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Be Difficult | Tonya Lester #615

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On the Regular Version …

Tonya Lester joins me as we dive into the idea of how we should all be difficult. It’s an interesting way to look at the concept of people pleasing and relationships.

We also look at 2 concepts that are often present in relationships, gaslighting and love bombing. 

To learn more about Tonya, go here

On the Extended Version …

We keep the conversation going about the 3 kinds of dynamics we can take in our relationships. Difficult, impossible or shock-absorber.

Which one are you?

Enjoy the show!

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Got a question?

Call/Text us at  214-702-9565

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Speaker 1: Coming up next on the Passionately Married Podcast.

Pam Allan: The reason is because, of course, if it's you're doing this or you're doing that, or you make me feel this way, that's probably not going to be very productive.

Corey Allan: Right.

Pam Allan: What we want to do is invite the other person into our experience, which is sharing vulnerably what something is like for you.

Corey Allan: Pam, I don't know who else in the nation are pet owners and dog lovers, I'm assuming there's quite a few.

Pam Allan: I would assume.

Corey Allan: But you got to love the fact that every pet has its own idiosyncrasies, as you were just saying right before we started, and here we are, right before we get ready to record. A nice little hug to get in the mode of connecting, doing the show, and she's sleeping on the other side of the house, inaudible, and as soon as we hug, here she comes. She wants in on that, I guess.

Pam Allan: She wants to be loved too. Well, that's the funny thing, okay? It's like to our world, like literally every time we hug, if the dog is around, she comes and jumps up on us. She wants to get in on the hug and she gets all excited, "Oh, they're hugging. I want to get in on this."

Corey Allan: "Don't leave me out. Don't leave me out."

Pam Allan: We all want to be loved. Even our pets.

Corey Allan: Well, that's what we're trying to do is just share love, and how we can figure out ways to engage more in it, in all our relationships, particularly, our marriages, because at Passionately Married here, we're trying to just frame conversations to propel life forward, give you some actions that can help you propel life forward, and then also jump into life better, so that you can have more impact with those around you, and experience love and life and joy and all that this has to offer, and so if you're new to the show and you want to find an easy way to share more with your friends or just find more, go to the episode starter packs. These are favorite episodes organized by topic, and you can find all of them at
If you got some feedback for us, or we missed something, because we've had some nice themes going on here, some good discussions going on, and we love having a rounding out of the conversation, so go ... You can call or text us at 214-702-9565, or email us at
Coming up today on the regular free version of the Passionately Married show is a conversation with a social worker, psychotherapist, Tonya Lester, out of the New York northeast area, and she has a book that's coming out in a year or so, it's called Be Difficult. It's ways ...

Pam Allan: Great title.

Corey Allan: The title is perfect, because any time we can do something kind of counterintuitive and a little bit of an edginess to it, I'm in.

Pam Allan: Right.

Corey Allan: I love that framework. This is just a conversation with her about how do we relate with people in our relationships?

Pam Allan: It's a great continuation I think of some of the theme we've had with the people pleasing going on. It's just a nice complement to continue that conversation and get more insight into it.

Corey Allan: Yeah. We go even a little bit deeper in some of the psychotherapy framework that happens with some of the concepts that can happen when we go too far. Like the negative aspects of relationship dynamics.

Pam Allan: You bring in those extremes, right? The gaslighting and the love bombing and pretty clear descriptors, so I'd love you guys diving deeper into that.

Corey Allan: Yeah. I particularly loved her framing of love bombing. That was a phrase I've not used before, so when we were talking through it, it came up. I'm like, "Okay, we got to go deeper with this" because we're all capable. Maybe even doing it regularly.
On the extended content today, which is deeper, longer, and there are no ads, you can subscribe at PassionatelyMarried.Net/Academy. We look at some of the different aspects of how the way she frames the roles ... How we might orient ourself in this whole dynamic of relationships as a shock absorber or an instigator, some of these different ... She has three frameworks that we fall into. It's pretty easy to figure out which one we need to be.

Pam Allan: Yup.

Corey Allan: All that's coming up on today's show.
Joining today is Tonya Lester, a psychotherapist, social worker, and you got an upcoming book entitled Be Difficult. Just to give the audience a backstory, finally getting this thing recorded has been difficult.

