I am a Relationship Counselor.
I’ve always been fascinated by relationships. I’m always thinking about people and how we relate to one another. I want to know how and why we connect, as well as how and why we disconnect. I’m always curious about what makes people fall in love, and then once they’re in, what makes them fall out of love. Trying to figure out what this person might be thinking or feeling that’s making them act this way is my favorite mental game. I’m fascinated by relationships. All of them. I’m just as interested in the functional as the dysfunctional. What makes this one work, but this one doesn’t? Why is this relationship so hard, where this one is pretty smooth and easy? I have always wanted to find and understand the keys to relationship success.
So I became a Relationship Counselor.
What this means is that people generally come to me when their relation- ships are in real trouble. They come to me when they are mired in conflict, when there has been infidelity, when trust is broken. They come to me when they’ve been married for twenty years and raised their kids and suddenly find they have nothing to talk about. People come to me when they have stopped communicating, when they’ve stopped having sex, or when they’ve fought the same fight too many times and they’ve all but given up.
Now, my website states very clearly that I AM NOT A MAGICIAN. (It literally says that.) Because the truth is: I can’t magically heal whatever wounds your relationship has sustained. It is important that my clients have realistic expectations and understand that I can’t take away years of stonewalling and contempt, defensiveness and criticism. (*Leading marriage researcher John Gottman refers to these as the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” because his research has demonstrated that they are harbingers of pending divorce.) I can’t do the work for you.
You see, in order for me to be most effective, it would be better for people to come after the first fight. After the first failure to apologize. I want clients to reach out for help after the first miscommunication, so that they can learn how to effectively communicate and thereby avoid the erosion of continual misunderstanding. I want people to get help when trust is still intact. I say this because it is relatively easy to repair a crack, especially when it first begins to show, but it is nearly impossible to repair a break. Once you’re at a certain point of disintegration, the “work” becomes a thankless uphill trudge that goes nowhere and feels dissatisfying and fruitless.
I want people to consider Relationship Counseling and the intentional building of communication skills to be accessible, normal, healthy, and even necessary for relationship success. Because while relationships can be challenging, they should ultimately be a source of great joy and happiness. When they are not, there is work to be done. The thing is, though, any work you put in should feel satisfying and worthwhile.
Another intention in writing this book is to give people hope that a relation- ship isn’t doomed if it’s hard, if what is missing are merely skills, which can be taught. But it’s important to understand that I can give you all the skills in the world, and that won’t necessarily make you and another person a good fit. I will continuously stress the idea that goodness-of-fit, when it comes to basic temperament, is a real thing and should be considered.
Yet another goal in writing this is to highlight the need for a solid develop- ment of the self first. In order to show up to your relationships with othersas your best and highest version, it is crucial that you are intentional and clear in your relationship with your self. You must fully understand who you are and where you come from, as well as what triggers, challenges, and delights you. Many of us have never stopped to deeply consider the questions of, “Who am I? What is important to me? What do I believe in?” My hope is that digging in and beginning to better understand these aspects of yourself will help clarify what you want in a long-term relationship, or possibly marriage, with someone else. You have to do the work there in order to find ease anywhere.
There are all manner of resources out there to help take your relationship, with yourself and eventually with your person, to the next level. Furthermore, when it comes to the relationships you choose, I also want you to come away with an acceptance that there’s no shame in throwing in the proverbial towel when it’s clear that the time has come. I will offer you some tools to make your relationships with others easier, and I hope you’ll have the curiosity to explore them in whatever ways work for you, and find the strength, courage, and confidence to leave them if that is what’s best.
I absolutely know that all parts of this book won’t resonate with everyone. How could they? I am only able to write from my own perspective and tell you what I’ve learned from my life and from my clients’ lives. (So, please offer me some grace if you sense a blind spot, and trust that I’m a work in progress.) My intention is to honor and celebrate all of your identities, in all your different relationships, and offer something for everyone that can help you build the relationships you want and deserve. I want all of you to have access to any wisdom or guidance that can help you lead your best and fullest life, whatever that looks like for you!
