ERP 317: How To Develop Six Capacities To Soulful Love — An Interview With Dr. Chelsea Wakefield

By Posted in - Podcast April 26th, 2022 0 Comments

Every relationship goes through five developmental stages. The first stage is typically the romance stage, also known as the honeymoon stage. However, as you become more acquainted with your significant other, you will begin to notice some differences between you and your partner. Then, as either of you attempts to return to the early ideal phase or pushes forward into some imagined future that neither you nor your partner agreed to, a power struggle may occur.

In this episode, we’ll look at each developmental stage, as well as some skills you can learn to cultivate a long-lasting relationship.

Dr. Chelsea Wakefield is a couples therapist and Associate Professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences where she is the Director of the Couples Center. She is a popular keynote speaker and workshop leader, trains practitioners worldwide, and offers online programs in her unique approach to relationship transformation. Dr. Wakefield is the author of three books, her recent release is entitled The Labyrinth of Love – the Path to a Soulful Relationship.

In this Episode

4:53 What she learned from her parents’ challenges, which resulted in their 30-year marriage ending in divorce.

8:53 Understanding the road map of intimate relationships, from enchantment to disenchantment.

14:20 Six crucial love capacities that partners must cultivate.

20:50 Recommendations for when you feel a surge of reactivity.

30:13 Communication techniques that can help people slow down.

42:35 Learn more about how Dr. Chelsea Wakefield can assist you.

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Continue to grow as individuals and as a couple.
  • Learn to manage the anxiety of differences by being comfortable discussing uncomfortable topics.
  • Commit to the process, not just your partner
  • Instead of looking for the perfect partner, strive to become a better partner.
  • Seek to understand the other person to reduce your own reactivity.
  • Always be inquisitive.
  • Be a good listener.
  • Speak with clarity about what’s going on inside of you.
  • Separate intent from impact by reflecting back on what you think the partner said.
  • Take small incremental steps.
  • Acknowledge each other’s efforts.

Mentioned

The Labyrinth Of Love: The Path to a Soulful Relationship (Amazon affiliate link*) (book)

Negotiating the Inner Peace Treaty: Becoming the Person You Were Born to Be (Amazon affiliate link*) (book)

Ineffective Behaviors Partners Use To Cope Ellyn Bader (pdf file)

Negotiating the Inner Peace Treaty: Becoming the Person You Were Born to Be

The Roadmap of Intimate Relationships

Challenging Choice Points for Using the Initiator-Inquirer Process

What is Imago Relationship Therapy?

The Dialogue Therapy

Connect with Dr. Chelsea Wakefield

Websites: chelseawakefield.com

Facebook: facebook.com/ChelseaWakefieldPhD

Podcast: podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/love-in-the-time-of-covid/id1507998764

Connect with Dr. Jessica Higgins

Facebook: facebook.com/EmpoweredRelationship 

Instagram: instagram.com/drjessicahiggins 

Podcast: drjessicahiggins.com/podcasts/

Pinterest: pinterest.com/EmpowerRelation 

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/drjessicahiggins 

Twitter: @DrJessHiggins 

Website: drjessicahiggins.com  

Email: [email protected]

About Today’s Show

Dr. Chelsea Wakefield, thank you for joining us today.

Thank you for having me.

I’m excited about all that you’re up to and what you have to share with us today. You really are talking about a roadmap of relationship. And this is something that people who have been listening to the show for any length of time hear me talk about because I’m constantly an advocate that relational, even the terrain of long-term intimacy is such a terrain of growth individually and relationally. So, I’m really excited about what you have to share with us today. 

Yes. 

Before we dive into our topic, I’m curious. I know that we could spend the entire time talking about what got you into supporting people in relationships. I’m wondering if you would be willing to share a little bit so we can get to know you.

I think that my curiosity about relationships began with my parents’ divorce. They’d been married for 30 years. And after 30 years, they divorced. I was in college. It was a big change for our family. Looking back, I’m wondering what happened to that 30-year relationship. I recognize that they needed a particular kind of help that they didn’t get. 

