How to Handle Power and Closeness in Relationships


This post is a more practical follow-on from PART 1 which explored the interrelationship between closeness and power in relationships. I won’t go back over the ground-work I laid there but refer you back there if you want to understand the theory behind this post.

In the last post we looked at the Interpersonal Circumplex and the way it lays out characteristics of relating (eg. being critical, being overly nurturing etc) as a product of two underlying factors 1) how much we want to be in control (agency) and 2) how much closeness or distance we want in any particular relationship. This gave us a chart like the one below.


The questions I want to address here are as follows:

  1. Why would we want to adjust our behaviour?
  2. Is it possible to properly change our interactions with others?
  3. How can we change our interactions?

What might you want to change?

This is probably the simplest question of the three and one we’ve largely answered in the first post. Put simply, you want to change your style of relating because how we relate will have a large impact on both our own happiness and that of others.  Remember, you are only one half of a relationship and cannot (and should not) expect to take sole responsibility for how it works or whether it can work.  Here are some common problems that might motivate you:

  • You find it hard connecting with people because they avoid you when they sense your distance
  • You find it hard connecting with a partner who is anxious about the level of closeness you seem to need
  • People often seem to try to boss you about, even people you might not expect.
  • There are certain relationships in which you find yourself feeling pushed about or unusually pushy (and it’s not helping anyone)

Is it Possible To Change?

Sure. The further out our behaviour patterns are from the centre of the circumplex the harder it may be, as more entrenched and severe habits are harder to shift, however, rather than thinking of change as a ‘Success or Failure’ scenario, it’s better to think of progress along a continuum. Furthermore, if you experience a relapse back to your old behaviour, it’s not the end of the world, rather, you just temporarily didn’t succeed. Success isn’t usually a matter of instant and constant lack of failure–it’s a gradual climb with regular setbacks. For example, let’s say you would say that you’re often pretty much a push-over a lot of the time right now and find it hard to assert yourself with others; you might give yourself a 2 out of 10 as a score on assertiveness. My question to you would not be ‘How can you reach 10/10?’  but ‘What would a 3 or 4/10 look like?’.  You could jot down what a little bit of progress in your chosen direction would look like. Could you move from just agreeing with everyone to trying out a partial disagreement with some people? You’re shifting from always pleasing others to being able to please some people a little less.

How Can We Change Our Interactions with Others?

Become More Self-Aware

You start with yourself. You don’t take responsibility for other people’s actions but you do look seriously at yourself. You could sit for a minute–it won’t take long–and ask yourself to become aware 2-3 relationships that could improve in terms of closeness / distance and the power dynamic / control.

When these relationships pop into your mind (they will!) start looking for patterns using these questions:

  1. Do I try to please or control too much? How?
  2. Do I try am I too warm or cool? Why?
  3. Are there any patterns I can see that run across several relationships? What are they?
  4. What actual things am I doing that mean I’m being too pleasing  /  controlling / warm and friendly or cool/ hostile?

It is likely that different people bring out different sides of yourself. Try to group relationships (maybe more come to mind now, perhaps from the past) that share a similar feel. You could draw our your own circumplex (like above only without the words) and plot on their the names of people in the position you think describes you with them, not them with you.


Above is an example I’ve made up. Having plotted these styles of relating with these people onto my map, I notice that certain relationships have a similarity. I’ve colour-coded this example by gender so that it highlights the similarity between how I feel and relate to my female boss and my mother.  Here’s some things I might ask myself:

  • Could it be that they both share a similar dominance over me?
  • Could it be that I relate them both overly submissively and overly cooly?
  • Could it be that something about my boss reminds of something about my mother?

I notice that I feel differently at different times with my female partner (which is why it’s marked on twice), so this is not a pattern reflected in all my female relationships, although I do, at times become overly pleasing towards my partner.

  • When is that?
  • Is that when she acts in a similar way to my mother?
  • Why is it I feel more controlling towards my son than my daughter?

Exercise Different Traits in Different Situations

Imagine a different person: Let’s say you’re more able to be assertive with male friends and relatives but less so with female ones—a trick might be to experiment with treating Person (female) A more like Person B (male). Imagining your boss is a male friend may not be easy (!) but perhaps just by thinking about how you might treat them differently, you could try being a little but different with them (while still remembering this IS your boss, you don’t want to get fired!)

Deploy some Small, but different behaviours: make a list of changes you might make to your body language, your tone of voice and your facial expressions and how you will experiment with trying some different ones. For example, if you’re overly pleasing to your boss, try not smiling at them every time they look your way. For once look back with a neutral expression. Try it for a few weeks. It may feel uncomfortable first but as you come to see that people don’t think of you as dangerous every time you don’t smile, you might begin to relax.

Below are some examples of the types of behaviour you might want to foster to change the tone of your relationship in different quadrants of the circumplex. More dominant-warm behaviour (extraversion) is better communicated by being large, expansive, taking up space, being heard, making eye-contact etc: being more visible and audible. It may be exactly what you need to do if being too cool or submissive is your issue.

Circumplex 2

Just note:  1) none of these quadrants is wrong—they are all healthy depending on your context so long as they are not extreme. 2) you need to determine which context you are in and whether it needs you to be warmer / cooler, more dominant or more submissive.

Final Word

You need to be very patient with yourself because you will have very deeply engrained habits and responses for responding to different types of people. It will take time to learn new habits and you may well find you revert to old behaviours quite often–especially with certain people.  If you are in a difficult relationship in which either you or the other person is suffering abuse, you should seek additional help (and safety) rather than simply trying to cope on your own or suffering in silence.



Understanding Closeness and Power in Relationships

Basics: Two Relational Forces

There are, I think, two main forces at work in any relationship: 1) the power dimension and 2) the closeness dimension. This is true of relationships in the home or in the workplace. If you want to understand a lot of what happens in your relationships, you’d do well to understand the ‘laws’ of the power and closeness dimensions. The first is what psychologists call the ‘rule of complementarity’.

