said it, so I won’t belabor the point.

So I’m first of all writing to those of us who are frightened, offering hope for one of the most beautiful and satisfying of human emotions: love. Though the second reason is that this crisis, like every one before it, might seem like the end of the world in the middle of the chaos. Though that always passes. We all know it will, though in the thick of the craziness, we often overlook that these things always pass. So I’m also writing this to remind us all of that fact. This will pass.

But crisis is nothing new to humans. Just look back at our human history and you’ll find one crisis after another. Sure, in hindsight, many of them seem less horrific. Others, though our memories still see them as terrible, were clearly finite. They passed. Then we healed. And life went on. The values, the things we hold dear, the things we seek to bring into our lives, are still there for us.

So, though I don’t mean to be negative, we will face crisis again in our lifetimes. And when we do, I want all of us to take some of the most pertinent ideas we’ll examine on this website and in an upcoming book on the subject, and use them to find comfort, contentment, and…love.

Wait. Love? Are we forgetting that we are in a crisis situation right now?

Why is finding love any different now, or during any crisis? Because of prioritization, we get caught up in more pressing issues like safety and survival. Those are always going to win in that contest. But once the government urges you to stay at home, once your employer orders you to work from home, once you have your supplies intact, then what? Chances seem pretty good at that point that you’ll survive, that you have enough food and water, your Internet is still functioning, as is your tv and cell phone. So it’s not quite “roughing it” in the traditional sense. As long as your cable is working, or Netflix, or whatever you use for your movie and television show entertainment, and as long as you have good books to read, you can remain occupied and entertained. Perhaps even enriched.

My heart goes out to you if you lost your job during this time, of course, and I’m hoping you managed to sign up for unemployment benefits so you can yourself meet those aforementioned needs. Survival. Food. Shelter. And then onto entertainment, information access, keeping your Internet access live, your phone and utilities on. If not, you are somehow reading this, which means you are more resourceful than you realize! Let’s put some of that resourcefulness into meeting those other needs we all share and begin our climb up Maslow’s Hierarchy!

So with those needs met, we begin traveling up Maslow’s Hierarchy and addressing higher-level needs…eventually getting to love and connection. If you’re fortunate (or not so, as the case may be) to have your love/friend/partner/spouse (they may all in the same person if you’re truly fortunate) living with you, you may not have to go far to meet this need. Then again being in close quarters with the same person for weeks might not turn out to be as idyllic as I’m suggesting. I’ll withhold judgment on that, and we’ll even explore later on a few ways to deal with that situation if and when it becomes challenging. Look for future articles (and the upcoming book) to offer additional strategies.

There is another possibility of course: you have a love, but that person does not live with you. Finding ways to feel connected can become challenging in times like these and we’ll look at some ideas as well.

Though for the rest of us, this means finding someone to love when “dating” or even “meeting for coffee” is simply no longer done. We may investigate online meeting as well as dating. And while yes, some of the horror stories are true—there are scammers out there who don’t really want love but want someone to give them money—not all are. Or no one would ever bother with it. In fact the majority of challenges anyone faces in online dating also exist in the physical/real-time dating world. Though the format of meeting online, including the existence of email, video chat, and texting, makes it possible to meet someone and potentially create a great relationship before even meeting in person.

Just imagine, you meet someone, start to build something, and then meet once the crisis has passed. Just as in the real-time world, sometimes that first meeting lives up to the prior discussions and sometimes it doesn’t. We’re all adults and we know this is a possibility. If we fear it, we don’t stand a chance of finding that person who may very well be ideal for us—and us for them.

So here’s a challenge for you: If you fall into only one of the three scenarios I’ve mentioned—and for your peace of mind, I hope you do—why read the other two? Certainly, you could begin with the section that specifically describes your situation right now. But I would urge you to consider the others because at various points in our lives, we are apt to find ourselves in the other two situations. At some point.

It would be a good idea to consider some of the life- and relationship-skills shared in the other two sections. You can be ahead of the game right now.

Convinced? Okay, let’s begin exploring.

Relationships made easy (okay, easiER)

Intimate relationships can be very difficult to maintain. We Americans know this, as we boast nearly a 50% divorce rate. I’m not above it, as I myself have been divorced. If I can be forgiven a moment of faulty logic, this means that my second marriage will be successful – my first marriage would represent 50% of my marriages. So the second will be a winner!

A bad joke, I know.

Success leaves clues, as has often been said. There is nothing new under the sun, and therefore, the way to nurture and maintain a successful relationship has already been demonstrated. Perhaps not at all times by all those who have managed more than seven years of matrimony, but if each successful marriage could give us just one lesson, one piece of advice on how to be similarly successful, wouldn’t that be useful? We would have volumes and volumes of wisdom, great advice for the rest of us to follow and adapt to our own unique circumstances.

