If Holiday Stress is a Disease, The Virus is Your Expectations

The holiday season steriotypically has always been portrayed as a time of fun, joy and warmth with family, friends and colleagues. But it can also be a time of pain and high expectations. And the inevitable disappointments that follow those expectations are often to blame for holiday stress, which has gradually, but now permanantly become part of our lexicon.

High hopes about the holiday season — the expectations you put on yourself, as well as on others around you — may magnify whatever’s already not going right in your life. And remember this about all expectations: they are a nothing more than premeditated disappointments. For instance; if you’re having financial difficulties, a family conflict, relationship issues or health problems – added expectations that convert to disappointments about the holidays could push your existing stress over the limit.

So resist the urge to set yourself up for more disappointment by comparing this year to the best holiday season of your life, for example. Also, avoid making self-defeating comparisons between yourself and people whom you imagine to be happier than you, have better relationships, great family moments or more money. Comparing your reality with someone else’s image is an almost sure fire way to trigger feelings of disappointment in you.

Instead, consider how you can make the best of your own situation. For example, if you’re alone for the holidays, try volunteering to help make the season a little nicer for someone in greater need. Opportunities abound to volunteer at senior centers, hospitals, shelters, churches and you get the idea. People who volunteer to help others usually find it to be an extremely gradifying experience.

And remember it’s okay to be a little selfish, too. For example, buy yourself a holiday present, or indulge yourself by taking a bubble bath, reaching out to old friends you may have lost contact with, reading a book, learning a new skill, perhaps by even cooking a favorite meal for yourself or however you most enjoy your own solitude.

Holiday stress can also come in the form of too many obligations. If you’re overwhelmed by everyone else’s expectations to spend time with relatives or friends, try to remember that there’s only one of you and you can’t be all things to all people. But you can surely burn yourself out by trying. Limit your commitments, simplify your schedule, and prioritize your activities. Even with loved ones, don’t be afraid to graciously decline or reduce burdensome obligations.

No matter what your holiday plans, try to maintain a sense of humor as reality inevitably crashes into your expectations. So manage those expectations. Keep them realistic. And remember, the less you expect, the freer and more lighthearted you will feel.

Whether you love the holiday season, hate it or anything in between, never forget this one truism: all seasons have a beginning, a middle and an end. In other words, this too shall pass!

Wishing you a holiday with less expectations (aka stress) and thereby more sparkle and joy!

Opposites Attract, But They May Not Last, Unless…

Most couples can name several ways in which they’re opposites: neatness versus sloppiness; extroversion versus introversion; being high-strung versus laid-back preferring city versus country living, etc. And I’m sure you have something in mind that’s specific to you. It’s true that quite often and in many respects, opposites attract. But those areas can either help you thrive as a couple or destroy you!

Look at it this way: To the extent that you see or prefer things in an opposite way, you always have a choice. You can allow those ways you’re opposite to destroy you or be a constant and endless source of trouble for you by demanding that your partner be just like you; or you can help them to morph into some of your greatest strengths. The key to the latter is to recognize that your differences can give you a much greater range and perspective as a team than you could ever have on your own

The choice is yours. Couples, who use those opposite characteristics optimally, operate with four eyes and four ears, rather than negating and making each other wrong— which will create a perpetual and perhaps unresolvable conflict.

Here’s an exercise to help you look at the items where you are opposites in your relationship: Have a lighthearted (as opposed to hostile) discussion about all of the ways in which you recognize yourselves as being opposite. Make a list of all those opposite traits or preferences that you are able to recognize. Then, review your list, assigning a plus (+) or a minus (-) next to each item you’ve identified to indicate whether your opposite trait is a positive or negative factor in your relationship. Couples who take the time to do this thoroughly are usually quite surprised to find that most of their opposite traits actually serve them! (Obvious examples: One loves to cook; the other hates to but loves to eat; one is a good money manager, the other is inept at handling finances; one is a very strict parent, the other is quite liberal.)

