Finding the Sweet Spot: Assertive vs. Pushy

Though assertiveness versus pushiness can be a fine line for everyone, I feel this is a particularly tough issue for women. We are more inclined to try to get along compared to men. Often when we do assert ourselves we’re called the B word.   If we take the softer approach and talk from the perspective of our feelings, we’re accused of being overly emotional.

Ladies, sometimes it feels like we just can’t win. It’s no wonder we sometimes just don’t do anything at all. Am I right?

I try not to shy away from topics that I struggle with, else I’d have nothing to write about. I can only reflect on the hard-earned lessons I’ve learned over the years. Thankfully there are more lessons to come, many of them from you!

In my opinion, there are three main ingredients that are key for a successful discussion of a sensitive nature. First, you must stay calm.   Staying calm means that even if a situation upset or hurt you, you enter the conversation with peace and serenity. You are a still pond. You are a rock. You are a loaf of French bread. For example, I can be serene talking about something that happened in the distant past compared to just moments ago, or talking to an objective third party compared to someone who caused my pain. You can have emotional distance, even while talking about your feelings, so have the conversation only when you are calm.

Second, while being calm, assume that the other person is reasonable at heart.   Thus, your chosen words are not judgmental, but neutral. You are open, listen and try to understand what belief is causing this behavior. Becoming judgmental or defensive will only undermine your cause and you will be called the B word.

Finally, be succinct. Rambling, justifying, bemoaning, judging, and elaborating will make you lose your audience. And you’re serene, remember? State:

  • The fact – “I saw you leave out My Little Pony toy”
  • The way it makes you feel or the consequence – “It makes me feel like you don’t care about my stuff” or “I can’t find it when I want to play with it”
  • Your request – “Could you please put my toys away where they belong when you’re done playing with them?”

Bam, bam, bam.

An observation: this might be a huge deal to you. You might’ve cried about this for days and are trembling inside when having this conversation. The other most likely doesn’t even have this on their radar, and will just be like, “Okay.”

If not, be prepared to listen to their reality. You’re serene, right? So you’ll let their emotion wash over you so that you can listen deeply and objectively. If you really try to understand, you’ll find that their emotional reality will make sense to them in the same way that your emotional reality makes sense to you. In other words: it makes no sense except to the one experiencing it. And then you can find a sensible middle ground, laugh at how silly/human you both are and have a hug.

Ha ha. Not really.

Or maybe so?

Resources: Crucial Conversations and The Power of Positive Confrontation

Seven Rules of Engagement and Marriage

Eat your vegetables. Brush your teeth. Get plenty of sleep. Wear your seatbelt. Pay your taxes.

These are the lessons we learn from our parents and teachers about how to get by in this world.

Advice about relationships? [crickets]

Yes, the former are important, but beyond our basic physical and financial needs, what is more important than relationships? Relationships give our lives meaning and purpose, and failure to have successful relationships makes success in the other domains of our lives very difficult if not impossible.

The permanent nature of marriage makes that relationship all the more important. I’ve struggled as much as the next gal when it comes to relationships but I have learned a lot in the meantime. This is what I’ve learned so far about the ingredients for a successful marriage:

  1. There is no Win-Lose – If you’re fighting to win, you’ll ultimately end up in a Lose-Lose. Aim for a Win-Win instead. Win-Win requires you truly try to understand and accept the other. If you just assume your partner is crazy, immoral or stupid, you’ve headed into the Lose-Lose even if you may feel like you’ve won the battle.
  2. Relationship first – Sometimes the relationship must take a back seat to other priorities like kids or job, but that should be the exception rather than the rule. Also, you should both agree on the rules or circumstances when those exceptions are mutually agreeable and necessary.
  3. Learn to balance needs and boundaries – We all need to have our boundaries – knowing what absolutely will and won’t work for you mental and emotional well-being. However, we also have to be able to step up, be flexible and stretch for what our partner needs.   For example, is that a real boundary, or just an assumption you have not revisited in decades? The conflict in your relationship is natural and necessary. It does not mean that something is wrong. Rather, it is your opportunity to find the path through it and the growth opportunity in it – together.
  4. Don’t keep score – We don’t always see or remember what our partners do for the sake of the relationship, but we tend to remember the sacrifices we make. Therefore, don’t keep score; it just builds resentment. Instead, find new ways you can be a better partner.
  5. It’s not your job to fix someone else – As glorious as you are, you have your own growth to attend to. Focusing on someone else’s mistakes and necessary growth only highlights your own needed development.
  6. If your partner is not happy, you’re not happy – Treat your partner’s happiness, satisfaction and success like it’s as important as your own, because it is.
  7. Remember, you’ve made a promise to be in it for the long haul – If you only had one pair of shoes to last you until you die, how would you treat them? (no offense for the old shoe comparison) You would clean and condition them daily and be vigilant about repairs before irreparable damage occurs. You wouldn’t use them to kick rocks around or play in the mud. Treat your relationship like the precious gem that it is and it will last a long time.