Now what about that criterion I rather arbitrarily threw out there – more than seven years of marriage? Are such people the only ones who’ve learned a thing or two about relationships? Of course not! What interests me is something that makes sense, that we can try out, explore it ourselves, and verify the outcome.

I see no reason we can’t learn a great deal about how to make our relationships successful from anyone who’s been in one – successful or otherwise. Think about it…did all your knowledge come from successes? Did you just hit it out of the park on the first try, stumble into a successful outcome – every single time you learned a lesson? Of course not! We learn the most by our misses, not our hits. As with Thomas Edison, trying material after material to function as a filament in his electric light bulb – many people thought he was a fool, but he pointed out that each time his filament failed and burned out, he learned of one new material that wouldn’t work. He was bound to eventually run out of materials and therefore would find something that was successful, right? Sure, a bit of faulty logic also, but then history tells us he wasn’t off the mark. He eventually did find the right material and he really did learn something with each “failure”.

While it’s true that much of what we learn is passed down from people who’ve been there, whether our parents, teachers, spiritual leaders, mentors, and we learn much on our own, reading books and, ahem, blogs, let’s face it – that’s not the only way we learn. We get so much valuable information when something we try is not successful.

On that basis, each of us likely has something to contribute, whether we have already succeeded or failed epically, and not yet hit the mark!

Perceptual Filters – Our Maps of the World

Picture yourself looking out at a familiar site, something you can easily imagine. This is something you can recall in your mind’s eye and see with great detail. Get a good look at it in your imagination, see the colors, the landscape, the angles, shapes… Get a clear image of it.

Next, imagine that you are putting on a pair of sunglasses, and looking at the same scene. Notice how it impacts how you see things. For the most part, things will be very similar, though of course darker. Then again, have you ever tried on a pair of sunglasses where the tint was different from the common gray? Perhaps yellow, where it cut the glare very well, though didn’t darken the image. Though without question, that yellow tint would change the ultimate image you see, right?

Moreover, the expression “rose colored glasses” is an apt example as well. If you are wearing such glasses, you see everything literally as more “rosy” than it really is. Everything takes on that pink or rose hue. Again, though you may still see the primary details of the image, they are unquestionably changed. You will see things differently than if you had just removed those rose colored (or yellow, gray, etc.) glasses.

Our challenge is that the glasses are just one example of a perceptual filter, albeit a fairly literal one. There are many things that influence what we perceive and how we perceive it. Our past experiences, things our parents taught us, things we learned in school, on the job, from friends, and lessons we learned from life along the way up to this point, all have contributed to a set of beliefs, values, and attitudes that greatly influence and filter our perceptions. These make up what we call our “Map of the World”. A map is a representation of a more complex system. Just as you might use a roadmap to navigate a complex roads system leading from your house to a museum, our personal maps help us to make sense of and navigate the world around us. Without a Map of the World in our heads, we might have to treat every experience as unique, and we might require a fair amount of time to make sense of it. Life would essentially be continually interrupted as we struggled to find meaning for each new thing we encountered.

An example would be a street map that lacked half the street names. Maybe it also is missing a high percentage of the actual streets you encounter. You might still consult the map if it’s all you’ve got, but suddenly your trip is going to take longer as you try to fill in the blanks, make sense of what you perceive that just isn’t on your map.

Therefore what many of us do is simply ignore what isn’t on our maps, as though it’s not there at all. For some people this works, as their world doesn’t require much detail or interactivity. Though just as with a pair of sunglasses far too dark for a dimly lit room, a limited map can in that way limit what we perceive. In effect, it is limiting what we choose to allow ourselves to perceive.

Other people will choose to fill in those gaps in the map. We may spot a detail in the roadway that for us is significant, a landmark, maybe. We may jot it down on the page so that next time, this now more detailed map can help us navigate more quickly and accurately.

Why do some people instead ignore new information just because it doesn’t match their existing map? Because human beings do not like to be proven wrong, for one reason. Once we have decided that “The color ‘red’ means ‘anger’”, we don’t like having to adjust that belief later on. Rather, we will apply that as a filter to what we perceive going forward. That is, when we encounter the color red, we will look at our meaning for it on our Map of the World and feel anger. Without any further thought, making it quick and efficient to navigate to anger, we can get there from the simple color “red”.

This leads to an important consideration – what about those times when we want to add a landmark, increase the detail on our map, and improve its overall usefulness? It may require a willingness to change what we thought previously. If the map clearly doesn’t match the perceived reality, we may have to accept that our map just wasn’t complete, at the very least, and possibly, was absolutely wrong.

