Loving at Your Best

What Are Your Relationship Deal Breakers?

Did your man or woman pass your love test?

Did your man or woman pass your love test?

When you met your partner or spouse, did he or she pass your "deal breakers" test? If you are like many couples, the chemistry that drew you to your partner may have been nature's way of cementing the bond between you, and many of the items on your "deal breakers" list may have been tossed to the side. Perhaps the next question may be, how much do "deal breakers" matter down the road, and if the person you fell in love with passed your test without any deal breakers on your list appearing, are you more likely to stay together over the long haul, happily?

Elizabeth Bernstein writes in the November 2, 2015 Wall Street Journal that partners in love relationships focus more on the negative qualities of a partner than positive attributes when considering a deepening of commitment. The potential for risk can outweigh the potential for rewards. Studies published in October of this year show that women have more deal breakers than men, perhaps related to evolutionary factors influencing the survival of raising a child. Participants in the study with higher self-esteems were much more choosy than those with lower self-esteems, having more items on their deal breaker list.

Both men and women in the studies scored a potential mate being "unclean" as a deal breaker, followed by "lazy" and "too needy." Women ranked a partner not having a "sense of humor" as a breaker, perhaps because humor is associated with higher intelligence (men did not score this as a high factor). For men, "low sex drive" and "talking too much" were higher deal breakers (women rated "bad sex" as a breaker). For a long-term mate, the top deal breakers were "anger issues," "dating multiple partners," and "untrustworthy." Shorter-term relationship deal breakers topped off with "health issues--like STDs," "smells bad," and "poor hygiene."

Were you too picky? Or not picky enough?

Were you too picky? Or not picky enough?

Was your list overly picky, or not picky enough? The studies show patterns in mate selection, but may have a more difficult time reading in-between the lines to explain the patterns. My observations as a marriage and couples therapist in New York using the Loving at Your Best plan are that partners usually have high sexual chemistry when they meet, and emotional chemistry builds over time. Initial deal breakers that stop the possibility of a relationship from forming are usually apparent from the start: desire for children, religious or political affiliations, smoking habits, financial and social status, and pet preferences, to name a few filters.

However, the factors that matters the most related to long-term happiness in a marriage or love relationship doesn't include any of the qualities mentioned so far on the "deal breaker" list. The key element for a couple's happiness boils down to two words: emotional responsiveness. This may seem simple, but a lot goes into whether a mate can turn to his or her partner and share even the most vulnerable parts of him or herself, and trust that his or her partner will respond in a way that can help him or her feel better. I have seen many couples where one partner started couples therapy determined not to have a child. After some hard work in the relationship, the couple is able to frame the real block as a matter of trust: can I trust you to still be there for me, that I won't get lost in your eyes if we bring a child into this world together? Usually key relationship experiences in this person's background give them every reason to be wary of having children, and once those reasons are understood and validated, an opening can occur to help the couple identify what is needed to take a leap together.

What are key questions we ask in love relationships?

What are key questions we ask in love relationships?

Reading between the lines of the long-term relationship deal breakers, they all involve key questions we all ask in love relationships: can I count on you to be there for me when I really need you? Can I trust that I am in your mind, that you would not purposefully hurt me? The top deal breaker in the studies of "anger issues" usually is related to how a partner manages his or her emotions in the love relationship, and how the other partner responds to him or her. What some on the outside see as purely an "anger management" issue usually reflects more on a disconnection occurring between the partners that leads to protests in the form of anger: what does it take to get through to him or her? This is a breakdown in the couple's connection. "Dating multiple partners" and "untrustworthiness" are probably related to the same issue of mistrust. A lot of factors influence infidelity, though for most caught in its painful web, a couple has experienced a series of disappointments or even emotional betrayals, and a partner chooses to cope with the hurt by seeking validation or support outside the primary relationship. Certainly there are times when this is not the case, such as a partner who comes into the relationship with a sexual addiction, or a person who is challenged by limits and feels entitled to act however he or she chooses to, though these are the rare cases that I have seen.