For example, one couple I worked with demonstrated a common example. His idea of a vacation is to go someplace warm, and lie on the beach or at a pool. She loves vacations where there is lots to do and see. In fact the more her schedule is crammed with activities when she is away, the better. They fought so bitterly about their vacations that they spent several years not going away at all, despite the fact that they could well afford to. Their solution: vacations where each could do what he or she wanted. Sheila found a few handpicked activities John would enjoy, so he wanted to join her. John could spend the vast majority of his time during the day doing what he wanted — while Sheila was partaking of the rest of the sights. They both believe that this simple effort changed the entire climate of their relationship for the better, by defusing a chronic issue.

Now take a look at each item that you have identified as negative and discuss a strategy to use that opposite trait to your advantage.

No matter how opposite you may be, chances are there’s common ground. Your challenge is to find it, rather than making your partner wrong. Consider that common ground as the strength that can help you to convert those parallel tracks to ones that are convergent! Couples who commit to doing this are usually delighted to find that they do make a great team—even though it may never before have been apparent— simply because they learned to complement one another.

Should I Stay or Should I Go? Take this Self-Assessment

If your relationship were afire, is it still burning strongly? Flickering? Smoldering? Does it need kindling? A log? Or has the last spark of it burned out to the point where it’s even too late for more oxygen? After all, your relationship at one time had to be on fire in order for it to burn out. Relationships that are characterized mainly or solely by passion are often, as songwriter Cole Porter put it, “too hot, not to cool down.”

If it’s more accurate to describe your relationship as one that is or was grounded in comfort or day-to-day livingperhaps a better metaphor than fire is that of a business. And if so, do you need downsizing? Refinancing? New management? Or are you ready for bankruptcy court?

For many years, I had searched for a foolproof “litmus test” that could save people from the pain of fruitlessly trying to revive a relationship that has virtually no chance for success, as well as from abandoning troubled relationships that could be turned around if only the partners could see that proverbial “forest for the trees”.

Let me first give you the bad news. Whenever I thought I had it nailed down, a glaring exception to the rule would surface. Some of the worst relationships I have ever seen have survived, improved and even flourished! And some of those that seemed positively salvageable and loaded with potential have folded. Although there are good reasons for all of these exceptions, we only find them out after the fact — similar to the way a Wall Street session is reported on at the end of the day once the numbers are in. (Wouldn’t it be great for our portfolios if that same degree of “wisdom” were available an hour earlier?)

Now, let me give you the good news. The inventory that you are about to take comes about as close to a litmus test as anything out there, as  many colleagues of mine who have used it have told me. I put together this inventory — I call it “Can Your Relationship Be Saved?” — for my book, by the same name. Since then, it’s been used by scores of mental health professionals with their clients/patients — with good results.  So think of it as a “heads-up” — to make you aware of some of the warning signs that exist, and to help you to see them and to make the choices that lie ahead. Your self-assessment could lead either to the healing and even deepening of your relationship, or the straightforward decision to end it.

Please take a piece of paper and number it from one to fifty. Then simply put a check mark next to the number of each “true” statement that describes your relationship:

  1. My partner and I no longer feel like friends.
  2. My partner and I have developed a very strong wall that separates us.
  3. I am constantly thinking about how nice it would be to have an affair.
  4. When my partner and I fight, it gets nasty and I am left with feelings of wanting to get out.
  5. My partner has told me at a time other than when we were in the middle of a fight that he or she would be happier if we split up.
  6. I am unwilling to accept my partner as he/she is. If this relationship is to continue, he/she will have to make some very major changes that he/she is unwilling to make.
  7. My partner and I have little in common anymore
  8. I would leave this relationship in a heartbeat if I felt confident that I could make it on my own or if I knew I could get through the painful transition of a breakup.
  9. Although I no longer love my partner, I feel responsible for him/her. I think the only thing that is really keeping me here is guilt.
  10. My partner and I fight a lot and I fear that underneath the fighting there is not much left.
  11. When I am about to be around my partner and I think of having to spend time with him/her, I get an empty feeling.
  12. My partner and I are just no longer playing for the same team.
  13. The more time goes by, the more I begin to dislike my partner.
  14. My respect for my partner is practically or totally gone.
  15. There is very little trust left in our relationship.
  16. I constantly fear my partner’s abusive behavior. If it happens again, I am leaving.
  17. My partner abuses alcohol and/or drugs. It is even more intolerable to me that he/she denies that the usage is a problem
  18. I can only tolerate my partner if one of us is high on alcohol or drugs.
  19. If I could afford it financially I would leave.
  20. My partner has an emotional hold on me. I would love to leave but feel too hooked and addicted to the relationship.
  21. My partner has children whom I am expected to relate to. The
relationship would be fine if they were not there, but they are here
to stay and it is creating a very unhappy situation for me.
  22. I know I should want my relationship to continue (or want to want
my relationship to continue), but I cannot say that I truly do want
it to continue.
  23. We are unable to resolve our differences together, but my partner
refuses to enter counseling or therapy.
  24. My partner has told me that he/she does not love me anymore.
  25. My partner has done something for which I cannot forgive him/her. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
  26. We just have so many differences that it is unrealistic to think we
can even begin to address them.
  27. I am so overwhelmed by my partner’s constant demands for love and
approval, perfectionism, and/or rigid rules of how the relationship
should be and how each of us should behave within it, that
sometimes I just want to give up.
  28. I am almost certain my partner is having an affair and if this is true
I will not tolerate it.
  29. I feel closer to my partner when we are not together.
  30. There is definitely more pain than joy or pleasure associated with
my partner and our relationship.
  31. This relationship has become a constant burden.
  32.  If I knew I could find another mate, I would leave immediately.
  33. I am having an affair with someone I value much more than my
partner, and I am unwilling to give this other person up under any
  34. I feel very indifferent toward my partner and have little motivation
to try and work things out.
  35. My most stress-free moments are when my partner and I are not
  36. My partner and I are totally inflexible with each other.
  37. I don’t even have a desire to tell my partner how I feel anymore —
positive or negative.
  38. Our relationship has peaked and could never again be as good as it
once was.
  39. When I think of us growing old together, life seems not worth
  40. At this point, there is just too much water under the bridge.
  41. When I think of leaving my partner I feel relieved.
  42. I have wanted to leave for a long time, but my partner has said
he/she will commit suicide if I do.
  43. I constantly have to choose between my partner and my family (of
  44. My partner is abusive to the children — a situation I am powerless
to stop as long as they are all in the same environment.
  45. This relationship does not allow me to grow.
  46. My partner does not fit into my future plans.
  47. I want to leave but, I cannot see myself pulling it off— I am stuck.
  48. I need my partner much more than I love him/her.
  49. I love my partner but am not in love with him/her.
  50. We have tried everything and nothing seems to help.

Many of these items are self explanatory, but for a better understanding of what your answers could mean as well as the degree of risk associated with them, click here and scroll down to “Evaluation of Inventory.” Hopefully this can be an important step in your journey to determine the future of your relationship.

When Your Relationship is Rocky, Look Right at Your Expectations

One of the best ways to think of a relationship on the rocks is to reflect on your expectations for your relationship. What are they? What is it that you really want from your partner? What could your partner do now that would — from your point of view — make the relationship work again? Make a comprehensive list, and pay special attention to what you now recognize your unique issues to be.

If your partner were to compile a list such as the one you just did, what would he or she be asking of you? Compose a list of what you think your partner’s responses would be, then take each of these answers individually and ask yourself what you would be willing give up, give in to, or change about yourself in order to accommodate your partner. What are you now willing to do that you may not have been willing to do before, in order to save your relationship or simply to make the climate better?

Many believe in a variation of the idea, “If only I had the right relationship, my life would be totally complete.” But then once involved, the expectations sometimes become so high that in the end, no relationship could possibly meet them all. Thus, it turns into a source of unfulfillment. That’s why it’s important for you to identify and very carefully reflect on what your relationship expectations are. For example, perhaps you tell yourself that your partner should always “be there for you.” Yet, when you look realistically at this request (or demand) you can see how tall an order that expectation can be. Can you always “be there” for your partner? Being realistic goes a long way.

