boundaries and the problems they cause

I tend to have strong boundaries. Some people don’t like that. I like my alone time, routine, and schedule, and I’m not a fan of people dropping by unannounced. I have to in order to be in this profession for the long haul. My job is all-in. When i’m with a client my attention is fully focused on that person, and the five other people I see that day. This is balanced with lots of time to myself and with loved ones.

Sometimes you set a boundary and somebody gets hurt. While it’s essential to examine yourself in the situation to make sure your boundaries are appropriate, if someone gets crabby and tries to make you feel bad because you’ve set a boundary, this is a pretty good indicator to back away from the relationship in intensity, time spent, or other contact.

A lot of times, a discussion about boundaries with the person can lead to greater understanding and even give them permission to set their own boundaries. But other times, it doesn’t.

Some of the people who are the most hurt by your boundaries are the ones who either don’t believe in having them or don’t feel entitled to having them themselves. You saying “no” and setting limits is a threat to their identity, a burr in their side giving them the chance to say, “I don’t set all those ‘boundaries’. Who does she think she is?”

You could try to teach that person that it’s ok for her to have boundaries too, but at this time she would probably rather overextend herself for you and then harbor resentment when you don’t “appreciate” it enough.

I know a wise person who taught me something setting limits. If I need to have strong boundaries, and those boundaries work for me, that is on me. If that doesn’t work for someone in my life, that’s on them. They can be upset at me for setting the boundary, but since I have boundaries, I don’t have to think like they do, and I can let them have their opinion of me. If that leads to a rift, well, that is on me, because it is a consequence I was willing to take on in order to keep setting limits that work well for my life and family. But it’s also on them too, since they aren’t willing to take my limits seriously. If someone is scoffing at when I draw limits, and undermining them, that’s a red flag.

Maybe it causes a rift for awhile, but I’m an optimistic person and believe that rifts can sometimes teach both parties to cool off, re-evaluate the relationship, and move forward with that person (if they choose) with new behaviors that are more helpful for the relationship’s success. This requires evaluating what you really want from the relationship and what you’d be satisfied with.

the unsung heroes of father’s day

see also: the unsung heroes of mother’s day

looking for therapy? go here.

The unsung heroes of father’s day

Dear dads and male role models,

I wanted to write something different for you.

To all the dads who get pissed when someone calls it “babysitting” when he supervises his own child.

And the ones who changed just as many diapers as the moms, if not more.

To the fathers who realize that, in the eyes of your sons and daughters, manhood wears your face, and you make sure that you put your best face forward.

To the men raising children abandoned by other men.

And the ones fighting for more custody, paying child support, and indulging all manner of hell and parental alienation in high-conflict divorces, but still hang in there.

And the young bucks who don’t have kids of their own who work in day cares and schools, after-school and sports programs, and give a non-creepy model of maleness.

To the boys young and old who love and protect animals, and try to make the world a better place for living things.

To that older guy in college who dumped me because our relationship interfered with raising his eight-year-old daughter, and the guy in my early 30s who dumped me because he didn’t want more kids.

And most especially, to the guy who already had a kid, who married me and had another.

And to the guys teaching their girls to code. And build things. And read. And write. And dream.

And create. And think. And question. And look at the stars….

And the men who are coaches, that nurture the dad-less and the ignored.

And the non cis-gender fathers who don’t identify as men, but still identify as dads.

To the ones who actually listen, and don’t just say “uh huh.”

To the ones that sincerely answer every “why” question.

To the ones that can handle being the bad guy when needed, cry when necessary, and hug often.

To the ones that make it ok for their boys to cry, and for their girls to shout.

To the ones who throw love at the problem before money.

This is for you. May you be surrounded with love and praise, admiration and support, affection and growth. Happy Father’s Day.

book review: my life on the swingset

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As a marriage and family therapist who works extensively with non-monogamous clients, and as someone who has explored non-monogamous relationships in the past, I had no idea what to expect from My Life on the Swingset: Adventures in Swinging and Polyamory, by Cooper S. Beckett, (also in audiobook) except that it is a memoir of swinging and polyamory, written by a man. I was bracing to cringe at this book, lest it be some alpha douche bragging about his sexual prowess in a way that makes average people feel bad.

