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September 1, 2018

Interview With Shelby Riley: Sharing Her Thoughts on the Right Way To Pace a Relationship, Having ‘Curious Conversations’ and Much More

Interview With Shelby Riley

1. One of the most common questions we get asked from our women subscribers is how can I get a man to open up and share his feelings. Sometimes men have this tendency to withdraw and shut down and go into a silent mode. This can be incredibly frustrating for women who would like to know what is bothering them and how to get them to talk.

Are there certain things that women can do to make it easier for men to open up and share their feelings?

Most men do not naturally crave as much verbal intimacy as women do

And often, men haven’t been raised or socialized to share their thoughts and feelings verbally the same way women have.  

The most important thing women can do to help improve verbal intimacy is to remember that their partner is not (usually) purposefully shutting them out.  

If women can remember that their partner has a very different brain than they do, they can let go of personalizing the difficult experience and it will be less painful and frustrating, and lead to less conflict.

Secondly, I would suggest engaging with your partner in a way that works for him

Some men are overwhelmed by intense eye contact, so sitting in the dark while gently scratching his back may help him feel safe to open up.  Some men like to connect “shoulder to shoulder.”  This could be playing tennis, going for a walk, or paddle-boarding together.  Some men prefer to “do” together to connect, rather than talk.  Try doing something together first and the conversation on the ride home may flow better.

Lastly, I will throw out that men often feel more ready to connect verbally and emotionally after they have connected physically, which for many men, can mean sexually

The hard part is, many women feel ready to connect sexually when they feel connected emotionally.  It’s a tough cycle when the couple is “off” and a wonderful, self-feeding cycle when the couple is “on.”  In a healthy relationship, each would share the responsibility of sometimes putting the other’s need first in order to get back “on” a good cycle.

2. Interesting, some of the tips you mentioned almost seem to suggest the importance of diffusing the tension, make it safe and non-threatening for a man to open up. Would it be fair to say that it is important to be non-judgmental even though you may not agree to what he feels or says?

Some of the men we have talked to have indicated that they fear that if they tell women what’s truly bothering them or what’s on their mind, it would come back to haunt them. One of the male participants said that once he told his ex girlfriend something terrible that he did for which he still feels bad and guilty about.

A few months later when they had a fight, she reminded him of this incident even though it had nothing to do with the issue they were fighting about. That he felt was hitting below the belt purposefully and betraying his trust. He said that he could never completely trust her again and in fact he feared talking about that incident to any other woman because he was afraid they would use it against him.

I guess it takes time for a woman to gain that level of trust and what are some things women can do to demonstrate “It’s okay, I am not here to judge you; your feelings are safe with me and you can be vulnerable and tell me what’s on your mind without being worried about being betrayed or ashamed.

Yes, trust is essential

It is very important that each person is a safe partner–safe physically, of course, but also emotionally.  Using previously shared stories as ammunition in a fight can feel like a real violation.  

If a woman wants a man to share his thoughts and feelings with her, she needs to be a safe partner and not criticize, judge or use the information against him later.  

We all need to remember that our actions have consequences and we teach people how to treat us.  If we are nasty and cruel, we are teaching people not to be open and vulnerable with us.

I often ask couples to spend 10 or 20 minutes a few times a week having “curious” conversations

No problem solving, no negotiating, no agreeing on anything–just sharing their thoughts and feelings and practicing being a safe, engaged listener for each other.  

If you think back to early dating, usually we did this a lot.  “Wow, you’ve been to Greece? What was it like, what did you enjoy the most, were there any scary parts?”  We listened curiously to find out more about who this person is.

3. That’s a good idea- “curious conversations.” On the other end of the spectrum we also have women who have suffered in toxic relationships or attract the wrong men because they did not clearly set their personal boundaries and dating/relationship deal breakers.

A part of the problem why women express concern communicating the personal boundaries and discussing the deal breakers is because they feel awkward discussing this topic and they fear driving men away for the fear of being perceived as being unfriendly and rigid.

When is the best time to discuss the boundaries and deal breakers and how do you suggest women do it in a manner that isn’t unfriendly and defensive?

I love it when people take their time in relationships

I know it feels great to get swept up in the “lust” or “infatuation” phase of early dating, but it can also lead to quick attachment, without a lot of good information gathering.

When we are falling for someone, our brains function like we are on drugs– we are hyper-focused on the attachment, we have a skewed perception of the person and the relationship, often only seeing the good traits, and we overlook warning signs that this new partner may not be the healthiest person, or the best fit for us.