What initially drew you to your partner can develop into an allergic reaction

What initially drew you to your partner can develop into an allergic reaction

Couples also often identify that the qualities that initially drew them to their mate can become the things that drive wedges between the two in a marriage or love relationship. For instance, Jan claims that Chris's calm demeanor was very attractive, instilling a sense of safety that felt like a reprieve from Jan's childhood growing up with an alcoholic parent. However, as time and experiences showed, this "calmness' that Chris showed became a way to dismiss emotions, and brought out anger and resentment in Jan. The root problem was how the couple connected, not an inherent flaw in Chris. Fortunately, the couple was able to identify the problem, and make strides so that Jan could feel that Chris was safe to go to when feeling vulnerable, and Chris could feel confident to know how to respond in a way that helped Jan feel better. 

The studies also show the notion of a couple magically being sexually connected. We have all seen this in Hollywood movies, and plenty of couples have not recovered from sexual challenges that involve deep emotional themes. Satisfying sex in a marriage or love relationship over time requires the safety to communicate wants, needs, desires, and fears. When the safety is lacking, one or both partners start to withdraw, avoiding sex and intimacy, or becomes overly demanding, which ends up pushing the other partner away. Sex and intimacy that is satisfying and fulfilling in a love relationship requires a safe connection between both partners.

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Still Hung Up On That? Why Our Mind Has a Hard Time Forgetting

New York couples have been faced with extreme tests when emotional injuries may have occurred, including 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy

New York couples have been faced with extreme tests when emotional injuries may have occurred, including 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy

Have you felt an intense amount of pain from an event in your marriage or love relationship? An experience when one partner or spouse fails to respond at times of urgent need strongly influences the strength of the emotional bond between partners. Without an intervention, if one partner feels abandoned or betrayed, the fall-out from that experience can destroy a relationship.

Events that are still raw and bring up intense emotional reactions can overwhelm the injured partner. How the other partner responds to the injured partner can go a long way to either heal the injury, or to make it worse. If one partner withdraws from his or her partner at a key moment of need, and in the aftermath is unwilling to talk about the incident and address the injured partner's hurt or pain related to the event, the injury can easily overwhelm new, positive experiences together.

Negative events call for forgiveness, but forgiveness is not the grand prize. An injured partner's mind will not let go of the injury until he or she has the confidence that his or her partner would never abandon or betray him or her again.

What Counts as an Injury in a Relationship?

The subject of the injury matters far less than the meaning and significance of the event to the injured partner. An affair or infidelity by one partner is far from the only event that can lead to a relationship injury. An injury results from an experience when one partner is experiencing heightened levels of vulnerability and need, and is met with a response that is dismissive or absent from the other partner.

Why Does an Injury Hurt so Much?

Extreme levels of emotional harm in a relationship leads to isolation and separation between partners, and increases a sense of vulnerability. Even though relationship injuries may not have the same degree of effect as childhood traumas, they can cause damage to the relationship connection that may lead a couple to separate or divorce. Until the injury is healed, in times of stress, the relationship becomes a source of danger rather than a place a partner can turn to for safety and refuge.

If you and your partner are mostly doing well together, but have never recovered from the effects of a particular injury, you may notice that you continue to loop back into the injury automatically, or that a distance persists between the two of you that won't mend. Injuries cause intense emotional reactions that lead to constricted emotional responses and rigid patterns between partners. When the injured partner is reminded in some way of the injury, he or she either gets very angry, or withdraws intensely (this is not a passive withdrawal, but a very abrupt and "loud" reaction). The language of trauma is present in the relationship, as words convey life-or-death finality focused on abandonment, betrayal, and isolation. The injured partner takes a stance that he or she will never be in a vulnerable position with the other partner again. The reaction of the other partner is often intense anger or a strong withdrawal as well, reinforcing the pain of the injured partner. Without breaking this impasse, the couple is unlikely to create positive interactions and feel closer to each other, the way healthy, secure couples can.

For couples working with the Loving at Your Best Plan, a sequence develops that can cause pain at a certain point. The withdrawing partner becomes more emotionally engaged, and the more angry partner works to express his or her hurts and fears. He or she then slowly takes new risks with the other partner. During this stage, when a couple should be experiencing a renewed closeness together, the injury often flares up even more, and can be experienced by the injured partner similar to a traumatic flashback. Commonly, couples then argue about what happened during the injury, and how the event should be defined. A challenge for both partners is to express his or her vulnerabilities, and to engage with each other in a way that moves the event to become the top priority. If the couple doesn't do this, trust will most likely remain allusive, and the relationship usually remains in distress.

