How to Use a Co-Parenting Journal

Divorced? Juggling a complex co-parenting arrangement with your ex? You might find this guest post helpful. Written by Tim Backes with Custody X Change, a co-parenting scheduling software solution, Tim show-cases some of the simple, do-able ideas his software company offers parents. I don’t usually talk about products in my blog (and please know I’m neither promoting, nor profiting in any way from, this post), but given the number of my clients who are stressing over some variation of shared custody on top of their already hectic lives, I thought this resource may be of use to some families. You can read about creating a co-parenting journal below. I also love their Mindful Co-Parenting Guide

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When you’ve done everything possible but divorce is imminent, it’s time to start planning for your post-divorce life. If you have a child, that means you need a parenting plan and custody schedule.

While you might be able to get away with a very simple calendar template and schedule, you’ll most likely want something a little more thorough. Luckily, there are child custody software solutions to help you do just that.

3 Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Journal

Your co-parenting journal is only as good as you make it. If you follow these three tips, your journal will become a useful resource.

Be Diligent

The name of the game with co-parenting journals is consistency and diligence. Make your journaling routine. Think of it less like a journal and more like a report you would submit to a supervisor at work.

You should make an entry both before and after every exchange. Keep detailed records about your spouse’s timeliness and your child’s mood. Store every email and text you exchange with your ex.

The main idea here is to document anything and everything, and not to only record something when you are angry or think there’s a problem.

Even if something seems minor and unimportant at the time, record it. It may be the beginning of a long-term pattern that will only become clear after more time passes.

Here is a sample of the sorts of things worth documenting, taken from Custody X Change’s free content, found here:

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Be Honest

Yes, even in co-parenting journals, honesty is the best policy. While it might be difficult to leave bias out of your journal entries, in the long run, it will only serve you and your child’s best interests.

That’s why the first point about being diligent is important. If you include all of your text-based communication with your ex and not just communication you feel make you look good or make your spouse look bad, you cannot be accused later of only presenting biased information.

Additionally, by being as honest and forthcoming as possible, you or a professional involved with your custody case will more easily be able to see how your child is adjusting to this new life, which is the most important part of the entire process.

Be Thoughtful

In personal journals, you are free to express your feelings no matter how extreme or how erratic they are, because your personal journal is for your eyes only. But, a co-parenting journal is different.

Since your lawyer, your spouse’s lawyer, the judge, as well as other professionals might see your co-parenting journal, you will want to be extra thoughtful with the way your entries are recorded from word choice to tone.

This also reinforces the idea above about being honest.

In Summary

A co-parenting journal is an important part of your ongoing custody case. It’s quite different than a personal journal, so it’s very important to keep that in mind while you create entries.

The three best rules you can follow are to always be diligent, be honest, and be thoughtful. By doing so you show you are responsible, reasonable, and you’re entries will start to form a pattern over time allowing the professionals involved to help make sound judgments on what is truly best for your child.

Why The Affair?

Affairs are in the air.

Whether its ~

  • the long winter
  • the hint of spring
  • February’s “Snow Moon”
  • the endless disarray of our electoral process . . .

I’m not sure, but more clients than usual are coming to me upon the discovery of an affair.

After I listen to the story – which the betrayed partner absolutely needs to feel welcome to tell in as much or little detail as they wish – I say (more or less) two things.

1. An affair is either a wake-up-call or a death knell;

2. Understanding what happened, what contributed to the cheating partner’s choice to betray, will significantly impact which of the above two options plays out.

And this is tough.

However, yesterday I came upon  a helpful article by a former-cheater-turned-clinical psychologist and optimal performance coach named Jay Kent-Ferraro. He writes very clearly about what he’s determined are the four types or categories of affairs.

I’m re-posting it here because these distinctions can help ~

  1. the Cheater to begin to get some perspective on what just happened;
  2. the Betrayed partner to feel less alone, and to likewise begin to see this behavior in a larger context;
  3. the Therapist – because an accurate diagnosis of what’s going on is vital if a therapist is invited in to co-create a treatment plan with the individuals involved.

For the betrayed partner, I also encourage you to read Before You Trust Again – an article I wrote which gently invites you to become curious about how you may have unwittingly contributed to this situation.


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How can I ever trust them again? If they cheated once won’t they do it again?

“Once a cheater, always a cheater” is an understandable response from anyone who has been betrayed; it offers you the certainty to dismiss an unfaithful partner’s pleas for “I can change and won’t ever do this again”, removing the potential for getting hurt because it allows you to never trust them, and sometimes anyone, ever again.

 The problem is it’s too simple and fails to appreciate the complexity of why people cheat in the first place, let alone predicting whether or not they are capable of betraying you again – an important question to ask if you are a victim of infidelity.

 The psychology of infidelity is actually quite complex, much more than the current moralistic conversation about it where people are “good”, “bad” or “flawed”, therefore dismissed as damaged goods. Pundits and gurus abound offering their take on “can I ever trust him again” or “how to affair proof your relationship”, but too often good intentioned advice misses the real issue.

 You see the question is not “Can I ever trust him again”? but rather, “What contributed to this person’s choice to betray me – why did they choose infidelity”? The first question is an unanswerable one as trusting your partner following an affair has more to do with YOU and how YOU choose to respond to being betrayed. The second question is much more interesting, and if answered correctly, more likely to keep you safe if you decide to heal and evolve together following an affair.

 Every affair tells a story and although it is true that the story has something to do with the state of a relationship where betrayal takes place, what’s more true is that infidelity tells an important story about who the unfaithful partner is – the state of their own psyche and soul; whether they are even suitable for a real relationship with anyone with the bandwidth to actually love.

 Infidelity always has a purpose to it, although most often that purpose is not known or understood, and must be, in order to really answer the questions around “Once a cheater, always a cheater”. All behavior is purposeful and people don’t do anything without a reason for doing it. Your task is to become your own “personal psychologist” and ask the right questions about the right issues to arrive at your own truth about keeping yourself safe in a relationship with someone who has betrayed you.

 I’m here to help you do that because I am uniquely qualified. I’m an adulterer who happens to be a licensed clinician and willing to tell the truth about why I chose to have an affair. I have an expertise in the “psychology of infidelity”, not from a text book or social media platform, but from living the excruciating pain of having an affair that resulted in a divorce, growing up and searching my own soul for the answers to “why I did it”, and earning the trust and affections of the woman I betrayed again resulting in a magical reconciliation where we just celebrated our 14th wedding anniversary.

 I am going to tell you the “reasons” that contributed to my choice to be unfaithful, and then offer you a context to help you decide for yourself what motivates people to have an affair. My goal is to empower you with choices you may not know you have as you chart your own relationship path.

 For me, there were six factors that contributed to a series of choices to have an affair:

  1. I believed that the rules didn’t apply to me: Being a licensed clinician gave me more excuses and rationalizations to hide behind. The arrogance of having answers for everyone else allowed me to hide from the truth that if you don’t show up and ask for what you want in a relationship, you give up the right to expect having it. I expected a lot and didn’t show up by being emotionally absent which set the marriage up to be unfulfilling and fail.
  1. I confused significance and self-worth with certainty and success: I became a workaholic believing that Julie loved me only because of what I could provide her with allowing anger and entitlement, a dangerous alchemy fueling my acting out, to justify the erosion of boundaries and values giving rise to my affair. Without boundaries and a value base to live from, anyone is capable of having an affair.
  1. I made up that my wife was the cause of my unhappiness and disappointment in our marriage: I felt sorry for myself and blamed Julie for why I was so unfulfilled; once you convince yourself you’re a victim of something, you can justify anything. That belief alone allowed me to have an affair with impunity, almost a right, to find happiness with another – after all, “I had done so much and got back so little from my marriage”. Affair psychology is delusional!
  1. I was an accomplished liar: Men have an uncanny and dangerous ability to compartmentalize their lives such that one part doesn’t recognize the other. In this split, dissociative state, I rationalized everything including the creation of the two worlds I relished in calling it “complexity”, convinced myself I was being taken advantage of by Julie, and therefore had the right to find happiness “as long as no one knows so no one gets hurt”. So I did, under the self-deception of protecting her failing to see that the deception in an affair is where most of the pain is. Without integrity life simply doesn’t work.
  1. I confused sexual attraction and fantasy for love: Early in life, I learned to use sex as a drug and means of escape where I could nurture myself and soothe the chaos of an abusive childhood. When confronted with parallel lives, a child-focused marriage and the perceived neglect and lack of appreciation I felt in our marriage, I turned to strip clubs and pornography as a cure that only made things worse. A real relationship can never compete with a fantasy, and sexual attraction isn’t love. I confused an experience of excitement and novelty with a person I called my “soul mate” and chased that person as if they were the source of feeling alive. They weren’t. Affairs are not real relationships; they’re fantasies on speed built on deception that cannot stand the light of day.
  1. I didn’t take responsibility for my mental health. To love someone requires that we grow up, rise above our wounds, and take responsibility for what we need as adults. I failed to manage my depression, something I struggled with since childhood, evolve beyond my family of origin ghosts, and attend to my mental health needs. By not doing the necessary work to grow and heal, I never matured into someone capable of giving and receiving mature love. Intimacy, what I claimed to want and crave, was actually not something I was capable of, yet I blamed the marriage and Julie for “denying it to me”, further reinforcing my sense of entitlement to get that need met somewhere else.


