In this follow-up on the recent episode “How Relationships Reveal Us”, Alexa joins Joe and Brett to dive deeper into the premise that we’re all attracted to the partners who trigger us the best. What does this mean, and how do we follow these triggers toward our mutual growth and freedom?
We discuss how trigger and attraction are related and how avoiding the feelings underneath our triggers can produce relationship dynamics that last for years if left unexamined. Learn to recognize and welcome your own triggers as well as those of a partner, finding the empowerment to draw boundaries and share desires from a place of kindness.
Also, hear Brett sing.
Brett: The wonderful thing about triggers is triggers are wonderful things. Their tops are made out of anger. Their bottoms are made out of shame. Topsy, topsy, topsy, fun, fun, fun. The most wonderful thing about triggers is you are the triggered one.
Joe: That’s a great start to this podcast. I am imagining someone out there triggered by your song. That would be the best. It is not wonderful that I am triggered. What are you talking about?
Brett: Now that we have got you all triggered, we have your attention.
Alexa: Welcome to today’s episode.
Joe: What are the questions? Where are we going?
Alexa: I guess we could start with how we talk about what a trigger is and what it means to be triggered.
Joe: I thought we were going to start with you trying to trigger each other. That would be hilarious in my world. You never do the dishes.
Alexa: You tell me where to start. This isn’t my job.
Brett: Hey, Alexa, will you take care of starting the podcast thing for us?
Alexa: It actually does.
Joe: If we didn’t trigger them with the song, we are triggering them with no starting this podcast quick enough. This is wonderful. What is a trigger? That word is used pretty fluidly these days. I think it has even become politicized. If someone says I am triggered, there is a way that some people feel like oh God, shut up, don’t tell me that you are triggered, and other people feel like it is them trying to protect themselves. I want to let go of all of those definitions of being triggered. I would say triggered is when you are in trauma rather than in yourself.
One of the things about trauma and how it works, whether it is the kind of trauma that’s an acute car accident or war episode or if it is something long term over time, such as always being rejected by your parents when you were scared or angry, the thing about trauma is that you are not in the moment anymore. You are living in the past. You are living in the moment the trauma happened. With acute PTSD, somebody is in Ohio and a car backfires, and they think they are in Kabul. In relationships, you are transported back into some of your primary relationships where you weren’t seen or connected in the same way over and over and over again.
That’s one way to define trigger. I think the other way to define it that’s really important is it is when in your body, you have a really big emotional reaction that’s not particularly warranted given the situation. I very much hesitate to use the word because then people say you shouldn’t have that, that doesn’t make sense or that isn’t warranted as a way to excuse and dismiss the other person. It just means that on some level your mind knows your reaction doesn’t meet the experience that you just had. This big, emotional reaction is being recreated because of the past, not because of what’s actually happening in real time. I think those are the two things.
It is so important to define the second in that way because it is how we know when it is happening. We have this big, physical reaction that on some level, some part of us knows it isn’t what’s called for in the moment. It is not how we want to be. On some level, it is not about the current situation.
Brett: I am curious to get a little bit more into there then what makes that attractive and what makes it that the person who hits our triggers so that our body has a visceral reaction that’s completely unrelated or very unrelated to the present moment and very much related to our past and our history. What makes that the recipe for amor?
Joe: It is because it is what we know love to be. We are born and we are like ducklings. We are trained to follow mom duck. We are born with an inherent connection to our parents or whoever is taking care of us, and it doesn’t matter who they are or what they do, we want connection with them. We are going to think about them on some level for our entire lives. We are going to have that level of connection. We want their attention no matter what. We want their approval no matter what. We are hardwired to want that connection.
That’s our primary experience of love. We have this connection, and then whatever they do becomes wired with love. Things that fire together, wire together. If they shamed us, then we are going to go find a partner who likely either shames us or completely reacts the other way or we will shame them. Somehow that shame is going to be in that relationship. It is just what we know love to be. It is what we know connection to be. It is our nature to go towards that, towards the things that we know.
Alexa: Gosh, that makes it sound like we are just doomed to repeat ourselves.