They could have worked through the problems they were in, but they got bad advice. And so, they split up. They both really struggled a lot after that. I think they really continued to love each other, but couldn’t find their way back. 

As I began my own journey to being a psychotherapist, I worked for a while in a clinic in North Carolina. We did a lot of family work. I began to notice and people started commenting that I was particularly good with the couples. And so, I began to study couples therapy, a lot of different methods of couples therapy, and to develop in that. Now, it’s primarily what I do. I work with relationships, and I write about them, and I teach about them. This is my life work.

Well, I appreciate just your journey. And also, since you mentioned your parents, do you have a sense of what you know now, what you wish they would have had access to? Or is it the work that you do?

Yeah. I think they hit a developmental juncture in their lives, a place where they each needed to grow in a particular way. My father could not see that he could continue to grow within the relationship. He started to feel suppressed. So rather than really beginning to deepen his own process, he left. 

It was one of those developmental junctures that couples hit often in a long-term relationship where their growth patterns are out of sync. I hear this so much in my couple’s work where one person will say, “I can’t be myself in this relationship.” I will begin to point out that number one, they’re probably projecting to a certain degree. 

I have a couple I’m working with right now where when he actually talks about what it is that he wants to do, and how he’s thinking differently than at the early part of the relationship, he was just so afraid that she would disapprove or squelch it. She’s not there at all. She’s done her own growing. She’s not the person that she was at the beginning of the relationship, but they haven’t really explored who they are now. They’re stuck back in a picture of who they used to be. 

And so, that’s this idea of what we project upon our partners and how we don’t have the personal courage to self-reveal and to wonder about. It’s like, how are you receiving what I’m revealing to you? And even if the other person doesn’t really like it, or if they’re kind of disturbed by it, being able to hang on to our own integrity inside and not get upset, but to stay with the process of addressing concerns and just really working our way through the tangle of change. 

And that tangle of change in evolution, I find it very difficult for a lot of people. They tend to go into a threat response. And then, once we’re afraid, we begin to relate from behind our defenses rather than being open and curious.

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“The tangle of change in evolution is very difficult for a lot of people. They tend to go into a threat response. And then, once we’re afraid, we begin to relate from behind our defenses rather than being open and curious.”

Well said. I mean, I agree that so often what gets activated in a relationship and what feels threatening and how we tend to protect ourselves and what you’re really speaking to about the opportunity here, if we’re willing to slow down, access those deeper layers and have the courage to reveal but also engage in those conversations where we can seek deeper understanding, and perhaps even get creative together around win-wins. I guess I’m interested if you’re willing to share what the roadmap that you refer to is. 

The roadmap that I’ve developed, moves from enchantment to disenchantment, and then into either struggle and anguish that would be one fork in the road. And the other fork in the road is personal and interpersonal work. And if we do that personal and interpersonal work, and we continue to grow as individuals and as a couple, then we actually enter that promised land of conscious relationship where we can really experience the joys and wonders of being two people on a journey together. 

Along with that roadmap, what I find that most people when they hit that second stage, which is really a stage of discovery, it’s a stage where the projections that we had in the early part of the relationship where we idealized that partner, we begin to learn more about the real partner. When people start bumping into differences and things where they thought they were on the same page, but suddenly we discovered that we were using the same words but they meant very different things, people get scared. 

Again, they retreat and they get defensive. They say, “Well, you’re not who I thought you were. Can’t you just be the person I want you to be?” And each of them starts to push the other person into being their ideal partner, which of course causes the other person to feel unloved and unacceptable so they get defensive. 

These are the tangles that people get into in that second stage of disenchantment. The reason I call it disenchantment is because, in the early stage, we often are enchanted. We’ve got all those amazing dopamine downloads that cause us to feel high on love and to be a little bit drunk on love. And oftentimes, we get married or we commit our lives during that stage. 

And then as that calms down into a longer-term relationship, certain things we didn’t notice at first start to pop out. What is called the rest of the cast comes out from behind the curtain. That’s the place where people have to learn how to navigate differences. And we don’t teach people, we don’t give a lot of tools in this culture for how to navigate that second stage of a relationship. 

