15 Statements of Commitment to Heal and Strengthen Your Relationship  

By Athena Staik, Ph.D. • 2 min read

Commitment 3

Commitment is a conscious choice to express your love for your partner and relationship with a clear series of choices to consciously shape your future together. Commitment is a foundation that nourishes a sense of safety, trust, and security, all key ingredient in forming a healthy, vibrant relationship. The same neurochemicals that make partners feel loved and loving are the same ones that make them feel safe and secure.  This is an unalterable characteristic of human beings and the relationships they form. The shared drive for security is worth every ounce of effort.

Learning to navigate the emotional storms of a couple relationship, without getting overwhelmed or pretending they’re not there, takes a lot of determination, a willingness to be honest and vulnerable, and at least 15 commitments to do your part in protecting and nurturing a healthy relationship. 

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Sexual Reintegration Therapy: Healing Solutions for Sex and Porn Addiction

By Athena Staik, Ph.D. • 2 min read

Bercaw BookCouples dealing with the impact of a partner with sex and porn addiction, according to Drs. Bill and Ginger Bercaw, face considerably greater obstacles than those facing other addictions, such as substance abuse. Because of the trauma caused by repeated acts of betrayal, healing and rebuilding a relationship will require extensive efforts.

Authors of “The Couple’s Guide to Intimacy: How Sexual Reintegration Therapy Can Help Your Relationship Heal,” the Bercaws are psychologists who specialize in sex addiction and sex therapy. The treatment approach they have developed, “Sexual Reintegration Therapy,” is specifically designed to heal the wounds caused one partner having a sexual addiction. The approach can also effective, however, for couples seeking to heal from love addiction, infidelity and other addictive patterns, as well as to improve or develop a healthier sex life.

Partners must be willing to make a commitment for the long haul, and work hard on their own individual healing before they can work in a more focused way on healing their relationship, with no guarantees the relationship will survive. In the words of Drs Bercaw,

“In sex and porn addiction, not only does the addict’s brain become ‘hijacked’ by the repetitive stimulation and then the secretiveness of his acting out, the spouse or partner is also repetitively emotionally traumatized by betrayal, secrecy and lies. Long-term healing requires rebuilding the couple’s relational system from the ground up. The added challenge is that the very thing that has caused so much pain—sexual behavior—cannot be cut out of the couples like as substances such as alcohol can be. On the contrary, the couple will need to heal from the wounds that the sexual acting out has caused and then decide how they would like to cultivate a new way of relating sexually with each other.”

         The Bercaws view the biggest challenge facing partners in recovery as being open to learning how to reconnect and be emotionally and sexually intimate after the impact of the initial shock and anguish. This involves new ways of relating that allow both to be “emotionally intimate,” perhaps seeing the other for the first time. A healthy emotional connection is what absorbs the impact of the trauma experience and sets the stage for “sexual intimacy” to happen. They identify four stages of recovery as:

  1. Shock stage
  2. Grief stage
  3. Repair stage
  4. Growth stage

Couples who make it through the first stage may find themselves feeling isolated and losing hope in restoring healthy intimacy and sexual relations. According to Drs. Bercaw, healing may only begin once the betrayed spouse has stabilized to some degree from the traumatic shock of the discovery of the addict’s secret life. For couples that survive the initial storm, the program assigns tasks specifically designed to help partners recover individually and reengage emotionally.

For starters, couples with sex and porn addiction issues usually have a history of problematic patterns in how they communicate and emotionally engage to express their feelings with one another. The treatment consists of a structured program that outlines a specific plan for partners to reconnect intimately. The program invites partners to participate in a series of experiences designed to rewire the way they communicate and caress one another, and to believe that it is possible to replace unhealthy patterns of thinking, feeling acting sexually with patterns that promote healthy relating and sex. Considerable effort goes into identifying unhealthy sexual behaviors and patterns to avoid, and recovery requires a willingness to abstain from harmful behaviors. There are five steps, or “criteria for readiness,” to take first before partners return to the question of “What is healthy sexuality” for them as a couple and individuals. They are to:

  1. Understand the four stages of discovery
  2. Fully participate in addiction and trauma work
  3. Conduct a ‘formal disclosure’ session (meaning therapist facilitated)
  4. Participate in emotional reflection leading to a clear plan for restitution
  5. Review critical incidents of betrayal in healing communications

A commitment from both to heal and restore their relationship is key. “The only way intimate sexuality will be reclaimed,” Drs. Bercaw explain, “is if it addressed directly and with a level of focus sufficient to make significant change,” once both parties agree to fully participate.

3 Agents that Can Derail Goals and Dreams (And Negatively Shape Your Life)

By Athena Staik, Ph.D. • 4 min read

images-252This is a great time of year to energize your dreams and goals, with momentum and high expectations for your success to unfold. In moments of stress, however, or when a set back occurs, you want to remain aware of certain negative agents that can automatically take over and influence your outcomes. By remaining consciously aware of agents that mostly operate subconsciously, hidden from view, the power is in your hands to rewire many of these pre-programmed emotion-command neural pathways.

The idea is to capitalize on positive-change mental imagery your mind is capable of producing, and in part, this means you are actively disallowing certain agents from blocking your capacity to visualize your future, the way you want it, and to make it an optimal sensory experience, one that involves all five of your senses, and puts you in charge of powerful creative processes.

