Sometimes life feels hard. And sure enough, sometimes circumstances are muddy, mucky and real rough. Especially with our closest relationships, things can be intensely challenging.
Sometimes though, we make our own lives more difficult — usually without realizing we’re doing it. Each of us has much more power to influence our lives than we accept.
The good news is that this is changing.
Every time one of us steps up to sharpen our communication skills, we bring more skillfulness and humility to our relationships. And every time that happens, the world becomes a place that is more loving, safe and kind.
Whenever I discover a simple tool that helps bring about this kind of world, I share it. Reflective Listening is a widely known skill in the world of interpersonal communication, coaching and couples therapy. It is exceptionally simple and I’ve detailed it below so you can practice. All humans would benefit from communication classes starting at a young age, with this exercise being practiced starting around age 10.
If you’re in a committed partnership with someone who’s open to learning new things and wants to see the relationship become more fulfilling over time — someone who’s willing to do their part and not just expect things to improve on their own — you are fortunate. Practice with them. I am extremely thankful my husband is willing to use these tools with me. Reflective Listening has been transformative for our our marriage.
Otherwise, ask a good friend or family member to practice with you. It doesn’t have to be deep or intense -- you can talk about ice cream or travel if you want.
For a short taste of what it’s like, you can take 10 minutes, five each, trading places halfway through. For a fuller experience that might be more rewarding, set aside a whole hour and each take 30 minutes. Or, you can have your turn today as Sharer, or Listener, and switch places tomorrow.
Benefits of Reflective Listening often include:
Ready for some of that sweetness?
Reflective Listening: The Basics
Try it, let me know how it goes for you, send me an email if you want to share what worked and what didn't. Be gentle with yourself. Even a simple exercise can be challenging, especially when it has the potential to bring about so many positive changes.
And if you find yourself all jazzed up about the power of Reflective Listening, share this link with a friend who’s struggling in relationship. Or if you have the spirit of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street running through your veins like I do, and being a good friend is enormously important to you in life, call a friend on the phone today and tell them you want to gift them 20 minutes of your time, as Listener in this exercise. Lead them through it.
It feels really, really good to have someone truly listen.
Of the hundreds of people I’ve met and had conversations with, there are probably 10 who I consider to be masterful listeners. To those people, thank you. I’m not there — yet. I am definitely on my way. To all of us who are heading that direction, kudos, it is good to be in your company!
Anyone who’s been in a committed relationship knows it’s not easy. Down the line, divorce and affairs are common. Couples begin with starry-eyed mutual adoration and eventually find themselves facing some of their toughest life’s work.
Those who are a good match, with shared values and vision, who are willing to do the work presented by the relationship, can end up in an extremely satisfying place with an expanded sense of what’s possible in life. Maybe you know a couple who has made it this far.
There’s no right or wrong — in my book — about whether you have or haven’t made it through huge bumps and reached the other side. It doesn't make you more worthy of love, just because you have done the work partnership has presented to you, and come to a place of discovering you are both “new” people with grown spiritual and emotional muscle.
Whether we do this or that, whether we show the face of fear or love more often, we are all equally worthy of love. Still, it is very impressive and worthy of applause when two people do reach the "other side" in relationship.
If you are someone who’s done the work of long term intimate partnership, I commend you. I applaud you. Please share your insights with others, however it feels natural for you. People all over the world are longing for more satisfying relationships, and sadly, many are not willing to ask for help.
One of the big dying myths of our time is the myth that we don’t need each other.
Why stand at the wedding altar and ask that all all our guests be witnesses and help us out when things get tough, if we aren’t willing to ask them for help when we need it?
Friends, cousins, peers, coaches, many people in our lives would be happy to offer wisdom or a listening ear when we face relationship challenges. I am outrageously fortunate to have worked with a masterful relationship coach for 13 years. There are countless mediocre coaches out there, yet there are great ones too and there is one who’s a match for every one of us. And in asking for help, from whoever you ask, there is deep sweetness awaiting your soul. That place within you that values yourself enough to feel worthy of support, is a very sweet place.
If you’ve got one really good friend, or a sister or father or neighbor who genuinely cares for you, ask for help, alright?
There is no need to struggle in relationship.
Let us not wait for hurricanes, wildfires and war to teach us that Love is the way. Giving it, receiving it, any way you look at it... Love is the light.