When thinking about how your partner would respond to those same questions you’ve answered for yourself, be empathetic or tuned in to what your partner feels. Remember, that if you are working on these questions in private, there is no downside to reflecting on them in the privacy of your own mind, with total honestly.

Beware of what I have long called the “Soul Mate Syndrome,” which is fueled by the highly unlikely idea that your partner should  effortlessly be a perfect match for you in every way.  I know of no relationship that perfect, because this is an impossible standard! Your expectations are highly personal matters; and nobody else really can what yours should be. But sometimes simply realizing how your expectations of your partner — and/or of relationships in general — have sabotaged you can make a huge difference.

Most importantly, remember that expectations are in fact premeditated disappointments. In other words, no expectations, no anger; reduce your expectations, increase the peace between you.  Managing your expectations together is rarely easy, but it’s that simple!

Your Relationship is in Trouble: Has Your Partner Changed or Just Your View of Then Vs. Now?

The title of a great and popular old Off-Broadway play captures one of the most common sentiments I’ve seen when working with distressed couples: I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.

If you have discovered that for some reason you and your partner are no longer growing together as a couple, it might be useful to look at why you actually got together in the first place, and how the things that originally attracted you to each other may look different once that initial attraction is gone. For example, if initially you loved that your partner had a great sense of humor, after some time you may see this same trait as obnoxious. If you were once attracted by the fact that your partner was “a lot of fun”, you may now believe that he or she cannot be serious. Take a look at this chart to see what may have changed in how you perceive your partner:

If a trait that initially attracted you to your partner was that of being: You may now be seeing that trait in your partner as being:
Eccentric Crazy
Take charge person Control freak
Ambitious and successful Workaholic and neglectful
Life of party Excessive drinker
Someone who will take care of me Not allowing me to take any initiative on my own
Relaxed and laid back  Lazy
Orderly and careful Obsessive and compulsive
Risk taker/daring Reckless/careless
Childlike Childish
Intellectual and smart Condescending
Self-aware/knows who he/she is Narcissistic
Talented Omnipotent
Sexy Inappropriately flirtatious
Good parent Too enmeshed with kids
Beautiful Obsessed with looks
Very desirable Can’t be satisfied with me
Needs me Too dependent
Sets high standards Impossible to please
Religious  Rigid rule abider
Spiritual  Self-absorbed
Careful Paranoid
Vulnerable Neurotic
Makes own rules Sociopath
Strong ties with family and friends Has time for everyone but me
Committed to a great cause Unavailable
Tough Unfeeling
Puts me in my place Abusive
Determined Ruthless
Nurturing Smothering
Great money manager Stingy

In other words, you may now be turned off by another perception the same traits you once found to be irresistible! There is a lot of truth to the cliché “be careful what you ask for.” Very often, first impressions are the beginning of the fantasies of what you come to expect from each other. When I ask people to share with me their first impressions of the partner with whom they are splitting up or having difficulties now, I often get a the “good” version of how the bad relationship is today:

“My first husband was extremely hard-driven and unavailable. So I left him to hook up with my yoga instructor — someone who personified the exact opposite. But he turned out to be so laid back and unambitious that I totally lost respect for him.”

“My first wife was so clingy and possessive that I often felt like I couldn’t breathe. Then I met my present wife. She was extremely accomplished professionally. Her independence really turned me on. But she has now become so distant, aloof and absorbed in her work that I feel totally insignificant to her. The funny thing is she really didn’t change, only my perception of her did.” (Great insight!)

When that delicious initial attraction is present, the glass is half full. But when it leaves, that same “glass” is often experienced as half empty. So consider some of these questions from my book Can Your Relationship Be Saved?  How to Know Whether to Stay or Go regarding how your relationship may have evolved over time.

If things have changed, was that change predictable given a second look at those traits that initially attracted you?

Is it possible that things were always this way, but you didn’t notice when looking through those rose-colored initial attraction “glasses” that are normally powered by a “Dopamine high”?

Did you ignore the proclamations, warnings and clues? For example: Your partner tells you she doesn’t want children, or he shares has a hard time being monogamous.