But as we do this, we refine our maps, making them more realistic and useful.

Beware of phrases like, “that’s the way I was taught”, and “that’s what Mother/Father always told me”, or “I’ve always known this to be true”. Such phrases don’t of course always preface a fallacy, or old information that needs to be updated. Though they often do. Just actively participate in your mapmaking, consider your beliefs and be willing to adjust things that just don’t serve you.

Some beliefs, for instance, make sense at one point in our lives, then they outlive their usefulness. That’s the time to update our maps!

The hope is that when you perceive something potentially very significant in your world, something that may impact your relationships with your partner, your children, your boss, and anyone else, that you have actively tested, valid maps with which you can navigate through, and filter, the world around you.

Assuming Intention, Part 2

I previously explored the concept of Assuming Intention, a technique that more often than not does not turn out to be accurate. It’s difficult to know someone so precisely that we know without fail what they are thinking, and what their actions meant. This is a form of what Milton H. Erickson called “mind reading”, and generally robs us of the richness of our relationships’ interactions.

There is an exception to the rule, as explored in Part I, assuming a positive intention. That is, if a person’s actions appear ambiguous to us, and we don’t know what was meant, we can assume a positive intention (API), even in the lack of evidence, just as we can assume a negative intention (ANI). In everyday language, we may call this giving the “benefit of the doubt.”.

Hold on! We talked previously about how Erickson’s “mind reading” is a bad thing, why are we now saying that it might be otherwise? In NLP, we learn and teach that beliefs are exceptionally useful tools. We can use them in our daily lives to enable ourselves, prop up a struggling will, equip us to grow beyond where we think we are, and more. The irony is that beliefs themselves, in order to be all those things and more, need not even be “true”. Consider a very basic belief: I can do this. You haven’t, we assume, finished doing it, or you wouldn’t need the belief. Beliefs, after all, exist in the absence of facts. If you already know you can do it because you have just completed “it”, then there is no need for belief – the results speak for themselves.

But where you have not YET completed the task, technically you don’t actually KNOW you can do it, you only either believe you can or believe you can’t. The fun part there is that the belief itself contains powerful creative energy. With a belief that you CAN, that energy may very well be the key you previously lacked. You can be trained expertly to perform the task, have every confidence in your abilities, but if you decide to embrace a believe that you CAN’T, you might be surprised at how quickly the belief can invade all that confidence, the training, the skill, and bore through it like termites through a tree.

Fortunately, the opposite is also true. If you instead choose a belief that you CAN, that energy can permeate every fiber of your confidence, your attitude, abilities, coalescing your skill into an unstoppable force that the world cannot resist. Ok, sounds a little better, but what does this have to do with assuming intention, whether positive (API) or negative (ANI)?

Simple, the assumption shared by each of those acronyms is itself derived from a belief, You might argue that in fact it IS a belief.

Think of it this way – what if, regardless of what your partner just did, you assumed a malicious or negative intention? What if, every time he or she did something nice for you, you presumed it was because they had some bad news to break, something to confess, and they were only trying to manipulate you, to lessen your angry response? Seriously, think about it. Now what if on an entirely different day you chose to respond differently? What if no matter how irritating or offensive your partner had behaved toward you, you assumed a positive or loving intention? It’s not so far-fetched – haven’t we all, at some time, had the very best of intentions, and yet our actions just didn’t match up to that intent? Of course we have! And your partner is no different. So it’s entirely possible that he or she meant well, truly was acting out of love or consideration, and they were unsuccessful in their “finish”. Would you likely view those two scenarios a bit differently? Wouldn’t anyone?

Understanding, of course, that any time we assume anything, we leave room to be wrong. It’s clear that we won’t just perfectly gauge or calibrate  someone’s intention. Maybe every now and then, maybe even frequently, but all the time? Not likely. So if that’s true, what’s the point? Wouldn’t Assuming Positive Intention (API) be just as bad as Assuming Negative Intention (ANI)?

The answer to that question lies more in the function than in the facts. That is, if we can agree to suspend “truth” and “verifiability” for just a moment, we might explore something in a somewhat different way. Okay. Got that pesky “true/false” criterion paused for a moment? Great! Now ask yourself a different question – what behavioral flexibility will the assumption likely lend you?

Our suggestion here is that if you assume the best, you will often be right. Sure, you will at times be wrong as well. But we’re more interested in the effect the belief has upon you. What are you able to do with the belief? What does the belief encourage you to do?

One answer to these questions is so obvious that you might find yourself feeling silly for not having considered it. If you haven’t felt silly before, rest assured, you will. Life gives each of us learning experiences that at first make us feel silly. The trick is to laugh along with everyone else, get over it, and take the learning with you.