In March 2013 our daughter Helena Beam was born in our Chico, California bedroom. We were very pleased with how our homebirth midwife, Dena Moes RN, showed up both during my pregnancy and our 7-hour labor. She also responded exquisitely when, two hours after our daughter was born, Dena noticed she wasn’t breathing right and called 911 without hesitation.
Since then, I’ve become aware of some intense and unfortunate challenges facing Dena and other homebirth midwives. I interviewed her to learn about what’s transpired and what it may mean for homebirths – and holistic parenting – into the future. -- Jessica Rios
Jessica Rios: In your profession, have you always been a "homebirth midwife?" How did you get into midwifery?
Dena Moes: No, I haven’t always been. I didn’t even know what a midwife was until I was 23. I have a degree in Literature from Yale, and I was living in New York City when a friend gave me the book Spiritual Midwifery by Ina May Gaskin. I read it and thought, ‘Oh my God, I am supposed to be a midwife.’
So I left the city for a week to go to a yoga ashram in upstate New York. I had been writing a lot about the midwife possibility, and on my last day at the ashram it happened to be Mother’s Day.
Some moms came up from the city to do a special Mother’s Day sweat lodge, and I helped carry rocks. Some women were walking toward me huffing and puffing as they carried rocks.
At one point I said to one of them, “You’re almost there!” and she turned to me and said, “Wow, you sounded just like my midwife when you said that!” It turns out she was the President of the International Cesarean Awareness Network. She turned me on to Certified Nurse Midwives and got me a gig volunteering at a big public hospital. Later I returned to North Central Bronx Hospital as a student midwife, and got to work with birthing families who were immigrants from all over the world.
There are two routes to becoming a midwife. One is as a nurse midwife, and one is as a non-nurse midwife, known as a licensed or lay midwife. A Nurse Midwife is a Registered Nurse (RN) and also holds a Masters degree in Midwifery.
I really enjoyed training in a hospital because I got to see a lot of situations in a very short period of time. I worked both as a Labor and Delivery Nurse and as a hospital midwife, and before that, as a student, I lived in an Amish farm house for a summer and attended 25 Amish homebirths while interning with a midwife who took care of Amish families.
When my husband and I moved to Chico, the community needed another homebirth midwife. It felt like just the right time to put down roots and open the practice I had dreamed of. So I did. That was 2005.
JR: How has it benefited your clients to be a RN too?
DM: For my clients it’s been really valuable to have both the education and the work experience I brought to homebirth. A lot of them have been comforted not just by the fact that I’m a RN but that my degree is from Yale, an Ivy League college. By the time I started my homebirth practice, I had worked in several large Medi-Cal clinics providing gynecologic care and family planning. I had worked as a Labor and Delivery Nurse, some nights getting to assist with as many as four births in one shift.
When you work in a hospital, you take care of everyone who comes through the door. Having seen complications in the hospital, I genuinely knew when things were progressing normally and when they weren’t. I feel this is an asset – the education and training of certified nurse midwives – to have a wider breadth of experience. There’s a certain clinical competency there.
JR: What started happening in 2010 when your license was being threatened for revoking?
DM: I’ll share some background first. When I opened my practice in 2005, I approached several OB-GYN doctors in my community who I’d heard were the most open minded or progressive, and asked if they would provide support to my homebirth practice in the form of consultations and collaborations, which is always the ideal... that midwives work in collaboration with other health care providers. That way, if there is a transport [from home to hospital], it’s smooth.
I received a very negative response. No one agreed to work with me and I was told by the medical community that homebirth was not welcome here. I had a choice. Should I say “forget it” and go get a job as a gynecologist, or do what I always wanted to do?
So I asked homebirth midwives all over the state, and what I found was that nobody had a collaborative doctor in their community except in the case of Los Angeles midwives working with a MD named Dr. Stuart Fishbein.
I called the Board of Nursing and asked about the legal requirement for supervision of nurse midwives, which by the way is only required in six U.S. states now. The other 44 have dispensed with that requirement because it just doesn’t make sense. If midwives are required to have a supervising physician but no physicians are willing because they see us as a threat to their sense of authority, and as competition... they’re not necessarily going to jump at the opportunity to work with us!
This year there’s a bill in the CA Legislature (AB 1306) trying to remove the physician supervision requirement. This law would help fix some of the brokenness around midwifery in the state of California. Basically during the years I was in practice as a homebirth midwife, the requirement was that I have a physician available to call by phone and consult with, if I had a client with a medical concern or question I couldn’t address.
