Is Marriage a “Give and Take” Relationship?

June 22nd, 2015 • By: Arlene Kahn Therapy art of marriage, Couples' Communication

When asking seasoned married people, “What’s the art of a successful marriage?,” many would say “Marriage has to be a “give and take.”  What that implies is that  one gives sometimes and at other times, he or she can take.  It brings to mind a process similar to going to the bank.   I put in 20.00 and at a later time, I can take out 20.00.   Unfortunately, it’s the kind of expectation that too often breeds disappointment, hurt, anger or resentment.

First, what works better is something more like “Give and Receive.”  What’s the difference?   Well, you  can really never take from another person, no matter how much you’ve given. (Maybe your mother is a kind of Giving Tree, in which case this theory would not hold).  But most relationships are not made of Giving Trees.   You give because you want to give. and you  give what you’re able to give.  Likewise, the other person also gives as he or she wants to give, and what he or she is capable of giving.  This means, you must be ready to receive what is given—if you want it. It means appreciating the effort even if it isn’t exactly what you gave that you wanted back.    For example:  I gave you a surprise 40th birthday party, but you didn’t give me one!”  Maybe you’re capable of making such a party whereas your partner is overwhelmed by that idea. So you may never get a surprise party, but you may get a lavish dinner out.  We can’t take what we want, we can receive what we get — and we can want that.

Some people have a lot of trouble giving, others have a lot of difficulty receiving. The art of Give and Receive is to appreciate what’s given to you, and give what you can and as freely and lovingly as you can give it.  This is often an important aspect of lovemaking.  Often, it’s frustrating to get what the other person likes.  He or she may like a soft touch, but you may want a harder or a little rougher stimulation.  To receive that softness, won’t work well for you.  Here’s where communication comes in.  You can ask, or demonstrate, but it doesn’t mean you will get it.  To be rough might be anathema to your partner, so it never comes out just right.  If you perceive h/her attempt as an unwillingness on his or her part, or not listening to you, you might get angry, ultimately it may lead to an affair or other hurtful alternatives.  If you perceive it as she or he is doing the best s/he can, you may be able to adjust your expectations differently and in a way that ultimately feels more satisfying.

See if you can notice the subtle expectations, hopes or desires you have in your relationship, i.e. specific ways you would want your partner to be more giving.  Notice also, the things your partner has asked you to do, whether it’s in the realm of daily chores, like doing the dishes more often, or in more intimate areas like kissing him or her when he or she comes home.  Can you start the ball rolling, by making the first change?  Sometimes, when one person pushes their own limits to meet their partner’s needs or desires i.e., gives something that’s hard to do, it helps the other person make more of an effort, too.

Comments to this post would be welcome.


Change: Loss, Grieving and Opportunity for the New.

October 26th, 2012 • By: Arlene Kahn Therapy Bodily Sensing, coping with grieving, Focusing, mind-body therapy, Strategies
"No man ever steps in the same river twic...

Heraclitus: “No man ever steps in the same river twice.”


Change can be one of the most difficult experiences to negotiate in life.  When there’s a company take-over, fear takes hold among employees.   What will the change bring?  A young couple prepares for the birth of their first child, unsure how the change will affect their relationship, the closeness of their bond.  Abrupt change such as death of a loved one or unexpected job loss can be shocking to our system, leaving us bereft with a feeling of nothing to hold onto and in a state of grief.

In our political arena, the issues of the impending election invoke the tentacles of change as they reach into the economy, education, health insurance, taxes.  All is in flux and the flux creates turmoil.  In the natural world, earthquakes, forest fires, hurricanes destroy the present.  Then nature (and men and women) rebuild tomorrow. The charred and blackened forests give rise to new and lush growth, New Orleans is a safer  place than it was before Hurricane Katrina.


In the 1970’s there was a book called “Don’t Push The River.”  It  showed how useless it is to try to hold back the flow of life.  Still, many of us resist change.   We want things to stay the same. In our marriage, a changing partner or change in ourselves can feel frightening–where will it lead?  We are afraid of the unknown.  And, change often involves Loss.  I am aware even as the season changes, I mourn the loss of the warmth of summer, the brightness of the day, the energy of the sun.  Okay, I love the leaves drifting down from their tree branches, the colors of Fall, and even the coolness is refreshing. Still…..


Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher (c. 535-475 BCE) is most famous for his well-known saying : ” No man ever steps in the same river twice.” He insisted on declaring the ever-present change in the universe.  He further emphasized that because there is constant change, each object that exists is itself  a harmony between a building up and a tearing down. In other words, he believed that despite the struggle of staying the same vs. creating the new, the created object becomes a harmony of a new whole.  So in the loss of change is also the emergence of the new.


Heraclitus’ philosophy of change coincided with Buddhist philosophy founded in India about the same time, in which Impermanence is one of the three marks of existence.  Buddhism holds that it is our attachment to the things and people we come to depend on that is the cause of future suffering.  When a loved one dies or leaves through death or other separation, it can be excruciatingly painful. We rely on our attachments.  Even an adult child appropriately leaving home can be painful for a parent.

Heraclitus became known as the “Weeping Philosopher.”  He suffered from what was then called Melancholia and what is today called Depression.  Could there have been a connection between Heraclitus’ acute awareness of ever present change and his sadness?  Could the loss in our attachments be one of the sources of our suffering, as Buddhism suggests?  When our attachments leave, when we lose the connections to the people and activities that support us, often there is a pervasive sense of aloneness that may be expressed in depression, addictions and other symptoms, rather than allowing the outright grieving that’s necessary to feel complete again.  Within the state of grief are often opposite pulls to want back what was lost, to resist the change vs.the pull to go on with life in a new way, to welcome the new.


1.  When faced with a conflict or opposing thoughts or feelings, try “holding the opposites” in your body/mind.  Give yourself a minute at a time, several times during the day, week or month,  until they loosen and begin to  transform.

2.   Rather than making a quick decision about buying a house, leaving a relationship, taking a new job, when there’s indecision and conflicted feelings, try focusing on the inner conflict, creating an image of it, waiting till something inside “shifts.”.

3.  Stay in the experience of “now”, even when the now is painful.  Allow it to find its resolution.

4.  Often, meditation can help us slow down and wait for the new that emerges and transforms.  How unproductive it would be to force the pupa to release the butterfly before it’s ready!  Waiting, giving it space and time encourages it’s natural birth and creation.


When I read Heraclitus’ statement that “the path up and down are one and the same,”  I was reminded of the autobiography of the academy award-winning actress Bette Davis who wrote that her mother used to tell her “be kind to the people you meet on the way up, because they are the same people you meet on the way down.”  What she meant is that Bette’s success may one day ebb and if she treats others badly on the way up, they may spurn her on the return trip.  

I think it’s also important to be nice to yourself on the way up because it’s the same you that you will accompany on the way down.”  Knowing and accepting who we are at our core is the key to handling success well and coping with life’s disappointments, or unexpected reversals when they occur.   We can’t achieve the sense of wholeness, the flowing stream, only by what we do on the outside.  That helps.  But it is gathering the felt-sense of the pain that heals.  Then there’s a shift inside, that brings the gift of inner harmony.

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What Two Questions Should you Ask When Your Trust Is Required?

June 14th, 2012 • By: Arlene Kahn Therapy Betrayal, Couples' Communication, Identifying a Felt-Sense, Integrity in relationships

Erik Erickson a well-known psychologist placed our need to trust first on the scale of our most basic needs and the foundation of all later development and growth. For many people, an inability to trust is to live a life of torment and aloneness.  It means never allowing oneself to engage in a relationship that includes the sweetness of closeness and intimacy.  One is able to avoid the vulnerability and potential for deceit or hurt, but in not trusting, one also misses the pleasures of emotional connection and deep human contact.   On the other hand, trusting too readily or blindly can lead to equal suffering, anguish and pain.  Then we open to the possibility of betrayal before we are sure we can trust, and betrayal is one of the most painful of human experiences.  In fact, Dante, in his Divine Comedy placed the Betrayers in the inner circle of the Inferno.

Psychological studies have shown that betrayal undermines our self-confidence, sense of balance and feelings of self-worth.  We actually become more self-critical when we’re betrayed by someone we love or depend on.  (“Interpersonal betrayal and cooperation:  Effects on self-evaluation in depression.”  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Feb. 1986).

The novel Trust Me by Ravindra Rajashree has become one of the most popular books in India and

ravindra n rajashree

ravindra n rajashree (Photo credit: gandhiji40)

around the world.  It’s comic and yet serious as situations of trust are explored. The book title Trust Me comes from an old joke that is quoted in the novel: [5]

‘You didn’t let me open your hand in the beginning, and even when you did, you opened it very slowly – that shows that you don’t trust easily,’ he said. ‘You’re too closed as a person. Open up, you’ll enjoy life more.’

I took my hand back from him and lit a cigarette.

‘Do you know what “trust me” means in Polish?’ I asked.

He shook his head.


“‘Fuck you.’”

He laughed. I smiled.

‘So, when a guy says “trust me”,’ I said to him, ‘a warning bell rings in my head.’

He made a face. ‘Why are you so hard, so defensive?’

‘Have to be, living in Bombay, alone.’

In the dialogue above, Rajashree shows us that when asked to trust the protagonist closes her hand and shuts down.  One reaction when trust is required is to withdraw.  Often, when trust situations occur, a dichotomy of trusting too little or too much presents itself.  Knowing when it is safe to trust and when trusting is likely to be successful, is difficult, especially in personal relationships.   Roger Jackson, a Stockton State College professor in NJ  offers a definition of betrayal and two guidelines that serve us well when deciding whether or not to extend our trust, whether we’re in Bombay or anywhere else in the world.

Jackson’s paper,  “The Sense and Sensibility of Betrayal:  Discovering the Meaning of Treachery through Jane Austen.”  defines betrayal as a violation of trust and offers the following definition of trust:  Trust is a situation in which the trusting person extends to another power over something he or she values with the confident expectation that the person being trusted  will have the good will and competence to successfully care for it.”  So in cases of interpersonal trust, such as an intimate relationship, or a relationship between doctor and patient or even in situations of simple trust such as  hiring a contractor, or trusting a family member to perform a task the two questions one must satisfy in order to successfully trust are:

1.  Does the person have good will in caring for the object of one’s trust?

2.  Is the person competent to care for the object of one’s trust?

What is meant by good will and how do we know if the trusted person has it?  We know mostly by what our senses tell us.  We are trying to glean whether ” the trusted person seems to  want to do the job, or if there is a sense that at least he or she is on board with what is being asked.   We want to believe that there is a positive willingness to care for the object of the trust or  an energy of  positive intention.   If we consider trusting someone, do we have a sense of the trusted person having a likely disposition to do what is being asked?  Is there a desire to fulfill the expectation of caring for the trust object or a determination to do so or a desire to meet the attitude of the trust being invested?

How do we understand competence when thinking of trusting someone?  In other words,  does the person being trusted have what it takes to carry out the care of the valued object?  How skilled or qualified is he or she?  In a doctor/patient situation the doctor’s qualifications are usually known, if we are willing to look into them.  But, how can the doctor trust the patient to know if he or she is competent enough to carry out the treatment steps?   Or, does a spouse have the good will and/or competence to help his [or her] partner in the treatment goals?  In intimate relationships, how does one know what the other person is capable of in the way of sustaining and caring for a loving relationship?

In Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility,  Marianne,

English: "She was scarcely able to stand&...

English: “She was scarcely able to stand” – Marianne sprains her ankle and Willoughby comes upon her and rescues her. Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. London: George Allen, 1899, page 44. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

who loves Willoughby deeply, feels deceived and abandoned by him, when he abruptly leaves her for another, wealthier woman.  She did not recognize in his exciting implications of promised marriage, the lack of good will.  She also did not see his lack of competence in being able to live without extensive wealth.   Was he lying when he implied his love would lead to marriage?  Sometimes we “hear” or believe what we want to hear.

In a paper called “Shakespeare’s Liars”, Inga-Stina Ewbank quotes Shakespeare talking of the “tongue”–of the deceiver throughout his plays.  Shakespeare refers to the deceptive tongue as ‘double’, or’ candied’ or ‘poisoned’ –but, Ewbank says,  he is equally concerned with “the ear” or how we hear what is said.  Shakespeare shows repeatedly (Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, etc.) that we can be seduced.  We can have our mind, or ‘imagination’ be stimulated by what we want to hear until our ear (or our mind)   is just as “infected” as the trusted person’s tongue.  We begin to believe that more is promised than actually was.  Then, it’s a shock when a “felt-betrayal” is denied by the betrayer–“I never told her that!” Indeed, it may never have been explicitly stated.  Through verbal inuendos, it’s likely that  the good will was absent, replaced by indifference if not an actual intention to deceive.  Still, the implications may have flowered in the truster’s mind, with devastating consequences.

Of course, on occasion there are extenuating circumstances.   “Competency” and “good will” cannot always be perfect predictors of trust.   Circumstances and the context of a situation can also interfere with the best and truest of intentions.    E.g.   A plan is made to vacation in a special place and illness prevents it from happening.  Or, in Jane Austen’s novel, Dashwood offers to leave money in his will but the money is lost and the family he would have left it to are impoverished despite his promise to care for them after his death.

In conclusion, outside of extenuating circumstances, when we ignore our felt-sense that signals caution, like Rajashree’s warning bell, and  trust in spite of those signals we may be developing an “infected ear” and colluding with the trusted person’s “double” or “candied” tongue.  Too often, it leads to a kind of self-betrayal along with the other’s deception.

Instead, asking these two questions (Is the person to be trusted competent to care for the object of the trust?  Does he or she have good will in relation to the care of the trust object?)  and believing in the reliability of your inner response can provide a  guide to increasing confidence in expectations of others.   It may also help bridge the gap between trusting too much or too little and lead to happier and more successful trust experiences.


As an exercise, think back over your own situations of disappointment, feelings of betrayal or abandonment.  Would these guidelines have helped to be clearer in the situation(s)?  Please feel free to comment.

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Why Men Leave Women Who Become Ill

November 10th, 2011 • By: Arlene Kahn Therapy Abandonment, Couples' Communication, Illness, post traumatic stress, Trauma

“Men leave women seven times more often when their wife becomes ill, than women leave men who become ill.”  (Journal Cancer, Sept. 2010).   In 2001, a study on the effects of brain cancer on 193 couples showed that 13 husbands walked out on their wives after diagnosis but only one woman left her husband.”   Those are startling statistics. In one study of 500 marriages 105 ended because the wife was ill, but only 15 couples divorced when the husband was sick.  (2001, The Times UK. The study was done in Seattle, Washington).   Besides actual divorce, too  frequently, some husbands seek a lover or have an affair when their wives have a life-threatening illness or are even dying.

Elizabeth Edwards who had breast cancer wrote a book describing the pain and sense of betrayal she felt when her husband, John Edwards, the South Carolina senator and presidential candidate, was unfaithful while she was being treated for breast cancer. At the same time that he was having an affair, he publicly posed as the perfect, loving and caring husband.

Common explanations say “Women are more disposed to be caregivers while men have a harder time assuming that role.” Or, “Men get lonelier when their wife is incapacitated”. ” Women cope with illness better than men,”  or a question often asked is “Are men just more self-centered than women?”  Without an answer to that question and despite these trends, I think there’s a deeper story.

Over my 30 years as a psychotherapist I have noticed that men who leave women who are ill or otherwise become incapacitated, (such as alcoholic or drug addicted)  are often men who have been traumatized by the loss of a loved feminine figure when they were young. This loss was a highly stressful, traumatic event to which they have adapted in many ways as they grew.  However, for some men so traumatized, when their wife becomes ill or needy they are thrown back into a state of post traumatic stress disorder, often propelled into self-destructive behaviors (such as affairs, addiction, etc.) as attempts at self-regulation, unable to respond appropriately.  They unconsciously avoid re-experiencing the trauma and instead, look to a new woman, often quickly, like John Edwards, to ward off guilt, or fear of the future.

For example, one man who lived with three different women, left each of them when they got sick.  As a child, he had lost a beloved older sister when she was taken away due to a complicated family divorce.  At the time of discussion he said sadly, “I don’t know if she’s alive or dead,” but his longing for her was still present and palpable.  Another man’s mother had leukemia, diagnosed when he was 10.  She increasingly withdrew to her room, and he said “I lost the connection with her, her smile when she saw me, her excitement at what I drew, the way we shared our interest in art.”  In  her withdrawal he lost a vital connection with her energy, her support and the way she had inspired him.  When he grew up, his own wife had a seizure after their son was born.   Three months later, he left them for another woman, and seemed never able to maintain a lasting relationship.

Carl Jung

A man's anima

Man and His Anima

C. G. Jung, the Swiss Psychologist applied the term “anima” (Latin:  aliveness, soul)   to the way an outer woman or feminine figure  can stimulate, energize and inspire the inner feminine qualities in a man. These qualities include his sensitivity, heightened awareness of his feelings, his very sense of aliveness.  In other words, a man feels his very soul come alive. Likewise, a man who is special to a woman can also inspire her to do things she didn’t think she could, such as take on a career or develop ideas she has, bringing them into the world, stimulating what he called her “animus,” or her male side of having healthy aggression in the world.

Many men have a “strong anima” within, nurtured by a loving mother, sisters, perhaps aunts or a special grandmother who supported them and encouraged them. They may have had a father who respected and cared for women and especially their mother when they were boys.  So when their wife becomes ill these men can be steadfast and in touch with their feelings and with hers when she needs him.

Of the men who leave, if there was an early trauma due to a withdrawn, depressed or mentally ill mother, or the loss of a special relationship with a sister, or other cared for feminine object it is likely that the husband will depend on their partner’s energy to feel whole.  When that relationship supports him, he can be attentive in return. However, when the woman turns inward due to illness his sense of loss may be re-ignited, and the traumatic stress reaction can re-emerge.  If or when that happens, paradoxically it is when she needs him the most that he is least able to give.

It is vital for men who have experienced the loss of a loved feminine object in childhood to understand the abandonment-trauma they have suffered that stirs beneath their consciousness when their wife becomes ill or unable to function in her usual way. Engaging in an affair, getting divorced or becoming preoccupied with work or other addictive-like behaviors keeps these men from growing and maturing and it perpetuates the trauma by inflicting the same abandonment and betrayal on their wives.

However, when one or both partners can recognize the husband’s distancing as fear embedded in a post traumatic stress reaction and confront it, then sharing the adversity together brings closeness and intimacy.  Such efforts to reach out to each other at this time of difficulty can offer an unparalleled bonding and self-esteem for each person and within the relationship. Both partners’ willingness to maintain an emotional connection through heart-felt communication and a gentle physical affection can be healing for the woman who is ill and it can also create a pathway to heal a man’s early abandonment-trauma and re-enliven the relationship.

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Focusing: 5 Ways to Find a Felt-Sense

October 13th, 2009 • By: Arlene Kahn Therapy Bodily Sensing, Identifying a Felt-Sense, Strategies, Tips

Focusing is a term given to our ability to turn our attention inward, to notice how we experience a life situation, a problem, a difficulty with a relationship or even a point of stuck creativity.   We are gathering a “felt-sense” of a situation, a form of somatic experiencing.

Felt-sensing is different than “getting in touch with feelings,” or “thoughts,” and it is not strictly meditation, yet it includes all of those ways of experiencing too. It is essentially a body/mind therapy.  It addresses the whole of our experience, our body and our mind.

Learning to find a felt-sense in a situation that is conflictual, confusing or even joyful, can be extremely helpful in knowing how to handle it.  It means being able to penetrate, or go into a feeling to find a sense of the whole of it.  When able to do that, often there’s a body shift, a kind of awakening of awareness to something you didn’t see before about the situation or about yourself.  It feels like a fresh insight and can provide direction.

I’d like to share the steps to finding a felt-sense.  These are adapted from Eugene Gendlin in his book “Focusing.”    Here are 5 ways to find a “felt-sense.”

1. Get comfortable, sitting up in a comfortable chair is best, hands loose, feet on the floor.  The first step is to slow down.  Breathe.  Notice what’s there, in your body– what feelings, thoughts,  anxiety or sadness and ask yourself, “What kind of experience is happening in my body, right now?”  Then wait.

2.   The second step is to get into a place of empathy with yourself, about the difficulty or the struggle going on.  Above all, be non-judgemental.  Create an inner space that is kind, gentle, safe.  Without self empathy, nothing can change.

3.  If nothing seems to come, look for the vague,  murky feelings somewhere in the middle of your body.  You may be unclear, or at a kind of vague edge of something.  Breathe.  Stay there.  Wait.  Welcome the effort for something to come.

4.  Allow a word, a symbol, a phrase or image to emerge.    Whatever it is, give it your interest.  Be curious about it.  Stay with it, like a companion. ” Hello, image.   Welcome.”  Do you have a sense of the whole of it?

As if you thought of a person you know, and felt into the thoughts about him or her, the feelings, the things you know already, even a smell or texture related to him or her and then if you brought all this together, what is one word or image that might represent the whole of that person just now?

For example:  I am thinking of my dog:  his quirks, the feelings of annoyance when he grabs my pillows off the couch, my pleasure when he greets me with joy, his large size, his reddish color, soft fur, how relaxed I feel when I sit with him.  An image emerges of him standing before me, head cocked, looking at me and the word that comes to mind that represents the whole of him is “friend.”   Yet, it surprises me because he follows my husband everywhere and I usually think of him as my husband’s dog.  But my felt-sense tells me  that he is “my friend,”  very much my dog too.   There’s a newness and freshness in that for me.

5.  See if the felt-sense goes with the imagery or word.  Is there a resonance?  Can you sense a change or a shift in your body?  Whatever comes,  if it’s fresh, new, not the same things you’ve been telling yourself, it’s likely to have a quality of truth.  Give it time.

If you’ve been able to go through this process, perhaps you’ve  discovered something new inside.  If it was harder than you thought, take one step at a time until you feel ready to go on.  This doesn’t have to be done at one time or even in one day.    For further practice, read Focusing by Eugene Gendlin.  For additional information visit the focusing website:

Focusing  is form of experiential psychotherapy.  Unlike other approaches, it includes the whole of a person’s body/mind  experience.  If you tried following these steps, I’d be interested in your experience and your comments.

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