The Secret to a Harmonious, Flourishing, and Long-Standing Relationship with Thomas Westenholz
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
“Never threaten the relationship. Arguments are totally natural. But never go to the stage where you threaten a relationship because that becomes very difficult to repair.” -Thomas Westenholz
Divorce cases piling up in courts, broken families, painful memories- If it is true that love never fails, why are there less and less evidence of it in the world? This week, Shirley and Relationship and Intimacy Expert, Thomas Westenholz reveal the secret to a lasting relationship. They talk about the dynamics in creating a secure attachment, boundaries when making choices, love languages, and conditions that help love to flourish. We also get profound insights into filling up your emotional bank account and dealing with triggers, resentments, and expectations to create deeper intimacy and bring back the connection. Tune in, and let's spend the next hour talking about the two best feelings in the world: to love and feel loved!
01:35 What Adults Did Not Learn
08:03 Love Languages
14:45 Conditions For Love to Flourish
20:56 Map Out Your Triggers
28:32 How to Bring the Connection Back
35:13 Resentment: Good or Bad?
40:51 Learn to Outsource
45:11 Never Threaten the Relationship
Enjoy a flourishing and lasting relationship with the person that you love. The secret? Join @SfbaldwinOwens and Thomas Westenholz in a lovely conversation about dealing with the inherent disappointments in a relationship, reconnecting with your loved one, bringing back the intimacy, and speaking your love language.
02:02 “A lot of the issues we are seeing in adult relationships is essentially down to the fact that the skills that we are teaching our children have not been taught to adults.” -Thomas Westenholz
07:40 “It's not about your needs being more important than the other person. It's about finding the balance where you can both have a space to be heard.” -Thomas Westenholz
11:07 “Our needs change constantly. We want different things in different ways all the time, depending on how we feel at that moment.” -Thomas Westenholz
15:00 “Safety is the foundation of a relationship. If it's not there, nothing else is going to work. We only tend to be vulnerable if we feel very safe with someone.” -Thomas Westenholz
15:59 “Not everything that is part of us is necessarily going to be accepted.” -Thomas Westenholz
16:28 “There's a big difference between accepting something in your partner and having to give it to them. You don't have to give them something just because you're accepted.” -Thomas Westenholz
18:33 “Trust takes time and consistency. This is a good way to start gauging whether somebody is worthy of being met with your vulnerability and be exposed to your full presence.” -Thomas Westenholz
23:58 “When people are triggered, none of the communication skills work.” -Thomas Westenholz
35:20 “We have a tendency to categorize emotions as good or bad, but emotion is basically a signaling system to tell you to pay attention to something and take an action.” -Thomas Westenholz
39:05 “No one person can give you everything. Disappointment is inherent in any relationship.” -Thomas Westenholz
45:20 “Never threatened the relationship. Arguments are totally natural. But never go to the stage where you threaten a relationship because that becomes very difficult to repair.” -Thomas Westenholz
Connect With Thomas:
Thomas Westenholz is the Founder of Zensensa.com, the leading institute for relationship intimacy. He is the author of two books on relationship, intimacy, and sexuality. He was trained in Somatic relationships and sexuality in San Francisco. Thomas developed a 3-step framework for couple intimacy and love.
Shirley Owens: My guest today is Thomas Westenholz. Thomas is the founder of Zensensa, the leading institute for relationship intimacy. He is the author of two books on relationship, intimacy and sexuality, and the host of Zensensa Podcast. Trained in Somatic relationship and sexuality in San Francisco. He developed the 3-step framework for a couple's intimacy and love. Welcome, Thomas.
Thomas Westenholz: Thank you so much. I look forward to being on your podcast today.
Shirley Owens: I'm super excited. I love to have other relationship experts and coaches on my podcast because I feel like we have a lot that we can talk about. And I always learned something too. So thank you so much.
Thomas Westenholz: Oh, my pleasure.
Shirley Owens: Tell me a little bit about you. I know that you're in London, we had talked about that before, in the cooler part of the country than I am, or the full part of the world, I should say. So tell me a little bit about you and how you got to be where you are. You can talk about Zensensa, and just kind of fill me in a little bit.
Thomas Westenholz: Yeah. I think it started, I guess it's approximately eight years ago now. I actually started working by creating social and emotional learning programs for children, and that was put into schools. We were doing research projects with the University here in England down in Portsmouth to try and understand the effectiveness of trying to teach children social, emotional learning. And while doing this and working with all these different experts around the world, I started realizing that a lot of the issues we were seeing in adult relationships was essentially down to the fact that the skills that we were teaching our children have not been taught to adults, we know we didn't learn this. And therefore, we didn't really fully understand how to have that self awareness and communicate clearly how we were feeling what our needs are, be able to understand and sense our boundaries and express that in a clear way. How to communicate so other people can hear you rather than get triggered, etc, etc. And it was very interesting to start seeing the children learn from relationships.