I say all that to say: please cherry-pick! These keys won’t unlock every door for every reader. Think of this book like I’m handing you a big ol’ ring full of different sizes, colors, and shapes of keys, like the one the manager of a large building always seems to have dangling from their belt. You can picture this, yes? It’s impossible to know exactly which key is for which door, so there’s likely to be a lot of trial and error finding the right one. You can expect it is going to take some time and effort to test each key and see if it unlocks something for you.
Kafka wrote, “Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” In other words, I simply encourage you to use this content in whatever way works for you. Take what resonates and leave the rest entirely. (My ex-girlfriend and I used to go to dinner with her parents a lot, and her dad would always say, “Order what you want, and if you hate it, throw it against the wall!” Obviously, no one ever threw anything against the wall in public, but the advice was on point: if it doesn’t taste good, don’t eat it!)
If you stick with me, there will be loads of practical tips and tools, but also “homework” in the form of reflection questions you can do alone or with a partner. Whether you choose to do them is, of course, up to you. My guess is you’ll have a better shot at unlocking something if you do, but whatever you choose, please use this book for your own unique purposes. Reject what doesn’t resonate or feel authentic to you. That’s my first lesson for you, to be broadly applied. You do you, whatever that looks like, and know that you can’t really do it wrong.
My ultimate goal is to offer you one possible path to the easyish relationship you want and deserve. I sincerely hope this helps, and I can’t wait to hear about it if it does! If it doesn’t, well, throw it against the wall.
Welcome to Easyish: Keys To A (Relatively) Easy Relationship
~Amy L. Miller, MSW, LCSW~
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
Part One: Relationship With Self
Lesson 1: Who am I?
Lesson 2: Who Are You?
Lesson 3: Values
Lesson 4: Fears
Lesson 5: Blind Spots and Old Habits
Lesson 6: How To Find A Therapist
Lesson 7: Shame
Lesson 8: Vulnerability and Heartbreak
Lesson 9: Vulnerability and Happiness
Lesson 10: Strengths and Joys
Lesson 11: Loving Yourself
Lesson 12: Negative Self-Talk
Lesson 13: What Do You Want?
Lesson 14: Physical Touch and Other Love Languages
Lesson 15: Never settle
Lesson 16: Boundaries
Lesson 17: Interdependence
Lesson 18: What Gets In Your Way?
Part Two: Relationship With Someone Else
Lesson 1: What is a Healthy Relationship?
Lesson 2: Every Relationship Has Its Own Culture
Lesson 3: Deal Breakers and Compatibility . . . . . .
Lesson 4: How Do You Know If You’re Compatible?
Lesson 5: Sex
Lesson 6: “Infidelity”
Lesson 7: Friendship
Lesson 8: Use Words
Lesson 9: Don’t Be Passive-Aggressive
Lesson 10: Don’t Do Real Conversations Via Text
Lesson 11: Tell The Whole Truth
Lesson 12: Doing Conflict Well
Lesson 13: Radical Grace
Lesson 14: Apologizing Well
Lesson 15: Don’t Hold Grudges
Lesson 16: Long-Term Forgiveness
Lesson 17: Need Is Not A Gift. . . .
Lesson 18: Dating Well . . . . . . . . .
Lesson 19: There’s Someone For Everyone
Lesson 20: Let Everyone Be New
Part Three: Marriage
Lesson 1: Why Get Married?
Lesson 2: Marriage Is (Just) A Contract
Lesson 3: Make Agreements, Not Vows.
Lesson 4: You Are Not Actually (Ever) Stuck
Lesson 5: Teach Your Children Well
Lesson 6: Divorcing Well . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Lesson 7: Conclusion & Notes For Continuing Education
Appendix: Tips & Tools for Doing Conflict Well
References & Things to Google
LESSON 1: WHO AM I?
