Relationship Coaching, The Re-education of Shontae
Spoons clink, coffee aroma abounds and the daily gathering of people sit and chatter, some potter and others stare in to open space occupied alone by their thoughts… As I sit in my local coffee house, I look forward in anticipation to meeting a new client of mine called Shontae to help her through some relationship issues. From our brief conversation previously I understood that she was originally from a Paris suburb but had been living and working in London for nearly 5 years.
As she arrives I notice a predictable hesitancy and nervousness that accompanies a first meet under these circumstances. I learn that Shontae is in her mid-twenties and in a committed relationship with Mark who was of the same age. Her self presentation however, displayed the manner of a much younger person, smiling awkwardly and unable to maintain proper eye contact. I did my best to reassure her and put her at ease with a few jokes, but I sensed the work ahead would be significant. Essentially, she came in for coaching as she was having intrusive thoughts about her partner’s ex-girlfriend getting back on the scene or her partner cheating with someone else on any one of his numerous nights out.
She hadn’t been sleeping properly for months and knew something had to change. Her underlying anxiety made her push him relentlessly for more commitment, no efforts on his part were ever satisfactory to alleviate her concerns, and she was in the truest sense likely to prove herself right and push him away. With months of cajoling and fighting he had given in and agreed to a joint savings pot for their first home. On the occasions where she felt ok enough to go out with her friends Mark would pry as his insecurities got the better of him, almost paying Shontae back for her obsessive behaviour. She occasionally beamed when she talked about a new watch or gift Mark had bought her, as if that was somehow a token of lasting love. When I asked if she loved him, her reply was that she couldn’t stop thinking about him. She was unnerved by her anxiety as well as the disorientation of falling for someone.
I also learned that her parents had separated during her formative teenage years. Immediately I recognised that anxious form of attachment was playing out in her present relationship causing her to fight and argue as opposed to nurturing the right “kind” of love.
Despite her naive model of a relationship, I had huge admiration that she came in to seek help, and more importantly to change her role in the relationship, at the same time I was excited to start a wholesale re-education around relationships and giving her the confidence to replace her fears with love and trust. The following highlights follows many of the teachings that came up in our time working together… many of these stories were conveyed to Shontae while she was in a relaxed state so that she could apply them to herself, while some of the formal steps followed lively and uplifting exchanges with lots of “aha moments” for both of us.
What’s love got to do with it?
Talking about this seemingly vague and amorphous thing called “love” I said to her can be a tricky business. Given that Love cements much of our relationships and therefore shapes our lives, why don’t we all have a clearly defined understanding about what it is and how to do it right? I feel that some clarity would go a long way. The following segments highlight different forms of love and therefore give you some practical ways to step up your game and have the right “kind” of love in your relationship while outgrowing the un-resourceful forms that hinder our growth and collective happiness.
Chemical Love & Pair Bonding
You may have noticed as in Shontae’s case that she was somewhat disorientated by falling in love with Mark? This is the kind of love that shows up in films, stories and popular music, why because it’s definitely dramatic! Far from it being superficial it’s this initial wave of chemicals during the lust and attraction phase that bond humans together long enough so that we can pass on our genes, so from an evolutionary point of view it’s vital. Nature however, isn’t too interested in how we feel during that process. That it seems is up to us!
This “Pair Bonding” process as it’s often referred to in evolutionary psychology is backed up by powerful chemicals in the brain such as testosterone, oestrogen, dopamine, adrenaline and serotonin. Take it from me, that’s a heady cocktail and it’s designed to render even the most stoic of individuals “swept of their feet” from time to time. As you may have guessed there is so much more to love than this rather giddying and intoxicating wave of emotions. If you ask anyone who’s been married longer than 10 years, I’m sure they’ll vouch for that. Once people have bonded in this biochemical sense, opportunity arises for different forms of love to grow and take form and that’s where the learning curve at least for most people is fairly steep. The questions I have you is
What’s your model for Love in your relationship?
How do you characteristically express love and what do you expect in return?
