Ep5: Interview with Ben Stiel - managing conflict and building a long lasting relationship

24 May 2022 PODCAST

In this episode Louie and Jess interview acclaimed clinical psychologist Ben Stiel on all things relationships. They unpack how to overcome conflict, communicate effectively with your partner and what the ingredients are for a long lasting relationship. Lastly when it's time to walk away from a relationship and the best way to heal from past relationship traumas. 

To find out more about relationships, mental illness, attachment styles, check our Ben Stiel's website 


Jessica: Welcome to flip the Script Podcast, where we flip the narrative on issues that affect men's health.

Louie: Our aim is to talk about the weird, the wonderful, and perhaps the unspoken issues that affect men. So you can feel empowered and back to live in your best life.

Jessica: Let's get into it.

Louie: Hey everyone. Welcome back to another Flip the Script. As usual, you're with myself, Louie and also Jess.

Jessica: Hello.

Louie: We'd like to wish everyone, firstly, a happy 2022. This is our first podcast of the year and I hope you all enjoy it. It's a very important podcast today. We'll be talking about relationships. Now, there may be times when you're in a relationship, whether it's new or old and you may not see eye to eye on things or clash due to having different opinions or views. With us today, we are very fortunate to have Dr. Ben Stiel from Sydney Relationship Therapy.

Ben: Thanks for having me.

Louie: Now, Ben is a clinical psychologist with over 20 years of experience in the field. Ben's interest in relationship therapy emerged from his own therapeutic work with adolescents, teenagers. He observed that relationship issues are at the heart of the majority of psychological difficulties, which are commonly experienced by teens. So Ben, before we start off in diving into the relationships and that segment, I wanted to touch on your work previously, your work with the adolescents, with teenagers, specifically male teenagers. And basically how did that role move you into the current role that you're in now?

Ben: Okay. So when I was in my early 20s, I got a job as a youth worker at a crisis accommodation refuge. I was living in Canberra at the time. And at that refuge, I was working with young people, mostly young men, but also some young women who couldn't live at home for whatever reason. And the clients that we got at that refuge, the young people, they were often those who had the most severe behavioural difficulties of all the kids in the refuge system in Canberra, because what would happen is they would go into a refuge into some sort of accommodation outside of home.

Ben: And those who had behavioural difficulties who would break the rules would end up being kicked out of the refuge that they were in and then doing what was called the refuge hop until eventually that'd end up with us. And we were the last stop. We had a policy that we couldn't kick people out for bad behaviour, we would deal with it all in-house. So we got a lot of young people with the most extreme behaviour in that refuge. And that to this day is the most difficult and challenging job I've ever had.

Ben: But I learned a lot working there about the sort of issues that young people face. And as I progressed in my career, I then went on to work with young people who are in trouble with the law through Juvenile Justice, and then eventually went into schools as a school psychologist. And as I went through all of these different stages in my career, it occurred to me that many of the difficulties that young people face are not actually related to issues that they have just within themselves, but actually occur in the context of the relationships around them.

Ben: So that got me interested in relationship therapy. And then I started a private practice specialising in relationship therapy. And that's how I began on that journey.

Jessica: That's so interesting. I love what you were saying about how it's not just this inward thing. I feel like there's a lot of stigma around people associating like bad behaviour with they're so in control of it, they should know better.

Ben: Right.

Jessica: But what you're saying is it's a lot stemmed from how they were brought up or the environment that they've found themselves in.

Ben: Yeah, absolutely. I think that the way that we conceptualise psychological difficulties often strips context out of the equation. So even if you have a look at the diagnostic criteria for mental health issues, you'll see a checklist of symptoms, I'm not sleeping well, I've lost my appetite. I'm having trouble enjoying experiences, check, check, check. None of that pays any attention to the context in which these things occur.