...And then there’s me and the question of why I care so much about all of this. Besides the fact that it’s literally my job to study and understand relationships, the simplest answer is that I’m the sort of person who can’t intellectualize anything. I have to try it on and walk around in it to figure out whether it works for me or not. So I’ve been spending my entire life trying to figure out relationships, which includes plenty of practice in the wrong ones.
“I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
Fun fact: I dated a legit, real-life pathological liar once.
I use bold and italics to emphasize that this man lied about literally every- thing, for no apparent reason. He was incredibly convincing and truly remarkable in his ability to hold all the stories at once and weave them together and live according to the “facts” of his life, considering they were mostly not remotely true.
That’s why I didn’t use the famous Mark Twain quote, “...If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything...” He didn’t have the problem of not being consistent, or of forgetting what he lied about. He was rather bril- liant in this way. My best understanding in retrospect is that he was a very wounded, dysfunctional, sensitive, and creative man who made up really good stories, only instead of just thinking about them or writing novels, he tried to live them like they were true.
Examples: He made up a brother and a best friend to account for his broken relationships. He lied about his age because I told him the last guy I dated was too old. He invented a stolen truck to account for not having transport. He pretended to go to work every day and fabricated a story about the banking errors that kept money from getting successfully into his account.
I’m telling you: the whole thing was convincing and elaborate. I pride myself on having an unimpeachable BS meter and impeccable intuition, but somehow, this man and his incredible ability to fabricate the truth slipped past all my alarm systems. I think he was so good at lying that he actually didn’t believe he was lying, which made it almost undetectable to me. He was also a brilliant writer, which I’m a sucker for. His way with written words and how they made me feel to read decidedly impacted my willingness to believe him.
I started thinking about this man recently when Facebook memories reminded me of that summer when I was finally starting to piece together the fragments of the truth. I remember it being very painful. He had been living with me for about two months at this point, and so clearly I trusted him not only with my heart but with my space and my belongings. And he not only lied to me, and invaded my privacy, but he also stole from me. Multiple times. I didn’t find this out for sure until after he’d already gone, but it was just adding insult to injury at that point.
So, obviously this goes without saying: that really sucked. It was not a good, safe, or healthy relationship situation. I had been roundly duped and I felt incredibly stupid. I felt ashamed that I’d fallen for what was so obviously an elaborate con. I had opened my home to this person because he’d led me to believe it was safe to do that. I felt betrayed. It made me doubt myself and my ability to judge character.
But at the same time, I didn’t want to tell anybody what had really hap- pened because I didn’t want people to judge him harshly. I wanted to protect him. I felt...sorry for him. I felt empathy. I felt pity. I remember thinking, “My god, how terrible must he be feeling about his actual life to just invent a whole new one?”
I also felt angry and sad. I was grieving an idea. There was suddenly a huge expanse of space in my life where there hadn’t been before, because he’d been in my life every day. I had gotten used to him, so when he was suddenly gone, I missed him. I felt dumb for missing him, because he didn’t deserve to be missed, and also what was I even missing? I’d been tricked. He wasn’t even real. I remember feeling just completely overwhelmed with all of this.
All the feelings were competing for leverage. It was hard to say, day by day, hour by hour, what the truest feelings were. It took a long time to move past it. I actually gave him another chance at one point, which was also incredibly stupid in retrospect, but I felt like he deserved it at the time. I thought I could “fix” him. (I couldn’t. Newsflash: We can’t fix people.)
Eventually it became unarguably evident that he was a deeply disturbed and damaged person, and that in spite of the beauty I saw in him (and believe was there), it wasn’t going to go anywhere. The relationship had no foundation of trust, so it had no future. But nobody could have told me that; believe me, they tried. But as is often the case, I had to learn for myself that he was not my problem nor my responsibility, and that is what took a while. It is embarrassing to tell this story, now that I’m older and wiser.