As you read on, these steps become a simple guide in figuring out what you contribute to your relationship, but more importantly how you can grow the most rewarding kind of love. When this happens a relationship becomes the best place to grow and discover your full potential as a person!
Infantile Love – “I Love Me”
During my time working with Shontae, I drove past an old friend who recently got married. As I couldn’t attend his wedding because of prior commitments I felt he deserved an explanation. When I stopped to speak with him, to my astonishment, he reassured me that “I didn’t miss much”, as he was only married a brief 3 months. When I offered my sympathetic ear, he confessed that he had very little idea about what to do with a woman after he was bored of having sex with her! “She just wasn’t doing it for me anymore” he said. As he spoke I glanced over his shoulder to notice a new romantic interest dressed to impress waiting in a nearby car, and in an instant his whole (rather depressing) romantic life flashed before my eyes. I briefly envisaged a rollercoaster of lust and attraction, used like a drug to stroke his ego and give him instant gratification and a lengthy trail of broken hearts and destruction left behind him. I thought to myself, he has a long way to go… and some interesting Karma awaiting him!
Infantile Love is essentially when the person is stuck in loving themselves… the excessive use of the words “I” and “Me” are one obvious sign. The above example is extreme in the utmost and more than likely a therapeutic issue for him as well as the people who sign up to it with him. If unrevoked, Infantile Love has the potential to develop in to Narcissism. In it’s less extreme form’s though it’s likely to show up in most relationships in occasional self serving behaviour, a need to be right at all costs, proving a point, lack of empathy and rigidity in conflict resolution. These qualities can often result in impasses when trying to resolve conflicts with both parties firmly wedging their flags of self allegiance in to the ground! As the name suggests, this type of love has its roots in early childhood years and is therefore very infant like.
The good news is, this type of love can be outgrown with the right knowledge and actions. And interestingly enough when a person steps up to a more empathic or kinder form of love they often become far happier in themselves.
I Love the Me in You
The second form of love is but a brief step up from the first. This is when the person selects the qualities and interests in their partner that reflect their own characteristics, while disregarding their partners’ uniqueness.
In that sense this form is love is pretty closely related to Infantile Love and probably has its roots in developing childhood due to its self oriented nature.
A previous client of mine who I will call Jane wanted help to meet the right person after devoting much of her adult life to her career. We worked with her self confidence and expression and her list of non negotiable “wants” in a man. They read:
- Active and Fit
- Interested in World Affairs
- Well Travelled
She felt focussed and renewed by her list and set about meeting the best matches only. As time and a handful of dates revealed, her list of wants was a pretty close description of her own self image. Without knowing, she was essentially looking for herself! What was interesting is that after each first date we would check in over the phone and she would sound delighted that the suitor in question had ticked all the required boxes!
I love the Me in You is a slippery one, especially when selecting a partner. It means we are likely to find common ground with a person while mentally filtering out their differences. Then we make that critical error of getting together with someone for their potential and spend the rest of our days trying to dress them up (sometimes literally) to be more like us.
Eventually this formula leads to passive acceptance by the other person or resentment. Either way, it’s not a solid foundation of love. When it shows up in a relationship that’s when a person feels pressured to conform, and in doing so a part of them becomes suppressed.
Without knowing she was distorting the person’s responses to match her own… She was seeing what she wanted to see. Invariably, by date 3 (and with some direction) she listened with more open ears and discovered that the person’s idea of being well travelled meant going to Las Vegas and staying in a penthouse apartment and that slightly differed from her version which involved trekking through the Atlas Mountains or doing charity work in Cambodia! In the end their only similarity became frequent air travel. This story played out for a while until we did a deeper intervention, which involved giving her a more sustainable model of love.
A loving relationship is a vehicle for two people to freely be all of who they are and grow to be all of who they can be. For this to unfold we really want to love the whole person, similarities and differences too, because this allows the other person to accept all of who they are as they reach their potential! For many of us, this kind of unconditional love is deeply healing and transformational on its own, especially if it didn’t feature in our formative days. So if you recognise some of the I love the me in you, within yourself, it’s really time to loosen up and start to value the whole person.