It was Dr. Stuart Fishbein in L.A. who agreed to do that for me. Over the years I would call him when I needed help from a MD.
Meanwhile some obstetricians in my local community wrote a letter of complaint about me to the Board of Nursing, their main concern being that I wasn’t working with a local physician. A six-year investigation began at that time. I got a letter from the Board of Nursing, and this all finally ended in February 2016.
Once a year during that period, I heard from them about the investigation. Really I thought the concern would be dismissed without merit. The letter complained about four women who had been transported -- all with healthy babies and good outcomes -- and two of them weren’t even my clients! I’d never even met them. It seemed capricious. I thought, ‘This is just harassment. It’s not even accurate.’ I thought for sure it would all be fine.
For a couple years, I really wasn’t concerned. I actually thought the Board of Nursing would somehow be on my side and see this inaccuracy that they would see through this misunderstanding. Then in 2012 a nurse midwife friend told me, “You’ve got to get a lawyer. This is serious.” I hired a lawyer. The Board of Nursing called me to Sacramento for an interview and my lawyer was Skyped in. The woman investigator grilled me about the two actual clients. The clients in question were VBACs [vaginal birth after cesarean].
Prior to 2005, VBACs had been happening regularly in local hospitals. In 2005 when I opened my practice there was a sudden ban on VBACs in all the hospitals in my county. A group of obstetricians got together and recommended banning VBACs in any hospital without 24-hour in-house anesthesia...
I won’t get into the shenanigans, but it happened. What that meant was that all the women using these hospitals, who’d already had a cesarean labor, had no choice but to birth via cesarean. VBAC wasn’t an option. Many women were forced to have unnecessary, repeat C-sections.
Midwives tend to assist VBACs when the hospitals won’t. This is what ended up being seen as a breach of my practice, even though there were no Board of Nursing regulations specifically about VBACs. So I followed the guidelines of the licensed/lay midwives, who are regulated by the California Medical Board instead of the Board of Nursing. I thought if I followed their guidelines, I would be covered.
Already though, there was a major red flag on my mind.
The medical investigator who interviewed me for three hours and was going to have to make a nuanced analysis, had not known what labor was. During my interview she asked me, “What do you mean, labor?” She said she had never had an obstetrics case, and that specific medical background was not necessary for her job description. That’s when I knew the scales of justice were not going to be very well balanced.
Since around 2010, nine of the 30 certified nurse midwives practicing homebirth in California are or have been under investigation. I’m in great company! (Laughs.)
After my interview with the investigator, I didn’t hear from them for two years. During that time, I took a 9-month trip backpacking around India with my husband and daughters. Toward the end of our trip, I heard that I was formally charged by the Board of Nursing. A year later, I settled for my RN license to have a 3-year probation period, and that has meant closing my homebirth practice. For now.
JR: That sounds devastating.
DM: I’ve definitely had to grieve. This is how I’ve been supporting my family for the past 12 years. My oldest daughter is about to apply for colleges. It’s been a big transition.
JR: Is there a silver lining?
DM: Yes. When we came back from our yearlong trip in India and Nepal, I knew I wanted to write a book about our family adventures, and a memoir about being a midwife. In the last few months since I closed my practice, I have been able to finish my 350 page memoir. I'm currently shopping it to agents with a vision of having it published in the next few years. Now I have a midwife website and an author’s website!
JR: What does this say for women in general?
DM: Here in the U.S., there is still a witch hunt against midwives. We threaten the paradigm. And, homebirth is not going away. Homebirth is a consumer driven movement. It’s not like I put up billboards: “Come try a homebirth!” Women came and found me because it’s what they wanted.
Interestingly, I heard through the mom community that the same doctor who spearheaded the letter to the Board about me has started attending VBACs in the hospital again in the last couple years, and has actually told one pregnant woman that they had to start attending VBACs again because of the pressure put on them by the homebirth midwives. Meaning, women were saying to them, “Well if you won’t give me a VBAC, I’ll just go and have a homebirth.” Women will ask for what they want. It’s not up to the medical profession to tell them no. Pregnant women have rights.
If people want to help the situation, get involved in passing the California bill and fixing the broken laws, making it easier to practice homebirth in California. A step for midwives anywhere is a step for midwives everywhere.
JR: What would you say to women in the United States who want to give birth at home?