2 stars

Rule of Complementarity 1: Closeness  / Warmth and Hostility/ Coldness (often) Attracts an Equal and Similar Response. We’ve all experienced the way someone’s warmth / friendliness or coolness / hostility will tend to pull a similar, and often equally strong, response within us. If someone treats us in a warm, nurturing way we will usually feel a pull towards them. Whether or not we feel OK responding to that in kind is another issue but the pull will pretty much always be there.

Rule of Complementarity 2: Power Dynamics Pull an Equal and Opposite Response. We’ve all experienced the fact that powerful / submissive action towards others tends to pull the opposite response. If someone speaks to us in an aggressive or even assertive way we are likely to feel submissive. It will pull from us the feeling that we should please them. A similar thing will happen if someone acts submissively towards us; we are likely to feel a pull from them that we should take charge. Now, again, it may be that after that initial feeling or pull, we resist and act differently depending on whether or not being controlled or in control is something we’re more or less comfortable with.

Agency and Communion

In terms of our comfort around ‘closeness’ and ‘power’ all of us tend to fall somewhere along two lines (two dimensions) which can be placed on a helpful diagram. Along one (horizontal) line is our preferred position with regard to closeness to others (Communion / Closeness / Warmth / Cold-heartedness) and along another (vertical) line is our preferred position with regard to being in control and  how much we determine what happens  (Power/ Control / Agency).

| The circumplex model. Presentation of the Circumplex Model (adapted from Wiggins, 1995), with the two interpersonal dimensions and the labels of the extremes. 
The Interpersonal Circumplex: Vertical line showing how we relate in terms of desire for control and the horizontal line showing how we relate in terms of personal warmth / closeness

These two lines together give us what psychologists call the ‘Interpersonal Circumplex’ which is a chart that illustrates the possible mixes of power and closeness and the types of relationship styles that then emerge. This slightly more detailed version (below) illustrates the kind of characteristics we will see in a person depending on how far up or down, left or right, they are on the agency and communion dimensions.

WigginsCircumplexUnderstanding Our Feelings

Once we look at the circumplex, we come to realise that many of our attitudes and feelings are a blend of dominance (or submission) and warmth (or coolness) towards others. In any given relationship interaction our feelings and attitudes can then be used as a guide:

    1.  to show us how the other person may be feeling (because of the ‘rule of complementarity) and…
    2. to help us about consider whether or not we might get a different response if we adjusted our behaviour in terms of levels of closeness and/or power

For example, let’s suppose I feel somewhat unassured and inhibited as my partner speaks to me; my feeling is likely to be a blend of being somewhat submissive (down the vertical axis) towards them and perhaps a little distant (to the left on the horizontal axis). This may be for a number of different reasons but (following the rule of complementarity) may indicate my partner is, or will become, more dominant (going opposite to me ‘up’ the vertical axis) and also somewhat cold (similar to me, to the left on the horizontal).

By knowing the opposite of my power/agency feeling as well as what’s similar to my closeness / communion feeling, I can work out what’s likely to be going on in the other person even if, at times, people deny, cover-up or try and compensate for the initial underlying feeling.

If I want my partner to be warmer or less dominant, I may need to adjust my behaviour and manner to draw a different response. However—and this is important—there is no magic to this—I can’t force a different response from them and cannot be responsible for their behaviour. I can, however, be responsible for my behaviour.

Another example: let’s suppose I feel a strange sense of dominance around a colleague I’m supposed to work alongside. I don’t usually feel like taking charge quite so much, but with this person my inner ‘big brother / sister’ somehow seems to get awakened. I simultaneously feel a desire to distance myself from them but chose not to take control or distance myself since I know they must be responsible for their workload and I need to collaborate with them. Why might I feel as I do?  It’s the rule of complementarity: my increased sense of agency / power is pulled forth by their weakened sense of agency and my coolness is pulled forth by theirs.

Why We Have Built-In Responses to Power and Closeness

 On the power dimension, we have evolved the capacity to step in and take charge (maybe as a parent or tribal leader) and to fill in for the inability of others. It is also a product of evolutionary competition–the more dominant tend to reproduce more and survive more often. Equally, a submissive, non-threatening response may be the safest response to make towards a stronger rival. By falling into place in the hierarchy humans, like other primates, may vouchsafe some lesser benefits while avoiding costly conflicts. Having said that, submission to dominance can sometimes be deadly at the extreme. If, in a human relationship the cost of submission is abuse the person should not primarily seek to become assertive, but to get away to safety and seek help. With that caveat in mind, it is useful to realise that very often we can put a stop to dominant, intimidating behaviour by refusing to submit and by showing increased self-determination and power. Bullies often thrive off the back of displays of submission and defeat.

Image result for alpha male primates

The reciprocal, you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours, warmth / coldness dimension  is also a product of evolution. Like other mammals we have an instinct for reciprocity. Animals will often mirror each others’ bids for nurture and support or hostility since it pays to look out for those who will look out for you while it doesn’t pay (and can often cost) to invest energy, time and resources into those that don’t have your back.

Some of this also has roots in the attachment systems of mammals which regulate our ability and willingness to elicit help from others as vulnerable infants. These attachment patterns often remain with us in adulthood meaning we’ll either feel fairly confident (secure attachment) in garnering support or we’ll have developed habits of becoming quite clingy to others (anxious attachment) or distancing from others (avoidant attachment).  This has a huge impact on how warm or cool we are with others in differing situations.

Although we frequently see the hostility end of the ‘Communion / Warmth’ line as bad it’s actually just the extreme end of a rather important ability: while social mammals (especially humans with long-time dependent  offspring) need to be able to draw near each other and find succour and support, they also need to be able to stand on their own two (or four!) feet.  It is an essential part of becoming an independent adult—especially for men historically—that you can separate out from the zone of nurture and dependency. The mechanisms involved in distancing ‘self’ from ‘other’ (which also entail greater coldness from previous attachments–especially if they’re too strong) may require hostility and a degree of harshness. This would explain the pain parents often feel as children push their parents away as they begin to make their way in the world. Often this is a temporary measure until the relationship can be re-entered on a different footing, but there’s a warning there for the parent who won’t loosen the apron strings: you may have to be rejected over and over until you get the message!