Joe: Yeah, I think that most people are. Most people do repeat patterns for generations and generations, or they slowly change those patterns. I think that is the natural course unless you bring a lot of conscious awareness to it and really think about it, feel through it and do the work. I see some healing that happens. I saw my grandparents and my parents. I saw my wife’s grandparents and parents. You can definitely see that cycle happen.
In fact, you see this with alcoholism. Probably one of the clearest places is where you will see somebody with an alcoholic parent, and they become very rigid and controlling. They have a clear Al Anon thing, and they give rise to the next generation of alcoholics and then they give rise to the next generation of Al Anon. I look back at family histories and I see that all the time, that kind of repeating pattern. Unless we are really saying we are going to work on this and try to change it, the healing process can take generations.
I mean I know people who were raised by Vietnam vets. If the Vietnam vets didn’t do the work, granted there wasn’t a tremendous number of options for them when they came back, but if they weren’t lucky enough to find the work and do it, their kids still have responses of the rage that the Vietnam vet had if that was the particular predilection or the disconnection they had because the Vietnam vet needed to disconnect from themselves to deal with the PTSD. Their grandkids are going to have it. That’s how it works unless we do something.
Alexa: It strikes me these are really good examples, but they are also capital T trauma examples. I wonder if there are a few examples of things that are more common and that come up in romantic relationships that aren’t necessarily because of the experience of the parent.
Joe: Not being seen, not getting the attention that we want, having love linked to criticism or to shame, having to prove our lovability, walking on eggshells around certain emotional responses, avoiding anger, getting angry, passive aggression.
Brett: Being punished or reinforced for different behaviors the parents did or didn’t want.
Joe: Being valuable because of your productivity, because of the amount of money you make, the amount of money you can give, feeling cared for with money instead of affection, shame around sex. Endless.
Brett: I imagine a lot of people listening to this might be thinking I am in a relationship, and we are never triggered. It is just great.
Alexa: Like you and me, Brett, we are never triggered.
Brett: Never, ever.
Joe: It is funny. I was sitting at a restaurant. Tara and I had just finished a weeklong event. We were recovering at a restaurant at a beach in Southern California. There was this couple sitting there. They had a friend with them. It was two women and this man. I don’t know how to explain it. The woman was so domineering. She was dominating her friend and her partner. Her partner was this big Marine guy. We were in a military town. She would ask what they wanted to eat, and then she would say you should eat this and this. He would say I think I am going to have this. She should say no, no, no, you should eat this, this and this. It was like that.
He never had an emotional response. He could easily have said I was never triggered by this, but you could see he was almost violently shut down. He hardly spoke. The facial expression was repressed rage. Literally most of his responses were the most minute nods. Yes was half an inch up. It was all that contained and repressed. Triggered doesn’t mean that you get angry. Triggered might be that you are repressing that thing, or it could be passive aggression. It could be extreme sadness or a lot of fear and anxiety. Triggered can be any emotional response.
Brett: It could be a subtle freeze.
Joe: Exactly. That was so cool to watch. It was amazing.
Alexa: What was cool about it?
Joe: What fascinated me was she had been probably acting this way for 35, 36, 37 years, and she was just absolutely unaware of it. She was not at all aware of what was happening, that she was being that dominant and the reaction she was getting from folks. She was just being herself and she had no idea, which to me was totally fascinating and awesome that you can exist in that way.
Alexa: To me, it sounds like she was also in trigger.
Joe: For sure, she was. Everybody was acting out of conditioning and not out of their present, where they wanted to be.
Brett: I think it is really interesting how we can end up in these stable dynamics because we have learned to cover or avoid each other’s triggers in just the right way. We do a lot of dancing around it. A pattern for me, just to bring this back into the personal for one of us on this episode, that I have had for a lot of relationships in my life is I would get into a relationship and things would be perfect for a couple of years. We would remark at how little we fought. It was just amazing. Eventually there would be fighting. We would move through that in whatever way.