“A lot of the issues we are seeing in adult relationships is essentially down to the fact that the skills that we are teaching our children have not been taught to adults.” -Thomas Westenholz
For these skills, I started realizing that this is exactly what adults also need in their relationship to be able to function. And that's kind of what brought me in to then going to San Francisco, which essentially was no new information for me. I was just working in a practical way and got to work with these tools for adults, which essentially was what it was. A lot of it was supervised practice where you got to do different exercises and different works with adults, but essentially very much the same. So that kind of brought me to learn Zensensa. The Zen can stand for being zen, being present in this very moment in your body, and sensa stand for sensation. So it means, present in sensation, which essentially is what we really need to do when we are trying to relate to others. Because that place is where we're able to relate in a functional way with other human beings. So that's kind of the background for the name.
Shirley Owens: That's awesome. It's so true. For some reason, I guess growing up, I've always been very open. Open to feelings and open to being present of what's around me, and that type of thing. I just assumed that everybody was like that. The more I got into working with couples, children and individuals, I realized that it's not common for people to know how to communicate, it's not common for people to sit in their feelings or to be present. So I think it's super important, and I realized that more all the time as you have.
Thomas Westenholz: Yeah. And you know, I think a lot of these habits are learned so early, and it's completely unconscious. Even the parents who have the best intentions don't even realize that. My son has gone in and out of hospital repeatedly because he's got a life threatening medical condition. And as we were in hospital, I think he's eight now and he had about 30 surgeries. When we used to come in, they would be quite violating in the way. They're just thinking very mechanically, they would pin him down, start trying to put a needle in because they don't have time, and I would have to stop them. Because what they don't understand is, what does this teach a child? Instantly teach and learn helplessness. Because they get pinned down, they don't understand what's happening. Why they're suddenly getting hurt, and their physical bodies being violated. They go into a freeze response, which is essentially similar to what happened when somebody is raped. This is also why they know that a lot of long term trauma actually comes from children who've been violated in hospital.
So because I luckily had that training in social and emotional learning, I would stop them and say: "Please, let go of my son." First of all, we're going to explain to him what's going to happen so he doesn't feel, again, learned helplessness. So he can learn to be included, and feel his part of the decisions. Yes, we need to do something at the end, but he needs to feel his part of it. So we did that, and they were quite impatient thinking that was irritating. And then I would say to him: "Let's set up some parameters where you have a sense of control. If they go stinging in and out and you want it to stop, you can say stop and we will always take a break." And he said: "Okay, Papa." And I explained to him why we needed to do it. And he would say: "Okay, you can try now." So he gave consent, and then I said: "Okay, now you can hold his hand." So he stays still within his consent. And again, afterwards, I would then do exercises for him to process what happened, through different play, through talking to him about how he was feeling, where he felt that. And that taught him to sense in, and a sense of agency that he was in control and he could manage his own emotions, which is what it means to be able to feel securely attached, and then could be able to create a secure attachment in an adult relationship. So again, it's just that we are so often not aware of how these dynamics are formed, simply because we haven't been given these tools. So this is just a short example of how we can start teaching children how to relate much better as adults.
Shirley Owens: That's so interesting. It's funny, a couple of my older kids were hospitalized a lot and that just took me right back to that where there was a lot of force and a lot of things that happened that were not their choice. But it also took me to yesterday, I was with my grandbabies getting pedicures, and one of them is two, she had never done this before. So her four year old sister kind of sat in the chair and put her feet in the water, and then we put the two year old up there, and she started screaming. We didn't realize it, I talked to my daughter and we were just like, Oh, my gosh, she's never done this before. We just put her in a chair with water in front of her and she didn't know what was happening. So we let her just sit on another chair and watch for a while, and then finally she said that she wanted to do it. It kind of reminds me of that same type of thing when we have a choice, it may be a choice within boundaries, right? There might only be two choices. Like with my kids when they were growing up I would say, you have to eat your dinner, you can eat this, or you can eat this. But that's it, you have to eat. Or like, here's two outfits to pick from. So it would give them a little bit of a sense of self control, but also to know that they had to live within rules and boundaries to which I think is important. Like there's an important balance there.
Thomas Westenholz: Absolutely. And then it's all about the balance. Again, we will probably talk more about this when we talk about later on how to express needs, etc. Because it's not about my needs being more important than yours, it's about finding that balance where we can both have a space to be heard, what our needs are in that relationship.
“It's not about your needs being more important than the other person. It's about finding the balance where you can both have a space to be heard.” -Thomas Westenholz
Shirley Owens: Yeah, so one of my favorite things about needs is the five love languages, and I know that you teach this too. Can you talk a little bit about that and explain why it's so important to understand other's needs?
Thomas Westenholz: Yeah. I think this is a principle that somebody called Gary Chapman came up with, and he has a very famous book. Actually, I think it's a very simple principle. And the way I normally try to explain it to people is I say, imagine, and especially men because they seem to relate to this metaphor. I say: "Imagine that we have an emotional bank account. And every time we give our partner their love language, it's like making an emotional deposit into that emotional bank account." And the fact is inevitable in any relationship, there will be times where it's not that good, that great. There'll be issues, struggles, and we are basically drawing out of that account. And if there's nothing in it, we'll go into overdraft. And at some point, we'll be so much in overdraft, we can't pay it back, and then we go bankrupt. And that's where relationships often deteriorate and then break up. So it's really important that we make these deposits because that's how we also build that goodwill in the relationship.
