Don Paglia | Marriage and Family Counseling. Constellations Workshops



Popular love songs with lyrics describing various physical symptoms the singer gets whenever he/she is around the beloved, or even when thinking about the other are supposed to be speaking about love. Lyrics like: “My heart starts pounding, my head starts spinning, and my temperature starts rising…” They are meant to describe love; but they do not. Rather these are classic flu symptoms. Anyone having them needs to see a physician immediately!

We also say things like how we “fell in love”, or that we “fall” out of love. Such notions about falling – in or out – are problematic. I hate whenever I fall. The last time I fell I did serious harm to my ankle putting me out of commission for several weeks. It was both a painful experience and not something one would look forward to again.

“Falling” in or out of love, or having flu-like symptoms, has little to do with love and more to do with fusion:  The noun fusion comes from Latin meaning to melt. Fusion is the act of melting things together; a blurring or globing into each other making one element indistinguishable from the other. In science, this process of merging atoms together creates energy, which is a good thing; an important thing in our physical world. In relationships whenever two people are acting and needing to be as ONE person, it is not good. It is a denial of ones’ own self. There’s an implicit or explicit notion that I am not enough; I need this other person to make me whole, or complete. Two people that love each other are still two separate, distinct people. This is essential for the sake of their relationship. An old teacher of mine used to love to say, “In order to have a successful marriage you need to worthy opponents.” He wasn’t advocating fisticuffs or violence; he was describing the importance of each party remain a self while also becoming a couple.

Hopefully each party is enriched by the love and caring of the other; and hopefully each brings something to the relationship so that there is some equity of both a mutual giving and taking. Ideally, one’s beloved stirs up in the other the capacity to be more of a Self – not less – so one grows and develops into a mature, adult that is fostered by this giving of love.

Love can be given by either providing a caring love or with a challenging love. The caring love is seen as kindness and acceptance, whereas the challenging love can come across by telling the other that he or she isn’t doing what he/she is capable of offering. “You’re better than that.” Nowhere is the idea that one makes the other person whole or complete. We already are whole and complete. If we aren’t, it’s our job to address this. What may passes for great poetry, novels or movies, is, in reality, is an unsustainable relationship. More marriages failure by the couples being too close (i.e. fused or stuck- together). What?


Consider this: you start out getting together, and this at first, it’s quite lovely. It feels terrific. Eventually, a togetherness begins to become a stuck togetherness – a blurring of each individual’s boundaries for where you start and I end and vice versa. That is, the two parties are not worthy opponents. Instead there is a “we-ness” and lessening of each individual into becoming overly dependent upon the other. They become inseparable, with little or no room for each one’s own identity. Tension up around differences – those differences that don’t get directly addressed.

Two major differing needs are the at odds within this now serious relationship build. Those differing forces of either the need for (1) Togetherness, or (2) Separateness mount.  In every relationship each togetherness-separateness continuum within the relationship.  One of parties in relationship needs more of one while the other partner needs more of the other. If these are at the extreme end of the continuum the differing need has them struggling with which of the two poles will be provided and at whose cost? If one gets all the closeness while the other is denied the separateness it is unsustainable. Or if one gets all the space and distance while the other is denied the closeness they need this is also unsustainable. There must be a learning to respect these differing needs and learn to compromise.

Throughout this process the couple must figure out: How can each party remain an I, while also being close to this other, while the other also remains an I?  There often seems to be more effort in getting the togetherness, at the expense of being a Self. Divorces come from this being too-close, as ultimately one or both cannot find a way to gain enough emotional space without going for physical space of an actual separation or divorce. For such couples divorce becomes their only logical conclusion for getting the distance lost and no longer available within the mistakenly designed restrictiveness created within their particular marriage. Thus some marriages that are not necessarily marriages; while there are divorces that are not necessarily divorces. We all know couples who say they are better friends with each other, and get along better, now that they are divorced. And there are those married couples who remain married but who have totally shut down and are distant with each other, sometimes even bitterly cold and form an “arrangement” while they live in the same household with separate bedrooms or on different floors.

The Importance of Humor and Playfulness

Besides learning to understand the differing felt need of one’s partner there is an important antidote: Humor and playfulness. Humor, can and does, serve most couples well. Humor helps the couple take their problems seriously while not themselves seriously. Humor offers a much needed space – a pause – a stopping of one’s brain surging with the intensity of any drama being played out within the marital relationship. Humor helps us to get to a place where we can literally lighten up how we are being, and the way we are being with each other. Each party needs to learn how not take what the other says/does, or did not say/did not do, as some sort of personal affront or attack. I’ve trained couples to reframe “that annoying thing he/she does as that cute thing their partner does…” Yes, you read it correctly. I’m being serious about this! More on playfulness later.

A Great Marriage

What exactly is a great marriage?  How does one work on having a great marriage?  Such questions are bigger than the scope of this short article. It’s enough to say the only great marriage one needs to be concerned with is his/her own great marriage. What would go into your great marriage is all that matters. Books, course, or professionals tell us largely useless concoctions as to what constitutes an outstanding marriage. Usually it is done in general terms, with broad, general guidelines, perhaps useful, but only to a limited point.

A Better Question: How does a couple create their own Great/Extraordinary Marriage? Or: How can a couple be more in love with each other in one year from today? Five years? 25 years? …than they already are right now?

Once a couple determines the WHAT they desire, the HOW is merely details, and also effort. A wise couple gets busy creating their personal, unique marriage by regular actions, behaviors, and milestones, into play in order to generate such a relationship.  They then ask themselves regularly how these actions and behaviors have been advancing, or distracting from, their extraordinary marriage. If an action enhances, keep it up. Add to them more that serve in this regard. If a behavior distracts, stop or change it or modify it. Playing with any and all their behaviors is the road map to becoming masterful lovers. It’s not rocket science!

Also I purposely used the term “PLAY,” It’s not a great idea to “work” on the marriage. This notion of working conveys a seriousness, pointing toward an intensity, both of which are problematic. Couples need to address their particular behaviors and weed out those things not getting them to their goal of a great relationship. They may even need to gain good communication skills, and learn some conflict management skills, and how to compromise. But, they need to be cautious that a focus on working hard isn’t a fixation about only getting closer or solely fixing problems, and neglects a basic need to maintain two Selves. This can be misunderstand as promoting selfishness, or even narcissism. It is the very opposite. An anxiously driven couple may great skills and techniques, but the skills and techniques will not carry the day when it comes to addressing their respective reactivity. Skills and techniques can even to used stay reactive stuck regarding the tension generated from the differing needs for togetherness and separateness. Learning how to respect these differing needs, finding ways to compromise, and developing ways for managing one’s self-differentiation –  meaning: learning how to not automatically react – is key. This is why humor and playfulness are so important. Learning how to remain calm when my partner is not calm is grace in action. It can only come about through learning to let go and to be able to laugh a little.


So it’s better to not work on the relationship. Instead learn how to play. Central to this notion of play is learning how to develop a focus on becoming the best mature, capable, and responsible person one can be.  What would an adult do in this particular situation?

This inquiry is not one about WORK! It is not about making the other party wrong, or making ourselves wrong. An either/or approach is reaped with seriousness. Whenever we are anxious we are reacting; not responding. It is a lack of self-differentiation, our inability to respond intelligently. Chronic seriousness means we are cut ourselves off from the higher levels of our brain functioning – without the capacity to reason or problem-solve, or to be creative and imaginative. Seriousness is the red flag for being anxious, and it means we’re operating solely from an unconscious level that prevents us from our greater human capacities as cognating mammals. Instead we’re merely reflexively being as reptiles.

Thank the hypothalamus in our brains for locking us out of these higher functioning capacities whenever we are anxious. But, the antidote, or the way back from this, is through getting ourselves calm and relaxed. Humor and playfulness are essential, as is prayer, exercise, yoga, and good music for starters. One can argue that humor and play are essential for healthy living. We have a poster in our kitchen that says: “Life is mysterious, don’t take it so serious.”

Let’s say, your car won’t start and you’re trying to get to an appointment on time. You get upset. You start flooding your brain with distressful thoughts. ‘I’m going to miss this meeting!’ You begin to feel frustration, anger, or helplessness. We have now diminished our ability to solve the car problem. This could be a great opportunity for someone else that’s interested in buying your broken down junk-of-a-car that at this moment you’re ready to run off a cliff. Becoming upset isn’t going to help you. Then you start remembering that it’s only a carjust a machine – that’s not misbehaving, or trying to treat you badly. You think, ‘It’s not personal.’ Such a great mantra for this latest of life’s upsets is quite handy. You sit, make a few cell phone calls until AAA arrives.

It Isn’t Personal

This advice also excellent advice for marriage, where we tend to take everything personally. Realizing that our partner is not doing whatever TO US (at least not initially) will more likely stem the tide. It is NOT personal. He/she most likely has a problem. But the problem is irrelevant for how you can respond. That response needs to be drawn from my mature, adult self. I can stay with my own integrity and remain calm regardless of whatever the other person is doing. Write this down: My partner’s behavior is never ever an excuse for me to act irresponsibly!

Repeat often: “It isn’t personal; it isn’t personal; it isn’t personal.” When we’re too close we lose this important focus. Then we cannot readily take the high road. We more likely launch into a tit for tat. This rarely bode well. We are too close. Fusion with an automobile, or with our marriage partner, is never, ever a healthy thing. Playfulness isn’t about being goofy or flippant or being naive. It’s all about getting some emotional necessary distance in order to gain a healthier perspective, in order to get back to the thinking, reasoning functions of our brain. Feeling upset merely lets one feel upset. Blowing off steam might be initially helpful, but not a viable long-term solution. Thinking calmly leads one to useful and practical solutions. Humor can and does play a very effective tool moving us outside a situation that otherwise dupes us into seeing as hopeless or unresolvable.

Paradoxical Interventions

Akin to humor is the use of paradoxical interventions. This might be as simple as going along with the given situation, and even exaggerating it into some absurd state. “This is the worst thing that could have ever happened to me. I think I’ll kill myself.” Or, “You’re feeling sick today? And, so what’s your point? You’re lucky and don’t have to go to that awful job of yours today!”

When my client George complains that his wife, Sue, (names changed) he contends that she makes an annoying facial grimace whenever she thinks he is worried. Her grimace causes George to become angry. I suggest he learn to misread her.

“Stop thinking you knows what that facial expression means. It might mean worry if you made such a face; but perhaps it isn’t that way for her,” I retort.

I continue: “What if you imagine her facial expression to be her new ‘sexy’ look?”

I ask him to consider misreading her this way. I tell him this not because this is correct or right, but because he can elect to see her in a less intensive way.  At first George laughs, and then considers my whacky idea. I am hopeful he may even come discover his wife as a more interesting person by such thinking. I push further and tell him, “This approach is really all about you, and has very little or nothing to do with your wife.”

I say these ideas so my client might be better able to give up the old, hypnotic hold his wife’s so-called grimace has had on him – one that has forged into a habituated pattern of their constant bickering.  I suggest he may not really know what “that face of hers” really means as an attempt to slow him down. Perhaps this pause will be long enough to foster him to address what is really going on within himself. His own reactivity does not come from his wife; it resides within. This, when all is said and done, is the only thing for him to address. Ironically by George addressing his own reactivity he’ll have a greater affect on the marital relationship. This is something he (or his wife) don’t yet know, but is readily available.

Back to our cars again. We might better off treating our partner as well as most of us we treat our cars?  If you don’t expect a car to deliver more than is possible, you don’t get upset when the car doesn’t deliver. Cars do occasionally break down. They need attention. Preventive maintenance can avert some of potential problems, but, after all, they are only cars. Some people neglect their relationship as they might ignore an oil light, or engine light, indicator. I once had an old 1959 Triumph TR-3. It was fun to drive with the top off in the summer. Every now and then the old British finicky automobile would break down. I tolerated this occasional quirkiness, and enjoyed it when it hummed along. I didn’t expect perfection. I suggest having a little bit more fun, and more tolerance in our relationships, as well. Take that love of your life out on the road for a good spin now and then. Crank up the stereo; try singing along. I hope you get the metaphor.

Playfulness is key. Learn to smile and be paradoxical. When was the last time the both of you had a belly laugh?  Look more endearing at your own respective nuttiness. Some humility can serve us as well. It is a lot easier to live with some of those “annoying things our partner does when we remember that we are no walk on the beach either, and in fact have annoying habits as well. Also view your own efforts toward self-growth as the primary and worthwhile endeavor. Life can be a bitch or a beach. Decide which one you want to have regardless of whatever evidence you think is around you. You will find all sorts of evidence to support which ever you choose.

And Play! Play together; and play alone. Cultivate enjoyment with each other, but also cultivate time for the Self. Your partner is not responsible to make you happy; you are not responsible to make your partner happy. First be good company with yourself. There is also entirely too much emphasis on communication and getting the couples to be close. I’m against this. We do fairly well with closeness in general, and could do even better. But each person needs to also take care of self. Let me put it this way: We’d be much more able to be intimate in our marriages if we first knew how to be separate. Playfulness points the way for such capacity to be a partner while remaining a self.