While there is never a sufficient “explanation” excusing why someone is unfaithful, there is always a reason with a purpose for why affairs happen. Failing to understand what those reasons are robs you of the opportunity to learn from the experience, your best response to it, and can remove the chance to save a marriage ravaged from its effects.

I told you that the psychology of infidelity is complex and now I will tell you why:

The purpose of every affair is often as unique as the personality, life history, beliefs, values, needs and relationship dynamics of the person being unfaithful, and for that reason, I dismiss pithy overly simplistic explanations that try to answer complex questions through 3-step programs. The answer to “why they did it”? And “will they do it again”? can be answered, if you know what “type” of affair it is and the “purpose” of that specific affair.  All affairs are not equal although all are devastating. 

 After searching my own soul for several years, and now walking that same journey with people trying to answer their own questions about being unfaithful with people around the world, here’s what I’ve learned about “why people have affairs” and the truth about misguided advice like “Once a cheater, always a cheater”.

Type I: Fantasy & Flight Affairs

After hearing hundreds of personal accounts of clients struggling to discover, “why I did it”, I am convinced the vast majority of infidelity falls into the Fantasy & Flight category. Here, the “purpose” of an affair is romanticism gone awry where the need erroneously being met is to feel something you convince yourself is missing in your primary relationship assuming it now exists exclusively in your affair partner, the most unlikely place for it.

I call this affair pattern the “Soul-Mate Trap” where people confuse an “object” (the affair partner), with an “experience” (the feelings you get from being with a new person), collapsing them into a narrow reality they call “a soul mate”, based on a fantasy made up of fiction and emotions on speed.

The pursuit of a “soul mate”, as justification for choosing to have an affair, is the desperate attempt to find what is incomplete and missing in you. It is a plea for connection, wholeness, and getting “that loving feeling” again using the fantasy you create with an affair partner to bring you back to life.

Here are some patterns of Fantasy & Flight Affairs:

  • Accidental Affairs – An “unconscious” person not in touch with their feelings or needs, not honest about what’s missing in their marriage and vulnerable because they wrongly believe – “I’d never be unfaithful” – find themselves in a perfect storm situation where too much alcohol, too much enjoyment and not enough boundaries blow their life open when they find themselves in a place with a person they never imagined they would.
  • Soul Mate Affairs – Confusing a feeling for a truth that’s based on a fantasy that never will be, you convince yourself and anyone else who will buy it, that you’ve “found your soul mate” and do whatever it takes to legitimize the affair.
  • Flying Boys & Girls – A large group of “purposes” can be found here to include the proverbial mid-life crisis and feeling alive through the attention of someone 20 years younger, pursuing the fountain of youth, White Knight rescue missions, alleviating the panic of pending mortality or simply the commitment phobic amongst us. Here, the combination of refusing to grow up fuses with ‘time’s running out’ on the existential clock and “I got to do what I got to do” to feel relevant and vibrant so might as well use an affair to fix that problem.

Advice: While damaging and hurtful, these affairs are often the most responsive to good help, great boundaries and sincere healing efforts. Once they “wake up” assuming they decide to grow up, the prognosis is good that you get an evolved partner who is much more aware and awake to themselves and their relationship, as well as motivated to keep those relationships healthy from ever going there again. Stick with it, work with a competent therapist and do your homework to grow and design a new relationship with more transparency and higher standards for both partners.

Type II: Pathology & Deviance Affairs:

If you’re trying to make sense of being betrayed and/or sorting through the pieces of an affair remember this: All affairs are not created equal and not all people can be faithful. Fortunately, this next affair type is typically the minority of actual affairs that occur in marriages, yet they are the ones that get the most attention because of the press celebrity infidelity garners in our society.

The “purpose” of Pathology & Deviance affairs is straightforward: Serving needs that are skewed, distorted, and often unconscious rooted in family of origin wounds never dealt with. These affairs have everything to do with the unfaithful partner and little to do with those they betray.

In other words, you can be in what by all accounts is a “great relationship” (e.g. Ask Maria Shriver about Arnold) and the affair will still happen leaving betrayed partners very confused and blaming themselves or their relationships for failing to meet the needs of people who are really “black holes” where nothing real will ever suffice to meet their needs.

Here are some patterns of Pathology & Deviance Affairs:

  • Narcissistic Affairs – These are the proverbial “black holes” where entitlement and a mind-blowing lack of empathy make intimacy near impossible for these sad souls. Plagued by a diminished capacity to love or emotionally connect, flagrant disregard for others, hedonistically self-indulgent and feeling justified in doing so, these folks don’t have a core or solid sense of Self. They use relationship as a means for filling up a deep psychological void created by either the absence of nurturing and love in childhood for which they are compensating in adulthood, or were objectified themselves as children, and sometimes adults (celebrities, politicians, pro atheletes) highly indulged and given special privileges and treatment in exchange for the worship of family, friends and caregivers.
  • Sociopathic Affairs – Stay away from these people once you know this is what you’re dealing with! The most damaged souls amongst us can also be the most charming, however, their lack of remorse (cannot take responsibility) alongside their inability to see, understand or recognize the pain they cause the betrayed (no empathy) is a tell-tale sign you are dealing with an antisocial personality disorder or “sociopath”. The purpose of an affair here is simple: “It is always and will always be about me” and you can expect compulsive lies, gross irresponsibility, blame of the betrayed, lots of drama and a confusing absence of “normal” emotion when caught or confronted about their infidelity. Run don’t walk!
  • Sexual Compulsivity/Addiction & Philandering – Sex and Love addictions are real, and although similar in how they operate, each has a different purpose. Philanderers are love addicts who have such low self-esteem they need the attention and constant experience of “new love” to feel alive and worthwhile, whereas Sex Addicts do not feel much of anything unless an orgasm is involved so they confuse sexual attraction for real love engaging in compulsive rituals that often involve infidelity in desperate attempts to jump start their numb existence.

Advice: This affair “type” only gets better with a lot of commitment to recovery and lots of therapy which many in this category refuse to subject themselves to. Absent treatment by qualified mental health professionals, a robust accountability system and serious commitment to heal, grow and evolve, these “types” are unfit for relationship with anyone except maybe a gold fish!

Type III: Poor Strategies & Bad Intent Affairs:

Let’s face it… relationships are hard and most of us simply suck at them. Many have had poor relationship role models and examples, have acquired lousy coping skills, and despite the Oprah effect, are pretty ill equipped to succeed in proportion to what we expect to receive from love and relationships.

Sometimes, it isn’t bad people with bad morals, but rather, just people overwhelmed and under-resourced to such a degree they do really stupid things like have affairs doing more damage than if they simply dealt with the negative feelings fueling their poor choices.

Here are some patterns of Poor Strategies & Bad Intent Affairs:

  • Passive Aggressive Affairs – The purpose here is the expression of anger in the form of contempt and the ultimate form of criticism through the ultimate invalidation – sleeping with someone else. The message: “kiss my ass you worthless partner; you haven’t been there for me in years so I’ll do whatever the hell I want to meet my needs; if you find out so be it – you deserve it” – nasty stuff!
  • Sabotage Affairs – These are “coward affairs” where the unfaithful partner is not willing to take responsibility for their dissatisfaction in the marriage by doing something proactive about it. Instead, they live on a precarious edge where they feel both emboldened and justified to engage in the affair ‘in hopes’ that the infidelity will be found out and usher in the separation or divorce they fantasize about, but are unwilling to assume accountability for.
  • Revenge Affairs – Driven by irrational rage in relationships with a history of stored up resentment and hostilities which lie dormant and underground, the purpose of the affair coalesces into a grand finale in the form of a pay-back affair where the intent is to injure and hurt the self esteem of the betrayed partner who is made wrong and killed off thus allowing the unfaithful to justify any action to ‘pay them back’ for the hurt they believe they’ve been a victim of.

Advice: These are immature, un-evolved people who blame others instinctively and tend to see the source of their troubles originating in things outside of them, versus where they are – in how they think about and relate to the world around them. That said, people can learn and grow up, therefore change, and with the right support and new strategies, more adaptive ways to be with a partner can happen leading to healthier relationships if both are willing to work at it.

