Relationship Poker: The benefits of probabilistic thinking


Relationship Poker: The benefits of probabilistic thinking

Are you working on understanding your partner’s needs? Are you trying to be more attuned and connected with your partner? It may be helpful to think more about what will probably help rather than the exact right or wrong step to take.

Let me give an example. Your partner has asked you to be more emotionally present and connected when she’s expressing anger and sadness about her family. She wants you to connect to her and support her when she’s in this vulnerable state. But, she also doesn’t want to feel like she’s spoon-feeding you. She wants to feel like you are close enough to her to be able to anticipate what she needs “naturally”.

You’ve tried some different strategies in these moments. You want to meet her needs. You want her to feel connected to you and feel your closeness when she’s upset. But, you’ve also made mistakes in the past. You’ve offered problem solving advice, rather than just validating. You’ve tried to hug her when she wasn’t available for that, and been rejected.  You’ve been preoccupied with your own problems and not been available at all. You’ve tried to tell her it will be ok, and invalidated her feelings. You’ve made a joke, and flopped. You’ve tried to use reflective listening, and come off as robotic or too intellectual.

Now, based on all your trial and error, you’re feeling like there is a right choice and a wrong choice. You can succeed or fail. And the result will determine if the strategy you used was right or wrong.

In her new book, Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts, Annie Duke, psychologist, author, and poker champion, would call this “resulting,” and it’s a problem. “Resulting” is a natural tendency to use outcome success as our only measure of effective decision making. For our example it would go something like this: “I hugged her quietly and she felt soothed so hugging was the right decision.”   

Duke proposes a more open model for decision making based on her years as a poker player. Poker is a game of skill and chance, or luck. It requires an understanding of probability and an acceptance of luck. And, it is a game that is played swiftly. Each hand takes about two minutes to conclude. There is a norm around this, and in competitive play players can “call the clock” if a player is deliberating too long. This allows the slow player 70 seconds to make up her mind.

 We want to have control in our lives. We want a sense of sureness about the choices we make in any area of our life. We want to deliver on our partner’s needs, so we often seek the right answer when faced with a decision about how to respond. Duke explains that this gives us only two options- success or failure. And it may lead you to do nothing, which probably will equal a bad outcome.

She suggests thinking in a more probabilistic way. What are the odds that a hug will help right now? What are the odds that problem-solving will help right now? Or a joke? You don’t have all the information from your partner. You don’t know if she’s not in the mood for a hug, or if she wants reassurance rather than validation. (You can probably eliminate ignoring her or harshly judging her feelings as inappropriate.) She may not want you to ask her what she needs in a direct way, or maybe she does want that.

Sometimes luck may play a huge part in what feels supportive. Maybe a joke pops into your head that you can deliver with some amazing timing that will really shift the mood and feel supportive. But that kind of joke may only come around once every six months. Or maybe, by chance, you’ve just had a conversation with her brother and you can offer some insights he’s shared with you that will feel caring. We can’t control everything. Chance and luck are an undeniable part of life.

I think you should try to look at your options, knowing this won’t be your last opportunity to be a good partner, and quickly consider the probability of each path. Transparency during this process may be helpful: “Part of me wants to give you a hug and part of me wants to go get you a cup of tea. Would you like a hug?” This shows that you’ve got ideas. You’re not a robot.  You are trying to anticipate her needs and make respectful space for her to own her needs. It opens up space for a discussion rather than a situation where failure is likely.

If you agree that this is a worthwhile way to support each other then you may start to feel more options open up and maybe some become stronger preferences. There can be space for shifting from one strategy to another if the first doesn’t feel right, or even a proposal for a third strategy that would really hit the mark. Your partner may respond, “ I don’t want a hug, I want you to just tell me I’m going to be ok.”  And the effort and transparency may provide the emotional cushion that allows this negotiation to feel supportive.

When it comes to support, we rarely want or need the same response for every situation. And, good supportive responses may be ineffective depending on other factors. If you are sick with the flu you may not want a hug. Consider your options and weigh the probability of their success (quickly!) and make your choice. There are many ways to provide support. Don’t let your fear of failure keep you from trying. Place your bet, hopefully luck will be on your side!


Photo by Piotr Łohunko,

Infidelity in Couples Therapy: Will We Get Over This?


Infidelity in Couples Therapy: Will We Get Over This?

Partners can be unfaithful for many reasons. In the recovery process, those reasons will be uncovered and processed to make sure the past will not repeat itself. But that comes later. The first and most important decision is whether both partners want to move forward and are willing to work on the relationship. Infidelity work is tough for both partners, hurt and unfaithful. It’s intense and evocative of potentially overwhelming emotions. As a therapist, my goal is always to guide couples through this process using a structure and framework to provide safety.

So you’ve been unfaithful or your partner has been unfaithful. You’ve decided to try and move forward with your relationship. Couples often come in to therapy asking; is it even possible to get over this? Will this always be hanging over us?

The couples I’ve seen who have done this work successfully view it as an opportunity to overhaul their relationship. When you’ve been through something as traumatic as infidelity and decided that you still want to continue your relationship, a huge space opens for transformation. One that you and your partner co-create and one that is fulfilling for both of you. I’ve had couples who describe feeling a sense of relief in the aftermath; after all, the worst had happened and there was nowhere to go but up.

Couples do get through this, but not over it. Not in a negative sense; they work very hard and are very honest with themselves and their partners. They recommit to their relationship and to making it the best it can be. They lower their defenses and learn to communicate in a way that ensures they’ll be heard. They remember where they’ve been and what they’ve learned so they don’t make the same mistakes again. They do it all so they can have the relationship they need moving forward. It’s about moving through and embracing the lessons to be learned.

Conflict-Resolution and Resilience: “Can we try that again?”


Conflict-Resolution and Resilience: 

“Can we try that again?”

When couples embark on therapy it is often to change patters of conflict that are wound so tightly responses can feel like ‘autopilot’. Yet, courageously they commit to the idea that there is another way to go about conflict: one that is more healthy and productive for everyone involved. Often times this process can become stuck, even when couples have created or acquired excellent new ways to engaged in difficult conversations. Such new options may linger during pivotal moments, but familiar ways sink in and the same pattern unfolds.

       There is a powerful tool that fits well during this time, when new options are emerging but difficult to apply. Sometimes it can feel like unlikeable patters occur quickly and the conflict reaches a point of no return. It may be the case that break is needed. A pause can help shift from patterns of reactivity, and assist with de-escalation of conflict and re-regulation of one’s body and emotions. Moving into a state of positive cognitive regulation can also help expand and integrate one’s awareness to their internal cues and external environment, which supports the brain in finding a empathetic and creative stance towards approaching challenges. Once ready, couples may find it useful to re-approach the difficult conversation and give it another try.

       As a matter of fact, the suggestion can be phrased exactly like that, “Can we try that again?” It emphasizes personal responsibility, honors a shared goal, and suggests an idea to re-direct the interaction in order to stay on course to achieving it. Here is the thing, in order for the suggestion to maintain its useful intent and have an overall positive effect, two steps need to be taken with it:


1.     The receiver must be ready to join-in and see the question as an attempt to improve the quality of the relationship and resolution of the conflict. Intentions must be clear by both parties that it does not ‘erase’ what happened before. Rather, they are acknowledging that what happened before was ineffective, and that another way of communicating might work better.


2.     Both members must be willing to take a creative stance on what happens next. By this, they must be willing to approach the new attempt as ‘explorers’. They can look out for how it feels to engage or be engaged with in this new way, and the result is has on the process and outcome of the conversation. They may even be willing to provide some immediate feedback on how it went.


3.     Then, the suggestion can be introduced. Again, focusing on how it might support the work the couple has committed to. Some options for phrasing it can be (but are certainly not limited to):


“I feel like we fell off course from what we are working on, can we try that again?”


“I really liked that way of responding to each other that we have been talking about doing, and I would like to apply it here, can we try that again?”


“This is an important conversation, and I want to make sure we are able to talk through it, can we try that again?”


         Trying to shift ways of engaging with challenging topics can be a long-term process. It can take patience to see a difference in how conflict is handled and the outcome it produces. Creativity and a willingness to keep trying and applying new skills, even when the ‘usual’ way persists, can be the resilience that makes a difference in creating relationships worth wanting.

How To Talk To Your "Workaholic" Partner

How To Talk To Your "Workaholic" Partner

Many couples encounter difficulties when it comes to navigating work/life balance, especially when one or both partners has a particularly demanding job. These days, certain industries encourage total focus on work, to the detriment of personal relationships and family life. It can be a challenge to discuss your concerns with your partner while respecting their focus on their career. Here are a few tips for how to talk to your partner about their work habits or job if you feel negatively affected.


1. Make sure to wait for a relaxed moment to bring up your concerns with your partner. 


2. Try communicating your concerns about your partner’s job or habits by focusing on how you feel, rather than on your partner’s actions. For example: “I’ve been missing our time together lately, I’ve been feeling kind of lonely,” as opposed to, “you’re always working at night”.


3. Always try to understand and validate your partner’s position before stating your own. For example, “I know you have a ton of deadlines to meet and barely any time to get it all done. That must be incredibly stressful, and of course you want to be as dedicated and efficient as possible, I get that. I also want to figure out a way for us to hang out, though, because I miss you.”


4. Consider ways to problem-solve around your partner’s job requirements or habits. For example, if it drives you nuts that your partner needs to be available to customers 24/7, perhaps there is a creative way for them be reachable without constantly interrupting your time together. Something like an hourly email check rather than an alert each time a new query arrives, or an automatic response that can let customers know they will be answered by the end of the business day. You can suggest brainstorming creative ideas together.


5. The more you pursue and complain, the more your partner will tend to withdraw or become defensive. It’s a well-known relationship dynamic.  Try laying off the digs and complaints about their job for a while, and see if that makes any difference. You may be surprised at their increased willingness to acknowledge the negative effects of their job or work habits on your relationship once you’ve stopped bringing up the subject as often. 


6. Try switching to more positive and supportive comments in general regarding their job, if you can. This may seem counterintuitive, but generally once your partner feels they have your support, they will probably be more open to considering ways in which they can improve or change the negative and challenging aspects. 


7. Take some time to consider the reality of the situation. For example, is this a temporary problem due to a huge project with an upcoming deadline, or is this something that will bother you for as long as your partner is at this job or in this career? Is your partner driving the problem or is someone they work for or with really the root of the issue? Is your partner happy and fulfilled at their "bad" job, or do they also wish they could switch careers or change their habits? All of these factors will affect whether and how you approach the issue together. 


8. Most people have relationship challenges both at home and at work. Much as you feel that your partner's job is affecting your relationship in negative ways, I can almost guarantee that they are also feeling similar pressures in the workplace as well, either from coworkers or employers/employees. Try asking your partner about their workplace relationships and how they are being affected by them. They will probably appreciate your empathy and consideration of the other important relationships in their life, and the conversation will bring greater insight to the ways in which their job or habits affect and are affected by all those around them.