What power do you have to change your relationship for the better by working on yourself? If things aren’t going so well, how do you know if you’ve done “all you can do” – or if there’s still hope? As you know, relationships require a balance of learning the skills of relating to others AND doing your own work to bring yourself more fully to your connection. On today’s episode, you’re going to learn how to find that balance, along with some ways to take both your inner growth and your outer skills to the next level. Our guest is Dr. Alexandra Solomon, author of Loving Bravely: 20 Lessons of Self-Discovery to Help You Get the Love You Want. Along with her “Marriage and Intimacy 101” course at Northwestern University, Alexandra Solomon has taken relationship education to a new level – with practical ways to help you uplevel your abilities in relationship. The tools that we present in today’s episode will ensure that you’re on the right track as you move forward on your relationship journey.
And, as always, I’m looking forward to your thoughts on this episode and what revelations and questions it creates for you.
Join us in the Relationship Alive Community on Facebook to chat about it!
Along with our amazing listener supporters (you know who you are – thank you!), this week’s episode is being sponsored by FabFitFun.com. FabFitFun offers a seasonal gift box with full-size, ahead-of-the-trend, fitness, beauty, lifestyle, and fashion products.
Each box retails for $49.99, but contains more than $200 worth of goodies! You can customize your box, or just be completely surprised by what comes. As a special for Relationship Alive listeners, FabFitFun is offering $10 off your first box if you use the coupon code “ALIVE” with your order. It’s a great gift for yourself – or for that special someone in your life.
Check out Alexandra Solomon’s website
Read Alexandra Solomon’s book, Loving Bravely: 20 Lessons of Self-Discovery to Help You Get the Love You Want FREE Relationship Communication Secrets Guide
Guide to Understanding Your Needs (and Your Partner’s Needs) in Relationship (ALSO FREE)
Amazing intro/outro music graciously provided courtesy of: The Railsplitters – Check them Out
Neil Sattin: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Relationship Alive. This is your host, Neil Sattin. I always start the show with a question. There’s a question that’s been coming up a lot recently in terms of the kind of feedback that I’ve been getting from you, both through email and through the Relationship Alive community on facebook, and that is how do I know the balance between what I can actually do in a relationship, and when it’s just not going to happen with the person that I’m with? How do I know whether I’ve really done all that I can do relationally? How do I know that I’ve truly brought my best to relationship so that if things really aren’t working out, then I can safely say it wasn’t me, or at least to the best of my ability?
Neil Sattin: I think this is a great question to ask if you’re in a troubled relationship. At the same time, if you’re in a great relationship, there’s always this question too of how do I bring my best to what we’re doing? How do we be in a state of growth, and discovery, and curiosity? Also, how do we deal with the things that maybe come up for us over and over again? Is that a sign that there’s something wrong or should I be fixing that?
Neil Sattin: It’s a great process of inquiry to be in. So to cover the breadth of these questions, I wanted to have on the show a special guest who just came out with a book this past year called Loving Bravely: 20 Lessons of Self Discovery to Help You Get The Love You Want. Her name is Dr. Alexandra Solomon, and she’s a professor at Northwestern University who has gained a certain amount of notoriety for teaching a marriage and intimacy 101 class, which is something that we’ve talked about a lot here on the show that, that special “relationship education” that we often don’t get in the haphazard way that we learn about relationship in our culture or in our families.
Neil Sattin: So Alexandra Solomon is here with us today to discuss her book, Loving Bravely, and to get at the heart of how we can take this journey, the journey that really begins within us, but that interfaces with our partners, our family, our friends to make sure that we are bringing our best to relationship.
Neil Sattin: We will have a detailed show guide and transcript for this episode. If you want to download that, you can visit neilsattin.com/bravely, as in Loving Bravely, or you can text the word Passion to the number of 33444. Follow the instructions, and I will send you a link to this show’s transcript and guide as well as all of our other show guides and transcripts.
Neil Sattin: So I think that’s it. Let’s get started. Alexandra Solomon, thank you so much for being here with us today on Relationship Alive.
Alexandra Solomon: Thank you for having me on. I’m happy to be here.
Neil Sattin: Let’s start with, I’m curious about this course that you teach. How did that even come up for you? The idea of teaching this class in college about how to do relationship well.
Alexandra Solomon: Yeah. This course has certainly been just a huge meaningful experience in my life year after year. So the course, when we teach the course this Spring, it will be our 18th time teaching it. So the first years that it was taught, I was a graduate student studying at Northwestern University. Two of my mentors, Bill Pinsof and Art Nielsen were long time couples therapists who sat hour after hour, week after week in their offices with couple after couple watching these dances of despair, of disconnection, of suffering, and started to ask the question like, what if. What if we started to really value talking to people about love early in their lives before they’ve partnered, and before they’ve gotten tossed around in the sea of love, and could it make a difference?
Alexandra Solomon: This was happening as the field of relationship science was really starting to take off and be able to stand on its own two legs as a legitimate field of study.
Alexandra Solomon: So I think for years we thought of love as this, I don’t know, woo-woo thing, and so to teach love was seen like, “What are you talking about?” But the science is certainly clear. The quality of our relationships, especially our romantic relationships is a really big piece of the pie in terms of the overall quality of our lives.
Alexandra Solomon: So that was a place from which the course was born, was a desire to touch people, touch young people’s lives and journeys early on when they’re sexually mature, but exploring. My gosh, when I think about college, I spent hour after hour on the floor of the dorm talking about love and sex with my friends. So this class just, I think it really meets, meets young adults where they are.
Neil Sattin: Does that mean that if you’re someone like me who’s in his 40s, that I’m not impressionable enough anymore, and these lessons won’t apply?
Alexandra Solomon: Not by a long shot. Not by a long shot. That’s been, if there’s been one thing I’ve heard over the years during this course has received, as you might expect a great amount of media attention. It’s been featured on five continents, and just there’s a lot of curiosity about what the heck are you doing talking to college students about how to do love?