DM: Women are perfectly designed to give birth. Just like you get the baby in, you can get the baby out. Look at all the people in the world! Everyone came from a mother. It works. Definitely find a midwife. There are probably more midwives now than ever.
The most important thing is to find a midwife you feel comfortable with, who you can trust, you feel heard, you feel empathy. And also does she have training and experience? How long has she been doing it? Talk with other moms in your community. Most everyone has found my practice from other mothers. Homebirth in the United States is on the rise. It has been steadily increasing for the last decade.
JR: Thank you for your work, and your time.
Dena’s Recommended Reading
• Spiritual Midwifery by Ina May Gaskin
• Birthing from Within by Pam England
• Breastfeeding Made Simple by Kathleen Kendall-Tackett & Nancy Mohrbacher
• The Attachment Parenting Book: A Commonsense Guide to Understanding and Nurturing Your Baby by Dr. Sears
• You Are Your Child’s First Teacher by Rahima Baldwin Dancy
by Charles Zook, masterful Relationship Coach & co-leader of The Relationship Series
Have you ever tried to resolve a difficult issue, and wondered why you seemed to get nowhere? Still irritated, still angry, still not feeling heard. Chances are you may have been co-processing, rather than using an effective means of communicating in conflict.
Co-processing is a term I use to describe attempting to process more than one person's concerns at the same time.
To illustrate, imagine you're watching a bunch of kids in your backyard and suddenly they all converge on the kitchen, all voicing their individual concerns simultaneously.
Quickly realizing you certainly cannot address ALL of their various concerns at the same time, you say, "Whoa, whoa, hold on. One at a time!" You know that has to be the next step. Until the cacophony settles down and you are able to get them to voice their concerns one at a time, you know there is no way to proceed in any constructive or effective manner. Once you get them to voice their concerns one at a time, you know you will be able to listen and find a solution, one at a time, then the next, and the next, until each concern has been addressed.
I am asserting that a similar sensible approach needs to be put into place when, for example, two people move from a calm discussion to a heated one.
In such a situation, both parties are talking over each other, interrupting, or even if only one person is talking at a time the other person is not really listening. Rather than really trying to understand what the speaker is trying to communicate, the "listener" isn't listening, they are having a strategy discussion in their head about what they are going to say once the other person stops talking. There is no communication (no communing, no understanding), just two people doing their best to "win", to be right, to not be wrong, to be vindicated, to prove their point.
This is what has been modeled for us with most of our families of origin, as well as reinforced by daily doses of media. Generally speaking, we just do not get educated about, or shown models for, effective communication.
In effective communication it is critical to avoid co-processing.
As soon as it is noticed that there is what I refer to as "tender or tense", much less if the situation turns into an argument, nothing good is going to happen unless the parties move to a more constructive approach.
My model would recommend determining who is going to be the speaker and who will be the listener.This is similar to the Native American custom of using a talking stick, except I recommend that the listener employ reflective listening frequently throughout ("what I hear you saying is..."). This gives the listener something challenging to focus on AND confirms in the speaker's mind that the listener is in fact listening to and understanding what is being communicated. Once the speaker feels heard, they can switch roles.
Slowing things down and being effective SEEMS like it will take longer, but in actuality, using an effective method works better and supports finding satisfying outcomes much more expediently than ineffectively talking at the same time.
Give it a try! See what happens. Share your miraculous discoveries here.
We love you,
Jessica and my brilliant collaborator Charles
(that's Charles --> and he's totally rad)
Ten days ago I co-led a workshop called Dealing with Conflict. Participants raved about it. My co-leader, a wizard in the world of relationship coaching, and I had a blast.
Then today was living proof of why people say, "What you want to learn, teach."
Today the universe tested me: Do you practice what you preach? Are you living what you teach? I woke to make Earl Grey tea and found a mean spirited comment awaiting on a social media post I'd written about my next workshop, called Radical Love in Parenting. Profane name calling, insults, mean spirited aggression, it was all there.
For a moment I thought of deleting it. We get to choose what we expose ourselves to, as humans, and I very proactively choose and create a loving world. Why would I allow such hatefulness on my page?
Well, because hate can only project itself outwardly when it is felt inwardly, too. And it is my pledge of allegiance in this life, to love people -- even when they're mean -- not to add pain to pain by being mean back, or abandoning them.
Gut said: Keep it. This person is in pain. Deal with conflict. Be with conflict. See if you can help it dissipate in the presence of Love.