The Nightmare Scenario of a Relationship Injury

When one partner is in urgent need for support and caring that he or she expects from his or her partner, and the response from the partner is that he or she is inaccessible or unresponsive, a nightmare scenario occurs when the injured partner feels helpless and desperate. Trust in the partner can be wiped away, and the injured partner may plunge into emotional isolation. An injured partner's feelings of abandonment or betrayal are the key markers of an injury, not whether an outside person determines whether the actual event warrants the definition of an injury. Common events in the life cycle of a relationship are particularly ripe for injury, such as the birth of a child, physical illness, disorienting life transitions like retirement or immigration, and times of loss (miscarriage, death of a parent, child, loved one, or pet).

If a partner discounts, denies, or dismisses the injury, this response prevents healing of the injury in the relationship, and can make the injury worse. In Latin, trauma means "wound" or "injury" and stems from the Latin word injuria, meaning "to wrong." Not all painful events lead to a trauma, but if a partner is particularly sensitive to trust and abandonment themes from his or her past, he or she is much more likely to define events in the relationship as injurious. This sensitivity does not take away from the meaning of the trauma, or the impact it can have on the relationship.

New York Couples Have Faced Key Moments of Vulnerability

Partners usually expect their loved one to be attentive, responsive, and supportive, especially in times of crisis. In New York, traumatic experiences such as 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy may have been key tests of the strength of the marriage or love relationship. Vulnerability and comfort was essential during these events, and if a partner was unresponsive, the mind of the injured partner is unlikely to let that go and "move on." The sense of trust can be shattered in the relationship, and a sense of helplessness evolves, becoming the strongest feature of the injury. 

How Do You Know When Your Relationship has an Unresolved Injury?

When a person is without physical or emotional support, and at their most vulnerable, he or she most likely has the most difficulty regulating emotions. Injured partners often exhibit symptoms similar to classic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), including re-experiencing the injury repeatedly, numbing out whenever reminded of the injury, and becoming hyper-vigilant when associating with the injury. Memories and emotions linked to the injury often pop-up in the form of dreams, flashbacks, and intrusive memories (ruminating about every detail of the event and the reason the injury occurred). An apology from the other partner is rarely enough for the injured partner to let the injury go. 

What's Wrong with the Status Quo?

Is there a cost to an injured partner resorting to the self-protective responses of avoiding and numbing? Numbing stops emotional engagement and interferes with resolution of the injury. Intrusive images and hyper-arousal reinforce the belief that the partner is a source of pain and fear instead of safety and comfort. An injured partner usually swings between accusations and clinging behaviors toward the partner, and then numbing and withdrawing intensely from him or her. The pattern becomes chaotic and aversive to both partners. Even when the injured partner can elicit comfort from the other, he or she does not trust it. The pattern between partners perpetuates the distance and isolation between them.

Exaggerated sensitivities and hyper-arousal experienced by the injured partner are symptoms of impending dangers from the other partner. Commonly, the injured partner "tests" the other partner, who almost always fails the tests.    

Share Your Experience

If you've been injured in your marriage or love relationship, what have you done that has helped? Share your experience to help others cope more effectively.  If you found this post helpful, please share it on your favorite social network.

Reference: Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy with Trauma Survivors: Strengthening Attachment Bonds by Susan M. Johnson, PhD.  

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Travis Atkinson, LCSW, is the Creator and Director of the Loving at Your Best Plan in New York City.

Travis Atkinson, LCSW, is the Creator and Director of the Loving at Your Best Plan in New York City.

Is a Ghost from the Past Haunting Your Marriage or Love Relationship?

Ghosts from the past can be unwelcome intruders in your marriage or love relationship

Ghosts from the past can be unwelcome intruders in your marriage or love relationship

Are you or your partner or spouse experiencing symptoms in your marriage or love relationship that could be related to a history of trauma? A common dialogue between a couple where one partner has a history of trauma might go like this:

Chris: Don't you dare come up from behind me and grab me like that again! I can't stand that, and you did it anyway.