Alexandra Solomon: So the one thing I’ve heard over and over again, is like, “Dang, I wish I had that when I was in college.” I think that there’s a real longing for why aren’t we talking about this? Like, why didn’t somebody talk to me about some … setting down some basic principles, some basic foundation. So it’s never too late though. Never ever too late.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. Well I was being a little facetious because I do have a whole podcast about this thing.
Alexandra Solomon: That’s right. It’s only the entirety of your life. That’s right. Yes, we love the lifelong learning, right?
Neil Sattin: Yeah, exactly. I love how your book encourages, it encourages a process that allows people to get into that learning mindset, and to always be curious. I think that is one of the big challenges because when we struggle with our partners and find … you have that moment where you get triggered and your prefrontal cortex turns off, remembering that you can find your way back to curiosity even in a moment like that is a real challenge for people.
Alexandra Solomon: Yeah, I mean that’s the practice, isn’t it? Like holding onto that framework that whatever is happening right now in this space between my partner and I, has got the power to really show me more about me, reveal me to me, offer me tremendous healing. That’s a hard place to hold. I don’t know if any of us hold it 24/7, but at least we can commit ourselves to trying to remember, to making our forgetfulness as short as possible, and coming back to that center of, “Okay, what’s going on in me right now?”
Neil Sattin: Yeah. One of the themes that you come back to over and over again in Loving Bravely is this process of, I think you call it name, connect and choose. So perhaps we could dive into what that means right now. If you’re listening and you’re hearing me say name, connect, choose, you’ll have a sense of what we’re talking about because I think it pulls you from these moments of being dislocated from yourself and your curiosity and the kinds of things that help you find solutions or that even help you thrive and grow. It brings you back really, really well and succinctly.
Alexandra Solomon: Yeah. I think that, that was a helpful tool for me and my writing of the book. It’s the name, connect, choose process is just the … it’s just a process of awareness. It’s a way of thinking about what bringing awareness looks like. So sometimes it happens at the really macro level, like the really big picture level where the naming is I name my father’s alcoholism, I named that. For many of us, we know our healing journey begins by just calling a thing what it is, looking a thing dead in the eyes and calling it what it is. Sometimes the naming is a big picture name, like I name that I am a survivor of abuse. I name that my father struggled with alcoholism.
Alexandra Solomon: Then the connect is just noticing the feelings that are attached to that truth. And, rather than judging the feelings or thinking about what you think the feeling should be, just bearing witness to the feelings. That, the connect is really a permission to just feel what you feel, because it’s through that process of naming something, allowing ourselves to feel what we feel that creates enough consciousness, enough awareness that then multiple paths open forward that allow us to choose something different.
Alexandra Solomon: Sometimes like when we’re talking about like a big picture thing, we may choose then to not partner with somebody who is in the throes of their addiction the way that we have before. When we’re unconscious, when we haven’t named the impact of a parent’s addiction, for example, we will bring to us, in an unconscious way, we’ll bring to us somebody with a similar wound, because that little child in us want so desperately to fix, to redo, to master something that in childhood was unfixable, out of our control.
Alexandra Solomon: Through the process of calling the chapters of our life story what they are, and letting ourselves feel what we feel, we bring ourselves to a place of greater awareness and ability to say, “I see that, that person is suffering. I see it, I feel the pull, but I’m not going to go towards it. I don’t need to. I don’t need to fix the world. I can come back to my center.” That’s that big picture naming of bringing our awareness to our life story.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, and you mentioned that process of even listing out the chapters. That was one aspect in your book that you revisit over and over again that I really appreciated as a way of helping you both see the themes, and the patterns that happen in your life and in your choices, as well as to get a certain degree of objectivity with those things.
Neil Sattin: So, maybe you could describe what we’re even talking about in terms of the chapters of your life and what that … how someone listening might go through that process for themselves in a particular area of their lives.
Alexandra Solomon: Yeah. So one thing to say here is that the book itself is written in chapters, obviously, as all books are. Each chapter of the book closes with some exercises. My intention there is to offer the reader … Each of the chapters of the book is like another, just place of awareness. Then the exercises in each chapter are designed to flesh that out. How does it apply to you?
Alexandra Solomon: You’re right, a lot of the work of the book is inviting people to work on their life story. This is from, there’s a whole branch in the field of psychology that’s about the power of story, the power of narrative, and that when we tell our stories, that’s healing, right then and there, that’s healing, just the telling of our story. So in the book, there are a number of invitations for the reader to kind of work on their story. It’s through the process of working on who was I, and who am I? But then we start to really get empowered around, “Okay, so now who do I want to be going forward? What do I want to break, shed, transform? Then what do I want to carry through?”
Neil Sattin: Yeah, and being able to, like I was imagining because I, unfortunately, I was reading so much that I didn’t get a chance to do all of your exercises. But that being said, it was exciting, the idea of imagining, okay, at this part of the story, this is when the unwitting hero stumbles across his first love, or makes the decision that he will regret for the rest of … that thing.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, so there’s some quality of that, that I think can be really helpful for you to be willing to look at your life that way. If I’m the hero of this story or the heroine of this story, what did I do in this chapter? What’s like the one sentence summary, and how does that chapter live in me unconsciously that I’m naming right now. Well, what could happen in the next chapter? Because that’s the beauty of story, right? Is that as long as there’s another book in the series, you don’t really know what’s going to happen. It’s not a set destiny no matter what you thought in chapters one, two, and three.
Alexandra Solomon: That’s right, and I think that when we are thinking about when we’re working on a chapter in our story that maybe is what we would consider a dark night of the soul or a really difficult chapter that maybe has to do with a toxic romantic relationship, so we’re writing that story. The risk is that what we take away from that relationship is just a lot of heavy cynicism, wound, hurt, a closed off heartedness, right? Because it hurt, because we feel like love is dangerous. We’ve been hurt. So I think there’s something when we’re especially working on one of those chapters, the process of telling the story can open up, even if it’s just for a moment, it can open up a little light of awareness about the “and”, about it was awful…and….