There are at least three thinking patterns that need to be stopped from derailing your goals and dreams, they are:

1. Negative thought patterns

Your thoughts are an inner dialogue. Scientists speculate an average of about sixty thousand thoughts cross your mind a day, many of which you habitually repeat to yourself, and for the most part, have been repeating from early childhood! These thoughts, or “self-talk,” activate emotions accordingly. While certain persons or events may trigger painful emotions, they are not the cause. The real cause is what you tell yourself, this inner dialogue, in particular, your interpretative thoughts. Negative thoughts form more negative thoughts, and repeated over and over form toxic thinking patterns. Characteristically, toxic patterns are associated with either-or, black-and-white type of thinking that occurs when the body’s fear-response gets activated — at which time the higher, reflective thinking part of your brain is put offline, and reactive, defensive, on guard thinking automatically takes over. “Rehearsal” is a process you can learn and practice, if you do not already, that can put you, rather than your fear-based emotions, in charge of what you think, and do, and how events unfold.

2. Old limiting beliefs

Your thoughts are a powerful energy because they are linked to your beliefs, in particular, certain emotion-laden core beliefs regarding what it means to be a man, a woman, a human being in relation to your self, life and others. The power of these beliefs lies in that they produce thought-imagery in your mind, which activate emotion molecules that literally shape and direct chemical reactions accordingly within the cells of your body. Beliefs are limiting when they persuade you to view life, self and others, within the confines of black-and-white thinking categories. In essence, limiting beliefs are learned, habitual ways of automatically — and continuously — judging whether you or others fall into dichotomous categories of either “deserving” of love, respect, etc., on the basis of preset arbitrary standards of what ‘has to’ happen for you or another to … avoid punishment. 

The answers to questions of what it means to be a man or a woman, a human being in relation to another human being, however, should never imprison or dehumanize—but rather free you, as a human being, to relate to your self and others as miracle-making beings, ever yearning to be treated with dignity. 

When a positively charged state of emotional energy displaces a negative one, it has the power to permanently transform (heal) limiting beliefs. In any moment, you always have the power to connect to miracle-making resources inside, and must especially consider doing so to identify any fear-activating limiting beliefs as they surface—so you may replace them with ones that instead produce life-enriching attitudes and images, healing choices. This process directs your subconscious mind, the part of the brain that controls the autonomic functions of the body, to create new neurons and neural pathways, ones that will better support you to make optimal choices, actions, in the future in the direction of creating your best life and relationships.                  

3. Change-Blocking Associations

Your brain is always gathering data, subconsciously or not, and the most important data it collects pertains to its prized subject: you. It is continually collecting data, for example, regarding what you like and do not, what stresses and relaxes, what you find pleasurable and uncomfortable, and so on, and puts special emphasis on what triggers and calms your fears. Accordingly this forms associations, or neural pathways that connect neurons. Positive associations are ones that connect certain events, substances, activities with feel-good emotions and physical sensations, and negative associations connect experiences with feel-bad feelings. Naturally, because negative associations elevate fear, to the extent they do so, they have the power to block change. If your thinking has trained your body, unwittingly, to associate one of your goals, i.e., realizing a healthy relationship or a trim, fit body, with painful emotions, such as disappointment, guilt or anxiety, this may block change. Why? It means that whenever you think of what you want, your body activates thoughts and images of what you “lack” at present, perhaps past mistakes, or even failures. This negative association controls your behaviors.

For example, each time you see someone with a fit, healthy body, for example, you make feel disgusted or unhappy with your self. The result? Your subconscious mind may interpret this to mean that “your dream” is something you want to avoid – a clear miscommunication! It’s just the way the brain works. Its operating system is hardwired this way. With “rehearsals” you can correct limiting associations, and be in charge of the process. You are more likely to be energized to take sustained actions toward reaching a goal, when thinking of your goals makes you feel emotions of determination, hope, belief, confidence, excitement, and the like.

In sum, you want to remain aware of any thought patterns, such as the above, which have the power to derail your goals and dreams, and negatively shape your future.

Often incorrectly described as “self-destructive,” among other self-blame and accusatory labels, describing yourself as against yourself only contribute to the problem by doing more of what the real problem is: energy draining thought habits.

It is more helpful to work with and heal these old patterns by understanding that, while misguided, their primary intent is benevolent and well meaning: to protect, to defend, to ensure your survival.

While the effect of the above thought patterns may be destructive, it’s more accurate to describe them as benevolent and well meaning in their intent, merely misguided ways your brain and body have been subconsciously trained (i.e., by your experience and exposure to other brains) to automatically protect you.

Protect your goals and dreams from the above “interfering” agents. One way is to energize your behaviors and chart your momentum in a certain direction by … rehearsing your future.

Imagery works because it allows the bright future you imagine to unfold, layer after later, step by step, to keep creating your masterpiece, regardless of any challenges or setbacks. It’s up to you to protect your power for possibility thinking and imagination from any
“interfering” emotional states that certain “agents,” or pre-programmed emotion-command neural pathways have the power to automatically activate. It’s your job to stay energized when you think of your highest goals and plans for the future. 


5 Prerequisites to Unlock Your Communications — Re-Image Your Partner As Capable of Loving You, 5 of 5

By Athena Staik, Ph.D. • 10 min read

1021326634_f207f0dd51Certain shifts in perception are essential to unlock your imagination to work for you in creating a healthy, vibrant love relationship. To summarize the first four:

  • The first shift (see Part 2) sees a commitment to individual healing, each participating fully in your own and one another’s healing processes, as an essential aspect of relationship building.