Tonya Lester: Yeah. It's been difficult. Yeah. Exactly.

Corey Allan: We've had all kinds of snafus, internet issues, tech issues, schedule issues, but it's finally great to get back with you, girl.

Tonya Lester: Great to be here. Thanks so much.

Corey Allan: There's a lot of different ways we can go with this, but the easiest one to start with I think in my mind is just the idea of being difficult, because that kind of goes counter to ... You're basically saying invite conflict, invite tension in some ways. Unpack that for me.

Tonya Lester: I'm saying invite and lean into healthy conflict, right? 100%, be difficult doesn't mean be impossible. That's a distinction I make in the book. It doesn't mean being mean or selfish, right? But it's this idea that sometimes we really over-accommodate and carry a lot of resentment and there is ... When we talked, when we finished the part of the segment we did last time, we talked a little bit about how it divides into gender.
This is ... It's encouraging healthy, empathetic, open communication, and allowing productive disagreements to be part of the way you dialog, in the world, with your partner but where it's the norm to bring up hard things, so that's what I'm advocating for.

Corey Allan: Totally onboard with that. I think it's a great path to think about the idea, maybe you hear this too with couples you work with or people you live with, "Oh, we never fight." That's not a badge of honor.

Tonya Lester: No. I really ... If a couple says they never fight, that is a huge red flag. To me, it says, "We don't really know how to communicate" and, at least, one of us isn't really fully being seen in our relationship, because if two people are fully seen, there's ... Differences should come up, right? That's how we get to know each other.

Corey Allan: Bound to. Yup. I have a similar ... On a different vein of any time I hear somebody and we're talking about family of origin, and they tell me, "Oh, no. I had a great upbringing." That's a red flag to me, because it's like, "Wait, nobody has a great one." There's always something.

Tonya Lester: There's always something.

Corey Allan: That can wreak havoc. It doesn't mean its major trauma. It doesn't also mean that conflict is ... It's kind of like what we're talking about here, that we can agree on a lot of things, and so the conflicts aren't real huge. But there should be some tension there, because you're two separate individuals trying to create something that you both want and those aren't always the same thing.

Tonya Lester: That's right. If we think about a long relationship, certainly, with a spouse but even with a sibling, right? If we look at the family of origin stuff, things are going to come up, right? Because we are all developing, hopefully developing people through time, that we're changing. I just had I guess my 24th wedding anniversary, and I'm not the person I was when I met my husband those so many years ago, right? Neither is he. Part of loving each other is working to adapt, and inevitably, there's going ... You're going to have some sharp edges around that, around that stuff.

Corey Allan: Yeah. That fits into the mantra that marriage is designed to help us grow up. That's what we believe, that it helps smooth the rough edges because I'm in a relationship.

Tonya Lester: That's right.

Corey Allan: That's going to happen. Let's go with ... Let's pivot slightly of you're talking about the idea of being difficult and having healthy difficulty or healthy conflict, healthy disagreements. What are signs of not healthy? Let's start there, because I think that helps ... Let's label some of them. You've got a couple of different labels. I've got them written down, so if they don't come up in the dialog, I'll bring them up too.

Tonya Lester: Okay. Sounds good. There's all the classic, if you're attacking someone, a lot of us ... We, therapists, are always saying start with I, stick with your own experience, and the reason is because, of course, if it's you're doing this or you're doing that or you make me feel this way, that's probably not going to be very productive.

Corey Allan: Right.

Tonya Lester: What we want to do is invite the other person into our experience, which is sharing vulnerably what something is like for you, right? That's first, and then, of course, you can move onto setting boundaries and working together to set expectations.
But, in general, where I find people really go off the rails is when they've been collecting evidence and creating the case against their partner. By the time they say something, they're ready to go in a court of law, in front of judge and jury, and convict their partner.
If you're so uncomfortable with being straightforward, that it's coming out through passive aggression or acting out, right? It's like we tell children, use your words. We can also tell adults, use your words.

Corey Allan: Yeah.