Ben: And relationships are one of the most important contexts in which people might experience difficulty and distress. So I think it's really important that we understand the difficulties that people experience within that context, rather than stripping context out of the equation

Jessica: With talking specifically on relationships and how you can better your relationships, communication often comes up. How do people navigate that when they don't know how to effectively communicate to their partner or their friend or their mom, their dad? Where do you begin with effectively communicating better?

Ben: Well, that's a really good question. And it's funny, when we grow up and we go through the school system, we learn about all sorts of things, but nobody teaches us how to communicate effectively. Nobody teaches us the skills that will help us to construct healthier relationships. And these are some of the most fundamental skills that are important for quality of life. People are happier when they feel connected, when they feel accepted. When they feel as though they have a supportive group of people around them. So the skills to be able to build that are super important.

Ben: How do you do it? Well, that's a big question, but I think that probably the most important skill when it comes to communication is not necessarily about how you communicate to other people what you are feeling. It's more about listening. I think listening is the number one skill for building strong relationships. If people feel that they're really being listened to, if somebody comes to you with an issue and they feel like he gets it, he is interpreting me in a positive light with goodwill compassionately, then that just deescalates a lot of the tension and anxiety that might exist within the dynamic between those two people.

Ben: And when that tension, when that anxiety is deescalated, that's when there's room for positive communication. So if you can give somebody the impression that you're really interested and attuned and listening to what they're saying, then that goes a long way towards creating an environment, a climate in which it's possible to have healthy relationships.

Louie: Touching on when you mention kids in school, bad behaviour. If you were to speak to a child who is in school and they're acting up. If you were to show that you're listening to them, that would be more helpful to them than maybe punishing them, sending them to detention, giving them something to do.

Ben: Absolutely, yeah. I think that often the consequences that we impose upon people for bad behaviour actually just reinforce many of the anxieties that are creating the behaviour itself. Usually when someone is misbehaving, it's an indication that one of their needs is not being met. And if we simply punish that behaviour without listening to the needs that underpin it, then all we're doing is reinforcing to that young person that their needs aren't going to be met and they need to resort to even more extreme measures in order to feel heard.

Louie: Yeah, so it could get worse behaviour.

Ben: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

Jessica: Actually just touching on that. Sometimes communication and you listening might not just be audio, it might not just be someone talking to you. It could be their behaviour and you're listening to their behaviour. Because in some scenarios I find some people who don't like to talk or talk through their problems or what's on their mind. They're not very good at expressing themselves. So how do you listen and extract what you need to out of them when they don't communicate to you through words?

Ben: That's absolutely right. Some people feel really uncomfortable with the idea of expressing themselves. For some people, it feels like a risk to express themselves, to be vulnerable, to talk about how they're feeling. Some people have trained themselves to tune out from their own emotional experiences. And often when that's the case, in such a person's history, you might see a situation in which they were punished somehow for doing that. Whenever they would express vulnerability, they were ashamed for being weak or being too sissy or not being manly enough.

Ben: This especially obviously applies to young men. So sometimes it's just a matter of letting people know that what they're feeling matters to you, that you are willing to interpret it in a positive light and compassionately, and just creating the space for them to feel safe to begin opening up and express themselves. You can't force somebody in a particular moment to open up if they don't want to, but you can listen to the fact that that's difficult for them and say, "Hey, that makes sense to me. I'm here for you if you need support." And sometimes just that message can be enough to create safety.

Louie: Because it wouldn't be a concern or it wouldn't be something that they would shy away from if they were getting the response that they wanted. For example, if a male was feeling upset in their teenage year and they're crying and someone's not saying to them, "Man up." If they actually respond the way they're supposed to respond, then that would help with the relationship and the way that they're going to be able to express themselves as an adult.

Ben: You mean when somebody is a child, if they received an appropriate response, a supportive, nurturing response when they were vulnerable, then they wouldn't have learned, they need to shut down?