Did you fall for Mr./Ms. Right or Mr./Ms. Right Now? In other words, were you very needy at the time when you hooked up? Or perhaps in a rebound relationship -where, in hindsight, you now recognize that your then new partner represented little more than a strong dose of “anesthesia” for the pain of a relationship you were ending?

Is it possible that you were never really attracted to your partner, but wanted the relationship for reasons other than attraction or liked him or her so much that you were willing to overlook the attraction factor then and now find it unacceptable that there is little or no sexual desire?

Did you marry or commit to a long-term relationship because of who your partner is (this doesn’t change very much), or because of what he or she can do for you (this does tend to change)?

Are there other factors that not only got you together, but also kept you together to this point that you may not be acknowledging?

Could a major part of the problem be perfectionism? One man recently shared with me his wife’s comments after she refused to go into counseling with him: “If we need counseling we should simply get divorced. Period!” Thus, is any imperfection — real or perceived — enough to make you or you partner question, negate, or even bolt the relationship?

After you have reflected on these questions, and maybe added some of your own, you may want to go through them again — only this time as your partner, and take a look at them as they apply to you. Warning: this can he a powerful eye-opening exercise.  As you engage in this exercise, use the insights and reflections from these questions as a starting point or to add to your awareness and understanding of where your relationship is now vs. then, and where you’d like to see it go

Navigating The Awkward Side of Parenting

Julia Sweeney’s excellent TED conversation “It’s Time For The Talk” is a very humorous account of a situation that practically all parents find themselves in at one time or another. And I’ve got to say that for the most part, she did pretty well with it!

She certainly seems to know the principles of having those conversations that can be much more awkward for the parent than it is for the child. And she understood that rule that applies to children asking about sex, which is very similar to the instructions most lawyers give to witnesses who were about to testify in court: just answer the question that was asked. For example, most have heard some variation of the story about a first grader who comes home from school and asks’ his parents, “what is sex?” Of course, they reply with a professorial diatribe about the “birds and the bees”, when all the child needed to know was that the word, “sex” meant male/female or boy/girl. Julia certainly got this part right.

There are many good books and articles as well as tons of credible information available to you on the Internet and elsewhere about talking to your children at various ages (and the conversations are quite different at different ages) about sex. But there are several other topics we may need to talk to our children about, that test our comfort zone as well. For example, explaining about divorce, death (whether it’s a pet, a grandparent or someone else), why we are moving and you need to attend new school or perhaps about some difficult or uncomfortable situation that is unique to your family.

Over the years, many parents have talked to me about such discussions.  In addition, I am a parent myself who has had many such delicate discussions; and I have found that there are two important things to keep in mind. Let me state the obvious one first: to talk to them on their age-appropriate level. Nothing is accomplished if they don’t understand what you said and then leave the conversation more confused. Trust that just as Julia’s daughter came back and asked more questions as more occurred to her, your children will do the same. Also, allow that with certain topics you may need to explain the same thing many times and often in different ways until your child finally gets it.

Second, tell the truth! Arguably, the most important thing to remember is what has long-term implications. Trust is a fragile commodity, which is easy to damage. Always assume that they will “fact check” you in some way.  It may not be immediately, but inevitably; the topic—whatever it is— will come up at some point with their siblings, cousins, friends or teachers.  In order for you to be the ongoing resource you want to be for your children throughout the crucial ages of childhood and adolescence, they need to trust you. Not only will that benefit them the most, but also it will relieve your mind and make parenting a more rewarding experience for you.  So when Julia was asked whether there were videos on the Internet that showed humans mating as it showed cats, saying “no” got her out of the awkward situation for the moment.  However, her daughter will find out at some point that this is not the case. A slightly better answer may have been, “not that we can look at”.

A great exercise to prepare parents for navigating this awkward side of parenting is to ask yourself what would have worked best for you when you were on the receiving end of these answers.  Unlike many of the challenges of parenting today, these situations are timeless.

