We work to help people create a sense of well-being that remains steady despite the frustrating and unexpected challenges of life. Often, negative habits of thought and automatic reaction interfere with achieving happiness.
Harboring fantasies about someone else while happily coupled isn’t unusual. In most relationships, whether of two years, 20, or more, one or both partners will likely experience fleeting moments of imagining how exciting life would be with a different person. This could begin innocently while flirting in the break room, or having coffee with a co-worker, or reconnecting with an old lover. Such moments provide a sweet, brief ego boost. But when short-lived fantasies take hold, moving from transient to obsessive, we should take heed.
When Erotic Fantasies Cross the Line
Fantasies are significant as a precursor to affairs because imagination is a precondition of desire, which awakens our senses. Though we’re pretending, a fantasy can actually feel closer to our authentic selves, or the selves we think we should be. That is why we come alive again when we encounter new love. Risky and exciting, it pushes the boundaries we have established in ourselves.
In such reveries, we imagine how much more fun, sexier, and passionate we would be in this other relationship. The key here is how different we would be. For although partners play a role, it’s usually not the marriage that has grown stale, but how we see ourselves. Although we cherish marriage’s safety, permanence, and predictability, these qualities can also be deadening. In my psychotherapy practice, I have seen time and time again how couples lose their connection by trying to live as a perfect couple, then a perfect family. The struggle to earn a good living, make a good home, and raise a strong family takes priority. Children claim much time, space, and emotion. Sports, band, scouting; daily squabbles about homework, screen time, and chores—all these issues squeeze yet more time from romance.
Because we do long for the continuity and safety of togetherness, the lack of romance feels okay–until one day, we realize it doesn’t. But it’s this gradual erosion of intimacy that can lay the groundwork for fantasies of another partner that then play out in meetings, confidences, and intimate details of mutual marital disenchantment. Soothing support from an attractive other can be intoxicating. In an emotional or physical affair, we feel young. Our old boredom falls away to reveal a passionate, sexy person. We blame the spouse for our dull lives. The new love gives us the illusion that we are different, and we don’t need to look at our well-constructed fortification against insecurity.
If you’ve lost your Self through trying to be a perfect couple or family, addressing this problem is a worthy goal. But running to the novelty of a new partner is a feeble way to do it. It’s true that marriage requires surrendering parts of our Self in the service of the relationship, and many people feel regret about their choices, often triggered by a crisis or major life shift (such as aging or retirement, giving up their career to raise a family, or the loss of possible adventures in favor of marriage’s security.) But we should remember that surrendering the Self can be tremendously valuable to growth as long as we don’t give up too much– and also that disowning responsibility and projecting our unhappiness onto a partner is a set-up for an emotional or physical affair.
Understanding Your Role When Romance Leaves the Marriage
If excitement has disappeared from the bedroom, leading to fantasies about someone else, the best next step is to understand our own role in the situation rather than giving up on the marriage in search of novelty. When we marry, we make vow, implicit or explicit, that issues are to be faced together and worked through, not evaded. James Hollis writes in The Eden Project: In Search of the Magical Other (1998) that the greatest gift to others is our own best selves. Our marriage may have met our need for grounding—to be known, and to know our partner, with a comfortable predictability. But this devotion to security and familiarity eventually collides with our need for breaking established patterns so that we can encounter something unpredictable and awe-inspiring. Romantic passion can indeed be the chariot to take us there, but not if it is the creation of an affair, no matter how compelling.
And the irony is that if we do take up a new relationship, we are still ourselves, and over time, that relationship will lose its allure. I have seen countless clients on their second or third serious relationship who privately admit that they made a mistake. They realized too late that they, too, had a role to play in what was missing in the relationship. Often, the same issues come up with the new partner. They feel deep regret for breaking up a good thing in favor of an illusion, however intoxicating it is. There are exceptions: sometimes an affair is a stepping stone out of a bad, unfixable marriage and that new relationship can bring happiness and healing.
Averting an Affair
Averting an affair is doable, but it takes work from both partners, because talking about dissatisfaction with our love life is scary. It requires partners to look, unflinchingly and together, at just where we’re most vulnerable—our sexuality.
Couples therapy is often about helping partners understand that what they think are impediments to their sensual pleasure and satisfaction, and out of their control, are in fact, their constructions. Through all the travails of marriage, when we can still embrace and encourage individual growth, and not have to sacrifice the security and safety our relationship provides, our love deepens. And that makes room for romance.