And so I replied, to the best of my ability staying in a place of grace and strength, not embodying any of the qualities I don't want more of in the world: harsh criticism, judgment, violence. It may not have been a perfect response but I was proud of it. I was facing conflict in a way that felt self-honoring: inviting this person to consider a way of communicating that was respectful (differences being perfectly OK, but not meanness) and yet being "my own big sister" in clearly stating meanness wouldn't be allowed in this Leaning into Light community. I drove to a cafe to work for the day, feeling vividly content with who, and how, I was being.
In the hours that followed, life showed me the glistening jewel within conflict. Why it can be so helpful to a warrior for Love, how it can stretch us to our next edge in living the life that we dream of: a richly fulfilled, courageous and dazzling-with-light, existence.
If you missed our Dealing with Conflict workshop... shucks! We'll offer more. Popular stuff. But here are a few simple tips to rise above the war zone, rather than sinking into its muck.
1) Pause. The ever-undervalued pause. Let yourself process first. If you're emotionally triggered, you can take space. You don't need to respond right away. Take a break. An hour, 10 minutes, a day, what do you need to find more neutral ground before responding? Responding defensively and immediately can be harmful and further aggravating.
2) Don't take it personally. Remember Don Miguel Ruiz's book, The Four Agreements? Slam dunk on that one, #2, Don't take anything personally. Master that one and you're on your way, Baby. Big stuff. Remember that what someone else says, says far more about them than it does about you. If someone is harshly critical, consider the wounds inside of them and have compassion. Or dig it up. (And if someone is openly loving, hmmm, that may be someone you want to spend more time around, eh?)
3) Respond with strength and grace. Honor yourself. Be your own big sister or big brother. Stand for your own values and vision; you are their best friend. Clarify what you intended, if you were misunderstood. Take responsibility for your role, if it is clear what your role is. Were your actions or words in alignment with who and how you want to be in this world? If not, own it. Acknowledge it. Put yourself in their shoes.
Using those guidelines to the best of my ability, I felt stretched in all the best ways, my emotional and spiritual capacity widened up to greet life more fully for the sake of my well being and everyone else's.
And then a post arrived, from my friend and collaborator Olivia. In one of my favorite ways love gets expressed: the written word. From someone I met while we served as President and Vice President on a Board of Directors together. We loved working together so much that we now co-lead The Sisters Series for Leaning into Light's workshops.
Since I am such a fan and practitioner of PDA (Public Displays of Affection) I will share it here, with an enormously grateful heart.
I drove home the other day, from a really fun time with sister, aunt, friend. I was thinking about you. And how, from the moment I met you, you have influenced me.
It wasn't always comfortable. Sometimes when someone's vocal way of being (you are very vocal), comes up against your edges, it can be painful, because she is actually shining so much light, that it challenges how you may speak, or think or act.
It challenged me, it inspired me. There were some very deliberate ways that you communicated (pausing to take in a situation, taking the time to articulate what you ACTUALLY wanted.... not just saying things to be agreeable), pointing things out, taking the time to address them, challenging a group to be better!!!!!! Let's be better, let's live this life as brings the most peace to the most people on earth as possible.
Any how. Your being, how you are, made me look at how I wanted to be. And explore those edges... inspired me to speak my truth, in a gentle, loving, respectful way... because then, more people win. I have also noticed that if I am feeling out of integrity in any particular area in my life -- maybe not a big deal thing, maybe a big deal thing -- that being with you can actually feel hard... and again, it's because I find you to consistently speak so much from a truthful heart, that, if I am not in a similar moment myself... it shines light on those areas of pain.
But, here's the thing... YOU LOVE. And are so good at it. That... it just invites more love, and light to get its groove on, and show up. That's rad.
The work you do with Leaning into Light, the workshops, the blog posts... they are you! And they are an invitation to anyone who wants to explore their edges, take time to reflect on what is important to them, and to be given really simple, strong support to make those small or big changes that actually shift things.
It's awesome. Thanks for the work you do.
Conflict gave me a big, bold invitation to become a stronger, more powerful and loving communicator. Conflict showed me what I've learned. Conflict showed me that I practice what I preach. Conflict need not be fed with our attention; it CAN dissipate with Love.
And with that, I exhale one giant breath of thanks for being on this fine planet, in such fine company, for one more day. Good night, friends.