This was opposite, thankfully. Beckett is non-monogamy’s everyman: the voice is neither the twinkle-eyed auntie like Ethical Slut, the scholarly one of Opening Up, the visionary nerd-brilliance of Sex at Dawn or the sexy confidence of Open. Beckett’s voice is geekier, ramblier, bloggier, He is neurotic and overthinks. He has anxiety spirals. He battles with depression.

And he totally won me over.

What I love about this book is the honesty. A collection of blog posts spanning from the beginning of his journey in 2008 to 2014, “My Life On the Swingset” chronicles the excitement and the anxieties he felt as a swinger. He writes candidly about the adventures he and his wife had as young, married swingers and again about the end of the same marriage.

As a marriage therapist that has worked with many non-monogamous people, I appreciate this. Swinger and poly marriages do end (just like monogamous ones.) In fact, he and his ex got into swinging at a crisis point in their marriage when they both realized they wanted more from life, sex, and marriage. Rather than see non-monogamy as a desperate attempt to save a relationship that ended up doomed anyway, Beckett sees their swinging as giving it another four years of life.

The shrink in me wanted to hear more about the details of the breakup of his marriage and what he has learned in configuring his current relationships.  I was also getting sort of worried reading  about some of his anxiety spirals and wondering about depression when I got to the point where he brought it up himself.

There was a passage about feeling overwhelmed and needing to cease extracurricular activity while he caught his breath that I wanted to know more about from a mental health perspective. I understand that I don’t get to know all of this, but it’s something I would like my clients and readers to consider as applied to their own journeys. The author describes not only the jealousy of seeing his partner’s attention elsewhere, but also the stronger-for-him envy of seeing his partner get attention while he received none.

As the story progresses, you watch him grow and become more confident and sure of himself. Beckett moves from identifying as a swinger to exploring  polyamory to end up with an identity somewhere in between and takes the reader along as he transitions from sex dates to romantic dates.

The other thing I liked was the diversity of alternative sexualities, and the attempt to tie together members of a diverse spectrum. Before this book I had not heard of the acronym SOP (Swinger-Open-Poly) and I like the attempt to draw parallels between these three relationship styles that mix and match and bleed into each other. He calls out ageism in the swinger community, explores BDSM and kink, experiences pegging, comes out as a bisexual ( within a climate of homophobia towards bi men in the swinger community) and rebels against pubic hair norms. He did not have to do any of that and would have sold just as many books.

*Full Disclosure: all links provided to books are affiliate links.



my journey as a healer: answering the call of a different drum

My career as a healer began in 2000 on a lark when I followed my then-boyfriend into a clinical hypnotherapy training.

At the time I was helping that boyfriend make sculptures of mythological figures and sell them in new age stores. My BA in journalism was being put to good use writing little treatises on spirituality and archetypes and publishing them as ‘zines. Needless to say, we had no money.

I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life and now I see I poured myself into his world. The hypnosis class was something he was very sure about, because he wanted to teach meditation classes. I thought it would be fun and probably didn’t want to be alone for the weekend. Something about it sparked something in me, but I didn’t think about it much at the time.

Once at the training, my attention was caught by the instructor’s focus on numerous clinical situations, working one on one with people. That sounded fun, and marked my journey away from being a helper-girlfriend type and towards doing my thing.

Brazen, young and armed with my certification, I convinced an attorney to rent me “office space” in his basement, painted the walls purple, and put out a shingle. I stapled posters to telephone poles and tacked them to bulletin boards in the small Massachusetts town I lived in.

People called me! Like, real, respectable people. (And a few others.)

Me! The person who lived rent free at my boyfriend’s mom’s house.