What answer? When we assume the best, and are primed and ready for it, we create a feeling of acceptance for the other person. We invite them to be themselves and to share, because we ourselves have laid out the proverbial red carpet for them. We are assuming their positive intention and are ready to reciprocate with our own positive intention. This often works with strangers – just imagine how well it will work with someone who loves you and has committed to being with you!

So API with your significant other, filter their response through your positive energy, your love, your respect, your high regard for them. Bathe them in an overwhelming aura of love and acceptance, make them feel so loved they can’t help but smile. It might sound funny now, but consider the likely outcome of the opposite – ANI. If instead you bathe your partner in negative energy, disdain, contempt, jealousy, anger, whatever form your negative intentions have taken in the past, how do you think that will affect them? Most of us don’t enjoy receiving those emotions, particularly from someone we love, trust, and count on to be our friend. In our experience, assuming negative intention poisons whatever good you had going, destroying it from within.

And if it does make you feel just a bit silly, isn’t that a pretty small sacrifice to make for the one you love?

Assuming Intention – “I KNOW what you meant!”

One of the most insidious of creatures haunting the castle that is your relationships is that of Assuming Intention. This is a more specific example of what the great hypnotherapist Milton H. Erickson referred to as “mind reading”.

The gist is this, and don’t feel bad as you notice examples of your doing this, perhaps even today: Someone takes an action and you interpret an intent behind it. In criminal law, this is a an important distinction, and we suggest, it matters everywhere – whether or not someone intended what you believe they did.

A criminal example might be that a gunman shoots another person. It’s possible that the first person shooter planned the shooting for days, weeks, carefully selecting their weapon and method of attack. Until you know more, however, it’s also possible that the first person was cleaning their gun, and accidentally shot the second person. Another example the law recognizes is that the first person had the gun, ready to defend himself, and he and the other person wound up in an argument. In a rage, the first person draws and fires the weapon, killing the other person, though without premeditation. Further complicating this is that the two people may have had the argument, the second person noticed the gun in the other person’s belt, tried to take it away, and in the confusion, shot himself. In all these examples, the law concerns itself not only with what happened, but what each person intended. It can be the difference between a charge of manslaughter and first degree murder.

Isn’t your life as important as a criminal case you hear about on the news? We suggest that assuming intention is almost always dangerous business, especially when it’s happening to you.

A somewhat silly contrast illustrates the same point in the form of an old joke. Two psychologists pass in the hall and the first say, “Have a nice day!”. The other frowns and says to himself, “I wonder what he means by that…” It’s therefore possible to either over-analyze intention or to assume the worst, needlessly.

Consider a more likely example in your own life. Your coworker walks up to you and asks if you have completed your newest project, adding, “The boss is on a terror today…and looking for heads.”

Is your coworker taunting you, assuming that you are fearful or insecure in your position? Or does he have the highest regard for you and does not want you accidentally getting into the line of the boss’ fire? Are these the only two possibilities? Of course not! There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of different intentions behind the warning. To assume an intention too innocuous may in fact lead us to not be on guard. However, as is more often the case in our own experience, to assume an intention too dire creates unnecessary, even debilitating stress and suspicion.

We often interpret such meanings, differentiating the likely intention, via context. Sometimes that’s the tone of voice, the facial expression and body language. Other times we just assume that we know what the other person means. It’s that area that concerns us today.

Intimate relationships are like fine thread. Some people associate them with chains, bonds of some sort, but we recommend that you not associate your relationship with anything you consider limiting or unpleasantly restraining. We like the metaphor of thread because as we sew two pieces of cloth together, each stitch creates more strength, more resilience. When we just begin, and have only completed a few stitches, the cloth is easily torn apart. But each subsequent stitch creates more durability, more ability to sustain the strains and challenges that life often introduces. Some couples pause their stitching at some point, decide that’s good enough, and leave it alone.

The fabric of the relationship may be as strong as it ever will become for them. Relationships in which the participants don’t bother to respect their fabric, so to speak, may very well tear at the stitches, pulling them out over time. They may find, after five or seven years together, that their fabric is only tenuously held together, hanging, as it were, by a thread. Relationships in which participants truly care about nurturing the relationship will continue to sew together for a lifetime, and each year, despite challenges and adversity, and repeated, shall we say, learning experiences, the fabric of their relationship is hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times stronger than when they had first begun.

Can you see how your professional relationships can be equally affected? With customers? Coworkers? Bosses? Employees? Assuming a negative intention creates needless tension and can lead to conflict that is ultimately based on a misunderstanding.