4 ‘Dangerous’ Yet Crucial Things Every Parent Should Encourage

I am a psychologist who works with adults, who are often very high achievers. So when I am asked if I see children in my practice, my routine tongue-in-cheek quip is, “only those in adult bodies.” More seriously, I’ve seen an extremely wide range of parenting results over my 38 years of clinical practice, ranging from outstanding to criminally horrific. Perhaps this is stating the obvious, but many parents either don’t realize or forget that the quality of the parenting we give our children is one of the crucial factors for determining how they will function throughout their entire lives.

Gever Tully’s excellent TED talk, “5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do,” prompted me to share some psychological counterparts to his presentation, based on years of clinical observation–and even more importantly, my own life experiences–that you may consider instilling in your child:

• Proudly celebrate your uniqueness — It takes courage to resist the urge to blend in and surrender yourself to the safety of sameness. Your children are unique creatures with their very own talents, passions and areas of excellence. And letting their individuality guide them to what will become their inimitable contribution to themselves and their world is the most reliable ticket to a fulfilling life. However, being an individual often invites peer group scorn. And painful as this may be at the time, the cost of ignoring your destiny–aka the life you were born to live–is far greater. If you pressed me to name things I have regretted in my life, it would almost certainly be when I have taken the “safe” road and ignored my passions.

• Take risks — Prudent risk-taking is what builds emotional muscle. It’s always a nice feeling when people agree with your opinions, accept your invitation to the prom or enjoy your performance at the school play. But when they don’t, they have given you another gift, which is the opportunity to confirm that you can handle rejection. The same principle applies to failure. Of course, we should always strive to succeed. But failure at times is inevitable except for those who fear it so much that they don’t even try (which I would argue is failure by default!). Every wildly successful person I know can point to at least one major and often humiliating failure that became a valuable learning experience. Soon you will stop being governed by other people’s approval and the fear of rejection or failure. This is true strength or the emotional muscle, which will serve you throughout life with your career, relationships and anything else that’s important to you.

• Stand up to bullies — In my work with high achievers, one thing practically all of them have in common is the refusal to be pushed around and negated by those who see you as easy prey. While bullying sometimes rises to a level where adult intervention is necessary, I am concerned that the pendulum may have swung too far, resulting in overprotection of children when it comes to their standing up to peers. At the ripe old age of 4 ½, I was sent to overnight camp for the summer and was the youngest in my bunk by almost 2 years. I was picked on mercilessly. Not knowing what else to do, I fought back and learned that summer what most bullies have in common–that when stood up to, they fold like cheap cameras!

• Question rules that don’t make sense — Part of growing up is about learning respect for authority. But it’s also about learning how to think outside the box. These are not incompatible tasks! Almost without exception, those who have most changed the world have turned some deeply held form of conventional wisdom on its head. Where did they learn to do this? The lucky ones point to their parents. But the others had to find some other mentor or shoulder it themselves, often feeling quite alone in the process.

It’s been said that good parenting is the ultimate balancing act. We need to protect our children in an age appropriate way; early on by insuring their physical safety, then by setting limits and teaching them the basic rules of living in a civilized society. Then comes what for most parents is the hard part–letting go (while certainly maintaining your availability) and trusting that they will learn from their own mistakes, passions, uniqueness and psychological growing pains. But by pulling this off, you’ve put your children on track to be the very best they can be!

Your Best Mantra for 2014

If you were to ask me what one thing the vast majority of the thousands of clients I’ve seen in my clinical psychology practice over the last 38 years have had in common, the answer might shock you. Almost without exception, what brings people to my office is what turns out to be a disconnect between the life they are living and the life they could be living if only they were empowered by their own choices.

Many come to see me because they cannot seem to find or maintain a suitable love relationship—yet I am not a matchmaker. Others seek my help because their marriages are breaking up—yet I am not a divorce lawyer. As a psychologist, I dispense no medication for people who are anxious or depressed; and I have no magical answers for those who consult me about the self-confidence issues that undermine their ability to pursue a dream or maximize whatever is most important in their lives. What I do have to offer are the tools and strategies for consciously, mindfully and literally taking their lives into their own hands.