When people take their time and purposefully slow down the start of the relationship, it allows them to set good boundaries early on and carefully evaluate their experiences with this new person so they have a better sense of whether they might be a good partner or not.  I suggest people enjoy the early stages and go slowly enough to gather good infomation.  The first few weeks are not the time to discuss deal breakers or future ideas of rigid boundary/relationship expectations.

By setting good boundaries in the beginning of the relationship, women will model their desired boundaries and gather information where they might find out about some of their deal-breakers without having a forced or awkward “discussion” about breakers that might feel defensive and unfriendly.

If the man pushes her boundaries or doesn’t respect the boundaries she is setting, I recommend the women assert herself each time, clearly verbalizing what her boundaries are, and demand they are respected.

If after a few months a woman feels like the man could be a great life partner, it would then be helpful to have several shorter, kinder discussions about some of her concerns (deal breakers) to begin determining if the relationship has a future

I think it’s helpful to think of it a a series of conversations, rather than one long, intense talk.  This helps to lessen the defensive nature of the interaction and allows her time to process his responses and consider if she has flexibility on any issues.

4. For women who have the habit of falling fast for men they really like or find attractive, how can they take their time and slow down. What does it even mean to slow down- does it mean not to always think of this person or does it mean not to text him or call him too much or does it mean not spend too much time with him or does it mean not to have sex with him?

What are some practical steps that you would recommend that can help women slow down and yet enjoy the intensity and passion during the early phase of dating?

Taking things slow is more about behavior than it is about thoughts and feelings

We can’t control our thoughts and feelings very easily, but we can control our behavior. Often, we make decisions about our behavior based on our thoughts and feelings: “I’m thinking about him constantly….I will text him constantly.”  

To slow the beginning of a relationship down, I encourage women to make decisions about their behavior regardless of their thoughts and feelings.

“I will text him no more than three times a day.”  “I will spend no more than 30 minutes on the phone with him a day.”  “I will be spontaneous with plans once a week, but other times I will need two days notice to get together.”  “I will reserve one night a week to be alone, one night a week to spend with my family, and one night a week to spend with friends.  The other nights, I can spend with this new guy, if I choose.”

Obviously, if you find the man rude, disrespectful or unattractive, that will influence your behavior and you probably won’t want to date him.  If you find that you like him, are attracted to him, and think about him often, that will influence your behavior and you will choose to see him more.

With these behavior boundaries already in place, you limit the amount of time you can spend interacting with him, which will slow things down.  

By saving time for yourself, family, friends, work, and hobbies, you will influence the intensity of your thoughts and feelings, hopefully minimizing the obsessive, intense nature of new relationships.  You will daydream, you will feel longing, and I hope you will enjoy those feelings, and I also hope you will make decisions about your behavior to take things slow so you can evaluate whether this person is a healthy fit for you.

Women often ask me about sexual intimacy.  The truth is, sexual intimacy often leads to a more intense emotional attachment for women.  

If your habit is to get too emotionally attached and then make poor decisions and miss red flags, I would suggest waiting to get very intimate with someone until you feel like you have a good read on their character, values, and intentions in the relationship.  

If you are someone who enjoys sexual interactions and finds it doesn’t get in the way of your decision-making, then you get to set your own boundaries around the timing and frequency of sex.  I encourage everyone to practice safe sex, so you don’t find yourself with a whole other set of issues to contend with!

5. Another question we get asked quite often by women is getting their needs met in a relationship by talking about it openly and honestly and not feel guilty or uncomfortable about it. Sometimes women tend to be indirect by dropping hints with regards to what they really want or they expect that their partners should know what they need. Some are not just comfortable with being direct.

For example one of our subscribers’ boyfriend asked her where she wanted to go out for dinner and she actually wanted to go to a Mexican restaurant but didn’t tell him that. Her boyfriend suggested a few places none of which she was actually interested in going but ended up picking a place that he liked because she felt uncomfortable letting him know that she wanted to go to a Mexican restaurant.

She mentioned that her boyfriend was not forcing her to pick a restaurant of his choice, it was just that those were the restaurants he had in mind and if she wanted he would have taken her to the Mexican restaurant, but somehow she felt that her boyfriend should have suggested a Mexican restaurant or at least mentioned that as one of the choices because he knew she loves Mexican food.

How can women be more direct and open about what they want from their partners?

I see this a lot in my office.  People tend to hold the myth, “If he loves me, then he will be able to read my mind and know exactly what I really want.”

This gets so many couples in trouble, and it creates a pattern of women hinting to see if their man “loves” them enough to get the clues, and men feeling timid and afraid of failing, so they often give up and stop trying to please their partner.  