These have been hard-earned lessons for me. What is missing from this list? Share your wisdom.

Princess For A Day or Three

I’ve never understood the girlish fascination with princesses and being a princess.  Raised by Chinese immigrants in America, I was familiar with the concept but never really got it.  I think I was nearly 40 before my parents ever referred to me as their princess.  Back when I was growing up, the princesses in popular culture looked nothing like me:  I looked more like the evil stepmother.

The culture in Texas in the 70’s and 80’s also reinforced my sense of not being special.  Rather, I was pretty invisible, usually being ignored in restaurants, at deli counters and by men in general.

I’m not writing this as an ode to Poor Me.  I’m simply observing the juxtaposition of those expectations of usually fading into the background with my experience in the last few months where I have been Princess Galore:  50th Birthday Party (surprise party, no less), Graduation and a wedding, all in about 6 weeks.   Center of attention.  Photos.  Toasts.  Gifts in abundance.  Pampering.  Friends and family from afar.  Compliments and congratulations.

Wanting to hide beneath the covers.

Don’t get me wrong.  It was pretty sublime and there is literally nothing better than having those that you love most surrounding you and helping to celebrate the most important moments of your life.   I wouldn’t want it any other way and am so incredibly grateful to my loved ones for taking the time and effort to join me/us.  Truly, I feel so unbelievably blessed and fortunate.

But being a Princess is not the normal state of affairs for the 99.9% of us.  At some point we go back to our daily lives where we instead try to make other people feel special each day.  If I got too used to being Princess, I’d feel deprived and resentful for not being doted on like that on a regular and frequent basis.

So I feel that being a Princess once in a while is pretty freakin’ amazing, but I’m glad I was not raised to expect it.  Instead, when Princess happens, I can view it as a special gift from a loved one and savor every precious moment.

We get married!

We get married!

Coming Back Around To The Power of Love

I used to say, “What is the point of remarrying?” after the end of my 20-year marriage.  After all, it’s not like we’re going to having babies at our age, and having dogs does not merit a marriage license.

Chris used to laugh at me when I’d say these things.   Perhaps, absence of positive psychology degree-notwithstanding, he is a better judge of human nature than I am.  Or it’s just another example of the annoying nature of blind spots.

Or maybe not.  Maybe it has to do with hypocrisy and my inability to practice what I preach.  After all, I have always tried to preach to others the value of making decisions by moving towards desire, not away from fear.  And trying to be in a relationship again after the separation/divorce was the scariest thing I have done since I decided to go into academia so many years ago.

Being in a relationship again was more like an evolution, rather than a revolution for me.  First was the baby steps of online dating, then came falling in love, next was moving in together, and now, tying the knot.    Strangely, the early steps were the scariest.  I was literally shaking in my shoes in those early days when starting each of these processes.   You’d think I’d be terrified now, remarrying at my old age, but I’m not at all.

I think this fact speaks volumes about my sweetheart.  It takes a special man to change the mind of a stubborn woman like me (for those who believe in horoscopes, I’m a Taurus (the bull) and a dragon.  Need I say more?)

However, as my BFF says, I also cannot be changed if I’m not willing to change.  I had to be open enough to believe again that love can be forever, healing, and positively transformative.  No, there are still no guarantees, but I have faith once again and am moving enthusiastically toward my desires.