And the way this is done is first by looking at each aspect of your life that could be improved along with the situation that would exist if the issues related to that part of your life were resolved.  Next, painful as it may be, make a list of and take responsibility for the choices that led you to where you are now in that aspect of your life. Then, the stage is set for you to empower yourself by identifying and examining the choices that now need to be made for your life to be working optimally. For example, are you too dependent on non-empathetic people while going through a divorce or some other difficult situation? Surrendering to feelings of helplessness that lead to depression? Being too passive and approval seeking rather than assertive with your spouse, a colleague or boss?  Believing you’re stuck in an unfulfilling marriage, career, or lifestyle with no options? In all of these examples, there is a choice or a series of choices that can turn things around.

What truly can’t be changed, you can choose to accept, which simply means no longer blaming yourself or others and releasing all of that toxic anger that is directed both inward and outward. For what can be changed, you can choose to give up what I have long called your comfortable state of discomfort and accept a little short-term pain in order to make the long-term benefits you seek happen.

Here’s the bottom line: In my field, the closest thing we have to a “cure” is simply to be aware of your choices and to be living by them. To the extent that you’re truly living your life according to your own choices, you’re empowered to take whatever action is in your best interest―when possible and appropriate―as well as to find peace within yourself when accepting a situation that you don’t like is your only real option. To be the master of your choices is perhaps the greatest gift you can ever give yourself. It’s also a great definition of true freedom; and each time you experience it with something new, you’re changed forever! Incidentally, I have a lot to say about adopting the attitudes, beliefs and action steps that empower you to live your life this way in my book, Stage Climbing: The Shortest Path to Your Highest Potential.

So the mantra I urge you to adopt for a truly happy New Year is this simple affirmation:  2014 is the year that I choose to do whatever it takes to be the master of my choices. 

When the Passion and Excitement in Your Relationship Is Waning

Do you feel a lack of excitement in your relationship? Perhaps a certain feeling of passion or excitement that was once there no longer exists, is much less frequent than it was or far less intense? Maybe you used to prioritize your relationship much higher, but it feels like a chore now; and that passion and excitement has been replaced by indifference.

Although indifference can be a very difficult thing to turn around in a relationship, it’s certainly doable— as long as this is something that you both want—by either rekindling what was once there or by creating something even better in your relationship. The first step in reigniting passion is to recognize what caused it to wane in the first place. So step one is to initiate a discussion with your partner. This is often the most difficult step. If your partner is equally unhappy and ready to address the issue, you’ve taken the most important step together! Next, consider these suggestions for focusing on where you would like the relationship to go:

Make a list of those items that you believe might have led to your indifferent feelings in the first place. These could be ongoing issues you have tried to avoid resolving. Become familiar enough with whatever is bothering your partner (and hopefully visa versa) as well as the ways you try to sweep them under the rug, that you can remind each other about when one of you begins to repeat the pattern. For example, if you tend to leave the room every time you’re angry during an uncomfortable discussion, take responsibility for changing that pattern. Walk back to your partner and reopen the discussion—no matter how uncomfortable it feels. There is no getting around working to resolve the issues that are creating the distance. So make a commitment to address each one, either alone or with professional help, if necessary, until you can truly put it behind you.

Focus on the things that you like most about your partner instead of those things that are troubling you or that you dislike the most. Try to identify the ingredients that brought you together in the first place. Explore ways you can re-create those positive feelings you once had. What made your partner so special initially? What did you do when you were dating, when you first began to live together? When and why did those great things start to fade away? Chances are that in sharing some of what is important but rarely discussed, you will find some nice common ground that’s been lying dormant.

Try to make it a rule that avoiding painful discussions about something that’s bothering one of you is not an option. When new problems and issues come up, talk about them as soon as possible. Don’t put them aside with the hope that they will simply go away. As you’ve probably learned, this rarely happens.

Begin reestablishing intimacy by sharing new feelings and information with your partner. Perhaps you felt your partner didn’t care about a certain part of your life—or that you would be rejected if you shared certain thoughts and emotions. Intimacy begins with openness about things that are sometimes difficult to talk about. So to bring that intimacy back once again, take this risk; and get to know each other once again.