Type IV: Benevolent Neglect Affairs

The “common cold” of modern marriage is de-vitalization where the friendship tanks, both people take each other for granted, one person focuses on the kids, the other the career, parallel lives ensue and you stop meeting one another’s needs slowly euthanizing the soul of the relationship leaving both partner’s numb and dead to one another.

The “purpose” of Benevolent Neglect Affairs is to feel alive again, but in the wrong place; trying to find fulfillment with an affair partner (not happening because they’re based on fantasies and fantasies don’t last!) by bringing your best to someone else – what would actually vitalize the marriage that you’re fleeing from!

Here, you typically find good people who are “staying for the kids” or some other seemingly “good” motive who are using an affair as a very maladaptive way of coping with very real dissatisfaction in their marriage.

Here are some patterns of Benevolent Neglect Affairs:

  • Parallel Lives Affairs – The roles and responsibilities you create and design your lives around leave little to no space, time or energy for either of you to meet your deeper needs for closeness, connection, nurturing, attention or fun. You choke on tasks and are overwhelmed by responsibilities you feel alone and unappreciated for doing. You attend to each of your respective lanes with diligence and discipline giving you the experience of being responsible and ‘serving’ the other. The problem is you live in a state of perpetual disconnect – while you are doing many of the right things you become “roommates”, not passionate lovers, and the thought of existing this way the rest of your days especially if you’re over 40 scares the hell out of you making you a prime candidate for an affair!
  • Just Friends Affairs – A common affair pattern is that women are more likely to have affairs for love and companionship, while men are more often content with sex alone confusing it with love and companionship. Women are likely to believe that their infidelity is justified if it’s for love; men are likely to believe their infidelity is justified if it’s NOT for love. In both cases, needs not met in the primary relationship that is neglected are being met through an emotional affair (eventually sexual) almost always justified on the basis of “we’re just friends”. People have affairs to experience an emotional connection that they feel is lacking in their primary relationship. They stray in search of someone who pays attention to their feelings and encourages meaningful contact be it “emotional” (female pattern) or “sexual” (male pattern) citing a need for “friendship” as the culprit.
  • Child-Focused Marriage – Child focused marriages where the needs of the children or “family” take precedence over the needs of the adults in the marriage are both sad and ironic affair types. Sad, in that there is typically a lot of love in these relationships and ironic that it is so misdirected that it often leads to unnecessary divorces after being ravaged by an affair. Inverse priorities are the problem here where the sexual and emotional needs of the adults are relegated to last place and where the focus of time, energy and attention goes exclusively to the kids or “family”. The purpose of the affair is a misguided attempt to satisfy legitimate longings in very illegitimate ways undermining everything really important to both partners.

Advice: The good news, if there can be any in this territory, is that Benevolent Neglect Affairs have more to do with bad priorities than bad character. Misdirected energy can be leveraged and focused in the direction of an anemic relationship in need of care, nurturance and being first for a change making survivability of a marriage after an affair quite possible in these situations.


So, “Once a cheater always a cheater” is really a defense mechanism and it too has a purpose: To protect you from getting hurt by never trusting anyone again. Don’t do that! Instead, get smart by understanding what drives someone to betray and determining the “purpose” of the affair. For Julie and I, it was in the ashes of our marriage where that purpose was discovered, and together, we made new meaning and determined to grow together from it



The Top Six Benefits of Pre-Marital Counseling

Getting married?


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And, an effective, research-based, professionally delivered Pre-Marital Preparation Program is high on your gift registry – right?

If you answer “Why yes, of course! Why on earth would I consider something so life-changingly profound without some serious tire-kicking, research and advice!” then good for you.

You and your partner have already considered the top six benefits of  professional pre-marital preparation:

1. BEGIN WITH THE END IN MIND ~ Just because you love someone very much does not a happy lifetime make. A pre-marital prep program which helps a couple dig more deeply into who each person is as an individual and how this person with this background might mesh with that person with that  background is vital for planning a life together.

2. GRASP THE ENORMITY OF THIS COMMITMENT ~ I mean, whom you marry will have THE biggest impact on every aspect of your life: Where you live; how you live; the rhythm of your days; your children’s genes and/or upbringing; your daily budget and your long term savings; your friends; your diet; your connection with your family of origin; your spiritual life; your recreation…. you get the point! Learning how to broach and discuss these topics with a spirit of curiosity and open-ness is a vitally helpful skill.

3. ENORMOUS PERSONAL GROWTH ~ A committed, long-term relationship is going to call you into places of deep personal awareness and growth like nothing else can. Learning how to allow this, how to respond without defensiveness and how to gracefully expand into the best possible version of yourself is something you’ll learn with good pre-marital consulting.

4. ANTICIPATE & PREDICT ISSUES ~ A bit like hearing there’s a storm coming allows you to put up the shutters and lay in extra food, getting an eyes-wide-open awareness for the areas in your relationship that are likely to be rocky allows you to prepare, and not be so side-swiped when they show up. Money, sex and anger are the “big three” but all sorts of differences which can seem small now might blow up one day – so skill up for this.

5. GET AN OUTSIDE OPINION ~ You know your love is vast and sound, but if you feel  vulnerable about exploring some issues before you even say “I do” it might be particularly wise to expose your relationship to the helpful wisdom of a licensed marriage and family expert. Not because he or she will find flaws and tell you you’re nuts, but because it helps to normalize rough spots and frictions, see yourselves from the outside, and feel free to talk with a trusted professional who has only your couple success at heart – not familial loyalty nor impossibly high expectations.  

6. SKILL UP! ~ This will not come as a surprise, but people have been getting married and divorced for a very long time and by and by some social scientists and researchers have been paying attention. There is excellent evidence based research out there from which you can benefit – but only if you know about it. Setting aside some time to learn about principles and practices that foster love, connection and attachment will be one of the best educational investments you ever make over your lifetime if you want to boost your chances of creating a loving, secure, mutually satisfying relationship.

If you answer “Of course not! Why would I have any doubt in our ability to use our love to solve all problems?”

Stay tuned!

I’m hoping to make the case to you that you’ll vastly increase your chances of success by investing in some learning and experiential help with a great pre-marital program – watch this space!



The #1 Relationship Skill

This past year – 2015 – I challenged myself to identify and share the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-did.”

Here’s the list – and at the end of this article are links to each of the posts I’ve written on this journey:

Top 12 Relationship Skills

As a Marriage & Family Therapist I spend time every day with brave people who’ve hit some relational wall with a spouse, partner, sibling, parent, child or co-worker and who want to understand what went wrong, how to fix it and  – best of all – how not to hit that wall again in the future.

Sometimes, with some people, it’s relatively easy to help them identify the problem, make a repair and build in some good healthy alternative patterns. With some folks it’s much harder but the love and commitment are deep enough to sustain them through the effort.  And some folks decide it is time to move on.

Screen shot 2015-12-30 at 6.37.17 AMThroughout this year of drilling down into what I consider to be the top 12 relationship skills we all need I’ve been hoping I’d unearth the Rosetta Stone of Loving Relationships.

I so wished there would be one theme, one thread, one skill or attribute which – if found as helpful between one dyad – might also be discernible as a key skill for happy relating between all partners, parents and children, siblings and friends.

Faith traditions have of course held the same question and answered with variations on the theme of Love.

“Love one another.”

It’s darned good advice as far as it goes, and we even have some behavioral injunctions from Saint Paul in his letter to the Corinthians ~

  • Love is always patient and kind; love is never jealous; love is not boastful or conceited,
  • it is never rude and never seeks its own advantage, it does not take offense or store up grievances.
  • Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but finds its joy in the truth.
  • It is always ready to make allowances, to trust, to hope and to endure whatever comes.
  • Love never comes to an end.

However, folks tend to come to me when they’ve run out of that loving feeling or they’ve lost the will to practice these loving behaviors. So then what?


Screen shot 2015-12-30 at 7.28.49 AMThen what indeed.

I’m going out on a limb here.

I’m going to claim that I think there is one skill, one way of being that helps everything.

I’ve not named it as one particular skill in my list of 12 so I need to figure out how to do that. But I have discovered it weaving through all of the skills I’ve written about.

It’s not so much a Rosetta Stone metaphor as a “how does a fish know it’s in water” question.

Screen shot 2015-12-30 at 7.32.30 AM


So what is this one thing which, if applied to any relationship, makes the biggest difference?


It’s the ability to bring conscious awareness to each moment. It’s the ability to be in your life, in each moment, at the same time as you are aware of your life and yourself in each moment.

It’s the ability to be “The one who watches.”


