Three Tools To Unpoison Relationships

One of the things that’s so wonderful about Los Angeles psychotherapists Barry Michels and Dr. Phil Stutz is that their work is brilliantly simple: To the effect that when you read one of their books, or listen to the audio recording they made for goop below, you have a head-slapping, forehead-in-hand revelation that they’re talking about you. Because, quite simply, their work seems to resonate with everyone. Perhaps most importantly, though, is that while they can swiftly point out all the ways we undermine both ourselves, and our relationships, they then explain exactly what to do about it (thus, “The Tools”).

In the first of what has become a long series of conversations with goop, Michels and Stutz explain three ways in which we all poison our relationships—romantic and otherwise—and they provide three tools for setting them back on course. A full transcript of the conversation is below.

A Conversation Between Barry Michels & Phil Stutz

MICHELS: Hi, I’m Barry Michels and I have with me today Phil Stutz. We are both psychotherapists in Los Angeles. We’ve written a self-help book called The Tools which was on the New York Times bestseller’s list for quite some time and we’re in the process of writing a sequel [Coming Alive publishes August 22, 2017].

Our intention with this audio program—we’re planning to do more of them in the future—is to describe the work that we do with our patients. The work has been so successful that we’d like to make it more generally available, and a lot less expensive for you, the listener, than psychotherapy would be. What we’d like to do is impart some information that will help you with the problems you encounter in your daily lives.

Now today what we’re going to talk about are some fundamental ways that you can create a really healthy relationship.

“We’re going to start with a kind of surprising premise, which is that the quality of your relationship actually has very little to do with your level of education, or how psychologically sophisticated you are, or whether you understand whether your parent’s marriage was good or bad.”

Basically there are three building blocks to raising your relationship to the next level, and we’re going to give you all three.

So just as a caveat to start off, this applies pretty much to all relationships. A lot of the examples that we’re going to use are going to apply to romantic relationships, but just so that you understand, what we’re talking about can apply to gay relationships, straight relationships, friendships, and even sibling and familial relationships.

So let’s start. And we’re going to start with a kind of surprising premise, which is that the quality of your relationship actually has very little to do with your level of education, or how psychologically sophisticated you are, or whether you understand whether your parent’s marriage was good or bad. It actually has to do with something much more basic, which is how good are you at creating an emotional environment where both you and your partner feel close, where you trust each other, and here’s the key: where each of you wants the other to get the most out of life.

I actually learned this from my wife’s grandparents, Jack and Helen, who were married for sixty-five years. They were Russian Jewish peasants basically, who knew literally nothing about psychology. But when they looked at one another, you could see in their eyes, that they put their bond with each other above their own selfish interests. Just take a moment right now and imagine how great it would be to be in a relationship that had that kind of all-for-one and one-for-all spirit. It’s probably not the relationship that you have and that’s because relationships tend to get poisoned very quickly, and the more poison enters the relationship, the more it feels like the norm. Now what Phil is going to do is detail the three ways that that poisoning process happens, and the three skills that you need to prevent it from happening.

POISON #1: Holding Negative Judgements Against Your Partner

STUTZ: The first poison is your negative judgments about the other person. The second poison is the inability to fulfill the basic human needs of your partner and not being able to recognize those needs. The third poison is making the relationship into the solution for all your problems. Now we’re going to deal with them one by one.

We’ll start with the first one, which is judgmentalism about your partner. When you judge your partner, and we all do this, you’re actually sending a poison into the relationship. Now it doesn’t really matter what your judgments are. Typically, let’s say in a marriage, you might say, “Well, my husband isn’t ambitious enough, he doesn’t dress well, he’s not successful, he’s sloppy, I don’t like his mouth noises, I don’t like the way he walks into the kitchen, I don’t like seeing him from behind, etc., etc., etc.” It doesn’t matter what those specifics are at all. The poison is the negativity itself that you’re releasing into the relationship. Now every single person has felt the effect of that type of negativity. Let’s say you’re in the presence of someone who is critical of you, who is poisoning the relationship with a lot of negative judgments. Even if that person doesn’t voice any of this, even if it’s all completely held inside, you will still feel it. This is key for us. Human beings are much more sensitive to the reactions of others than they’d like to admit to themselves.