In the process of working with Shontae I wanted to get a clearer sense of what she liked about Mark and why she thought he would be a good life partner. When asked she reeled of a list of qualities that read like a 14 year olds infatuation with the popular boy at the school disco:
- He’s so funny
- He’s witty
- I love his dress sense
- He’s so confident when we’re out in a group
- He makes me feel sexy
- He’s driven
Adolescent Love is when there is a fixation on some superficial or temporary quality in the person’s personality and mannerisms. Once again, imagine a 14 year old who falls head over heels in love by watching their love interest dance provocatively! This is pretty well tied in to the attraction phase of falling in love and is usually backed up by a supporting cast of “brain chemicals”. Don’t get me wrong, it’s super important in a relationship and can help to keep the spark alive so to speak. Just be cautioned that in the evolution of a relationship many of these qualities have a short shelf life at best due to ageing, new responsibilities, changes in circumstances, social status and so on… Because of that, adolescent love shows up more infrequently and isn’t quite enough on it’s own for a loving long term relationship. In some instances it even becomes the thing that breaks people up. We’ve all seen the shy retiring wall flower fall for the guy who is the life and soul of the party… The irony is that very quality in the long run can provoke their insecurities, and it’s no easy task to tame a man like that and expect them to settle for t.v dinners once you’ve moved in together! It was around this point of our discussions that Shontae saw many of the patterns playing out in her relationship with Mark and began to take a step back from the intense emotions to look at things more calmly… Progress!
So far, we have spoke about the lower forms of love, and I want to say this first of all, all of them are likely to be there in varying degrees. But, to have a long term loving relationship that is a vehicle for both people to become all that they can be… there wants to be a solid foundation of Adult Love.
Fiona and Riaz had both been married before. Both of them had made years of futile attempts to please their previous partners (who were probably stuck in the lower forms of love). I met them at a Seminar I was teaching and was struck by their kindness to each other and sense of fun. As I got to know them I learned that their bitter relationship struggles of the past had taught them what was really important in love.
Each Wednesday evening Riaz would start and finish work early so he could drive Fiona out of town for Netball training and drinks with her teammates. Fiona was more than capable of driving herself but Riaz knew she liked nothing better than a glass of wine with her friends afterwards. He took that time, to read through the days papers and have a simple dinner in a nearby diner. He told me that when he picks her up at about 9.30pm she is a different person all together, she is fun, full of life, relaxed and he can’t stop her talking. He realises that she gets as much from relaxing with her friends as she does from her sport. “When I see her like that it makes me so happy and I feel privileged I can give her that”. That right there is the essence of adult love, when you get your happiness from seeing your partner happy!
What makes their relationship a beautiful example is that Fiona is equally satisfied from supporting Riaz in his pursuits. “Every Sunday he likes to watch these old Western movies. I can’t for the life of me see what he like s about them, but I know that they make him so happy. So I make sure he has the living room to himself so he can watch two of them back to back and I’ll always make him a nice lunch too. Sometimes I’ll peer in and see that happy child like smile on his face and it makes me happy to know that he is happy”.
I’ll say again, real adult love is simply seeing and participating in your partner’s happiness. And giving them happiness is the only “reward” that’s needed. It has no strings attached to it, no unspoken expectations of a favour to be returned it is pure giving and the satisfaction is the feeling of kindness that wells up in the giver and the happiness of the recipient. This “kind” of generosity of spirit creates a foundation of kindness and gratitude that allows each person the freedom to be who they are. And when we have the freedom to be who we are, that’s when we seek out opportunities and fulfil our potential.
Here are some simple examples of adult love (please write a few you are willing to commit to):
- He encourages his girlfriend to take piano lessons while taking responsibility for the children after school.
- She organises a group of his old friends to come over for a barbecue as a surprise
- He knows how much she likes a lie in, so every week he gets all the housework done on a Saturday afternoon so she can sleep in on a Sunday. When she wakes, she is welcomed by a nice breakfast.
- On the way home from work she notices his favourite technology magazine and picks one up for him.