Related image Context and Flexibility

Domination and Submission are the polar opposites on the ‘agentic’ line. To consider it in a little more detail, this line describes a scale of agency, a scale of tendency to place oneself in the driver’s seat or the passenger’s seat. If we want to reflect on how we’d rather be in life it’s worth seeing neither as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but, rather, to ask which is ‘most suited’ to our context.  It’s OK to be less active and self-determining at times and more willing to allow others to set the pace. It can be a relief stepping out of the driver’s seat and taking in the view. At times, it may be safer and wiser to draw others in to take up greater responsibility—and there will be times when we will all need to do so, say, in times of bereavement or illness and recovery. Sexually, it can be a relief for some, usually very responsible people, to let go of the wheel and allow someone else to take control—it’s a common fantasy. The converse holds too.

Having said all this, it is generally better, in my view, if the default position is one of autonomy and self-reliance rather than dependence on others—and this has been seen to be a frequent predictor of wellbeing.  The same is true for ways of being that give us more social connection and self-worth, which is why I, personally would prefer to bias my behaviour into the slightly more dominant and warmer (upper-right) quarter of the circumplex. The psychologically healthiest place is, in my view (and that of researchers in Interpersonal theory) near the centre of the circumplex—a place in which we are able to move more flexibly between positions depending on the need. There are times when we need to ‘give way’, and others, when we need to be able to step up and take the wheel. There are times when we need to be warm and nurturing and others when we need to be cooler with someone—for everyone’s good.  At this point I’ll bring in a somewhat more detailed version of the circumplex.

Interpersonal circumplex by Isbister

If you look at the circumplex now you can see that its rings show the intensity and extremity of the characteristics as you shift from the centre to the edges. So, for example, whereas the lower right quadrant has positive, healthy attitudes near the centre (receptivity, help-soliciting, gentleness, respectfulness etc), it has less desirable traits near the outside (clinginess, deference, gullibility, compulsive co-operation etc). The traits at the edges are less balance-able by traits on the opposite side, or, to put it another way, a person whose interpersonal interactions are more solidly at an edge will find it harder to shift across a wide range to a very different mode of being, whereas someone nearer the centre will be able to pull on more differentiated types of behaviour in their repertoire.

In Part Two I will consider more practical tips how we can use the Interpersonal Circumplex and insights around it to transform our relationship dynamics, be it at work, in our families or in close relationships.

Ego v We-go: Rules for a better fight with your other half

conflict word headsMost of our dealings with others are like games–sometimes they are collaborative games, sometimes they are competitive games, sometimes they are both. Games have rules and in any dealing with others there will be a set of rules (albeit unspoken) or, more accurately, there’ll be at least two sets of rules (yours and theirs) and if you can agree the rules you’ll both play by then maybe there’s a helpful game to be played. What are the rules when you have a fight with your partner? Do you have shared rules? Is there some idea in your fight that maybe something could be won without it being entirely at the other person’s expense?

When a fight (by which I mean a quarrel not a physical altercation) breaks out you will be following a set of rules. Nine times out of ten those rules will be headed by : I must win–they must be defeated.  For some in a conflict the rule is headed by: I must restore the peace–they must be placated. Most of us soon learn that neither of these is a viable long term solution. You might keep (or enforce) the peace for now but the cost will be paid both now and in the future.

It’s not fun living with a defeated partner because the issue isn’t resolved–in fact you’ve just compounded it by adding resentment to the mix. It’s no good being the ‘victor’ because you now have a resentful partner and the problem (which you may be in denial about) is now stored up and festering in the dark—if elephants never forget you can be sure people never do.

The victor loses also because had they been able to understand the other’s perspective they might have learnt a few (albeit uncomfortable) things about themselves. That way, they could have made a start in putting some of the things right.  The ‘defeated’ partner loses too because they are less likely to speak up for themselves next time and more likely to just become plain resentful–and that means they will find some, albeit passive and unconscious, form of revenge.  There’s an even bigger problem: both partners view of each other, and themselves, will change—the ‘victor’ will lose respect for the ‘defeated’ and the ‘defeated’ will withdraw a little more from the ‘victor’: after all, who wants to share their inmost vulnerabilities with someone who will store them as future ammunition? So, all-in-all, the victory-at-all-costs / placate-at-all-costs style of relationship conflict is a non-starter.


In one of the Chinese languages (I’m no Chinese scholar) the word for conflict is made from the symbol for ‘danger’ but also ‘opportunity’.  Although conflicts can bring damage, hurt and harm, they can also bring positive change.  There are no mountains without earthquakes–when tectonic plates shift there is trouble but also new creation.

Here are some guidelines for having a constructive fight:

RULE 1:  SELF-SOOTHE   As soon as you can, as fast as you can, soothe yourself: it is important that feelings be expressed and talked over but raw feelings can be hard to digest. They are likely to come out ‘all wrong’. If you have very strong feelings go away from the other person and ask yourself: where might I have got this wrong? What’s my motive for speaking? How can I explain this helpfully? It is particularly important for men to be able to do this and male self-soothing is a key factor in managing conflict.  Get your emotions enough under control before you begin.

RULE 2: SLOW START-UP: Rather than going on the attack you need to help your partner not get defensive. Our ego’s often feel fragile and we learn to put the shields up when we’re made to feel bad about ourselves. If you’re the one with the complaint begin gently by giving your partner a moment to adjust: ‘Can we talk a second? I really love you but something’s bothering me. Is now a good moment?’  You may need to add, ‘I need you to listen and not get defensive.’