Louie: Correct. I would assume it would stem from that age when they're younger and-

Ben: Yeah, yeah. A lot of the difficulties that people experience in relationships stem back to experiences that they've had when they were younger. And there's absolutely no doubt that if you can parent a child in such a way as you create a climate where it's safe for them to open up, to express themselves, to be vulnerable, that when they say, "Hey, my needs aren't being met here," they're listened to and given a supportive response. Then they learn at a really fundamental level that, hey, vulnerability is safe. I can trust that people will be there for me when I need them to be. And they're more likely to feel more secure in those things as they grow and develop into adults.

Louie: And then moving forward, when you get into a relationship when you're an adult, to show that vulnerability to your partner, it's a much more effective or probably a more positive relationship than if you were to have anything that you wanted to speak to your partner about, but you're always used to being shut down or not listened to. It's a bit harder when you are in that relationship trying to communicate?

Ben: That's right. Absolutely. If you grow up with an expectation that any sort of expressions of vulnerability or need are going to be met with a shaming response or a rejecting response, then you learn at a really deep, fundamental level that it's not safe to do that. And so it's a very anxiety-provoking thing to be able to express yourself from that place. And the number one symptom of anxiety is avoidance, so people who have had that experience, they'll avoid expressing themselves from a vulnerable place because they learn they're going to be shamed or rejected or put down in some way and that that's going to end up hurting them.

Ben: So yeah, it can be really difficult for people who have grown up having those sorts of experiences as adults then to communicate effectively when they get into romantic relationships later in life or any relationships.

Jessica: That also then carries us through to conflict because in order to, say, for example, somebody is yelling and they're upset. They're just in a really angry mood because their partner hasn't done something that they particularly like or that something's just frustrating them and there's a conflict that arise. What you're saying with that effectively communicating is that then if you unpack that, it can actually mean on a surface level, it's means, "Oh my God, you didn't put the bin out." But really what's underpinned by that is in that moment, when I asked you to do that particular task, I didn't feel supported.

Ben: Right.

Jessica: And that's that level of vulnerability and that's you unpacking it-

Ben: Yes.

Jessica: .. and that's you effectively communicating. So I think a lot of people don't realize on the surface of conflicts, is this kind of facade, but if you are vulnerable, then you unpack it. And that's when you effectively move through it, you effectively process that and go to that next step. Otherwise, the surface level conflicts will just keep arising, right?

Ben: That's absolutely right, yes. So when we don't feel safe to express ourselves from a vulnerable place, then often we'll get defensive or we'll get angry. And anger is what is referred to as a secondary emotion. It arises when people feel that some sort of injustice has been perpetrated against them or perpetrated against their values. And underneath anger, there are always more vulnerable emotions. There's fear, there's shame, there's hurt. You weren't there for me. I really needed you to do this for me and you weren't there for me.

Ben: I'm afraid that I can't count on you. I'm afraid that my needs aren't important enough to you. I'm hurt that you wouldn't listen to me. I feel like I'm not good enough that you would want to make the effort do that. But it's really difficult for people to express themselves from that sort of place. So what we often see is what's called a pursuer/distancer cycle. And this is a really, really common dynamic in relationships. If one person feels as though their needs aren't being met, then they might get angry with their partner.

Ben: And then when they get angry with their partner, their partner feels shamed and wants to withdraw. And then when their partner withdraws, then they're not there for me even more at that point, so I get it for more angry and around and around we go. That's a really, really common cycle that we see in relationships.

Louie: And what would be the best way to break that cycle?

Ben: If we look at withdrawal as a defence mechanism, and if we look at criticism as a defence mechanism as well, this is the only way I can defend my needs, is to start getting angry and expressing myself loudly. Then what we're seeing here is a battle between people's defence mechanisms. If we can go beneath that reactivity and look at the vulnerability underneath, I was hurt, I felt afraid. Well, when you attacked me, I felt like I wasn't good enough, like I can't do anything right by you. I felt ashamed. I'm not a good enough partner for you.