Because each of these 12 skills –

  1. Recognize and get to know the many versions of you
  2. Learn how to choose which “you” shows up in any given moment
  3. Accept and get curious about other people’s complexity
  4. Master the art of conversation
  5. Listen with your whole self
  6. Cultivate empathy
  7. Be kind
  8. Negotiate with a win-win mentality
  9. Build or re-build trust
  10. Be genuinely sorry and apologetic when necessary
  11. Forgive and move on when necessary
  12. Let go of past resentments, present blindness and future expectations ~

each of them, depends upon your ability to do this. To nurture the intelligent life within your heart and mind and body and stay awake and aware of your moments.

If you are not present to your own moments, how will you know ~

  1. what mood you’re in?
  2. which version of you needs to show up?
  3. how others are responding to you?
  4. how you’ll speak if you’re not connected to your heart?
  5. how to listen if you’re unaware of what ears you’re listening with?
  6. how the other chap is feeling to foster empathy?
  7. what kindness in this moment might look like?
  8. what win-win means for the two of you?
  9. how trust can arise?
  10. what you’ve done that is hurtful?
  11. what you are genuinely capable of forgiving within your own heart?
  12. what you are holding onto in the past, present or future that you may wish to lighten up?

At the heart of this celebration of conscious awareness is a big, fat, juicy invitation to fall more deeply in love with yourself. Here’s a sweet reminder from Anne Lamott

If you don’t believe in God, it may help to remember this great line of Geneen Roth’s: that awareness is learning to keep yourself company. And then learn to be more compassionate company, as if you were somebody you are fond of and wish to encourage. I doubt that you would read a close friend’s early efforts and, in his or her presence, roll your eyes and snicker. I doubt that you would pantomime sticking your finger down your throat. I think you might say something along the lines of, ‘Good for you. We can work out some of the problems later, but for now, full steam ahead!” 

I mean, it’s hard to cultivate a satisfying reciprocal loving relationship if we’re not so fond of the person we’re asking this other person to love back – right?

When I set out on this path my hope was

That you’ll become more aware of what you do that works – what brings you closer to people. And that you’ll become more hopeful and empowered as you consider those relationships that are fragile or cracked. Are there ideas here that will help you build a firmer footing?

So I guess I’ve come full circle.

At the end of a year spent identifying which skills help you cultivate great relationships with others, I’ve actually unearthed a skill which helps you cultivate a great relationship with yourself.
Screen shot 2015-12-30 at 9.18.17 AMGood old T.S. Eliot nails it again!

Makes sense!

May each of us grow in conscious awareness.

May we increasingly discover the joy that arises when we see and accept ourselves for the gift of our existence.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

To those who have subscribed to this blog – a huge thank you! My commitment to weekly blogging will be changing and these ideas will take on a new form. I’d love to have your company as this next iteration evolves.

To those who have stumbled here via some other portal, thank you! I’d love your company moving forward so do please sign up so we can stay in touch.


This is the last article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

If you’re interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self

SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut

SKILL SEVEN ~ Practice Kindness

SKILL EIGHT ~ Negotiate with a Win-Win Mentality


SKILL NINE ~ Build (or rebuild) trust.

SKILL TEN ~ Apologize & “Do Over” When You’ve Blown It

SKILL ELEVEN ~ Forgive and Move On When They’ve Blown It

SKILL TWELVE ~ Let go. Relationships end. You’ll learn, grow and carry on.


Screen shot 2015-12-30 at 9.06.34 AM

I’ve gathered this list together from a variety of sources. Principally I want to acknowledge ~

  • Dr. Richard Schwartz and Internal Family Systems;
  • Marshall Rosenberg and Non Violent Communication;
  • Dr. Haim Guinot and Between Parent and Child;
  • Dan Wile and Collaborative Couples Therapy;
  • Dr. John Gottman, and 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work;
  • Dale Carnegie and How To Win Friends & Influence People
  • My parents, whose individual lives were rich and principled yet whose marriage was tough. Their difficulties motivate my quest.
  • And my own family – husband Mark, son Charlie and daughter Mona, who know how much I fall short of my efforts to relate well, and yet who love me anyway.
  • Stuart Schnell, whose critical thinking, inquiring mind and generous nature have pushed several of these essays into greater clarity. I know there are more improvements needed Stuart!
  • My rich and wonderful community of friends. You know who you are. You are supportive, forgiving, funny, kind, persistent, generous, giving and more. Oh – and you keep some champagne in your fridge “just in case!”

Great Expectations – A Story

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EVERY year my mother would hope, in her heart of hearts, that my father would think about her and get one small thing, anything, something, as a gift under the tree.

And every year my mother “ran” Christmas single-handedly. She was the planner; shopper; cook; Santa; tree trimmer; gift-giver; guest-list maker; party-thrower; Christmas Card author and holly-bough-swagger while my father kept well out of her way.

In his defense my Dad was one-eyed and color-blind; had lost his sense of taste after a war-time head wound and had lost the feeling in his hands and feet after taking Thalidomide for insomnia in the 1950’s. This meant he covered everything he ate in tomato ketchup and tended to break glassware, tree ornaments and tiny Christmas lights.

He was, in his own terms, “a man’s man” and back in the day “manly men” didn’t help with Christmas. One year he and the Uncles were deputized for Santa duty, but that was also the year the pre-Christmas party rendered all the Santas overly merry, and they were summarily fired by the women “so as not to wake the children.”

Every year my mother would drop tiny hints as to suitable gifts. However, her hints were so small even her own mother would have missed them and they certainly blew right past my Dad. Until the year something landed and my father actually did what my mother thought she wanted.

Some back story:

DSCF2053.jpgMy mother had a sense of style and an eye for beauty. She was formally trained as a dress designer and raised in a home speckled with antiques. She herself haunted local auction houses and slowly built up a small but tasteful collection of Georgian and Edwardian items which added a certain flair to parts of our home.

Whether she was nesting in a British-army-issue barracks, or in the occasional civilian home my family bought, she made the place lovely.

DadMy Dad – “the man’s man” – was one of five Irish boys who attended an all-boys boarding school; played Rugby for Ireland; joined the army; fought in WWII; and worked most of his career in an all-male environment. Living in a houseful of women (wife and five daughters) he had three modest demands for happiness on the home front: 

  1. A male dog (we always had one);
  2. A sturdy arm chair positioned by his book shelf with a bright light;
  3. Tomato ketchup with every meal.

All this not-with-standing, when I was about 14 and the only daughter still based at home, he approached me in mid-November with a conspiratorial air.

Gem, I need your help! I’ve got an idea for your mother this Christmas.”

I was thrilled! Things between them were perpetually dodgy and maybe this spasm of thoughtfulness signaled a fresh start? They’d be loving and attentive and happy… my mind took off down a rosy-tinted Rabbit hole.

Then my father produced his idea in the form of a catalog of the most ghastly, fake-looking reproduction antiques I’d ever seen. I think I gasped.

Marvelous, eh!” beamed my father.

I’m thinking your mother needs a nice new bedside table,” and he turned to a page of beauties. Sickly cream-colored edifices, with channeled spindly legs poorly painted, and with a sort of glazed faux-marble surface that looked like a 1950’s kitchen counter tear-out. 

Screen Shot 2015-12-15 at 10.12.39 PM

I was now on the horns of an excruciating dilemma. An exquisitely designed web of expectations beset all three of us ~

  • my father expected to make his wife happy, for a change;
  • my mother expected to be disappointed, as usual;
  • I expected the above two expectations to collide, unhappily.

Here is how things looked to me that November.

Screen shot 2015-12-16 at 7.55.45 AM.pngFrom my mother’s viewpoint, she had a wonderful bedside table but it had perplexed my father for years since it had a hole in it.

A bit like this one, these Georgian mahogany commodes had a spot for the porcelain chamber pot in that lower drawer.

Pre-indoor plumbing at its most gracious.

My mother’s explanations about the beauty of the wood, the elegance of the form, the particular joy it gave her to pop flowers in the porcelain pot – left my father bemused and seemed to call forth some here-to-fore dormant “man-must-fix-problem-of-hole” instinct.

I knew, without a whisker of doubt, that this reproduction side table my father favored would elicit a reaction closer to nausea than joy from my mother.

From my father’s point of view, he’d totally scored. He’d paid attention to this issue of the hole in his wife’s bedside table; he knew my mother was fussy about furniture and preferred old so clearly new-old, “functional but-elegant” (as the brochure copy reassured him) was clearly what she needed.

I also knew, without a whisker of doubt, that if my mother reacted to his gift with anything other than delight she might as well kiss goodbye to any future attempts. This was my Dad trying something new and it had to go well.

From my point of view . . what can I say?

I desperately wanted my parents to connect. I needed (but did not expect without my intervention ) ~

  • my Mum to see the intention and effort behind the actual (hideous) offering;
  • my Dad to feel effective, like he could get things right with my Mum sometimes;
  • to feel emotionally safe that Christmas.