If you’re on the receiving end, try to connect with the person rather than with their attack just by acknowledging you can see and hear and feel where they are: ‘Oh. OK….I can see you’re really angry about this. I’m listening’.  You don’t have to agree or disagree but you just show you ‘want to understand’. Not only will this help them relax but it will buy you time to gather your thoughts, to collect yourself and also is likely to increase their willingness to listen to you.

RULE 3:  FORGET ‘RIGHT’ AND ‘WRONG’:  Establishing who is right is usually the main goal of arguments. It goes on and on until one or other concedes or walks out. But ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is often (not always) irrelevant. Why? Because even if your partner is wrong this IS what they think, perceive and feel  is STILL in need of being addressed. Being proved wrong may leave them with nothing left to say but have you actually won your partner round?  If you win the ‘case’ but lose the person—is that a success? No! Of course not.  Very often arguments come down to differing values and expectations. Is one partner ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to want to be messaged each day?  Is the other ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to not wish to? No. Both are desires, wishes. They become our ‘rules’ but in a relationship ‘the rules’ (and just ignore anyone who says they have none) need negotiating—and renegotiating. The aim is to relax our ‘demands’ into ‘preferences’ and listen to what you both want and what you can both put up with. You may even find out you both wanted the same thing but didn’t realise it–the conflict, like an earthquake, has reshaped the landscape.  You’re looking for the space in which at least enough of both your wishes can be met. Then it’s win-win. It’s less ‘ego’ and more ‘we-go’.

As you do this you build something even stronger than you had before.

RULE 4: TAKE RESPONSIBILITY  John Gottman, a long-standing researcher into successful relationships warns about the ‘Four Horseman’ of relationship breakdown which are: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. At the heart of the Four Horsemen is a resistance to taking responsibility. Our responsibility is to look at how we can respond to manage (if not resolve) the conflict.

Criticism: we attack the whole character of the person. Rather than the problem being the problem, emotional flooding has escalated the response into a full blown fight in which we perceive the person as the problem. This may be a defensive response because in the logic of a quarrel the problem is somewhere—if it’s not me (and it’s hard to own having a share in it)—it must be you. The truth is: it’s a problem created by both partners in some way (usually).

Defensiveness:  is a feeling of vulnerability and an attempt at shielding ourselves from bearing any fault or responsibility. However, more often than we wish to admit we are part of the problem: even if it is the case that the problem has been entirely caused by our partner (which is rare) it does not follow that we have no responsibility to care for them and seek to address their perspective.

Contempt:  is the sense not only of being in the right but of being superior. If it becomes an embedded feature of a couple’s relationship it is highly predictive of break-up and divorce. Why? Because if you turn a partnership into a feudal (and feuding) hierarchy there are only two directions of travel:  1) submission with resentment 2) rebellion and quits.  Contempt hardens the heart against the very worthiness of the person you’re with. Most people can put up with a partner having issues with things they do sometimes, but it’s a tough gig if your partner has no basic regard for you whatsoever as a person. Either sort that one out or get out of there. It’s toxic and will harm you both badly. It’s not good at all.

The best way out of this is some humility. You take yourself down a few pegs and have a long (or several long) hard looks in the mirror. You then spend some serious time reflecting on your partner’s strengths and things they do better than you. That’s a leveller: you can’t look down on someone when you bring yourself lower and elevate them. While you’re considering it wonder about this: is your contempt for them necessary to make you feel good about you? In which case, you’re fuelling your security on their misery—but at the cost of poisoning both your lives.

Stonewalling: is when rather than exploding, a partner implodes. You are so angry or so contemptuous that you withdraw from interaction and shut yourself and your partner down. This can be because you are so emotionally flooded that your body is pushing you from hyper-arousal into hypo-arousal.  The only recourse in this situation is time-out. Time-out in which you self-distract and comfort yourself: listen to music, do chores–something that will block you from fanning the flames of anger: rehearsing your victimhood or indignation.

If you can take responsibility for yourself, you can listen, you can try to understand (even if you can’t agree) and try to find out what may improve things.

RULE 5:  APPRECIATE  If you’ve had an argument and done all the above, come back not only to any further unresolved aspects in due course but to what you’ve achieved. Thank your partner for being willing to listen and notice its effect. You need to do this because managing conflict is no small feat. Someone once said that managing a city is easier than managing yourself. I believe it–we are immensely complex. It’s no simple thing.

If you’re interested in Gottman’s work look here.


Taming the Green-Eyed Monster

green-eyedJealousy is a common and powerful emotion, one that draws in a number of other powerful ‘negative’ emotions such as anger, anxiety, fear and hurt. It is one of the top causes of homicide by spouses internationally and is experienced more by men (60% v 40%) than women. Even when this is not the case it can cause serious disturbance to relationships and to the people involved, creating severe limitations to the freedom of both the sufferer and their partner.

This post explores jealousy from a number of angles considering:

  1. What jealousy is (and isn’t)
  2. Why we experience it
  3. How we experience jealousy
  4. How it functions
  5. How we can manage it—(skip to here if you’re only interested in this part)

It will become clear that like many ‘negative’ (discomforting may be a better word) emotions jealousy is not all bad—there is such a thing as healthy jealousy, indeed, the absence of any jealousy may reduce the quality of a relationship.

What is Jealousy ?

Jealousy is often confused with envy but the two are quite different: envy tends to be focussed around a desire to have what someone else has (be it qualities, looks, possessions, status etc.) or a wish that they didn’t have those things and usually involves one other person; jealousy involves you, someone you’re attached to (maybe romantically) and a third-party perceived as a rival for your loved-one’s affections and exclusive relationship with you. Jealousy is generally a ‘triangular’ three-person dynamic, whereas envy is a two-person dynamic. Needless to say envy and jealousy may overlap.


