Friday, March 29, 2013


You discover your partner has had an affair. Everything in your being screams, “DO SOMETHING!!!” Do you:
  1. Scream at him, and tell him what a terrible person he is
  2. Tell your friends, to relieve yourself of the pressure of the hurt
  3. Regularly check his phone and email and browser history
  4. Put your rage into your collection of resentments

You’re single, and your best friend has just met the “man of her dreams.” Do you:
  1. Listen to her enthuse, while sobbing inside?
  2. Warn her that “love can be blind”
  3. Talk about the freedoms of being single
  4. Say something critical of her, or of him

If you said, “None of the above,” I’m not sure I believe you. Jealousy and envy are painful emotions, and when we act them out, we’re trying to get some relief. Of course, none of these behaviors actually provide that relief.

We use the two words pretty much interchangeably. They are in fact two distinct emotions, each with their own spectrum of usefulness to destruction. Simply put, jealousy refers to feelings of impending loss of something you have (your partner’s love, perhaps), and envy refers to the desire for something someone else has. They are both aspects, and sometimes dysfunctions, of desire.


We’re taught that jealousy is “bad.” The idea that it might have a positive function is often overlooked.  
St. Augustine says, “He that is not jealous is not in love.” When in love, you have a proprietary interest in your partner. And when you’re fairly certain in your relationship, you can confidently say to a rival: You can’t have her; she’s mine! Mine, mine, mine! I remember the pleasure and warmth I felt towards a young man standing up to his rival in just that way.
His desire for his partner was vibrantly alive in that moment. 

When you and your spouse have been married for a period of time, and your original desire has waned (as Esther Perel likes to say, “You can’t desire what you have.”), sometimes a drop of jealousy can remind you that you’re NOT completely safe. There can be a threat -- and in that moment desire is once again alight. Jealousy can remind us of the value of what we have.

But… at the other end of the spectrum, jealousy is dangerous, and can kill a relationship. When jealousy turns into a real fear of losing the attachment, it’s like being too hungry for too long. Desire turns to malignant jealousy, and one can become seriously destructive. The literary example of this is the story of Othello and Desdemona: He believed she had betrayed him, and he was overcome with jealous rage. Murderous rage. Powerful stuff for grand opera, but not the way you or I want to live.

It’s important to know that the first pang of jealousy is a warning signal: look to your marriage! Something may not be right between you and your lover! Slacking off not recommended!
Then it’s tempting to look outside for the danger. Outside ourselves, or outside our relationship. The Other Woman might be the problem. Or our partner is untrustworthy, faithless,  has wrecked our lives. When relationship is threatened, our self-worth is threatened right along with it. “He is bad, cheating on me, but I must be worthless, or he wouldn’t do it.” 
Sadly, the more suspicious you become of your partner, the worse you feel about yourself. Very, very sticky.

When a person, or a relationship, is stuck, and all the energy is burnt up within the dynamic, help has to come from an unexpected direction.
Imagine if you took that initial signal and used it to remember how wonderful your beloved really is? Let yourself evoke how wonderful your desire for her feels? What if, instead of attacking, you told him how much he means to you? Undoubtably, that would feel better to him; think about how it would feel to you. 
Calm yourself and let yourself remember the ways you enjoy one another. You do have a choice where you put your focus; If you focus on “wrong,” you will get misery, and if you focus on “right,” you’re most likely to be reassured.
Alongside this, reassure yourself of your own worth. Evoke memories of feeling valuable. 

Your feelings of jealousy are the “right” feelings. They’re put there to remind you to come back to consciousness of the value of your relationship and the two people in it.


Envy is also based in desire. When it’s not one of the Seven Deadly Sins, it can be a wonderfully motivating force. Simply wanting what someone else has is the basis for the success of many people and businesses.  Van de Ven, Zeelenberg and Pieters of Tilurg University, the Netherlands, did some fascinating studies on “benign envy,” contrasting it with admiration. 
Benign envy (“Hero Envy”) is the desire for what someone else has. Many successful people talk about being influenced by successful individuals before them. Like benign jealousy, it sparks attention. If you see something your neighbor has, it’s fine to want to get some for yourself. 
Of course, there’s a “but” here. Impatience and/or grandiosity can create too much frustration. If you take Albert Einstein or Mother Teresa as your Hero, it’s likely you won’t be able to live up to their obvious accomplishments. If you must have that thing, or that trait, tomorrow, you’re likely to be disappointed. Disappointment can lead to a feeling of despair, and all that is left is to give up. You may fall into the passive position of “Hero Worship” and/or admonish yourself to be “realistic.” Neither one is particularly inspiring.