So – facing my fears  I started down the path of managing expectations, with a delightfully unexpected outcome.

I spent time looking at the catalog with my Dad, making appreciative noises and steering him toward what I thought was the least objectionable choice. He settled upon a piece that would more or less fit the space the Georgian commode occupied. It was lower (a much better height don’t you think Gem? ) and given the “some assembly required” warning, I felt the two of us could put it together with minimal chaos.

And then I agonized as to what to do about my Mum’s reaction. Would she wince and smile wanly? Would my Dad notice her lack-luster response? Would she run from the room in tears? Which, as I thought about it, would be preferable as I could interpret this for my Dad as “tears of joy.”

But maybe she would be genuinely delighted. I mean – how many years had she wanted him to make an effort?  Who was I to blow the surprise? And around the worry wheel I’d go again.

Fortunately, a truck delivered the large flat package on a Saturday while mum was out shopping. The box was clearly crushed on one corner which initially my father did not notice. We smuggled it up to his study and opened the thing.

“Some assembly” is apparently not new to IKEA and as multiple parts spilled out from the crushed cardboard box my father’s face took on a look of mounting horror. We encountered ~

  • 4 spindly legs with flimsy off-center screws at the top end;
  • 1 “realistic faux marble” top with a slightly crushed corner;
  • 4 “gilt-embossed” edge pieces which neither one of us remembered from the catalog photo;
  • 1 lower level shelf also graced with “realistic faux marble”;
  • dozens of loose screws and instructions written a language neither of us could interpret.

It dawned of both of us at the same time I think  – the gift was a disaster.

We took to our task however with fine British/Irish fortitude, stoicism and a mis-placed optimism entirely fueled, I remember hazily, by sherry.

Two days later, when we’d done all we could with the side-table, it looked like a distant runner-up at a middle school wood-working expo. There were minimal 90 degree angles. The damaged edge revealed the telltale sawdust of cheap chip-board. The legs with off-centered screws gave the thing a distinct lopsided air.

My father and I surveyed the replacement for the Georgian commode. We were in too deep to bale now. He covered it with a blanket and wrote a gift tag: To Tina, With All Love, Charles.

“It’ll be alright Gem” he said. We both highly doubted it.

Screen Shot 2015-12-15 at 2.20.01 PM


I’d managed nothing concrete with my mother – although I’d tormented myself (and possibly her) with my own version of little hints.

  • “Mum – you like any gifts – right?”
  • “It’s the thought that counts isn’t it? You always say that.”
  • “I don’t mind if I don’t get gifts this year . I mean, Christmas isn’t about the gifts really , is it.”


Screen Shot 2015-12-15 at 2.24.36 PM

Christmas dawned. Our home had filled up with returning sisters;  aunts, uncles and cousins. And the un-nerving presence of my Dad who was showing up in a way I wasn’t used to. Despite the fact mornings were hard for him (he never slept well after the war) he was attentive. He was – what? Nervous? 

For reasons I never fathomed, my father had decided it would bode best for his foray into gift-giving if he positioned his present where it was destined: next to my mother’s bed where the Georgian Commode used to be. So sometime during the day’s festivities he must have made the switch. As the family gift giving wound down and the pile of gifts was replaced by a pile of wrapping paper, my father took deep breath and said, looking at my mother,

“Could you come upstarts? There’s something I’d like to show you?”

I felt all the air leave the room. My hearing went. My heart pounded so violently in my chest I thought folks could hear it. Ought I go up there too? Dad hadn’t invited me. I looked at my mother – kinda sorta hoping she’d fix me with a pleading look. She didn’t.

Oh heavens Charles, what do you need...” but she stood and followed him upstairs.

No one seemed to know how enormous the moment was. The Uncles cracked jokes. The aunts fussed over wonderfully home-made gifts. My sisters did whatever older sisters do when satiated by Christmas. 

I strained to listen.

Screen Shot 2015-12-15 at 9.37.43 PM

It wasn’t until much later that night I caught up with my mother. She’d been gone for ages and then bustled about making sure the guests had libations and the kids were happy and the next food-event served. We all chipped in and the mood was warm, a bit hazy with champagne and brandy and I was altogether exhausted. Finally, I took her arm and asked:

What did Dad want upstairs?” 

“Oh Gem darling, you know perfectly well! Your father gave me an extraordinary  bedside table and told me all about how you helped him choose it, and assemble it, and how he was a bit worried about the quality. But you know, I’m so happy he went through with it. That you both went through with it!”

“But – it’s so ugly, isn’t it!” I ventured, now snuggled into my mother’s bed beside the darned thing.

“Yes, your father and I both agree, it’s a disaster. But neither one of us can remember laughing so hard together for ages and ages and that – my darling – made it the best gift of Christmas!”

I had just asked,   “Will you keep it?”

when my Dad walked into the room.

He answered for her.

She’s agreed to keep it until she can’t stand it any more. And then, you know what, we’ll find someone who needs it. Something born from such noble expectations deserves a good home!”

Wishing you & yours a wonderful Holiday Season.

May you find yourselves long on laughter, short on expectations and filled with gratitude for the chaotic wealth of life, exactly as it is.



This is the penultimate article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list.  →Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you’re interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self

SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut

SKILL SEVEN ~ Practice Kindness

SKILL EIGHT ~ Negotiate with a Win-Win Mentality


SKILL NINE ~ Build (or rebuild) trust.

SKILL TEN ~ Apologize & “Do Over” When You’ve Blown It

SKILL ELEVEN ~ Forgive and Move On When They’ve Blown It

SKILL TWELVE ~ Let go. Relationships end. You’ll learn, grow and carry on.









In This Moment, Let This Go…

and you’ll open yourself up to more ~

  • calm
  • clarity
  • confidence
  • compassion
  • creativity
  • connection
  • courage
  • happiness
  • patience

in your life and your relationships.


You think I’m pulling your leg.

Or writing one of those over-promise/under-deliver catchy titles.

 You know the sort…

“Click here to see THE funniest home video” and you click and it’s just lame.

Screen shot 2015-12-07 at 3.30.55 PM

But I actually mean this.

I really want you to know that there is one thing you are probably holding onto in most – if not all – of your moments and that if you released this one idea, this one belief, everything would shift.

But because you don’t know about this one mind-trap you’re caught in you un-knowingly participate in undermining some really important relationships. Relationships that mean a huge amount to you because you want very much to enjoy your ~

  • partner
  • child
  • parent
  • friend
  • co-worker

but this way of thinking is distorting your view of them.

Before I share this one thing I’m inviting you to release, here’s a personal story about that moment when I first recognized it’s power.

Screen shot 2015-12-08 at 8.03.11 AM.png

In the mid 1980’s I volunteered for the King Country Crisis Clinic because I was terrified a complete suicidal stranger might randomly phone my number one night and shout:

I’ve got a loaded gun. It’s pointed at my head. Give me one good reason not to pull the trigger.

Sounds like an odd fear, but it was hearing a  BBC news story about exactly this that triggered both my concern, and my decision to learn all I could about working with people “in-extremis”.

So, I approached the King Country Crisis Clinic because I figured they’d have to teach their volunteers to handle calls like that. Folks call a crisis line when they’re homeless; frightened of their abusive partner; lonesome; delusional; drunk; about to be evicted; contemplating an overdose and yes – in the midst of what was called “an active suicide.”

By way of learning, we potential crisis-desk-phone-bank volunteers role played practice calls about all sorts of things, and one night it happened. I picked up the phone and heard:

I’ve got a loaded gun. My wife just left and took the kids. I’m broke, alone and done. I’m going to pull this trigger unless you can think of one good reason I shouldn’t.

And I froze!

In the BBC story I write about, the woman responds simply with “Because I don’t want you to” and I was contemplating giving the same response. But time stood still and after a ridiculously long pause during which – had this been a real call – I’m sure I’d have heard gun shot, a trainer materialized by my side. I leapt up from my seat frantically gesturing that she should role-model how this ought to be done.

She settled in and calmly took the phone. Here’s how it went.

*SANDY ~ I’m so glad you’ve called. My name’s Sandy. What may I call you?

BRAD ~ Huh? Call me Brad – why do you care?

SANDY ~ Brad, I care very much. I really hear there’s a part of you in so much pain right now that you’re ready to pull trigger to end your suffering. And Brad, I also hear that there’s another part – a small part maybe but a part of you none-the-less – who picked up the phone just now to see if there might be one good reason not to pull the trigger. Can I speak with that part Brad? Can I speak to that part of you who wants to talk about reasons to live?

(* Confidentiality is important to have everyone feel safe. Real names do not need to be used.)


Sandy had not frozen in the face of the call because she had not seen Brad as 100% suicidal. And in truth, if he had been, he’d have pulled the trigger and not called the help line.

