There are ways to communicate that keep you stuck, or that make things worse - and there are ways to communicate that foster the healthy development of your relationship. So how do you avoid the pitfalls, and reconnect with each other in spite of your differences? Or even in appreciation of your differences? In today’s episode, we have a return visit from Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson. They are co-founders of The Couples Institute, one of the leading centers for training couples therapists and helping people find practical solutions to relationship issues. Their book “Tell Me No Lies” describes how to create a culture of honesty in your relationship (and why that’s so important) - while their work on the Developmental Model of relationships gives deep insight into why we do what we do. Today we’ll get theoretical, we’ll get practical, and you’ll walk away with some new ways to communicate about challenging topics in ways that encourage the healthy development of your relationship.
Visit neilsattin.com/institute to join their free “What do you do when” 4-part series!
If you’re curious to hear our first episode together, about shaping a culture of honesty in your relationship, you can also check out Episode 24 of Relationship Alive - Why We Lie and How to Get Back to the Truth
And you can listen to our second episode together, which was about Relationship Development and getting unstuck in your relationship, if you click here.
Meanwhile - come see Relationship Alive - LIVE! with John and Julie Gottman, on October 12th in Portland Maine. You have the chance to ask us *your* questions - and get answers. Visit neilsattin.com/liveshow for more information.
And as always, I’m looking forward to your thoughts on this episode and what revelations and questions it creates for you. Please join us in the Relationship Alive Community on Facebook to chat about it!
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Find a quality therapist, online, to support you and work on the places where you’re stuck. For 10% off your first month, visit Betterhelp.com/ALIVE to fill out the quick questionnaire and get paired with a therapist who’s right for you.
To join Ellyn and Pete’s free “What do I do when” series, follow this link here.
Visit The Couples Institute website to learn more about Ellyn and Pete’s work with couples, and with helping therapists help couples.
FREE Relationship Communication Secrets Guide - perfect help for handling conflict and shifting the codependent patterns in your relationship
Guide to Understanding Your Needs (and Your Partner's Needs) in Your Relationship (ALSO FREE)
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Neil Sattin: Hello and welcome to another episode of Relationship Alive. This is your host, Neil Sattin. On today's show we are going to have a return visit from some of my favorite guests; Pete Pearson and Ellyn Bader. They are here to dive even more deeply into the developmental model for relationships and why it is so important for you to understand where you're at in terms of your development, both as an individual, but definitely as a couple, and also to talk about a new series that they're offering for therapists that will be great for you if you're a therapist in terms of boosting the way that you work with couples in your practice.
Neil Sattin: We're going to talk more about that, but I know that they elicited feedback from their audience of therapists about some of the toughest issues that they deal with, in sessions with couples and they put together a free series around that. So we're going to talk about that and we're going to ask them some questions about how to know where you are in the developmental status of your relationship and we're also going to give you a very valuable way to structure how you communicate with your partner around a sensitive topic, something that we haven't covered in quite this way on the show before. Ellyn and Pete have both been here before. If you want to listen to their episode about lying in relationships and how to cultivate a culture of honesty you can visit neilsattin.com/lies.
Neil Sattin: If you want to hear more about the developmental model, you can visit neilsattin.com/development. Those are the two episodes that they were on prior to today. And if you want to download a transcript of today's episode, then visit neilsattin.com/... Let's see, what should we call this one? Let's call it development2. I know that was really tricky. So, you can visit neilsattin.com/development2, the number two, and that will take you to this episode where you can download a transcript or you can always text the word Passion to the number 33444 and follow the instructions. That is it for this moment. So let's dive into the conversation with Ellyn Bader and Pete Pearson. Thank you so much for being here with us today.
Ellyn Bader: You're welcome, it's always fun to talk to you Neil.
Peter Pearson: It's good being here Neil, thank you.
Neil Sattin: Yes, and I should know this by now, but Pete, is it okay to call you Pete? Should I be calling you Peter or should I be calling you...
Peter Pearson: Pete is fine.
Neil Sattin: Okay, great, Petey... So let's start with just this... I want to give a quick overview of what we mean by the developmental model. If people really want the nitty gritty, then you can go back and listen to the first episode, but just so... Just to give us some context, the two-minute elevator pitch, that's a really long elevator ride if you've ever been in an elevator for two minutes. But anyway let's start there.
