Relationships, Part 27: Open to Influence


What do you suppose is the most common factor influencing divorce?

Infidelity? Poor communication? Abuse? Irreconcilable differences? Lack of commitment? These are the reasons most often given by divorced couples.

Marrying early in life? Living together before marriage? Premarital pregnancy? Having no religion? Coming from a divorced household? These are the demographic factors that predict divorce.

Observers who watch and listen to couples: marriage counselors, researchers, and the like, have identified an unexpected factor that most often leads to divorce: the lack of willingness of the male to be influenced by his female partner.

We’ve come a long way in the past fifty years or so. It used to be that a man ruled his home. I suspect that many women were able to exert considerable influence in their homes, even then, but they had to do be devious about it. They had to soothe the ever fragile male ego. They had to make him believe it was all his idea for the woman to have any power at all.

Today, it’s different, women have rights and they assert them more often. Men’s egos can feel bruised and battered. Men sometimes resist the ideas that their female partners bring to the relationship. Some men fight every battle to the bitter end. In doing so, they may win the battle, but they will lose the war.

Men who are willing to change their approach and give their female partners more of a voice in the relationship end up being more successful and happier in the end. That’s what the data shows. The times have changed.

Click here to go to the entire Relationships series.

Relationships, Part 26: Positive or Negative Sentiment Override

If you dislike someone, the way they hold their fork may make you furious. If you like them, they can turn their plate over in your lap and you’ll overlook it.

Happy couples are a little bit brainwashed about their partners. They admire each other, even if there’s little to admire. They love how they look, even if they’re ugly and out of shape. They laugh at their jokes, even if they’re not funny. They’re convinced they can do no wrong. They give each other the benefit of the doubt.

That’s what we call Positive Sentiment Override. It can certainly improve a relationship. If you’re going to live with someone for the rest of  your life, it sure helps if you like him.

If someone is in Negative Sentiment Override they appear to have a chip on their shoulder. Their partner can try to make nice and they won’t accept it. They see evil intentions in every natural mistake. They behave as if their partner is an enemy rather than an ally. I get lots of couples who come to my office in Negative Sentiment Override. They have no trouble bringing up issues, but they have a great deal of trouble recognizing when their partner tries to change.

No one wants to feel negatively about their partner. How do you get Positive Sentiment Override in your relationship?

Having positive or negative sentiments has almost nothing to do with your partner. It has everything to do with you.

I had positive sentiments about my Kodak stock for years, despite a steady decline. I always thought the company would come back. It would develop a good digital camera. It would find some more uses for film. There were too many smart people working there for it to do otherwise. I knew some of them, here in Rochester, and I had faith in them. Well, the company recently declared bankruptcy.

I had positive sentiments about Kodak, despite Kodak, not because if it. I had positive sentiments because of an investment strategy I’d adopted that, most of the time, yields good results. If you went and sold your stock every time the price went down you would never make a profit. Most of the time it pays to hang in there.

Similarly, you shouldn’t file for divorce after one bad day of marriage, or one bad week, or year. What does love mean if we don’t have faith in our partner?

This is what I mean when I say that having positive sentiments has everything to do with you, not with your partner. It is a decision, a strategy designed to get the most out of marriage. You can clearly have positive sentiments for someone or something undeserving.

Clearly, adopting this strategy has its risks. My positive sentiments overrode the objective data about Kodak in the same way that positive sentiments can obscure red flags in early relationships and blind someone to terrible problems in marriages. People will hang in there with horrible marriages, and bad companies, long past the point when they should give up. However, I still believe nurturing positive sentiments is a sound relational practice, as well as good investment advice.

To understand this, consider the alternatives.

If you have negative sentiments overriding anything positive your partner tries, how well do you think that’s going to work? Will you be happy? Will they feel affirmed? Will that chip on your shoulder keep the cold out? Why be with someone at all if you can’t stand the sight of him?