Looking back into myself, something in this work that has always been for me is to welcome my anger and allow myself to feel it and also the same for my partner. Alexa and I have had times where neither of us would be expressing anger. If one of us expressed anger, maybe the other one would go into a little bit of shame or some type of freeze type trigger. We just learned how to bring those triggers up, and that was very much to each of our detriment because then each of us might feel a little bit resentful of the other one not being fully in their power or a little bit like we weren’t getting the most out of life. Everything was great from a number of objective perspectives, but something wasn’t quite there until the trigger was actually allowed to rise and then brought into awareness. Then we saw this is a thing. We have had this all along. Now let’s go into it.
Alexa: I agree with that completely, and it has been really amazing to be in this relationship with you where we are so committed to our own freedom that we are really excited to see each other really delve into the depths and brings things out, but the thing I see most often when I am talking to other people is people whose actions kind of stop at the point where they are trying to prevent the other one from getting triggered. That’s the thing I think is most common, people who feel like it is important for them to act a certain way or repress a certain thing about themselves because if that were to come out, it would totally trigger their partner. That would be unacceptable, and so everything stops that.
Joe: I call that walking on eggshells, and the interesting thing about it is the result of that is you don’t feel loved in your relationship. You are basically saying this part of myself can’t be accepted here. This part of myself has consequences. On some level, you know that you are not being seen and you are not being loved. Eventually, that builds resentment and that creates tension in the relationship. Whether it is just all of a sudden going from being in a happy marriage and now it is over or whether it devolves into disdain or something like that, that’s how I see that end up.
Alexa: I see that, too. The thing that is sort of tragic is usually people don’t consciously realize they are feeling unloved, and so it just can go on for a really long time. Often they think they are doing something so they can maintain the loving feelings in the relationship.
Joe: That’s right. I was working with a couple recently where they have been married for 16 years, have kids and everything, and they thought their job was to make sure the other person wasn’t triggered. Now they are just pissed all the time at each other. I don’t even know if they are aware of it, but that never got the expression in the relationship. You just look at their faces and you know they are both pissed all the time. Who in the hell wants to stay in a relationship with someone who is pissed at you all the time or who you are pissed at all the time? The marriage is having some issues obviously.
It took a couple of months for them just to see that the work is to say what you want and be yourself. Don’t worry about the consequences. Don’t get angry at each other. I want to make sure people hearing this know that. I am not ever suggesting starting to yell at your partner as a way to get your anger out. Go get your anger out somewhere else and then be kind to each other. If you want to do an experiment where you get permission to get at somebody and they say yes, then that’s fine. Unless you have permission, I don’t suggest just yelling at each other to get the anger out. You have got to get the anger out. You have got to move the anger and that energy, or it just goes to disdain.
Brett: The answer is yes if you have permission and if someone is willing to receive the anger and be there to love you while you process it, and not necessarily buy the story and get into the story with you, just letting you move the anger and being there with it. That’s actually wonderful if someone is there for that.
Joe: It is actually incredibly healing to be loved in that anger because to some degree that part was unaccepted which is why it is this massive state in our system, so to actually have someone love and accept it is great. It is just fine to get in your car and yell or go to the woods and yell or wait until everybody is out of the house and get your anger out or write out your anger. Do whatever the hell you have to do to move it. If you have someone who can particularly not buy into the story and feel your anger, that’s fantastic.
Brett: I am curious to bring up a couple of tools or tricks that people could use. If someone is in a relationship and they want to know where the triggers are, there might be some obvious triggers and some less obvious triggers. Maybe I notice I get a little bit annoyed every time my partner makes a certain kind of joke, and I wonder what’s underneath it. If someone is trying to get under the corner of the rug here and really start doing the digging, what are some ways to do it?
Joe: I think digging is so necessary for some people. If you have obvious triggers, work on those. You will work on those triggers and as those start to go away, you will become more sensitive to the more subtle triggers and then those are the next ones to work on. Your system has this really beautiful way of telling you what the most important thing to work on and then the next most important thing and the next most important thing. As that creates more peace in your system, you become more aware of the wrinkles in the system and the triggers.