- Having realised his wife had become isolated from friends in the process of motherhood. He politely refuses the opportunity to join her in a new fitness class. Even though he would enjoy time with her, he wants her to have the space to build new friendships with women and re-discover herself as her own independent self.
Watch out for “Pseudo Adult Love”
Remember pure adult love has a very simple reward, seeing your partner happy, that’s it. As you practice this, be conscientious to unwire any expectations you may have. Take your sole satisfaction from their smile! When we have little expectations of others they usually feel free to respond. Over time, Adult Love can become the bedrock of your relationship and breed a deep and sincere respect for the other person. This phase of relating is important as it helps a person to form a secure attachment in their life. This type of attachment has been shown to have many health benefits too as it correlates with the presence of the “bonding” chemical Oxytocin, which reduces the harmful effects of stress.
A Path of Practice
Much like Fiona and Riaz, the best relationships have an equal contribution, a balance so to speak of giving Adult Love without expectation, the occasional infatuation of Adolescent Love for those adrenaline and serotonin spikes and only very brief glimpses of Infantile forms of love from time to time.
Essentially from an Eastern Philosophy perspective, much of the satisfaction in life comes from giving and much of the dissatisfaction comes from wanting for oneself. Practicing Adult Love is a daily process and a discipline; it’s something that takes time to nurture as a way of being, unless of course it comes naturally to you. So how do we get to that point in our relationships? I believe the following story really captures the essence of what’s required to make this shift.
Be the Change you want to see in your Partner
In her last attempts to stop her 8 year old son from eating sugar and aggravating a health condition, a desperate mother pens a letter to the late Mahatma Ghandi. Who at that time of his stewardship provided council for everyday people to alleviate their difficulties. Having tried every possible attempt to get the message through to her wilful son, she took the long train journey across the country and arrived in Ghandi’s village for a once in a lifetime encounter… “It was now or never” she said to herself, either Ghandi Ji gets this boy to see sense or… well the consequences didn’t bear thinking about. Knowing full well the severity of the situation, Ghandi invites them to sit. As the young boy sits nervously and somewhat star struck Ghandi studies him thoughtfully….and after much quiet deliberation sends both the boy and mother away with the instructions to return in 3 weeks!
With no other choice they act on his wishes, although the mother is deeply frustrated by this outcome. When they return 3 weeks later the exact scene plays out, and this time as Ghandi watches the boy carefully the mothers anticipation is at it’s peak, willing, hoping and praying that this time Ghandi will do something. Then while holding the boys attention with a meaningful gaze he quietly says…
“Little boy, stop eating sugar”…
The boy seems moved by the power in their words. The mother instinctively knows that he had listened to this simple but wise guidance. As they leave she feels overcome by the need to ask Ghandi why he hadn’t been so forthcoming 3 weeks earlier… and he responds by saying:
“Dear child, 3 weeks ago, I was still eating sugar”
In keeping with Ghandi’s principle of being the change you want to see in others, if you want your relationship to have a foundation of Adult Love and kindness it’s important that you lead from the front, and bring that energy to your relationship on a consistent basis. I believe a year of consistent daily practice will open up a brand new metaphor in your relationship and then you’ll be ready to merge a life vision and purpose together to become that inspires both of you.
Thankfully in Shontae’s case, her anxiety was treated very effectively through some more direct approaches, and she could enjoy going slow and getting to know who this person really was and whether they were right for each other. More importantly she felt inspired to change the “kind” of love she was contributing to the relationship and start practicing Adult Love.
It started during the end of one of our sessions when she sent a simple text message:
“I hope you really enjoy your night out, you work really hard and deserve it… see you soon, love S xxx”
It was the start, gradually she learned how to practice selflessness, trust and taking satisfaction from seeing Marks happiness, he responded accordingly, almost if he matured over night. As a result of her new resolve, she re-connected with her free spirit much to the delight of herself, her friends, family and of course Mark! Thankfully they have postponed moving in together and are just enjoying being a positive presence in each others life, nurturing a foundation of Adult Love… the right “kind of love”! Since then, they have become more open, closer and more involved in each others interest.
“You never know how far a change will go…”