Take time to be together without other people around. Many couples get into the habit of relaxing only when sharing activities as a family (that is, with children around) or when they are with other couples. As awkward as it may sometimes seem at first, make being alone together a top priority. Initially, you may have to be very deliberate about this—literally “making an appointment” to spend an evening together by yourselves or to go away for a weekend. But, eventually, it will hopefully become a top priority.

Discuss what your goals together are—both long- and short-term. There is a good chance that both of you have goals that have changed since the last time you discussed them (or perhaps you never discussed them). You may find out some very valuable information about yourselves, both individually and as a couple. And while you’re at it, make sure to share your hopes, dreams, and wishes.

Spend a week acting as if you were in love again. Some couples do this by going away together or finding other ways to recreate their courtship.

These things may not be easy at first, but they will kick-start the healing process and could be fun as well. In fact, you may even be able to create a degree of comfort that you never had before, if a change for the better is something that you both desire. You can also learn a number of tools in my book; Can Your Relationship Be Saved? How to Know Whether to Stay or Go to continue reigniting the spark your relationship once had.

4 Reasons You May Be Thriving in One-sided Love Affairs

When your involvement in a relationship is not mutual, the result can be painful for both of you, but especially for the one who is more committed to the relationship. Unrequited love —one of the most popular movie and novel themes—has indeed been known to trigger extremely painful emotions. Sometimes just the recognition that your relationship comes under this category is all that is needed to help you make some necessary choices. Sometimes it’s to stay in a relationship that most would define as “unworkable“, but more often, it means getting out. Most people I’ve seen as a psychologist over the years, start by demanding change in the other person that will—at last—make involvement in their relationship mutual. Occasionally, they do get what they want. But changing your partner’s attitude toward you without his or her consent is the only route that’s truly impossible.

Why do so many people find themselves repeatedly in one-sided love affairs in the form of painful crushes, rebound relationships or relationships where one person is married or otherwise unavailable (physically or emotionally)? There are plenty of good people out there from which to choose; and it is not because you are unlovable, unattractive, or in some other way cursed to remain sans a decent relationship. In my experience as a psychologist with a specialty in the relationship area, I am here to tell you that there is a fulfilling relationship for practically everybody. However, those who typically enter into or stay in one-sided love affairs do so for several reasons, for example:

1. You might tend to be love-prone. By that I mean you consider yourself a person who habitually falls in love in such a way that you act as though you have no control whatsoever over your emotions. You may even feel as though you catch “love at first sight” almost as though it were some kind of virus. Sometimes it is great to have feelings that are fantasy-based about being involved with someone in a spontaneous way. But the downside is when you realize, but refuse to accept the reality that whatever it is you are fantasizing about won’t go any further. It’s only when you insist that your fantasy must go further than reality dictates, that things become painful. Love-junkies spend a lot of time being hurt, until they move on after accepting the reality that having what they fantasized about is just not going to happen.

2. You might have a preoccupation with vulnerability in relationships. Although it has been romanticized that being vulnerable is the way to go, vulnerability also means weakness or the inability to choose. In fact, the word “vulnerability” literally means weak. The best couples are those who can feel strongly and deeply for each other while standing on their own two feet. When you give up your autonomy along with the ability to choose to leave—if that becomes necessary— you open yourself to being exploited by the other person and/or your own painful emotions.

3. You could be ambivalent about commitment. On the one hand you want it and seek it; on the other hand you pick the kind of person who gives clear and early signs that commitment is not really for him or her. So think twice about dismissing those signs when they are present.

4. Maybe your self-esteem depends so much on being in a relationship that anyone who gives you the slightest hope of involvement makes you “smell” love and ignore the realities of who that person is. In this case, it’s your self-esteem that’s the culprit. As you work on that, see if the person still interests you.

Perhaps long-term or committed involvement is not what you want, but if it is, recognizing the one-sided nature of the relationships you enter and your patterns in these relationships can help you take a step back, and allow yourself to find the relationship you’ve been hoping for. In my book Can Your Relationship Be Saved? How to Know Whether to Stay or Go, you can find help in either getting out of an unfulfilling relationship, or work on the one you’re in to make it a relationship that’s more mutually fulfilling.