Usually a strong sense of obligation comes with this, but where that’s not true is if you are one of those folks who says it has been three years and I´ve never been triggered by my relationship, then you might actually need help finding triggers if you are in that category. The best way to do that is notice any time you hesitate to say anything because your partner is going to have an emotional reaction or your partner too weak to handle it or because you are trying to protect your partner, anyway that you have a thought to say something and you don´t say it, those are great places to find the triggers. You can do that using the same mechanism. Just look for all those places you are not saying anything and say them, and then see if you are not triggered.
Alexa: That’s your advice. Just start by saying them.
Joe: Yeah, say the stuff.
Alexa: That’s pretty edgy.
Joe: Take it slow. Maybe one thing a day. Also, learn how to say the things really kindly, but I don’t want to say that because then people will hedge what they say instead of learning how to do it in a kind way. Let’s say a husband drops off their wife at the airport and does almost a rolling stop. He doesn’t get out of the car and doesn’t hug her. She is triggered by that. Let’s use that as an example. One to address that is to say what the fuck, what are you doing, I am your wife, get out of the fucking car. One way to address that is say hey, sweetheart, I would love you to get out of the car and say goodbye to me. That would make me feel great if you could do that. One way is to guilt them into it. If you loved me, you would. One way is to do it defensively. If you cared, you would get out of the car.
There are so many ways to ask for it, but the most important is to ask for it and then get good at asking for it, then be kind. Whatever is required to actually ask for it and cleanly, go there.
Alexa: I would love to come at this from the other direction as well because the thing that has been coming up recently is people who are for whatever reason having a hard time being with their partner’s emotional states. I think that another way you could approach this is to in whatever way figure out what is or feel into what is hard for you to be with and just somehow determine that you are going to try. If it is really hard for you to be with your partner’s pain, just try showing up for it. Then, from that place, it can be a little bit easier to say something you think might bring up pain for them, but then you are going to stay and be with that pain.
Joe: I would say that is a beautiful way to work it, and the actual thing you are being with is your own pain.
Joe: Their pain is evoking something in you. Maybe their pain is evoking your helplessness or maybe their pain is evoking your pain but being with them is evoking something in you. If it isn’t, it would be easy to be with them in their pain. It is learning to be with yourself in that.
Brett: This brings up a common feature of triggers is that we often make the trigger about the other person, and part of the path to owning that trigger and to being with it is to own it and to recognize that it is our own experience that is uncomfortable for us in that moment. It may be the experience of being afraid to draw a boundary with someone else’s actions but ultimately the more we can have that trigger come up and have it be about us. Honey, I would love you to get out of the car and give me as I get out and go to the airport. It is not yelling what are you doing. That’s part of the path, too.
If you are starting to explore this and more triggers are coming up, part of the path out of is they are your triggers. It is your experience, and the more you can be with your experience, the more you will be able to be with your partner’s.
Joe: I statements are really important in this work. The thing that struck me about what Alexa just said is that we are talking about two different ways. One way is to say the thing that’s important for you to say that you are not saying, and the other thing is to be with the emotion you are having a hard time being with instead of avoiding it. I would say the one of those two things that you are mostly like to do, the most productive path is the other one. If it is a feeling for you to say you are just going to be with their emotional state, then probably the better work for you is to say the thing. If you are more likely to say I will just say that thing but being with them emotionally is the hard part, then being with them emotionally is the better work for you. Just do both. You don’t have to choose, but I think that’s a good point.
Brett: I love that because another pitfall that comes up commonly I think is once people develop some sort of internal should of I should be there for my partner’s trigger, then it can often mean they are going to accept whatever behavior and roll over and not fully show up with their own needs and have that mean that what they are doing is loving their partner.
Joe: The good news about that is they will be triggered all the time. It won’t take long for them to be triggered all the time. Sorry, Alexa, what were you going to say?
Alexa: I would go as far as to say anytime you are shoulding yourself, that’s also a trigger and you are probably avoiding something.
Joe: That’s true.
Brett: That’s like saying I am a bad partner, and I would be a better partner if I were different in this way.