There are different levels and types of jealousy ranging from clinical ‘delusional’ jealousy (involving obsessive and severe levels of disturbance that are persistent and unrelenting affecting only about 1% of the population) to ‘normal’ jealousy affecting most of us in varying degrees. Within ‘normal’ jealousy we can further subdivide it into categories of ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ jealousy. According to some researchers men tend to focus their jealousies around anxiety over sexual infidelity whereas women are more likely to be jealous over possible emotional infidelity. This is disputed however by some researchers who suggest that when different methodology is used both men and women experience similar concerns over sexual infidelity and, furthermore, when you allow for other factors that make men more likely to be aggressive it turns out men and women are just as likely to kill because of jealousy. Cultural discrepancies would suggest it’s not all down to genes.

Why We Experience Jealousy

Jealousy does not come out of nowhere. Evolutionary psychologists would suggest that a large factor is the need of males to ensure that any progeny they father is actually theirs—it’s of no advantage to be raising a rival’s offspring and committing serious resources to the endeavour. Males, on this understanding have an interest in feeling alarmed so that they can fight off rival mates for the female. Of course, individuals will be unaware of the evolutionary causes that have shaped the mind but it certainly makes sense that jealousy-capable animals will fare better in securing their genetic investments. Females, equally, do not want to find they have taken on a male that will not stick around and support her and her offspring by attaching to a rival female. Culture is a factor too and we see differing sexual versus emotional jealousy in different cultures—Chinese men, for example, posit emotional-infidelity scenarios as more jealousy-provoking than sexual infidelity scenarios.

mother-siblingsThe main personal reasons we experience jealousy is because of past experiences: we have been burned in previous relationships or we have experienced displacing rivalry in childhood—or both. The Oedipal dynamics whereby we experienced the loss of maternal or paternal attention—or perceived this–due to the other parent or a sibling taking some of it away. We needn’t buy into a full acceptance of a Freudian view that at an early stage boys desire to sleep with their mothers and feel threatened that their fathers wish to castrate them to see that children—girls no less than boys—experience losses when a third party vies for attention. How we respond as adults to the potential vying of attention when a third party arrives on the scene is often deeply influenced by these formative years although some of it will have been learnt in the stages prior to our ability to remember or verbalise.

Attachment theory provides evidence that if we didn’t develop a sense of worth and security in childhood with our mother (or father, whoever was our primary caretaker) we are more likely to have found difficulty in adapting to the intrusion of a ‘third’. Insecure attachment can result in a clingy need to merge or anxiously vouchsafe the presence of a close loved one adding to the fear of their potential loss. Equally, we may have learnt to respond with an ‘avoidant’ attachment style which is still marked by anxiety but managed by withdrawal and distancing strategies to diminish pain—either way, underneath it all, there lurks an anxiety that exacerbates fear of loss.

How We Experience Jealousy

Jealousy is a powerful and discomforting emotional mind-set. It is important to realize that it is very common and not necessarily negative. It can have positive effects: it can galvanize action to save a relationship, it can stir us from apathy and low-effort, it can arouse us to appreciate the value of a relationship. This is the healthy side, the side of it that is an effective and constructive response to reality; it becomes unhealthy when it isn’t based in reality and/or isn’t constructive.

Unhealthy jealousy often manifests as a desire to control against potential loss. This entails trying to control the parts of the triangle (you, your partner, a potential rival) involved. At the same time it can be marked by self-undermining shame: the emotional belief that you are just not good-enough and that your partner is bound to desire the first reasonably attractive person (usually of the opposite sex) that comes along and so there is the possibility of constant need to put on an attractive front. The pressure can be immense in such a scenario: pressure is applied to oneself to be better than an imagined rival; pressure is put on a partner to think, feel and behave (or not behave) in certain ways and pressure is sometimes placed on external relationships—to keep their distance.

Because unhealthy jealousy is usually not based on real world (evidenced) facts it is something being played out in the individual’s inner world. For this reason it is not usually specific to limited scenarios but is a lens that colours everything they see. It can affect them even when no rival is around and even when they’re alone. If jealousy is controlling you it will influence how you feel watching scenes on TV, what conversation topics you avoid, what plans you make—anything that causes you to worry about what your partner may begin to think, feel or desire.

As we’ve seen, this can play out with aggression and violence as the jealous person seeks to control either the partner or the perceived rival but for a great many this isn’t the case. For many control is manifested in other ways—by comments about their partner’s behaviour or intentions, by accusations or silence, by what is avoided and made taboo, off-limits, in the relationship. All relationships have rules implicitly or explicitly worked out by partners but unhealthy jealousy will tend to restrict the freedom of partners beyond reason: he or she shouldn’t talk to other men or women when we’re out; we can’t have friendships with members of the opposite sex; he or she should tell me everything they’re thinking or have talked about with colleagues of the opposite sex; he or she should not feel attracted to others and must (or mustn’t) tell me if they are. Couples may share similar thresholds of tolerance but the more limited they are the more it is likely it is we’re seeing something unhealthy.

How it Functions

Jealousy is an emotional response to a triggering event. Events however do not cause jealousy in isolation but only as they are interpreted by the way we understand others and ourselves. These perspectives on reality are not the same thing as reality—we all see the world and ourselves through particular sets of lenses. This is really important to grasp: what we believe about reality seems to be reality but as soon as we allow the possibility that we may be generating a version of things that could be distorted we are at the point of being able to begin some real changes.perception-reality

We said earlier that jealousy often flows from insecurities developed in childhood and / or through bad experiences. The mind works primarily from deeply rooted emotional models of reality: emotionally-laden beliefs about who were are (models of self) and what others are like (models of others). For efficiency’s sake the emotional mind tends to jump to quick automatic conclusions using ‘rules of thumb’ like ‘this situation X is similar to situation Y I experienced’ or ‘this person X is similar to person Y’. This can be useful for quickly alerting us to dangers but can also cause us to apply inaccurate perceptions to new and different experiences. Becoming aware of this allows us to question our interpretations and be more reflective in our responses. It is not easy to change deep-rooted models of ourselves, others or situations but it is possible to learn.