One way we can assume intention in a positive manner is to assume good things from our partner. Our experience tells us that in a rewarding relationship, our partner is not likely trying to scare us, create stress, or unnerve us at all. So this is a more realistic assumption, at least, than assuming the worst. We can assume positive intentions from him or her, such that even an interpretation of meaning sews our fabric more securely. More often, however, we work with couples who carelessly cut or rip those threads as they assume a negative intention. Consider the following list. In the first category

You are up late at night working on an important project. Your partner brings you a cup of coffee.

Assumed negative intention (ANI): He or she is irritated that you are still up, but figures it’s a lost cause, you’re going to stay away from them so they may as well surrender. You hate it when they just don’t seem to understand how important this is!

Assumed positive intention (API): He or she would likely prefer you come to bed, but understands how important this project is to you, and perhaps to the whole family. They just want to show their support and love for you. You love feeling so appreciated and respected!

Consider another example. On a pleasant Saturday morning, you look out the window into the back yard. The grass should have been mowed a week ago and is now going to be a tremendous chore. You don’t relish it and truthfully would prefer to do something else. As you stare at the task ahead, your partner brings you your yard gloves.

ANI: Your partner expects you to get off your lazy butt and get to work! Doesn’t he or she know how tired you are from the week? Would it kill them to just let you begin your weekend slowly? You hate it when he or she is so insensitive to your needs!

API: Your partner recognizes your body language, knowing the yard has to be mowed. They wish dearly that it was not going to be such a chore, but can see from your actions that you are already recognizing the need to do it. They want to be as supportive as they can, and bring you your gloves. You love feeling so understood and supported!

The most significant aspect to all this is that, just as every action has an equal and opposite reaction, the assumed intention sets a direction for your reaction. Your partner, or coworker, or anyone else for that matter, has just performed an action. You can assume the worst, the best, or any place in between, but the question isn’t even which is the most accurate. It’s which will be the most helpful. You now must react in some fashion. As you do so, what will your frame of mind be? That part is always up to you, by the way, and the trick is to choose a frame that will support whatever outcome you want. Will assuming that the other person hates you and just was looking for a great way to zing you help you or hurt you? Will it assist you in reaching your outcome or impede you? When it comes to intimate relationships, assuming a positive intention is nearly always useful. The alternative also holds true nearly all the time – to assume a negative intention is nearly always harmful.

Play with this a bit this week and consider the possible APIs versus ANIs you could find in your partner’s actions. Then consider what outcome is most likely as you select one over the other. Remember, you’re not trying to determine which intention is correct. You are only striving to determine the likely outcome of assuming an intention. “If I assume (s)he is trying to insult me and kick me into gear, how will I feel and how will I likely respond? Moreover, how will my partner likely respond to that reaction?” We caution you about that because too often when couples assume their partner’s intention, we get caught up in proving ourselves right, whatever that assumption was. That’s about the most unuseful thing you can do, and you want to focus instead on what will help you reach a desired outcome instead of a less desirable one.

We’ll explore this further in future articles. Have fun, and let’s come back and explore how this can help make all your relationships better, more fulfilling, and happier.

Your Sacred Spaces, part 1

Some of us will see that title and think we’re talking about a new agey concept that potentially could threaten existing common beliefs about spirituality, religion, and so forth.

Not so much. We’re going to explore something that you need, and you probably already have in some form. Something very practical and we would say necessary. This, as with many of the concepts on this site, apply to all areas of our lives–our work life, our intimate relationship, friendships, shared time with family, and others.

We all need some activity, some “place” (whether physical, mental, emotional, metaphysical, whatever suits you) we can go where we are absolutely loved and accepted. In the old Cheers TV show, it was a bar “where everyone knows your name”, for some people it’s a favorite retreat, a hunting lodge, a church. Whatever it is for you, we challenge you to create another one, one that can recharge your relationship and make it vibrant and crackle with energy and passion.

Think about it for a moment. Can you go to your partner with anything? Can you trust him or her with all your secrets, all your worries, all your hopes and dreams? Too often in our society, that person is one from whom we keep secrets, and if you’ve grown accustomed to doing that, then you must think we’re out of our minds on this one. But hear us out. There’s a lot to be gained here.

“Intimacy” isn’t just sex, of course. (A pause here to let you adjust and, to maintain decorum, naturally agree!) Intimacy refers to an intensely personal level of sharing and connection. Too often we teach our children, as we were often taught, to not share, to close ourselves off from deeply personal connections. And if we had any question along the way, popular music tells us that love leads to pain, that love can’t be trusted, and that it will lead to heartbreak in the end.

So how can you be blamed for not creating such an intense level of intimacy in your relationship? Wouldn’t that just invite disaster?