Joe: You are creating a shame cycle either way. If it is a should, it is a shame cycle. I think there is a healthy way to say this isn’t the partner I want to be, and I want to do this, but if you are in the should, you are in a shame spiral with it.
Brett: We have covered a bunch of ground here. We have talked about triggers. We have talked about how they can create unseen dynamics in relationships and how we can bring that into awareness, and then once these triggers are more in our awareness, how we can be with our partners in those triggers without leaving ourselves and how we can own and be with ourselves, our own triggers and avoided feelings, and how to choose the path of most resistance for us and most growth among those options.
I would like to talk a little bit about what some examples are just from any of our lives or from client relationships of just really well-handled triggers.
Joe: The most obvious thing is that exercise we do in the Connection course, which is we have this one exercise where we are handling triggers and where we are learning to respond to triggers in a way that is productive. The first step of that is to feel into your trigger and accept that state, get into your body, allow yourself to feel that way and not try to tell yourself that you should be in a different way, but to be present with what actually is going on in your physical body. The second piece is to ask questions that are open ended and non-judgmental.
We have seen people do that. I used to do that course live. I saw people, without a conversation, say we just resolved multiple issues just by asking questions, without even responding to the questions. I have a great example of this. I was working in a company, and we were doing this exercise. One of the people working at the company was ex-CIA, ex-Navy Seal, big dude, strong, powerful, willful human being. I really, really dug this guy. Then there was an AI programmer who was like five foot three and very conflict avoidant, total sweetheart. His job was to try to trigger the Navy Seal so the Navy Seal could practice the response. He couldn’t think of anything, or he didn’t want to have the conflict.
They called me over because as you both know, I am good at triggering people. I said to the Navy Seal that his hard exterior makes it so that he is not ever going to get the love that he wants. He stopped and felt his body, which was interesting because I found out later that he had a whole system for being present and being in your body under stress that they use for being in combat. He literally used that through breath for a second or two. He looked over at me and said that he really wants to have deeper connections in my life. How do you propose that I can get there? It was this immediate thing, and I got chills. I looked over at the programmer who started weeping, and he started weeping.
It was this amazing moment of just that one question changed the trigger. It changed everything because the person who is getting asked the question feels heard. They don’t feel like they are being attacked. The person who is asking the question has moved from a fear and anger response into wonder. It is really neurologically impossible as far as I can find to hold anger or wonder and fear at the same time. By putting that out there, it totally changed everything. That’s one technique. There are literally dozens, but that one is incredibly useful in the fact that now you can immediately start moving into solving the situation as far as finding ways you want to be together that actually feel better for both of you.
Brett: I think some important signposts for that also are that you delivered this trigger in the context of an exercise, and it wasn’t meant for him to take on that story of I’ve got my walls up and I’m never going to get love and then for him to believe it even more, but for it to bring up the trigger. One thing we have talked about in the courses is when you feel triggered, there is actually a part of you that feels seen. There is a part of you that already believes and buys it, hence, there being any defense. In that story, I am noticing that he then asks questions from the place of seeing that part of himself and wanting freedom, not buying the story and then spiraling into shame.
Joe: It is interesting because there is a subtle difference. If we get defensive, if there is somebody who says something to us and we get defensive, then we are telling ourselves the same story. On some level, you are buying into it, but you are not buying into the shame. You are saying I also hold that story, or it wouldn’t have made me triggered. I also hold the story that I am not doing the dishes enough if that gets triggered. I also hold the story that I am supposed to do more around the house. I also hold the story that I am supposed to do what my wife tells me to do and doing the dishes is one of those things.
If I get defensive in any way, then I am also holding the story, which is why dealing with triggers is so productive. It is because you get to see through your own ego, limiting beliefs and identity through the thoughts that trigger you and that somebody else saying something triggers you. You get to see through those, which is amazing.
Alexa: I don’t assume this will make it into the podcast, but I was just mapping that explanation to how I was thinking about it internally and it was so different but it eventually came back around to the same place, which is to say I was thinking about this guy from the pair activity exercise and how the response that we would normally think of as the triggered response would be the defend the thing that feels under threat.
