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July 23, 2008 > Counseling Corner: Have It Your Way

Counseling Corner: Have It Your Way

By Anne Chan, PhD, MFT

"Chicken or fish?" queried the flight attendant sweetly as she served dinner on a recent Cathay Pacific flight. I was impressed - even with the airlines' cost-cutting measures, she was still offering a choice for my evening meal 30,000 feet up in the air.

Whether we're flying high in the air or have our feet planted firmly on the ground, most of us like having choices. As the popular fast-food slogan goes, we like to have it our way. No matter what we are buying or wanting, we usually have several, sometimes even hundreds of choices. If we're buying a car, we can choose from a seemingly infinite variety of makes, models, sizes, and colors. If we are thinking about education for our children, we can select from a variety of public, private, charter, and alternative schools. If we want to dine in the Tri-City area, we have access to thousands of dining options, from Afghan to Vietnamese - to name but just a few popular possibilities.

Manufacturers know how to market their products so that they appear to have an edge over their competitors. They artfully use colors, graphics, words, and all kinds of special effects to entice us to choose their products. Part of the seductive fun of having a choice is that we can feel like we're in control when we make a great selection for ourselves. It feels good to have choices.

Sadly, people who come into my office usually feel the exact reverse - they feel like they have no choices at all. They feel stuck as they lament the state of their relationships and their partners. They often feel helpless because they either feel like they have no choice, or they feel like they are stuck with two unpalatable choices, e.g. to stay in a bad relationship or to leave.

Sometimes, people feel stuck in how to respond to their partners. Typically, they perceive their partners to be rigid and unchangeable. They report trying everything. They say they have run out of ideas. Oftentimes, barring leaving the relationship altogether, they feel their only choice is to protect themselves and withdraw emotionally from their partners.

It is misery to feel so stuck. For most of the couples I have worked with, the sense of having no choice and the accompanying sense of hopelessness have been going on for years. Here's one example that might feel familiar:

Say, for instance, that your partner is not paying enough attention to you. You feel alone in your relationship because he or she does not seem all that interested in you. When you attempt to talk about the goings-on in your life, he or she is busy multi-tasking, cleaning the house, checking emails, etc. This has been going on for some time. Hints from you don't seem to get through. You try being nice at first, perhaps cooking favorite meals or bringing flowers home - all to no avail. You start getting angry, upset, and resentful. Your partner lashes out in return. Eventually, you decide to withdraw from your partner, keeping him or her at a distance. You feel like this is your only choice, because you don't want to be hurt anymore. The situation seems hopeless. You feel you are out of options.

There is a neurological basis for why you feel like you are out of options: the emotional brain presents you with a limited array of choices. In fact, our brains are wired to react automatically in only one of two ways - flight or fight. When you feel stuck, you are right in one sense.

But you're only half right. There are more ways to interacting and relating to your partner than fighting or running away.

Here's a thought worth considering - there are always more choices than we can see for ourselves.

In the scenario above, some possible alternative options include:

Talking to your partner about how much it means to you to get his or her undivided attention

Instead of giving your partner the cold shoulder, try the reverse tack - praising him or her when they're doing something that pleases you.

Ask for what you want and explain the benefits to your partner when your needs are met (this is an especially good one because it shows your partner how a certain course of action would benefit him or her, rather than you).

None of the choices above are easy to do, since they involve a combination of openness, vulnerability, self-confidence, and emotional stability. Yet, these choices, when performed successfully, can pave the way toward greater intimacy, understanding, and appreciation in your relationship.

Of course, there are other choices you can make - you always have the choice to disengage from your partner, stay furious, storm out, or give up on your relationship. Sometimes, the latter, though painful, may be the best choice for both parties.

Whatever tack you take, the point is that you do have choices, even when you feel the most stuck. These choices won't be screaming out at you and clamoring for your attention, unlike the array of brightly colored products in grocery and retail stores. But a wise friend or good counselor could help you figure out options you have not considered on your own.

Remember, there are always other choices available . . . whether you're dealing with deep matters of the heart or flying high 30,000 feet in the air.


Anne Chan is a licensed psychotherapist and career counselor in Union City. She specializes in helping people find maximum happiness and fulfillment in their careers and relationships. She can be reached at achan@midlabs.com or (510) 744-1781.

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