Ellyn Bader: Sure. So we look at relationships, and healthy relationships as going through a series or potentially going through a series of developmental stages and I'm going to give you the really short-hand version of it. But people will meet ideally often they fall in love, they have what I call a temporary psychosis, where they just focus on each other and the grass is green, and the sky is blue, everything is wonderful. And I know all relationships don't start out that way, but many, many do, and others start out more gradually. But the developmental task of that first stage is putting a boundary around the two of us as a couple and making the decision to be a couple, whatever that means to the two of them, but it's a commitment to that relationship.
Ellyn Bader: And then after people are together for a while and we see this happening, generally anywhere from about six months to two years, the partner gets taken off of that magical wonderful pedestal, and people start to see their differences, and that's a good thing, that's a healthy thing, it's not a bad thing. Many couples get scared when this happens, but it's inevitable that you're going to see more aspects of the other person. I use a disco ball in my office when I'm talking about it with couples because all those mirrors on the ball represent different facets of ourselves and those facets get shown to each other over time. And so this is a stage of differentiation, it's a stage where differences arise and the task is to learn how to be open, and authentic with each other about what you think, what you feel, what you desire and to be able to hold still while your partner does the same thing, and then to learn how to manage those differences successfully. And so there's... That's a short version. We can go into a lot more detail but basically there's a lot that's going on in terms of the personal growth of each partner during that stage.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, so this actually brings up a question for me around this process of differentiation because I think that in that psychosis that you mentioned that often a lot of partners they start making agreements or presenting ways of being that maybe, when it comes right down to it, aren't truly authentic to who they are. They do a lot of compromising, for the sake of the relationship. And then when they come back around to this process of differentiation, there's this sense of coming into integrity with each other and with themselves around what they really want. What are the ways that they signed up for the relationship that actually haven't been working for them? So I'm wondering how common it is for you to see people going through healthy differentiation really getting clear on who they are, on what their authentic truth is, and then looking at the person that they're with and saying, "Wow, I'm actually not sure that we're meant to be together, now that I'm differentiated, now that I'm not in the psychosis, wow there are these things that maybe are... Represent ways that we're not compatible." How do people frame that? Yeah, go ahead.
Ellyn Bader: Well of course, that happens, and ideally, probably that happens a ton when you think about people who date and they get really excited about each other and then a few months later they realize, "Oh well, this is not really the relationship for me."
Neil Sattin: Right?
Ellyn Bader: So there's some of that going on there, it's much...
Peter Pearson: Sometimes I will ask a couple because they are challenged when they come into the office and they talk about all the differences that they have and the problems those differences create, I will ask them, I say, "Hey would you like to be married to a personality clone of yourself where all of the differences just magically disappear?" The vast, vast majority of people say, "Actually no, I would not want to be married to a personality clone." And one person said, "I would have all my problems times two. I don't think I want that.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, so there is first recognizing the value in the difference, but I'm wondering within there is something about learning how to love another person in the way that they're different from you and to feel like in the ways that it jars you that it maybe isn't in total alignment with what you would want, or who you are as a person, but there's some way to navigate that that's healthy, versus just kind of exploding it into, "Well, I guess we're just not meant to be together."
Ellyn Bader: Right, I mean the challenge you mentioned what goes on when people are developing a... What I call emotional muscle or a stronger backbone where they can hold on to their authentic selves, but it also means being able to do what we call other differentiation. It's what enables you to learn more deeply about your partner, be more giving at times when it isn't convenient. But it's not compromising core aspects of yourself. And that's why some couples especially in the differentiation stage, but even later, too, will have a really tough conflict to handle and deal with and some people will want to run and flee really quickly instead of hanging in there and learning how to stay open to yourself and to somebody else, which is something that most of us have never learned or never been in relationships that are interdependent and require you to be open and giving at the same time.
Peter Pearson: Actually Neil, there's two examples of this. One is couples will often say, "Well, we don't want to argue in front of the kids, we should have a united front." And the downside... I can understand their intention behind that but the downside is, the kids then do not see how their parents disagree and work it out in front of them and that is such a priceless gift when parents finally get it, "Oh, we can disagree not only in front of the kids, but they can watch how we come to a resolution on that." And boy, if that's not a priceless gift. The other one is just in our relationship, Ellyn between the two of us, Ellyn is a lot more organized. She likes more consistency going through life and I can get a life-changing idea every time I take a shower. Now what could possibly go wrong with that system?