In his case, the thing that feels under threat is he is going to miss out on connection. If he is so constricted around that unwanted outcome that he defends it, then it stays in this stance that often creates trigger in the other person because there is this feeling of now being in a fighting stance. Just the somatic thing of letting it all the way in, then what? What could I do to change that? That’s in itself so different and so unexpected that the other person’s nervous system just opens in response. That’s the crying that you saw. Wow, we are both just here. I really love that. It is this intention to just go there, just let it be that seems so powerful. That’s what I love about this work.
Joe: There is something else I want to say about this, which is in the crazy wisdom of Tibetan Buddhist tradition, there are three steps to it where the teacher in order helps a student. The first one is they become friends. They create a deep sense of connection. Then the second one is they trigger the fuck out of the person as much as possible until the person can’t be triggered. They literally just say things to needle them. That’s their job, to needle the student until the student can’t be needled anymore. The second step is just to say you are doing that wrong, you are not sitting up right, you are not meditating correctly, you cook like an idiot, whatever to try to trigger the ego so they can see where their ego still exists. The third one is to turn every idea about spiritually upside down for them.
This is just to say you could do that or you could just get married.
Brett: That second one is really interesting to me. I am curious how listeners might tell the difference between this particular Zen practice of befriending somebody and holding them in love while needling them until all of their triggers are surfaced and evaporated and that somebody just criticizing somebody and saying it is because I love you.
Joe: Because it is actually in love, I think that’s the difference. I think that’s the reason some marriages are counterproductive is because it is a lot easier to learn that lesson if there is an agreement, like I am here to learn this lesson, which is why I think it is so important to have that agreement in a marriage but also if it is done in love. In this particular case, the teacher isn’t triggered back, but in marriage our husband or wife is actually triggered back often. It is not like you are a horrible mediator. It is you are a horrible meditator, and if you meditated better, we would have more friends at the country club. If we had more friends at the country club, I would be happier and then I could get a better job. Why don’t you just meditate better? There is all of that craziness.
There is also the separation that the student doesn’t particularly buy into the belief that if the teacher is happy, then they could be happier. They buy into the belief that the teacher is probably happier than they are. There is a different thing to overcome there. In a marriage, you think if my wife was just happy, I could be happy. That’s a common misperception.
Brett: An interesting flip. I can also imagine there are a lot of relationships where one person takes on the role of the teacher and the other one takes on the role of the student in that way, and that’s great for a student teacher relationship. That’s not great for romantic partners, business partners.
Joe: That’s great if you want to stop having sex and get into a lot of fights. I guess it all depends on what your goal is. I love what you said, Alexa, about the dropping of defense. I think that’s really at the core of all of this work. How do I love myself as I am? How do I love other people unconditionally?
Alexa: Even the thing you were just saying about loving your partner more, to me, I was expecting you to say it is about loving yourself more because to me that’s where it all comes back to. That defense of that guy, he was shoring up something, defending the part of himself that he felt like was not loveable, but if you just let everything be, including all of you, everything that you are worried isn’t loveable about yourself, then you are making room for all of this to be loved and for you to express love to your partner better and so on.
I think people are stuck trying to love their partner better by doing various things that can be really self-denying or in your language abandoning themselves. Coming back to yourself with full acceptance is actually a way to love your partner better.
Joe: Your capacity to love your partner is completely based on your capacity to love yourself. The idea of sacrifice, compromise, I don’t find that that actually helps people love better. Until you see that the capacity to love is your freedom and that’s what you want, but if you think you are sacrificing yourself for another person, then you are creating a victim or savior relationship. It always gets muddled, defended, obligated and resentful.
On triggering people, one thing we talked about were I statements, which I think is really important. It can’t just be I statements, but it is where you are owning your wants and your own experience instead of telling somebody else what their experience is. The other one is asking questions. Another really great way to do this is to just make the person feel heard. If somebody says you are always asking me to feel the car up with gas or you are treating me like your mom again, I am not your mom. What I am hearing you say is that I am treating you like my mom again, and I just want you to know that I hear that’s your experience of the situation. Just that can be calming for people, to just feel heard in their experience.