Again, not so much. Murphy’s Law is a cute, quaint way of explaining away an undesired outcome. But it’s hardly scientific, you could even call it downright superstitious. And there’s no reason to believe that loving completely, trusting absolutely, and sharing intimately with the right person will lead to anything but bliss.

Note our caveat – for anything good, someone will come along and attempt to exploit it. That seems to be a given, so one of the skills we teach and advocate is assessing someone’s intentions, evaluating whether they are worthy of this amazing gift. NLP calls this skill “calibration”, and it can be incredibly effective in separating those who would take advantage of us from those who want to share themselves as fully as we will.

So what we’re suggesting here is that, in addition to the peace you derive from fishing, from knitting, from kayaking down white rapids, whatever you do to achieve a sense of “sacred space”, that you create such a space with your partner. it produces very fertile soil for your relationship, and we’ve seen people who complained of “getting into a rut” fall in love all over again, rediscover their partner as an exciting, engaging, and vital force in their lives. Don’t you deserve such a powerful experience yourself?

Perhaps you’re put off by the adjective, “sacred”, but in many traditions, the notion transcends religion. After all, even if your religious faith is very important to you, don’t you also have activities that most would consider secular, that nonetheless rejuvenate you and spiritually recharge you?

We hope so because those moments are powerful touchstones in life. Without them, it would be easy to see your life as one routine overlapping another, from birth, through adolescence, to adulthood, eventually to death. The routines may become more elaborate, but without those sacred spaces, points along the way where we reflect, think, or for many of us, stop thinking for awhile. Just be ourselves with no abstractions or complications.

Life challenges us every day, offering opportunities for growth and chances to struggle a bit, to remember that we’re really alive. We need more than just facing them like a machine. Remember Terminator 2, in which no matter what Arnold and Sarah Connor did to escape, the Robert Patrick new-and-improved Terminator model just kept mechanically coming after them? We’re not actually like that. With enough adversity, haven’t you felt yourself want to shout, “Damn! Why can’t just one thing go right today?!” That’s the kind of thing we say when we lack a sacred space. For one friend of ours, it’s the middle of a pond on a fishing boat. No cell phone, no noise, just him, fish, bait, and an ice chest of beer. (No judgments here, your sacred spaces are your own, and we won’t criticize!)

How much easier would it be for you in your relationship if you and your partner could really talk, really share, and really be there for one another? What if you could create a sacred space together, one you could retreat to when life becomes a bit too demanding?

In Part II we will explore ways you can create this. For now, let’s just consider what kind of a powerful difference it could make in your life and relationship.

It could be like magic.

Conflict as a Catalyst to Greatness

At a workshop recently, as usually happens, I was asked a great question – “Is conflict always bad?” First off, no, conflict itself is not bad in and of itself. Disagreement between two parties can elicit potentially useful distinctions and strengths.

So if it’s not negative, why do relationship counselors so often struggle with, and against, conflict? Whether in the workplace or even within an intimate relationship? Because most of us were never taught beyond a crash course how to effectively deal with our developing relationship, our assessments may be quite coarse. We may learn that “conflict” equals “fight”, equals “hurting one another”. But the truth is that it doesn’t have to mean these things. Still, our earliest, and often our only, relationship teachers, our parents, may have taught us that conflict is a bad thing, that if not avoided, can lead to disastrous results.

Consider one of your close relationships. Haven’t you noticed early on that each of you had different strengths you brought to the relationship? Each may have strategies and coping skills the other could only dream about. Moreover, each had opinions and experiences the other did not, resulting in different points of view. Potentially, this conflict could lead to an ugly and unsupportive turn of events.

However if you instead view it as having different skills sets, you can enrich each person’s world view and experiences with what the other has to teach us. Whereas I may have brought X skills and knowlege to the relationship, my partner brought Y and Z, each of which is powerful and useful, but when combined with my X skills, makes us a far more complete and capable team. The conflict that revealed our different contributions in this way was a positive thing. Further, when we used our varied contributions together, we were each more rich and capable.

Conflict can also show us where our strategy is lacking. I may have learned to deal with a particular situation from my father and in all prior examples, that learning was enough. But as I encounter a new challenge and try to apply the same strategy, I may become frustrated by the less than stellar results. As my partner points out the mismatch and offers some of her own experience, I may find a newly enriched strategy as a result of the discussion.

Further, conflict can expose new territory for the relationship. No matter how long you’ve been with your partner, and you may have “settled” your differences in all of the major areas (religion/spirituality, money, and politics, for instance), but who’s to say there isn’t something else, some topic about which you and your partner have never spoken? It doesn’t mean you have to agree of course on everything, but it enriches our relationships to know and understand our partner’s opinions, preferences, and convictions. So as you and your partner discuss a new topic and discover a disagreement, the focus can be on learning something new about one another. You don’t have to, and you will regret it if you try, convince the other you are right and that they should give up their opinion! The point is not homogeneity, but rather developing a more rich understanding of your partner and their mental process, values, and beliefs system.