I was helping people with weight issues, smoking cessation and sports performance. Then one day, one of my clients went into a painful childhood issue and began to sob in the middle of a hypnosis session.

Fifteen years later, forged on the anvil of a Master’s degree, 2000 supervised intern hours, and countless licensed hours sitting with people in all kinds of mental and emotional pain, I think my instincts were good that day. I stopped the guided visualization and just listened, I tracked the client’s mood and affect, tried to help them into a more resourceful mental state, and made sure they had made a shift to present-centered awareness with an improved mood before they left.

But at the time, I was like, holy shit, I have no clue what I’m doing.

That might have discouraged some to quit. But being so close to real human suffering, and then being able to help someone see their pain in a different way and therefore experience a state of feeling healed, it gave me a rush.

I knew I had no clue what I was doing. But I wanted to learn.

I looked at schools. The right one brought me back to the West Coast, got me back into my personal psychotherapy, out of that relationship, and on the path I’m on still.

I took an internship working with acute and chronic mental illness.

I learned ethics. I learned boundaries. I learned skills and honed my instincts. People taught me what to do in a crisis, when to push, when to be gentle, how to deal with my crap that comes up, and how to ask colleagues for help and support.

From the very start of graduate school, I wanted to be in private practice. While I learned an incredible amount as an intern, I was burning out in hospital and agency settings.

I was told that it was risky. One family member told me I should go to work for the state and another said I’d be better off in HR.

I didn’t fit my own internal stereotype of a therapist.

I didn’t own any shawls. My hair wasn’t a curly halo. My voice was not soft.

I didn’t always feel like I had it all together, but I watched people change under my care anyway.

I like to help, and be close to the pulsing heart of human emotion, and watch others shift. I take it seriously, the sacred trust with other human beings.

And it’s still a rush.

Why tell this story? Because somewhere out there an unconventional person might want to start a career in mental health and either hear from others or tell themselves that because they live in their boyfriend’s mom’s house or are covered in tattoos or have a history as a sex worker or have suffered their own trauma they shouldn’t do it, the profession doesn’t need them as much as the normal people.

It needs you more.

mom emotionally absent? mother’s day, for you.

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A friend I don’t know that well just pinged me on Facebook, asking me to post something about this topic. In order for her to ask, she’s got to be in pain, and like anyone who has a mother who was emotionally unavailable in childhood, adulthood, or both, that pain ramps up around the holiday.

To children of emotionally absent/abusive/envious/uncaring mothers: first of all, you know who you are. You don’t have to prove to anybody that your mother was emotionally absent. You don’t need to feel obligated to offer explanations. Emotional abuse carries a stigma about it and it’s not ok in our culture to say, “I’m not into Mother’s Day because my mom was emotionally absent.” We live in a “suck it up and get over it” culture, an “honor your parents because they were your parents and by the way stop whining”  culture.

So my first bit of advice would be to opt out of anything that makes you feel like you have to justify or explain. Be vague to others about your plans; most people are asking that sort of thing to be polite and won’t even hear your answer. “In our family we don’t make a big deal on that day so I send a card,” is fine. Don’t talk about your mother-wound with people whose reactions you’re not able to predict or with those whom are likely to disagree. No need to create even more negative energy. When people who aren’t invested in the situation urge you to reconnect with your mother, they generally mean well, even if it feels rejecting to hear it.

There’s many ways to celebrate a holiday. Do what feels right. You may want to spend time with your mom, you may not. You have to listen to yourself and do what is right for you and  do your best not to compare yourself to others.

It’s important to differentiate whether your mother was emotionally unavailable in your childhood, if it’s happening now, or both. If your mother was emotionally unavailable in your childhood but has changed enough to feel emotionally available now….well, you probably wouldn’t be reading this. But let’s say she is and you don’t quite realize it. If you can legitimately turn a page and it feels good to you to spend time with her on Mother’s Day…go for it.

I’m not a huge fan of martyring onesself and pretending to celebrate someone whom you feel deeply negative towards/ambivalent about when it doesn’t feel real.