You know what? I am glad the whole thing happened. As ridiculous as that may sound given the pain and humiliation, I learned so much from it. I wouldn’t trade it in, even if I could. Not even to get back what he stole, or to get back the time I wasted. It was a lesson. It was my life. It was one of the many steps on the path to learning a hard lesson that the universe was going to continue teaching me over and over until I stopped doing the same things. My main lesson here was this:
HEY AMY! GUESS WHAT?! Stop trying to fix people. Focus on your own problems. Find someone healthy to be with.
Funnily enough, not very many people know the details of this story. It’s been long enough now that the sting is gone, but honestly, I felt really stupid for having been in this situation at all, much less for it taking me so long to fully extricate myself. But I am willing to tell you about this because it is important to me that you all know that I have made quite a few messes in my life. I learn pretty much everything the hard way, and I have tried on every version of relationship out there. So you are in good company if you too have a bit of a, shall we say, convoluted history.
Just a heads up that I will share a fair amount about my own life and rela- tionships here, much more than I would share in a counseling session. I will say, however, that unlike many more-traditional therapists, I do self-disclose quite a bit in general. I find sharing with clients to be rapport-building; I’ve found people like to know that not only am I real, but I struggle with the same things they do. It can be powerful to normalize an experience a client is having by explaining how I navigated something similar. Often, how I make sense of things my clients are dealing with is through reflection on my own life and how I’ve handled things, or imagining how I might feel in certain situations. The same might be true for you, so my hope is that my stories will help you.
And I have a lot of stories! I was married once before, to a man. Prior to that, I lived with a female partner for several years. Someone I dated when they identified as a lesbian has since come out as transgender, which in ret- rospect makes a lot of sense for them. I’ve dated people older and younger than me, of various races and ethnicities. All different personality types andcircumstances, including people with children, emotionally unavailable men, and a brief and long-distance affair with a married man. I’ve had a lot of sex, not all of which was for the right reasons, and not all of which I enjoyed. I’ve used all the dating apps that were available at the time. I’ve been on a lot of first dates.
Some of this experimentation worked pretty well; some of it was disastrous. I’ve made a lot of bad decisions and some risky mistakes. I’ve hurt people who sincerely loved me, and I’ve been deeply hurt. I’ve tried it all, because I just have to find out for myself. I have always wanted to understand people and relationships, and this is the path I’ve taken to learn. I’m not sure I’d recommend it, but here we are. Through it all, I’ve been asking myself questions about relationships, and revising my understanding with every new piece of information or experience.
How do relationships work, in theory?
How do relationships work for other people?
How/DO relationships work for me?
What makes them healthy?
Why do some feel so hard?
Is it worth staying when they do?
Will I ever find a place to land and stay?
How do I know when it’s time to move on?
Am I being unreasonable by expecting my relationship to be easyish most of the time?
I’ve also spent my life asking questions about myself. Questions like: Who am I?
What are my values?
What do I believe?
What is my purpose?
What makes me happy?
What do I need?
What nourishes my spirit?
How do I communicate?
What is the best way to authentically express myself? Who “gets” me?
What are my boundaries?
What do I struggle with?
I’ve learned a lot about myself over the years. And I think it’s fair to say that my greatest relationship challenge has been trying to figure out how to get what I needed without sacrificing my identity and autonomy. It is hard for me to give of myself; I’m pretty selfish in some ways. It is really hard for me to share space. It is hard for me to ask for help. I am restless and I struggle to stay put. I desperately want roots but I fear anchors. I resent feeling “stuck.”
It is challenging for me to be monogamous, particularly when it comes to emotional intimacy. My entire adulthood, I’ve been trying to determine whether one person could be enough for me, whether I could be enough for them, and whether a long-term relationship, much less marriage, is plau- sible for me.
At this writing, my husband and I have been married for a few years and it is working great, but in order for that to be possible, I’ve had to reframe the very notion of marriage. We also have to communicate a lot. As I mentioned, and I’ll say more about this later, I was married once before and it didn’t feel right. We only lasted one year. For a long time post-divorce, I was decidedly against the idea of doing it again.