I’d like to emphasize respectfully and lovingly in relation to noticing disagreement is that no one wants to be insulted or have their nose proverbially rubbed in the inadequacy of their strategy. As you learn to engage in loving and mutually respectful conflict, you can each grow a great deal, and will be able to remain open to the experience as you do not have to defend yourself. This takes skill, but if you embrace that love and respect for one another right now, you are ahead of the game.

Uncommon Ground

Every computer used to have its own character set (most common is UTF-8). Unicode encoding created commonality (shared map) that computers in a particular region could share, simplifying communication.

Though the technology metaphor may be apt, stay with me even if it isn’t familiar to you. I’m illustrating the very point I wish to make: familiarity makes us comfortable. Unfamiliarity can initially make us feel awkward or anxious.

One of the most important aspects of influence is creating a sense of familiarity, of commonality, with the other person. When we see a speaker share an anecdote, assuring the audience that he is, or was just like them, he is diminishing the audience members’ perception that the speaker is different from them. This makes them comfortable, and they are far more likely to open themselves to influence from that speaker. So far, pretty obvious, right? After all, any course on influence and persuasion will cover that. But what if it’s not as simple as sharing an anecdote? What if there are unconscious processes at work, that the other person is continually evaluating whether they should listen to you, consider your point of view, and do ask you ask? That might suggest that one brief story may not be enough.

It isn’t. There is far more at work when we influence than we can relate in a two-minute anecdote. There are unconscious behaviors we can influence in others as well as in ourselves that will tip the scales in favor of the influence relationship. Is this a good thing? Assuming what you are influencing is not one-sided or exploitative, yes. If you are working to persuade someone to do something that will make their lives better, happier, more successful in some way, I would suggest that influence isn’t only ethical, but a favor to that person. If in benefits both of you, I’d call that a good exchange.

Then another question that often arises: Are we being honest with the other person when we “create” familiarity? Make no mistake: I’m not advocating making up something you have in common. Dishonesty here will catch up to you. The world is not as “big” as it used to be. If you therefore pretend to like bass fishing because you learn the other person loves it, but it’s untrue, your lie isn’t likely to be convincing in the first place. Further, it will eventually surface that you have never bass fished in your life, and your credibility will be history.

But there is always something we can find in common. Maybe both of you are fathers. Maybe you both went to college. Perhaps you both are divorced, share political views, and so on. There is always something we have in common with another person, even if at first glance, we couldn’t seem more different. Find those things and build upon them. These are just conscious examples of building those bridges, and in later articles, we will look at the unconscious variety. We begin here as a foundation, and then build upon it to become more persuasive.

For today, consider each person in your life, and identify as many things you have in common with them. It could be a physical attribute like gender, age, background, ethnicity, everything. Or it could be mental such as political or religious views, preferences in art or media sources, the types of books or films you enjoy. Anything that you can bond over as a commonality which isn’t a physical attribute. What your’e likely to find is that the people closest to you share the most common traits with you. At least, the traits you value the most. Conversely, consider the people in your life you dislike the most, or with whom you most dislike spending time. You are likely to find that there are significant differences in the attributes that matter to you most. Perhaps they share your gender and within a few years’ age compared to you. Maybe they are of the same ethnicity and like the same kind of movies as you. BUT upon closer examination, you notice that, as your religious beliefs are very important to you, they themselves might have significantly different beliefs in that area. Or if you are both very politically-minded, perhaps you wildly disagree in that area.

This is information we are going to use in becoming more persuasive. We are going to focus on our commonalities and de-emphasize the areas in which we disagree. We are going to begin learning to expand and build upon areas of commonality and familiarity to urge someone in a direction that will benefit us both.

While there are very effective NLP techniques for capitalizing on this commonality, I’ve found that often, we don’t need one. Once we feel that someone is like us, we often want to help, to take their points seriously. We often feel compelled to do as they ask because we relate to them so well.

In a later article, we will begin examining some of those NLP techniques. But let’s begin by becoming aware of existing commonality, identifying areas of disagreement, and learning to focus on the former, not the latter. As a foundation for becoming an exceptional persuader, these skills are bedrock.

Abstinence to Make the Heart Grow Fonder?