I’ve also understood the second stage to be also called a power struggle stage. Would you say that that’s also another angle here?

Yep. Yeah. When I talk about that third stage of struggle and anguish, I’m really referring to power struggling. That’s where we’re trying to get the other person to be who we want them to be. No one enjoys being on the receiving end of that. 

So rather than actually encountering this dear person who has an existence in their own right, and looking at the raw materials of who we are together, what we want to co-create, in terms of what do we want to build in this relationship instead of moving to that place of courage and curiosity and commitment to the process, people get into these power struggles. It’s not just power struggles, but people also retreat. They go into their turtle shells, and they withdraw, which is sort of the flip side of a power struggle. 

Ellyn Bader once wrote a whole list of things that she called ineffective things partners use to cope. I love the list. I actually have it in my book, because it’s such a thorough list of the misbegotten solutions that people go to in that struggle and anguish phase when they’re either trying to get back to the early ideal phase or they’re trying to push forward into some imagined future that the other person never agreed to.

No kidding. I appreciate you articulating that this can look many different ways. If I remember correctly, the statistic of people getting stuck in this stage is incredibly high, like in the high 80s or mid-80s. And that most people cycle in this disconnect power struggle, or basically agree that there are certain areas they don’t go to, and they just basically say, that turn away or that shutdown around, we just don’t engage in this. And that really restricts and limits their intimacy. Or just shut down or break up. Most people get stuck in that.

Yes. Yes, so many people get stuck. It would be my great wish that we do more education in the entire society about how to navigate that phase. What you’re talking about, I call it the no-fly zone. Sometimes I have a chart with two circles overlapping and that center overlap is where the couple feels safe. And right outside is the no-fly zone. And beyond that is all the possibility of the richness and the life that could come into the relationship. But until they learn to fly through the no-fly zone, to manage the anxiety of difference, they will never get to that garden beyond where they can just really enrich their relationship.

That’s such a great description and analogy. I can feel how important it is and also what’s available. I like just that frame. It’s really helpful. What are you seeing? It sounds like you have identified six capacities for cultivating this more conscious relationship that helps people work through that no-fly zone and gain the skills to then be able to enter into new territory. Is that what I understand?

Yes. So, in my recent book, which is called the Labyrinth of Love, there’s an image on the front that is actually modeled after the labyrinth that is on the floor of the Chartres Cathedral in France. In the middle of it is a six petals shape. I do think that navigating the stages of love and co-creating a relationship is somewhat like a labyrinth but a labyrinth is different than a maze. A maze has dead ends, but a labyrinth, if you keep walking, will always lead to the center. 

So, in the center, the six love capacities. I’ll name them, and then I’ll go over what they mean. They are commitment, courage, curiosity, communication, compassion, and creativity. And so, when we think about commitment, most people think about commitment in terms of committing to a person. But what we really need to commit to is a process. We are in a process of co-creating a relationship together. It’s going to require all of these capacities in order for us to do it. 

We’re also committing to remaining present. And that means that even though we’re having difficulty, we’re going to stay engaged. And we’re going to work through this. So that’s commitment. Then we have courage because it really takes a good bit of grit to stay in a long-term relationship and to work through that process. A lot of people get scared when they hit that second stage, and they’ll either retreat or they’ll say you’re not the person I thought you were. 

And after a certain amount of power struggling and disconnection or whatever they move into, they might call it quits. And then they basically just recycled the same thing with a different person because they haven’t really learned how to do relationships. They’ve only learned the first stage, and how to struggle in the second stage and keep looking for that perfect partner. So instead of becoming a better partner, they’re looking for a perfect partner. 

The personal responsibility and the personal work we need to do to reduce our own reactivity and to really learn what it means to relate to another person are crucial. So, we need a lot of courage. And then we need to really stay in a stage of curiosity when we’re having difficulty moving into a learning conversation. And when we learn more about why something matters to the other person or what it’s touching into and why they’re so reactive, then we really deepen the connection, we deepen our understanding. 