Alexandra Solomon: Then in the and, within the and, is that posttraumatic growth that’s always there that we don’t get to unless we really stand on the truth of it, allow ourselves to feel what we feel. Through that process, very often there can be this “and”, that’s about, “and that relationship taught me about what it really means to hold onto my worth, and what it really means to honor the red flags when I see them, and what it really means to speak my truth, even if I’m afraid…”
Alexandra Solomon: But we don’t get to those. We don’t get to those little pieces that are about our own resilience, and our own ability to get back up unless we’re willing to just tell the story. Tell the story, to be like, “This is what happened, here’s what I saw, here’s what I felt, here’s what I did, here’s what I tolerated and here’s what I want going forward.”
Alexandra Solomon: So that’s, I think that’s why crafting our stories, telling our stories, even the chapters that were hurtful, that we survived. When we do that, we are really reclaiming our healing. We’re really reclaiming our resilience through that process. I don’t think there’s any other way to get to the resilience, to the courage to love again. We don’t get to that by just putting the chapter in a box, and burying the box in the bottom of the ocean, or doing this thing where we just say it was where we just don’t talk about it. We can’t get there unless we kind of go through and story it and start to make some sense of it.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. It’s funny because I agree with you completely, and still I know these people in my life who that’s what they do, like end of chapter, box goes under the bed or in the closet or burned in the bonfire, and that’s it. Like, next. No real self reflection.
Neil Sattin: There is a part of me at times, especially when things get complicated where I’m like, “Wow, that must be a much easier way to live on some level.” I’m wondering if you have any reflections on that. Do you ever, as you were writing the book, because what I loved about Loving Bravely, apart from it just being a really well organized book, when you read this book, you’ll see that it does a great job, which probably won’t surprise you for someone who teaches relationship 101. It walks you through a process that will get you somewhere, and with a whole lot more self understanding. So I really appreciated that.
Neil Sattin: At the same time, I was reading it and I was like, “This is great. I can relate to so many of these things, and it’s true.” We do, we have to ride the waves of our relationship, and there’s so much growth, and it can be so hard. Then I was like, “But is there a magical universe somewhere where people would, someone would pick up a book like this and be like, it’s not that hard. It’s really easy.” Or be just like, “What is she even talking about? You just let go of that person and you move on, or whatever it is.” What do you think? Does that mythical universe exist?
Alexandra Solomon: I don’t know. It sounds lovely. I might go visit that place, hang out for a while.
Neil Sattin: Bring Todd.
Alexandra Solomon: That’s right. That’s right. Well, that is, I mean, I’m sure you had these moments as well where it’s like, I think part of what I do, whether it’s in my classroom when I’m teaching undergraduate students, or my classroom when I’m training couples therapists, or in my couple’s therapy office when I’m working with couples, I mean my life’s work is to make stuff complicated, right? To hold onto 50 Shades of Gray, to be willing to go to the level of nuance to turn something eight different ways so we can look at it.
Alexandra Solomon: So that’s my jam. That’s what I love to do. But I’m sure that way of living would drive a lot of people really crazy. It’d be a really unpleasant way to live the way there’s just a simplicity that comes from not looking at the nuance of it.
Neil Sattin: This brings me, and it gives me an idea for a question.
Alexandra Solomon: Okay.
Neil Sattin: Which is, I’m sure you see this all the time. I see this with my clients and people who write in. There’s so often someone who’s very self reflective, for some reason, finds themself in relationship with someone who’s like, “No, I don’t really want to talk about that.” Or, “Why are we making things so complicated?” Or any variation of that.
Neil Sattin: I’m wondering because you are probably not hearing from that person, you’re hearing from the growth oriented taking things apart person who really wants to affect change. What do you offer someone in that kind of situation around the dialectics of their partner being different than them, versus inviting them into the reflection versus maybe this person isn’t right for you?
Alexandra Solomon: Yes. I think that is such a great question because you’re right. The person that I talked to is the growth oriented person who asked me a question like, “How do I get my husband …” because usually, to be stereotypical, it is a straight woman whose asking about her male partner, “How do I get him to be more self reflective, or how do I get him to …”
Alexandra Solomon: That to me is a red flag kind of question. Whenever we’re talking about how to get somebody else to do something, we have exited our own business and we’ve put ourselves in somebody else’s business, you know? But I do think that when there’s a partner who has more interest in introspection, self awareness paired with somebody who has less interest, there is a way to invite, I think that the frame needs to be an invitation to collaboration, like an invitation to standing shoulder to shoulder and looking at a dynamic together. I think sometimes the person who has more years of therapy under their belt, who’s read more self help books, there’s a way that knowledge can start to get used as the weapon in the relationship in a way that, because I think it’s like what I have done this to my husband at times, “Well, I’m the couple’s therapist. Therefore …”
Neil Sattin: Right. The number of times that I’ve sat with my wife Chloe and been like, “Well, Dan Siegel says that …”
Alexandra Solomon: That’s right. I know. Except for when it comes to Dan Siegel, because when you’re saying what Dan Siegel said, you really are saying the right thing. He’s just fantastic. But yes, I think that is. Those kinds of things can be used as a defense against the vulnerability of, “I’m hurt, I’m scared and lonely. I’m confused.” When we start using our knowledge, or our experience, or our successful podcasts, or our successful … our book, and we can start to use that knowledge defensively because it’s maybe easier than saying, “I’m just really lonely for you, or I’m really scared about us right now, or I really don’t understand your perspective. Can you tell me more about how you’re seeing this?”
Neil Sattin: Yeah.