Ben: And talk directly from those places of vulnerability, taking our reactivity and our defence mechanisms out of the equation. Then that's the key towards healthy communication.

Jessica: I love that. Just thinking about it myself, when you talk about someone yelling at you and criticising you, that doesn't make you want to open up-

Ben: No.

Jessica: ... that doesn't make you feel safe.

Ben: It's not.

Jessica: It doesn't make you connect. You want to run away because it's no different to danger. I don't want to be around danger. But when someone's soft and their decibels have come down and they're like, "Man, I'm really feeling like really sad today. And the reason is." You feel more connected, right? Your body then gravitates towards that person instead of running away.

Jessica: So I think everyone can learn something in this because I think we've all had moments of anger and frustration. And I think we almost need to sit back and check ourselves and go, "Well, if I come at somebody at this energy, am I going to get the response that I need from them? Are they going to feel safe to then support me in that moment?" And if you notice yourself getting into a heightened sense of anger, frustration, go for a walk or do things to get you back into that normal state.

Ben: Yeah. I guess it's good if you can employ these strategies, like take some distance, take some time out, and they can be effective when you use them. They'll give you time and space to gain some perspective and then maybe come back a little bit calmer and be a bit more or constructive in your approach. But what we know from the research is that when people are emotionally activated, they might have learned these strategies, but the strategies go out the window.

Jessica: Oh.

Ben: It's really difficult to resist emotion. Emotion is essentially an impulse to act. When we're feeling anger, our impulse is to stand up to the injustice. It's not fair that I'm being made to feel this way. It's not fair that you've overlooked my needs. I deserve better than this. And it's really, really difficult to resist acting upon those things. So the best approach to resolving these sorts of things is not necessarily to develop strategies for how, like take time out, walk away.

Ben: It's more to create a climate of emotional safety so that you know you've experienced over and over again that if I express myself from a place of vulnerability, I'm going to be met with supportive, compassionate, reassuring response. I can trust that I'll get that sort of response, that my needs will be listened to. And when that climate is created in a relationship, then there's no need necessarily to resort to that anger. The emotional reactivity won't be as severe in the first place, because there's been plenty of examples of you seeing your partner being responsive to your needs.

Ben: So you can give the benefit of the doubt. So yeah, strategies can be helpful in certain situations, but I think that they're secondary to creating that climate of emotional safety.

Louie: And I think it's important as well to look at what, I guess the way that you're talking or the way that you're acting, and whether that's something that's going to heal this relationship or it's going to fix the issue. Whereas if you're yelling at each other, no one's listening to each other, how are we supposed to move forward and actually solve this?

Ben: That's right, yeah. One person yells, "My needs aren't being met." And the other person says, "Well, you are always criticising me and that makes me feel bad. And I have a right to feel good in this relationship as well, so my needs aren't being met." It's like, "Well, you didn't listen to what I was saying. You're just thinking about yourself." And a way we go and it gets caught in that negative cycle, and it's a trap. It's a self reinforcing, self perpetuating cycle. And being able to put down our defences and communicate directly from a place of vulnerability, that's much more likely to recruit a compassionate response from our partner than attacking or withdrawing.

Jessica: So you said, put down your swords and I immediately think ownership. So we all have a part to play in how things are playing out within our relationships. So is part of that going, "Okay, well, how can I own some of what's happening right now?" For example, I'm feeling really frustrated because my need isn't met, but how am I owning part of that? Am I communicating? In order for you both to resolve this conflict-

Ben: There has to be some sort of individual responsibility and accountability.

Jessica: Yeah.

Ben (20:42): Yeah. I think that's really important. All of us have sensitivities. All of us have encountered traumas of some kind. And I don't necessarily mean big T Traumas, but just little experiences are feeling neglected or rejected or shamed. We all accumulate those. It's impossible to escape them and they affect us on some level. So we all carry some baggage around that and it impacts the way that we show up in relationships. So part of the work is understanding how those sorts of issues impact your reactions and being able to identify, "Okay, I'm actually going into shame right now." Or, "I'm going into fear of abandonment right now. And I know that when I'm in that place, I tend to react in this way, which is not constructive."