I am eager to partner with this extraordinary man so that we may nurture ourselves as both individuals and as a couple.  We will create fertile soil to enable a spectacular garden, but also pull the weeds as we go to ensure its sustenance.   Though the garden is ours alone, we will invite others to enjoy the fruits of labor and strive to help others with their own shared and individual gardens; after all, love is for sharing.

Unlike the laws of physics where matter is neither created nor destroyed, love is a fertilizer and a catalyst that is generative:  a little dose of love creates lots more love.   And so formalizing our union not only feels so right, but also the right thing to do.

Love/Hate Dynamic in Relationships

You know that thing in your partner that you first loved, now hate (or something in between)?  You’ve probably suspected if not known that the love/hate dynamic is very common and real.  Relationship expert Harville Hendrix describes this phenomenon as the imago.

Imago refers to our tendency to seek partners that reproduce our childhood wounds.  On some level, we find comfort in the familiar, even if the familiar is the behavior we find hurtful.  We seem to be experts in using our Spidey Sense (we usually call it ‘chemistry’) to know who will be able to reproduce those wounds for us.  That person makes us feel complete and whole because we yearn to be with someone who has learned to curb their wounding tendencies.

That is, until we discover that they haven’t curbed their wounding tendencies.  They still open those same wounds, but maybe in a different or somewhat improved way.  In addition, these are old wounds they’re opening up, and so we continue to have a visceral response to them.

The good news is that you can ditch that partner that causes you to curl up into a fetal position.  The bad news is that you’re going to keep being attracted to the same type of person after you’ve sent your old partner packing.  Then you’re back to square one, just several years and maybe several partners later.    The good news (#2) is that nature intends for you to learn how to deal with these issues (thus the multiple chances).  The good news (#3) is that your partner is the perfect foil for you to rise to the challenge of dealing with those wounds because as you rise to meet the needs of your partner, you simultaneously heal yourself.  That’s pretty amazing, don’t you think?

For example, if my wound has to do with me feeling unlovable, I will be very sensitive and reactive when someone is not affirming.  Maybe they don’t notice I went to a lot of trouble to cook dinner or plan a vacation, but oddly I will be attracted to that type of person.   But I may have a tendency to not put forth effort to avoid the risk of being rejected or criticized.  Notice this is a self-fulfilling prophecy because I am unlikely to be loved if I am not exerting myself in the relationship

On the other hand, he may have his own issues – he is used to feeling deprived, so will tend to notice deprivation not generosity, and thus tends to be critical rather than complimentary.  I can help him heal his wounds but being proactive and calm about meeting his needs instead of withdrawing even if I am not complimented or thanked.  By being able to take the risk of giving without expectation heals my own unlovability while helping him manage his deprivation.  His job would be to see the love and contribution without criticism and allow himself to be vulnerable enough to be cared for.  In so doing, he would be healing his wounds and also helping me to do better with my unlovability.  Thus, the imago is potentially a healing partnership where both parties collaborate to heal themselves and each other.

More good news (#4) is that by finally dealing with these issues, you’re likely to give your kids a better chance of dealing with their own childhood wounds.

The bad news (#2) is that this is not easy work.  As discussed in many previous blogs, that self-awareness and inner work is scary and hard.  We have to be willing to accept responsibility for our unhealthy perspectives and behaviors and be willing to make changes.  Those of us who are (recovering) perfectionists, this means accepting our humanity and flaws.  Those who are considering embarking on this path of self-discovery might be comforted to know that they are not alone with regard to their flaws.  I felt an odd sort of comfort knowing that these books that were written describe thousands of people just like me.  We’re all on the same path of discovery; we’re just in different places of the journey.

The alternative is living for years with strained relationships where we are constantly in a  love/hate, blame/self-justifying cycle.  When I’m in blame/self-justifying—mode, I just feel like I’m building a wall around my heart and it’s difficult to let anyone in.  As Dr. Phil says, “would you rather be right, or happy?”  I would go so far as to say, “would you rather be right/alone or happy/healed/nurturing/loving/supportive?”  You have nothing to lose (though it may feel like you do) and everything to gain by opening your heart up to love, acceptance and forgiveness.   Be brave. You’re not alone.