Alexandra Solomon: We had a, there was a moment, maybe a year or so ago that our daughter was kind of needing to talk through a dynamic that happened at school. This one said to this one something or other, and just one of those messy friendship dynamics. She’s kind of unpacking it with me, and I’m working on like a diagram, and frameworks and we’re unpacking it. Todd walks by, and my husband Todd walked by and he goes, “I don’t know, I think you should just tell her that snitches end up in ditches.” I was like, “Beautiful. That’s beautiful.” because that may very well be as good an answer as this diagram that I’m working on craft here. Maybe there’s a simple way forward.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. So in the spirit of being able to hold both things and to see the possibility for connection even when you’re with someone who you suspect may not be as “growth oriented” as you are, and yet where there could be this real opportunity to collaborate. Well, let’s dive into that. You talk about the dialectical approach, the holding two opposites or seeming opposites together, and being able to be okay there. How does that process work, and where do you see that?
Alexandra Solomon: Well, I think this example we’re working on about two people who have different approaches to life, like an introspective versus a just take it as a comes approach, that’s a great … That couple is a dialectic right there. How do you hold the both-and where sometimes reflection and introspection does yield greater wisdom and awareness, and sometimes there’s a simplicity, “I love you. I’m here. Let’s go forward.”
Alexandra Solomon: I know that there are times when my husband will … I will want to unpack something and look at it multiple ways, and he’ll just say, “Al, I love you and it’s going to be okay.” And, that is the thing that is … there are times when that feels actually really validating, right? This simplicity of, “I love you. I love you, and we’re going to get through it. It’s hard, and we’re going to get through it. I’m here, and we’re together.” That there’s a simplicity that comes from that.
Alexandra Solomon: So the both-and is like how do you hold onto a sense of like we’re in this together, and that’s maybe enough for now, and a need to kind of unpack and understand. But those both-ands come up everywhere. I think that’s, they happen within us. How can I be both a career … dedicated to my career and dedicated to my family. How can I be both strong and vulnerable? The dialectic idea is about how do we hold on to just complexity, both things at once. I think that happens at the level of the self, and at the level of the relationship.
Alexandra Solomon: When we start to go into this either-or, either I’m right or you’re right, that’s, to me, that’s a red flag. Whenever the conversation is going towards trying to figure out which one of us is right and which one of us is wrong, that’s a red flag that we’ve gotten ourselves off track.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. So that would represent a black and white thinking, kind of cognitive distortion almost. Yeah.
Alexandra Solomon: Yeah.
Neil Sattin: Right. It can come up in like how can I love you so much and feel so angry at you right now? Or how can I trust you and handle the fact that I don’t feel safe right now? Yeah. It comes up all over the place, doesn’t it?
Alexandra Solomon: It really does. It’s, I’m thinking about when I’m working with a couple where they really, they’re coming to therapy and there’s a real question about whether or not the relationship will continue. They’re, “How can we do both? How can we have serious doubts and do the work of couple’s therapy?” That’s a hard thing to hold, how to hold on to both the awareness this may not continue, and be dedicated to doing the work, and the one that you’re talking about, I think is so common, right? I think when we feel angry, when we feel … Well, or when somebody is angry at us, when my partner is mad at me, how can I remember that somebody can be mad at me and love me? That’s a challenging knot, that sometimes the anger feels … it’s hard to stay present when somebody else is angry with us or disappointed in us.
Neil Sattin: Right? That goes right back to childhood wounds usually around our experience of our parent’s anger or disappointment in us.
Alexandra Solomon: I think it’s really important for parents to find ways of saying, “I am angry right now. I am upset right now, and I love you and I’m doing my work to move through this. I’s my job as a parent to move through this and to reconnect.” Right? So we don’t leave our kids in that place of toxic shame. But that lingers, right? That lingers, and then the kid becomes an adult who really becomes fearful of conflict.
Neil Sattin: Right? Right. We don’t know anyone like that. Another dialectic. I like how you brought that up actually with couples who are on the edge of uncertainty around their status. But I think that that is something that more and more, especially in modern times, people are holding this, “I’m committed to you, and you know what? I could divorce you, I don’t have to live with this bullshit.” That kind of thing.
Neil Sattin: There’s a challenge there because that particular tension can really challenge the safety that you feel in relationship, and the safety that’s required to do some of that vulnerable work. Yeah, how do you help someone who’s in that, who’s deep in that struggle of like, “I really want this, and I don’t want to feel like I’m trapped here.”
Alexandra Solomon: I know. I think this is the hardest, I think this is the hardest thing. I think this is really, really hard because we are … To act as if divorce isn’t an option is to live in La La land, right? That is, even when divorce was, I think maybe 50 years ago, it was easier to not act as if that was in the realm of the possible because there was so much more shame and stigma around it than there is today. So what does … that in and, there’s no getting around the fact that in order to … that will, that intimacy really does require a safe container. A container where I’m saying, “I am committed to showing up for you today, and I’m committed to showing up for you tomorrow. I’m here to do this with you.”
Alexandra Solomon: I like to think about commitment as having like two faces. The face of commitment that’s about, I’m here because it’s hard to leave. I got a lot of stuff here and we’ve got joint accounts. That is a part of commitment, right? Part of the essence of marriage is creating a guard rail, and making it hard for people to leave. That’s one part of commitment.
Alexandra Solomon: But there’s the other part of commitment which is I’m here because I want to be here, because I value us, because I believe in us. That’s always a really important piece of the work with couples who are … Well, for any couple is really having that value statement, that what are … that mission statement that, what are we about, what do we believe in, what do we value? That’s how you create that container that makes staying here feel like a playground rather than like a prison, right?
Neil Sattin: Right.