Tonya Lester: When we notice that someone is kind of being iced out or sometimes I'll see couples who will throw all their energy and affection into their children as opposed to honoring the foundational relationship, so the family, which, of course, isn't good for your kids for one thing, but it's also ... It's easy to turn our focus away from our partner and sometimes when there's a lot of anger or resentment that's built up over time, I think that that can be kind of a coping mechanism and a little bit of a passive aggression, like see all this love I have to give but you don't get it, right?

Corey Allan: Right.

Tonya Lester: There's other little people. Yeah.

Corey Allan: Right. Well, that's the ... I mean, I guess what you're describing here, Tonya, is degrees. Right? That we can go really far on something, because even the people that have more of a bent towards, "We'll talk it out", because that's the one thing I see in my practice all the time is whoever it was that was raised in a family that talked it all out right then and there, married somebody that didn't ...

Tonya Lester: That's right. Isn't that funny? Yeah. We find each other.

Corey Allan: Yeah. Part of it is because, "Oh, finally, it's something different. This will be great" and then they're like, "Wait, when you come at me, you've got everything already ... You've got a PowerPoint presentation ready to go. I don't operate that way."

Tonya Lester: Yeah.

Corey Allan: It's learning I guess how to accommodate some but still not give up everything on what makes you how you approach conflict but that's where I think it's like degrees, right? I think of things ... Lately I've been landing in this world of most everything in our life is best viewed as a dynamic of a bell curve. We got a whole lot of room in the middle to stay in the norm, and be okay, and be moving the ball forward.

Tonya Lester: Right.

Corey Allan: If we go on the extremes, either way, it's problematic.

Tonya Lester: That's right. Yeah. You have that ... I don't know if you're familiar with Terry Real's work but one of the ... He does these four quadrants where he talks about enmeshment and avoidance, right? And that we want to be basically in the middle, so avoidant, right? You're overly emphasizing your autonomy, right? You put that before your connection and enmeshment, you're sort of terrified to have any autonomy, and so you're always over-emphasizing the connection and anxiously attached, right? Is the other way to say it.
Yeah. We want to be in the middle and we want to try and meet our partners where they are, and we want to look at what's our growing edge, right? If I'm someone who feels totally overwhelmed every time my partner comes to talk to me about something, is there a way I can orient myself to be brave, right? And to step up into that, and then, of course, if I dump onto my partner and want them to pick up all the pieces for me, that's not okay either. How can I get myself really grounded before I approach my partner so that it feels more collaborative, not just like here's all this baggage I'm going to give to you to hold.

Corey Allan: Right.

Tonya Lester: Yeah, but I think you're so right that we find our opposite and then we struggle together and, hopefully, hopefully, come out on the other side both stronger, but it's ... You always find that yin/yang. It's so interesting.

Corey Allan: Yeah. My response to any time that comes out and it's labeled in the sense that, "Yeah, they do it this way, I do it this way", my immediate reaction to that all the time is you're perfect for each other then.

Tonya Lester: That's right. Yeah.

Corey Allan: Because sometimes it doesn't make sense if it's too same and there's no real good tension then, because that's the difference is what I hear from what you're describing and what I know of you, the tension isn't necessarily about who wins, it's about the tension of both of us being better to approach what we each want, and need, or desire without giving up myself too much to try to accomplish civility or calmness or get my needs covertly.

Tonya Lester: Right. Right. No, we're looking for ... Yeah, not right and wrong. Always growth. Right? Are we growing together? Are we able to hold empathy for ourselves and for our partner at the same time? Right? That, to me, is the absolute top of emotional maturity is to ...
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Talk to me about ... I was looking over some of your stuff and there was the wording in there of love bombing, and gaslighting.

Tonya Lester: Sure.

Corey Allan: Explain those, because I think those are going to be on the negatives.

Tonya Lester: Oh my gosh. Of course.

Corey Allan: Very, very ... Gaslighting, I know very well but love bombing, tell me what you mean.