Pat: What? Are you serious? I just came up and gave you a love squeeze. Why are you freaking out so much? You're impossible. I don't want to be with someone who is so cold and frigid. Ice queen... that is who you are.

Trauma is like a ghost from the past, an unwelcome intruder that many times can be strongly affecting a relationship without either partner seeing it. With a keen awareness, you'll notice these ghots come up through specific symptoms that may include a partner or spouse re-living the past trauma without knowing the partner is going through a trance into the past, numbing and detaching after being exposed to the thing that reminds him or her of the trauma, avoiding situations that are somehow linked to the trauma (a common source of sexual problems in a marriage or love relationship), being hypervigilant around the cue of the trauma, and experiencing irritability when something is connecting with the trauma.

When a trauma survivor is able to turn to his or her partner or spouse and ask to be held and comforted during a flashback, rather that to detach or hurt himself or herself, a new trust and sense of hope can emerge for the survivor.

Traumas involving key caregivers are "violations of human connection" (Herman, 1992). More than anyone else, your partner or spouse has the ability to help you heal from past relationship traumas. A partner or spouse can have the most effective healing power over past traumas for the person who has experienced past relationship betrayals and abuse. Partners or spouses can become healers.

If you are in a safe and secure marriage or love relationship, your immune system is more likely to be functioning well, and your ability to cope during stressful life events is significantly increased. In a distressed marriage or love relationship, both partners in the couple likely experience more depression and anxiety symptoms. The sense of community usually decreases in a distressed relationship, so your body needs the help of your partner or spouse even more.

In a secure connection, you are able to face your fears and maintain a strength that helps you cope, regardless of the stress. If you feel isolated and alienated from the larger world, you are much more vulnerable to outside dangers.

When you or your partner or spouse have been subjected to physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, your health may be impacted in each of those areas. Re-experiencing physical sensations can be effectively treated through exposure therapy, known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Relationship symptoms do not respond in the same way to CBT, but are much more likely to respond to relationship therapy when a partner or spouse can serve as a source of comfort and safety. It is a partner or spouse that lies next to the survivor of trauma in the middle of the night, a time when anxiety is often peaking, as memories are being processed in the mind. If a partner or spouse doesn't know how to respond in key moments when threat is perceived, he or she may become part of the problem instead of offering key elements of healing.

At the Loving at Your Best Plan, the therapist works to address the symptoms of the trauma, and much more. A focus is to help create a safe and secure emotional bond between the couple in the marriage or love relationship, a connection that promotes safety and calms danger and threat. A history of trauma intensifies the need for a safe connection, and trust is the basis for a secure relationship.

Relationships where one or both partners have trauma in their histories are more likely to have intense negative patterns of interacting with each other, and without an effective intervention, these patterns can kill the relationship. Therapists at the Loving at Your Best Plan integrate top-rated interventions for couples with difficult and challenging histories, especially trauma. These therapies include schema therapy, emotionally focused therapy, Interpersonal Neurobiology, and Gottman Method Couples Therapy.

Do you or the person that you love have a history that includes trauma on an emotional, physical, or sexual level? If so, have you found ways to effectively navigate the symptoms in your marriage or love relationship in NYC? Share your thoughts.

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Source: Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy with Trauma Survivors: Strengthening Attachment Bonds by Sue Johnson, PhD.


The Loving at Your Best Plan: It's How You Love That Counts

The Loving at Your Best Plan: It's How You Love That Counts

Effective Conflict is the Booby Prize in a Marriage or Love Relationship


How do you fight in your marriage or love relationship?

Fighting better is only the booby prize, from my experience with couples. As good as it feels to be able to engage in conflict effectively, it's not the grand prize for a marriage or love relationship.


Join me for the next Marriage and Couples in NYC Webinar: Thursday November 7th @ 8:30 p.m. "Conflict is the Booby Prize in a Marriage or Love Relationship"

I'll cover details about the grand prize for all couples: how each spouse or partner responds to each other, especially in times of need.

The webinar is complimentary, but you must register to receive the link to join in on Thursday. We never share your information with third parties, so be assured your privacy is a top priority. 

You can join via smartphone, tablet, laptop, computer (for the ability to join the chat section and include comments or questions that you have anonymously), or via phone. 

Marriage and Couples Counseling and Therapy in NYC Webinar: Thursday November 7th @ 8:30 p.m. 