Alexandra Solomon: That I’m here because this is where all of me shows up, including the part of me that has pride in what it means to show up, to surrender to a process with a person. There’s a pride that comes from experiencing yourself as somebody who gave their word and stands by their word. So I think couples need, individuals, and couples need lots of pathways towards capturing and embracing that second face of commitment, which is, “I’m here because I believe in us. I believe in this. I believe in what we’re doing.”
Neil Sattin: Yeah, there’s something that emerged for me in what you just said, which was the reminder of being committed to the process. So within that, I feel like there’s a lot of room for a couple to come to agreement that no matter what, we’re committed to this process together, we’re committed to being kind to each other.
Neil Sattin: Having that as also something that you hold to, particularly when you know, if you are in a couple in jeopardy, let’s say. But at least being willing to say, “Yeah, neither one of us is going to just jump ship, but I’m not going to surprise you. We’re going to be in this together, even if the in it means ultimately deciding we’re not in it together.”
Alexandra Solomon: That’s right. One of my teachers along the way would say you can always end a marriage. You can’t always save a marriage. So what it means to save a marriage, to work to heal a marriage or a longterm relationship, or a relationship, there’s a pride and a sacredness to committing to that process.
Alexandra Solomon: I think here again, I think sometimes we use the fact that we can leave, we can use that as a defense against the vulnerability of really turning towards the relationship, and certainly to I think what creates a healthy relational environment is a commitment to never using the threat of leaving as a reflection. I think when we’re, that’s why it’s so important to manage when we’re triggered because when we’re triggered, if we’re triggered, and we keep talking, and we keep fighting, and the volume is going up, and the volume is going up, we really put ourselves in jeopardy of saying that thing of putting divorce on the table, of putting break up on the table, of threatening to leave.
Alexandra Solomon: That is all that can be, that is in that moment a reflection of that triggered volume-up kind of behavior that just doesn’t create a healthy relationship climate. Like you’re saying, if a marriage ends, it needs to end, or a relationship ends, it needs to end in, and from a really sober place of thoughtfulness, of consideration, of consciousness.
Alexandra Solomon: People need to be aware that, I mean, that’s the thing we’ve learned. This is what the whole field of interpersonal neurobiology has taught us, is that when we’re triggered, we’re not our, and we’re nowhere near our best self or our bravest self. That triggered language, triggered meaning we’re kind of not in our … we’re not in our mind, right? We’re out of our mind. Our blood pressure’s up, our pulse is racing, our brain, our intellect is down. So we are at risk of saying stuff that we can’t take back. Stuff that really hurts.
Alexandra Solomon: So part of that mission statement as a couple, I think is making commitments around what do we do when we get triggered, and how do we commit as a couple to taking time out for the sake of our relationship because we love our relationship too much, and we honor the fragility of the relationship. We know that relationships are breakable, they can be damaged. Therefore, we really value that when we’re triggered, we just stop talking and we go back, we do a time out until we can speak from a place of love instead of reactivity. But that’s a practice, and that takes commitment to practice to live that way, you know?
Neil Sattin: Yeah. In your book, you bring up several things that we’ve talked about on the show. Things like creating a code word that you use with your partner so that you can even avoid using the word triggered, which can sometimes be even more triggering. That was one thing, or focusing on just things in your immediate environment to help you get present, to not hopefully not being in an actually threatening situation, which is what that fight or flight is, is responding to. Yeah.
Neil Sattin: You offer lots of great hints in living bravely around how to navigate that kind of agreement with your partner, which I really appreciated. It’s been a theme that we talk about a lot here on the show. What were you going to say?
Alexandra Solomon: Well, I was going to say because it’s really, I think it’s I’m glad that you’re talking about it a lot on the show because I think it’s just, it’s so important and it’s so difficult to do. When that overwhelmed state takes over, we can start to tell ourselves, “Well, it’s just my feelings. I’m entitled to talk about my feelings.” There’s this whole kind of story that gets wrapped around, like when I’m upset, I’m allowed to say whatever I want.
Alexandra Solomon: An important aspect of self awareness is being willing to question that belief. There’s, of course you are entitled and authorized to talk to your partner about what’s on your mind, about what’s troubling you, about the how, the how matters.
Neil Sattin: Right? There’s a lot circulating in the popular culture right now around radical honesty and telling it like it is. That can feel really good, particularly if you’re angry briefly, and then you have to live with the consequences of how you delivered that radical truth. I think you’re definitely right that your ability to get back to the part of your brain, that goes offline when you’re triggered, your prefrontal cortex to get back to that part of your brain before you express your radical truth, so that you can do it lovingly, and relationally, and creatively, and compassionately, you’re going to be way better off.
Alexandra Solomon: Great. Yep. That’s right. I think you’re wise to connect it to this bigger cultural climate that we are in right now. I’m not a fan of radical truth. When I have a couple in my office, and one of them says, “You’re not going to want to hear this, but I got to say it.” I put my hand up and I said, “Well, let’s just, let’s pause. One hand on your heart, one hand on your belly. Let’s do some breathing.” Because if the frame is, you’re not going to want to hear this, but I got to say it, maybe this is a great place to do some mindfulness and some preparation and kind of consider how can it be sad in a way that really is the voice of the voice of love, right? Said in a way that when you can advocate for yourself while also holding onto your partner.
Neil Sattin: Yes. You bring up a couple times this question of what would love say or do in this situation. That’s a great place to orient from. If you hear yourself saying, “I don’t want to, I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but …”
Alexandra Solomon: That’s right. Go with that. Go to your journal, work it out. If that’s the frame, that’s a big red flag.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. And, talk about the importance of the pause here because I love how you do that in a session, and I can relate. There are times when I definitely have to be like, “All right, stop everything.” What’s so important about the pause?