Life Lessons from Second Wedding

I have been separated/divorced for almost four years now and I honestly did not think I would ever remarry.  I also believed I would never return to school.  Lesson #1:  Never say never.

I guess you can say that I have a renewed sense of optimism, an interest in evolving and adapting, and a willingness to explore areas that were previously closed to me.  In hindsight, I believe I was pretty closed down and didn’t know it.  This brings me to Lesson #2:  we can’t know what we don’t know (profound, I know).   It seems to be one of those cruel ironies about oneself:  if you’re closed down you don’t know you’re closed down, nor are you likely to want to hear it from others.   Other truisms of this nature:  If you have a blind spot, you can’t see your blind spot.   If you’re humble, you won’t ever believe you’re humble.  Strangely, I enjoy the mystery that we are to ourselves.  It lends a sense of discovery of the person we know better than anyone!  That very observation means that we should not be too wedded to who we believe we are.  We can never really know ourselves 100% and that is, in many ways, a good thing.  Therefore, being willing to alter your self-perception can be a powerful growth opportunity.

Lesson #3:   we can never know or control our future.  Though I have spent many, many years trying to control my present and future, I know now that such efforts are futile and actually counter-productive.  I have enough ego to need to feel like a smart and competent person, but my imagination is nowhere near as good as reality often actually turns out to be.  Getting remarried at my age after believing it would never happen is the perfect example of my inability to imagine something really amazing.  Another truism:  not trying to control one’s future actually results in a better outcome.  If I had tried to enact the I’m-not-remarrying future, then I would have missed the opportunity to deepen and formalize our amazing relationship.  Letting go of control means being more adaptable and responsive to one’s reality.  Doesn’t that make sense?

Speaking of control, that brings us to Lesson #4:  I can’t please everyone.  Nor should I try.  So this wedding is as minimalist as it gets without actually just eloping.  We still managed to upset someone in the process, and possibly untold number of others. I have given up trying to live my life to please others while sacrificing my own peace of mind or authenticity.  Frankly, I’m not that good at knowing what others want/expect, so I’m going to upset them either way.   Or I’m not.  I think people at this stage of life don’t tend to personalize decisions as much as they did when we were in our 20’s.  Thank goodness.

So thank you world and universe for helping me learn these important lessons, at last.  I don’t regret making the mistakes and missteps that I have made over the last half century.  Lesson #Final:  those mistakes have made me wiser.   Those lessons have also imparted into me a passion and desire to share that hard-earned wisdom with others so that they may learn from my mistakes.  Go forth in peace, Namaste.

(I hope I look this pretty on my wedding day!) Photo credit:

(I hope I look this pretty on my wedding day!) Photo credit:

Enjoy Your Relationship – Take a Break

Reunions.  Photo credit:

Reunions. Photo credit:

We’ve been doing a little experiment about pleasure and separation.  Chris has been traveling due to work lately and we’ve just completed the longest separation we’ve ever had.  The separation hasn’t been easy, though somewhat mitigated by communication technology.  After all, we’re in the honeymoon stage of our relationship where it’s difficult to be apart, though it would’ve been much harder had I been left caring for a family on top of it.

So what’s so great about separation?

Psychological theory tells us that separation can improve the pleasure in our relationships or anything else we value.  First, sharing an experience is more pleasurable than giving a gift.  For example, doing an outing with the family will bring more pleasure than giving an expensive bauble or toy.  The physical gift is subject to the hedonic treadmill: the pleasure wears off quickly and then it must be replaced with something bigger and better.  Enjoying an activity together is not subject to the hedonic treadmill, so spending time together will be of lasting enjoyment.

Second, we can savor the anticipation.  I didn’t do too much savoring when our reunion was more than a week away, but as we got down to the last 3-4 days, I was savoring the anticipation like crazy!  In other words, delaying gratification can increase your enjoyment of the experience.