But that’s the magic folks.

Sandy had released her thought that what was coming out of Brad’s mouth, what Brad was saying to her right then, was “the all of Brad.”

She understood that there might be other parts of Brad who might want to speak up but – because we don’t have that Vulcan mind-meld thing quite down yet – we have to say things in a sequence over time.

While she heard that there was a sad, hopeless part of Brad who had teamed up with his take-action-to-end-the-pain part who held the gun, she also heard a different part. The part in fact who initiated the call because this part was holding on to a sliver of hope.

Dramatic as it may sound – this was one of those life-changing “Ah-Has” for me.

I have gone on to study the idea of multiplicity of the mind in greater depth with particular thanks to Richard Schwartz  and his Internal Family Systems model. As a relationship therapist using this idea with my clients, it’s revolutionized not only how much more fun this inner work is, but also how quickly people can make changes that bring them happiness.

It’s an idea that makes all the difference, and I’ll show you why.  But first I’ll remind you that you probably already think this way sometimes.

  • Your friends call to invite you to join them at the pub. You find yourself thinking,”Hum, part of me would love that, but part of me is content reading my book by the fire at home.
  • Your boyfriend sometimes seems like two people. Home with you, out on dates, hanging with your family he’s gentle, funny, kind and thoughtful. But get him around his old college friends and he’s a knuckle-dragging-grunting-monosyllabic throw back. 
  • Or do you remember as a kid, how you were terrified of Sister Francis (if you went to Catholic Boarding school like me), or of Mr. Mean (if you attended another school which hired monsters) and you absolutely knew this person thought of you as a delinquent imbecile permanently up to no good. Until one day you saw them with your parents – and suddenly they beamed sunlight, said kind things, looked at you tenderly and reassured your parents you held “promise.” Huh? 

So why do I make the claim that when you let go of your belief that both you and the person you’re communicating with are totally of one mind  you’ll open yourself up to more ~

  • calm
  • clarity
  • confidence
  • compassion
  • creativity
  • connection
  • courage
  • happiness
  • patience

in your life and your relationships?

Here are 3 reasons.

  1. Because people are so rarely ever of one mind it’s a false and unhelpful assumption.
  2. We’re all complex with layers of thinking we’re mostly oblivious to. I mean right now – what are you thinking? And what do you think about that thought? There – you’ve  already found two parts: the one thinking a particular thought and the one with an opinion about that original thought. And that’s just the start!
  3. Becoming aware of how your thoughts reveal an inner community of parts with a variety of feelings, needs and beliefs means you have options. You go from believing you can sing only one note to becoming aware of your 2 to 3 octave range. Now you can get creative with your responses. And once you start getting creative and flexible, guess what? The folks you’re talking to will feel more expansive and free as well.

Here are 2 examples of how this looks in practice.


Screen shot 2015-12-09 at 9.47.05 AM


Your child is angry or sad, but definitely emoting.


Before you do anything, remember – think Parts!

And these 3 simple steps.

#1  Ask yourself – who am I right now? What parts of me are “up?”

This is important, because how you show up to your child will impact how she shows up.

What context are you in? This tends to impact who we are in any given moment.

If you’re feeling judged (in a supermarket; by your in-laws) you may notice that part of you who parents for the onlookers more than for your child. Maybe you’ll be tempted so hush your child, handle her a bit roughly to show them you mean business, or to get angry back at your judging audience.

If you are feeling supported (with your spouse or friends with kids) you may notice that part of you who is calm and able to prioritize your child’s needs.

Take a breath and notice, and do your best to choose which part you want to show up with. Calm is clearly preferable!

#2  Ask yourself – who is my child right now? What parts of her are “up?”

This is important, because who she is right now will determine who you need to be for her.

What context is she in? What just happened in her world?

What might she be feeling? Jealous? Hurt? Frightened? Lonely? Mad? Frustrated? Kids are complex, but their emotional range when upset tends to reflect one of these feelings. Then say to yourself, “OK, right now, my child is showing me that part of her who feels  [pick one].”

Your job then is not to stop her feeling what she is feeling. Your job is to help her understand and name her experience and help her move on when she is ready. Which could be in 3 seconds, or 30 minutes.

#3  Acknowledge what you see with your child.

Hummm, I see a little girl who’s got a big frustrated feeling going on right now.” [Guess…. she may even correct you if you’re wrong, depending upon her age and level of emotional understanding]

Do you know what she needs?”

If you can separate the child from the feeling – as in you see a girl who is experiencing an emotion rather than a girl who is that emotion then she begins early on to recognize she is more than any one emotion. And, in fact, she can experience several different emotions at the same time.

Usually we say something closer to “I see you’re frustrated.” That’s not bad. It’s shorter and less cumbersome. But do you also see how it blurs the distinction and continues to reinforce that all-of-one-mind, less-helpful thinking?



Screen Shot 2015-12-09 at 2.20.25 PM

Your sweetie comes home down-hearted and grumpy.

Typically this goes badly. You try and cheer him up. He gets more distant and you both end up grumpy.

Before you do anything, remember – think Parts!

And these 3 simple steps.

#1  Ask yourself – who am I right now? What parts of me are “up?”

This is important, because how you show up to your partner will impact how he shows up.

What mood are you in? Listen to your thoughts and feelings and see if you can identify –  from the scripts running through your head and emotions running through your body – which parts need your attention right now.

If you notice parts who feel grumpy, drained, or in need of attention after a tough day, it may be hard to give attention because these parts really want to receive it.

If you’re noticing parts who are impatient or excited to get into your next event, it might be hard to listen to your partner because you’re a twitchy little ferret inside.  

Take a breath and notice your choices. You could be honest and let your partner know you’re feeling a bit grumpy and needy too. You can let him know you want to be there for him, but need to go let off steam first and take a run. Or, maybe just noticing these parts will allow them to calm down, and you can listen with neither neediness nor resentment.

#2  Ask yourself – who is my sweetie right now? What parts of him are “up?”

Unlike dealing with a child (see above), your spouse can possibly tell you what’s going on. Or, you may know him so well that as soon as you hear him walk down the hall, you think: “Yup, here comes Grumpy!”

Take heart! Remember, he’s not 100% Grumpy. He’s only somewhat Grumpy. And that will make all the difference.

#3  Acknowledge what you see with your partner.

 “So – I have this sense that Grumpy’s in. Tough day? I really want to listen to you and, I gotta say, I’ll be a whole lot nicer after a run. I was fit to be tied by lunch and still had to make nice to that irritating off-site manager and do most of Felicity’s work. Would you be up for a nice long de-brief over drinks in 45 minutes?

Might not be Grumpy’s first choice, but you’ve probably reminded your complicated sweetie that he is not 100% grumpy . Which means he might bump into a calmer inner part and be much better company when the two of you meet later.

So – now that you’ve heard my claim, which is that when you let go of your belief that both you and the person you’re communicating with are totally of one mind  you’ll open yourself up to more ~

  • calm
  • clarity
  • confidence
  • compassion
  • creativity
  • connection
  • courage
  • happiness
  • patience

in your life and your relationships

What parts come up for you?

* * * * * * * * * * * 


This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list.  →Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you’re interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self

SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut

SKILL SEVEN ~ Practice Kindness

SKILL EIGHT ~ Negotiate with a Win-Win Mentality


SKILL NINE ~ Build (or rebuild) trust.

SKILL TEN ~ Apologize & “Do Over” When You’ve Blown It

SKILL ELEVEN ~ Forgive and Move On When They’ve Blown It

SKILL TWELVE ~ Let go. Relationships end. You’ll learn, grow and carry on.









Letting Go of The Past

When our son Charlie was little he had a passion for sticks.


Every walk to the beach, park or forest it would begin.

First one perfect small one. “Look Mum, it fits in my pocket!”

Then another. Well, who has only one pocket?

And another. This time bigger. Maybe stuffed down a sweater.

Then another, under an arm.

And another, and another, and another.

Until our small boy would be staggering under arms-full of sticks.

I remember one hike up in the deciduous forests of Canada’s Laurentian Shield where the forest floors are awash with straight, smooth, long and perfect sticks. Charlie’s arms were full to overloading and we all knew he could never get all his treasures home on the flight back to Washington State.

Then he saw it: (another) perfect stick.

He looked at his hands, arms, sweater and pockets but they were all full to bursting.

And the enormous truth dawned upon him.

He could not physically carry one more stick.

If he wanted to pick up this stick – this perfect stick – he’d have to let one go.

Maybe more than one.

And he wept bitter tears for a long time at the injustice of this realization: That to take on what you want in this present moment, sometimes you have to let go of what you’re already holding onto and sometimes, it pays to keep a little space for good things yet to come.