Bringing the hidden to light is an important part of psychotherapy, sometimes achieved through focus on intellectual reflections. But in recent years, mindfulness-based therapies emphasize awareness of how feelings and physical sensations are related. It is enlightening to notice what happens in the body when we feel strong emotions.
As an example of how lack of mindfulness can hurt, I would sometimes react with anger at my husband when he disagreed or corrected me. But rather than seeing my point of view, he only experienced my anger as defensiveness, while I experienced him as overbearing. The result was that I felt worse.
This pattern continued until I learned to slow down my automatic reaction of anger, by becoming aware of the physical sensations that accompanied my feelings. This allowed me to become aware of the small, fleeting, and easily overlooked span of time between my internal commentary about his comment and my emotional reaction.
What was surprisingly helpful in doing this was to become aware of physical sensations; in mindfulness practices, we call this “mindfulness of the body.” Sleuthing out my emotions when corrected by my husband, I could actually feel my hackles go up. It was subtle but unmistakable.
Sensing our Hackles Before a Fight
When a dog’s hackles go up, the hair between their shoulder blades becomes erect as an automatic reaction to feeling threatened. As Adrienne Janet Farricell, a certified dog trainer explains, special muscles attached to hair follicles “are innervated by the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system and are therefore not under conscious control. The function allows the dog to appear larger, taller and therefore more intimidating than it is. This is a ‘fight or flight’ response triggered by adrenaline.”
Paying attention to my physical response after my husband criticized me, I began to sense that distinct feeling of my hackles going up. But what surprised me even more was what followed: I felt myself contract, my shoulders dropping and my chest becoming slightly concave. I submitted instead of fighting, just as a dog lies submissively on the ground. In the animal world, cowering is a useful and self-protective signaling “I am not a threat to you, so you don’t need to attack me.“ But when we humans do that, we lose some of our power.
Paying attention to this small and subtle sequence of physical sensation help us notice the physical reactions that often precede the ultimate expression of strong emotion. Without being aware of how we succumb to our initial reactions we are unable to address the problem that’s making us react.
Making the automatic conscious is liberating on many levels. First, we gain some control over our automatic responses—something dogs cannot easily do. Second, greater physical and emotional awareness lets us link direct relationship to felt experiences. Being able to name an experience or find an image for it, as I did with the hackles example, opens our understanding, bringing meaning to what on the surface looks like plain old anger.
It is important to know that an angry outburst is not always a bad thing. Anger is a reaction that often stands in for other feelings that are less available to us. Let’s imagine a typical couple’s situation of the sort I see in my practice. When Jill got angry at Sam, she didn’t always stop to feel what that anger signified. Their arguments escalated as they each get more flooded with emotions. But when Jill reflected on her anger, her felt-sense was of being small, childlike, and without a voice of her own. Childlike? Sure enough, just as she’d felt in her family growing up with three older brothers, she experienced Sam as being dismissive of her opinions and dominating her in a situation where she was powerless.
Sam, meanwhile, had no idea she was feeling this way, because all he saw was her childish, to him, outburst. He tagged Jill as being easily out of control, making him feel all the more self-righteous toward her, which further reinforced Jill—and Sam–feeling like Jill was the problem in the relationship. Sam was off the hook, and did not have to look at his role.
Pausing Before Reacting
As this example shows, our reactions and feelings may mean more than we consciously know. In some traditions such as Tibetan Buddhism, mindfulness translates as “to remember.” This process of witnessing our emotions and our physical sensations requires remembering to push the pause button before our automatic reactions take hold. In a disagreement between couples, this may mean agreeing to a time-out, or the pause may be as subtle as one breath—a period between two sentences. Pausing gives us the space to be aware without becoming stuck in automatic reactions, attacking back, or inwardly growing smaller and losing the essence of our feelings, which are usually quite valid.
This pause also gives us time to consolidate our understanding of our self. Jill recognized an old memory: that of being discounted, unheard, or dismissed. She also understood that when anger dominates, the more important issues get lost.
Being Alert to Underlying Emotions
Of course, staying calm while having hard conversations can be challenging. It helps to recognize the early and subtle signs that you are becoming flooded. Once flooded, meaningful conversations come to a grinding halt or turn into a yelling match. Be alert for automatic reactions. Remembering to pause before automatically reacting allows us to tune into the deeper, less conscious feeling: what emotions and what physical sensations are triggered?