We need to work on:

  • Our beliefs about others
  • Our beliefs about ourselves
  • Our triggers (events that play into our beliefs)
  • Our ability to pause, question interpretations and act differently


How We Can Manage It

A big part of managing jealousy is to be aware of it and wonder about whether it’s healthy or unhealthy: is it based on evidence or based on assumption?

It is very easy to allow those insecurities and past experiences to be automatic default lens through which we judge each situation. Unless, in fact even if, we have clear evidence we should be shouldering the responsibility ourselves before assuming our partner (or a potential rival) is to blame.

This self-questioning pause loosens up our rigid categories imposed on what are often, at tree-bendsworst, ambiguous events. We can acknowledge that we may be uncomfortable with X or Y situation but we don’t have to turn it into a rigid interpretation with rigid and fixed reactions.

The mind finds it easier to work in simple black/white categories and when we feel stressed and under threat it’s harder to see the greys.

Situations that present challenge often revolve around a demand for exclusive prioritisation and attention from a partner and a demand that others have no interest in them. This is frequently preceded and followed by a felt belief (often unconscious) that we are just not worthy of our partner’s love so that any half-attractive member of (the usually) opposite sex would be able to steal our partner, or their loyalty away from us.

What follows are some strategies you might use. I draw and adapt them from Windy Dryden’s valuable book ‘Overcoming Jealousy’ (Sheldon Press) . Needless to say, if your jealousy is particularly destructive and leads you to behaviour that is causing you and those around you significant stress (or aggression) you should seek professional help; this link may be of help if you’re based in the UK, other countries will have their own directories.


1. Identify your Triggers  and write a list down of different kind of scenarios in which you experience unhealthy jealousy the most

2. Identify the emotionally rigid beliefs that underlie your jealous responses e.g.:

•My partner must only be interested in me

•My partner should always prioritize me

•No-one else should be interested in my partner

•It would be awful if he/she weren’t only interested in me (or any of the 3 above)

•I could not bear it if any of the above situations were not the case

•If any of the above were not the case it would mean I am not good-enough as a person

3. Understand the internal consequences: that each of these beliefs generate jealousy and lead you to further thoughts and feelings  that undermine your faith in your partner and yourself.

4. Note the behavioural consequences:

·        Intrusive monitoring

·        Blaming and criticizing

·        Angry outbursts

·        Punitive silences

·        Controlling partner’s clothing choices, social outlets

·        Limiting your own freedom through fear of what ‘green lights’ it will suggest your partner could have

·        Avoiding socializing

·        Punishing / potential rivals

5. Learn to dispute your emotionally rigid beliefs and rehearse this arguing with your own mind substituting rigid demands for preferences e.g.:

•I prefer that my partner only be interested in me but most humans aren’t going to be this way and that’s just normal.

•I’d prefer that my partner always prioritize me but this isn’t realistic

• I’d prefer that no-one else should be interested in my partner but it’s unrealistic to expect this and doesn’t mean I’ll lose him / her

•It would be uncomfortable if he/she weren’t only interested in me (or any of the 3 above) but it wouldn’t spell disaster

•I may find it difficult but I could bear it if any of the above situations were not the case

•If any of the above were not the case it would have no bearing on my value as a person. I’d have the same value before, during or after any relationship.

6. Dwell on the overall actual evidence (not assumptions or perceptions) for your partner’s behaviour over the last 6 months: is (s)he giving you clear evidence of infidelity or is his / her overall pattern one of caring and being reliable?

7. Consider using meditation and visualisation to train your mind in how to cope and think differently in your trigger situations (see 1 above). Pick a manageable but tricky situation and play it over in your mind: who’s there? What’s happening? What are you thinking? How are you feeling / responding? What do you think your partner’s attitude is?   Now replay this event with the kind of beliefs we just discussed in point 5 and picture yourself relaxing and doing something different (e.g. being friendly to your partner / others present etc.

8. Involve your partner—explain that you want to make life better for both of you but you’d appreciate their help. Explain some of the ways (without demanding) they can support you and how you can negotiate difficult areas together. When your partner understands that your struggles are not malicious but stem from insecurities they are far more likely to be supportive but you must meet them half-way and be willing to make changes.

9. Consider getting some counselling—it may be useful getting qualified counsellor’s support in enabling you to understand yourself better and how you might engage with your difficulties.


Acknowledgements and Links:

Dryden W., ‘Overcoming Jealousy’ (Sheldon Press)

Genetic / Cultural Influences:


Attachment Theory:

Mario Mikulincer and Phillip R. Shaver ‘Attachment in Adulthood (Second Edition): Structure, Dynamics, and Change ‘

Unblissfully Unaware: Shame and Self-Worth


Too Close To See

What is nearest to you right now? You may think it’s your PC or mobile or your chair. How about your breath?  The air you are breathing?  Now I point it out it’s obvious but you were very unlikely to have noticed it otherwise. Breathing is so automatic we take it for granted. The air around us is so ubiquitous and yet almost always imperceptible. So it is with some of our most basic and deepest feelings about ourselves (and others) and yet, like the air we breath, these feelings or dispositions are constantly affecting everything we think and do. These feelings about ourselves are so close to us, so deeply present that they are an invisible, automatic and unconscious dynamic in our psychological perspective.

Since the days of Aristotle (and no doubt beyond) we have pushed the value of living ‘an examined life’ and that an ‘unexamined life’ is less likely to flourish. It is, perhaps, only since the advent of Freud that we have realized the presence of the unconscious and its power to direct our thinking and living. Although Freud is less popular today many scientists and thinkers (e.g. Daniel Kahneman) have rediscovered the power hidden systems of intuition govern us (more powerfully) than our conscious minds. The possibility of flourishing as a person is not only enhanced when we examine our lives but when we take a second step: when we allow ourselves to take seriously the possibility that those things we may most deeply need to examine are hidden from our immediate power to discern them. They are so close to us they are invisible. Furthermore, not only may they be invisible because they are so close to us, but they may be invisible to us because we cannot tolerate seeing them–or so it seems–and so the mind keeps them out of sight.  However, although in some instances this may be the best thing for us, it is frequently the case that it is the unseen or ‘unseeable’ that holds us back the most. We have deep beliefs, connected to emotions, that we do not allow ourselves to feel because to do so feels threatening.