How about if you don’t have any sentiments about your partner at all, either positive or negative? Can you treat your relationship as a levelheaded investor treats his portfolio, buying and selling whenever a particular stop or limit order is hit? Can you love without sentiment?

Good luck with that.

Click here to go to the entire Relationships series.

Relationships, Part 25, Twenty to One


If you thought the key test that I told you about in the last post in this series was too simple, you’ll like this better. Get two counters. You know, the kind you put in your pocket and click. Set them to zero and put one in each pocket.

Now see how you interact with your partner.

Every time you make a negative comment to your partner, a criticism, a beef, a bitch, or a complaint, click that counter in your left hand pocket. Whenever you impugn negative motives, roll your eyes, or heave a dramatic sigh, click that left hand counter. Anything he or she might take offense at, anything that cuts your partner down a notch or two, gets a click.

Click the right hand counter whenever you give thanks, express admiration, listen to her stories, laugh at his jokes, whenever you spoil her. A smile, a tender touch, a hug, a kiss, those xx’s and oo’s in his lunch, those flowers you sent to her workplace, that negligee he gave you that you wore, all warrant clicks of the right hand counter. Exactly how many clicks a dozen roses gets, is open to interpretation. Basically, anything nice you do, anything affirming, gets clicks.

Be sure you understand the difference between positive and negative. If you say you nag your husband to put the toilet seat down is positive because you love him, then you don’t understand the difference between positive and negative. If he is likely to perceive the nagging as negative, it’s negative, no matter how sweetly you think you say it.

And guys, putting that seat down if she wants you to deserves a click, also.

Now look at the ratio of clicks, the right versus the left. You’re shooting for 20:1. Studies have shown that’s the ratio of positive to negative interactions found in happy couples. Conflicted couples have about 5:1. One to one, or worse, predicts divorce.

Yes, that’s right. There should be about 20 positive contacts for every negative. That’s how many positive interactions it takes to overcome the detrimental effects of one lousy unit of negativity. Negativity hits us harder, it packs more punch, we remember it longer, we take it to heart. Positivity is often taken for granted. Positivity needs to overwhelm for it to get noticed at all.

Click here to go to the entire Relationships series.

Relationships, Part 24: The Key Test

key in doorSometimes it’s hard to know how you feel about your partner.

Feelings are complicated, especially in how they pertain to intimate relationships. Summarizing how you feel is sometimes like taking a bucket out of the Atlantic Ocean and saying, here, this is what the ocean is like.

A bucket of water is not what the ocean is like. Even if you get a jellyfish, you might miss scooping up a shark.

Good thing there’s a simple test that cuts through a lot of the ruminations and bullshit.

I call it the key test. It works like this:

Imagine you are home alone and you hear a key opening the door. It’s your partner.

What’s your first reaction? Is it positive or negative?

That’s the key test.

I told you it was simple.

Click here to go to the entire Relationships series.

Relationships, Part 23: Feeling While Touching

feeling while touching in the animal kingdom

Here’s another exercise that can improve your relationship. It’ll clear out all those labels and stories you’ve attached to your partner and help you see him or her as they are. It’s called Feeling While Touching.

1.      Get within arm’s reach of your partner.

2.      One person should go at a time. One person initiating the contact and the other being contacted.

3.      One touches the other. Move the touch around.

4.      Both stay focused on the sensation of the touch.

5.      It’s best if you don’t talk. This way you can focus. Smiling helps. Crying is allowed. A slow pace works better.

6.      Start anywhere, stay in the moment.

7.      If either of you stops paying attention or gets caught up in thoughts, go back to where you were when you stopped.

8.      When, you are done, switch, and let your partner do the touching.

Take sex off the table when you are doing Feeling While Touching. In theory, sex is a good place to get in touch with your partner. In practice, it’s where many disconnect from each other. Once you are done with the exercise, though, if you want to have sex, then go for it. I won’t stop you. You are well prepared.

Click here to go to the entire Relationships series.