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“Communication has a lot to do with listening. It’s very important when we’re speaking that we are self-aware and that we’re actually speaking with clarity about what’s going on inside of us, and we’re taking responsibility for speaking in the “I” language for what’s going on inside of us, but then really deeply listening to the other person. Not taking it personally, seeking to understand what’s going on over there.”

We do that whole process of being curious by engaging in good communication, which for most people, what they don’t understand about communication, is it has a lot to do with listening. It’s very important when we’re speaking, that we are self-aware, and that we’re actually speaking with clarity about what’s going on inside of us. And we’re taking responsibility for speaking in the “I” language for what’s going on inside of us. But then really deeply listening to the other person. Not taking it personally, seeking to understand what’s going on over there. 

Why does this matter to that person? What is their history around it? Why is it such a sensitive issue? Or why is it so important? Or even why is it so ecstatically joyful for them? What can we learn about the other person’s subjective world by deeply listening? So, that exchange of deep listening and self-revealing is extremely important. It takes a lot of personal work to hear something difficult from our partner and hold on to ourselves and stay calm but it’s so important in terms of deepening the relationship. 

And then the next one is compassion because when we are committed to the process and we have courage, we stay with curiosity, we practice good communication, we deepen the relationship and we learn. As we learn about this dear person and what lies within them, what is a natural evolution is compassion. Compassion for ourselves, compassion for the other person, particularly if they are sharing something very deep and very important. And then out of that, we begin to experience an experience of safety. Our nervous systems calm down. We’re able to get out of our threat brains and our creative brains and we can move into that last left capacity, which is creativity. 

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Relationships truly are created. You don’t get a relationship. You create a relationship. The creation of a really amazing relationship is the most powerful protector against infidelity because when you have that depth and quality of a relationship, you don’t want to do anything to damage it.”

Relationships truly are created. You don’t get a relationship. You create a relationship. And in that creativity, we’re actually creating a third entity, the relationship, which is different than you and me. We’re both in it but it’s different. We’ve got to nourish it. We’ve got to protect it. I often say to people that the creation of a really amazing relationship is the most powerful protector against infidelity because when you have that depth and quality of a relationship, you don’t want to do anything to damage it. And so, these people really trust each other and they are in a relationship worth having.

Absolutely. Thank you for really walking through these six capacities. I like the six-petal labyrinth shape because it’s not linear. I have a roadmap as well. I think there’s probably a lot of overlap in the way that we might describe this. 

One of the analogies I’m working with is that spiral. This still is coming back and circling through the center, and that we’re evolving the individual growth as well as the relational growth. It’s just so important to recognize how they all interact, and also that it’s not just this linear process and that it’s not a sequence. 

Absolutely. 

As you’re describing, it feels as though that second part around the courage that there’s so much there that when we get hijacked in that threat response, and perhaps are not conscious, maybe even reacting and then getting into the reactive dynamics, where our protective strategies might hurt our partner, and they don’t quite understand all that’s going on, and then they react and they’re protecting and then hence that disconnect. 

Would you be willing to say more about that? Because it feels like if that part is getting triggered, and people perhaps haven’t had the experience to take those safe risks in the sense of revealing, having the courage, and slowing down to regulate, and then revealing some of that deeper vulnerability, I don’t know how all the other things happen without some of that.

Yes. There’s a phrase that I use with everyone that I work with, and it’s in the book that I just wrote. The phrase is, “Begin within.” Begin within. And so, the first thing that we need to go to whenever we feel that hit of reactivity, something our partner does or says, and suddenly our adrenaline is throwing, flowing, and we’re thinking, “What? What?” And we’re in a reactive mode. We need to slow down, as you just said, and get in a practice of saying, “Hang on. I need to figure out what’s going on with me.” 

So, rather than lashing out or discharging our anxiety on the partner, which is at a tremendous height, and we cannot possibly be in our creative mode, we’re filled with distortions and projections, we need to back up and take a little time on our own to say, “What is going on with me?” What I like to do in that mode is I actually like to track sensation. I’ll encourage people to notice if I’m really upset about something, where am I feeling it in my body, and to go inside that sensation, and just sit with it for a little while and say, “When have I felt this sensation before?” So rather than trying to figure out what’s going on with me, get quiet, track the sensation, and allow yourself to remember what comes up, anything at all, in reference to that sensation. 