I’m a fan of doing a scaled-down version of the thing that you dread, scaling down until there is no longer dread. For example: if the idea of brunch with your mother induces dread, scale down until dread subsides to a manageable level. A shorter visit, a gift, a card, a phone call.

Do what’s simplest and easiest. If you want to ignore the day, you are allowed if that’s best for you and it’s for your own mental health.

Make it about your mental health and self care, not about punishing your mother. If you want to be with your kids, if you’ve got them, do that.

Here’s where I think childfree Adult Children get the shaft. In most advice blogs on this topic you’ll see the advice for adult children of dysfunctional mothers to focus on ones self as a mother and spend the day with your children or the mother of your children. But if you don’t have kids? There’s more expectations put on you to focus on your mother, dysfunctional, emotionally abusive and hurtful as she may be. Try to ignore it-and remember, be vague.

Buy yourself presents from your pets.

Do something nice for your emotionally present stepmom.

Stay off of social media. It will be flooded with people who had good relationships with their mothers who want to talk about it, and people who are painfully pretending. Give them the space to express themselves without triggering yourself. Instead, websites or online support forums with people in similar situations and gather strength from being in a group of people trying to wind their way through the FOG.

Allow space and time to be sad and grieve the mothering you never got and never will get from your mother.

Do something nurturing that makes you feel content. Mother yourself.

EMDR and coming unstuck

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Finally!  I’ll be completing the second half of my EMDR training next month.

The first half was completed in 2010. And then I had a baby, and it took me until now to get the time, energy and mental bandwidth to do the second 3- day training.

While I’ve been able to use this therapy modality in addition to talk therapy to help clients with phobias, anxiety, and trauma, the second half of the training will be the push I need to incorporate more EMDR in  practice.

My intent with this is to help people come unstuck when being stuck is no longer serving them. Sometimes being stuck is the only way to slow down and re-evaluate.

But other times, being stuck is just being stuck.

I feel fortunate: I get results in my work, much of the time. People change and feel they have more choices. They enjoy life more. They feel better, think better of themselves, and make better choices.

But it can take a long time. And there’s lots of those stuck places along the way.

When trauma, symptoms, or anything crippling is affecting someone, I’d rather get the crippling stuff out of the way, and to me that means using brief, short-term, and structured therapy. Often more unstructured, talk therapy deepens and supports the process and create even more possibilities in their lives.

EMDR is going outside of my clinical comfort zone. It’s a structured, 8-step protocol with props. I’m not always that structured  or adjunctive in my approach. I just know I have seen it work.

It’s not for every client, issue, or session. But it tends to produce rapid shifts, in my experience.

In a changing world, we need quicker ways to get our wheels out of the mud.

a beginner’s guide to kink-five gems for any relationship

Kink! BDSM! Fetish! Edgeplay! Roleplay! Topping and Bottoming! Whether you are fifty shades of curious or fifty shades of “ewww, no thanks,” you can learn a lot about relationships from kink’s best practices.  I’m a kink aware, kink-friendly professional who has done hundreds of hours of relationship counseling with the kink-identified.

Fifty Shades of Gray is a poor example of kink in every way. Questionable ethics, blurred lines of consent, inaccurate portrayals. The story does not do a good enough job of differentiating between consensual BDSM and abuse, and makes kinksters look irresponsible and unethical. In reality, the emotional rigors of the lifestyle necessitate ideas and practices reflecting honesty and integrity. Like…

1. Consent. To push sexual boundaries, such as introducing sensation/pain play, taking on dominant/submissive roles, or introducing props, you need consent. To get someone you respect and are attracted to to do wonderfully naughty things to you, you need to obtain their consent. This helps you both be sure they are comfortable with the responsibility of taking care of you and your feelings before, during, and after. This goes doubly if you are the one wanting to do the wonderfully naughty things. Even if you aren’t planning on bringing a flogger to a date, it’s relationship and sexual best practice to obtain consent for whatever you’d like to do. This looks different in every relationship but it is never a bad idea to verbally check in. Phrases like “May I,” “How are we doing?” “Is this ok?” “Is this still ok?” are very helpful. Sexual consent isn’t the only kind. Getting consent to have friends over, use someone’s tools, or interrupt your partner when they’re otherwise absorbed is respectful. Obtaining consent forces us to clarify our needs to ourselves and express these needs to our partners. Since I’m a therapist, I love that shit and think everyone should do more of it.