Ben: So I think it's really important that everybody does that sort of work and tries to raise their level of awareness of how those sorts of factors play out within their own psychology. But I don't like the idea of just a purely ascribing personal accountability. Everybody is only responsible for themselves and they need to take care of their own stuff. And this is your issue, so you go away and deal with it and come back to me once you've figured it out.

Ben: I think your partner is responsible for your emotional needs, but I think that your partner is responsible in a relationship for helping you to feel emotionally supported by them. So that means that if somebody's having a hard time, if they're triggered, if they're emotionally activated, it's your responsive ability as a partner to help that person feel understood and supported in the distress that they're experiencing, in the needs that are not being met in that moment.

Ben: And it's difficult to do that perfectly, but I think that if you commit to a relationship with them, you do you have a responsibility to try. So in that way, there's responsibility in both directions for both of you supporting one another and being accountable within yourselves.

Jessica: I love that. That's very powerful.

Louie: It's definitely easier when someone's there helping you along the way as well when you're not doing it all by yourself.

Ben: Right. Yeah.

Jessica: I guess that's the benefit of a partnership, you're in this together and you're... It's messy, it's up and down and all around, but like you said, you're putting in that effort, you're doing the work, not only in your relationship, but in yourself, in yourself awareness.

Louie: Well, yeah, you've chosen that person. It's not a coincidence, they're not just there sitting there next to you for no reason. For some reason you've chosen that person and to make it a long-lasting relationship, they're the sort of things that you need to realise. There are some things that we need to do and how we need to change and speak to them. And so what we're going to touch on next is those ingredients for a long-term relationship. We did mention it just before in terms of how we can approach conflict, but is there anything else that we can add?

Ben: Well, when it comes to conflict, conflict is a normal part of a relationship. I've never heard of a relationship in which there's never any conflict, nothing is ever contested, there's never any frustration. I think that it's just a normal thing when you're committed to another person and you would like them to behave in a certain way and they don't, it's going to frustrate you. And that's just the very nature of relationships. But the key to healthy relationships is being able to move from a state of disharmony back into a state of repair.

Ben: So the skills of being able to repair once conflict arises are fundamental. And I like to call this process olive branching. It's about having the skills to reach out the olive branch to the other person, which is about speaking from a place of vulnerability. And also the skill of being able to receive the olive branch, which is the skill of validation. So the two Vs are vulnerability and validation. They're fundamental to being able to repair relationship disharmony as it arises. And that means speaking from a place of vulnerability and then receiving your partner with validation when they speak from that place.

Jessica: I love that, the two Vs. That's easy to remember.

Ben: Yeah, yeah.

Jessica: And there are going to be some points in your relationship where you go, "Okay, we've done this. We've done the work, we've showed up, we keep trying." And you get to a point where you just can't resolve it. Is there a point where you know when to walk away from a relationship? Is there signs or signals or should you just keep trying? What is that that determines when to walk away?

Ben: Well, I think there are some situations in which it's clear that one person's safety or wellbeing is being detrimentally affected by the relationship. So if you're in a situation like that, it's not always easy to end a relationship. There are really complex factors which can make that difficult or even dangerous in some abusive situations. But when essentially your safety or wellbeing is being threatened by a relationship, then I think that it's time to question whether there's a way out of that relationship.

Ben: The other circumstances, which might not necessarily involve threats or abuse, when two people are so fundamentally different that in order for one person to have their needs met, that necessarily thwarts the needs of the other person. And if there's no compromise that can be made within that, in which both people's needs are being met, then I think it's time to end a relationship then. Because it doesn't matter how our needs are met in a relationship, but our needs need to be met. We have to have our needs met. So if it's impossible to find a way in which for my needs to be met, your needs are also met, then that's a fundamental incompatibility to me.