Screen shot 2015-12-01 at 10.10.07 PM

At the end of a year spent exploring relationships skills, it seems fitting to talk about letting go.

I mean think about it – making space to flourish in a relationship will most certainly require two hands, both arms and an over-stuffed sweater or two.

There are lots of ways to slice it, but I’m going with the structure of time to show how you can flourish so much more in your relationships to the extent you let go of certain aspects of your ~

  • Past
  • Present
  • Future

Today – I’m focusing on the Past.

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While “Pistanthrophobia” hasn’t yet made it to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is making the rounds of urban and crowd-sourcing haunts and it captures a rather fascinating idea: the fear of trust in present relationships due to bad stuff in times gone by.

The two biggest dead-weights from past relationships that people haul into their present and future are ~

  • Unfinished business, which creates lose ends, puzzle pieces, ghosts of emotions with no place to rest.

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  • Outdated interpersonal strategies which keep you all geared up to slay – and protect you from – dragons long gone.

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1) How to release unfinished business from past relationships

There are so many ways to have unfinished business. Maybe there’s someone in your distant or recent past who ~

  • died
  • moved far away
  • cut you off emotionally
  • divorced or left you
  • remarried
  • became unrecognizably ill 
  • became severely mentally unstable

but you notice that you’re still reacting to this person. Still holding onto resentments, expectations, longings, rage and ghosts of all sorts in this new relationship you are in. Or with your children, or partner or friends.

Usually, if we’ve truly loved the person who’s gone, we’re still looking for wisps of him or her in our current relationships. I have to admit when at age 23 I met my now husband Mark I remember what drew me to him was that he felt somehow familiar (who knows how or why) and that he was very, very kind. These just happened to be two things I was missing desperately after my mother – to whom I was super close – died when I was 19.

Likewise, if we’ve really suffered in a relationship with someone who has now gone we’ll be on high alert to avoid people who remind us of them. If your ex was controlling, you’re likely to hit the roof if your new date says or does anything that even remotely smacks of control. 

While I lucked out with Mark – who happens to have loads of other qualities I also vastly appreciate – I could have been lulled into a marriage simply because I felt particularly needy for familiarity and kindness. 

So – it pays to bring some conscious awareness to these past relationships, to figure out what you love and want more of, and what you didn’t appreciate and want less of. And THE biggest difference in how you release or transform any unfinished business depends upon the ratio of love to loathing.

In other words it’s important to ask yourself ~

  • What aspects of this past relationship do I love so I can celebrate and be grateful for all that was wonderful about this person in my world; grieve what is now lost; and integrate what I cherish so these aspects of this person may be part of my future life?
  • What aspects of this past relationship do I dislike so I can express my negative emotions (like anger, disgust or disappointment) toward the impact of this person on my world; mine the experience for lessons learned so I can work on forgiving both of us; and shift into gratitude for my resiliency now that this experience is in the rear view mirror?

The truth is, very rarely is the person we’ve lost 100% loved or loathed. We are all nuanced human beings, which is why doing this work can be so helpful to you in your current or future relationships. Here are 3 suggestions for how to move through this process.

1. Write.

Hiking at Mount Rainier last week Mark and I stumbled upon a poignant tribute. Tucked into a crevice between 2 rocks was a vase with a posy of recently wilted and now frozen flowers. Nearby was a sodden and blurry note.  I picked it up and tried to decipher the words only to discover it was a letter of release. The writer – whose name I could not decipher but whose hand seemed feminine – wrote: “It is time for me to let you go.” Catching only every few words between smudges she named some things she loved,”You were my rock, my friend, my confidant.” And she named some things she regretted; “But you never came to me for help, you never let your guard down…

She included a poem, and a wish and a blessing and put in the letter that this was going to be her final goodbye. She was moving on.

This is such a wonderful process. Name it all. Bring this person to mind – again no matter the ratio of love to loathing here – name it all. What did you appreciate? What didn’t you? What will you take forward into your life? What will you release?

If you’re more visual you could make a collage using images to represent qualities you want to keep, and qualities you’re ready to release.

The only goal is conscious awareness.

2. Emote.

Anyone who knows me knows I’ve been a total pill over the past year as I’ve worked to gradually sift and sort through what seem to be the ashes of an old friendship. I’ve raged, I’ve cried, I’ve stomped my feet and laughed. And bit by bit I’ve noticed glimmers of peace beginning to settle in. I still get pinged when I’m reminded of things I miss or things that make me mad about this person, but by noticing what I feel when I feel it, and by finding OK ways to express what I feel, I am moving through this process.

I know it all helps. Let it out. Let it out with friends. Let it out under bridges. Let it out in the shower or the forest. Let it out with therapists and spiritual advisers. Be there for yourself as if you were a loving parent with a sad six year old. Nothing to be done but hug, listen and making soothing noises.

3. Grow.

This is your journey. Sure, you can move through your life with blinkers and blinders, getting gifts or wounds and being equally oblivious to both. Totally a choice. But, it is so much more deeply rewarding to be on a journey of self-discovery. To wake up. To notice you have options. To appreciate choosing.

The process of reflecting upon past relationships to discern what you want to be grateful for and integrate is one of the best gifts you can give  yourself, and those around you.

So, take charge. Decide how you want this to go. What do you need to do? Whom do you want around for support? What can you call in to help?

Beginning this journey with the end in mind, it can be helpful to have a sense for how you want this to go. Maybe a gentle intention,  something along the lines of ~

X is no longer with me. I am choosing to feel love and appreciation for these things [list], and I am choosing to release with gratitude for lessons learned, these things [list].  Today is a fresh start and I’m glad I get to grow from all that life offers.”

(Or whatever you want to say – remember, you’re the boss of this enterprise!)

2) How to release outdated interpersonal strategies designed to protect against dragons long gone.

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When I married Mark and moved to the USA from England, I was hauling a vault full of armor, spears, shields and defensive sling-shots from my childhood.

I’d built my protective layers and excellent arsenal in reaction to some pretty brutal nuns at boarding school; a family who loved me but had issues (surprise!); and from the recent, sudden death of the person I loved and depended upon most in the word – my mother.


Here’s what that looked like:

Because the nuns didn’t approve of whining and complaining, I had decided long ago never to ask for what I wanted, since not only was I unlikely to get it, I’d be criticized or ridiculed for even asking: for even having needs!

HINT: This is NOT a helpful strategy for making a marriage work!

SOLUTION: The hard way? Day by day, issue by issue – Mark had to work with me to show up; to risk having an opinion; to risk making a suggestion; to say no. That, and group therapy and good friends.

The youngest of five daughters, I was acutely familiar with how tough my parent’s marriage became  & I began to think in rather black-and-white terms: my mother was right, my father was wrong. I extrapolated that right/wrong thinking into all sorts of unhelpful places.

HINT: This is NOT a helpful strategy because it cuts you off from people who are nuanced, rich, complex and very interesting.

SOLUTION: When a strategy seems to be too small, too restrictive, too limiting – it’s a great time to examine it. Maybe then you’ll realize you’ve outgrown it and can let it go.

Because I grew up in an English/Irish family who didn’t discuss emotions, I was fabulously guarded against ever being seen as not OK. No whining, no complaining, no feelings, no needs and certainly no therapy for me thank you very much!

HINT: This strategy self-destructs. At some point, one’s bottled up emotions come spewing out as depression, anger, illness… trust me. It all comes out.

SOLUTION: When it comes out (see above) get help. It’s a fabulous opportunity to learn about feelings and needs.

When my mother died, I decided the pain of losing someone I loved so very much was not anything I ever wanted to go through again, so I built a deep and effective moat around my emotional core. It’s marvelous for keeping people at bay. Not so great when I need or want to let someone in.

HINT: Love and loss go hand in hand. 

SOLUTION: There are NO guarantees so this one too had to be re-examined. I had to face the risk of losing Mark before I could love him. I had to risk the pain of losing a child, before I felt I could bring one into my heart. I don’t like that vulnerable place it puts me – but I like it more than not having made these choices.

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Not to rain on your parade or anything, but you have your own armor too. You’ve been putting it on, one piece at a time, since birth. You’ve been putting it on so slowly that you possibly don’t even notice you are wearing it nor feel it’s weight around your heart.

How to release these outdated protectors is as unique as your protection. But there are three super simple little tips:

  1. Know that when you impulsively react – as opposed to thoughtfully respond – to some interpersonal challenge, that’s your old, outdated protection leaping to the rescue.
  2. If you pay attention to that reaction, to that impulse, you can follow it inside and get to know it more by asking yourself:  When I just reacted that way, what did I not want to feel? What was I protecting myself from?
  3. If you can find out what feeling you did not want to feel – what it was your protector was protecting you from – ask yourself, “What do I need so I can be more OK with this feeling now?  Can I be there for myself when I feel pain, loss, shame, fear, vulnerability, loneliness?