Alexandra Solomon: It goes back to the fact that we are … we act as if we’re these highly evolved creatures when we’re walking around with these brains that for the vast majority of our existence have, and sometimes in our lives really do still need to be fight or flight. But so we are wired for fight flight so powerfully, but we live in a world, and we create these romantic relationships where we really do value, care, consideration, compassion, closeness, intimacy. Intimacy is really a tender thing, right? To really, if what we say we value is letting ourselves be seen in all of our complexity, if that’s what we value in our relationships, then we need to be willing to do what it takes to create the conditions where we can safely show each other to each other, and share stories of our heart, and talk about our insecurity.
Alexandra Solomon: So that’s what we want. We have to align our behaviors towards that. That means being willing to pause, and consider, okay, so having a concern, or a complaint, or a criticism is of course understandable and to be expected in a romantic relationship. Of course that’s going to happen. But how do I say it in a way that really invites intimacy where this moment of difference, this moment of misunderstanding, this moment of disappointment can help us better understand who we each are individually, and what we’re about as a couple.
Alexandra Solomon: That really comes from pausing. Dan Siegel has that really lovely way of talking about the yes space versus the no space. Getting to know what that feels, I think that’s where it starts. Very often in my office I’m just helping people get a sense of what does it feel like to be in a yes space. The yes space is curious, collaborative, empathic. The no space is defensive, reactive, like that gotcha energy.
Alexandra Solomon: The first step is figuring out what that feels like in your body to be in a yes space versus a no space. In order to get to that, we’ve got to pause, and just take that moment of reactivity, and breathe, and watch it, and notice it, and start to question what are the stories that are getting going in me right now?
Alexandra Solomon: Very often, the stories are pretty negative and critical of our partners. They deserve to be unpacked around, okay, the story I’m telling myself is that you must not care very much about me. If that’s what your behavior says to me, you don’t care much about me. Even just that is a kind of pause, saying the story I’m telling myself is you don’t care very much about me. That’s a kind of pause because then we’re inviting our partner to say, “Okay, I hear that’s the story you’re telling yourself that you don’t feel very cared for right now. I’m sorry that you feel that way. Let me know when you’re ready to hear a little more about what was going on, on my side of the street, in my part of the world.” That’s how that back and forth opens up.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. When you said we think of ourselves as these evolved beings, I think it’s worth pointing out that when you were in fight flight, when you are about to say that thing that you know you shouldn’t say, but you’re actually in the least evolved part of your brain. That’s your primitive brain. So you’re not acting like an evolved being in that moment. Maybe that can be a reminder to you like, “Let me get back to the place where that … where I can really leverage evolution here for myself.”
Alexandra Solomon: Yeah, it happens quickly. I’ll be in a session with a couple, and one partner will raise their eyebrow, and then the other partner is like, “Okay, here we go.” I’m like, “Wait, whoa. What happened?” It can turn on a dime. We get to know each other really well, we have these tells. My couple knows each other’s tells much more than I know their tells. I’m getting to know the terrain of this relationship that they’ve been in for a long time.
Alexandra Solomon: So she lifts her eyebrow up, and her partner is like, “Okay, well, here we go.” = “Wait, slow down, what’s happening?” because that’s that reactive part of our brains that is so ready to either fight or get the heck out of there.
Alexandra Solomon: That’s a learning. To learn that the fight or flight response is our lower brain response, and that our relationships deserve something a little more careful, a little more nuanced than just fight or flight. That’s work. They’re like, “Okay, I’m watching your eyebrow go up. I’m starting to tell myself a story of you’re dismissing me. You don’t believe me?” Just to breathe through that stay in that space of curiosity instead of attack or get the heck out of there.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. And, what’s interesting to me, I’m just imagining this hypothetical situation with the eyebrow. I imagine that it’s even possible that if the other partner were able to say, “I see you, I see your eyebrows being raised.” and to actually name a few other things that they see, that even that in and of itself could totally shift what’s being felt in that moment from what was about to happen to like, “Actually, we’re both here in this space together, and we’re both being people, and we’re actually safe with each other.” Just the act of mentioning those things presences both partners I think.
Alexandra Solomon: I agree, because then the partner with the eyebrow can say, “Thank you for letting me know. Okay. Let me just take a couple deep breaths here because I really do. I love us. I believe in us. I want to fight for us, so let me just regulate myself for a moment so that I can really take in what you need to say.”
Neil Sattin: Yeah, and I don’t know about you, Alexandra, but for me, when my partner names something that is a sign that I am going down some road that’s very familiar to me. I have my own little recognition of, “Oh my God, I am. I’m about to do that thing that I always do.” If she catches me just right, that’s enough to let me see myself with a certain degree of humor and humility in those moments.
Alexandra Solomon: Yes. Isn’t that beautiful? Yes. My husband will. I remember a time not long ago, he was like, “Whoa, you just want like zero to 60 in a millisecond. That was really intense to watch.” And, he said it in this kind of half sarcastic but observing way. But it was I was able to hear the love in the message and the invitation to slow down in the message. In that moment I could take myself lightly enough to be like, “Okay. Yep. Okay. You’re holding up a mirror. I see it. Let me try again.”
Alexandra Solomon: Yeah. That’s the whole Gottman’s 5:1 ratio of positive … that we need five positive to counteract every one negative, and that when we have that kind of atmosphere in our relationship, our partner can say to us like, “Whoa, you’re super zero to 60 right now.” And, we can take it for what it is, which is a bid to be like, “Let’s go. Let’s be careful here. Let’s slow down, let’s be mindful and take it with that sense of trust that we’re both fighting for the same thing right now, which is our relationship.”
Neil Sattin: Yeah. There are two things that I want to make sure that we mention before we go today. Actually before we even do that, before we started, you mentioned that there’s a new series that you’re going to be doing online, like a book club around Loving Bravely. What is that you’re going to be doing?
Alexandra Solomon: Yeah, we are. In January, we’re going to launch a Loving Bravely book club. It’s going to be online. We’re going to do it through Facebook. So we’ve created a facebook group. So to sign up, you go to my website, dralexandrasolomon.com/bookclub and there’s signup information. It’s going to be free. We’re gonna just move through one lesson of the book each month. So there’s 20 lessons of the book, so we’re going to do just a deep dive on each of the lessons.