I’ll tell a little story about some reactivity work that I was doing recently in my own relationship. I had a father who was very, very handy. He was a salesperson, actually. But he loved to come home and work in the yard and he would install a sprinkler system and build a, you know, stone wall. He could fix plumbing and do tile in the bathroom. He was a carpenter. He was very, very handy. He did this as an enjoyment. It was something that I enjoyed being around him, I was his little helper. When I was young, I would hand him hammers and go around and things. We’d go to the hardware store together. It was a wonderful time with my daddy, you know when I was a kid. 

My husband is not handy. I discovered this in our first year of marriage. I immediately was shocked and a little bit disdainful that he could not manage to get the tile off a bathroom floor and install a new floor. He has other fantastic gifts and qualities, but this is not one of them. So recently, I decided that we were going to have this great experience of ordering a file cabinet from a company and installing it. Creating it, putting it together. The experience did not go as I anticipated. Once again, my husband got frustrated and grumbled. It “ruined the experience” for me. 

I left that realizing that I was in a state of reactivity. I wonder what this is really about. I’ve been married for 32 years, and I’ve never examined this. And so, I said to myself, “Where am I feeling this in my body?” I located a very heavy feeling in my chest. And because I know myself and I know the way that certain emotions are lodged in my body, I recognized it as grief. It wasn’t anger. It was grief. I thought, “Wow, what am I in grief about?” 

As I got quiet and stayed with the sensation, this memory of this pre-adolescent girl that I was just popping around being daddy’s little hand person, you know, handing him the hammer and helping him out go into the hardware store and all that fun that we had before I became an adolescent where we really got into some trouble with each other. That sweet memory came up. I realized how much I missed my daddy. I just stayed with that for a minute. I’d forgotten what it was like before I was an adolescent and the sweet moments with my father. I stayed with that for a minute. I just kind of honored that memory. 

What was so interesting about this is that since that time, which was about a year and a half ago, I have not been aggravated at my husband about his lack of being handy. I’ve just, again, appreciated him for all the wonderful things that he is. But that’s kind of a light example of working with reactivity and also how we can continue to do this over the course of a lifetime. Because of this process of personal growth, doesn’t end. There are layers of it. And that was one of my own. 

So, tracking sensations and beginning within and then figuring out what’s going on. I actually came back and I shared that with him. It was kind of a sweet moment because he was able to hear it. It was a way of honoring the memory. And also, he then understood why I get so frustrated with him. We were both able to kind of let it go. It was one more thing in our relationship that was a negative dynamic that has now gone. 

It sounds as if, Chelsea, you were able to utilize these capacities to be in a relationship with yourself and confront an aspect that felt heavy, and the insight and the understanding and the way I might be projecting but the way I’m hearing it is that this was such a sweet bonding and that there would be a part of you that would want to experience that with your husband and feel that sense of connectivity and bonding and relating in that way because that was something that was so familiar to you on such a source of that. And to give real consciousness and recognition to it and the grief and allow for that awareness. It sounds like it was able to really transform.

Yes, and I think you’re tapping into something that we do a lot in relationships where we bring really distant memories from the past, both of things that were very precious to us, things that we longed for, and things that we fear about relationships, because sometimes I also layer over my husband’s face, the face of my controlling father, and he reminds me, “I’m not that guy.” 

He understands what that complex is in me, and I understand it too. But occasionally, I’ll be swept away by the complex itself that this tangle of memory. And because of the couplehood that I’m in, we really work together, we help each other, we’re able to kind of help each other out of these trances that we can fall into, these unconscious sweeps of memory where the past flows into the present, and we are no longer actually in present time. 

So, that is something that I’m always trying to teach the couples that I’m working with, that when the partner is swept away by something inside that is very powerful, that’s when it’s really important to not take it personally and to move to compassion and curiosity and find out what is going on with this person that they’re no longer present to me. They’re not even in the present moment. And they’re projecting all this negative intention, things that aren’t even happening. They’re not even hearing what I’m saying. 