At this point, we have a choice. We can either use our awareness to ask directly for a bit of time to get back in emotional balance before continuing. Or, we can use the pause to go deeper into what may be coming up from within. This doesn’t have to be a lengthy process; with practice, that pause can take mere seconds for insight to come.
And in that pause, when we bring awareness to physical sensations like raised hackles or a churning gut, we can use these as signals to look more deeply into our role in what is getting triggered. Too often our automatic response is to assume fault lies outside us, not within. As Cassius says, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
While taking responsibility for what is arising in us, we also need to be aware of its impact on others. When we do this, hackles go down and the back and shoulders lengthen, bringing real power, liberating the Self to be more fully alive and present. Our defense mechanism was only masquerading as power, and that briefly.
What is Your Role?
Taking responsibility does not result in guilty self-recrimination but liberation and power. Once we take ownership of our contribution to conflict, we can more readily bring insight and thus control over our automatic reactions. It may reveal qualities within us that are active and useful in opening us up to be freer, more whole in ways we‘ve barely glimpsed.
Being aware of our default defense mechanisms can help us deal more effectively with difficulty. While many defenses help us cope—psychologists call this defense in service of the ego—they can backfire and hurt us. Because defenses are unconscious, it’s difficult to be aware when they emerge. The best clue that our defenses are lurking is when we react with strong emotions or behaviors, such as rage or sharp criticism.
Some of the most common defenses are projection and denial. They are related in that both mechanisms protect a person’s sense of self by attributing to another (projection) or rejecting (denial) their own unacceptable impulses or feelings, which are made unconscious. Let’s see how that worked with Amie and Jon, who were locked in a cycle of blame when they came to counseling. Amie saw Jon as extremely self-centered, and Jon felt Amie was too emotional, always criticizing him and trying to control him; meanwhile, each felt innocent of playing a role in this cycle.
With therapy, both Jon and Amie could see how they projected unacknowledged parts of themselves onto the other. Amie never gave herself permission to ask for time to be with her friends or to play. She then criticized Jon for taking time for himself instead of spending time with the family. Further examination revealed that Amie’s mother was a martyr and never let anyone in the family forget it. Amie grew up feeling that taking time for herself was selfish. She denied feelings of wanting to take time for herself and projected her anxiety about selfishness onto Jon. Meanwhile, Jon disowned his own anger by projecting it all onto Amie.
This dynamic created misunderstanding and distance. Once both Amie and Jon saw their role, they not only reduced conflict but had more access to dormant passions. Replacing anger with understanding brought new ways of relating. Sex reentered the marriage, along with play and a deeper acceptance of each other.
When your hackles go up–whenever you have a strong emotional reaction–you have an opportunity to learn something new. By pausing and paying close attention to your bodily sensations and your thoughts, you can discover something unexpected, something that ultimately empowers you.
There’s a plethora of information about happiness.
My literature search on this subject yielded over 13,000 scholarly research articles and over one thousand books. Advice about how to be happy floods the internet daily with simplistic listicles and click-bait articles that make it all seem so easy.
But their advice, like telling a sad person to think about all the reasons they shouldn’t be sad, or a depressed person to just get up and exercise, doesn’t work. Thinking about the good things in life can sometimes ameliorate sad feelings, but usually, trying to grasp at happiness when in the grip of a depressed mood leads to failure. And while the research on exercise’s positive effect on depression is robust and persuasive, depressed people lack the drive to work out: that’s what depression means.
These suggestions, though well-meant, amount to telling depressed persons to snap out of it—or it’s their fault. This shames the sufferer, making things worse. And the resulting family strife doesn’t help. Well-intentioned spouses and parents who believe that snapping out of it actually is within a depressed person’s power will eventually succumb to exasperation and resignation.
A recent New York Times article gives suggestions for eliminating negative thinking, and paraphrases Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence: ” it might be helpful to ask yourself if you are accomplishing anything by dwelling on your negative thoughts.”
Depressed people have negative thoughts. Understandable. When we’re depressed, we’re likely to feel hopeless, inadequate, and a failure. While practicing controlled breathing and mindfulness even with your eyes open, as the article suggests, will help, how do we get to the point of making these actions regular parts of daily life? When sadness overwhelms, it is often impossible to follow well-meaning suggestions with regularity. Like New Years’ resolutions, these techniques fade quickly.