Tonya Lester: Yeah. Love bombing, I first came across the term reading about cults, and how cults bring in new members. It's this idea of, "I'm the only one who really sees you, no one else understands you. Those people are jealous. You are so special and I'm so special, and we can be so special together. We are more special than other people", right?
You can see how it's both flattery, and pulling that person away from maybe their other support system, and this idea of creating a bubble around us. It's you and I against the world, no one else understands, and very often, as you can imagine, that leads into a pretty abusive, unhealthy relationship, right?
I think whenever ... It's such a red flag, because whenever ... What's hard about love bombing is it's just normal enough that I think it's easy to be kind of mesmerized by it, because, often, when we fall in love, of course, there's a period where you're flooded with all of the love hormones and you're thinking, "This is the person. We are special. It is only us."

Corey Allan: inaudible. It's, "We have got it."

Tonya Lester: Right. Some of that is beautiful and special and it's like, by all means, enjoy it. If you feel like you're being pulled away from your support system, if you're being encouraged to think of yourself as separate from other people who have always been in your life, and the idea that it's really about isolation, right? It's like isolation through flattery and admiration and it's unhealthy, because we ...
What the goal is from the person who is love bombing us is where you get kind of addicted to feeling like you're seen in that way, and then start to let a lot of bad behavior slide and then, eventually, often times, those relationships can turn pretty dark and scary.

Corey Allan: Yeah. That's where I think one of the things that's a marker of that is, as you're describing, because it makes this perfect sense on ... Because you've isolated, and so you're eliminated a lot of your other social circles that are meant to be good supports, family, friends, peers, neighbors, et cetera, where you're not ... I don't think anybody thrives in just one system alone in their life. We need multiple systems that are meeting our needs on the various levels, as appropriate.

Tonya Lester: Yes.

Corey Allan: To where ... Because even what's happened some in the west, it seems like where American marriage, spouses are putting more requirements on the other spouse than ever before.

Tonya Lester: Yeah.

Corey Allan: For their emotional needs, the financial ... Everything. It's like, wait, that's a recipe for disaster.

Tonya Lester: Oh, absolutely. I mean, we aren't meant to get all of our needs met from one person, right? It's also if we think of the rich tapestry of life, right? It is in community and it's in friends and wider family and whatever your networks are, and I also think of it as like we see ... When we see our partner in those other environments, often times we fall in love with that part of them again, right? Not only is it bringing more people into it, it's seeing these different parts of our partner in a way that I think can also be invigorating and energizing.
I know in the pandemic, I had so many couples say to me that they were pretty sick of their partner, right? When it's the only person you're isolated with, and then once people could go out again and seeing them with their friends, or in a work environment, it was like, "Oh, yeah. This is this special person that I have gotten too used to and taken for granted." Yeah.

Corey Allan: Yeah. When Pam and I went on our very first month-long trip with our kids that we did for five, six years in a row ...

Tonya Lester: Oh, wow.

Corey Allan: One of the drives home, because we were in a fifth wheel in a truck, right? We're all inaudible together for a month.

Tonya Lester: Fantastic

Corey Allan: On one of the drives home, we're about three, four hours from home and I look at her and she just has this look on her face, so I'm like, "What are you thinking about?" She's like, "I'm really excited to go to work tomorrow." I'm like, "Really? Why?" "To get away from you guys." It was actually a very loving statement, because it's like me too. We all need some space from each other I think.

Tonya Lester: Totally. Think about the foundation that allows that statement in a marriage and that you immediately got it, right? You immediately got she wants to go into this other role where she has all this competence, she wants to be with new people, she wants to feel like she's more than a mom and a spouse. You know? The fact that you were just like, "Oh, I totally get it."

Corey Allan: She's labeling what I was thinking too, not in that particular moment, but at points of the drive, I was actually thinking, "Yes, you guys all got to get away from me for a little while."

Tonya Lester: Goodbye. Goodbye.

Corey Allan: What are some things that people should be looking out for? I think there might be people that listen to this and think of, "Okay, wait. I might be in this situation. I might be the one being bombed" or, "I might be the bomber." Because recognizing ... Seeing something is the first step to be able to change it.

Tonya Lester: That's right.

Corey Allan: What's some best steps?