Let’s all acknowledge that half the time, we don’t even really know what we want, so why would our partner know any better?  

In many situations, there is a part of me that feels one way, and a part of me that feels another way.  I am in the mood for Mexican food, but a part of me wants to eat healthy and go some place with a lot of salad options.  There’s a third part of me that is tired and just wants to stay in and eat cold cereal for dinner.  And then another part of me that really wants to go where HE wants to go, because I like to see him happy.  If I can’t figure it out for myself, why should he be able to?

Have compassion for one another and the complicated interplay of our parts of selves and the conflicting demands on the outcome of the decision

If we can agree that mind-reading is a.) impossible and b.) not a sign of true love, then we can let go of the self-created pain we are in when our partner doesn’t choose the exact right thing.  A better manifestation of true love is when you can assert yourself clearly enough to acknowledge what you want, and your partner can hear you and lovingly negotiate with you, or serve you in that moment by saying, “yes.”

I had a client the other day fearfully try to stop her husband from complimenting her in session; she said, “I don’t need to hear his compliments.” 

She claimed she was protecting him from failing (not being able to say anything nice), which is true. She was also protecting herself from feeling hurt when he failed to say the “right” nice things.  

I also think there may have been another part of her that wanted to see if he would still try to compliment her after she had given him an “out.”  

I encouraged them to push through the fear, and for her to see his intentions, not judge his words.  His words were nice.  She smiled ear to ear.  

And even though a few of his statements did not sound incredibly eloquent or romantic, she could experience them as loving because she was brave enough to see his intention, and let the love in.  She then said, “I did need to hear that.  I liked that a lot.”  

My hope is that she will begin to be more honest and assertive about her needs in the relationship and have the ability to see his effort, even if the delivery is sometimes sub-par.

6. Some of our women subscribers have asked us if living together before marriage is essential? Here is the problem some women face. Their boyfriends ask them to move in, they live together and live like a couple with the only difference being that they are not married and in due course of time, they find stuck in this phase.

What I mean is that when they live together the commitment to get married almost takes a backseat because the response from men seem to be “What’s the hurry” or “It’s just a matter of time” or “What’s the big deal about getting married.” For women though, getting married is a big deal and they feel kind of insecure when they are left in that limbo stage of uncertainty.

Hmmm…. this is a tough one.  Feelings and priorities change over time, so even the best pre-move-in conversations may not guarantee the outcome both people desire. 

Some people find living together helps them create a solid foundation for marriage.  Some people find, like the readers you describe, it lands them in a stuck, limbo-like place, too far in to give up, and too far away from marriage to be satisfied.

There is no one right answer for everyone, but I might suggest to women who value marriage either

1.) don’t move in together unless you are engaged with a wedding date set, or 2.) have a time frame in mind, (i.e one or two or ten years) that you would like to be married.

Keep everything separate, like you would with a roommate: bank accounts, bills, buying of furniture.  This will make it easier to leave the relationship if the time frame comes and goes without the commitment of marriage. 

Relationships take compromise, but your readers should also be willing to value themselves enough to make changes based on their values.  

I never want people making major decisions based out of fear or convenience.  The world is abundant with opportunities for new jobs, new partners, new starts.

7. You talked about the fear of being hurt. A number of my subscribers have been in relationships where they have been hurt and betrayed as a result of which they are afraid to be vulnerable again because they don’t want to go through the pain again. Some despite being in a great relationship always have the fear that it would just be a matter of time before their current partner abandons them.

Can you share some practical strategies on how women can overcome this fear and treat the current or next relationship on its merit rather than distrust and skepticism?

I work with a lot of people, both men and women, who have a real fear of being hurt

They find it very hard to trust someone else, and to trust their own ability to choose a healthy partner.  Some of the fear is based on what their partners in previous relationships have done to hurt them, but a lot of the fear is that they won’t be able to trust themselves to see the red flags that warn them to self-protect and pull back in the new relationship.

I encourage my clients to mentally walk through each previous relationship and look for the healthy parts, and the red flags

People like to categorize which leads to all-or-nothing thinking.  “He was bad.”  “She was selfish.”  Usually, there were really good things, and very healthy parts that kept them in the relationship, and there were some hurtful things, and dysfunctional parts of the relationship, that led them to feel betrayed and in pain.

Building a broader story that helps to explain why they trusted the person, and helping them see some red flags they may have missed helps to build a person’s sense of confidence that they can trust their gut

Seeing each relationship as a chance to refine their values, priorities, and red-flag “alerts” will allow them to go into new relationships feeling stronger, wiser, and better able to discern healthy from problematic, rather than walking around thinking, “No one is trustworthy, and I suck at picking a good partner anyway.”  