Register now by entering your information below: 



eTips is our Marriage and Love Relationship Newsletter from the Loving at Your Best Plan. Your personal information is never given to third parties, and you may easily unsubscribe at any time.
What comments or questions do you have that you'd like addressed during the webinar? Feel free to also include them in the "chat" section during the webinar if more come to mind.

Travis Atkinson, LCSW

Travis Atkinson, LCSW

About Travis

A recent, independently verified client review about Travis and his work:


"It is not possible to simply explain what Travis does...but, he is wise, kind, empathic, and inspired. He is a therapist like none other." 

Travis Atkinson, LCSW, is an expert in the field of marriage and couples counseling and therapy, not just a therapist with a few weekend trainings about couples therapy. He is a pioneer in schema couples therapy, working with the creator of schema therapy, Jeffrey E. Young, PhD, since 1994. Travis also trained in the top-rated couples therapy approaches available throughout the world. 

Travis has completed advanced trainings and has certificates in the following specialties:

*Advanced Certified Schema Therapist, Supervisor & Trainer

*Certified Emotionally Focused Therapist & Supervisor

*Certified Gottman Method Couples Therapist

*Certified Group Psychotherapist

*Advanced Practitioner of Mindsight

You can be assured Travis has the expertise to deal with your areas of challenge in your marriage or love relationship in NYC.


Have You Checked In With Your Partner or Spouse Today?

Do you and your partner or spouse find it easy to talk to each other, even about the smallest things in your lives? If so, you’re most likely in a healthy place in your marriage or relationship. If not, this can be a warning sign that you may be disconnected from each other, a danger sign that can lead to separation or divorce, without making a change in your relationship. Especially in today’s world of constant distractions, it is easy for all of us to focus on the inbox of our emails instead of stopping to take the time to connect with our partner or spouse, even in small ways.

A simple example of how you want things to could be that when you ask your partner or spouse if you need more soap for the bathroom, she or he responds by saying, “I’m not sure, but I’ll grab some anyway.” This is a moment when your partner anticipates your needs, reinforcing your belief that he or she is there for you. This may seem like a small, unimportant moment, though the reality is, this can be a sign of a relationship thriving, or of a relationship in serious distress.

Even a Text Can Make a Difference

If you know your spouse or partner has a stressful day coming up at work, do you pause and take a moment during the day to either text him or her, or better yet leave a voicemail to let him or her know that you’re thinking of him or her, and expressing words of support? If you do this, you are choosing to support your marriage or relationship in a way that strengthens your emotional connection.

When you try to engage with your partner every day, even in small ways, you’ll keep your marriage or relationship strong, and be more likely to weather storms between the two of you. When you’re not engaging in these small moments, most likely it is either because you’re simply not thinking about it, getting distracted by something, or because your partner or spouse has hurt you, and you’re distancing yourself from him or her to not get hurt more.

Do You Have a Relationship Injury that Needs to Be Healed?


Part of the work we do with marriage and couples counseling and therapy in NYC at the Loving at Your Best Plan is to help couples who have experienced significant loss or betrayal with each other work through these injuries and help them heal the wounds. Engaging in emotionally focused therapy with a schema therapy foundation, we help identify the sensitivities in relationships and give couples a way to feel safe with each other again, rebuilding trust in the marriage or relationship. When these injuries heal, couples find it much easier to engage in these small moments with each other that help you know that you’re not alone in the world—that your partner or spouse has your back.

4 Steps to Help Your Marriage or Relationship

  1. Every day, create moments with your partner or spouse to engage with him or her, even in small ways
  2. Know the signs of a healthy relationship: happy couples notice almost all of the positive things their partner or spouse does for them, while unhappy couples underestimate their partner’s thoughtfulness by 50%, according to John Gottman, PhD of the Gottman Institute, the creator of Gottman Method Couples Therapy.
  3. Tell your partner or spouse at least 5 things you would like to have in your relationship to feel closer to him or her
  4. Help each other to meet each other’s requests

Share Your Experiences

Have you found that it is hard to engage with your partner or spouse in small ways? Do you know what is getting in your way? Have you been able to work through this challenge, and improve your emotional connection? Share your experiences in the comment section. 

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