Your relationship will make you happy, to the extent you are each open to grow, to learn, to stretch your capacity to love, to understand, and that often means to protect and know how to do your part, as needed, to bring positive energy to your relationship. You cannot afford to wait until problems are solved, and so and so does such and such first before you feel happy, loving, loved. You must each cultivate the ability to do your part to enjoy each other, and disallow challenges along the way to drain positive sources of energy inside you. In other words, even as you seek to improve your relationship, your happiness must not depend on present circumstance. Happiness is not a goal, it’s the way to live to create more happiness and other positive emotions, such as gratitude, hope, belief, appreciation, determination, and so on. 

  • The second shift (see Part 2) has to do with how you view and relate to emotions overall, in particular, painful ones that trigger you.

You need to cultivate an openness to feel your emotions, and see them as information that is vital to your decision making. When you get comfortable with uncomfortable emotions, this ability more and more frees you from the pull of old comfort zones and stuck places, and allows you to transform your fears to assets. Your developing ability to embrace painful emotions, as potentially vital information, prevents your body from unnecessarily activating your survival response when you’re triggered (which cuts you off from core inner capacities, i.e., to deeply reflect, to see new options, etc., when you most need them). In effect, this ability to remain engaged and present, and eager to learn and understand, is about developing an intimate relationship with your self, your emotions, thoughts, body and mind, fully accepting all aspects of y-o-u. To the extent you get to know and love yourself, you grow your capacity to love another amazing — albeit also imperfect being — your partner!

  • The third shift (see Part 3) is to see yourself as 100% in charge of the energies you choose to bring, in any given moment, to your relationship interactions.

This shift affirms you are fully equipped and capable of becoming a consciously aware and wise captain, one who acts as an observer, creator and choice maker, and who regulates the energies of your mind and body so that your actions and responses to moment by moment events stem primarily from love-based emotions. Without this shift, you’re likely to waste a lot of energy focusing on what “the other” needs to change or stop doing, instead of focusing on where you really have power, and that is, to manage your own body’s relaxation response so that you can be present. Otherwise, you have little or no ability to stop the reactivity of your own body, and a state of mind in which your wounded-ego self takes over, and automatically activates, your early survival-love defense strategies to protect you.

  • The fourth shift (see Part 4) is a shift away from issues to focusing on protecting and building a healthy and secure love relationship.

Rather than focus on issues, a more powerful focus is to tune into what works, or doesn’t work, to keep a health, vibrant connection between you — a relationship is strong and vibrant to the extent both partner feel they matter in relation to the other. You cannot do the other’s part, any more than you can breathe or exercise for them. You can however do yours, hopefully in ways that inspire the other to join the dance. The dance takes two. In practice, what nurtures and strengthens your relationship are ways of being and responding that say you care about one another’s deepest yearnings, core intimacy fears and dreams, that take time to intimately get to know one another’s strengths and vulnerabilities, and make a commitment to ever treat one another with dignity, especially when you’re triggered.

  • The fifth shift is the topic discussed in the remaining section. 

In the same way that you need the prerequisite shifts above to re-envision yourself as capable of creating happiness in your life and relationship, of becoming an ever better version of yourself, to keep stretching in ways that help you expand your capacity to give and receive love, you also need to re-envision your partner, and hold a vision of them that energizes and inspires you — and them — hopefully both to ever hope and believe in one another. 

5. See your partner as capable of loving you, being thoughtful, aware, caring, responsive, available, engaged, reflective, and so on.

Most partners enter their relationship with certain ideals they formed in childhood — early survival-love maps. In adulthood, these early imprints in memory can leave them at risk of feeling increasingly needy, powerless, inadequate, alone, etc., when certain inevitable core issues surface in relationships. In most cases, a couple starts off thinking they’re in a heavenly match, that is, until a triggering issue surfaces, and then stays like a guest that keeps living with you even though they were only invited for a weekend! Wittingly or unwittingly, at some point, partners start to entertain negative thoughts of the other, such as “this is not the person I married,” and the defense strategies they also mostly learned in childhood increasingly take over.

Partners may think they are in control or worry their partner is in control; in truth, their protective strategies are in control.

These protective defenses, after all, helped each partner literally survive childhood. They did so however at the expense of learning how to avoid feeling certain painful (triggering) emotions. In their adult relationship, these automatic behaviors are emotion-command activated neural pathways in their brains are the real culprits, preventing them from successfully connecting. Their attempts to navigate life and their relationship under the subconscious influence of these early-survival love maps is like attempting to take a shower wearing a raincoat (in more extreme cases, perhaps also rain boots, hat and an umbrella and more!).

When couples get stuck it’s usually because they get locked into certain behavioral interactions in which they each automatically activate one another’s survival response. The real culprit is always fear, more specifically, elevated levels of core intimacy fears, such as fear of inadequacy, rejection, abandonment.

In short, the real reason partners get stuck is because each partner has been focused on making continual improvements mostly to their defenses strategies!

The more partners attempt to get back the loving feelings they had at the start of their relationship, and do so with defensive acts of desperation, the more they intensify their own and one another’s fears, In turn, more and more, this weakens their connection to love-based emotions, essentials such as empathy and kindness, hope and belief, fun and passion, and the like.

The key to unlocking your hearts again lies in … your thoughts, more specifically, cultivating your ability to shift to loving, hopeful, inspiring thoughts of your partner, at will.