I'll just go ahead and call it like I see it. Most people aren't great at dealing with conflict. Name calling, blame, high levels of defensiveness, resentment... It's not easy to remain respectful in the heat of an intense disagreement. We are all unskillful sometimes.
Yet there are people I know who are very good at dealing with conflict, and I'd like to be more like them.
They're not always gracious, they slip up sometimes, but they've courageously faced enough conflict that they've gotten really good at learning from it rather than becoming its victim.
For those who seek to be better communicators until the day we die as I do, who will never stop wanting to love more deeply and show up more powerfully for ourselves and others, I offer this interview. Here are two questions about dealing with conflict in relationship, and their answers from a man who's considered a wizard in the world of coaching, Master Relationship Coach Charles Zook.
How does conflict affect relationships? Is it all bad, or is there a benefit to conflict sometimes?
The impact of conflict depends largely on how we engage conflict.
If done skillfully it can be a huge contribution; if done unskillfully it will likely result in a lot of toes being stepped on, so to speak. The culture and history most of us live in does not support education and modeling regarding skillful approaches to conflict (look around, lots of unskillfulness out there!).
In every moment of our lives, and of our relationships, there is "Glass Half Full" (things that are fulfilling the way they are) and "Glass Half Empty" (things that are not fulfilling the way they are). Conflict generally falls under the Glass Half Empty umbrella.
In our culture we tend to interact with Glass Half Empty with a "what's wrong" conversation. We are well trained and quite experienced with this type of conversation. We can tell you what's wrong with just about anything, especially our partners!
Developing a more constructive relationship with conflict starts with shifting from "what's wrong" to "what is wanting to happen." It is kind of like the shift from movie critic to movie director. A movie critic states, "I did not like this part", but does not have to address, "so what would you do differently to make it better?". To experience benefit from conflict we need to challenge ourselves to move from movie critic, "let me tell you what is wrong with this relationship," to a more challenging conversation, "what are we learning from this and how can we integrate this learning to make our relationship better in the future?"
Learning how to do this is challenging but potentially very rewarding. Yet not learning how to do this is also challenging, and largely lacks any sense of progress, fulfillment, power, or self determination.
How do we tell the difference between projections and other people's work?
Messy question reflecting a reality that is messy.
From a Newtonian world view -- one that sees the future as determined by the past -- we should be able to parse these out. A certain percentage is projection, the rest other people's work, it varies by situation, like that.
From a more Quantum Physics world view -- one that sees the future as TBD/to be determined, full of possibilities -- it is more holographic. Each component is there completely, and depending on what you are looking for, you will find it.
In practical terms this may not be very helpful so far, but we need to establish that there is no measurable reality about this stuff, it is more a discussion about how can we approach this in ways that leads to fulfilling outcomes. The foundational assertion is that "If we tell enough truth, it will sort itself out, we will discover what is wanting to happen, we will reveal next step(s)." Without a specific example, I will address this conceptually.
When dealing with yourself:
Compassionately start with curiosity from the perspective of it is ALL me.
What is my role in this?
What is it I am wanting to learn from this life experience?
What am I feeling?
What do I need?
If I could interact with this situation in a manner that reflects my values and vision, what would that look like?
What to I want to create going forward?
What could I do differently in the future that would contribute to different outcomes?
Look for the gold of what there is to learn by approaching the situation as if there was something for you to learn and do differently in the future.
When dealing with another, compassionately start with curiosity about the whole situation. What was their experience?
What are they feeling?
What do they need?
How was the situation different than how they would like it to have been?
What would they like to create going forward?
What requests do they have?
AND, are they interested and willing to hear your experience?
If we are seeking to be right and avoid being wrong, then the interaction will center around that concern. If we can let go of the need to be right and avoid being wrong, we can listen and learn and problem solve and come up with creative ideas about how to do things differently in the future.
- - -
Thank you to the people who offered questions for this interview. And thank you for your generous sharing and wisdom, Coach Charles.
To everyone reading: Was this helpful? What are YOUR questions about conflict? We're happy to keep offering insights as long as you share questions. You can post your questions anonymously or include your name; it's up to you.
Those wanting a clear and practical tool that works, to deal with conflict, can join Charles and me (Jessica Rios, Founder, Leaning into Light) as we co-lead a 90-minute phone workshop on Sunday March 20th: Dealing with Conflict. Cost is $28pp, limited to the first 20 participants. Sign up here!