Tonya Lester: I think that, certainly, any awareness that you are being isolated is ... Our relationships are supposed to help us grow, right? There should be room in our relationships for the people, the other people that we love, especially in a long relationship.
If you feel like you're being isolated or you're noticing that suddenly things feel mistrustful with people you've always trusted, if your family is worried about you, I feel like when you're young, you're told, "It doesn't matter what your friends think." Well, if your friends love you and you trust them, it matters what your friends think, right? Because if they want what's best for you and they're worried, I think that that is very, very important to take that seriously.

Corey Allan: Right. This is also one of those things that it would be like recognizing I've got a spouse that won't let me go see my family, because they don't like my family, and so, therefore, I can't go at all, meaning, we can't go at all.
What I'm hearing you say in this one would be, well, then I just go. They don't have to join me, I go.

Tonya Lester: Yes. Absolutely. Absolutely. I also I would take it a little bit further and say that part of being in a relationship is showing up for your partner when they want you there, and, certainly, if it's all weekend, every weekend, with the partner's family, then you have to set some expectations around that.

Corey Allan: Right.

Tonya Lester: But this idea that your partner doesn't want to be involved in important areas of your life, I say get thee to couples counseling, because that's a very bad sign, certainly.
Then on the other side of it, the idea that you need to keep someone for yourself or if you feel threatened by your partner's other relationships, that's a great opportunity for growth, for you, right? And a great opportunity to look at what is that about? What is it in me that makes me feel like I need to control the environment in order to feel safe? What is it about my history that has me feeling like I need to kind of get rid of the competition or pare down or that I need my partner to prove their love to me?
That is ... It's hard to look at ourselves and say, "Oh, we are being toxic. We're the toxic person", right? What a horrible thing, because, often, we think that we don't want to be that person. We love our partner.
Another thing you find often is people feeling like, "Well, no, actually, I'm the victim because if he didn't do that" or she didn't do that, I wouldn't have to act this way.
Certainly, if you hear this stuff coming out of your mouth, please, there's so many group programs that can help, journaling can help, certainly, therapy, and anyone who wants to change can change, right? We can change up to the moment of our last breath, so you don't have to give up on a relationship but you do have to take responsibility for your behavior always.

Corey Allan: Perfect. All right. Let's pivot and do gaslighting real quick as well, because I think these are two big ones that are very, very insidious in relationships.

Tonya Lester: Gaslighting, I think gaslighting is actually over-used currently, and confusing. Gaslighting is this idea that your partner will come to you and say what they're feeling or their experience or what they saw and you say, "That's not true. No, I didn't. That's not what happened."
The tricky part is that sometimes, of course, we really just see things differently, right? Because we're two different people. inaudible gaslighting is really doing it basically to not take responsibility for yourself and to deny your partner's experience and when it goes extremely abusive, extremely toxic, it's like you're trying to make them crazy, right? It's based on an old Ingmar Bergman movie where the husband is trying to convince his wife that she's a kleptomaniac, right? It's a very extreme, its origins.

Corey Allan: Right.

Tonya Lester: You know, there has to be room for more than one truth, in a relationship, and if that's not being allowed by either partner, then you're veering off a healthy course with your relationship.

Corey Allan: Right.

Tonya Lester: With gaslighting, in particular, you can say, "I feel like my truth is being denied here, and we need a new way of talking about this." A partner who is flexible and healthy and open will be able to make that pivot. A partner who is trying to control the relationship, again, which is where you get toxicity, will be defensive, will get angry, deny, maybe feel guilty but just keep hopping around that inaudible instead of trying to connect and understand where you're coming from.

Corey Allan: And they can also just even throw more gas on it and just keep amping it up and amping it up and amping it up.

Tonya Lester: Yeah. You know, I have couples come in or I'll have individual clients who say, "This relationship makes me feel crazy." Then the question is, "Do most relationships make you feel crazy or just this one?"

Corey Allan: Right.

Tonya Lester: Because if it's just this one, life is short, right? We don't want to be made to feel crazy in our relationships. inaudible.

Corey Allan: Yeah. It's one of those things that has to be addressed.

Tonya Lester: Absolutely.

Corey Allan: And like you're describing, when I can do it in my sphere from standing on my own two feet, because one of the things I've come across before is gaslighting can get met by gaslighting and then its whose truth gets to win out? Which that's incredibly volatile.