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“In a really supportive loving relationship, moving to curiosity instead of defensiveness, or irritation, or impatience can really help our partners become more self-aware about where they get caught, and where they’re projecting, and misinterpreting, and blaming, and shaming, and defending, or retreating into their turtle shell, all these things that we do that are the misbegotten solutions in a moment when we’re triggered.”

And so, the process of slowing down, beginning within, doing our own work, but also facilitating our partners because, in a really supportive loving relationship, I think that moving to curiosity instead of defensiveness or irritation, or impatience can really help our partners become more self-aware about where they get caught, and where they’re projecting, and misinterpreting, and blaming, and shaming, and defending, or retreating into their turtle shell, all these things that we do that are the misbegotten solutions in a moment when we’re triggered.

And I recognize that that can be an advanced move when the cycle in the relationship is so disconnected or has gotten to a difficult place where people are feeling so pained by one another. It kind of lends to this question I was already having an in my mind that you’re seeing as a person in a relationship with someone who appears to be in that reactive place and maybe not as conscious to all that’s getting activated for them that if we can pivot towards the curiosity that that can create a lot of space to not get hooked into the drama and the disconnect cycle. 

And then you’re also speaking to the individual work of slowing down even turning that curiosity inward as you shared with your example. I wonder. You mentioned the example you shared here today is light, right? I wonder if you see people that have difficulty accessing this confronting in a really gentle, curious way inside themselves because it hasn’t been safe from the past, or they haven’t felt people really be there for them or tuned to them, or they’ve had a lot of trauma, that this is terrifying to start to sentence like you spoke about the somatic sensations, but just even giving it any space can feel difficult to tolerate. I wonder if you see that?

I do. I do. And so, my work as a couple’s therapist is to actually operate as the regulating force in the room to kind of help to set up guardrails so people are not moving into destructive interactions with each other and inviting them to teach a lot of self-soothing skills and regulating skills. Giving them some education so they can start to actually understand what’s happening to them when they’re in their reactive brains. 

I think that there are communication protocols that are very helpful in slowing people down. One of them is the initiator inquiry process that was developed by Ellyn Bader and Pete Pearson. Another one is the Imago process. And another one, it was developed very similar to the Imago process, it’s by Polly Young-Eisendrath. She actually developed a method of couples therapy called Dialogue therapy, which is a really powerful, interesting short term couples therapy that can really turn some things around quickly. But a piece of that for a couple’s therapist, and again, sometimes what I do with people, I will recognize that there’s so much trauma in one or both people that they actually need to go do some personal work with a trauma specialist so that they can get to a place where they can begin to interact successfully. 

And so sometimes I’ll refer people out for individual work because they’re not ready to do the interpersonal work. But most people don’t have such tremendous trauma histories that they can’t begin to hold on to the tension inside. And to use some of their self-regulating skills to begin to peel back the projections. My favorite technique about that is reflective listening. 

I just have recently been working with a couple where there’s been so much power struggling and so much hurt and retreat and pursuit and retreat. One of them is finally beginning to say, “I think what you just said to me was this.” And the other person is able to say, “That’s not what I meant at all. That wasn’t my intention.” So, this idea of separating intention from impact is very important because the sender can have very neutral intentions. And it lands over in the listening person, the receiver’s world, and jangles their nervous system and they’re off to the races with a bunch of associations from the past and inability to be present. 

Disentangling intention from impact and teaching the person who’s listening to say, “Okay.” And this is not parroting. It’s not, “I heard you say, blah, blah, blah, blah.” It’s, “I think what you’re trying to get across to me is this.” And then after they’ve reflected back and said, “Did I get it?” The other person can either correct it. And sometimes, you know, the sender is not always a very good communicator. So, they might actually be communicating unclearly. And so, the receiver is not really getting their message because they’re not really being clear enough. So, in reflecting back what you think the partner said, that person can say, “No, that’s not exactly what I meant. Actually, now that I think about it, this is what I was trying to get across.” So, there’s that. 