Ellyn Bader: Yes so we have to... We've had to learn how to navigate our differences, for sure.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, I wish you could see the look that Ellyn gave Pete when he started talking about this.
Peter Pearson: But see, here's the key, when somebody has differences is if I have to tone down my life changing ideas, am I compromising a set of values in me? And the answer is really no, it's more like a series of interests, what I'm drawn to, but it's not... I don't organize my life around creativity much more expensive visionary thinking, etcetera. It's an interest, it's a concern, but it's not a core value, which then makes it easy there to create adjustments when there are differences.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, I'm wondering if you have any hints on in a circumstance like that, how could I as the person who's thinking like, "Wow, I wonder what Pete's going to say the next time he comes out of the shower."
Ellyn Bader: Well, what I... I'll answer that 'cause what I had to learn was how to give him positive recognition for great ideas and still say to him, "Focus Pete, stay focused."
Peter Pearson: And then, I had to learn how to hear Ellyn telling me to focus without feeling like I was being controlled. And I also had to learn that when I have a new idea, I will say to Ellyn, "Now wait a minute, this is just a brain storm idea." So if I go to Ellyn and I say, "What do you think about moving to Australia? 'cause I just saw a National Geographic special on Australia." And I say, "Now wait three days from now, I'm not going to want to move there, but let's just talk about it. It might be interesting."
Neil Sattin: Yeah, so Ellyn, for you in this... How do you... It feels a little challenging as an example, because it seems obvious how this doesn't conflict with your core values but I'm curious to know how would one sit in a moment of tension and decide, "Is this about my core values?" And that could be true for either person, right, or, "Is this more about something that can be adjusted or worked around?"
Ellyn Bader: Well, let me say that I think... First of all, that sometimes people jump to that question that you just put out too fast. It's like the more that I am sure that I won't compromise on core core values, the more open I can be to any of Pete's ideas because I know I'm not going to get completely caught up and swayed and go down certain paths that I don't want to go down. So the ability to really explore the other person's world and the other person's reality, is dependent on how centered somebody is themselves or how differentiated they are themselves.
Ellyn Bader: I mean core values tend to be things like, "I don't believe in hitting kids or I'm not going to discipline my children by hitting them," whereas somebody might say, "Well, for me it's fine, to spank, and whatever," those kinds of things you're not going to get a compromise on. Religion is one that very often, you're not going to get a compromise on but there are so many things that people think. One other quick example I had a couple that I was working with, where he desperately wanted to live on this beautiful island, off the East Coast where they built an incredibly unbelievable place that they lived and she wanted to live in California where she had lived before and they were at a stand-off for probably 13 or 14 months about where they were going to live.
Ellyn Bader: But I kept saying to them, "We're going to stick with this and find out what matters to each of you so much about each of these places and that there is a solution. I have no idea what it is. You have no idea what it is, but there are core values that are embedded in this that matter to each of you a lot, and that's what we need to uncover to make a good decision," and it's that ability to live in the uncertainty that's so hard that leaves people to quickly get divorced or give up or throw their hands up in despair.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, yeah, and so I'm hearing in there like a really valuable question such as what is it about this thing that really matters to you that might help people unearth the values embedded in something like a choice like where to live.
Ellyn Bader: Yeah that's the agreement.
Peter Pearson: That's right Neil and when you say, "What are the values of that and often there are multiple nuanced layers to that question, but people want to rush to the answer because it creates anxiety or tension to live in that pressure so they want to hurry up and rush to it but there are a lot of nuanced layers to that question, about why something really matters to me.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, yeah, awesome. And so that leads me to something that we had chatted about maybe sharing with our audience which is a tool that you use as therapists and it's also a tool for people in relationship around how to communicate around a particularly challenging thing that involves these prescribed roles. The initiator and the inquirer. And I'm wondering if we could just take a few minutes to describe that process, which seems like it would be so powerful for people having that exploration with each other.