And of course, like Gary described, we learn from our caregivers growing up in certain ways that we feel valued and loved based on what they show us. That could be a father who traveled a lot for his work, and then he would come home and bring a gift, and that was his way of showing affection. So that child might have learned that gifts are a way of feeling valuable, and therefore, they feel loved. If their partner brings them some kind of gift that's valuable to them. But somebody else, like me, it was getting, reading stories and having an arm around my shoulder. So for me, it's touching quality time that makes me feel really loved. And if I don't get that, then I start feeling empty. My emotional bank account starts feeling empty. Or the lockbox, you can say that to fill up the lock bucket. And often, if we don't understand each other's love language, like I said, it's pretty simple. But if we don't understand it, we have a tendency to give what it is that we actually want.
So if I meet a partner and have no idea about this, I would naturally just start giving them touch, and that's what I used to do. However, if their love language, like I said is a gift, that will not really fill up their emotional bank account and they will start getting frustrated. And I will get frustrated because they moan, and I'll think, oh, but I do this. I give you a massage every evening, I'm so great. So we both don't feel satisfied and it becomes a frustrating experience. While instead, by communicating this, by me being able to tell her my love language is touching, quality time. And here's what that means, touch to me specifically means, I love getting a shoulder massage. Quality times means to me, you put your phone away so I can have your full attention. And then she can give me that, and then I feel nurtured and loved. And for her, she can tell me what exactly that she likes and I can then give her that. There we go, we are able to connect and both feel loved. And neither of us have to feel frustrated. I think what's important with these love languages is, it's not that we have one. Of course, Gary Chapman says that we have one main, but I believe that we fall into all of these categories to a bigger, lesser extent. Some have just a bigger impact on us than others, but it's so important to be specific. Because if I just say to you, touch, I like to touch. We have this romantic idea that if somebody loves us, they should be able to know what we magically want. However, we don't have the ability to read other people's minds, no matter how much you want it.
And the truth is, our needs change constantly. We want different things in different ways all the time, depending on how we feel at that moment. So for me, to say to you, this is what I feel right now. My right shoulder is a bit sore, I would really love it if I could get a little massage there. How would you know that? You won't. I need to express that clearly to get what I want. And same for you, if you use this gift, it's not enough to say I want gifts because I can buy you so much stuff, and most of it might have no value. Be specific. Is it getting flowers? What is it specifically that makes you feel special? Now is much more likely to help me be successful in giving you that, right? So it's really about becoming clear about what it is we want, we need. How could we then express that, and think our partner should be able to anticipate and know that by themselves.
“Our needs change constantly. We want different things in different ways all the time, depending on how we feel at that moment.” -Thomas Westenholz
Shirley Owens: Yeah, it's so crazy because mine is also physical touch and quality time. My husband's main ones are words of affirmation and acts of service. So it's kind of funny because things do change once a while. My husband is a doctor, so he's gone a lot. I realized that if I can't have the quality time or the physical touch, it's really nice for him to send me really nice text, or he's not a gift giver, that's like his main strength. So every once in a while, he'll come home with flowers. I'm like, wow, I never thought that I would want those before but for some reason, just getting words of affirmation over text and a gift once in a while, it means a lot because I know that that's something that he's doing out of love, because I know those are his languages. So it's interesting because I do think that, even when we try to figure out our children's love languages, I'm a big physical touch person and a big quality time person so I want to just do that with everybody. I want to spend time with them and give them lots of hugs and kisses. I realized that that isn't always what they need at that time, so I think it's so important to be communicable and ask them what makes them feel love so that we can give that. And you're right because we automatically default to what we feel, how we feel loved.
Thomas Westenholz: Yeah, exactly. And the interesting thing is, I think, I don't know if I've fully engaged with the word love languages, but that's an official term. Just because I feel that there's other elements to love that are not covered by these five things. But again, we can talk a bit more about that later. The only thing I want to say here about love languages is that I've often heard some stigmatism and shame around gifts. So if people have that as their main love language, they often feel a bit ashamed, and that is something I experienced with people that I work with. I just want to say that there's nothing to be ashamed of. Because again, we have all these categorizations of what's good and bad, what superficial and not superficial. But the truth is, looking at this from a biological and evolutionary perspective, it's completely making sense. If somebody were willing to share their resources with you by giving you something, it means that they cared about you and you were valuable. It completely makes sense that we feel important, valued and loved. If somebody comes and shares their resources, in the old days, it would be people sharing their food with us, etc. So it's a completely valid way, just as valid as touch, quality time, word of affirmation, acts of service, And I just really wanted to put in there that you should not feel ashamed if gift is your love language, it's completely natural.
Shirley Owens: Yeah, I appreciate that because I agree with that. And I also agree that there's so much more to having someone else feel loved and to how we feel loved. In your bio, we mentioned the 3-steps intimacy and love. Can you talk about that?
Thomas Westenholz: Yeah. I think I often use the analogy that I say, a plant needs soil, it needs water and it needs sun. Love and intimacy also have certain conditions that help it flourish. The first one which we can talk more about in a bit is really safety, because safety is the foundation. If that's not there, nothing else is gonna work. Again, vulnerability itself, we only tend to be able to be vulnerable if we feel very, very safe with someone. We will never even get to step two, if we don't have safety first. And the last one is responsiveness, which essentially, we can talk more about that later. It's about how we respond to people's safety needs, but also respond to that vulnerability that creates that intimacy. Because for vulnerability to turn into intimacy, it needs to be met with acceptance instead of judgment. Brene Brown has done some great research on vulnerability and shame. He's got a free TED Talk, people can go see him. And he's written a lot of great books. It really comes down to this fundamental need that we all have, as humans being, to be seen and accepted. It's the most core of that little child that is still inside us.