The reason that there is such a disturbance and there’s such a hyper-sensitivity to other’s judgments and thoughts about us, is that your mind and head that generate all these thoughts—because judgments are nothing but a series of thoughts—think of that as a transmitter. So your head actually becomes a transmitter, and it transmits like an energy field, and that energy field, if it’s directed at you, will disturb you. There’s no way, whether you like it or not, that you will not feel the affect of that field.

“In a marriage, you might say, “Well, my husband isn’t ambitious enough, he doesn’t dress well, he’s not successful, he’s sloppy, I don’t like his mouth noises, etc., etc.”

The first thing you should know is that once you start to broadcast this negativity because of all these negative judgments you’re making, you tend to get caught up in a field, if you will, of negative energy, and what happens is that you’re going to start to send negative, non-verbal signals to the other person. So what happens it that your tone of voice will change, the look in your eyes will change, your facial expression, your breathing, all of that. And all that does is poison the environment even more. We can see this most strikingly in couples that have been married for twenty years. They can set this thing off at thirty paces with their backs to each other. It’s almost a psychic phenomenon.

Now, our purpose here is not just for you to understand this, but for you to begin to interrupt these patterns. So there’s a tool, if you will. And the first part of that tool is to, when you’re having these negative thoughts, to label the thought as poison. It’s very helpful. It doesn’t matter what the thought is, it doesn’t matter if the thought is true or false. Its effect on your relationship is going to be poisonous. Now obviously once you realize that, you want to stop having those thoughts, as much fun as they might be.

Once you can do that, then you have to do something else. Which is that you have to create a positive image of your partner, or some positive judgments. And the way to do that is to remind yourself of the person’s positive attributes—and literally think them. Another way to do it that some people find very helpful, is to seize on a memory, whether it’s a time in your life, or whether it was a specific situation, when you were with your partner and their impression or impact on you was positive instead of negative. And these are things you can then repeat over and over again. Now to be realistic about this, the human mind always returns to negativity. That’s its nature and we’ll deal with that in a future broadcast. So the process of labeling your negative thoughts, removing your negative judgments, and replacing them with positive ones is something that’s going to have to go on throughout the entire relationships, and that’s true for any human relationship.

So we define this particular skill as making your judgments about your partner positive rather than negative. And that’s a very specific skill.

MICHELS: I’d just like to elaborate on what Phil said because I think it’s so important, if you can imagine someone judging you, even if they don’t articulate the judgment in words. What you automatically start to do is feel wary and defensive. Imagine that that’s exactly the effect you create in your partner every single time you judge him or her.

So we’ve talked about the first way we tend to poison our relationships, which is by silently judging/thinking about the other person in our heads. What’s the second way?

POISON #2: Failing to Feed the Validation Dog

STUTZ: Now we’re going to deal with the second poison, as if the first one wasn’t enough.

The second poison is when you don’t recognize the basic human needs of your partner, or really the basic at least emotional need that most adults have, and that need is to be admired and to be seen in a positive light, it’s to be validated. Everybody has it, and it will not go away. The place this comes out most clearly, and where it creates the most problems is when you’re trying to communicate with your partner. Now communication occurs along a channel, if you can just visualize that and imagine a channel between yourself and your spouse. Now, we want that channel open, obviously, but here’s the trick. Everyone has a dog, if you want a metaphor, guarding that channel. And it’s not a particularly nice dog. If you don’t feed that dog it’s going to bite you and the channel will shut down. So what does that metaphor really mean? Barry likes to call it the hungry dog. If you want, you can call it the validation dog. Feeding the dog means feeding the other person with these validating signals and messages.

“So, unlike what most people would think, the winner in the relationship is the one who gives out the most validation, it’s not the one who gets validated.”