Some might be wondering about the logic of this. How can I choose to push away feelings unconsciously? Surely choosing is a conscious thing? Well, not necessarily so. Psychologists are very familiar with the idea of ‘priming’ whereby a person can be influenced to make choices without it ever having crossed their conscious deliberative minds. Contemporary psychology has ‘the view that the unconscious mind is a pervasive, powerful influence over such higher mental processes’  (Bargh & Morsella, 2008). We are actually very adept as humans, and often with good reason, at keeping things in or out of perception and this dynamic is strongest when it concerns those closest to us: those we love, the things we value and, of course, ourselves.

Shame and Self-Worth

Many of us without realizing it are living and breathing a deep-rooted unconscious sense of shame: a barely conscious sense of never feeling quite good-enough. It affects most of us in to differing degrees. Tara Brach writes of ‘waking up from the trance of unworthiness’ and I think this puts it very well. Maybe you think you have a good sense of self-worth but do you really?  Below are some questions you may (or may not!) wish to consider. Most people could answer ‘Yes’ to some of them but if you’re doing so (and strongly) for many it may give you pause to think.

  1. Do I often find myself comparing myself negatively with others?
  2. Do I ever avoid people I admire?
  3. Do I often fantasize I was someone else?
  4. Do I often put on a front to feel good?
  5. Do I avoid conflict?
  6. Am I very self-conscious around others?
  7. Do I worry a lot about my image?
  8. Do I to easily dismiss (while desiring) praise?
  9. Do I avoid things that challenge my competence?
  10. Do I react strongly against well-intended feedback?
  11. Do I settle for easy-wins?
  12. Do I feel uneasy / undeserving about having good things?
  13. Do I feel awkward about sex?
  14. Do I place my sense of pride in external things?
  15. Do I feel a need to fit in  whatever company I am in?
  16. Do I often feel reluctant to state my wishes or opinions?
  17. Do I lose a sense of my own authenticity / identity when around strong personalities?
  18. Am I critical of myself /others?
  19. Am I unforgiving of myself / others?
  20. Is it hard to really believe others love you?


For me I find that shame is a hidden feeling I try to avoid. Why wouldn’t I? No-one likes to feel this way and yet, it is only when I notice it and allow myself to feel it rather than suppressing it that it loses its power. Although it is far from comfortable there is something immensely powerful about naming the feeling and staying with it. As I do this it changes and I find myself again. The feeling is not denied but identified but ceases to be identified with. I am not my feeling rather I am having this feeling. When this doesn’t happen the feeling operates in the dark like a hidden computer virus running behind the scenes subverting my processing of life: in the open it loses its power and becomes subject to my conscious reflection.


There is, arguably, a place for appropriate shame as it is an emotion that has probably evolved to keep ourselves accepted within social groups where our survival and welfare depended on them. It was better to censure oneself and seek to fit in than incur the punishment and exclusion of the group. Shameless individuals do not make for good members of society. However, evolved traits are not always adaptive for every situation and cultures (since shame is largely learnt), be they family cultures or wider social organisations, can inculcate a sense of generalized shame in children as they grow that is disproportionate to particular behaviours and situations. When we grow up feeling that it isn’t just that we can do wrong but that somehow we are wrong we develop a more pervasive sense of shame: of not being good-enough, of not being someone others should take pleasure in.

Making The Self Visible

Shame is a sense of awkwardness and embarrassment about the self and comes with a desire to cover up aspects of ourselves be it our bodies, our feelings, our wishes, thoughts or our entire self. We can feel ashamed of almost anything (including success and shame itself) but it is always a desire to avert our gaze away from aspects of ourselves or avert the gaze of others. The keys to overcoming shame are vulnerability and self-compassion. When we begin to own our feelings of shame and open up about who and what we really are (as far as we perceive it) we can begin to feel greater ease: this is who I am–if you like it, great; if you don’t too bad! I will accept myself as a good-enough yet fallible human being.  If, however, we only show the side of ourselves we think others may like we automatically put ourselves into a place of shame.

I invite you to stop hiding yourself from yourself and from others–take some small steps today.




How’s Your Relationship with You?

self marriage

Do you love yourself?  Would you marry yourself? Would you be able to love and cherish yourself? In sickness and in health? For richer for poorer? Are you faithful to yourself or do you cheat and betray yourself for any love that comes along?

Seem like odd questions? I listened to an interview on BBC Radio 4 several months back that had me chuckling but also set in motion a novel set of thinking: a woman described marrying herself and making commitments to love herself. The comedic possibilities are endless: who will keep the cat if you get divorced? Where was the honeymoon? Did you have any doubts? What if someone better comes along? Would you ever leave yourself? And so on.  But, jokes aside, the idea raises the question of how we relate to ourselves. Humans, possibly more than any other animal, possess a deep and ever-present reflexivity. We are ‘Homo reflexus’ (Latin buffs forgive)–we rarely escape our own gaze and our own inner voice(s) and, indeed, our feelings about ourselves. We are the one person we never get any rest from. We spend our entire lives in our own company. When you think of it like this the question of how we get on with ourselves and what kind of relationship we have suddenly becomes very serious.

But isn’t this epitome of our ‘selfie-taking’ narcissistic age? Not necessarily. It is true, we are more focussed on ourselves than ever before but narcissism does not mean we have a positive relationship with ourselves–quite the contrary–narcissism can stem, among other things, from a kind of self-defence designed to protect the ego from a low sense of competence and genuine self-worth. Self-love and self-acceptance are not the same as narcissism which can be a mask veiling a fragile sense of worth maybe based on external measures of success–performance at work, appearance, others’ reactions and so on.