When Sadness is Normal
Sometimes sadness is normal. Experiencing a range of feelings in reaction to painful life events is understandable; these life stressors would make most of us depressed. When psychologists see a client for a first appointment, we assess mood, its duration, and the severity of distress. Is the client’s symptoms within normal limits given the precipitant for entering therapy, e.g., a marital crisis, job loss, or death of a family member? We would say a client’s feelings are “within normal limits” when they come to therapy with sadness after losing a loved one.
In my own practice, a former client returned to treatment recently because his wife had just died. He spoke of his inability to shake the feelings of loss and sadness. It had only been four weeks, and he asked me if it is normal to feel depressed, and the question that inevitably follows: how long it will last? It’s okay to feel sad—but to someone grieving, the feelings can be so intense that time stands still. Four weeks can feel like four years.
It’s hard to feel deep emotional distress, of course. Indeed, because suffering is part of the human condition, we’ve devised a vast repertoire of ways to avoid experiencing our painful emotions and worrisome thoughts, including self-medicating by substance use, distraction by Facebook and other media outlets, and much more. Americans account for two-thirds of the global market for antidepressants, which also happen to be the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States. These drugs can play a vital role in helping many people cope with chronic depression, but all too often these medications are over prescribed or prescribed without looking at inner sources of depression.
When Positive Thinking and Life Coaching Make it Worse
Or, life coaches with little training in mood disorders are prescribing positive thinking the way many physicians prescribe mood stabilizers, but even positive thinking strategies are ways to avoid painful feelings. I have seen the disastrous results of life coaches who work remotely from home, charging enormous amounts of money to people desperate for help. Sadly, these coaches have not laid eyes on the people they propose to help. They are unable to see the dangerous weight loss or weight gain or pick up the nuanced suicidal non-verbal communications.
One client I saw judged himself to be a failure after his six-month life-coaching sessions because he was unable to feel better or do the things the coach was suggesting. When I saw him after his failed coaching experience, he was in a deep depression, his sadness palpable. I asked if he was suicidal and he admitted that he was—something his coach had never asked about. Alerting his partner and suggesting hospitalization was imperative. Alarmingly, he had already seen three different psychiatrists and obtained antidepressants from each, and not one of them had inquired about suicidality.
Another example from my practice is that of a woman who saw a life coach because she hated her job. They talked about the need to follow her bliss and sever ties with her employer. She took this advice, quit her job, and when her unemployment ended, she was unable to find another job. Despondent, she came to therapy to help sort out her feelings about her life and to find a way to understand why she was unhappy at her former job. She needed to understand her role in how she was sabotaging herself. She took the long road to what ultimately brought her fullness and acceptance of life and work.
Accepting Suffering as Unavoidable
Suffering can’t be avoided. (In Buddhism, it’s the first Noble Truth.) But allowing ourselves to express sadness and to accept deep pain will eventually allow these feelings to dissipate; blocking emotions only deepens problems. Also, giving ourselves time to settle into feeling allows us to recognize that they ebb and flow. Through this, we can accept that while old age and death are inevitable, and feeling sad is part of living, suffering is impermanent. By being able to sit with emotions and not get caught up in either rumination or anxious fretting, we develop a steadiness of mind. Meditation works by settling our turbulent thoughts and emotions so that we can titrate them into tolerable moments.
When sadness becomes major depression, positive thinking (and related approaches, such as life coaching) are like putting a Band-Aid on a gushing wound. Facing our pain, learning to bear our suffering, and then doing the deep inner work of understanding our role in our troubles is a way out. It is often slow and filled with obstacles. Here are some steps in the process:
- Become aware of subtle emotions as you experience them. By becoming aware of emotions as you feel them, rather than pushing them away, you will be better able to use them to employ coping strategies.
- When emotions become intense, know that feelings don’t stay that way forever. All emotions are transient. Practices such as regular meditation help us not just to become aware of feeling but also not to indulge them.
- Remember that subtle change is hard to see. A broken bone mends slowly; in the early stages, healing is hardly noticeable on an X-ray.
- Look deeply at ourselves and the role we play in our mood. Doing so opens what is within, leading to understanding and insight.
- Take into account what precipitates depression. Learning to tolerate understandable sadness and some depression helps normalize what we are experiencing. All emotions have a role to play in living well; we must accept and not disown our most difficult feelings.