2. Communication. Most kinky/poly/alt sex people talk. A lot. About everything. It’s kind of an in-joke. You have to in order to negotiate relationship and sexual complexity. But it’s a good thing! So many of us, even though we logically know we can’t expect each other to read minds, still hope that our needs will be magically recognized and fulfilled without the icky, sticky vulnerability of actually having to ask. Whether you are asking for household help, space, hugs, more oral, your first butt plug, or a third child, you’ve got to talk. Sometimes it is a short discussion. But if not, we arrive at item three.

3. Negotiation. Regardless whether you want a workout buddy or you want to be spanked with a prop, jogging and/or smacking you with a paddle might not be totally exactly your partner’s bag. But assuming your partner wants to make you happy, they might be willing to go outside their comfort zone. Negotiation is where kinky people hash out the storyline of the scene. At the heart of successful negotiations is respect for your self and knowledge of your needs and desires. Negotiation is where the rubber hits the road in relationships, where you figure out what you can live with long-term and where you need to ask for change. You can’t have negotiation without…

4. Boundaries. It is ok to have deal-breakers. There is no Kinkier than Thou merit badge-this is supposed to feel good. Kink is all about exploring personal edges. But you can’t do that until you know your edges. How are your emotional regulation skills? Do you know when to use a safe word? Which people are good to surround yourself with and who are not? How do you create safe space? What won’t you tolerate? What do you need? Anyone successfully navigating the kink lifestyle (or shit–any relationship) ethically has worked on boundaries. It is within a solid boundary that we can let go, trust, and experience the magic. Which leads to…

5. At the heart of kink is play. If you have gained consent, communicated your needs and heard the needs of others, negotiated a scene, established boundaries, you are ready to play. Play contains elements of creativity, curiosity, adventure, novelty, sense awareness, peak/flow state, connection, and losing onesself. Play transforms the player and makes him see the world anew.

This is what draws people to kink.

getting old is getting old-unhooking from a national pastime

It started in our 20s. I’m serious. I found a single gray hair at 25 and my 28 year old friend clucked, “you’re getting old!” like a spiteful aunt.

It gathered steam in our 30s, when everyone was surprised that binge drinking late into the night and fried foods caught up to you if you did for a decade and stopped playing ultimate frisbee. Backs were clutched, unwanted pounds were gained and complained about and dieted away and cheated back on and all the while the wine was delicious.

What’s in store for the 40s? Beyond? Must we bitch and moan ourselves into an early grave? Because I have to tell you, I get just as annoyed listening to people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s talk this way! Like, it’s soooo inevitable that you step off the cliff of 35 and you become ugly, stupid, and irrelevant and you should stop telling your story and stop learning.

Please know I am not talking about coping with real illness and challenging diagnoses whose frequency increase with age. I have thyroid disease. It gives me fatigue. I can’t stay up late the way I used to. This is also a natural effect of aging and changing my priorities. We all gain injuries of body and mind that create limitations. These challenges can accumulate with age.

I’m talking about just bitching about getting old as a knee-jerk, defensive reaction to being confronted with a learning curve of a new technology. Or not getting a current cultural reference. Or a gray hair on your damn friend.

We all age, but the current narrative around aging is boring me…to death! Why are there so few voices in the chorus sharing pride in their wisdom and experience? When did a youthful body start to mean more than the depth of character? How about we turn that around?

It’s easy to feel discouraged and old in a youth-worshipping culture. Everywhere you look you see youth and beauty revered while wisdom and experience take a backseat. Silicon Valley would often rather hire a young freshling out of school with no family than take a gamble on someone with a higher starting salary. Staying relevant can be a very real fight.