Your thoughts activate images in your mind that literally form actual structural in your brain, such as emotion-command neural pathways. In turn, when these program are fired, they automatically activate certain behavioral reactions. In other words, your thoughts decide the words you speak, and the actions you take. Unless you take conscious charge of your choices, to change the old program, it’s stuck in the old pattern.

It’s just the way the brain works. Its operating system is hardwired to operate this way. It is particularly challenging to change old wiring that is associated with early survival-love needs of childhood. 

The words you speak, and the emotions they convey, are rooted in underlying perceptions, mindsets and beliefs, which should be thought of as powerful energies, which moment by moment create your future.

The mistake couples make is (likely) the same mistake their parents made. Instead of primarily using words that inspire love-based emotions of hope and belief, they use words or “logic” that primarily activates fear-based emotions of shame, guilt, anxiety, and the like. Like their parents, they hold subconscious programming that causes them to rely on the use of punitive tactics of dominance and force to “get” the other’s cooperation and love. There negative — limiting — beliefs are, in effect, lies that “seem true” because you have subconsciously trained your body (through your thoughts) to think they are true, such as the limiting belief that you have to punish, humiliate, shame someone when they do something hurtful to keep them in line, to “teach” them a lesson, etc., otherwise, you will lose control, they will not respect you, etc.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. It’s impossible to control another person’s heart. No one can make another really, really love you inside, and thus, it’s not possible for one person to control another — not even a parent to control a child. From the time you were born, you have been in control; no one has ever been in control of you, only you. Your real problem is not preventing your partner from controlling you. It’s preventing your subconscious programs from being in control of you and your life. Your emotion-command neural pathways, and not your partner, are really to blame for making you feel, among other things, like an unloved, unappreciated or powerless child.

Negative associations of your partner in your mind block your change — and theirs — because they amp up fear-based emotions that drain energy. When you hold negative expectations for your partner, what emotions are you likely to feel whenever you think about realizing a satisfying, great relationship? Most likely painful, right? These emotions put more negative images in your imagination, for example, reminders of past hurts, mistakes, failures, or what you, your partner or relationship lacks, etc. This then produces more negative associations, and best explains why, when you and your partner start to talk about a painful issue, if you’re not careful, you’re likely to get derailed, and start talking about a dozen other past hurts instead of the issue at hand.

The result? Your subconscious mind has formed negative expectations of your partner. Whether you express these expectations outwardly or stew on them inside, there is nonstop communication taking place between your partner’s subconscious mind — and yours! Whatever you believe becomes your body’s truth.

In the same way that top athletes and champions are trained to “act as if” — you and your partner need to cultivate the capacity to shift to your highest expectations, not only for your self, but also for your partner. It is a behavior of the most inspiring and effective leaders to hold in place high expectations for others. Why? Others live up to our expectations. If you approach your partner “knowing” deep down inside that you’ll never get through or they’ll always be out of control, etc., at some level, you’re contributing to the problem instead of being part of the solution.

This does not mean you should take honest discussions of issues off the table!

You have most leverage to lower the fear and to amp up the love instead is always … your thoughts.

The bottom line?  Painful feelings can really get in the way of your dreams. You need to know how to protect your relationship goals and dreams from any “interfering” emotional states. One way is to energize new behaviors and momentum by “rehearsing” or re-envisioning your partner and your future together. This is not mean you should take honest discussions of issues off the table!

“Rehearsals” can help you correct these negative associations with ones that help you re-image — see, feel and treat — your partner as capable of loving you, being thoughtful to you, responsive, available, and so on.

In truth, they are! Every human being is hardwired with these capacities! It’s a matter of cultivating them, and rehearsing is one way to wire them into your brains.

If this sounds interesting to you, here are a few suggestions to get started.

  • Set aside at least 5 minutes several times a day to re-envision your partner, in a relaxed state of mind and body, taking deep long, loving breaths.
  • Imagine the qualities you loved about your partner in the first phase of your relationship, as if they happen now.
  • Imagine other qualities you’d love your partner to express, as if they also currently happen.
  • Now do the same for yourself. Imagine the qualities you expressed and felt at the start of your relationship — and perhaps other ones you’d like to express, cultivate, and so on– again, do so as if they currently exist.
  • Imagine your partner softly whispering words such as, “I love, value and cherish you as you are.
  • Imagine yourself whispering the same in return.
  • As you “watch” or envision your partner in this “movie creation,” see the two of you together, and take in all the vibrant colors, hear the sounds, feel the emotions and sensations in your body, even smell fragrances with your nose, and tastes in your mouth.

To enhance your practice, here are a few more tips:

  • Remember, this is your “movie creation” and you are the director and producer; the important thing is to be present as if you are there, completely and fully, body and mind and emotion.
  • If any limiting thoughts or doubts surface, whenever they do, breathe into them and let them go — and smile confidently and return to your vision.
  • The key is to make sure this elicits pleasurable feelings of joy, happiness—gratitude—inside you as you do. Smile. Feel grateful.
  • Think of this time as a fun and delightful retreat, a transformational exercise you look forward to jumping into a few times a day, or as needed, to rehearse the life and relationships you want to create  – and speedily bring into your life.

When you feel pleasure “rehearsing” your future in the present moment, you are seeking to “influence” or retrain your subconscious mind to have new beliefs about you’re capable of. Remember, this is the part of the mind that runs the entire body—and that controls the formation of memory and habits.

Perceptions are learned. Since you have the power to transform your experience at any moment by the words you speak and the thoughts you think, why not use it instead to re-envision a brighter, more hopeful view of your self, your partner and your relationship?