“Safety is the foundation of a relationship. If it's not there, nothing else is going to work. We only tend to be vulnerable if we feel very safe with someone.” -Thomas Westenholz
And as we grow up, and yet, we learn very early on, because you're right, there are boundaries, different norms and different cultures. Not everything that is part of us is necessarily going to be accepted. We quickly learned to get that love and acceptance, whether from our parents, our friends, our peers. We have to start hiding certain parts of ourselves, and that's part of our socialization. But again, there's something hugely intimate in being able to become emotionally naked and expose that to a partner within the framework of safety, and then being able to accept that. People often say, oh, but I don't like that. There's a big difference between accepting something in your partner and having to give it to them. I think that can help people become more accepting because thinking, Oh, but I don't want to give her that. I give him that. You don't have to give them something just because you're accepted. Acceptance is just seeing it as part of them, and acknowledging that and saying, yeah, that's wonderful. Beautiful, wonderful part of you. But it's totally okay to still have your boundary and say, but I don't want to do that. For example, my partner had a sexual fantasy, again, was wonderful, but I didn't want to live that out. But I still acknowledged it and I would never shame. I said, that's beautiful. I totally understand you have that desire, that can be very sexy. However, I cannot give that to you because that would cross my boundary. But yet, we still had a moment of intimacy because she was able to share that, that she hadn't shared with other people. She felt met and seen, so that created a bond of intimacy.
“Not everything that is part of us is necessarily going to be accepted.” -Thomas Westenholz
And the question people are giving me is, how can I feel safe? How do I know if it's safe to be vulnerable? Because it's true, it's not always safe. Lots of people are not safe to expose themselves fully. I agree, so I always say that this is what I do. What I recommend other people do is sit down and have a think about different vulnerabilities in your life. I would basically rate mine from one being a small vulnerability. If you laughed at it, it would not feel great, it wouldn't really be devastating. 10, if you laughed at that, it would really impact me badly and feel really bad about myself. I would just start if I get to know you to share level one vulnerability, and then I see how you react. Do you reciprocate by sharing vulnerability? Again, do you meet me with acceptance? Do you judge me? If you judge me, then yeah. I probably won't start sharing more intimate vulnerability with you. I will probably test again and see if that is safe, and slowly as I learned that this person is safe because they accept my vulnerabilities. They can meet me there with their share, their vulnerabilities, they are not judgmental about other people, then slowly, I can see that it's safe to open up to that person, and I will start sharing deeper and deeper vulnerabilities over time. That way, you can kind of build that trust up with that person. Because trust takes time and consistency by seeing people be consistent with their response. So this is a good way to start engaging whether somebody is, you can say worthy of being met with your vulnerability and be exposed to your full presence.
“There's a big difference between accepting something in your partner and having to give it to them. You don't have to give them something just because you're accepted.” -Thomas Westenholz
Shirley Owens: Yeah. It's so good that you're talking about this because I think it's also important to realize that sometimes, sharing our vulnerabilities is way easier with strangers than it is at the person that we're married to, or the person that we're living with, or the person that we're very intimately involved with. I often have clients ask me, why is it so hard? Like, it's so easy for me to tell you this, but why can't I tell them that? I think it does come down to that safety issue. If our partner judges us in any way about that, it's way more of an impact than if a stranger does.
“Trust takes time and consistency. This is a good way to start gauging whether somebody is worthy of being met with your vulnerability and be exposed to your full presence.” -Thomas Westenholz
Thomas Westenholz: Of course, because they're much more significant attachments, we have much more invested. Therefore, the closer we are, and also we know now from neuroscience that the closer we are attached to somebody, the more our nervous system actually interlinks. Meaning, again, we get much more impacted by our partner's neurological response to us than we do a stranger. And that's why you're absolutely right that it can feel much much more vulnerable. Also at the same time, it can be more scary and vulnerable. I also just want to say that it also offers the opportunity for more healing and intimacy, because equally their acceptance can also give us much more feeling of these parts now finally being accepted, and if just a stranger accepts them. So you're right, there's both the potential for being more exposed, but with greater risk is also potential greater reward.
Shirley Owens: Yeah, I noticed that sometimes. I want to be that person that my husband can share anything with. Every once in a while, he'll share something and he'll say, I didn't feel like safe sharing that. I didn't feel like I was in a good spot. I realized that we have our own triggers. We all have our own things that sometimes, when something comes up, we don't mean to be that person. It just triggers something from our past, and then we respond in a way that is more like a default way than what we're really trying to be in the present. Can you talk a little bit about triggers? As couples, we sometimes cross those lines.