Louie: You mentioned before, it could be just the relationship due to abuse, but it could be mental abuse. We're not talking about physical.

Ben: No, not necessarily. Yeah. Safety or wellbeing and that can include psychological wellbeing as well. Yeah, there are some relationship dynamics in which our people's sense of worth and value are being continually undermined. And that can be really toxic, it can take a real toll on our mental wellbeing, on our sense of our own value as a human being. And that has detrimental impacts on our experience of life and upon our ability to function in other important areas of life. So yeah, it's much more broad ranging than just physical abuse, what I'm talking about.

Jessica: Do you find that most people understand what their needs are or is it like... I just remember when you first start dating, you're like, "Okay, I want this and this and this and this and this." And generally it's superficial like, "I want this person to have this type of career, I want them to be this tall. I want them to know be tall, dark and handsome." Okay, fine, I'm talking about my own experience here. But then going into relationships and dating you realize, okay, well, is that my actual need?

Jessica: How does someone, especially coming into dating, maybe when they first start dating or maybe they've changed who they are over time. How do touch base with yourself and go, "What are my needs?"

Ben: I think there are two fundamental needs that we have in relationships from an attachment perspective, which is the perspective that I tend to take when I think about relationships. And that is, although those are rather I need to feel as though you are there for me. I need to feel supported. I need to feel as though if I were to reach out for you, you'd be accessible, you'd be responsive, you'd be engaged in those moments when I'm feeling vulnerable. So that's one of the fundamental needs.

Ben: The other is I need to feel like I'm good enough for you. I need to feel worthwhile, I need to feel like I'm attractive enough, I need to feel like I'm a good enough provider. I need to feel as though I do a good job of meeting your emotional needs. Whatever domain it is in which we want to feel valued, it's important that we feel that we are in a relationship. So those two categories again; I need to know that you're there for me, I need to know that I'm good enough for you.

Ben: And if we can say, "I genuinely feel those two things in my relationship and I'm still not happy about the relationship." Then maybe it's because there's something about this person that just doesn't really light my fire. And so I guess if there was a third need, it would just be the need to feel as though you have a fundamental attraction to this person, that this person really inspires me and ignites my flame. So yeah, I think that can also grow with time, but often if those other two fundamental needs are in place, but a person still finds themselves dissatisfied, it might be because that ingredient isn't there for them.

Jessica: It is quite common to hear that the flame begins really strong at the beginning of the relationship and then it starts to dwindle out. If you've been married for 30 years, for example, how do you get that flame to increase again when it goes down?

Ben: That's a really complicated question. What the research shows on that again, is that if those first two things are met, if I feel as though you are really there for me, and if I feel like I'm good enough for you then our passion and sexual chemistry improves.

Jessica: Okay.

Ben: But it doesn't hurt if there's a little bit of variety in there as well. I think we've got to make an effort to keep things interesting, to change things up, to make things novel. Novelty is something which tends to ignite the passion. So throwing those ingredients into a relationship is important if you want to keep the flame burning as well.

Jessica: I think that's perfect advice just around the corner from Valentine's Day, don't do the same thing that you do every year. Create novelty and a bit of mystery, maybe.

Ben: Maybe instead of a dozen roses, we need two dozen roses this time.

Jessica: Yeah. Or who knows, maybe surprise her and take her on a date somewhere else. Yeah. Louie's the romantic type, so he's got heaps of ideas.

Louie: Oh, look, you can do so many things. I would more go away the flowers and the chocolates and presence, and maybe do a heartfelt gift, something that's a little bit different. If it's not working for you, the typical roses and chocolates, and you do it every year, maybe you want to mix it up, that won't hurt.

Jessica: That shows that you're really listening too.

Louie: Right. Yes.

Jessica: So yeah, that whole heartfelt thing really shows that you really care and taking that time. Because like you said, it's not just buy roses because everyone knows that.