You can begin, today, to practice a shift or two in your perception of events, to explore the possibility of replacing the old limiting ones.

You need perceptions that “train” your mind and body to “see” discomfort as your friend, and your imagination as your ticket to realizing success in your personal life and relationship. Protect your imagination from harsh criticisms, doubts, negative forecasts, and the like. You deserve to give your self and one another this gift.

Eventually, what once seemed “uncomfortable” will become more and more comfortable. And, at some point, you may be surprised to discover that you actually enjoy or love “this” challenge, and when you do, you’ll become champion material. After all, the main reason champions love challenges is because, when the doubts and fears surface, they focus instead on what inner strengths, talents, abilities, etc., they can access to conquer the challenge. They literally love to do so.

To get to heart to heart communications, partners need to shake off any limiting perceptions of their partner, and replace them with ones that are enriching and foster mutual responsive and caring actions.

It’s a question of whether partners will permit their survival-love fears to create their future, or choose a new reality for themselves.

It only takes a word or glance from either one of you to cause your brains to automatically activate your body’s survival system. When the survival response is activated, however, the brain has little or no access to the higher thinking power of the frontal cortex. In short, what seems like “thinking” and “logic” to you in your discussion is neither.


A Gift Guaranteed to Improve Your Love Life — and Brain? Make Your Relationship a Criticism-Free Zone

By Athena Staik, Ph.D. • 13 min read

images-888Here’s a gift to add to your list of what to get him/her on that special day, which is guaranteed to boost your brain’s capacity to work for you, and at the same time improve your love relationship. There’s one condition, however: Both of you must give this gift wholeheartedly to one another to experience its life energizing effects.

What is this gift? It’s the gift of making your relationship a criticism-free zone. There’s perhaps nothing as corrosive to your physical health as well as your love relationship than criticism, at least certain types.

To clarify, expressing what you like or don’t like are not criticisms per se. It is healthy to make descriptive observations of a problem, explore what actions or habits work or do not work, make suggestions or requests for something you’d like to see happen or stop occurring, and the like, for example. All of these, potentially, are relationship building actions.

In contrast, criticisms are detrimental to your health and relationship specifically because they are attempts to resolve issues through the use of words that attack or judge or label a partner’s character in derogatory ways. What we’re talking about here are words or phrases, such as shame-, guilt- or fear-inducing statements, which are purposefully designed to get the other to change or stop a certain behavior — in other words, to give you the love you need, etc. They are also widespread because they consist of parenting practices most of us experienced as children.

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The Latest on Healthy, Long-Lasting Relationships? Three Types of Responses to Bids for Connection, 2 of 2

By Athena Staik, Ph.D. • 6 min read

Kindness0Advances in neuroscience inform us that our brains are social in nature, and that, as a species, we’re continually affecting one another’s mental and emotional states of mind and body. This is just one of the findings reported by cofounders of brain-based therapy, Drs. John Arden and Lloyd Linfor in the January/February 2010 publication of Psychotherapy Networker. “ In their words,

We write ‘brain’ as a singular, but in a real sense there’s no such thing as one, single brain—only brains and nervous systems in some sort of relationship to one another.

As discussed in Part 1, decades of research by Drs. John and Julie Gottman indicate that the longevity and happiness of a love relationship can be predicted with 97% accuracy, for couples in which both partners practiced habits of generosity and kindness toward the other. For the long haul, it takes two to tango.

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The Latest on Healthy, Long-Lasting Relationships? Both Partners Cultivate Two Key Traits, 1 of 2

By Athena Staik, Ph.D. • 5 min read

Kindness1It seems unfair. Of the many couples that get married each year, hoping to find lifelong companionship, lasting joy, friendship and fulfillment, only about 50% will stay married, and of those that do, the vast majority, about 70%, devolve into arrangements that are unsatisfying at best, and dysfunctional or even destructive at worst.

Cheer up, however. These trends are not necessarily bad news, at least not if you think of them as information regarding what works — and doesn’t — to create healthy, vibrant couple relationships! They speak to key elements that relationships need — must have — to stay alive and thrive; and they also point to unrealistic yet prevailing expectations that need to be identified, let go of and replaced. Why? Expectations are life shaping agents. If they form thoughts, beliefs and behaviors that limit the capacity of men and women to nourish and strengthen their love relationship, they are set ups for failure.

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Couple Communications: 5 Prerequisites to Unlock Your Imagination, 4 of 5

By Athena Staik, Ph.D. • 3 min read

images-318A healthy, vibrant couple relationship takes two persons working as a team, and as individuals, to change what is only in the power of each to change, more specifically, to unlock their imagination by shifting away from limiting, subconscious perceptions (i.o.w., beliefs, thinking patterns) that act as key hindrances to realizing natural aspirations for a deeper sense of trust, and an increasingly more meaningful love-connection.

Continuing from Part 3, the fourth prerequisite shift turns your focus to the value of creating a healthy couple relationship itself.

4. See the value of nurturing a healthy couple relationship to your personal health and happiness.

This prerequisite shift invites partners to focus their attention on nurturing a healthy relationship. In practice this means both agree to be available and responsive to one another’s emotional needs, and that means to treat one another with dignity and respect, protecting and fostering the sense of safety, value and well-being each feels in relation to one another.