Thomas Westenholz: Yeah. First of all, I think I just want to say that it's really important that we all be gentle on ourselves because we have to start all this with self compassion, none of us are perfect. And just because I deal with relationships, studying relentlessly doesn't mean I don't make mistakes. Because like everybody else, I have a history too. And triggers, just like you say, you have your husband have, we all have this. I think we're really have to look at it in this way, part of our job is to give a map to our partner of who we are because it's a bit, like if you're trying to find a new location in town and you don't know that area of time very well, and you're not using any kind of map navigation, you probably are going to take some wrong turns, and you might even get lost. Then it's hard to find your way back, etc, and it becomes messy. Relationships are the same. We all come with a complicated history of wounds, of triggers, of different things that happen that can get really murky. But by giving a map and starting exploring our own triggers, explaining them to our partner, we're basically mapping it out for us so they can navigate us much better, and they're less likely to trigger us. And if they go down the wrong path, they will at least know how to come back to the right path again.
As much as I think, Hollywood has given us a lot of wrong ideas about what love is. I think one thing that they have done very well in their storytelling techniques is that, when they give us a wide background of a character, we start feeling empathy with that character even if that character is somebody who's doing horrific things. If they show us a history and we understand why they become that person, we feel empathy rather than judgment. And this is where, again, if you know your triggers a gift, I give an example. Let's say we have a husband and a wife, and the husband leaves, he slams the door as he leaves quickly, runs to the sport events and the wife gets really triggered, comes after him and yells at him, and they end up having a big argument because they're both triggered. Instead, if she could have sat down and had that awareness of that trigger of hers and could communicate and said to, listen, when I was a child, my dad was an alcoholic, as you know, and he would drink a lot. When he got really angry, he would leave and slam the door. Every time I hear that sound, it just makes me so triggered, so scared and so angry that I can't control myself.
Now, knowing that the husband obviously is under the presumption that he cares about his wife, he would then be able to then take care and remember that and say, Okay, I'm not gonna slam the door because I know that triggers her and avoids that. Even if you're on occasions, he would at least be aware of when she came out and attacked, he would be able to see a very different story rather than seeing Oh, she's attacking me. It's so unfair, I didn't do anything. He can see, oh, she's now experiencing me as a drunken dad. I need to just help her regulate down. He could go up and say, maybe, I'm so sorry. You're safe, you're safe, it's okay. And then she can come down, and there we go. They avoided going into that toxic dynamic. Because we have to understand that when people are triggered, none of the communication skills that you have started with work. None of them, nonviolent communication.
“When people are triggered, none of the communication skills work.” -Thomas Westenholz
Shirley Owens: Yeah, for sure. It just gets out of hand. And it's the same thing, like you say, we have a lot of answers. We've been studying this and there are still times where I have to back up and be like, okay, I'm not doing this right. With my husband, I'm doing this completely what I teach. But sometimes, like you say, once you get triggered, you're like on this downhill spiral. And the best thing that we can do as partners when we see that happening is to just catch the other person, and like you say, just be very empathetic and kind, and pull them right out of it. And we practice that and we do it a lot. I think that it just makes everything better because you also, what I've realized is we have less triggers, or we get triggered less, or we recover more quickly when we know that that person is there to catch us.
Thomas Westenholz: That's right. Exactly because it helps us regulate the stress response. To know that somebody is there to catch us, that gives us safety. So you're spot on. I think that when we go into that fight or flight, and this is partly what I loved about the somatic training, which actually was new for me, was to learn to stop being, because again, we grew up in a culture that valued cognition so much. Our educational school, our work environment, it's very much about our logical higher thinking. We learn very little about emotional will, but even less about our somatic pay. Meaning, our bodily sensations. When I started learning how to relate to them, the first place is stress, the stress responses felt so somatically. And being able to notice the signs in my own body. For example, tension in my stomach is one, clenching my jaws is another one, which is part of getting ready for a fight. I can now sense that so quickly, that I can actually, most of the time, stop myself before I get fully triggered and go outside my window of tolerance where I lose control. And that means, having that awareness most of the time, I can stop myself. I can start going into self regulation, which I do through movement, which is by far the most effective strategy because this response, the stress response is really quite basic. It's meant to make you fight or run away, is literally that basic.
So this is why we get adrenaline in blood flow to our muscles, we are meant to move. So that can be, like I said, I'd sometimes dance around in my living room, or go in the bedroom and have a dance. It can be going for a run of whatever it is you need to do, go hit a pillow, if that's your tendency, as long as it doesn't scare anybody else. So by doing that, you release that adrenaline, and that puts you down into that window of tolerance where your cognition becomes online again, and you're able to start engaging. And then we can use deep and slow breathing as well as the secondary method to regulate down again and really calm down that nervous system. And once we've done that, we can do co-regulation with our partner, which is eye contact, which can be touched, which can be giving each other reassurance like you said, that's a great example. You said, knowing that they will be there. Even saying that to your partner will help their nervous system calm down. Just saying, I'm here, and I want to listen and understand you. So yeah, I just wanted to add that in. And also, if we do need to re establish connection, then I always say make sure that people have eye contact, visual eye contact and be able to see each other fully so important. Text messages, doing it while you're driving, while you're walking is an awful idea. Because again, amygdala, the fear response is much more likely to be triggered when we cannot see people or can only see them peripherally. And having that understanding, just make sure that when you do reconnect, just take a short moment, sit down and make sure you can really just look at each other and have eye contact.