MICHELS: I’ll give you an example of this from my life because my wife actually tends to be very good at this. I have a very hungry, angry dog inside of me. And pretty much whenever she needs something from me, or is going to bring up a subject that’s difficult, she automatically feeds the dog. “I so appreciate how hard you work and what a great father you are.” “Thanks so much for those early years when I was in school and all the financial burden was on you.” I’m a shrink so I’m pretty self-aware and I’m literally aware as she says these things that the dog is relaxing, he’s actually rolling over, he’s letting his tummy be scratched, and I’m much more open to whatever it is that she has to say. It makes me want to do whatever I can for her.

STUTZ: That was quite a fantastic description, Barry. Probably the best I’ve ever heard of that problem.

So, unlike what most people would think, the winner in the relationship is the one who gives out the most validation, it’s not the one who gets validated. It’s the one who gives it out. And you want to begin to think of yourself in that manner.

MICHELS: So we’ve covered the first two ways that relationships get poisoned. The first is what you think, in other words, how you judge the other person. The second is how you communicate with the other person. Do you feed the dog before you communicate? Now the third is a little bit different. It has to do with what you do outside of your relationship. If you organize your whole life around a relationship, you hurt yourself, and you also hurt the relationship. And Phil is going to go into that in greater detail.

POISON #3: Relationship Over-Dependency

STUTZ: So the poison we define in terms of this problem is making a relationship into the sole solution for every one of your needs, and the sole solution for every one of your problems. It’s a certain kind of dependency. Now every time you ask too much of your partner, you ask too much of the relationship, and you’re putting a little drop of poison out there. And the signal you’re giving is that you do not have a life of your own. And so if you want to say over-dependency on the relationship, or not having a life of your own, these are poisons. One of the reason they’re poisons is that if you look to the relationship to meet every need, it puts too much pressure on the relationship and it puts too much pressure on your partner, and usually they’ll withdraw, whether consciously or unconsciously. So here’s the solution. You have to exist in a world bigger than the relationship alone. And when you do you can then draw energy from that larger world and you’ll come back to the relationship with something to give the partner.

“Now every time you ask too much of your partner, you ask too much of the relationship, and you’re putting a little drop of poison out there. And the signal you’re giving is that you do not have a life of your own.”

Now in order to exist in this bigger world, you have to find something that’s personally meaningful for you. It doesn’t matter what it is. It could be something spiritual, it could be something creative, it could be developing an ability or skill that you weren’t sure you had, that you’d like to take a crack at. It could be being of service. There are as many possibilities here as there are people. It’s crucial and it requires a different way of thinking because usually people who are interested in having a good relationship are interfacing all the time with their partner. They don’t think of doing something that has nothing to do with the partner as actually feeding the relationship. But 100 percent it works like that. Now another thing just worth thinking about in terms of getting a life of your own, is that it’s very common for people, once they get into a serious relationship, and once they get married, to let their friendships go. To let their outside relationships go. And again, you have to make a very proactive effort not to let that happen. We feel so strongly about this that if one of our patients comes in, and they’ve met a new person, and they’re thinking about getting into a serious relationship, and if that person doesn’t support their independence, if that person doesn’t encourage them to have a life of their own, we take it actually as a very bad sign.

MICHELS: All right, so we have some homework for you. The first thing we want you to do is actually go back to the beginning and listen to this whole broadcast again. Because the second listening, you’ll find things that you didn’t really get the first time.

And then we just want you to do an experiment for the next week. Do three things. The first thing is: Catch yourself whenever you have a negative judgment about your partner and reassert that positive image that Phil talked about. The second thing is, before you say anything to your partner, feed the dog. Just give the dog a little doggy treat. And then third, this week, do something satisfying and meaningful to you, that’s completely independent of your relationship. At the end of the week, see whether or not it has helped your relationship. We can almost guarantee you that it will. And if it does, you should continue doing these three things for the rest of your life.

Thanks again for listening and we look forward to talking to you again in the future.

Phil Stutz graduated from City College in New York and received his M.D. from New York University. He worked as a prison psychiatrist on Rikers Island and then in private practice in New York before moving his practice to Los Angeles in 1982. Barry Michels has a BA from Harvard, a law degree from University of California, Berkeley, and an MSW from the University of Southern California. He has been in private practice as a psychotherapist since 1986. Together, Stutz and Michels are the authors of Coming Alive and The Tools. You can read more of their goop articles here, and see more on their site.