Relationships, Part 22: The Thing in Itself

I have an object in my office, nailed to the wall, it looks like this:


“What is this object?” I ask.

Most people would say it’s a fly.

“OK, why do I have a fly nailed to my wall?”

“It must be a joke,” most say. “Fly on the Wall, get it?”

“Is it really a fly?”

“No, it’s not really a fly. It’s a brass object made to look like one.”

If I take the brass object made to look like a fly down, put it on a table, and open it up, it looks like this:


“Now, what is this object?”

It becomes evident that it’s actually an ashtray. But, most people struggle with this awareness because they had already categorized the object as a fly.

“Why would a person have an ashtray?”

“They’d need an ashtray if they smoked, but I guess you don’t, or you used to, so now you don’t need an ashtray, so you put it up on the wall as a joke.”

They’re right, it is a joke. It’s also an object lesson I use sometimes to point out the difference between the thing in itself and the labels and stories we attach to them.

We are very quick to attach labels and stories, not only to brass objects, but to everything else, including people, including ourselves. But, because we are so quick, we are often wrong, or incomplete.

In the last few posts, we’ve been looking at some powerful myths and psychological processes that get in the way of seeing our partners the way they are. It pays to not be so attached to labels and stories. It’s important to always go back to the thing in itself and to be open to seeing it in a new way.

Click here to go to the entire Relationships series.

Relationships, Part 21: Projective Identification

If you read the last post in this series and thought projections were tricky, wait till you see what I’ve got for you now. You are ready to explore projective identification.

It works like this. Someone projects a quality on to you and, even though the quality does not describe you well, you go with it and end up exhibiting that quality, regardless.

Here’s an example. A woman is in a bad relationship. Her boyfriend abuses and humiliates her. She still has ties to him because she is afraid to leave. Then you come along. You meet her and thought she was cute. She see you’re a decent human being. She may be right, but she doesn’t know you well. Starting with the little bit she was able to gather, that you are decent, she adds that you could be her savior. The savior part is a projection. She feels she needs a savior and doesn’t think she could be her own. She’s so beaten down and humiliated she can’t stand up to the guy. So she finds a savior, and it’s you.

Now, you didn’t go around looking for a damsel in distress, but you’re a decent guy and you like to help when you can. Pretty soon you’re going along with this savior gig, not because it’s really you, but because she gave you the role and you took it. Next thing you know, you’re giving her a place to stay, listening to her problems, and standing up to the man to defend her. You might do a good job of it and actually save her, but you also might just get your ass kicked, be unable to get her to leave, and realize how the last guy got so enraged, not that it justifies his actions. The day will come when you wonder how you got involved in this mess, how you signed up to be a knight in shining armor.

That’s projective identification.

That’s only one example, of course. There are also men who, for whatever reason, need to be saviors and they go out looking for damsels in distress. They project distress onto women who end up identifying with it. Sometimes people who need to be saviors meet people who believe they need to be saved. You’d think those couples would be happy, but they’re not. Once one damsel is saved, he’ll go out looking for another. Once a savior gets her in a good place, there will be something he does that causes her to feel victimized.

Projective identification gets involved in child development, too. My father grew up admiring writers. The closest thing he had to a male role model was a man of letters who was his mother’s employer. His mother, my Grandmother, was a house maid and they lived on the estate. He may never have thought he could be a writer himself, but when I was still a kid and showed him something I wrote, he took an interest. I was no more a writer at the time than I was a baseball player, an arithmetician, a child scientist, or anything else; but I accepted the role because, what did I know, my Dad was saying I’d grow up to be a writer, so I guess I will. And I did.

That’s projective identification.

I’m lucky that I never felt I was being forced into a mold that didn’t suit me. Today, I don’t write to please my Dad, I write to please me. It all worked out, but it started with projective identification.

People change us in ways that we are often not aware. Therefore, whenever you feel that you’ve been caught up in something, taken along for a ride and you want to get off, take a few deep breaths, and look around. Look for projective identification.

Click here to go to the entire Relationships series.