It’s not just to reflect so that the listener can understand but so that the speaker can get clearer about what it is they’re trying to get across. I tell people this is not the way you’re going to communicate every morning over the coffee cup. But when you’re in a difficult exchange, it’s really good to get into a protocol. I have couples over the years, and I’ll give them handouts about how to talk to each other in a difficult conversation. I will hear years later that when we’re having difficulty, we’ll get out our papers. We’ll look at our papers and say, “Okay, this is what I’m supposed to do. This is what you’re supposed to do. Let’s try to do this.” And inevitably, if they follow that protocol, they will begin to untangle some misunderstandings and projections. They’ll learn more about themselves and each other and they’ll start to calm down and then they can move into compassion and creativity,

Beautiful. It sounds like this is in some ways as you were talking about the power struggle or the places that people really get stuck, that these capacities can really help shift into new territory, is that correct?

Yes. And the thing about courage is it is built like a muscle as you use it. The idea of taking small risks that don’t feel life threatening, that might be a little bit embarrassing, or maybe might cause your partner some irritation, just incrementally practice moving out. 

And recently, I’ve just been thinking so much about valuing increments, measuring. We shouldn’t try to go from level zero to level 10 in six weeks. But if we can start to change the direction of how we’re relating, it tends to create hope and momentum. And so, if we can just have one successful interchange about something we always argued about in the past, that’s a win. 

I’m always trying to get across to people. Value the direction you’re going. If you’re starting to use these skills, if you’re starting to deepen your capacities, keep going. Keep going and affirm each other for the efforts that you’re making together. Notice when your partner is changing from you-you kind of blame language into owning things and saying, “Over here. This is what’s going on with me.” Notice that. Notice acts of generosity. Start expressing appreciation. Get into an upward spiral and learn how you can help each other. When you’re in a downward spiral, how can you find those exit ramps off the conflict highway and work together?

Absolutely. And this is, I think, in a lot of ways how we developmentally grow. It’s typically not this one move that flips that light switch, right? It’s these incremental steps that shape and start to, like you’re describing, this direction. And if we can honor that and see that, right? There’s so many people in the personal growth realm who will use the analogy of when you’re sailing, you might set a very subtle degree difference, but however many miles down the way you’re in a completely different place. Right? 

I like that analogy. Yes. 

It have a really big impact. So, anything else you want to say in conflict about how any of these six can be a good exit from the conflict?

Well, in a conflict, it’s just really important to spend some time looking inside and asking, what is this touching into in me? Why am I so upset about it? What am I associating it with from a painful past, or a disappointment, or a longing? 

And then once we get clear, to practice moving back into communicating that with a partner in a way of deconstructing and then sort of reconstructing a conversation. A lot of times, people will get into an argument. And particularly if they’re really conflict avoidant, they’ll say, “Okay, well, here’s the list of things we can’t talk about.” And then, the list just gets longer and longer, and the relationship gets more and more devitalized. 

Sometimes when I’ve got a couple sitting on the couch that is tremendously conflict avoidant, I will say to them, “You two have never met.” I mean, you’ve never gone deep enough to really be inside each other’s worlds. So, the conflict avoidant couple needs to learn how to lean in and take more risks incrementally, and practice and realize that in relationships, we fall down, and we get up, and we fall down, and we get up, and we’re practicing. We’re encouraging each other and we’re practicing a lot of compassion when we fall down and get up. We’re not descending into terrible self-degradation and painting the partner with a broad brush. 

And of course, I’m not talking about the most severe relationships in which there is violence or a significant substance abuse or financial abuse. There are things that go on in relationships that require significant interventions. And sometimes people need to leave those relationships if the person who is practicing some really harmful relationship dynamics is not doing their own personal work. 

On the other hand, I have seen relationships where there’s been some pretty egregious stuff that’s gone on, where the person who needs to do that work has really engaged in that personal work, and now were 10 years down the line, and both people have grown and they’re looking back and saying, “It was pretty awful back then but we have grown and now we really value the fact that we’ve done this growth together.” 

Free Two Women Sitting on Vehicle Roofs Stock Photo

“Conflict is inevitable when you get two personalities, two histories, two sets of expectations. It’s not a catastrophe. It’s a place to move into curiosity and really getting into a learning conversation.”