And who's the Jedi? It's Master Relationship Coach Charles Zook. Here's his bio. Charles Zook, MBA, CPCC has been coaching professional and personal relationships for over 20 years and he loves it. He has advanced systems coaching training from the Center for Right Relationship and has worked with for-profits, e.g. Unilever, non-profits, e.g. Stanford Medical Center, and governmental agencies, e.g the State of California. What inspires his work with well over 1,000 couples is not only the impact it has on the couple, it is the impact it has on the children. His work allows clients to create fulfilling relationships and is so effective his only source of clients is referrals. He and his wife, Sandy, consider their relationship a laboratory for how to have challenges in relationship and know how to address them effectively. They have two adult children and a grandchild.
I'm turning to you because you have achieved a level of mastery in relationship, and the world needs what you have to give. As a lifelong letter writer, I extend my heartfelt sharing and asking, in this letter, to you.
Since I was a kid I've noticed that people's lives really seem to be wonderful if their relationships are healthy, and not so fulfilling if there is a lot of struggle in their relationships.
I've seen marriages end, mostly without much dignity or grace, and wondered why it seems so hard to complete with appreciation, when there was once such a shared sense of care. I've seen siblings, who were the best of friends for decades, tensely part ways after a parent dies simply because they didn't know how to handle the big, challenging feelings involved. Shouldn't we be taught this all of our lives?
I have so many questions about intimate relationships... between couples, parents and children, siblings, business partners... you name it. Here are a few I hope you'll share your insights on.
Jessica: Why is it so tough to be in committed partnership?
Charles: In supporting so many couples with this issue, the biggest impediment to creating fulfilling relationship is the idea that it should not be so tough (or challenging, or effortful, or time consuming) to be in a committed relationship. We live in a culture where we are taught that when I meet the "right" person, we will live "happily ever after", as the oft told story goes. When we get in a relationship and inevitably it moves beyond the superficial level, very predictably we encounter not agreeing about something or unskillfulness that results in misunderstandings and hurt feelings.
Without any models or education about how to work with these very understandable challenges, we are left with the mythology of the culture. If I am not "happily ever after," then you must not be the "right" person, so I have three bad choices.
1) Just do what I have seen others do, argue, defend, attack, make wrong, etc., which results in nothing really getting resolved or improved.
2) Get out of the relationship with this person who is obviously not "right" for me, because if my partner was the "right" person, it would not be this hard, and go back out and try and find the "right" person with whom it would be easy to live "happily ever after", and try again. Or,
3) Give up. Give up and stay in relationship, or give up on being in relationship at all, and just live out your days never finding a way to feel loved in this way, or to share your love with another.
The alternative to these options is to realize that contrary to what the culture teaches us, committed relationship, in my opinion, is the most challenging thing humans can undertake. Potentially very rewarding also, if we learn how to do it. Climbing Mount Everest, easier. Starting a successful business or career, easier. Being a Buddhist monk, easier. Committed relationship, constant challenge, constant growth and learning, 24/7/365. Intensely challenging and can be intensely rewarding if we are willing to undertake it as a learning environment on how to love and be loved.
Jessica: In romantic partnerships, few couples seem to maintain a shared spark after years of committed relationship. How do the couples who have this spark keep the fire alive?
Charles: Couples who keep the fire alive keep choosing to do what would keep the fire alive. Instead of continuing to do all of the things that made the relationship special early on, most people let the relationship decline.
In practical terms, when we do not know how to resolve challenges, it becomes harder and harder to choose to do the things that would keep the spark going. Couples who keep the spark going make very intentional choices to do the things that keep the spark going. In simple terms (and it is not simple), they focus on their goal of what can I do to keep the spark going rather than not focusing on those choices. When the relationship is young, we are highly motivated to make sacrifices for what is sacred to us, having our partner feel loved and appreciated, desired, special. As time goes on we are less motivated to make those sacrifices and we lose something sacred, the opportunity to share our love with each other in a way that has our partner feels special and desired. Commonly, we would rather be right than in love, and sadly, when we don't make sacrifices to keep the spark going it becomes the new normal that the spark is gone. This really sets the stage for loneliness and pain, which leads to more "hurt people hurting people", addictive behaviors, affairs, etc. All of which is super poor modeling for the next generation to be left with similarly poor choices.
So what keeps the spark alive? It is very different for each individual and couple and it even evolves over time. You have to want to discover what it takes, which can be an amazing adventure.