Shirley Owens: Yeah, I love that. It's so funny, because when my husband and I first got together, he came from a very contentious relationship. So today, but contentious in different ways. I remember that he would just shut down and I'm like, I want to get in someone's face and talk, work it all out and get through it. And he would shut down. I got in the habit of climbing up on his lap and grabbing his face saying, don't you shut down on me. Don't you shut down. And I would like, and he would almost always look me in the face no matter how ugly it was to begin with. He would say, I love fighting with you, this is fun. So it can also be a humorous thing. Because now, I have a tendency to shut down if I get stressed out about something. He'll climb on top of me, and he's a giant to me. So it will always add up just laughing. It's funny because he's used to do this to me so I get to do it too. And it's so good. One of my 10 rules of fighting or getting through contention is to touch, and so we do try to do that. Sometimes, we'll notice if our conversation, or disagreements are going too long because we're sitting too far away from each other, or because one of us will always say, Hey, why are we not touching while we're fighting right now? This is what we do. I do think it's important touch, eye contact. It's really hard to stay mad at someone when you're touching them and looking them in the eyes. And yeah, that brings it down a level where you can still be disagreeing, right? But you're not feeling that rage or frustration like you normally would if you're actually right there in it with them.
Thomas Westenholz: I love that, what a beautiful description. Thank you for bringing that up. You're so right, the fact is to address it with humor when it's possible. And also, this is great because it's a perfect description of how you two have formed a map of each other. Like I said, people often give what they want to receive, and your husband picked up and are now able to do it with you, which has given you that understanding of how to regulate each other. And that's beautiful. Because you're right, that is a great way to disarm each other and take it back to a place where you both are able to regulate yourself again. And also, I just want to mention in regards to triggers, because this is something that often is not discussed very much. But essentially, there's a really interesting book, I forgot the title now, which basically explains that our brain is a storytelling organ essentially. So all sensory input is interpreted through past stories that we have experienced. And why is this important to understand? Because we have to question our first initial perception of what happened very often. I'll give you an example from my life. I remember when my partner used to show up late when we had dates, and they were really annoying me. I would say, oh, she doesn't value me. She doesn't care. She thinks it is more important. And later, and that would cause some arguments, etc. Later, when I started becoming more aware, I realized that this is my story because that's how I felt when I was a child. And if I was picked up late or whatever, I felt I was not important, but it's just a story.
The fact is, we form these interpretations, all that has really happened as a fact in real life is that she was late. Everything else that I gave it meaning was my story that I put on top of that fact. Because the fact is simply that she was late, I know nothing more than that. So it's really important to start asking questions. Because if we don't get the other person to fill out these gaps, our brain will automatically fill out any missing gaps with our old stories, which often there's a lot of nonsense that's not relevant to the current moment. So instead of reacting and getting angry straight away, start questioning your own story and ask your partner questions. I could ask for example, what made you be late? And she might say, oh, the two got stuck on the ground, and I had no phone signal so I couldn't call you straight away. Boom. Now, I'm taking out of that story that it all happened because he didn't care. My anger levels come down. It's so important to just remember how tricky your mind can be. That's why it's so important to ask questions instead of drawing instant conclusions based on the actions.
Shirley Owens: Yeah. So in our house, we call it chatter. And I always describe it in four circles. I won't go in deeply too, but basically, the first circle is what happened. Second circle is what we say about what happened. Third circles, how we feel about what we say about what happened. And then the fourth circle is how we react to what we say about how we feel, about what happened. So you go in this circle, and then the next time, the same, something happens that is similar. We follow that same course because we've already made that a story. And there's actually research done that 97% of our thoughts aren't even real, only 3% of our thoughts are actually real. I think it is important to take yourself back. What's the fact? And why am I feeling that, why am I making up all this stuff in my head. And every single person on this earth has a different story, a different perspective. And one of the things that I always use, my mantra, when you change your perspective, you change your reality.
Thomas Westenholz: Yeah, that's right. And this is why it's so important to challenge these many thoughts that we get on stories. I hear with some of my friends that are out doing dating, they will say, oh, she doesn't call me back. She obviously doesn't care. She didn't like me. And again, they're making up a presumption. And I will obviously start challenging the story and say, you don't know that, that's your story that you're playing out right now. Maybe she's going through something, maybe she's really stressed over something, maybe she just lost a job because of Corona and she feels quite overwhelmed. You don't know, so maybe don't make up a presumption until you've spoken to her because the truth is, you have no idea. All you know is that she hasn't contacted you. The reason is something you're making up, and it's just so important to constantly realize how we do this all the time. I think we just learned to take these thoughts as the truth. And like you said, when we don't challenge them, we often go along down a path that's not constructive for us.
Shirley Owens: Oh, for sure. I have a very good imagination, like one of the best imaginations. And I know all this, right? I teach this every day, I help people through it. But I definitely, if I don't check myself, I can create the most amazing stories ever. They're not always good, I get that. So this kind of takes me to talking about resentment because I think our stories can help us build resentment and we don't even know what it is or where it's coming from. But one day, we just wake up and we just have so much yuckiness for a person. So tell me your theory on how that resentment develops, and how we can prevent developing that?