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The Paradox of Genuine Love: Why Loving Your Self Equals Loving Your Partner (And Vice Versa)

By Athena Staik, Ph.D. • 13 min read

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The permission to fully love and embrace your self and life with wonder, a compassionate love and acceptance is no small matter. Paradoxically, you need your own love and acceptance to fully and genuinely love your partner (and vice versa..).


Several reasons. For one, it is impossible to be in a love relationship and not hurt each other. It is par for the course. You are two different persons. You each bring unique strengths, gifts, intelligences and energy to the relationship. Each also brings past wounds, hurts and painful experiences in addition to a “new” build up of unresolved hurts between you. Each yearns to feel valued for their strengths, and yet at some point each tends to get stuck focusing on partner’s faults, weaknesses, lack of understanding, appreciation, etc.

Second, nature seems to love to bring together two persons in a couple relationship that have seemingly opposing approaches in several areas, especially when it comes to how they react to pain or stress. Pain is not the problem however. Pain is part of growth, learning, and stretching out of old comfort zones to realize new possibilities. The cliche “no pain, no gain” is more than a guideline; it is law of physics. The real problem has to do with how each partner reacts (defensively) when dealing with pain, i.e., extremes of either wallowing or detaching from pain.

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The Shadow Side of Falling In Love: The Power That Drives Addictions to Love, Sex and Romance

By Athena Staik, Ph.D. • 12 min read

Forever-April-1__97671_zoomWhereas genuine love fosters a mutually empathic connection between two persons, one that nourishes the mental, physical and emotional growth and capacity for compassion and self-actualization of each, the neurochemistry of love relationships can morph into a dangerous mix of drugs more difficult to part with than alcohol, cocaine or heroine.

Notably, we use many of the same words to describe the personality shift observed in those (our self included) we experience to be “in love” and those with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, such as: impulsive, foolhardy, dependent, obsessive, compulsive, heedless, cavalier, negligent, reckless, irresponsible, and so on.

A meta-analysis study by researchers at Syracuse University revealed for example that the state of “falling in love” takes only about a fifth of a second to occur, and is potent enough to impair the higher thinking areas of the brain. Its potency lies in its ability to elicit the same euphoric feeling as cocaine.

In a word, the wiring of our sensory brain and body — when not modulated by our ability for conscious-mind awareness to influence decision making — can leave us susceptible to falling in love with the state of “falling in love” itself. It has to do with the power that certain sensory cravings have to switch off the frontal cortex (ability to consciously think and make optimal choices). This explains why an addiction can be such a controlling factor in a person’s life (and relationships).

Biologically, the human body is wired to gravitate toward what produces comfortable, feel-good sensations in us — and correspondingly to avoid what produces pain and discomfort. Conceivably, the highest purpose of this design feature is to prompt us to stay on track (to both survive and thrive). Ideally, our body reminds us, on the one hand, to avoid what is unhealthy, harmful or a threat to our survival, and on the other hand, to keep reaching to fulfill core drives to matter and live meaningful lives.

In the state of falling in love, these sensory signals consist of a potent mix of chemicals, which have the power to relegate our otherwise amazing human brain and body — a sophisticated communication system like no other — into a slave driver that steals our ability to make healthy choices (consider costs) with vehement and intoxicating demands for quick feel-good fixes.

Out of fear and mistrust, the sensory system takes over.

When it comes to fulfilling the emotion-drive to matter, to feel loving and loved, the subconscious mind mistrusts the capability of the conscious mind’s thinking and decision-making– and puts it on hold, or offline position.

It’s a coup d’etat d’amour.

Essentially, this means in certain circumstances feel-good hormones have the power to steal our ability to make optimal choices, and hold our authentic wise-self (frontal cortex) captive, in a virtual prison of sorts, deceived by limiting subconscious beliefs … and mere illusions of love and power.

Whether the “drug of choice” is sex, love or romance, or substances or activities such as gambling or spending for that matter, a common experience of all addicts is an inability to stop behaviors they themselves recognize at some level as destructive or harmful, and yet feel powerless to stop.

Without conscious-thinking and discernment, however, our subconscious body-mind cannot distinguish between pain — or pleasure — that threatens rather than promotes our growth and wellbeing and aliveness.

Pain is an essential part of all growth, physical, mental and emotional; unnecessary pain leads to suffering. Pleasure is a emotional and physiological yearning for health and wellness, a sense of feeling good about our self and our capacity to contribute to life, create healthy, vibrant relationships that sustain us, and so on; pleasure at the expense of our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing is a trap that leads to needless and endless suffering of an addiction.

To learn how to receive and bring love in relation to both self and the other is no small feat. It is  not for the faint-hearted.

It takes courage, stamina, hope, believe, and the willingness to face challenges that will keep stretching our ability to love with our whole heart. As infants, we could not survive without some love from a caregiver, however imperfect. The need for love to survive of a small child is only half-hearted love. It will not serve us in our couple relationship. As adult lovers, we must go to our love relationship for the purpose of learning how to become an ever better version of our self and capacity to love both self and other … just because … love is the essence of who we are. It is our highest need in infancy and early childhood to survive. It remains our highest need to give and receive in adulthood to thrive and meaningfully connect, to contribute our love to life in and around us.