If this is too difficult to do alone, choose a therapist to help you with this work.  Friends and family usually find it hard to remain objective enough to be helpful with this exercise.

8. Some of my subscribers are extremely successful professional women who have everything in their lives except a great guy. While some cite lack of time, some feel that their success and confidence intimidates men and some women feel the pressure of a ticking biological clock. They often report not able to enjoy dating because they are under too much pressure or they put the men they are dating under too much pressure or because they have completely forgotten what it is like to date.

Do you have any tips that you can share that can help women in this situation?

I think this is a tough one! 

The world has changed considerably in the last 50 years and men and women’s roles have changed right along with it.  I find both men and women are struggling to determine what their role is, and what it means to be a “good woman” and a “good man.”  Both genders are expected to excel at both home and work, both are expected to lead and submit, both are expected to be comfortable as the breadwinner, or as not the breadwinner.

When a couple can discuss their strengths and hopes for what a shared life will look like, I think this re-thinking/shifting of roles can be a beautiful thing

I know many couples who pull of a (fairly) balanced family with shared roles in the career/home/parenting categories.  But when couples aren’t purposeful, and their fears and insecurities get in the way, this new set of expectations on both men and and women can lead to a lot of hurt feelings, power struggles, and messy fights.  

Are some men intimidated by powerful women? Yes.  Are some men excited by the prospect of a powerful women but confused about how to be a powerful man linked to a powerful women?  Absolutely.

Are women feeling the pressure to have a full career and then find themselves in their late 30s with the pressure to have kids bearing down on them?  For sure.

My advice, which granted is very hard to follow, is to let go of society’s “story” that each of us should run their own company, own a mansion and a beach house, have 2.25 kids and be the primary caregiver, but not really, we should have a spouse that does 50% of the parenting, own a dog, and volunteer in a local community organic garden, and wear white boots, blue shorts and a red cape while doing it.  It’s too much.  I love each of those things, but none of us can pull them all off at once wonder-woman style.

Turn in.  Listen

What excites you?  What can’t you live without?  Where can you bend, let go, and leave behind?  When you are 90, and look back on your life, what would allow you to feel full, proud, and rich with life?  If it’s a solid relationship and kids, then you may need to slow down at work and give that area of your life some space.  Rushing in, nervous and scared, is not the best way to begin a relationship.  Slow down.  Ease in.

Know that there are stories of love that began in people’s 50s, 60s and 70s

People adopt.  People parent by being amazing aunts, uncles, and childcare workers.  People get pregnant at 39 and 42 and 45 and have healthy, amazing babies.  Sometimes when we let go of our grip on making something happen, the world shows us something even better.

9. What would be your top 3 tips that can help single women create and enjoy long lasting fulfilling relationships?

1. Be happy with yourself.

Recognize you do not need a man to be okay.  Live your life in a way that allows you to feel whole and solid in the world.  The best relationships are when two whole, healthy people find each other and compliment each other.  The Jerry McGuire line, “You complete me” can still apply, as long as you complete yourself first.

2. Have very good boundaries, emotionally and physically.

Remember, your partner is not you, or put on earth to fix you.  Be capable of taking care of yourself. (see #1).  It is a beautiful gift when other people see us, hold us, and care for us. Just remember it is a gift, not their responsibility.

On the other side of that coin, having good boundaries also means not over-functioning and thinking you are responsible for your partner’s happiness.  Rule #1 applies to him, too.  My favorite line, “You are not responsible FOR them; you are responsible TO them.  The only person you are responsible FOR is yourself.”

3. Have lots and lots of other people and joys in your life.

You need many different kinds of relationships and experiences to sustain and grow you, and asking one person to fulfill most or all of those is a recipe for disaster.

10.  Do you have any books or resources that you would recommend women that can help them have better relationships?

I really like Scream-Free Marriage by Hal Runkel (I have single/dating people read this, too, as it is a great primer for healthy relationships).  I also recommend my e-book “Five Secrets to Better Communication” available soon on Amazon for Kindle.  

For people who are already in a relationship, I have a workbook for couples: “Assignments for Couples: 10 Weeks to Increased Intimacy and Connection” also available soon on Amazon.

About ​Shelby Riley


Shelby Riley is a licensed marriage and family therapist, author, speaker and clinical supervisor in PA.  She is the owner of Shelby Riley, LMFT and Associates, LLC.  She is currently the President of the Pennsylvania Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (PAMFT).

Visit her website www.shelbyrileymft.com for useful information about therapy for individuals, couples, and families.

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