Here’s my dream: create a parallel universe, a counterculture, where we mourn our youth appropriately and realize the youth we still have left. Where we support each other and create new opportunities for our selves and our friends. If my friends in their 50s and beyond tell me they wish they were as young as me, I’m going to enjoy feeling that young now instead of waiting to be 50 and realizing that my 40s were pretty awesome after all.

In a world where we are born, we live, and we die, it seems disrespectful to death to live like it’s already here.

So not so fast. Notice the jokes you tell about yourself and others, even in jest. Don’t fail to see the gifts of the place where you are. Embrace the developmental changes, but don’t let anyone EVER define your relevance for you.

making the holidays feel less commercial

As the sky darkens this Black Friday afternoon, I’m pausing with my afternoon cup of bone broth and realizing just how easy it was not to spend money today.

There are a lot of debates about Black Friday shopping, and where I fall on the spectrum is that if you want to do it, do it, but if you don’t, that’s cool too. I am a person who hates shopping, crowds, stores, and fluorescent lights, so Black Friday is not for me.

I know there are others like me. People who, like me, just get really overwhelmed and tired and brain-foggy at all the money and the nonstop go! go! go! that the holidays seem to be about and want different choices. People who might still want to celebrate or give gifts but want to shift the focus away from spending and shopping and wrapping and running around and more on connecting, sharing, and enjoying.

I used to get antsy about the whole Christmas thing; it makes me uncomfortable. The pressure to buy things I can’t really afford for people who can afford to buy those same things for themselves, the pressure to include just one more person on the list and thereby driving the cost and quality of all your gifts down, the abundance of plastic, and the general forgettable-ness of the gifts. Or the pressure to find something for someone who has everything and doesn’t give hints. The way it puts me in debt.

When I became a stepmom and then a mom, I discovered the joy of making the holidays about traditions, lights, and the excitement of kids opening presents. I’m not huge on Santa personally. I’m not opposed to him, either. In my house, the good stuff is always from Mommy and Daddy and Santa has the half-assed/stocking stuffer gig. I like to get them cool stuff but not go overboard. That saying, “something they want, something they need, something to wear, something to read” applies here.

I’m at the point where I’d rather spend time than money on people during the winter season. What does that look like? It’s Choosing the gatherings I’ve been invited to carefully with a realistic assessment of my energy level and limitations. Attending these events with presence and awareness and not arriving frazzled because I’ve been running around looking for the perfect hostess gift or squeezing in some last-minute shopping. I want to arrive prepared to listen and share, to take the time to find out what is going on with people and to share my own triumphs and hardships with those who care. And if that isn’t likely to happen? Probably it’s something I can safely skip, along with the things I might want to do but just can’t pull off without being overbooked.

I tend to spend money on good food to cook for family and friends, because I love cooking and it makes me feel connected to them when I feed them and share their food. Other than that, I keep it simple. I’ve trained most of the people in my life outside my “nuclear” family not to buy me presents and not to expect them from me. When my nieces and nephews were younger, I tended to focus my gift-giving on them. Some of my siblings and I exchange bottles of wine; we make it easy. This year, I’ll get some gift card’s for the kids teachers because they work really hard and I want them to know I appreciate them. All of the people whom I consider really good friends right now would be really touched and satisfied if I gave them a nice handwritten card (although none of them would be upset at not receiving one) and that so far is my plan.

Some other things I’m challenging myself to do this year, and I hope you’ll join me, is to make the holiday season about a different kind of giving. I was reading a Facebook discussion on a public page about Christmas gift giving and how to talk to your parents about buying less stuff for your young children (and instead buying more experiences, memberships, classes, or donations to a college fund). One of the commenters said something that still sticks in my mind weeks later. She said she was always struck how Christmas is supposed to be all about giving, but we spend our time and money giving things to friends and family, things which these folks can well afford to buy for themselves. And we ignore the people who truly need things, like the poor.