Ellyn Bader: I'd be glad to... I'd like to frame it first by saying that the most common problem that couples come to therapy with is the problem of saying, "We can't communicate, we have a communication struggle or a communication issue."
Neil Sattin: Great.
Ellyn Bader: As a therapist, I know that it's not just a simple behavioral change that's going to make them be able to communicate more effectively. And so, the reason Pete and I developed the initiator inquirer process is it is designed purposely to do two things. One is to help communication but the other thing is it does help people develop new capacities, new abilities in themselves that they didn't have before that make them a better communicator.
Neil Sattin: Got it, right, it requires you to be more differentiated in order to even engage in the process.
Ellyn Bader: To engage effectively, yeah.
Peter Pearson: Yeah, in that sense, it goes way beyond just a technique or a tool to talk about things.
Neil Sattin: Great.
Ellyn Bader: So basically we teach couples two very different roles and when you say... When kids go to kindergarten you learn to take turns, but as adults, when we have stresses, or problems we don't take turns we're both like hammering at each other. And so we divide it up into one person is the initiator and the other person is the inquirer. And the role of the initiator is to bring up one issue and only one issue at a time, and to say what they desire, to say what they feel when they bring it up, and to avoid name-calling, to avoid blame, to any negativity. And then the most important part of that role is to be open to learning more about yourself by the time you're finished talking than when you started.
Peter Pearson: Now that's pretty unusual. If I have a conflict with you, I'm not interested in learning more about myself.
Ellyn Bader: That explains why it is hard for you to be an initiator for a while.
Peter Pearson: Or an inquirer.
Ellyn Bader: Yeah, as Pete just said, it's not easy for people who... 'cause it's more natural to just blame and want the other person to change and not be open to learning about yourself. So that's the initiating role, the inquiring role is the role for the listening partner. And when I'm teaching this to a couple, I'll say there are real challenges in this role. The first thing you gotta do is listen, and that means you're actively listening to understand, you're not listening but all the time you're thinking about how you're going to prove your point. So you listen. We teach people to be curious rather than furious.
Ellyn Bader: So you ask questions and the questions are designed to have a... Like if I'm asking Pete it's to get a deeper understanding of what he's communicating to me. The third piece, which is really hard but is to respond with empathy and to be able to stay with empathy until you get what we call a soothing moment or that moment of connection and contact where Pete feels like I really get him or I get what he's communicating to me and I've let it impact me 'cause I can be empathic about what's being communicated.
Ellyn Bader: And then we recommend a break and then you can switch roles but you don't want to mush everything together so, there's not clarity about what belongs to each person. So that's a quick short hand. We work with continuum so we help people see what they're developing in themselves to get better at it, and... But it's... The process is used by therapists all over the world and it's probably the most widely-used part of our model because they get to see how powerful it is for couples.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, so I'm seeing as the important components from the initiator's side being willing to really get to what you want or what your issue is from a self-perspective, so not being in a position where you're blaming the other person, but focusing in on what is going on within you that's a challenge or problem, and...
Peter Pearson: That's extremely difficult Neil, what you just expressed right there is to get clearer and clearer about what's important to you and why. And so many people grow up with almost nobody encouraging or supporting the expression of what you want, or why that's important. And so as adults, it just gets layered over and layered over and it's surprisingly difficult for so many people to be clear about what it is that they really want.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, and so the flip side of what's so important about this is that the person who's the inquirer, along with the empathy that you named which is clearly really important is this sense of like, "I'm asking you questions so I can understand you better not so I can pin you down, not so I can get my point across." It's not... I'm not asking you questions to make a case about something else, I'm asking you questions that are about really unearthing... Helping you dive more deeply into who you are and like we were talking about before, what it is about this thing that really matters to you.
Peter Pearson: And also Neil, what you're saying right there is on that side of the coin, extremely difficult. A lot of people think, "Well, jeez, if I really start knowing what's important to you and why, then I'm going to have to give up what I want or change what I think or change what I feel." And so that feels, it almost is like there's a self-preservation against knowing much more about what it is that your partner wants. They are simply afraid it will intensify the conflict and sometimes it does.