Psychology is rapidly falling out of love with the self-esteem movement for many reasons, including the risk of narcissism outlined above but also because it doesn’t provide a stable means of dealing with inevitable failure and weaknesses. We can’t (and arguably shouldn’t) like everything we see in ourselves or everything we do. Increasingly popular is the concept of self-compassion and self-acceptance. We need not  be dependent on our performance in life in order to find consolation, instead, we can begin to approach ourselves with understanding, compassion, acceptance and love.

Since the early days of psychotherapy therapists and analysts have understood that we have parts of ourselves that are internal and interrelated. We are familiar with the language these days and speak with ease of  our ‘inner child’ or our ‘inner critic’ (which may sound uncannily like a parent or teacher from our past). All these parts are part of you. Therapy and self-acceptance work are frequently about beginning to relate to these parts better and integrate ourselves into a more whole person.

This post will be followed up in coming days with further thinking and practical suggestions for this practice. But, I invite you—flirt a little with the idea. Start by asking yourself the following questions (maybe while looking in a mirror):

  • Do you feel loved by me when you look at me?
  • What do you feel?
  • Are kind thoughts and feelings surfacing or others?
  • Why might this be?

If it wasn’t easy to feel kindness or gentleness you may want to begin to explore why. A great deal can be achieved alone but if more painful difficulties arise consider seeking help from a trained and accredited counsellor or therapist.


You May Never Read the Same Post Twice : The Psychology of Change, Certainty and Control

‘You never step into the same river twice’, said Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher, noting the truth that nothing in nature is static. Everything is in motion, everything in flux. The river may have the same name and the same rough location but we never step into the exact same water of the exact same river as it once appeared. We could take this further and note that not only the world around us but we ourselves are in a constant state of flux—changes in mood, in desires, in activity—the very cells of our bodies are constantly being replaced so that I really am not (nor could be) half the man I used to be!

Wonderful… but we’re not particularly vexed by the flux and flows of rivers or bodies. What really affects us are the psychological impacts of change. Change is a felt force moment by moment, day by day, year in year out. Sometimes the changes are large, most times small, but they all buffet our psyche and learning to handle change well is something central to coping with life.

Sweating the Small Stuff

In the late 60’s Holmes and Rahe published research (Social Readjustment Rating Scale—SRRS) many of us may have encountered listing the Top 40 (43 actually!) stressful life events. If you’ve experienced any of the top 5, as I have (not the jail term!), you will undoubtedly concur with their order. The top five are:-

  1. Death of a Spouse
  2. Divorce
  3. Marital separation
  4. Jail term
  5. Death of a close family member.

Each is measured in ‘Life Change Units’ (LCU’s) showing that stress is mainly connected with change.

This scale makes interesting yet not unsurprising reading. What’s more surprising is Lazarus et al.’s (1981) study which showed that it’s not the big life events that take their greatest toll on us (measured by health impact) but the daily hassles like losing car keys, putting on a few pounds, inflation and so on. We do tend to sweat the small stuff. Of course, when the big stuff comes it’s far more stressful but it’s rarer.

What is it about change that we so dislike?

Three Factors: Control, Predictability and Challenge

There are three main factors that typically stress us out and they coincide wonderfully with change: controllability, predictability and challenge. Events like a death of a loved one, especially when sudden, demonstrate clearly how these factors come into play: we have no control over it, we had no time to prepare and there are many new challenges that come with adjusting to life without the love, company and resources a loved one often brings.

But we can just as readily see these factors in smaller daily frustrations: being stuck in traffic takes away our control, it may have been unpredictable and it may present us with immediate challenges (e.g.How will I make that all-important meeting with a new client now?). Almost any aspect of change we care to think of will bring some discomfort / stress connected to one or more of these three bad boys.

What to do?

So if change is inevitable and it generally brings stress through the three factors just mentioned, should we deal with it by learning to just ‘go with the flow’? Should we just give up on the pretence that we can control life or predict its next fiendish moves to trip us up? We may not be able to avoid its challenges entirely but couldn’t we just relinquish control? Next time I’m stuck in traffic or find decisions at work are made that make my life more difficult, should I just launch into a chorus of ‘Que Sera’?

Maybe. Maybe not. The problem with the passive, ‘go with the flow’ approach to life is that it’s not very fulfilling. People tend to be happier and healthier (Rotter, 1966; Langer & Rodin 1976; Taylor 2012) when they have what’s called an ‘internal locus of control’. This refers to the belief that what happens in my life can be strongly influenced or determined by my choices and efforts rather than by an external focus like luck or fate. But now we have a problem don’t we? The issue of controlling things can be both a source of stress and happiness. If we relinquish control we don’t experience so much frustration but if we do that we lose a sense of self-determinacy and the happiness that flows from it. What can be done?

A Third Way: Flexible Internal Determinacy

It’s not rocket science but when we put the issue of ‘locus of control’ together with the causes of stress within change, we see a clear truth: we can’t always shape the world to conform to our wishes nor can predict when it will or won’t do so but what we can (begin to) do is to determine how we will be in that world.

Here psychology and spiritual traditions converge on common ground—whether it be a Buddhist seeking not to be pushed and pulled by every motion and flux of nature or whether it be the Christian seeking the right balance between action and acceptance as in the prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr:-

God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,

Courage to change the things which should be changed,

and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

With ‘Flexible Internal Determinacy’ (FID) we don’t surrender the capacity to shape our lives and the world for good but we do give up on the frustrating illusion that that can finally pin nature or others down into the fixed places we wish. This is hard for us in a technological age in which we have increasingly learnt to reshape our environment to suit human need. We can travel further, faster, and more comfortably than ever—we can go from London to New York without breaking a sweat—and yet we sweat the small stuff probably more than ever. What most of us haven’t mastered  is ourselves. It is here that self-determinacy (internal locus of control) comes into its own because we needn’t lose it simply because we lost the battle with the motorway traffic.

Image result for serenity

In following posts we will explore control, change and spiritual practices starting with meditation.