Usually when we are in a fully triggered state, people are talking over each other, and they are not listening to one another anymore. They assume they know what’s going to be said. They assume what’s coming next and they are always thinking about their response. Nobody is actually focused on how we make sure my partner feels seen because that’s a huge part of the triggering and the fights we get into is people not feeling seen in their situation. That’s another, I think, really important part, just to allow that. The other thing that Alexa said, which is how you can relax into being with somebody in an uncomfortable emotional state and draw boundaries. Sometimes emotional states are at you, so maybe there is no reason to be with that, too.
One of the ways Tara and I have dealt with triggers is to draw boundaries with each, which I think is great. I am not going to be here with you crying at me or being angry at me. I am happy to come back to the conversation when that’s over.
Brett: I think that points to one of the pitfalls we brought up earlier, which is people can get into the belief of I should be able to be there for my partner’s trigger. I am going to suppress my own trigger so their trigger can be held rather than drawing a boundary and taking care of myself.
Joe: Self-care is absolutely the priority in all of this work, to take care of yourself, to love yourself, to treat yourself with love and respect. You can’t treat others without that.
Brett: Coming back to the premise of the beginning of this relationship series, to be in a relationship where we both agree we are in it for our own freedom, I think that comes off to a lot of people as very individualistic and not seeing the ecosystem of the couple. I think a lot of what we have been talking about now really points to that it creates more space for both partners to exist in the relationship. It creates more space in the ecosystem for more of what each partner brings and is, including gifts, triggers and fears.
Joe: I think probably the same thing can be said when I talked about compromise. I don’t believe in compromise in a relationship like this or probably any relationship. That can come off as very hard for people. I just want to explain it the same way you just explained making more space. If there is something that Tara really strongly believes that doesn’t work for me, the way we work that out is it is not that I am going to compromise. What I mean to say is I am not going to deny a part of myself to make sure she is happy. Her happiness is incredibly important to me, but it is not my job.
What we do instead is we are very clear when we say no. We clearly say this won’t work for me. She says this won’t work for me. We assume we can find a solution that can work for both of us. Some people might call that compromise, but I am not calling it compromise because I don’t feel compromised at the end of it and neither does Tara. We both feel like we found something that works for both of us, and we have faith we can do that.
When people feel compromised over and over again, on one level the idea is I am benefiting them by compromising myself. That’s why we do it. That’s the thought process, but what you are actually doing is creating a relationship that has more resentment in it. That’s not going to benefit them. You are also not teaching them how you need to thrive, so that’s not benefiting them. What you are going to get is a relationship where one person is resentful, and the other person is married or dating somebody who is not thriving. That’s not sexy. That’s not hot. That’s not healthy. It is far more important to do the work that’s required to figure out both people can get their needs met in a way that feels great for everybody and everybody can be excited about.
Brett: A feature of a compromise seems to be that there is a false end. We have compromised and this is where we are at. That’s just the decision we have made. Something I am picking up from what you are saying is if we are both committed to finding the thing that works for both of our needs, it is a really tall order because we have infinite needs. They are just going to continue to grow and to have some kind of apparent conflict, but sitting in the question, sitting in the wonder of how it is if we assume that there is a way to get both of our needs met and we sit in that question, what new solutions come to the surface? None of them are perfect. All of them are an iteration. We don’t stop the process and say that’s our compromise, and that’s that.
Joe: Which speaks to something else, which is I don’t really believe in commitments in the relationship outside of the commitment to be committed to the relationship.
Joe: We change. What Tara needed when she was 26 is not what Tara needs now. What I needed when I was 26, when we got married, is not what I need now. I think the agreement we have is how we support each other’s growth and be there for each other in that way. That’s our priority. That’s the commitment we have to the relationship. We both get to experience a lot of freedom. We both get to experience support, tenderness and care, but we don’t feel like we have to be a certain way for the other person or maintain some way of being for the other person.