To make it work for us now, we have had to negotiate. We have had to very intentionally and collaboratively transform marriage into what works for us, rather than conform to what society tells us it should look like. Because, in my estimation, society is often completely wrong; for example, I definitely don’t want to do marriage the way I’ve been taught it should be. I don’t see a lot of happy couples doing it the way you’re “supposed” to. Generally speaking, tuning in to what we think things “should” be like is a recipe for unhappiness. I hope I will make that clear throughout these pages.
I’ve also been working through shame and vulnerability as I try to achieve intimacy in a way that feels right to me. But I also have to be able to bypassreflexive shame about failure in order to know when it’s time to leave a situation. With every passing year, I’ve been learning more to listen to my intuition and trust myself. It’s like I always know what’s right for me, but sometimes I feel bad doing it so I hesitate longer than I should. So now, even if the world doesn’t understand what I’m doing, I have learned to follow my gut. Even when I know it will be hard, and may cause someone to be hurt, myself included.
For me, sometimes the “work” has been identifying and dodging quicksand, by which I mean the relationships where I could easily have gotten stuck and then spent years of my life unhappy. Luckily, I’m not one to linger once I get clear on a decision. But if there’s a thing I have learned from my work with couples, it’s that many people would have stayed in places I left.
I can’t say whether it’s right or wrong, but I hope one of the outcomes of reading this is readers feeling empowered to realistically and honestly assess for themselves whether they should stay or go, using whatever criteria is right for you. As my favorite advice columnist Cheryl Strayed once wrote, “...Go, even though there is nowhere to go. Go, even though you don’t know exactly why you can’t stay. Go, because you want to. Because wanting to leave is enough...” (From her book,
“Tiny Beautiful Things”). It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else.
I also spend a lot of time trying to understand, “Why am I like this?” and playing around with the answers I come up with, sorting and slotting and rejecting them as I try to build an answer that feels true. As we move through this, I invite you to think deeply about your early messaging about relationships and how that messaging informs how you do relationships as an adult. Getting clarity around “why you are like this” is important “root” work that many of you have probably not done, especially if you have not spent much time in therapy.
I’d like to state for the record that therapy is a great place to explore your roots, to take a close look at what formed you, and to encourage you to reject or embrace that early messaging depending on its current value and resonance. There are many paths to healing, and many ways to do this root work. Personally, I have been to seven different therapists and a number of alternative spiritual coaches and healers (which I jokingly refer to as “witch doctors”) over the years, with varying degrees of success and insight achieved. I did some work around “healing my inner child.” I’ve received Reiki/energy healing; I did past life regression under hypnosis twice. For one strange year, I regularly used a tarot reader as if she was a therapist.
I’m just saying, I’ve made my way through many different healing modali- ties and firmly believe you can find wisdom in all kinds of places and learnfrom all kinds of teachers. I did all that while concurrently staying present with my work, helping my clients navigate what they’re going through, and learning from them as well. And it’s still been quite a mess at times. In the end, I’d say all the experiences have been invaluable and “worth it” because all of it goes into the great big stewpot of healing work that’s been brewing on my stove for 40 years. I feel quite certain I’ll never be done growing and healing. It is likely you won’t either.
Here are some questions you may want to ask yourself that stem from the work I’ve done for and with myself:
What did your family of origin teach you about what relationships look like? What did you learn about commitment and resilience?
What did you learn about dysfunction and co-dependence?
What did you learn about sex and intimacy?
What did you learn about communication and conflict resolution?
What did you learn about boundaries?
Personally, I learned early that I generally lacked skills in the whole area of Relationship, probably in part due to my own family of origin. My parents divorced when I was 15, and it was a relief when they did, because they had co-existed in a space so full of tension for so long that it sometimes made it hard for me to breathe. To be fair, I doubt they knew they were affecting me in such a way, as I don’t think it impacted my sister or brother in the same ways. I certainly didn’t have the vocabulary as a child to fully express the discomfort I felt being in the house with them together. But my experience highlights that we must keep in mind that some children are very sensitive to the energy around them, and so “staying together for the children” can actually be quite harmful to kids, those empath kids in particular.