Ben: You don't want to give away all of your secrets here, Louie.

Louie: No, no.

Ben: I can see that you're holding back.

Louie: I'm not an expert, so I'm not going to give everybody my secrets because they may not work. What I really loved, what you said is look within yourself. So one, are all your needs met and are you there meeting your partners needs? And if they're the two things that you can see, then that's fantastic. I think that's going to really go forward with a lot of people and strengthen their relationships.

Jessica: Ben, can you talk to us a bit about how past experiences with previous relationships can then play out into the way that you approach your current relationship or future relationships that you're looking to get into?

Ben: Yeah, sure. Well, I think the experiences that we have in relationships and the experiences that we've had in past relationships influence our perception of what we can expect from our partners. So if we have had past relationships in which our needs weren't being met, in which we felt that we fundamentally couldn't trust our partners, in which when we tried to bring something up in a vulnerable way, we were shut down. Then those are traumas. Those are relationship traumas because they affect the extent to which we feel as though we're safe and we feel as though we can trust other people to respond to us.

Ben: So those sorts of experiences brand us and influence the way that we're going to show up in future relationships. And I think that it's really important. We were talking before about our personal accountability. It's really important for us to try and understand how those sorts of experiences have impacted us, how they might influence the way that we interpret others' behaviour and intentions towards us. And communicate those things to our partner so that our partner can understand and be compassionate and understanding in their response towards those issues. There's no doubt that the experiences that we have in our relationships past show up in what we bring to our current relationships.

Jessica: Obviously, it's our responsibility to heal ourselves. People that could have little Ts or big Ts, whether that be, a big T might be cheating or abuse, a little t, as simple as my need wasn't met and that happened over and over again.

Ben: Right. Correctly, yeah.

Jessica: And I'm now projecting that experience onto my next partner because obviously, it's this subconscious thing or maybe conscious who knows? But you don't trust, you've lost that trust.

Ben: Yes.

Jessica: And I wonder, how do you get to that process of healing? Is it better to heal alone? Is it better to heal with your partner? How do you get to a point where you can no longer start projecting and build that trust back up?

Ben: That's a really good question. And I think that it's better to do that healing within the context of a healthy relationship. I think that it's pretty easy for us a lot of the time to come to an intellectual understanding of the way that our issues play out. But that doesn't necessarily prevent us from having an emotional response when those things show up in our relationships. So I see relationship therapy as a form of exposure therapy. I don't know if anybody is familiar with exposure therapy, but it's a very effective way of helping people to overcome anxiety around things such as phobias.

Ben: So if I have a snake phobia, for example, you can cure someone of a really severe snake phobia relatively quickly just by gradually exposing them to the thing that they're afraid of. So there might be a snake that's housed in a cage in the corner of the room. And then that snake comes out of the cage and just hangs out on the far side of the room and slowly gets closer and closer. And at each stage in that process, a person's anxiety is going to spike. But the temptation is then to avoid which in that case would be runaway.

Ben: But if you force the person to stay there, their anxiety will spike. It'll slowly start to come back down again, and then they'll start to say, "Oh, okay, this isn't as dangerous as I thought it was." And being able to experience that something isn't as dangerous as you thought it was seems to help to diminish the anxiety response that we experience. And then gradually you'll get to the point where you can actually hold the snake without having your anxiety spike to the same degree. It's a gradual process, but it can happen over the course of several hours.

Ben: This might seem a bit tangential, but to link it back, I think that the same thing holds true for expressing ourselves vulnerably. When we learn that it's dangerous to do that, then we avoid it. We'll resort to our defence strategies instead. But the more experience we can have of taking that risk, which is anxiety-provoking for us and being met with a safe response, then the less anxiety-provoking it will become for us to do that. So going through that process and experiencing safety and being able to live out the experience of this thing which I'm so afraid to do, actually being a positive thing for me.