When Envy becomes malignant, it says “If I can’t have it, no one should be able to have or enjoy it.” This leads to destruction, perhaps of the desired thing, perhaps of the person who has it, or both. 
We’ve just gone through a process, as a country, that simply reeks of malignant envy. I’m talking about so-called “negative campaigning,” which not only hurts the opponent but also devalues the goal. We end up with the sense that there are few, if any, responsive, high-minded leaders. And even our sense of their positions is tainted. Being President doesn’t feel like such a dream. 

“There is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feeling as moral indignation, which permits envy to be acted out under the guise of virtue.” --Erich Fromm
As an aside, I became “sold” on a local candidate, who spent none of her budget maligning her opponent, but simply ran on her own record. She used her desire for the office to fuel her contact with her constituency, and pave the way for future success. (She won the election.)

As with jealousy, the focus on the value of both the desired object and the self relieves the malignant pressure.


Jealousy and envy are part of human nature. It’s pointless to try not to feel them; you may as well try not to think of an elephant. At base, they’re signals to action. The primary choice is what KIND of action.
Malignant jealousy and envy are behaviors, things that people do when they can’t contain the feelings. As feelings, even malignant jealousy and envy are simply desire that is too threatened, or has gone on too long without release. Desire contaminated with fear or rage. The pain of malignant jealousy or envy is the pain of fear and rage.

All this sounds very good, but there’s another important piece. Much of what I describe goes on “under the radar.” After all, fear and rage live in our “lizard brain” (the most primitive part of the brain, where the “fight/flight” reaction originates). Most people who describe their experience of malignant envy or jealousy feel “taken over” by them.
It can happen to anyone; we all have that lizard brain. (All children have temper tantrums.) The difference between a person who is overcome and a person who can contain and use her feelings to advantage is a combination of training and awareness. A meditation practice trains the primitive brain to become more centered and contained. Psychotherapy, especially with a practitioner who doesn’t seek “quick fixes,” can be invaluable. A therapist who does not fear her own jealousy and envy can serve as a support for the client’s growing self-containment. 

Previously published in Complete Wellbeing 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Why Relationship Counseling?

There are many good reasons to seek help for a relationship, and no bad ones. If the ways you are with your partner are beginning to feel too much like Mom and Dad... If your arguments go around and around and around, and never seem to get anywhere ... If you're thinking about getting married, and want to know what you're getting into... 

The important thing to remember is that going to counseling highlights the importance of your partnership. If your relationship didn't matter a great deal to both of you, you wouldn't be doing this.

So, here are some common questions and thoughts about relationship therapy:

Is it important to seek premarital counseling?
People tend to think of counseling as something to do when something’s “wrong.” In the excitement and euphoria of talking about getting married, no one wants to think there’s anything wrong!
But let’s look at it from a different angle: When you get married, you make some pretty heavy commitments. Wouldn’t it make sense at least to look at what you might be signing up for? People who form business partnerships usually engage counsel before signing agreements. In fact, marriage used to be much more a business arrangement than a love match. Think of Golde and Tevye’s song in Fiddler on the Roof: “Do you love me?” After 25 years.
Surely marriage is as important as any business.
I hope you understand that I like the freedom we have, nowadays, and there is nothing like that first glow of love. The trick is not to be blinded by it. The kind of love that makes a good, lasting marriage is much deeper, and certainly able to withstand “problems.”
What are other essential steps that should be taken during an engagement period?
With or without a counselor, it’s important to know as much as possible about the person you’re marrying. I know it’s tempting to pretend that neither of you has ever had a relationship before, but unless you’re very, very young (10, perhaps?) or grew up in an unusually religious community, this is pretty unlikely.
So what does this mean? It means talking about the difficult things: What have your other relationships been like? How did they end? What kind of family do each of you come from? (Sorry, folks, but it is true that people whose parents stayed married are more likely to stay married, themselves. It’s in the unconscious programming.) It also means: how do you each handle finances? Is it important to have a pre-nup? And what about children? Do you both want them? If not, why not? If so, why? How do envision bringing them up?
Remember, you’re talking about a lifetime commitment. I know it may not be fun, but no real relationship is all fun. Your relationship will grow and become more satisfying, more rewarding, more beautiful, depending on how the two of you address the difficult issues together.
What is the number one issue that brings a wedge into healthy relationships?
Well, there are two big ones. Sex and money.  The only way neither of them becomes truly divisive is to accept that they’re going to be sources of conflict. You are two separate people, with necessarily different attitudes toward these vital subjects. Each of you must find a way to survive, whole.
Here, the important thing is to reframe what you’re looking at. Learn to approach your differences as opportunities to learn more about one another, maybe even opportunities to rethink old ideas. Two heads really are better than one, so long as you can make room for them.
Are there any problems that you feel are absolutely irreconcilable?
You’re asking again about “problems” rather than looking at the dynamics of relationship. It’s amazing what “problems” people can actually navigate, when they’re both willing to address them.
A relationship between two committed adults is a very resilient thing. A problem only becomes irreconcilable when one of them decides to withdraw that commitment. I’ve seen people stay together through abuse, addiction, physical disability, psychosis, dementia…  At the same time, I respect those people who say, “This is just too hard for me. I can’t live with this and be myself.”
I do believe that each of us is responsible for only one life: our own. I strongly recommend that a person pay careful attention to what is happening to his or her own experience of life, in order to decide if a relationship is truly worth fighting for.
Are there any warning signs that a couple should watch out for, that shows they may need a neutral third party to assist?
I’d like to call them “indicators,” rather than “warning signs” – just because the latter sounds so scary. I think there’s one phrase, above all the others, that’s an indicator that a couple could use outside help: “Here we go again!” As soon as a person can recognize, “I’ve been here before,” there’s an opportunity to find a more functional resolution.
Throughout our lives, we naturally repeat the parts of our lives that feel unfinished or unsatisfied. One of the beauties of long-term relationship is that within such a pairing, each has the opportunity to play out those repetitions, and hopefully work them through. But couples do get stuck repeating the same interaction, over and over and over… And that’s when they need someone else to look at what they’re doing, from a new perspective.
What does it take to make counseling effective?
A real answer to this question would be a little like the physicist’s TOE – theory of everything. Basically, though, what you need is the combination of a client or clients who are curious about what’s going on in their lives, willing and able to tolerate a certain amount of discomfort, and a counselor who is empathic and practiced. We’ve all experienced therapeutic results from talking with a good friend. Add on a counselor who is well-trained and experienced.
One reason a well-trained professional is important is that in our practice we can learn how to relate with different kinds of people – you wouldn’t want someone who, say, can really identify with one person in a relationship, but not the other! To be of use to you, I need to understand both sides of your issue – as well as have some theoretical ideas about what might be going on behind the scene.
Do you feel that even after divorce counseling can be effective?
Counseling can be effective at any time. The problem with post-divorce counseling is that you usually don’t have that necessary element: two people who are curious about one another, and willing to tolerate some discomfort. Usually the discomfort of being in the same room with each other makes it impossible to look at things dispassionately.
That being said, when children are involved, I really do recommend having a referee to help with any heated discussion. This is the sort of thing that should never go on in front of the kids, and is definitely better handled in a neutral, safe space with a calm, reasonable, neutral third party.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Good Behavior

I want to put in a word in support of good behavior.

In the main, I work with empathy. I believe that almost all people are trying to come from an honest place -- even the ones who are well aware that they are lying. That sounds like a contradiction in terms, until you take into account that a lie is a child’s first attempt at being a separate person. If he can lie, and “get away” with it, then what do you know?!? Mother can’t read his mind. His thoughts are his own. Too many of us don’t grow past that point, of course.

So yes, I can be understanding and empathic with (almost) anyone. And it’s pretty necessary in the process of helping a person accept himself, which is the first step toward real growth and change. The problem comes when someone wants to take the therapy environment into the rest of life.

In my office, every emotion is good, and valid, and worthy of exploration and expression. In my office, you are free to say whatever comes to your mind.  In the rest of the world, every emotion is still good, and valid, and worthy of exploration and even expression. But you’re not free to say whatever comes to your mind, because much of what comes to your mind is likely to be a verbal “acting-out.” And we ALL know that we’re not supposed to “act-out”! 

“I shouldn’t say this, but…” is definitely a preface to verbal acting-out. If you shouldn’t say it, DON’T SAY IT! “You’re a #*%$!” is not an expression of anger but an act of anger. (Most of us who think we’re afraid of anger are really afraid of the acts that may come from anger.)

“My wife (or husband) doesn’t understand me.” The quintessential excuse for infidelity may, in fact, be true. But it’s no excuse for misbehavior. Our marital vows don’t include perfect understanding. They don’t even include a soup├žon of empathy. When we make a commitment, we’re promising behavior, not emotion.

Well, we really couldn’t promise emotion, could we? We can’t control emotion, any more than we can control what our eyes see or our noses smell. It’s not possible to promise to feel love forever.

But we can do love. We can behave with consideration and respect (not the same as submission). We can practice the “Golden Rule” in whatever form we know it. Would I like being yelled at? Then could I not yell? (I know, I know -- easier said than done!) 

Respect for myself is the best foundation I know for solid relationships. A person who respects himself is a person who likes (mostly) who he is. And I like myself when I behave honorably. Chances are, you will like me, too -- but that’s not actually the point. In fact, the point is more that when I like myself, I’m more likely to like you. And this starts an ascending spiral, rather than one of those terrible descending ones. 

It’s hard to be responsible for my behavior. The only thing harder is trying to put the pieces back together when I haven’t acted respectfully.