Ellyn Bader: But... And getting to that empathy pushes development, it pushes people to get out of themselves and understand another reality.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, it makes me think too of your work around lying and your book Tell Me No Lies because this is one of those moments where it seems so important to be fostering an atmosphere that invites truth-telling, so that when you're asking your partner questions they feel like they can answer... Answer you honestly, without being beaten over the head by what they're saying or the person's response. So there's that aspect that's challenging as well of hearing things and learning how to not take it personally or to deal with the emotions that arise when you're hearing things that are challenging.
Ellyn Bader: Yup, yeah, I mean relationships are a place where an enormous amount of growth takes place and if you have the expectation that your primary relationship is always going to be easy, effortless, and enjoyable all the time you're in for a tough ride.
Neil Sattin: That doesn't happen?
Ellyn Bader: Not too often.
Neil Sattin: So, you alluded earlier to the series that you're doing, and we've been talking about communication and you said that one of the biggest things that comes to a couples' session is when couples think that their problem is that they're not able to communicate with each other, that all they have to do is learn how to communicate better. And that's one of the topics that you're going to discuss in this five day... Five part series, and I happen to have the list of the other topics in front of me, so I'm just going to name them for people, so that they can hear.
Ellyn Bader: Do you want me to do it or you want...
Neil Sattin: Yeah, go ahead, 'cause you can probably talk about it with even more intel.
Ellyn Bader: Well, yeah, let me just create a context. As Neil said earlier, I surveyed therapists about tough things that they struggle with. And then I wanted to put together this five part... Well, a series of training that would help therapists learn more about what the developmental model can do for them and why. And so I'm doing three live webinars starting a week, starting Monday, September ninth and going through that week. And the first webinar, the point of the first webinar is really clients don't always tell us what we need to know about why they're having trouble.
Ellyn Bader: They'll present a problem like we fight about clutter or he's never home on time, or whatever it is, but you don't have a window into seeing their developmental stage and the level of differentiation. And so the first webinar is designed to help you with an exercise that will show you how to see better what you need to know. And I'll be showing a video of a couple that I worked with using this particular exercise. The second day is actually an article and a clinical transcript. And it's about power struggles because so often, people get stuck in a power struggle.
Ellyn Bader: And this particular one is a case that Pete worked with and it is power struggling over parenting and how to parent. And then the third one is that we can't communicate. It's a video example of showing how to work with a couple when they come in and they believe their problem is communication and you want to take it further and deeper and more vulnerable and more open. And how do you get there and how do you help them see that it's more than just communication.
Neil Sattin: And I just want to mention too that being able to see you work with other couples is so valuable I think as a therapist, and a training exercise but also as a couple being able to see how another couple responds in a similar kind of situation, and how a therapist interacts... Just there's so much juice there, in terms of informing how we respond in a relationship as well, along with how we respond as counselors, and therapists.
Ellyn Bader: And yeah and we try to pick some cases that have common problems so that people who watch like you're saying Neil can benefit. In the first case, it's a blended family who are struggling with blended family issues. This case, I just mentioned is one where they say, "We can't communicate," but they've had some alcohol problems, they've had some other deeper issues that weren't on the surface. The fourth day is another article and transcript. And it's with me working with a narcissistic husband who had really dominated most of the sessions and was not somebody who had been willing to look at himself. And so I chose the transcript of a session where I was really pushing him around being open and looking at himself, and not being... Not externalizing everything onto me and onto his wife. So that's the fourth day.
Neil Sattin: Cool.
Ellyn Bader: And then the very last day is another one that I get asked about a lot and that is in the aftermath of infidelity, you often have one partner who is obsessing about all the details of their partner's affair, and they want to know, "Where did you meet, and where did you sleep, and how much money did you spend?" And that constant kind of obsession it can be very hard to deal with in sessions. And so it's an example of me working with a couple where the wife was doing that and how to turn that into a positive direction rather than having it undermine your work.
Neil Sattin: They all sound like super powerful things to witness and to learn more about. If you are interested in participating in this five-part series that Ellyn is doing, are the two of you doing that together or is it just you, Ellyn who's...
Ellyn Bader: I'm doing the webinars, but like I said, Pete did one of the transcripts for one of the article.
Neil Sattin: Oh right, right, yeah. So, you can visit Neilsattin.com/institute and it's institute because Ellyn and Pete together run The Couples Institute, which is their center for information for couples, for therapists and their training course that they do because they have a big course that they do for therapists to help them learn how to work with couples around this developmental model. Ellyn, can you give us the full name of the course? 'cause it's... It gives you a lot just hearing the name you know what it's about.