Your partner says – I’ve invited the neighbors over for BBQ on Saturday.

You react with – I can’t believe you did that without checking with me! I’ve got a totally full weekend and now it’s up to me to put on a huge social event!

Your partner says – Hey, relax! I’ve already shopped. I’ll cook. I thought you’d appreciate the night socializing.


Step 1 – You notice you reacted strongly and with disapproval.

You could have responded from a much less reactive place, e.g.,  

  • Thanks, great idea!
  • Oh – tell me how you see the evening unfolding?
  • Oh boy – a sweet idea but I feel a bit overwhelmed actually – I’ve filled my weekend up so tight. Can we talk about it?

Step 2 – Notice what you did not want to feel.

Truth is – if you are honest – you didn’t want to feel judged by these new neighbors. You’re feeling out of shape, tired, the house is a mess and the yard’s not much better. It triggered some old vulnerabilities about not being “good enough”.

Step 3 – What do you need to be OK with this feeling?

Probably own it and talk about it with my partner. “You know, I had this flash of fear of being judged by those new neighbors. They’ve fixed up that place so lavishly. But, if I slow it down, I love our old place and goodness, I really am ready to let go of keeping up with the Jones. Hmm…isn’t their last name Jones?!

By all means pick up a few sticks in life, but let yourself put some down as they become heavy and unwieldy. And leave a little space for that just perfect one you may find – tomorrow.

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NEXT WEEK – how to let go of some aspects of this present moment to improve your relationships.

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This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list.  →Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you’re interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self

SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut

SKILL SEVEN ~ Practice Kindness

SKILL EIGHT ~ Negotiate with a Win-Win Mentality


SKILL NINE ~ Build (or rebuild) trust.

SKILL TEN ~ Apologize & “Do Over” When You’ve Blown It

SKILL ELEVEN ~ Forgive and Move On When They’ve Blown It

SKILL TWELVE ~ Let go. Relationships end. You’ll learn, grow and carry on.

  • Let go of the past

How To Forgive Someone

As a relationship therapist I work with the rifts and bruises that occur between parents and children; friends; dating couples; married couples and even co-workers.

Relationships are tough. They can squeeze you for all you’re worth demanding more patience, perspective, strength and courage than most other human undertakings. But they’ve got one huge thing going for them as well: they are uniquely potent arenas for personal and spiritual growth.

If you’d rather not be challenged into becoming a bigger, more compassionate person, don’t get into any meaningful relationships!

Since it’s inevitable that you and someone you love or work closely with will stomp on one another’s hot spots at some point, it’s highly likely you’ll find yourself wondering whether to forgive. If you decide to try this, now what?

Today I’m returning to the work of Fred Luskin. His nine steps make the path more transparent and give you a feel for how to make progress.

I’m trying these steps out. Several of my clients are. Let me know if there is someone in your life whom you’ve had a hard time forgiving and see if these steps help.

The Nine Steps to Forgiveness

1. Know exactly how you feel about what happened and be able to articulate what about the situation is not OK. Then, tell a couple of trusted people about your experience.

2. Make a commitment to yourself to feel better. Forgiveness is for you and no one else.

3. Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciling with the person who upset you or condoning the action. In forgiveness you seek the peace and understanding that come from blaming people less after they offend you and taking those offenses less personally.

4. Get the right perspective on what is happening. Recognize that your primary distress is coming from the hurt feelings, thoughts, and physical upset you are suffering now, not from what offended you or hurt you two minutes—or 10 years—ago.

5. At the moment you feel upset, practice stress management to soothe your body’s fight or flight response.

6. Give up expecting things from your life or from other people that they do not choose to give you. Remind yourself that you can hope for health, love, friendship, and prosperity, and work hard to get them. However, these are “unenforceable rules:” You will suffer when you demand that these things occur, since you do not have the power to make them happen.

7. Put your energy into looking for another way to get your positive goals met than through the experience that has hurt you.

8. Remember that a life well lived is your best revenge. Instead of focusing on your wounded feelings, and thereby giving power over you to the person who caused you pain, learn to look for the love, beauty, and kindness around you. Put more energy into appreciating what you have rather than attending to what you do not have.

9. Amend the way you look at your past so you remind yourself of your heroic choice to forgive.

For more on Forgiveness, see Fred Luskin’s new book Forgive For Good.

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This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list.  →Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you’re interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self

SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut

SKILL SEVEN ~ Practice Kindness

SKILL EIGHT ~ Negotiate with a Win-Win Mentality


SKILL NINE ~ Build (or rebuild) trust.

SKILL TEN ~ Apologize & “Do Over” When You’ve Blown It

SKILL ELEVEN ~ Forgive and Move On When They’ve Blown It

Why Forgive?

Why forgive someone?

It’s equally in our natures to harbor revenge as it is to nurture forgiveness. In fact, last week I explored how forgiveness and revenge are evolutionary bedfellows.

So why does a person choose one of these over another?

Why might you?

For this month’s exploration of forgiveness I am hugely indebted to, and thrilled to have discovered, the scholars of forgiveness at  The Greater Good Science Center, at the University of California, Berkeley. In their own words, the center is ~

unique in its commitment to both science and practice: not only do we sponsor groundbreaking scientific research into social and emotional well-being, we help people apply this research to their personal and professional lives.

So, for the “Why?” of forgiveness, here are five good reasons, compiled by Fred Luskin, Ph.D.

  1. Forgiveness makes us happier: Research suggests not only that happy people are more likely to forgive but that forgiving others can make people feel happy, especially when they forgive someone to whom they feel close.
  2. Forgiveness improves our health: When we dwell on grudges, our blood pressure and heart rate spike—signs of stress which damage the body; when we forgive, our stress levels drop, and people who are more forgiving are protected from the negative health effects of stress. Studies also suggest that holding grudges might compromise our immune system, making us less resistant to illness.
  3. Forgiveness sustains relationships: When our friends inevitably hurt or disappoint us, holding a grudge makes us less likely to sacrifice or cooperate with them, which undermines feelings of trust and commitment, driving us further apart. Studies suggest that forgiveness can stop this downward spiral and repair our relationship before it dissolves.
  4. Forgiveness is good for marriages (most of the time): Spouses who are more forgiving and less vindictive are better at resolving conflicts effectively in their marriage. A long-term study of newlyweds found that more forgiving spouses had stronger, more satisfying relationships. However, when more forgiving spouses were frequently mistreated by their husband or wife, they became less satisfied with their marriage.
  5. Forgiveness boosts kindness and connectedness: People who feel forgiving don’t only feel more positive toward someone who hurt them. They are also more likely to want to volunteer and donate money to charity, and they feel more connected to other people in general.

And, anticipating the coming together of families that takes place each year in the United States on the last Thursday of November every year, and how fraught these times can be as relatives long on sanguinary but short on compassion rub egos and elbows at the dinner table, I thought this wee video by Fred Luskin might provide some interesting fodder for a transformed experience of one another.

Here is the full article, and below are some highlights of this video.

I’ve been teaching forgiveness for more than a decade, and the simple definition of forgiveness that I work with now is that it’s the ability to make peace with the word “no.”

People have come to me with a whole host of problems, and the essence of all of them is: I didn’t get something I wanted. I got “no.” I wanted my partner to be faithful; they weren’t faithful. I got “no.” I wanted somebody to tell the truth; they told a lie. I got “no.” I wanted to be loved as a child; I wasn‘t loved in a way that I felt good about. I got “no.”

It’s so important to be able to understand the universal experience of this—of objecting to the way life is and trying to substitute the way you want it to be, then getting upset when your substitution doesn’t take.

The essence of forgiveness is being resilient when things don’t go the way you want—to be at peace with “no,” be at peace with what is, be at peace with the vulnerability inherent in human life. Then you have to move forward and live your life without prejudice.

It’s the absence of prejudice that informs forgiveness. You realize that nobody owes you, that you don’t have to take the hurt you suffered and pay it forward to someone else. Just because your last partner was unkind to you doesn’t mean you always have to give your new partner the third degree. With an open heart, you move forward and accept what is, without prejudice.

You don’t just accept it because life sucks and there’s nothing you can do about it—though that may be true—but you accept it in a way that leaves you willing to give the next moment a chance.

Come back next week for some more good stuff about forgiveness.


This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list.  →Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you’re interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self

SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut

SKILL SEVEN ~ Practice Kindness

SKILL EIGHT ~ Negotiate with a Win-Win Mentality


SKILL NINE ~ Build (or rebuild) trust.

 SKILL TEN ~ Apologize & “Do Over” When You’ve Blown It

SKILL ELEVEN ~ Forgive and Move On When They’ve Blown It