Third, the more effort we put into something, the more we value it.  So having a long separation followed by a long trip to the reunion means I put a lot of effort into this reunion and the time together has been precious.   I’ve also tried to savor every minute we’ve been together – I’m blogging now because my sweetie is sleeping.

Finally, to make sure we have a really great visit, we should finish it off with something memorable.    The Peak-End rule states that my recollection of an event will be dictated by the peak and the end experiences.  I will not remember much about the duration, so the short nature of the visit is not relevant.  So I will remember the really lovely bath he lovingly prepared for me and hopefully lunch at my favorite Mexican restaurant on the way to the airport.  Then I can savor the short, hard-earned but sweet experience of our visit when I return home.

I’m not so sure about the old adage about how absence makes the heart grow fonder.  But absence can clearly increase your overall pleasure.  You may not be separated from your sweetheart right now but you probably are separated from someone or something that you love.  Get the most out of that separation by savoring, putting effort into the reunion, and making the ending count.

Changing A Difficult Person

We have all had times in our lives where we are confronted on a regular basis with a difficult person who is making our lives miserable.   Perhaps you are doing so right now.  The situation is especially trying if that person is unavoidable and/or impacts our future.   Maybe you feel trapped and can’t escape that person without unacceptable consequences.  If so, here are some suggestions for how to deal with that person.

–          Consider their scared inner child – First, let’s give this person the benefit of the doubt and assume they are not evil.  If you cannot do that, then skip the list and go straight to the conclusion.  Next, know that most obnoxious behavior is the result of fear or insecurity.  They fear being invisible, not good enough, not lovable, not worthy, unimportant, and so forth.  Imagine them as a scared child with these feelings and try to find your compassion and empathy for that scared child within.  You likely have some of the same kind of fears, so while you’re at it, be gentle, compassionate and loving with your inner child.

–          Projection – Have you ever heard the saying that the thing that bothers you most about someone else is the trait you hate in yourself?  Hate that control freak because they won’t allow you to control your own environment?  Hate the vain person because they look better than you?  Hate the competitive person because they’re always trying to get one step ahead of you?  It sounds obvious when I state the concept in this manner, but take a step back and listen to your complaints about others and ask yourself how that is true in you.  Which brings us to….

–          Hypocrisy –   Don’t feel bad.  We are ALL hypocrites.  It’s hard wired in us.  Read more about it here.

–          Examine your behavior – Consider the following:  how are you likely to treat someone if you view them as a problem?  Like you trust them, communicate proactively with them, inquire about and wish for their well-being, ask their advice, share the credit, say positive things about them when they’re not there?  Yeah.  Right.  The very belief that they are a problem means that you are likely being a problem for them too.  “Well they started it” works on the playground, but you’re an adult. It’s your choice as to whether to perpetuate or fix this problem.  After all, it’s your future and serenity that’s on the table, not theirs.  Right?

If you do all of the above, then you will have changed the problem person.

How do I know that?  Because the problem person is you.

Hear me out before you close this window out.

I’m not saying the other person has no fault or responsibility.  Au contraire.  Rather, I’m saying that you each have 50% fault and responsibility (approximately) in this situation but you have 100% control over your own thoughts and actions.  You can’t change him, but you can remove yourself from the equation as a problem in a real way, and invite him to do the same.

What do you have to lose?  You have only peace of mind, serenity, and possibly a new ally to gain.

Minding Your Relationship

No one ever told me why marriage is so much work.  My interpretation of that had more to do with diapers, laundry, yard work, house cleaning, cooking dinner and the like.  No folks, that’s the easy part.

The hard part is managing the relationship.

Sure, some folks are just so easy-going that almost anything goes and they’re cool with that.   In my opinion, they’re never 100% cool with everything their partner does, but for some couples, they’re like 90% cool and that’s good enough.  Perhaps that’s the model we should strive for.

Until we get there, it’s work.  Hard work.  I’ve written before about that dynamic of choosing a mate then having to live with the consequences. Given that this is the cycle we inevitably and initially eagerly enter into, we spend much of our time (after the romance has faded) living with the consequences.  There is much we can learn from positive psychologists about how to cultivate that relationship to create satisfaction and intimacy so that it survives and thrives post-romance.