A colleague of mine recently forwarded a very thought-provoking article; its stated aim was to increase the intimacy in a relationship. Naturally, I embrace such a goal, though having read it, I remain pretty skeptical as to whether its approach could accomplish anything of the sort. The notion was that a period of abstinence will allow a couple to get to know each other without the pressure of sexual intimacy. Now, many will think that is a good idea early on in a relationship but she was proposing this within the context of an established marriage. Now, our friend was actually more interested in what I thought of the idea of levels of intimacy, but this concept of withholding physical affection from a spouse, with a goal of increasing the emotional closeness in the relationship was really disturbing to me.

Admittedly, the author of the other article didn’t drop it on the reader that abruptly, instead she put forth a rather interesting argument that seemed to be her own interpretation of the book The Seven Levels of Intimacy by Matthew Kelly.

The argument went something like this:

Science says that there are 5 levels of intimacy. Science also identifies hormones that foster attachment that are released during sex. God created these hormones to bond the family together. A relationship progresses through these levels of intimacy like a person on a ladder or stairway, moving from one level to the next. When you have sex outside of marriage you have gone against the divine plan that was put in place to help you and so you become stuck at whatever level of intimacy you were in when you had sex together the first time, and you will remain stuck there for the rest of your lives. This is the reason, so the argument claimed, that relationships have problems and people don’t continue to feel connected to their spouse. The only solution therefor is to stop having sex and progress through the levels of intimacy as God wanted you to.

Without any judgment of her, ours, or your spirituality, and what these may entail, there are some fundamental challenges with the above approach.

First, it would seem to be a perversion of the Matthew Kelly’s work. She doesn’t credit Kelly with the idea, and she reworks the levels to fit her definitions and structure (5 instead of 7, etc). This article had an agenda that was plainly stated at the outset, to prevent sex outside of Christian marriage. It is after all the author’s life work, and she has a right to pursue her beliefs. But this is a case of one person’s map being mistaken for the territory.

When a couple has sex is best left for the couple to decide based on their own needs, values, and beliefs. It is much more important that these things be compatible and that the couple is committed to meeting each other’s needs then the timing of their first sexual experience together. The old adage, “When it’s right, it’s right…” seems apt.

It should be noted that abstinence is a method the author herself has used to reconnect in her own marriage, and it’s good to hear she found something that worked for her! As she describes why she felt this was a good option for her, she identifies feeling put-off by sex and loss of desire for sexual contact with her husband because as she believes they had sex too soon. Interestingly, she also identified within herself issues that she had about men and sex. She took a period of time where she and her husband didn’t have sex and addressed her own inability to open up to her husband and heal from these past hurts.

She then did what many people do and mistook her personal map for the territory (that is, “If it is true for me then it is true for everyone”). She is dismissive about the “lower levels of intimacy” saying that she would avoid “true intimacy” by keeping conversations superficial, confined to things like bills and how the kids were doing in school. Further, on her intimacy scale, beliefs and values are mid-level intimacy and personal needs the deepest level of intimacy.

In NLP, we consider beliefs and values to be among the biggest, most powerful motivators for people. These are the things that are huge drivers that influence our entire lives, and these are things that take a great deal of effort to affect. This is identity level stuff, and there isn’t anything more intimate than that. Needs (particularly physical needs) are transitory, based mostly on circumstances that are happening in the moment. They change constantly and can be influenced by a myriad of things. Further, in one of the most important psychological breakthroughs in history (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) we are told that physical needs are the lowest most basic level of our development and that without that being addressed we cannot progress successfully.

If this seems in any way appropriate to you, I would suggest that it be addressed in conversation very early on in a relationship. The reason for this is that if the person that you are attempting to build a relationship with has conflicting needs, or conflicting values and beliefs, then it is best to discover that as soon as possible. Additionally, it is important to recognize that every intimate relationship cycles through all of the levels of communication on a regular basis. This is important and necessary for the relationship to function and for what we have termed the Relationship Map to be updated.

Deepening levels of intimacy have a direct correlation to deepening levels of commitment. It perhaps isn’t always going to be the popular answer, but it is simply true. The more certain you are that a person is with you no matter what, the more of your authentic self you will expose to them. When and how that happens is unique to the couple. And different parts of you become certain at different points in the relationship. Withholding physical intimacy from a partner rarely will have the effect that this article describes.

The exception is in a situation where one partner has a specific issue with sex (like past abuse) and is actively working on it with a professional. Then in love and with an eye to the long term well being of this person to whom they are committed, the other partner may agree to abstain from sexual relations for a time while the first partner heals. But, in general to use abstinence as a tool to increase intimacy runs counter to everything we know about the way people function and what makes healthy, happy relationships.

Abstinence is unlikely to make the heart grow fonder. It will freeze the organic and loving development of your relationship, robbing it of the hormonal tide that compels us to pull together, to love, to commit, and to face challenges with passion and resolve.

Without it, we are roommates and intimacy vanishes.