Thomas Westenholz: Yeah, that's a great question. I think the first thing I want to say is, all emotions are great because we have a tendency to categorize emotions as good or bad. I think the first thing to really understand, and this is part of what I said, what we were teaching the kids, the children is there's no good or bad emotions. It's like sensations in your body when you feel hunger is not good or bad, it's just telling you that maybe you need to eat. If you feel cold, it's not good or bad, it's just telling you that you need to put on a sweater or jacket. They are basically signals that your body is giving you to get you to take action. Emotion is exactly the same. Emotion is basically just a signaling system to tell you to pay attention to something and take action. So resentment can actually be great, or it can also be destructive. That's true, depends on how we relate to that emotion, or sensation because resentment is a signal to you that something is not being fulfilled at some of your fundamental needs, or boundaries are being violated. So if I've stopped feeling resentment. What I would do is, rather than straight away lash out at my partner, I would sit down and I would start asking myself, what is it here that I'm not getting that I really, really need? And then I would write down because I do a lot of journaling, which is a great way to process emotions.
“We have a tendency to categorize emotions as good or bad, but emotion is basically a signaling system to tell you to pay attention to something and take an action.” -Thomas Westenholz
Shirley Owens: For sure.
Thomas Westenholz: I will journal and suddenly will start becoming clear. I have two kids and my partner, and I work, but I realize that I haven't seen my friends for three months. It's really important for me to have some ME time, and I feel really guilty about that. Because I know I need to be a family man and work so I haven't really expressed that need. And that's why I feel resentment because I'm not getting what I need. I'm not getting this ability to go away and just have some me time. And then now, it starts helping me clarify what I really need, which is actually a great thing. So like I said, resentment in itself is neither good or bad. If you understand that, it's just giving you an opportunity to listen to something that I'm telling. Just like anger, I have so many people say, oh, I don't want to feel anger, it's not a nice or good emotion. Anger can be great, because anger, again, evolutionary is an emotion that was evolved to help us stop violation. Meaning, when we are being violated, it helped us assert our boundaries when we're not able to. And it's a hugely effective tool to do that.
Again, however, if we deal with anger without any self awareness, then it can obviously be expressed in very destructive ways as we are aware of. But if we use it with self awareness, anger can, like I said, be a way to sit down. And instead of responding straight away to that anger that you might feel towards your partner, I would sit down, and again, I would start journaling and say, why am I feeling this anger? And suddenly, I might realize, okay, this is what's happening. This is what is being violated again and again. I asked her not to call me an idiot and she's done it three times this week, and it's not okay with me. And that's great. I can go down and I can sit with her. I can express how I feel and what I actually need from her, instead of just offloading anger, which would, again, make her become triggered or not hear me. So I think the way to work with resentment is to understand that it's an emotional experience, and it's a way, a signal telling you to sit down and start understanding what needs are not being met, or what boundaries isn't that might be violated at this point in time.
Shirley Owens: I love that, that's such a great explanation.
Thomas Westenholz: One quick thing I just want to add is, because I think what often happens is people say, oh, I can't get my needs met. Or they might express their needs and their partner has an adverse reaction or trigger, because they feel they can't give you that and they get fearful. I think it's really important to understand that in all relationships, we're going to have disappointment. No one person can give you everything. I know Hollywood lied to you, and I'm sorry, but his appointment is inherent in any relationship. It's how we deal with it that determines whether it becomes connecting or disconnecting. If we relate to disappointment by telling our partner, oh, that's your problem, you deal with that. You want kids, I don't want kids, that's your problem. Then that will be very disconnecting. But again, if we sit down with our partner and we want to listen to them, and we are there with them, that disappointment, it can be a really connecting experience. I told you earlier about that sexual fantasy that I couldn't give to my partner, but what I could give her was to sit down with her disappointment and say, I'm here with you. And whenever you want to express how disappointing that is, then I'll be here to listen to you, and I'll happily work with your fantasies in different ways. I can tell you, to tell it to you as a story. We can use it in different ways. And if that feels disappointing to you, I'll be here, and you can just come and tell me when you want to express that to me. And suddenly, that became a connecting experience because she wasn't left alone in that.
“No one person can give you everything. Disappointment is inherent in any relationship.” -Thomas Westenholz
Shirley Owens: Yeah, I think that I feel like we have all these expectations, and people around us don't know that we're expecting something from them. Like they just expect us to, we all expect each other to read, be mind reader's. And something that I noticed a lot in our house, we have decided that we do agreements instead of having expectations. Because sometimes we'll be like, why didn't that kid do their tour? Or whatever. Well, we're expecting them to know that we wanted them to do it, or whatever. I would love to hear your opinion on expectations because I always say, as long as you have expectations, you're always going to be disappointed. So how do you help people not have expectations? Because that's where the disappointment comes in.
Thomas Westenholz: Exactly. It's a really important point to discuss because I think we have so unrealistic expectations of our partner today. First, I want to kind of go back to when we were kids, just to give a reference point for people to understand this. Because as kids, because of safety for my parents, they provided the base if we had a secure attachment with the parents. When we hurt ourselves, we will run back to our parents. When we feel upset, we will come to our parents to ask for support. They were familia, they were safe, they were there for us. When we need excitement, we would go out with our friends. We would go explore, do something new that was exciting, stimulating that helped us grow. And the safer we felt, the more we would be able to go out and explore the world, which is fantastic. However, we got this from two different sets of people. And these two things existed on the opposite side of the spectrum. That's important to understand. It doesn't mean that we can't have it in one person, but their opposite side, because safety is essentially familiarity. While excitement is opposite. It's what novel, it's what's unknown, it's where there is a level of risk and uncertainty.
