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I’ve been married 3 times. In my first two marriages I experienced a lot of pain, misunderstanding, resentment, and arguments. The relationships didn’t work. I also struggled to connect with my kids through the years. I wasn’t a great father to them.

On my personal development journey, I noticed patterns of behavior that showed up over and over again to sabotage my relationships and success. Learning to break those patterns and create new beliefs and behaviors has completely transformed my life. I’ve been married to my current wife Kathy for nine years and we have a loving, fun, and connected relationship.

We enjoy special relationships with our kids and grandkids. It’s a life I never even dreamed of during my younger years.

I married my first wife, Lori when I was 22 years old. She was a beautiful young woman who I loved as deeply as I was capable of loving. But I lacked the self-awareness, communication skills, and maturity needed for a healthy and functional relationship. I was insecure and jealous of anyone or anything that stole her attention away from me. I was sure that she would one day realize what a mistake she’d made when she decided to marry me. I made myself (and her) crazy with my fearful and future based fantasies of betrayal and abandonment.

After we had been married for 12 years, Lori died of a brain tumor. Two years later, I remarried. Although I had broken my addiction to alcohol nine years earlier, I was still far less than mentally and emotionally whole. My second marriage lasted less than 10 years. My new wife struggled with her own early life trauma and drug addiction. Together, we presented a nice picture to the world but behind closed doors, we were in constant conflict. We drove new cars, built a new house, and shopped at Nordstrom. But we were both filled with anxiety and resentment and blamed each other for our unhappiness.

After my second marriage, I was convinced that I was incapable of having a healthy relationship. I made a commitment to do my own work, believing that the only way to be happy and healthy in a marriage was to be happy and healthy with myself. So, I dug in. I read books, learned to meditate, challenged my thoughts and beliefs, and surrounded myself by people who were doing the same thing.

Twelve years after I ended my second marriage, I met Kathy. Because of the work I did, Kathy and I were a good match. And because I continue to do my personal development work, our relationship has grown. Some of my old patterns have surfaced in the time we’ve been together. My beliefs and assumptions sometimes cause breakdowns in our relationship. But when they do, I turn my conscious attention inward and take responsibility for what I have contributed to the breakdown.

This is a great first step toward repair. Acknowledging the breakdown and cleaning up my mess is a skillset I continue to fine tune. The result of shifting my focus toward curiosity about my internal experience has created greater trust and intimacy in our relationship.

Because I have found effective methods for healing and growth, relationships work for me today. I feel connected to the important people in my life and have relationships built on trust and respect with my clients, peers, and friends.

What changed?

I mentioned that I did my work. But what, you may wonder, was the nature of that work? And what changed as a result of that work?

The nature of the work was deep personal inquiry and examination. I was taught methods for challenging how I thought, felt, and reacted in life. I began to see the flaws in the beliefs that drove how I showed up in the world. By challenging those beliefs enough to set them aside, my true, unguarded Self emerged and began to influence my every thought, emotion, and action.

What changed was that I accepted that I am responsible for how I experience my life. You could have told me this 25 years ago and I would have agreed. “Yes, yes, yes. I am responsible for my thoughts, feelings, choices, and reactions.”

I knew this intellectually. But when triggered, I reacted in a way that proved I didn’t really believe it and I didn’t really know HOW to be responsible for my own experiences.

Relationships can be great until there is a breakdown. What happens next can make or break the relationship. Here is some of what I have learned about how to show up and give my relationships a chance to work.

How to repair a relationship breakdown.

  1. Recognize that you just externalized an internal discomfort: The cause of the suffering you experience when there is a breakdown in the relationship can easily be explained away. From your perspective, external events are responsible for the breakdown. Your intentions were good. Right? But consider that whatever happened ‘out there’ triggered something inside. Get curious about your internal experience and how you reacted to it.
  2. Acknowledge the breakdown your reaction caused: You may be in the habit of ignoring your own maladaptive reactions to external triggers, hoping your relationship partners weren’t affected, didn’t notice, didn’t care, or won’t hold it against you. You may have a fear that acknowledging the breakdown may create more problems and that you lack the capacity to manage those problems. But deep down you know better. This kind of hiding creates even more internal tension and the next time you get triggered, your spring will release and cause even more damage.
  3. Rather than assuming you know how the other person was impacted, ask them: You may be afraid that asking your relationship partner how your reactions impacted them will invite anger and criticism. If you fear conflict or criticism, it’s going to be very hard to open that door. But if you don’t give them an opportunity to tell you how your reactions affected them, you will find yourself trying to manage or solve the wrong problem. Your partner will probably feel misunderstood and controlled.
  4. Listen and reflect what you hear until the other feels understood by you. This requires skillful presence. If you too feel hurt, scared, or offended by what has happened, you may find it almost impossible to really listen to your partner. If you notice you aren’t able to really listen in this way, ask for a pause. Let your partner know you are still triggered. Then practice whatever you know to do to calm your activation before you try again. You may need to ask someone for some help to deactivate.
  5. Offer an authentic apology for the impact you had on your partner. If you’ve gotten this far, you may feel guilty or ashamed for the breakdown. Even if the other person has been gracious, your inner critic may make this hard. An authentic apology requires sincere remorse for the breakdown and a willingness to avoid repeated breakdowns in the future. You may not believe you are capable of changing. Or you may not believe you are responsible for the breakdown. Either way, apologizing means taking responsibility for what happened. Fear of judgment, unfairness, or retaliation will block an authentic apology. Recognize if any of this is going on inside you. Don’t attempt an apology until you have cleared the inner conflict. You may need to ask someone for help with this.
  6. Make an offer of repairs or amends: If you clearly understand the impact your breakdown had on your partner, you can make an offer to make things right. This can be hard if you are afraid of being taken advantage of, or if you believe that they or someone else is responsible for the breakdown. When ready, consider what your reaction cost your partner. Lost trust? Lost security? Self-doubt? Emotional distress? This isn’t about getting them to let you off the hook. Making amends means doing what it takes to restore the relationship. If your partner is able to honestly report the impact of your reaction, how to make the repair may be clear. If not, consider asking them what you can do to make it right.
  7. Recommit to the health of the relationship. You’ve taken responsibility for the damage done, you have apologized and made amends. What’s left is to honestly state your intentions to not repeat the offense. What have you learned by looking inside and taking responsibility? What needs to happen now to prevent it from happening again? Tell your partner what you are going to do to nurture the ongoing health of the relationship.

While these steps can be difficult, they can also be learned. If you don’t already know how to do them, either you were never taught, you didn’t practice enough, or you already have strategies in place that prevent you from responding in this way.

I help my clients explore what gets in the way of responding in a connecting way when they’ve experienced a breakdown in relationships. By exploring and understanding the strategies my clients have placed between themselves and the connection that they want, they can learn and practice new responses that make connection possible.

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