That stuck with me not because I don’t think our loved ones deserve to be given special things, but because there’s a lot more we could be doing to give to those who need the giving, whether that is food, money, clothing, or christmas presents. Maybe there’s essential people I decide I want to buy for on my list (if I choose to celebrate the holidays!), but the “second tier” friends and family and I can collectively agree to give to charity instead of buying each other little $10 trinkets.

So my ideas so far are to engage with my local food bank and put together food bags from lists like this one and this one.

I’m participating in the Family Giving Tree through my husband’s work, and Toys for Tots, which is everywhere. I could try to impress you and say I was going to volunteer my time too, but I think that is overambitious this year. I have an autoimmune disorder which gives me fatigue, so one of the gifts I try to give myself year-round is not to be over-scheduled and to allow plenty of time for rest. But you never know. I won’t rule it out.

I’d like to give our 9-year-old an allotted sum of money that he can give to the charity or cause of his choice. The three-year-old is probably a bit young for that yet.

What are your ideas? How do you fit the holidays to who you are and what you believe?

vulnerability in relationships

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The more couples therapy I do (and the longer I’m married!) the more I believe that the key to healthy relationships is the willingness to be vulnerable. When you’re willing to be vulnerable with a partner, that’s when the clear and honest communication of needs and boundaries comes out. When you know your partner’s needs and boundaries, that’s when you can engage in nurturing behaviors. Being vulnerable enough to ask for what you want from someone is opening an opportunity of your needs being met.

You must be vulnerable to have empathy. It is an emotionally disorienting risk to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and see how the situation feels for them. You may discover, through empathy, that you were wrong. If you have had negative role models that didn’t allow for being wrong and saying sorry in relationships, it takes courage to try something different, and say, “I was wrong. I’m sorry.” It gets easier, especially after the first time. (On the other side of the equation, receiving sincere apologies graciously and not continuing to go off on a person is always nice.)

Expressing anger in a relationship takes a lot of vulnerability. In a functional relationship, there is room to express anger, and within that room, anger is expressed in the most charitable and least vicious way that can be managed at the current moment, given the anger.

To grow in a relationship, vulnerability is mandatory. We have to communicate changes to partners so that we can embrace it together. Paradoxically, we sustain the most emotional hurt from being rejected, abused or manipulated during those moments when we are expressing and experiencing our own emotional vulnerability. There are people who hone in on it and exploit it, twist it around, use it against those they supposedly love.

And the scary thing about this carnival ride is that early on in relationships sometimes you don’t always know which thing you’re going to get: rewarded for being vulnerable, or rejected for it. If you’re in a long-standing relationship and you start to increase the level of vulnerability and truth-telling and you are met by shaming, blaming, deflection, and contempt, well, you and I both know that’s a bad sign. A little defensiveness is normal, but eventually that wears down and the partner steps forward with an action demonstrating a commitment to hear you out and understand you. If you are just starting out in a new relationship and vulnerability is met with shaming, blaming, deflection, and contempt; well, thats easy. Walk away, and let the person fix and heal themselves instead of you thinking your relationship is going to do it. But if you’re already deeply in it, and the person is displaying highly toxic behavior at your most charitable attempts at truth telling (when you air your grievances in an adult manner that are not bitchy digs disguised as honesty) then this heralds some work to come. The relationship will need an overhaul in the form of therapy or some other radical way of restructuring communication, boundaries, expectations and behavior.

Assuming your partner is open to you being more vulnerable and is just displaying the regular garden variety defensiveness and grumbly resistance, try to be respectful in your communications. Remember that it might be hard for them to know what you want because you don’t know yourself. You might be reading this thinking of yourself as the open and vulnerable partner in the relationship while your partner is the one who gets defensive, but if you got a little more vulnerable with yourself you’d see that you can be pretty defensive yourself.

It’s funny that vulnerability is associated with weakness, because owning it and sitting with it–both your own and that of others– takes such strength.