Feeling Good Together: The secret to making troubled relationships work

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You tell yourself that the situation in hopeless and that the other person will continue to treat you in a shabby way, no matter what. Example: You tell yourself that the person you're not getting along with will never change. Magnification and Minimization Description: You blow the other person's faults way out of proportion and shrink the importance of his or her positive qualities.


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Example: During an argument, you may blurt out, "I can't believe how stupid you are! Emotional Reasoning Description: You reason from how you feel. Example: You may feel like the other person is a loser and conclude that she or he really is a loser. Or, because you feel hurt, angry, and mistrustful, you conclude that the other person is trying to hurt you or take advantage of you. Should Statements Description: You criticize yourself or other people with "shoulds," "shouldn'ts," "oughts," "musts," and "have tos.

You tell yourself that other people shouldn't feel and act the way they do, and that they should be the way you expect them to be. Other-Directed Shoulds trigger feelings of anger, resentment, and frustration when things don't go the way you expected.. It's unfair! You tell yourself that you shouldn't have made that mistake or shouldn't feel the way you do. Self-Directed Shoulds trigger feelings of shame, inadequacy, and depression. Example: You withdraw and give up instead of solving the problem that's bothering you. Labeling Description: You label the other person as a "jerk" or worse.

You see his or her entire essence as negative, with no redeeming features Example: "She's such a bitch! Blame Description: Instead of pinpointing the cause of a problem, you assign blame. There are two patterns: Other-Blame. You blame the other person and deny your own role in the problem. You tell your spouse, "It's all your fault! You feel guilty and worthless because you blame yourself for the problem, even if it isn't entirely your fault.


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  • Example: You tell yourself, "It's all my fault! This theory may resonate with your personal experience. When you're mad at someone, you may have noticed that your mind will be flooded with negative thoughts. You tell yourself, "He's such a jerk! He only cares about himself. He shouldn't be like that. What a loser! One of the most interesting things about the cognitive theory is the idea that anger and interpersonal conflict ultimately result from a mental con.

    In other words, you're telling yourself things that aren't entirely true when you're fighting with someone. For example, if you tell yourself that the person you're annoyed with is a jerk, you'll treat him like a jerk. As a result, he'll get angry and start acting like a jerk. Then you'll tell yourself that you were right all along and that he really is a jerk. Cognitive therapy is based on the idea that when you change the way you think, you can change the way you feel and behave.

    In other words, if we can learn to think about other people in a more positive and realistic way, it will be far easier to resolve conflicts and develop rewarding personal and professional relationships. This theory sounds great on paper, but it's not that easy to change the thinking patterns that trigger anger and conflict. That's because there's a side of us that clings to these distortions. It can feel good to look down on someone we're angry or annoyed with. It gives us a feeling of moral superiority.

    We just don't want to see that we're distorting our view of the person we're not getting along with. Some experts claim that the most important deficit that leads to relationship problems is a lack of self-esteem. In other words, if you don't love and respect yourself, you'll have an awfully hard time loving anyone else because you'll always be trying to get something from the other person that you can only give yourself. This theory has been popular in our schools.

    The idea is that if we help children develop greater self-esteem when they're growing up, they'll be able to develop warm, trusting relationships with others and won't be so attracted to violence, crime, and gang membership as they get older. Other experts believe that relationship distress results from a different kind of deficit called relationship burnout. You may have noticed that when you aren't getting along with someone, there's nearly always an escalation of negativity over time.

    You and your spouse may criticize each other more and more and stop doing all the fun things you did when you first met and began to date. Pretty soon, your marriage becomes a source of constant stress, frustration, and loneliness, and all the joy and caring you once experienced has disappeared. At this point, separation and divorce begin to seem like highly desirable alternatives.

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    Therapists who endorse the burnout theory will encourage you and your partner to accentuate the positive. For example, you could schedule more fun, rewarding activities together so you can begin to enjoy each other's company again. You might also do several loving, thoughtful things for each other every day, such as calling your partner from work just to say hello, or bringing your partner a cup of coffee in the morning to show you really care.