What is important for us to understand is where we are. And suddenly, we want to have both of these from one person at the same time. We need to be able to reflect on ourselves, where am I on this spectrum at any point of time, because I might feel really safe but very bored in my relationship. And that might tell me that actually, I need a bit of novelty. And I can then communicate that to my partner and say, I would love us to do something new together, have new experiences together. It could be on the opposite that actually there's lots of novelty, but I feel quite anxious, I'm not that safe. And if I know that I can say to my partner, actually, I need us to establish a bit of safety again. So notice where you are on the spectrum, which essentially is safety on one end. You can say anxiety at the more extreme at the other end, and in between is where you can navigate that spectrum. Also, we are tribal culture. The way we live today in our houses by ourselves, often far away from family, my family is in a different country, it's very unnatural. We used to live in small tight tribes where we had tons of people to help raising kids, were our friend now, we think one person should be our best friend or soulmate, financial support, emotional support, share interest, be the one that makes us laugh, raise the kids with us and give us the sex and all the physical touch we need, make us excited but also safe, etc. It's not realistic. It's not realistic to expect that from one person.
So again, I call it outsourcing. I often say, yes, your look at your expectations whether they're realistic. Also look at what can you maybe outsource. Maybe your partner doesn't share all your interest, that's okay too. You can have some friends that you share those interests with. Maybe your partner is not the funniest in the world, but then you have a friend that makes you laugh a lot. Maybe you need more touch that your partner can give you, then go get a professional massage. There's lots of ways to outsource some of these needs. All that expectation doesn't fall on your partner, and you can still get some of these needs met but in other ways. And again, it brings me back to what we talked about before, which is also how can we deal with inheritance availability that there will be disappointment in any relationship.
Shirley Owens: Yeah, for sure. This is such a good thing. We talked about it often where we do a lot of, like my husband works a ton, and I work from home, and COVID, I spend most of my time with my older kids. And yeah, sometimes I'm like, babe, I need you to make me laugh. We just had this conversation the other night and I'm like, I laughed so much when I'm with my friend Gina. So we laugh a lot. I think I really need to laugh, so can you make me laugh tonight? And then nothing's funny when you're trying to make someone laugh, right? That does become funny. It's interesting because we do need that. I think there's really a need for friends, and tribes, and building that within a safe space so that your partner feels safe, that you are getting those needs outsourced by safe people, so I think that that's great. I wanted to ask you, if you could leave our listeners today with one word of advice to help them move forward to having a better relationship, what would that be?
Thomas Westenholz: Oh, so many of them. Let me just quickly reflect on this. I could talk for three hours now. Okay, a very simple one would be, never threatened the relationship. So whatever you do, arguments are fine, it's totally natural. But never go to the stage where you threaten a relationship because that becomes very difficult to repair.
“Never threatened the relationship. Arguments are totally natural. But never go to the stage where you threaten a relationship because that becomes very difficult to repair.” -Thomas Westenholz
Shirley Owens: Oh, I like that. That is very simple, and very short, and very poignant to what we are trying to create.
Thomas Westenholz: Yeah. And I thought your listeners didn't want to listen to my three hour ramble.
Shirley Owens: They probably did. We probably might need to have a few more because this was really fun. So tell me, I always ask all my guests, if there's anything in their life that they regret, or wish they would have done differently.
Thomas Westenholz: Yes, absolutely. Oh, my God. Yeah. So much. I really, really wish that I had the courage to be vulnerable. Earlier in my life, I wasted so much of my life feeling disconnected. I did not understand why I have tons of friends, lots of social life. And it's a typical saying, standing in a crowd and still feeling lonely. I was in a relationship with wonderful people and yet, I didn't feel connected. I didn't feel loved because I never allowed myself to be vulnerable. Because I had learned the toxic macho nonsense, that was a male thing, a man thing, to not express emotions, and that we shouldn't need other people. I bought into this nonsense for 30 years of my life, and lived a very disconnected life. So if I could go back, that's what I would change.
Shirley Owens: That is an entirely different show, because I think that is something that really needs to be talked about. So that might be our next show together.
Thomas Westenholz: There you go.
Shirley Owens: About that whole toxic male expectation of what you're supposed to be. I think that is such an important thing to talk about. So thank you so much. I loved having you on the show today. Give us an idea of where we can get in touch with you, and anything else that you want to share.
Thomas Westenholz: Yeah, so I think people can obviously go to zensensa.com, I guess you can put the link in the description because the name is a bit challenging. They can find the podcast, whatever they want there. Free webinar, whatever they want to dig into this free article that kind of explains more about some of the things that we touched upon today. And I think that's a good place to start. People can always shoot me over questions of those things they don't really understand, or they want to know a bit more.
Shirley Owens: Awesome. Well, thank you so much. You are a joy to have today. I hope that everyone gets on, it will be on my website. And on my podcast, you'll have a link to this zensensa.com site too. Thanks, Thomas.
Thomas Westenholz: It's been such a pleasure speaking to you, and thank you for sharing your stories as well. I think they were really valuable.
Shirley Owens: Oh, thank you.