What snaps us out of love: the shadow side
Even before the recent findings in neuroscience, no one would argue that a good relationship can be a great source of energy and fuel us to soar to previously unimaginable heights. At the same time, most would also agree that our key relationships with loved ones can the greatest source of mental and emotional suffering and anguish.
There’s also consensus that couple relationships are in a category of their own when it comes to the highs and lows of pleasure and suffering they produce, the desperate things we do to get and keep them as sources of security.
What snaps partners out of a state of being in love often has to do with the following two factors at minimum:
(1) An event that introduces “doubt of the other’s love” in the mind one partner.
What breaks the bubble state of have “fallen in love” is always an “event” in which one of the partners gets triggered, which for the first time, introduces a sense of “doubt of the other’s perfect love.” This in turn introduces new perceptions or “judgments” that may tarnish the mental image of “perfect love,” deflating the initial state of euphoria.
As soon as one person introduces “doubt” of the perfection of one, the mirror neurons in the brain of the other partner automatically mirror back the same doubt. The opportunity to hone our amazing human ability to empathize and be a compassionate presence for the other, in this case, is not only activated, it works in the opposite direction instead to activate the survival system and its aggressive (or passive aggressive) defense strategies.
What each partner needs and wants are in conflict. They want to be loved according to their own survival-love map. They need however is to break the hold of this early map to be free to see, love and value the other as a separate human and unique human being, and not merely an extension of who they want them to be. As part of their early survival-love map, each person brings their own personal triggers and triggering-emotions into the relationship. All of this is subconscious. For a relationship to mature, this shadow side needs to become conscious, accepted and integrated as part of the experience of the person’s whole-hearted love in life.
(2) When a triggering event occurs, not knowing how to thoughtfully respond versus react.
An optimal response is always one that disallows our body’s defense strategies to activate unnecessarily, so we may remain in optimal emotion states of body and mind. In other words learn how to express and listen to pain in ways that feel loving and caring when they get triggered, and consciously do so in order to prevent their body from automatically activating their survival system and protective defenses strategies.
Up until that point each person felt a sense of self as unconditionally loved and accepted, a sense of their love as a contribution of immeasurable value or worth to the other…
What if when we think about our partner, we have formed habitual thought patterns that intensify our emotion states of anger and fear inside, whether conscious or subconscious, as a result of ongoing frustrations in the relationship? How common or likely is that in a couple relationship? Without doubt, at least 100 percent. Think about it. What are the chances that in the course of your couple relationship (or any relationship with someone you live and deal with daily…) that you have to deal with:
  • Sense of unfulfilled expectations of longings you had at the start?
  • Anger at your partner’s unresponsiveness to your requests?
  • Feeling not appreciated for your contributions?
  • Judging your partner as needing to be fixed when they get upset with one of your actions?
(3) Overall thinking patterns (beliefs) that mismanage the sensory systems of pain and pleasure.
The secret to personal health and happiness, in fact, may come down to how we manage our sensations of pain and pleasure, more specifically, identifying situations in which we are vulnerable, to remain aware and ensure our wise-self (frontal cortex) remains in charge of our choices when dealing with the pain and pleasure sensations of our body.
“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony,” noted Mahatma Gandhi.
Awareness of our own thoughts, choices, emotions, sensations, wants, dreams, core needs and drives etc. is essential to understanding both self and the other. Happiness is inseparable from health. Health is inseparable from wholeness, a love that permeates every aspect of our being mental, physical and emotional. We are intricately connected by emotion-drives that are arguably at the same time relational and spiritual yearnings. Only a love that is wholehearted, understanding, empathic and compassionate can create a meaningful connection between two people.

In the case of falling in love, what can feel like love, in effect, may be merely a state of body-mind that is so disconnected from the primary directives of our body’s operating system, the subconscious, that it steers us to want and go after (automatic default-choices) what is, literally, 180 degrees in the opposite direction of what we need (physically and emotion-drives to matter and meaningfully connect in life) to live fulfilling and healthy lives and relationships.

This is particularly true in the case of infidelity, whether sexual and, or emotional.