In couples’ counseling sessions where there are children involved and divorce is on the table, I always disclose this information upfront when clarifying my position that I do not believe parents should stay together only for their children. I always explain that I personally believe that it didn’t make any of our lives better to have my parents stay together so long. They stayed married 24 years, but from what I understand, only a handful of those were happy. In many ways, life is long, and so there is ostensibly time to figure things out, but I also believe it’s too short to be willfully unhappy once you’ve identified that you are.
I’ll talk more about this later, but it is my personal and professional opinion that children do better with happy parents, whatever that looks like. I feel like you should know this right away about me. This is my stance, provided separation and divorce are done respectfully, amicably, and with kindness. My parents did a good job with this, which also informs my belief that it can be done well.
On this note, a few years ago I completed the training required to be a mediator in my state because the idea of helping couples divorce peacefully appeals to me. The skills required for effective mediation are invaluable in my work. I still do counseling, not formal mediation, but that training gives me an expanded framework for thinking about how and why people end relationships, why so many struggle to do it well, and ways I can help them do it better.
Overall, I am a person who values relationships and finds them endlessly interesting and informative. While I do enjoy individual counseling, cou- ples’ counseling is my heart’s work. As I’ve been working on this book, it’s become more and more clear that I should be doing much more of it!
It’s important to know that I believe any relationship that sincerely works for everyone involved can be accurately defined as “normal,” even if you’re the only ones doing it the way you’re doing it. I also firmly believe in the idea that we are all here to live our best lives, to access and live into our highest selves, and to connect with and support one another.
I’m writing much of this during the pandemic of 2020; the shifts in the culture during this bizarre and unprecedented time may change how this book may otherwise have turned out. I am acutely aware of the ways in which we have been failing ourselves and each other. I don’t know yet what will come of the COVID-19 crisis, but I already see that much will change, and rightfully so.
Obviously, I can’t be your therapist or coach through a book, but I can offer you what I’ve learned from my personal and professional experiences. I believe that we cannot effectively engage in healthy relationships unless we have understanding of and access to our highest selves. Being clear on whoyou are and committed to living into the best version of yourself possible will aid you in creating the kind of intimacy you desire. That is the work I have been doing for myself, and I feel certain that I have finally landed in the relationship I am best at and which offers me the greatest chance for happiness; out of all the situations I’ve encountered, this is the best one. And I met him when I was 36, so I had plenty of time to kiss frogs, as it were.
It helps that I am the best version of myself in my early 40s that I’ve ever been, and I know that is the main contributing factor to why my marriage is working as well as it is. (It helps that my husband is very healthy and that he’s a counselor himself!)
I am here to help you navigate your self-development as well as your rela- tionships, whether they be intimate friendships, short or long-term romantic relationships, or even marriage. While I’m at it, I also wish to dispel the idea that marriage is some sort of perfect ideal to strive for. I want to suggest that it’s just another stop along life’s journey; it’s neither the beginning nor the end. You can go there or not, and be just as happy either way. If you never get married, it means nothing about whether your life was a “success.” Your life is already a success, and it can only get better from here as you add to your skills and insight.
I want you to be thinking about your own relationships, with your self and others, and to start taking a look at your patterns and the history of how you “show up” in your life. What are the questions you’ve been trying to answer? Take some time and get clear on what they are. Make a list. (Seriously! It can be really powerful to see your stuff on paper.) You can borrow my questions and answer those, or you may want to make up your own. (There are lots more to come, too.) It doesn’t really matter what gets you started, I just want to encourage you to journey down this introspective path. In the next lesson we will get into some particulars, but this is one starting point: “Why are you like this?”
Have you ever done the root work I’m talking about? If not, what has kept you from going there? Are you ready to do it now?
How do you feel when you consider your relationship history? What words would you use to describe your relationships thus far?