Alexandra Solomon: It will be a blend of using Facebook live format plus Q&A in the Facebook group. Some dialogue back and forth there. Participants will have access to … will do some homework and some challenges. I’m excited. It’s a new venue for me. But a way of, I think of taking this work which is simple and infinitely complex at the very same time, and working on it in community, which I think is the best way to do it, frankly.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. To be able to support each other for sure. So we will make sure that we have a link to that in the show notes for this episode as well, so that whenever you’re listening to us, you can find Alexandra Solomon and jump in wherever they happen to be in the book.
Alexandra Solomon: That’s right. Yeah. They won’t be a tight … there’s not going to be like if you don’t get in, in lesson one, you’re out, it will be an unfolding process.
Neil Sattin: Great. So the two things, one is on the shorter side and one might be a little less short, but hopefully not too long. So the first one is, I love how many helpful ways you offer in your book to be an invitation. Something that we started talking about at the very beginning of this conversation. I’m wondering if you could talk for a moment about constraints questions, because that’s something I hadn’t, at least a terminology that I hadn’t come across before. I found that to be a really generative approach to how you might flip something around to actually be useful. So can you talk about that concept of a constraints question and how you would use that practically?
Alexandra Solomon: Yes. In fact, I love that you brought it up because just this morning I was thinking about the idea of a constraint question and just having a real moment of like, “Man, that’s a brilliant idea.” It’s just, it’s an old school family therapy concept that is simple and I think it packs a really powerful punch.
Alexandra Solomon: So let’s say, I mean this is kind of a tricky one. Let’s say our partner lies to us. There’s two ways of bringing it up. One way is, “Why did you lie to me?” Then the other way is to ask a constraint question. The constraint question is, “What kept you from being truthful with me?” So the difference between why did you lie to me and what kept you from being truthful with me is a really big difference, right?
Alexandra Solomon: The why did you lie to me is an invitation to defensiveness. It’s an accusation. It invites defensiveness, it predetermines the outcome, which is, I’m the victim. You’re the perpetrator. It makes a good-bad split versus, what kept you from being truthful is a curious invitation towards let’s work together to understand what the heck is going on in our relationship that truth is being constrained.
Alexandra Solomon: The truth that something doesn’t feel safe enough or something is unhealed in you like, “What’s going on? Let’s look at this.” It’s an invitation to that shoulder to shoulder stance to look together at what the heck is going on.
Neil Sattin: So what’s the trick for looking at a situation and finding the constraint? The constraint being though what’s keeping you from something?
Alexandra Solomon: Yeah. Well, I think just that language. What’s keeping you from, is the way to ask it. So you were late. What’s keeping you from being on time? We agreed to [3:30], what’s keeping, what kept you? What kept you from showing up at [3:30]?
Neil Sattin: Right. You’re setting unrealistic expectations for me. Yeah.
Alexandra Solomon: And, it may as well, okay, so now we’re off to the races. Let’s have a conversation about expectations. How do expectations tie to values? What do we value in this relationship? In what way are you and I different? You grew up in a family where 10 minutes late equaled on time. I grew up in a family where 10 minutes early equaled late. That’s so fascinating. Let’s unpack that. What does that mean to us going forward?
Alexandra Solomon: Now we’re in it. Now we’re unpacking and looking at it versus you were late, you were bad, you are wrong, you are disrespectful. That’s a stance that closes off intimacy. It closes off any kind of curious conversation about how do we define? You know what? How do we define this? How do we operationalize it? What does it mean to us? Is there a difference between us and the value of this thing? Those are much more interesting conversations.
Alexandra Solomon: The idea, I guess the key to the constrained question – it involves a flip and an asking about what keeps us from a path that feels more healthy, more whole, more inviting, more collaborative.
Neil Sattin: Right? And, as you reach for a constraint question instead, you may bump up against that place in you that wants to be the victim because the constraint question, what I notice immediately is it invites you into a conversation where you have shared responsibility for whatever’s happening.
Alexandra Solomon: Totally. Totally. Well, because when it comes to a lie, one of the really tricky things is – when we start to hide, we start to hide things, distort things when we don’t trust, when we don’t feel safe. So the lie can feel like the blatant obvious place to put the blame or the badness. But there’s a very oftentimes really important things to look at about how do we respond when we’re in the face of differences. Sometimes I may lie because it’s, I’m really scared to be direct with you, to tell you what’s really going on.
Neil Sattin: Right. We had, Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson on the show talking about their book, Tell Me No Lies, which, and I love how they illustrate that, that there is a co-created dynamic there of how honesty is fostered, and truth telling in a relationship.
Alexandra Solomon: Yeah. It’s a lot of breathing. We have to really keep breathing when our partners share a truth that challenges us, that we disagree with, that we don’t like. Okay. So keep breathing, keep breathing because if what you’re saying is that you value transparency and honesty, then you got to keep breathing even when your partner is sharing something that you don’t … that you’re struggling with.
Neil Sattin: Yes. True. Isn’t that the truth?
Alexandra Solomon: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Neil Sattin: Maybe that would be a great place for us to end because I’m … you spend the first half, I think of the lessons in the book are all about the work that we do within ourselves. It can be easy to … One place where I’ve focused a lot on the show has been in the skills of being relational because the personal growth, like we’re a very personal growth oriented world. So people neglect the growth that’s around how you actually connect after you’re growing personally.
Neil Sattin: But what did you, how can I phrase this? What’s so crucial from your perspective about the way that we approach our own growth, and how we bring that to our relationship?
