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They become guarded with each other. They stop confiding in each other. They wall off parts of themselves and withdraw emotionally from the relationship, often into other activities--or other relationships. They can't talk without blaming, so they stop listening. They maybe afraid that the relationship will never change but may not even know what they are afraid of There is so much chaos that there is usually despair and depression.

One partner may actually leave. Both may decide to stay with it but can't function. They live together in an emotional divorce. Over the years of working with couples, I have developed an effective way to help them arrive at a relationship they can both be happy with.

I may not offer them therapy. I find that what couples need is part education in a set of skills and part exploration of experience that aims to resolve the difficulties couples trip over in their private lives. Experience has demonstrated to me that the causes of behavior and human experience a complex and include elements that are biological, psychological, social, contextual, and even spiritual.

No single theory explains the intricate dynamics of two individuals interacting over time to meet all their needs as individuals and as a couple. So without respect to theoretical coherence I have drawn from almost every perspective in the realm of psychology--from psychodynamics to family systems, communication theory and social learning theory , from behavior therapy to object relations. It is taught to small groups of couples in a four-month-long course in various parts of the United States and now in 13 countries.

There are no specific theories to explain why the course works. In time that will come, as researchers pinpoint exactly which cognitive, behavioral, and experiential elements and when and for whom are most responsible for which types of change. Nevertheless I, my associates, and increasing numbers of graduate students have gathered, and are gathering, evidence that it powerfully, positively influences marital interaction and satisfaction.

Studies of men and women before and after taking the course show that it reduces anger and anxiety , two of the most actively subversive forces in relationships. Once they have taken the course there is a marked reduction in this state of anger and anxiety.

Why You Can Be In A Relationship & Still Focus On Yourself

What is most notable is that there is also a reduction in the personality trait of anger, which is ordinarily considered resistant to change. Learning the skills of intimacy--of emotional and physical closeness--has a truly powerful effect on people. We also see change in measurements of marital happiness, such as the Dyadic Adjustment Scale. Tests administered before the course show that we are seeing a range of couples from the least to the most distressed.

And we are getting significant levels of change among every category of couple. It is no secret that most attempts at therapy produce little or no change among the most distressed couples. Perhaps it's because what we are doing is not in the form of therapy at all, although its effects are therapeutic. In addition to improvement in many dimensions of the relationship, achieving intimacy bolsters the self-worth of both partners. Love is a feeling. Marriage , on the other hand, is a contract--an invisible contract.

Both partners bring to it expectations about what they want and don't want, what they're willing to give and not willing to give. Most often, those are out of awareness. Most marriage partners don't even know they expected something until they realize that they're not getting it.


  1. Deepening intimacy: Breakthrough insights for unfolding the full potential of your relationship.
  2. Mature Minxes 2;
  3. ARD/ZDF-Langzeitstudie Massenkommunikation: Mediennutzung und Nutzungsmotive 2005 (German Edition).

The past is very much present in all relationships. All expectations in relationships are conditioned by our previous experience.

Obstacles to finding love

It may simply be the nature of learning, but things that happen in the present are assimilated by means of what has happened in the past. This is especially true of our emotions: every time we have an experience in the present we also are experiencing it in the past.

Emotional memory exists outside of time. It is obvious that two partners are conditioned by two different pasts. But inside the relationship it is less obvious. And that leads to all kinds of misunderstanding, disagreement, disappointment, and anger that things are not going exactly as expected. The upshot is statements like "I can't understand women," "who knows what a woman wants," and "you can never please a man.

An Expert Look at Love, Intimacy and Personal Growth Robert Morris Gordon IAPT Press

To add insult to injury, when one partner is upset, the other often compounds it unintentionally. When, for example, a woman is unhappy, men often feel they are expected to charge out and fix something. But what she really wants is for her partner to put his arms around her and hold her, to soothe her, to say simply, "I'm sorry you feel bad. But instead of moving toward her, he moves away. And if when you are upset you don't get what you want from the person you are closest to, then you are not going to feel loved. Men, too, I hasten to say, have the same basic need. But they erect defenses against it for fear it will return them to a state of helplessness such as they experienced as children.


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  • At the heart of intimacy, then, is empathy, understanding, and compassion; these are the humanizing feelings. It is bad enough that they are in short supply among distressed couples. Yet I have observed that certain careers pose substantial roadblocks to intimacy because the training involves education not in humanization but in de-humanization. At the top of the list is law.

    Built primarily on the adversarial process, it actively discourages understanding and compassion in favor of destroying an opponent. Careers in the military and in engineering also are dismissive of feelings and emotions. Men and women who bring what they learn from such work into a love relationship may find that it can't survive.

    An understanding of intimacy has its own logic. But it runs counter to conventional wisdom and most brands of psychology. They hold that to understand the nature of, and to improve, relationships, the proper place to start is the self. The thinking is that you need to understand yourself before you can confide in a partner.

    But I have found just the opposite to be true. An exploration of the self is indeed absolutely essential to attaining or rebuilding a sense of intimacy. Most of the disappointments that drive our actions and reactions in relationships are constructed with expectations that are not only hidden from our partners but also ourselves. From our families of origin and past relationship experiences, we acquire systems of belief that direct our behavior outside of our own awareness.


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    • It is not possible to change a relationship without bringing this belief system into our awareness. But a man or a woman exploring their personal history experiences some powerful feelings that, in the absence of a partner to talk to, may make one feel worse rather than better. So the very first step a couple must take to rebuild intimacy is to learn to express their own thoughts and feelings and carefully listen to each other. A partner who knows how to listen to you can then be on hand when you open up your past.

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      Exploration of the self is an activity often relegated to psychotherapy ; in that case a psychotherapist knows how to listen with empathy. But that is not necessarily the only way and at best is a luxury affordable only by a few. It is not only possible but desirable for couples of all economic strata to choose to confide in each other and build a relationship with a life partner rather than with a paid confidant. Both partners have an ongoing need to open up the past as well as share the present. But there are skills that have to be learned so that such interaction can be safe.

      Both partners need to learn how to listen without judging or giving unwanted advice. Disappointment in a partner's ability to hear is what often sends people to a psychotherapist in the first place. All of us bring to our intimate relationships certain expectations that we have of no one else. On the positive side they usually involve undivided attention --words and gestures of love and caring, loyalty, constancy, sex, companionship, agreement, encouragement, friendship , fidelity, honesty, trust, respect, and acceptance.