On the shadow side of falling in love, how we manage our sensations of pain and pleasure can put us at risk of developing addictive habits. For example:
  • Not all feel-goods are healthy, i.e., junk food and a sedentary lifestyle.
  • Similarly, not all feel-bad sensations are unhealthy, i.e., studying for a test or confronting an issue.
  • Our subconscious mind forms “beliefs” automatically all the time on the “simple” principles of pleasure and pain. These beliefs can be limiting, false and in conflict with some of its directives, i.e., the directives to ensure we survive and prompt us to thrive.
Thus, our body manufactures chemical highs in response to what we perceive makes us feel good and less anxious, loved or loving; and this can deceive us into rationalizing risky activities.
As with all addictions, the key factor is the good-feelings the activity produces and how the addict produces them. In short, this is what a person gets addicted to — and must be addressed for healing to take place. (In similar ways, this also applies to the co-addict or codependent, the person who’s unwittingly in an unhealthy relationship with the addict.)
Managing the shadow side to consciously remain in love
If the addict, co-addict or professional working with an addicted client fails to see the high as the key driving factor, they may underestimate its power, or miss a necessary aspect of treatment.
The high is what makes addiction ultimately about power, specifically defined as a healthy, human yearning to act as agent of their choices and ability to feel good about themselves and life. Power is ultimately about who has a choice and who does not. Someone who feels they do not have a choice in general or describes themselves as feeling controlled by their partner, for example, can be a prime candidate for addiction.
The shadow side is our habitual reaction to our deepest fear: fear of intimacy. Intimacy fears have to do with our fears of inadequacy, rejection, abandonment, and they are survival-fears fear of not existing –in particular the ability of another person (our parents) to decide whether or not we live. Throughout life, the fear of not mattering in relation to our self and life around us shapes our every behavior. It is likely to some degree misplaced fear. We continue to treat our love partner as if they, like our parents when we were infants, have the power to stop us from existing.
Fear of intimacy is fear of the other, in particular, their ability to block the fulfillment of our yearnings to feel effective in realizing our yearnings to matter in relation to our self and life around us.
In the pure sense, to “control” something is to feel one has a choice. Personal power is “the ability to take action,” states Anthony Robbins, a best selling author and recognized authority on leadership and peak performance. This means personal power is a perceived ability (or adequacy) to act in ways that are effective in realizing goals, feeling happy. Ultimately, how good we feel at any moment is based on how overall loved, valued, connected, recognized, heard, understood, appreciated, right?
Addiction is all about power because power is a perceived ability to control how good we feel in body and mind. In personal relationships, especially with a spouse, it’s often about having the power to block the power of the other, such as a parent, spouse or child.
In relation to the co-addicted partner, the addict feels powerless in their ability to influence the other. Their addiction however is evidence that they have the power to limit or block the other’s attempts to control them.
This is why asking the addict to give up a destructive behavior can cause them to feel attacked. To an addict, at visceral levels, it feels as if they are being asked to relinquish control and power, even though the opposite is true. In truth, addictive substances or activities are what render an addict powerless; they have no power to say “No” to the chemical demands of their body for instant gratification.
So, the actual fixation is on the production of feel-good feelings, and the means are merely ways that feel physiologically, emotionally and mentally “proven” to work.
And, it’s all about power because pure power lies in our perceived ability to control in certain situations or moments how good we feel physiologically, mentally, emotionally.
There are at least three hormonal chemicals that the body produces to make us feel we’re in love — whether we are or not. Persons addicted to sex and love spend a lot of time in varying states of arousal, depending on the stage of the cycle, for example, indulging, recovering or planning for the next fix. There is also excitement in getting increasingly better at obtaining and sustaining the high. Additionally, there’s arousal in getting good at blocking obstacles to getting the high, such as spouses or family members’ attempts to circumvent from achieving their high.
This feeds the entangling power struggle between the addict and the co-addicted (co-dependent) person
When love comes together with addiction, the result can be a witnessing of immense and prolonged pain and needless suffering of the addict as well as their loved ones. The news is replete with accounts of people’s lives that lead to scandalous loss of reputation, career, relationships with partner, family, children, and even health and life.
Most addicts will easily say that their drug of choice is dependable and people are not. That’s why it’s all about control and power.
The drive to feel good about our self and life and relationships is not only natural, it’s a motivation that is as real a drive or hardwired need as food and water. This drive is not the problem. The drive can be thought of as a “healthy” pain, such as hunger or thirst, that reminds us of core inner strivings (emotion-drives) to matter, to meaningfully connect with life in and around us. The pain that arises when our nourishing supply runs low calls us to take action.
It is akin to physical pain of hunger or thirst. It prompts us to take action to nourish our self, to fulfill our own need.
It reminds us of the physical laws that govern our nature and life, in this case, the principle that can be described as “use it or lose it” or “no pain, no gain,” and more commonly known as Wolf’s Law. Though this Law is mostly applied to observations of how to strengthen the human body, muscles and bones, etc., our brain’s mental and cognitive skills have been shown to follow the same “Use It Lose It” law.
Arguably, our emotion-drives to matter also follow the no pain, no gain principle. In part, we have a plethora of addictions because the prevailing beliefs we hold about emotional pain do not serve us, they mislead us to avoid emotional pain and regard those that express it as weak, defective, and so on. On the whole as a culture, most of us still learn to regard emotional vulnerability as a weakness not associated with strength, status, success, whereas nothing could be farther from the truth.
These feel-good hormones are not to be trusted as they can:
  • Steal our ability to make conscious, healthy choices.
  • Hold our frontal cortex (wise-self capacity for real thinking) captive, in a virtual prison of sorts.
  • Deceive the otherwise amazing mind of our body, the subconscious, with illusions of love and power.
  • Turn our body – a highly sophisticated communication system — into a slave driver that steals our ability to make conscious, healthy choices by making vehement do-or-die demands.
  • Focus our energy on seeking feel-good sensations for the sake of feel-good sensations, now, without regard to costs.
  • Get us addicted to quick and easy ways of feeling good, thus over reliance on our body’s natural inclination to taking the path of least resistance.
  • Silence or block communications coming from the natural wisdom of the body, in particular, the primary directives of the subconscious mind to ensure we survive and thrive, so much so, that in confusion, our body literally steers us directly toward what blocks — and 180 degrees away from what we really, really, really need — to live happy and healthy, physically, mentally and emotionally, nourishing lives and relationships.
A new understanding of addiction as a pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding, quick-fix sense of power (albeit temporary and false sense) that helps us avoid dealing with our shadow side (fears and doubts in our capacity to  create the happiness and meaning we yearn for that activate our defenses, survival system),  helps us better see the nature of “falling in love” as a beginning stage of the promise of creating genuine love together. From this view, power is defined as a perceived ability to feel effective and confident in our ability to make choices that lead to living the purpose-driven and meaningfully connected life and relationships we are driven by our nature to create.


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  • Duane Osterlind, LMFT, CSAT: Having worked in the sexual addiction field for over ten years as a therapist, I would...
  • Athena Staik, Ph.D.: Thanks for commenting Val, and sharing ways you’re getting stronger, more aware. Your...
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