Ben: That is what helps to reduce anxiety about these things and helps to reduce emotional reactions. We can't just intellectualise our way out of these things. It's experience which helps us to reshape our emotional reactions.

Jessica: Yeah, I love that. But I think it's important like you said, "It's only going to work if you are in a safe environment." For example, if you are dating someone who cheats and then the next person that you meet is you knew the signs were there and he ends up cheating. You're not going to be able to heal in another cheating relationship, are you?

Ben: That's right, yeah.

Jessica: So you have to have a good head on your shoulders after that relationship to be able to see clearly and be able to identify, can I without a doubt know that my needs are probably going to be met? I guess there's never 100% certainty, but how you would want to know that you're going into a loving relationship, that you're in a safe environment.

Ben: Yeah, that's right. And that's where relationship therapy can be really helpful, because if we get into these cycles which end up just triggering us, then that can contribute towards our experience that these things aren't safe. It's not safe for me to be trusting, it's not safe for me to express my needs. So if you go to a relationship therapist and they can create a climate in the room in which it is safe to do that, and you are able to have the experience of getting a reassuring, compassionate response from your partner, then going through that process is what heals.

Ben: And it's important for both people to be able to have that experience, for both partners to be able to have that experience in order to reshape the way communication occurs in a relationship. And also to reshape our experience of what it means to be vulnerable in that way and diminish the anxiety and the emotional reactions associated with taking that risk.

Louie: You'd be able to pick up on the signs early in the relationship. If you've gone through that trauma or neglect or whatever it may be in past relationships, and then in a new relationship, you start to notice similar signs. Wouldn't it just be easier to speak to that person and say, "Look, I'm noticing these signs. This is what happened in the past relationship and I just don't want this to continue you"?

Ben: Yeah, I think it's really important to phrase those conversations in a way that don't feel attacking or blaming. Because that will just shame your partner, make them feel like they can't get anything right and potentially chase them away. So going into, again this is been a recurring theme in this conversation, going into those vulnerable emotions and saying, "Hey, I get really scared. Sometimes I've had the experience of trusting somebody, putting my trust in somebody and having that trust betrayed. And that comes up for me sometimes and I find myself looking for little cues.

Ben: So sometimes when I see that you're not available when I reach out at these moments, that triggers those fears for me and I really feel like I need some reassurance from you in that moment. Your reassurance really helps me in that moment. That's something you can do for me that makes me feel close to you, that makes me appreciate you." And framing it in those terms instead of making it an attacking or blaming statement.

Louie: Yeah. You'll get a better response when you do it that way than saying, "You're not there for me. You didn't answer or you didn't call me when you told me you were supposed to call me."

Ben: That's right.

Louie: Or you can, yeah, like you said, rephrase it, and say, "Look, in past relationships, I've had the same issues. I just want to speak to you about it. Let's try and change it." And that way if you get it done earlier, when you pick up on it, it'd be much better for that relationship moving forward.

Ben: Absolutely, yeah. And if you find that when you speak in that way, your partner still doesn't give you the right response. That's when it might be time to look for help or question whether this relationship is the right relationship for you.

Jessica: Well, this has been an incredible conversation. I think Louie and I can definitely say that we've taken a lot from this. And it's not only something that you use in own relationships, but you can help your friends and family. And I think that's also something that we want to highlight today. If you've taken a lot out of this conversation, you think you can help anyone else, please share it and send it around. And also let us know if there's something that's sparking your interest that you want to have be talked about on the podcast, please let us know info@optimalehealth.com.au.

Jessica: But thank you so much, Ben. We've absolutely loved speaking to you. We could probably speak to you all day and would definitely love to have you back on again. But so the listeners know where to find you, where can they contact you?

Ben: I've got a website which is www.relationships.sydney. So you can look that up and I've got a few little articles on there that talk about some of these issues. You can have a read-through and yeah.

Jessica: Great. Thank you so much.

Louie: Thanks Ben. Thanks for joining us today.

Ben: It's been a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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