The thing about conflict is it’s inevitable when you get two personalities, two histories, two sets of expectations. And so, it’s not a catastrophe. It’s a place to move into curiosity, really getting into a learning conversation and grappling with, you know. What’s interesting to me when a couple can actually get to a place where usually it would be loggerheads. I want this and you want that, and let’s just stop talking about it, or let’s fight for eight hours. But instead of going into either retreat, or high conflict, they’re actually starting to look more deeply into what does this thing that we’re arguing about? What are the underlying needs? What are the underlying longings that we both harbor? How are we bringing our histories into this? And really delving in deeper and deeper levels, because when they get to that, sometimes one of them will say, “Oh, I didn’t realize that that’s why this was so important to you. You can have it.” And that’s the compassionate thing. “It doesn’t mean as much to me as it does to you.” 

And if there’s reciprocity, where each person is not abdicating, but really just kind of letting go and relinquishing their insistence that it has to be my way. If there’s reciprocity around that, there’s a beautiful experience in the relationship where instead of going into a conflict with the idea that one or the other is going to lose something, they’re actually going to be creative. 

Free Couple Holding Hands on Sand Field Stock Photo

“If there’s reciprocity and relinquishing their insistence that it has to be my way, there’s a beautiful experience in the relationship where instead of going into a conflict with the idea that one or the other is going to lose something, they’re actually going to be creative.”

Sometimes they come up with a third solution that neither one of them thought about, because they’re out of their threat brains, and they’re in creativity brains. It takes a lot of personal work to get to that place. But if we think about being partners on a journey, where this relationship is not about need meeting, it is about relationship as a path of growth. 

We’re both going to commit to growing personally and interpersonally. We’re going to grow as people, and we’re going to grow as a couple. And we’re going to talk about this compelling vision of this relationship we want to create together and ask ourselves, who do we need to become individually and together in order to realize that compelling vision? So, that’s something that I think helps people when they’re in conflict, and they need to really do some serious personal work. It’s the compelling vision. What is the possibility of who we could be together?

Beautiful. Well, I am interested in what you might suggest people to do if they want to learn more. What would you invite people to do?

Well, I have a website, ChelseaWakefield.com. I’m in the process of offering some online programs. I also have really begun to enjoy doing Couple Intensives. I have people sometimes that fly in from other states to where I’m currently located in Little Rock, Arkansas, which is actually a fairly beautiful city with some interesting things to do, and a lot of great restaurants and culture. People will fly in or drive in. We’ll start on a Friday evening, and we’ll work a long day Saturday and into Sunday. They are sent home with a binder full of ideas and worksheets and realizations and things to carry forward into their lives. 

So, you can come and do a couples intensive with me. I invite you to order my most recent book, The Labyrinth of Love. There’s so much information in there about how to have a meaningful, enduring relationship. I have an earlier book called Negotiating the Inner Peace Treaty, which really talks about the inner cast of characters and how we work with inner conflict. 

When we are in a couple of course, we have two inner casts of characters so there’s a lot of complexity about who is relating to who, which is a whole other part of this work. So, those are some ways that you can find me. Also, if you want to reach me at the University of Arkansas, at the Couple Center, you can reach me there as well.

You also have a podcast, yes?

I do. I did a podcast during COVID called Love in the Time of COVID. We did 10 episodes of that. We’re just about to launch a new podcast called Heart Side Chats. That’ll be up really soon. Might even be up by the time this podcast airs. So, that’ll be about the new book Labyrinth of Love. But I’m also going to be talking to people who are interested in meaningful living in consciousness, other relationship experts. Maybe you’ll come and join me on an interview. I read a lot of books and have a lot of insights. I’m in conversation with my friend, Lisa Stutzman. So, it’s a back and forth about the journey of life, love, and deepening consciousness.

Beautiful. I’ll make sure to have all of those links on today’s show notes. Thank you, Dr. Chelsea Wakefield for spending your valuable time with us here today.

Thank you for having me.

Signing Off

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Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching