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Dr. Alexandra Solomon is a love nerd, there’s no denying it. She’s dedicated her life to the pursuit of learning about love and teaching those around her how to love. She’s a clinical psychologist, a professor who teaches the Marriage 101 class at Northwestern University, the author of my new favorite book, Loving Bravely, and so much more.

This is a lovely and sincere conversation about vulnerability, boundaries, relational self-awareness, attachment theory, and so much more.

What you’ll learn (or why you should care):

• Why relational self-awareness is key to a healthy relationship

• That reason that even therapists need therapists

• The importance of boundaries

• Why we choose partners that trigger our old wounds

Where to find Dr. Alexandra Solomon:

​Dr. Alexandra Solomon on the Web | http://www.dralexandrasolomon.com/

Dr. Alexandra Solomon’s book, Loving Bravelyhttps://amzn.to/2XgVZdk

Dr. Alexandra Solomon on Instagram | https://www.instagram.com/dr.alexandra.solomon

Dr. Alexandra Solomon on Facebook | https://www.facebook.com/dralexandrasolomon

Mentioned on the podcast:

Ester Perel’s book: Mating in Captivityhttps://amzn.to/2EeC99S

Sue Johnson on Emotional Focused Therapyhttp://drsuejohnson.com/emotionally-focused-therapy-2/what-is-eft/

Geneen Roth’s book Women, Food, and Godhttps://amzn.to/2Ew4Bph

Marsha Linehan, Ph.D. and Dialectical Behavior Therapyhttps://behavioraltech.org/

Brene Brown on Shame and Vulnerabilityhttps://brenebrown.com/

Imago Therapy – Getting The Love You Wanthttp://imagorelationships.org/

Read an excerpt:

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: I’m Dr. Alexandra Solomon. I’m a practicing licensed clinical psychologist. I work with individuals and couples. That’s one point. There’s the teaching. I train graduate students to do couples therapy and I teach undergraduate relationship education class at Northwestern University.

And then the third point of the triangle is that I write, I blog to all different audiences, professional audiences and lay audiences, and young and old, and that’s the external facing translating what happens in academia and in clinical work, translating that to the general public.

Shaun Galanos: I get the impression that you’re really into love.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: I call myself a love nerd. I’m unapologetically obsessed with romantic love, all kinds of love, but romantic love. I love nerding out and I want everyone to be as into it as I am.

Shaun Galanos: I love the concept of a love nerd. I guess I would identify as a love nerd as well. Certainly not an expert. Certainly not a guru. But like a student of love.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: I’m a student of love. I’ve been married to Todd Solomon for 20 plus years and I am a student of his love and have been and continue to be.

Shaun Galanos: You said that love is a classroom. What do you mean by that?

Read the complete Loving Bravely transcript here

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: I’m Dr. Alexandra Solomon. I’m a practicing licensed clinical psychologist. I work with individuals and couples. That’s one point. There’s the teaching. I train graduate students to do couples therapy and I teach undergraduate relationship education class at Northwestern University.

And then the third point of the triangle is that I write, I blog to all different audiences, professional audiences and lay audiences, and young and old, and that’s the external facing translating what happens in academia and in clinical work, translating that to the general public.

Shaun Galanos: I get the impression that you’re really into love.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: I call myself a love nerd. I’m unapologetically obsessed with romantic love, all kinds of love, but romantic love. I love nerding out and I want everyone to be as into it as I am.

Shaun Galanos: I love the concept of a love nerd. I guess I would identify as a love nerd as well. Certainly not an expert. Certainly not a guru. But like a student of love.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: I’m a student of love. I’ve been married to Todd Solomon for 20 plus years and I am a student of his love and have been and continue to be.

Shaun Galanos: You said that love is a classroom. What do you mean by that?

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: I think that our best and bravest approach to intimate partnership is to forever be students of our partners and students of that classroom for two that we build together because otherwise love is too frustrating.

There’s so much frustration and friction in love that unless we take a stance where those painful moments are breathed into and where at least a little part of ourselves holds onto the idea that this moment can teach me something, how I’m reacting to my partner right now has something to teach me, unless we step into that framework, it’s just so painful.

The opportunities for misunderstanding each other never go away so we can either fight and act as if somehow we can make this thing perfect, which is what all of the fairy tales we ever grew up with show us, or we can just lean into the fact that that imperfection is what makes it a classroom. It helps us grow and heal and work our old wounds out kind of again and again with somebody who’s also in it with us.

Shaun Galanos: I like to think that every relationship that I’ve ever had has happened for a reason and has taught me something. I don’t believe in failed relationships. I sometimes have clients or people that say, “Oh, what a waste of time. That relationship ending was a waste of time.” And I just don’t see it. I don’t see it that way.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: Yeah, that’s the pain talking. And I think pain needs to be held and held in such a way that then at some point, there’s something else that enters the picture or enters the room, which is,

“Oh, but I learned this thing. I learned this thing I wouldn’t have otherwise known about myself and now I can take that and cultivate that and bring in something different to the next relationship.”

But when we don’t do that, when we stay in that skinny, narrow story, “this was a waste of time,” we really disempower ourselves because then what we do is we try to find the next person who’s not going to do to us what was done to us. That’s really disempowering versus

“I’ve made these shifts and I know now how to be more effective. I know now a little bit more about where my boundaries are. I know now a little bit more about how to ask for what I need.”

So much more empowering

Shaun Galanos: And I guess that’s how you can learn about love a little bit over time.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: I think one of the risks that love nerds like you and I run is that we present this idea that all you have to do is figure yourself out, just like, do this, understand this, fix this, heal this, and then go find somebody and you’ll make a good relationship.

And I think the arrow does go in that direction, like, the more we understand ourselves and cultivate that self-aware relationship with ourselves, I do think we’re better positioned to find a partner who really is healthy for us, but the arrow goes in the other direction, too, that there’s some stuff we can’t learn outside of the ring.

Even with a stack of books, even with amazing podcasts like yours, even with all these different things, part of the learning has to be in the muck, in the mess. And sometimes, like you’re saying, it means the relationship does not go the distance. But there’s still learning there and there’s learning there that you can’t learn from the safety behind your phone or your book.

Shaun Galanos: This strikes a chord because I’ve been single for a long time and I’ve been doing a lot of work and I’m working with a therapist and I’ve had some short relationships in the last 10 years, but nothing really instrumental.

And I know for a fact that I am so much more comfortable alone because I’m not being challenged in some ways that relationships would challenge me. I’m sort of ready. I’m ready for a new challenge.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: One of the questions I think I’ve gotten most often since publishing “Loving Bravely” is what if your partner is less love nerdy than you are. Can that happen? Can a love nerd and a non-love nerd love each other?

I think that’s such an interesting question because we talk a lot about cultural differences, racial differences, personality differences, gender differences, and how we bridge those. And the difference between somebody who’s super invested in the work partnering with somebody who kind of is really comfortable living on the surface, I think that’s an interesting kind of intercultural relationship.

But to me, it is can the less nerdy person at least hold space for the nerdier person? So, the difference between

“It’s not my thing, but tell me more. I’m here and I care about it because you care about it”

versus the eye roll and “that’s woo-woo” or “that’s ridiculous.”

So, I think there’s something about holding the work in contempt versus holding the work with curiosity.

“I don’t know, babe. I’m not ever going to read the number of books you’ve read. I may do a little bit of couples therapy with you, but I’m probably not going to commit to…”

That’s different than like, “Oh, my God. I don’t believe in therapy.”

That’s a massive trigger phrase for me.

“I don’t believe in therapy.”

So, that one I think is tough for somebody who is really, really anti. Like,

“I would not do couples therapy.”

For that person to partner with somebody who’s saying,

“I think we’re hitting some stumbling blocks here and I feel like we could use the help of somebody who can help us hear each other in some different ways.”

I tell my students, if you take nothing else away from my class, please take this away. The first time your partner says to you,

“Honey, I think we’re having a hard time and we could use some couples therapy. We could use the support of somebody.”

The first time your partner asks you that, go. Just go the first time because all too often, the couples that come into my office, they’re in year eight of not having made love. They’ve had the same fight so many times that it is like this well-worn path through the woods. Or they’ve got one foot out the door.

So, people have different thresholds for which they call something a problem. And so, the one who’s got the more sensitive threshold and says,

“I think we’re in trouble. I think we need help. I want the other person to lean in even if they have some skepticism.”

The science is clear. Couples therapy works. It doesn’t work all the time. It’s imperfect. It makes sense why it works to have some third person in that space with the couple who’s able to kind of hold a little bit more awareness of the system, of the space between, is incredibly helpful, because when we’re in it…

I mean, I’ve been doing therapy with couples for as long as I’ve been married. And when my husband and I get in it, I can’t hold a gracious, grand systemic space where I can see the whole thing. When I’m in it, I’m in it, and I don’t think we ever really transcend that.

Shaun Galanos: Are you a volume up or volume down strategist?

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: I am hard volume down. I mean, I go somewhere where nobody can find me.

Shaun Galanos: I’m a volume up guy, and one of my relationships, she was a volume down, and I mean, classic, push, pull, and we went to therapy within a year. We were 23 years old. And we found recovery, me through alcoholism, her through her codependence. And I’m forever grateful for that experience. We were in therapy for two years. And I would love there to be an objective third party involved in my relationship whenever it’s needed.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: Whenever it’s needed, right. We call it the dose-based approach. You do a dose of therapy. You don’t stay in it forever, but you step away. And then, you’re planning a wedding, so stuff gets kicked up again so you go back in. And then, you know, sort of like coming and going.

My husband and I have had a variety of therapists throughout our relationship and I know that I have been more hesitant to talk about my history in couples therapy, even my own individual therapy history. I remember for a long time I felt really sensitive about that. I felt shame of being a couples therapist who’s had couples therapy.

And a while back, I was like, you know what? I’ve got to walk the walk if I’m talking the talk. And so, I think part of what’s therapeutic about couples therapy is it’s a declaration to yourself and other that we matter. Our love matters.

And it’s couples saying we’re going to have this hour a week. We put our phones away. We close the door. There’s no kids. There’s no job. There’s no work. There’s just you and I cultivating us. I think that is one aspect of the therapeutic element of it. It’s the therapist certainly and the therapist skills and training, but it’s also just the declaration that we matter and we’re investing in us. I think that’s a big part of it.

Shaun Galanos: In the book, “Loving Bravely,” there’s my stuff, there’s your stuff, and there’s our stuff. And seeing a therapist could help with the our stuff part. Actually, it can help with the whole all three of them to figure out what belongs to who. And then also to nurture the our stuff.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: Exactly. For sure. The science has been really helpful around this is attachment theory, like attachment science. So, we know, when we’re born, we attach, body, heart, soul, the whole thing, we attach to our primary caregivers in this way in which our primary caregivers live in our bones. At a cellular level, they matter.

We are interdependent from the very beginning. And the cool thing that happened with attachment science was it was initially the study of the parent-child relationship. And then, in the 1990s, teams of researchers came in and were like, “Wait a minute. Let’s see what happens with adults.”

And it turns out adults in a pair bond, in an intimate relationship, attach to each other the same darn way that babies attach to their caregivers. We attach to intimate partners at this profoundly deep cellular level. And so, when I can’t find you, when I can’t feel you, when you’re in your volume up mode and I’m in my volume down mode, it’s an attachment panic.

It’s a panic that happens at a very, very deep level. I think we have ways in this modern era of really emphasizing you’ve got to be able to stand on your own two feet. We’re so hard on the independence and you’ve got to be complete as a person. But that belies the science and the science is that we’re interdependent. When there’s a rift in the relationship, it really hurts. And it hurts in a profound way.

Sue Johnson, who created an emotion focused therapy, she’s the one who really has helped couples therapists and the general public alike understand how profoundly interdependent we are on each other and how much love matters.

Shaun Galanos: Love matters. I just like that as a bumper sticker.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: That’s right. Love matters.

Shaun Galanos: Other than reading your book and taking your class, how are we supposed to know how to love if I think a lot of us haven’t been taught? I don’t have a manual.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: That’s right. Yeah, I always say that, when we’re growing up, we’re like these little social scientists in our house. We’re absorbing all kinds of, mostly implicit, sometimes explicit, lessons about what it is to love and be loved. We watch the adults in our household relate to each other and we feel how they relate to us.

And so, we come into our adult intimate relationships with all of these kind of paradigms and constructs and expectations of who we ought to be and who the other person ought to be that are so implicit that when our partner doesn’t meet what we expect, we feel we’re triggered. We go volume up, we go volume down, but we often lack the language to describe what it is that’s happening.

And so, to me, I think a big part of it is looking with curiosity and with compassion at that original love classroom, which was the house that you grew up in. It’s not parent blaming. Oftentimes, my students are resisting because they don’t want to blame their parents because they love their parents.

So, we’re not ever victims of our parents, but our parents are also works in progress and they have their own stories and they are their grandparents kids, which I think is a massive compassion opener and helps us do that hard work of figuring out what we learned growing up and how it’s helping us and how it’s getting in our way.

Shaun Galanos: Someone said recently, “We didn’t raise our parents. Someone else did that.” So, I don’t have to take ownership of how they were raised. They were raised in a different generation, a different era, and they’re doing the best they can with what they had. And we are all doing the same.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: I think the more we can see that stuff with some amount of clarity, the less likely we are to play it out with our partners. There’s this whole approach to couples therapy called Imago Therapy, Harville Hendrix, “Getting the Love You Want,” that really is about how we partner with people who have the potential to kind of rewound us in the ways our parents wounded us.

If we had an unavailable parent, we may be drawn to an unavailable intimate partner because that desire to kind of fix it, to get what we didn’t get growing up. And we don’t have to make our partner wrong just because they do hold that element of difficulty being available. It does mean that it’s really helpful for my partner to understand,

“Listen, part of what draws me to you is it’s sometimes hard to get your attention.”

And so, where does that come from? Where does your struggle to connect come from? And the more we can understand where our partner’s tender spots come from, the more they can understand where our tender spots come from, then that becomes the work. That’s the my stuff plus your stuff equals our stuff.

Shaun Galanos: What you’re talking about sort of reminds me a little bit of a segue into dialectics, which is something that I learned about in your book and has sort of three main points:

That everything is connected to everything else, which I can totally get behind.

Change is constant and inevitable. I can totally get behind that.

And that opposites can be integrated to form a closer approximation to the truth.

And the way I understood that is when I had that therapist when I was growing up. He said that a sign of emotional maturity is being able to have multiple competing emotions at any one time. And that could look like,

“Hey, partner. You’re really pissing me off right now. And I love you.”

Or, “Hey, family member, or hey, co-worker. I think you’re so important to me. And this is driving me crazy.”

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: And the ability to sit in that paradox is so hard and it’s essential and I think what we want to do is we want to make love follow rules. We want to make it orderly, make a flowchart, make a graph, make an agreement, make a rule, set a parameter, and I always imagine Love off to the side, like laughing their ass off. You think that Love is going to cooperate with some flow chart that you design?

So, a big part of it is just being able to more and more comfortably sit in that paradox. Esther Perel is one of my favorite thinkers and writers, and a dear friend of mine, about love and sex and intimacy and her whole first book, “Mating in Captivity,” is about the complete dialectic of we crave from the same person security and novelty. I want you to have my back and I want you to keep me on my toes. And that doesn’t get resolved.

Sometimes we try to resolve it and our work really is to sit comfortably in that. I think about when I travel to give a talk or go teach somewhere, every time I do this. I check into a hotel room. And I’m a wife and I’m a mom of two teens and I have a dog who’s sitting right here wanting my attention while we talk, and so, I’m in connection a lot.

So, I get to go to a hotel sometimes and I open the door to the hotel room, and at the very same moment, I have this sense of I have nobody around me. I have this big old bed, a remote that is all my own, and simultaneously, I feel how lonely I am. And that is at the same moment.

And so, my work in that moment is to expand and breathe into that paradox rather than foreclosing on,

“Oh, my gosh. I love being in here. It must mean that I should divorce my husband and live as a single person.”

Or, “Oh, my gosh. I hate being away from my family. It means I’ve done my whole job wrong and I shouldn’t travel for work.”

The urge to foreclose on one or the other is less interesting, and as your therapist would say, less mature than just breathing into, like,

“Oh, look at that paradox. I have total freedom right now and I feel lonely as hell because both things are true. I’m delighted and I’m sad at the same time.”

Shaun Galanos: What a rich experience. For a long time, I couldn’t do that. If I was angry, I was angry and I really had a hard time finding how I could even have loved you in the first place. It’s so hard.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: One of my therapy mentors describes, early in her marriage, gettingin a fight with her husband. I may even have put this in the book. I don’t remember if it’s in the book or not. But she would describe getting in a fight with her husband and the thought was

“I hate him.”

And with the work, couples therapy, understanding, it became

“I hate this moment.”

Shaun Galanos: I hate this moment. Yeah, it’s in your book.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: Good. I’m so glad it’s in there because it’s important.

Shaun Galanos: I hate this moment. This moment is really challenging me. I sort of had to stop reading your book 60% or 70% of the way in because there was so many things that I wanted to talk about and there was just no way that we would be able to get to a fraction of it, which is a ringing endorsement for the book. I can’t wait to sit down and read it again and really take my time because I connected with so many different parts of it.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: Thank you. Thank you.

Shaun Galanos: I would say it’s a truly beautiful book. So thank you for taking the time to write it. I’m assuming that writing a book is a lot of hard work. So, thank you. And the book is about, sort of big picture, it’s about relational self-awareness. And can you tell me what that means?

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: Yeah. So, relational self-awareness I define as cultivating a curious and compassionate relationship with yourself and using that as a foundation for how you love and are loved by an intimate partner.

And so, I think, oftentimes, we want our partner to heal us or to love us as we are, which we certainly do deserve to be loved as we are, but sometimes I think we ask for that instead of cultivating within ourselves.

And so, another dialectic, another both/and, is

“I want you to accept me as I am and I need to accept myself as well.”

So, self-compassion is essential. I think sometimes we try to have a partner just love us without condition when we struggle to do that with ourselves. And the consequences are massive.

I know, in my own relationship, I am far more likely to be critical and nitpicky at Todd when I’m struggling to just be really loving and gentle with myself. There’s a total relationship there. I can’t give him grace, compassion, kindness, and gentleness if I’m not giving it to myself.

And so, how we are cultivating our own relationship with self is really essential and I think it’s easy to miss and so relational self-awareness is about looking at the patterns and the paradigms and the wounds that we bring into love and it’s about practicing, moment by moment, how am I relating to myself right now? Am I relating myself with compassion or am I being really self-critical?

“You’re too this.”

“You’re too that.”

“You’re so this.”

“You’re so that.”

“You’re broken.”

“You’re worthless.”

All these sort of shame loaded things that we’re all at risk. Brene Brown‘s work has been so important to so many of us around understanding the power of shame and the healing qualities of vulnerability and that that all has to do with how I relate to me. And how I relate to me is going to shape, 100 times out of 100, how I show up in this space with you.

Shaun Galanos: I bawled my way through “Daring Greatly.” Great job. I mean, amazing, amazing amounts of tears, which came from just sadness at how I sometimes speak to myself. I’ve got a picture of little me at six years old on my fridge hanging on a maple syrup bucket wearing acid washed jeans and a red bandana. I’m just reminded, every time I talk negatively to myself, would I say that to him?

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: Beautiful. Such a beautiful opener to self-compassion. I think moreand more, I have my couples put pictures of themselves as young people on their fridges as well because it goes that way, too. Look at that picture of your partner when they were little. You wouldn’t talk to them that way.

That’s a massive opener, too. I think we can have much more compassion for our partner’s frustrating qualities when we can hook that frustrating quality to the story of who they used to be and what they had to survive in order to get to today. It’s important to give it to ourselves and it’s important to give it to our partners.

Shaun Galanos: Yeah, I’m just thinking of all my exes and their baby photos, their small child photos, and they’re so delightful. I mean, they’re full of openness and joy and trust. And life has shaped us to be who we are now with our walls, with our defenses, with our reactions, with our wounds. It would be so hard to just remember that we’re sort of a collection of experiences.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: Yeah. I love that idea that we don’t fix pain. We just hold pain. We just hold it with gentleness. And so, another of my favorite teachers, Terry Real… Was it Terry Real who said this? Who said this? The more immature parts of us get activated, our wounds get activated, and the goal is to just not have them take over and drive the bus.

So, I don’t know that we ever get to the point where we’re not activated and stirred because we have wounds, because we’ve developed walls, because we’ve had to adapt to really difficult situations. That doesn’t go away, but I think that, to me, we were talking a little bit ago about the volume down, how I go volume down, to me, I will probably be an 85-year-old woman going volume down.

But my work is to go less deeply into that hole and to find the door or the ladder to come back out of it sooner, to not go so deep and to come out sooner, to shrink the amount of time that I’m there. I don’t think I’ll ever be in control of when I get triggered, when I get stirred, when old wounds get activated in me, but I sure as heck can develop different ways of relating to that wounded, activated feeling.

And our knee-jerk so often is to blame our other person, our partner, for making us feel this way.

“You made me feel that way.”

No.

“What happened in the space between us activated this old wound of mine and now I’m getting lost in that old wound and I need to work on that myself, and I need to invite you in as an ally and a partner to me in that wounded space.”

So different. That’s so different.

Shaun Galanos: You’re bringing up something that I learned yesterday was sort of that we’re not responsible for our triggers, but we’re absolutely responsible for our reaction. And it’s the time in between the trigger and the reaction that’s really important. Can I pause here and can we change the narrative a little bit because I’m telling myself a story. The trigger brings up a story and for the most part, it’s probably not true.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: So, there’s a trigger. There’s a story that attaches itself to the trigger. And so, a client will start to tell the story.

“And I know when you said that thing, you were disrespecting me and you don’t care about me, and in that moment, it’s like I don’t even exist to you.”

And they’re three chapters into this story that the partner, when we slow down and we can check in, and the partner can actually describe what was happening for them, that’s not the story. But when that story gets going it feels so convincing.

“You don’t love me.”

“I don’t matter to you.”

“You don’t see me.”

That feels so convincing to us and it’s really hard to slow down and back up and be curious enough to really try to understand what was going on inside of our partner’s mind, heart, body, soul.

Shaun Galanos: And it’s hard because the defenses go up as soon as you say “You did this” or “You made me feel this way.” I mean, as soon as someone uses that language, I think now I can probably be a little bit better at taking a pause, but actually, that’s not true because last night I was having a phone call with a family member and we’re both volume up people and I was not able…

I do all this work so that I can be a loving partner to somebody, but a lot of it goes out the window when it’s a perfect stranger cutting me off or a family member that’s disagreeing with me.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: Yeah. That knee-jerk stuff is really hard to manage. I think it’s why you can’t go anywhere to any mental health conference without having something about mindfulness. Mindfulness has really taken over the field of mental health, which is always such a laugh because the Buddhists in Nepal and all over the non-western world have, of course, been practicing mindfulness for thousands and thousands of years.

And us western mental health professionals are now, like, “We have this great thing. It’s called mindfulness.” So, to us, it’s quite new. “Go ahead, you guys. We’ve been doing this for thousands of years, but welcome.” I think it’s another kind of self-care practice when we work on our own mindfulness practices, we do widen out our zone of tolerance for frustration.

We increase the chances that we’ll be able to catch the trigger and sit in a pause and regulate ourselves before we respond. But I tell you what, you throw a family member in the mix, a mom, a dad, an intimate partner, a kid, when the stakes are high and the relationship is tight, it’s harder to manage that trigger.

And so, another practice then is just to say,

“Time out. I love us too much to keep talking right now.”

I love that phrase. “I love us too much to keep talking right now.” Which is hard because what the trigger is saying is you have to prove your point. It has to be right now. They need to understand. That is powerful force to be reckoned with.

Shaun Galanos: And “I love us too much to be talking right now. I need to take a break,” is different than a volume down strategy because you’re saying, “We’re going to get back to it. I just need some time to let the emotions settle a little bit.” I think that’s beautiful.

“I love us too much to keep talking right now.”

Holy shit. I’ve never said that in a relationship. I can’t wait to have the forethought and the patience and the pause required to say that. I guess what I’d like to say today to you is that if you’re struggling and you need some support with your love life, with your dating life, with your relationship, if there’s anything that I can do to help, I would like to help. I am here to support you.

So, I offer coaching as a way to help you get from where you are to where you would like to be. So if this is applicable to you, then I invite you to contact me, either send me an email at shaun@thelovedrive.com or go to thelovedrive.com/coaching to learn more if coaching is right for you. It’s not right for everybody. Some people need therapy. Some people need coaching. Other people just need a sounding board. But in any case, I invite you to contact me so we could figure out if and what I can do to help.

Today on The Love Drive, we’re talking with Dr. Alexandra Solomon, and we’re about to dive into boundaries. And I heard maybe in your book that boundaries are the space between you and not you. What do you mean by that?

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: A boundary is a space where you and I meet. It’s the end of me and the beginning of you. And we get lots of lessons early in our life about the kind of boundaries that we are entitled to or allowed to have. The essence of any kind of trauma, sexual, physical, verbal trauma and abuse is that it’s a boundary violation. It’s somebody imposing their will upon us at a time and a stage and a place where we aren’t able to say, “Stop. No. Backup.”

So, for those of us who had early boundary violations in the form of trauma or abuse, it can feel really hard to know when to say when and how to say when and even where our boundaries are. And we’re reading an article by Geneen Roth who’s done a lot of work around women and food. She has a great book called “Women, Food, and God.” It’s a really beautiful book.

And she talks about giving girls and women, and this would be applicable to boys and men as well, six feet of red yarn and having them make a circle around themselves, and be like, this is your physical space. You are entitled to this much space around you and you’re entitled to who gets to come in and when they come in and how they come in and just that some of our healing work is around even knowing when there’s a boundary violation and what that feels like.

I described in the book, for me, I know that I’m allowing a boundary to be violated. I’m colluding with the boundary being violated. I feel this, like, twists in my gut, and I feel like I am staying in a space where my gut is twisting. Like I’m getting data that this isn’t healthy. I’m not well in this space. But learning how our bodies cue us, “You’re too close. You’ve come too far. I don’t feel okay about this.” You have to learn how that feels. That’s step one. And then step two is how to articulate that.

So, those are like the intrusive boundary violations. And then there’s the one where we’re violating somebody else’s boundaries, exiting our own business to muck around in somebody else’s business. And so, sometimes our boundary work is learning how to rein it in.

“Tell me what you want from me.”

“Do you want my advice?”

“Do you want my opinion?”

“Are you open to feedback?”

versus just telling people what to do and how they should be doing it and how they should be living. So, those boundary violations are about what comes in and what goes out.

And the other piece that’s super important about boundaries is that they’re really culturally defined and determined, even just like there’s interesting science about if you look at how close we stand to each other when we’re talking, different parts of the world have different definitions of how close two people should stand, when touch is appropriate, when touch isn’t appropriate.

So, boundaries are super duper duper contextualized. So, what I may consider a boundary violation might be very different than what somebody else would consider a boundary violation based on just our cultural location even, the place on this globe that we grew up.

Shaun Galanos: I get the impression that the best way to deal with boundaries is to talk about them, especially when it comes to your partner or your family, people who are close to you, because we can’t assume.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: And to resist the urge to say something, like, it’s obvious. Anybody knows that’s inappropriate. Anybody should know that.

Shaun Galanos: Because they’re personal.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: Their personal. So, thinking about in early, when a couple is kind of settling in early in their relationship, and she sees that her partner is commenting on exes’ photos on Facebook, she has to resist the urge to say it’s obvious to anybody that that’s a betrayal because maybe for her partner, she has a different sense of what betrayal means and what boundary violation means.

So, they’re co-constructed, they’re co-created in the space between two people. And I think it’s hard when there is something that feels like a boundary violation, it may feel like absolute crystal clear truth to me that if you’re saying you’re my girlfriend, you no longer comment on your ex-girlfriend’s photos. That may feel like Truth to me. But can I be curious enough to say, “Can we figure this out together?” And figure out what’s going to work for each of us.

Shaun Galanos: Yeah. That’s not Truth for me. And it might be for somebody else. So, let’s come together and figure this out together. My favorite question is “How can I help?” instead of just helping. And the answer can be, “Oh, just you being there just asking that is enough.” Or, “Here. Do this. Do these things. Support me in this way.” But not in a way that I’m sometimes compelled to help somebody because I’m not minding my own business.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: No. We’re, in fact, killing them with kindness. “I’m just trying to help. Don’t you understand how much I love you? I’m doing this for you.” That’s killing somebody with kindness that they haven’t asked to sign up for your newsletter called “How You Should Live Your Life.” It’s not welcome. They’re not ready for it. They’re not interested in it.

Shaun Galanos: Someone said that unsolicited advice is a form of verbal abuse.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: It totally is. I’m on board with that. I mean, we need to be careful when we use the word abuse, but it’s for sure the boundary violation, unsolicited advice is 100% a boundary violation.

Shaun Galanos: That’s true. We do have to be careful how we use the word abuse because people that have actually had real abuse would be like, “Well, is it?”

So, a lot of the stuff that we’re talking about here, you go into extreme detail in your book.

So, it would behoove people to just get the book if they want to learn any more about all this plus so much more. We’re not even going to touch on soulmates because I feel like we could probably do a whole episode on soulmates. I want to talk about soulmates but I’m not going to go there because I feel like we could do a whole episode on it.

But there’s so much in the book. There’s a quote that you said that sort of struck me. And so, I want to read it.

“When we take the risk to dig a little deeper, what we access is our vulnerability, our most authentic expression of self, creating the potential to deepen the connection with yourself and with your intimate partner.”

I find that incredibly beautiful.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: Yeah, hard, scary, beautiful. If we trust somebody to see a little bit more deeply into us, that’s how trust forms. We feel scared that if you really saw who I am, you would walk out the door so fast. And in fact, those tender stories of who we had to be at another time in our lives or what we had to endure or what we came through actually makes us incredibly lovable and draws people to us.

Shaun Galanos: Yeah. I mean, I am both an intimacy junkie and terrified of really being vulnerable.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: Yeah, that’s what it is to be human. That’s what it is. We’re as drawn to it as we are scared of it.

Shaun Galanos: Dialectics. Would you be willing to tell me the story of the marital toothbrush?

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: Yes. That’s a story of dialectic. So, I was pissed at Todd and I was in a triggered place where I was sure I was going to just lay it all out for him and explain to him how he was failing me as a partner and I was in our room and I had taken a number of things, a number of sort of like peas under the mattress, remember the story? “The Princess and the Pea?” And there’s the pea under the mattress.

I had been ignoring a number of peas and they were all built up now and he walked into the bedroom door and I was just like, “I’m so upset.” And I was not yelling. It wasn’t yelling. But I was flooded. And a core challenge in our marriage is we’ve got two big careers. We’ve got two kids we adore. And we’re constantly navigating who does what, when, how, for whom, and I was feeling unseen, devalued, unappreciated, and like I was carrying more of the load than I could handle.

So, I lay into him and it’s a very much “you” thing. “You aren’t…” And “You don’t…” And “You’re so…” And he’s trying mightily to offer empathy and we’re getting kind of caught in our dance and our son comes in the room. This was a few years ago. He had had a bad dream. And I always feel defensive about this part. It wasn’t that he came in the room because we were yelling so loud that we woke him up. It really wasn’t. He came in our room and we had sort of like made a little nest for him on the floor and then we needed to kind of continue this fight so we went into the bathroom. We went into the bathroom and closed the door to continue our fight in the bathroom.

And in that kind of break in the action, I remembered a thing or two about the work that I do and I was realizing this is not helpful. He’s on my team. That was the thing I was trying to remember. He’s on my team. I hate this moment, but he’s on my team, and how can I enlist his support? And I knew that I needed to make an apology or repair around how hot I had come in, how amplified I’d been. But it’s hard for me to offer an apology. I think I get, when I become aware that my tone has been harsh, I feel ashamed of that and it’s hard for me to apologize.

So, we’re in the bathroom and trying to figure out where we’re going to pick this thing up, and out of the corner of my eye, I see our toothbrush holder. And he and I are the only two people who use this toothbrush holder, but jammed into this thing are no less than eight toothbrushes. And in that moment, I was just, like, “What the fuck?” Like, what is this? Suddenly, like, how the entire nature of our marriage, like, this is so ridiculous. Like, none of it makes sense. It’s all really hard. We’re doing the best we can.

And so, I did what John Gottman would say was, like, a little verbal white flag. I was just, like, “Babe, what is going on with this toothbrush holder?” And he’s like, “Yeah, I don’t know.” And I said, “Which one do you use?” And he said, “I use the pink one.” And I was like, “No, you don’t. I use the pink one.” And he says, “No, I use the pink one. I know you do. You get up before me most days and so then the pink one is moist. And so, I really like to use the pink one because it’s moist.”

So in that moment, I realize also that we share the same toothbrush and I was just done. I was, like, this is all so ridiculous. We’re doing the best we can. This is us. This is what we’re trying to hold and navigate and I felt this surge of compassion for me, empathy for him, and just the sense that we’re doing the best we can.

Shaun Galanos: I love that. I love that sometimes it’s a little moment like that that can really pull you out and reconnect you with your partner. A little white flag.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: And when one person does a little white flag, it’s super helpful and the other person can honor that. He saw that I was trying.

Shaun Galanos: Because some people just take that little white flag and rip it up into shreds and just keep going.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: “What are you doing? We’re trying to have a serious conversation here.”

Shaun Galanos: “Don’t change the subject.”

I have two questions for you. What is a way in which your life turned out differently than you thought it would?

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: Oh, my gosh. I don’t know that I knew that I would be somebody who be able to be married for as long as I am married. I grew up in a family with quite a bit of relational struggle and challenge and I think I had, in some ways, the cards stacked against me in terms of being able to create and nurture something that feels good and healthy. So, I think that’s different than maybe I would have, at 14, known was possible for me. To me, all of the therapy I’ve done and my commitment to being a love nerd is kind of how that happened.

Shaun Galanos: Beautiful. You’re a miracle. You’re a marriage miracle. I’ve got one more question for you. I sometimes give free love advice. Well, actually, I do it every week but I sometimes bring a sign. And I put it on the street and I sit there, sometimes with my microphone, sometimes not, just as a way of giving back and as a way of connecting with people with different struggles. One of the hardest questions that I get is, “What is love?” And I never really know how to answer it. So, I’m giving you the one that I have a hard time answering.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: Beautiful. Well, I know it’s a verb. I know it’s a verb that it has to be enacted and practiced. My favorite definition of love is from Bell Hooks, who’s one of my favorite feminist authors, and she wrote a book called “All About Love” and she uses a definition that she got from M. Scott Peck, who’s an old-time,1980s, one of the initial self-help gurus, and his definition of love is that it is the ongoing commitment to the spiritual growth of another person and that it is a relationship of constancy.

And the two pieces of that I love is that loving somebody means bearing witness to the continuing evolution of their soul and that there’s no way of loving somebody without that constancy. “I was here yesterday for you. I’m here today for you. And I’ll be there for you again tomorrow.” That constancy, that commitment that so many of us fear and struggle with, loving somebody requires us to put both of our feet in and say, “I’m here and I will be here.” That that’s what helps us create that container that’s safe enough to be vulnerable.

Shaun Galanos: That is also one of my favorite definitions of love.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: It’s a good one.

Shaun Galanos: Care, compassion, respect, and the ongoing support of your spiritual development. Can’t really find a better one. Where can we find you?

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: Well, the best place is on my website, dralexandrasolomon.com, and on that website, you’ll find my social media. The social media venue that I enjoy the most is Instagram. I love quotes, and so, I’ve got quotes and those little sort of microblogs on Instagram. And on my website, there’s longer articles and lots of resources, books that I have loved about love and sex and parenting. So, there’s a lot of information there.

Shaun Galanos: Also where to get your book is on Amazon and also on your website.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon: Absolutely. Amazon, Barnes & Noble. I love when people send me a picture of my book on the shelf in Barnes & Noble. I always just like delight in seeing my baby out in the world in all these different bookstores. It’s really fun.

Shaun Galanos: Thank you so much. I really, really appreciate you and the work that you’ve done and the time that you’ve given me. It means a lot.

If you liked this episode, you’ll love this one:

Shaun Galanos

Shaun Galanos is a love coach and course creator. He teaches communication and intimacy tools for better relationships and more love.

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