Tonya Lester: 100%.

Corey Allan: But it is recognizing, wait, I can orient towards this better, like you're describing and ask some better questions or ask myself better questions of, "Wait, am I off in my stance here?"

Tonya Lester: That's right. Yeah.

Corey Allan: Is my truth accurate? Because if it is, I don't need confirmation from somebody for that still to be true for me.

Tonya Lester: I encourage couples, I have an exercise I do with people in my office quite a bit, if I feel like they're stuck in their stances of having someone share their experience and hopefully from a vulnerable place, and then having the partner say back to them, "This is what I'm hearing that was like for you." Right?

Corey Allan: Right.

Tonya Lester: And as vulnerable as possible. Then, "What am I missing?" Right? Because there are more than ... There is more than one truth in every situation. There is more than two. To have space for that in the relationship is the only way we have healthy communication.

Corey Allan: Right, yeah, because that's all based on our filters, our skews, our experiences of life and how we make sense of it.

Tonya Lester: Our narrative. Exactly.

Corey Allan: Right, because that's the old adage of there's three of us that could all go out and watch a movie and then go have coffee afterwards and we're talking about the movie and it could sound like we all saw three different movies.

Tonya Lester: 100%. Yeah. 100%.

Corey Allan: Okay. Tonya, before we transition, how can people ... Transition inaudible. How can people find you?

Tonya Lester: I've been posting quite a bit on Instagram, so that's Tonya Lester Psychotherapy is my handle there, and my website is and I have ... I just put up a quiz that I hope people find interesting. I have Are You Difficult? Are You Impossible? Or Are You A Shock Absorber? Which is my three distinctions that I have in my book and the idea is are you a healthy difficult person? Are you an impossible person? Which probably needs no more explanation. Or are you a shock absorber?

Corey Allan: Self-defined.

Tonya Lester: Yeah. Where shock absorbers, of course, take on too much responsibility for managing those around you. Yeah. I'd love it if people checked out the website and took the quiz. That would be terrific.

Corey Allan: Perfect. Well, thank you so much.
There has been a nice like ... It's almost been theme month.

Pam Allan: Right. Yeah.

Corey Allan: With the shows lately. It's fun to have ... Again, over the years of doing this show with you, and all the countless guests and hosts we've had and just the content we've had, we can come back and cycle through similar concepts but through a slightly different lens. I think it resonates and continues to resonate and it has helped solidify, all the more, some of the dynamics that happen.

Pam Allan: Yeah. Well, that's the beauty that we all ... I mean, we could say the same thing to 10 different people and they take it 10 different ways, because of their history, their background, whatever, so it is kind of a beautiful dynamic to have a common theme but maybe it is spoken a little differently, so it can come home to different people, different ways.

Corey Allan: Yeah. That's kind of the idea, because at Passionately Married Podcast, we're trying to just speak to what helps people in the nation and all the relationships we have, because there will constantly be issues. I mean, that's the whole ... We were just in our group we're a part of at our church, one of the conversations that happened last night were when you have trouble in marriage, it's not shocking. It's two people that are fallen people, there's sinners involved, we're broken, we're selfish, we have all these negative sides to us that can rear their head.

Pam Allan: That's funny. It's not shocking to the world but it does shock you in your own relationship, right? What is happening here? Why is this going on?

Corey Allan: Why are we having this problem?

Pam Allan: You step back and everybody else is like, "Ah, now, you're finally getting to taste it." Yeah.

Corey Allan: Well, if you liked the show, we'd love for you to help us out by rating and reviewing the show at Apple Podcast, Spotify, or however you listen. Your comments help us spread the word and help others frame their conversations and help figure out a path forward for themselves.
Transcripts are available on the show notes on each of the episodes' pages. All the advertisers' deals and discount codes are also available at each of the episodes' pages at PassionatelyMarried.Net.
Please consider supporting those who support the show. Once again, the challenge from today, go out there and be difficult. In a good way.

Pam Allan: In a good way.

Corey Allan: But wherever you are, however you've been, taking a little bit of time out to spend it with us, thank you. We'll see you next time.