Ellyn Bader: Sure. Just one thing before I do that, this series that I'm... That Neil was just talking about will be available online until September 22nd. So, if one of your listeners hears this a few days after we've started, they can still sign up and get what they missed up until the 22nd of September.
Neil Sattin: Great. And I think it's important to mention too, that this five part series is free. So anyone can sign up, neilsattin.com/institute and you'll be able to get access to these trainings for free.
Ellyn Bader: And the name of the course is the developmental model of couples therapy, integrating attachment, differentiation and neuroscience in couples work. And it's, of course, I love doing this training, it's an online program, there's therapists in it from all over the world, coaches too from all over the world, believe it, there's people from 35 different countries. And it's designed to help you learn to benefit from knowing the developmental model and using concepts to get you unstuck and to keep forward progress happening in your couples work.
Neil Sattin: So, very powerful and I'm always amazed as even when I re-visit your work in preparation for one of these conversations, I'm always pulling new stuff out and being like, "Oh I know, I read that before but there's another gem of information that... " So there's so much depth to what you're offering and you can tell just from the title of the course that it's very comprehensive in terms of merging development, attachment, neuroscience in a way that's really practical in the therapists or coaching office. Well, I...
Ellyn Bader: Thank you Neil.
Neil Sattin: One quick question going back to the initiator inquirer model, I was wondering if you have any suggestions for people on how to switch directions 'cause I think that can sometimes be one of the troubles where one person feels like, "Well, I'm always the one who's trying to understand my partner and I want them to understand me for a change." So are there ways that you found that work to invite that switch?
Ellyn Bader: Well, first of all, one of the things I like to say to people is that the person who actively initiates the topic and that can be to say to your partner, "Is this a good time to talk?" Or, "I have something I want to talk about." The person who takes the risk of initiating ideally is the initiator. Then when they're finished, you can take a 20 minute break up to a two or three-day break to come back and do the other side. But if there's somebody who's never initiating as their therapist, I'm going to be working with them on what's getting in the way of you initiating because there are many people who are just reactive and they wait for their partners to bring it up, and then they say, "But wait, I want to go first. There is my turn," but they won't do that active initiation. So I try to cut that out by really getting people to take that accountability and ownership to initiate for themselves.
Neil Sattin: Yeah, it almost seems like then the real potential issue is helping get the inquirer to really want to sign up for asking questions that are about unearthing understanding as opposed to just reacting responding.
Peter Pearson: And ironically, the initiator could say to their partner if this person does most of the initiating, "Honey there's something I would like to talk about, which is, it seems to me, I'm the one who continues to bring up... And it would mean a lot to me if you brought up stuff about yourself for example... And I want to be in the role of listening and being curious and understanding your struggles a little more comprehensively than I do. That would help us, I think, create a stronger union, may be a stronger team and work more collaboratively shoulder-to-shoulder going forth in life. So, knowing more about you, I think could help us short-term and possibly long-term as well."
Neil Sattin: Perfect, well I see that we're bumping up against our hard stop for time. And even though I would love to chat with you more, I think I'm just going to have to save my other questions for the next time that we talk. But in the mean time, it's always such a pleasure to have you both here with us. Pete Pearson, Ellyn Bader of The Couples Institute. If you want to take part in their free series you can visit neilsattin.com/institute or to download the transcript of today's episode, visit neilsattin.com/development2. That's the word development and the number two, or text the word Passion to the number 33444 and follow the instructions, and you'll have all the links for you that we talked about today on the show page. So that is for you Ellyn and Pete, thank you so much for making it work today, it's such a pleasure to talk to you.
Ellyn Bader: Well, thank you Neil, it's always enjoyable to talk to you. And yeah there probably will be a next time sometime we get together again.
Peter Pearson: Yeah, I hope there is a next time, Neil. It's like Ellyn says it's always good talking with you. The time goes fast and I just want to give another shout out to you Neil for all that you're doing, bringing these messages to the professional and to the public lives. So shut out to you for doing all your work Neil.
Neil Sattin: Thank you so much, I appreciate that reflection, a lot!