Harvey and Pauwels calls this “minding” the relationship.  We should “mind” relationships because we may have habits in the relationship that are unknowingly damaging to the relationship, such as not appreciating what the other needs, taking others for granted, or inability to see the impact of our behavior on others.  The term “minding” does relate to a philosophy of mindfulness and being present and thus able to adapt to a given situation.  Couples that successfully mind their relationship have a high degree of closeness and contribute to the other’s goals and hopes in life.

Harvey and Pauwels describe the components of  relationship minding:

  • Knowing and Being Known – This does not mean more communication; rather it refers to communication with the aim of having a better understanding of the other.  For most of us, that means more listening.
  • Attributing – Explaining positive behaviors as personality or character (as opposed to a freak of nature) and negative behaviors as circumstantial and temporary (as opposed to a character flaw).
  • Acceptance and Respect – for the other, not only in terms of who they are, but for their values, opinions, and feelings, even during conflict.   Ability to forgive is high among couples who mind effectively.
  • Reciprocity – Equal sharing of effort and benefits to the relationship.
  • Continuity –  Continuation of the strong, close bond between the individuals, even as the individuals evolve and change over time.

The authors also share some minding behaviors to help us make these concepts a reality. These behaviors include affection, respect, support and assistance, shared quality time, and appreciation.   It seems to me that investing in any relationship in these ways is likely to improve the quality of that bond.   Is one of your relationships lacking any of these ingredients?  Go fill that void and see what happens!


Source:   Harvey, J.H. & Pauwels, B.G.  (2009). Relationship connection:  A redux on the role of minding and the quality of feeling special in the enhancement of closeness.  In S.J. Lopez, & C.R. Snyder (Eds.),  Oxford handbook of positive psychology (2nd ed.) (pp. 385-392).  New York: Oxford University Press.


Same Problem, Different Relationship

It’s always a surprise, but it shouldn’t be.  Our friends and family, though, can see it coming a mile away.  In the meantime, you’re kicking yourself for falling for the same type of person who just broke your heart.

See, it’s tempting to think by kicking your Ex to the curb that you’ve learned your lesson and you’re going to do better the next time around.  Your new love just seems so perfect.  So different.  What you don’t remember is how your Ex also seemed so perfect when you first fell in love.

“You complete me” – Jerry Maguire

There are two parts to this equation.  First, according to relationship experts like Harville Hendricks, we fall in love with people who replicate our childhood wounds.   Since I have discussed this previously in What Every Couple Should Know Before Getting Married and Blessings of a Dysfunctional Marriage, I will just summarize to say that we fall in love because, on some level, we feel that we’ve met the person who will heal our childhood wounds.  When we realize they won’t is when the trouble, conflict and discontent occur.

The second part of this equation is your choice.  You can either blame your partner and get all your friends to agree what a horrible person she is (see A Random Act of War, Part 2), or you can heal your own childhood wounds.  By healing your wounds, you also help your partner heal hers, and thus strengthen and reinforce your relationship (see Do I Stay or Do I Go?).

“You bet on me like I bet on you” – Rod Tidwell, from Jerry Maguire

If you choose blame and denial about your role in your troubled or failed relationship – guess what? – you’ll go and repeat the cycle with your next partner.

If you don’t believe me, go out and try it.  Or maybe you have already.

“How’d I get myself into this?” – Jerry Maguire

If you’ve gone from failed relationship to failed relationship, ask yourself:  what is the common denominator?

If you’re now launching into a 20 minute answer, then maybe you’re fooling yourself.

You don’t know what it’s like to be me” – Jerry Maguire

If your answer is “me”, then you know what to do.

“Show me the money!” – Jerry Maguire

How to do it is another story, and is a major theme of this and many other blogs, books and therapy sessions.  Know that it is a life-long journey that is filled with wonderful discoveries, beauty, joy, and forgiveness.   Remember:

It’s about the journey, not the destination” – Dad

(If you need a Jerry Maguire quote the only thing I could find that works is, “If you fuck this up I’ll kill you.”  It just seemed wrong.)