This idea of commitment, even sexual commitment or commitment to agreements or roles or ways of being or dishes, all of that needs to be renegotiated as our needs change.
Alexa: It makes me really wonder what your vows were like.
Joe: Yeah, me too. I can’t remember that at all.
Alexa: It also strikes me as really funny and great because I get a lot of questions about what kind of commitments or rules are going to make my relationship work for me, especially in a poly or monogamy or some opening up, some sort of relationship transition question. I never have any idea how to respond. That’s not how I make my relationships work for me.
Brett: Fewer rules, more attainment. That’s the path we take.
Joe: When I have worked with clients that have open relationships, those agreements are always changing. They have to. They might have an agreement, but it is always temporary. The couples I know who have been doing that, having that lifestyle for now 25 years of marriage, their agreements have totally changed through that timeframe, from completely open to slightly open to open only together. They have had massive transitions, and it depends on if you have kids, if someone is taking care of a baby, if someone is going through menopause. All of those things have an effect, and they are all biological changes that affect the agreement in the relationship if we are actually being attuned, which is beautifully said.
Brett: This seems like a pretty good place to stop.
Joe: Polyamory and scene.
Alexa: I actually did have one more topic. It seems like maybe kind of a left turn, but it is another thing that I feel like keeps coming up a lot, people asking how to get out of a dynamic they are in that’s more or less something like an anxious avoidant dynamic. For instance, somebody wants to know how they can stop feeling hurt because I am chasing after somebody who is emotionally unavailable, and they disconnect. They are always doing that, and they want to do that.
Joe: We have already covered the how, but I want to put it into that context. Just to translate what you asked, let’s say there is somebody who is constantly chasing lovers. They are constantly fighting for their attention. They are the ones that are rejected or abandoned. Their lovers are always the ones that are aloof or distant and they want to know how to get out of that dynamic. The way through is to fully fall in love with, accept and look forward to the emotional statement when you are rejected and when you are chasing the person. Falling in love with that part of yourself is the quickest way to do it.
The other thing that can be helpful in that particular dynamic is seeing all the ways in which you want the attention are also ways in which you are pushing the person away. Jealousy is like that. Jealousy is I really want that person, but my jealousy in and of itself is pushing them away. My neediness is pushing them away. To be able to see that, which means on some level you also don’t want it and you are not taking responsibility.
That’s the empowering move that most people are going to reject at first until they see it, which is I am actually pushing them away. Therefore, I am choosing to push them away. There’s something in me that doesn’t want that level of intimacy. There’s something to me that equates love with chasing, not love with receiving. I am scared of a love where I receive. I am scared of the other guy across the room who wants to adore me and wants to be needy of me. Fuck that, I don’t find you attractive. I am making a choice here. If they can see their choice to move to the empowered stance and feel all the stuff they are scared to feel, including receiving love, feeling empowered or feeling like I am hot shit, they can earn me, and I am not going to chase them. All of those emotional experiences they aren’t allowing themselves to feel because it is so fucking scary, and it is either scary because it feels like an abyss I am going to fall into or I will be arrogant, like you have got to earn me. All of those experiences, until they are all felt and loved, you are going to be in that dynamic.
Also, as we talked about, you and I, on grief, when that relationship ends, if you can grieve that thing entirely, fully grieve the fact you have been spending 20 years of your life chasing pretty much your mom or dad’s love through the face of a boyfriend or girlfriend and that’s how you chose to spend your life, you can fully grieve that experience and that can also be a huge part of that healing journey. And you thought playing video games was a huge waste of time.
Brett: That does now feel like a great ending point.
Joe: Again, I am hoping Alexa says no, it is not, God damn it, don’t tell me what to do.
Alexa: Brett, you are always speaking over me. Why do you do this to me?
Brett: You just made this podcast go over one hour. We have never done that before. You always do this.
Alexa: I also have a story that I always do this. Thank you for seeing me in my slowness.
Brett: Even though we were joking, that still made me melt.
Alexa: Thank you. This was really fun.
Brett: Thank you both.