Jessica: Whether siblings or business partners, romantic couples or best friends, what does it take to be in a deeply fulfilled relationship? What's their secret?
Charles: BIG BIG question, teeny tiny answer. Tell the truth with yourself and each other that you want it and make it a priority to do what it takes to create it. Be willing to learn and try things and discover what moves you closer to your shared vision of fulfilling relationship. Accept that this is not the same for every relationship, we need to discover what works for us, which is complicated and takes sustained effort. Learn how to do better at building the positivity, the good feelings between the two of you. And, learn how to do better at dealing with the negativity in a constructive and effective way, the miscommunications, the hurt feelings, the incompletions. Be willing to be intentional about making the relationship a priority, especially when it does not feel like your inclination. Compassion, curiosity and intentionality are big pieces. Be learners and learn more about this, IF it is important to you.
I realize these are very partial answers to very complex questions. I hope I have been even the smallest bit helpful. All humans desire to love and be loved. It is hard work to create it and it is very lonely to give up on creating it.
Thank you for being so passionate about relationships, and devoting your life to seeing them thrive, so the people in them are fulfilled and can give more of themselves to create a more love-filled world.
With enormous gratitude,
I used to think intimate relationships were all about romance. I had watched enough Disney movies and chick flicks, swooning over the guy who constantly dotes on the girl. It seemed dreamy to be in a partnership where "we always get along" and that seemed so very possible based on the movies and fairy tales. Disagreements were a sign of failure, because couples who always got along were the happiest... right?
Well, actually, there's no such thing.
Sure, in the beginning of many relationships, there is a period of time where the waters between you and your partner feel like they're sparkling, when you're so enraptured in the newness of this person, so enamored with the way you feel in their company, that a significant disagreement seems almost impossible.
Arguments have no room here. This time is meant for feeling what it's like to fly together -- because later on, if you stick with it, you'll need to know that this sense of flying is possible. You'll need that early state of ecstasy to keep you rooted in doing the work that long term intimate partnerships are meant to offer.
The truth is, relationships are always mirroring back to us precisely the work we need to do in order to grow spiritually. While companionship is certainly a jewel of committed partnership, the big gift it offers is the deep and brilliant beauty it can illuminate within us. Relationships are the core of life; they present us with the greatest opportunity for spiritual and emotional growth, and for joy.
All my life I've been observing relationships. My own, my friends', my parents'. Real relationships, not the kind in movies. I've watched what makes them thrive, I've watched what deteriorates them, I've watched how people tolerate mediocrity even when their insides are screaming out for something more fulfilling. I've watched the courage that it takes to let them take each partner to a higher level of being.
I've felt suffocated in my own partnership, feeling I'd done everything in my capacity to rise to the occasion and "do the work," finally choosing to end the relationship because it had milked everything out of me. It had served its purpose; it was time to move on. Staying would only be an attempt to force something to work that wasn't working. And damn, I took good notes that time around. One of the notes was that I could only do my own work; I couldn't do somebody else's.
What's become clear now is that if we are to rise to the occasion as a species devoted to advancing our potential spiritually, we have a stellar tool in relationships. (Here's a recent talk on Oprah by Marianne Williamson called The Spiritual Purpose of Relationships.)
Whether you are:
Then, I want to say that all the love in the world is "on your side." The key factor here is your desire. If you are ready to see a shift, even if it involves stepping out of your comfort zone -- and it likely will -- then it is simply a matter of knowing what's true for you, honoring it in word and action, and inviting your partner to step into this place with you.
For me, the rigorous personal and spiritual work of intimate partnership has required stellar support, both from friends and family members, and from mentors and a coach. I have able to stretch myself spiritually only because I've asked for and received help from others who care for me.
Energetic applause goes to anyone doing "the work" of intimate partnership. It is far from easy, and everything you do helps to make this a world with more skillfulness and compassion between people.
P.S. Walt Disney has contributed a lot to the world of family entertainment, but Disney films have not been so good at presenting a guidebook for real life relationships.
Listen to our free recording for July, a 33-minute interview with Jessica Rios & Mirsad Cindrak, called Perspectives from a Refugee Hairstylist... here.
Jessica Rios, Founder of Leaning into Light, is a mother, coach, lifelong letter writer, and eternally a fan of Fred Rogers. This deeply personal blog and our free recorded conversations are devoted to one of her greatest passions: illuminating the beauty of the human spirit.