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    Many therapists believe that relationship problems ultimately result from a lack of trust and the fear of vulnerability. Let's say that you're ticked off because of something that a colleague or family member said to you. On the surface, you're angry, but underneath the anger, you feel hurt and put down. You're reluctant to let the other person know that you feel hurt because you're afraid of looking weak or foolish.

    Instead, you lash out, get defensive, and try to put the other person down. Although the tension escalates, your anger protects you because you don't have to make yourself vulnerable or risk rejection. In other words, the basic deficit is a lack of trust—we fight because of our fears of intimacy. Therapists who endorse this theory will encourage you to accept and share the hurt and tender feelings that are hiding underneath all the anger, hostility, and tension. Psychoanalytic and psychodynamic therapists believe that all of these interpersonal deficits and problems loving each other ultimately stem from painful experiences and wounds we endured when we were growing up.

    The idea is that if you grew up in a dysfunctional family, you may subconsciously recreate the same painful patterns over and over as an adult.


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    • For example, if your father constantly criticized you and put you down, you may have felt like you were never quite good enough to earn his love. As an adult, you may be attracted to men who are equally critical of you because you feel like your role in a loving relationship is to be put down to by someone who's powerful and judgmental, and you may still be desperately trying to get the love you never got from your father.

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      When I first began treating people with relationship problems, I believed all of these deficit theories, so I naturally tried to help my patients correct the deficits that were causing their conflicts. I enthusiastically taught troubled couples how to communicate more skillfully, how to solve their problems more systematically, and how to treat each other in a more loving way. I also taught them how to boost their self-esteem and modify the distorted thoughts and self-defeating behavior patterns that triggered all the anger and resentment.

      Sometimes we analyzed the past to try to trace the origins of these patterns. I was surprised to discover that none of these techniques worked very well. It wasn't that they weren't ever effective—individuals who learned to listen, share their feelings more openly, and treat others with greater love and respect sometimes experienced immediate and dramatic improvements in their relationships with other people. But these individuals were few and far between.

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      Most of the people who complained about their relationships with other people didn't actually seem motivated to use any of these techniques. In fact, many of them didn't seem interested in doing anything whatsoever to develop more loving, satisfying relationships with the people they were at odds with.

      Feeling Good Together

      They claimed that they sincerely wanted a more loving and satisfying relationship, but what they really meant was, "I want you to agree that my wife or husband is a loser. They were also plagued by distorted negative thoughts that constantly flowed across their minds, such as, "I'm no good.

      I'm such a loser. What's wrong with me? I'll never get better. But when I tried to help individuals who were angry and having trouble getting along with others, it was a different kettle of fish entirely. They didn't seem interested in changing the way they thought, communicated, or treated the person they weren't getting along with. They seemed far more interested in bashing each other's heads in! At first, this came as a shock, and I was confused. Before long, I began to question the so-called "deficit" theories, and my understanding of the causes of conflict took a sudden turn in an unexpected direction.

      Feeling Good Together: The Secret to Making Troubled Relationships Work

      Mickey was a 45 year-old San Francisco businessman who was referred to me by a colleague for the treatment of depression. Mickey had been treated with every known antidepressant, but none of them had made a dent in his mood. I took Mickey off his medications, since they obviously weren't working, and used cognitive therapy techniques instead. The problem is, despite many different techniques for doing this, couples counseling has a pretty disappointing success rate. Why is this? This sounds simple and even obvious; but when I analyzed a common interaction I had with my partner, I realized how badly I was communicating.

      Indeed, the more I analyzed my own interactions, the more I realized that I had been effectively shutting down communication. And when I imagined what it would be like to be on the receiving end of my words, I suddenly understood—with a pang of remorse—that it would have felt really awful. After coming to terms with the flaws in your own behavior, Burns next teaches you skills for communicating more effectively.