Alexandra Solomon: Yeah. One of the things that I say over and over again in the undergraduate course, and it pervades my work, which is the self awareness, self growth work isn’t one and done. It’s not like a thing we do for a month or a year or two years. It’s something that we, it’s a paradigm shift. It’s a commitment to always seeing, to really taking ourselves as these unfolding projects, and that were never done, and we’re never perfect, and thank goodness, and that it’s this back and forth between my own intimacy with myself and how that opens me to intimacy with you.
Alexandra Solomon: Then how intimacy with you turns me back towards intimacy with myself. So it’s really just, I think the most important thing is holding onto that both those things are true at the same time. That I’m working on me while we’re working on us, and working on us helps me work on me. That that’s this ongoing back and forth.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, I love that. It’s true. It is an ongoing process. You offer some great ways in Loving Bravely to look at your own growth and how it, the bearing that it has on what you bring to relationships. So whether it’s your beliefs about soulmates, or your beliefs about anger and confrontation, or what to expect in relationship, all those things are so important because if you’re not illuminating them, they’re going to drive you unconsciously or subconsciously.
Alexandra Solomon: That’s right. That’s right. Even the whole, I could see a couple having a fight where it’s about, “I thought you were my soul mate.” What is a soul mate? Okay, great. So let’s use rather than fighting about whether or not each other … you are each other’s soul mates, back up and have a conversation about how did you come to believe what you believe about soulmates? What ways that are a reflection of your family system, your cultural location? All of these little points of difference are really neat opportunities for expanding our own awareness, expanding our compassionate empathy for our partner, and how they’re different from us, and how they view the world differently from us rather than them being threats.
Neil Sattin: Do we have time for one more question?
Alexandra Solomon: Sure. Go for it.
Neil Sattin: Okay. This came up for me actually at the very beginning of our conversation, and what you just said reminded me of it, and that is you’ve talked about the power of creating our narrative and really getting to know ourselves well in what you were just saying, unpacking that with our partners. I’m wondering from your perspective, what’s the balance between what we share with our partners about that narrative, like sharing with them about our history, and what we’re discovering, and maybe where we don’t necessarily have to share.
Neil Sattin: And, on the flip side, I’ve actually gotten a lot of questions from people. Perhaps you run into this in your therapy as well when your sessions with clients around someone finding something out, and then having trouble forgetting it, or how do I live with knowing that this was my partner’s experience? That could be something really bad that happened or it could even be like the knowledge that their partner had this amazing lover, and maybe they’re not that. How do you help a couple navigate those kinds of questions?
Alexandra Solomon: Yeah. Boy, that’s a big one. The first thing I’m thinking is about early in a relationship, the idea that we really do need to earn each other’s stories. I think that early in a relationship there can be either a fear of being seen, of somebody knowing like what if you knew the skeletons in my closet, you would head for the hills, or there can be an opposite of like, “okay, so you need to know all this stuff about me so that you can decide whether you can handle me or not handle me, or I want to know right now if you are up for this because I don’t want to get invested and then have you flee.”
Alexandra Solomon: That’s where the degree to which we can hold onto, with love and compassion, our own complexity that will help us navigate what is a really personal boundary around how and when we share.
Alexandra Solomon: But the thing that we know for sure is that when I show myself to you, and you respond with empathy instead of judgment, that right there creates a loop that builds trust. So the degree to which you do that for me is the degree to which I will feel safe enough to share more about me, and that builds trust.
Alexandra Solomon: The sharing, and the trust building, and the empathy do go hand in hand and they grow over time, and they’re a process. Time is a really essential variable. That’s what makes, I think I’m getting into a relationship, one of the things that makes getting into relationship so challenging is that, that it takes a while to build. It takes patience to share something, and then read the feedback of how your partner, how that person’s responding to you.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, and on the flip side, if you’re responding with a, “I don’t know what to do about this, or having discovered this. You waited three years to tell me whatever it is.” What I’m hearing, and what you just said is that, that might be a reflection of your own judgment or fear. And hopefully that’s something that you’re then able to bring to the conversation.
Alexandra Solomon: Right. Yeah, and when the partner, when our partner, if a partner shares something in year three of a relationship, usually it’s when I see this happen with my couples, it tends to be something about when I was a kid I was abused or some piece of a story or my last relationship, I cheated. When that comes forward, hopefully it’s coming forward in a way of like, “Listen, here’s something difficult, and here’s what I’ve done to understand it, to make sense of it, to heal, to grow. Here’s what I commit to going forward.” So that it’s not just this kind of unfinished plop. Here’s this thing which is plopped down in the space.
Alexandra Solomon: Where there is, I think some responsibility on the person who’s doing the sharing to have done their own work around it, to have forgiven themselves, to have healed from the trauma, to have done some work around healing the trauma, to understand the bigger picture of what the impact was, what the recovery looks like, how they practice their healing today. I think that helps the integration of new knowledge, be a little easier for the recipient.
Neil Sattin: Yeah. Well, now I’m realizing it wasn’t really fair of me to drop such a big question on you at the end, but I appreciate that you are willing to dive right in with me. That being said, let this be hopefully an invitation for you to come back at some future date where we can unpack that even more.
Neil Sattin: In the meantime, Alexandra Solomon, thank you so much for being here with us today. Cearly, you are so wise and you have a lot of practical wisdom from also practicing with clients as well. Your book, Loving Bravely: 20 Lessons of Self Discovery to Help You Get the Love You Want, I think is just so valuable. It’s an easy read, and something that will definitely help you come to understand yourself in relationship way more than perhaps you already do.
Neil Sattin: Again, if you want to download the transcript and guide for this episode, you can do that at neilsatting.com/bravely, as in Loving Bravely. You can also text the word PASSION to the number 33444, and follow the instructions, and I’ll send you everything that you need along with links to find Alexandra Solomon, her book, and to get involved in her book group, and whatever else she has going on. Clearly lots of value there.
Neil Sattin: So thank you so much again, Alexandra, for being with us here today.
Alexandra Solomon: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me on I appreciate it.