Exclusive Interview: Barbara De Angelis

Barbara De Angelis, one of North America's leading relationship experts, shares her secrets for living a life full of joy and passion.

By Diana Shepherd
Updated: August 19, 2016
Divorce Recovery

Barbara De Angelis, Ph.D., is a popular television personality, sought-after motivational speaker, and the author of bestselling books such as Real Moments, How To Make Love All the Time, and Are You the One for Me? Through her work, Barbara has reached millions of people with her positive messages about love, happiness, and the search for meaning in our lives. Divorce Magazine Editorial Director Diana Shepherd caught up with Barbara in southern California.

Divorce: Could you tell us a little about your seminars?

Barbara: My goal is to give people an experience that's motivating and inspiring enough for them to take the next step in their spiritual transformation. So whether they're single and they're coming to try to understand more about themselves, or whether they're in a relationship they know could be better, or having an affair -- whoever they are, for whatever reason they've come -- they will spend a few hours focusing on themselves. Because they took that time, they'll walk out feeling empowered and ready for the next change.

I hope people will get a myriad of things from it: someone will come to me and say, "My boyfriend's finally committed to me!" And someone else will say, "I've finally figured out why I'm attracted to the wrong women!" And it's not because I've been talking about how to get your boyfriend to commit, or knowing why you're attracted to the wrong women. Plato said, "An unexamined life is not worth living," and I invite people to examine their lives without negativity, knowing that it's a scary affair, but that not doing it is even scarier. As all divorced people know, it's the stuff you don't look at that ends up biting you in the butt!

One portion of the seminar is devoted to paying attention. We simply don't pay attention in our lives, and the things we don't pay attention to always get us. I ask the divorced people in the audience: "How many of you, before you got married, had some little voice say to you 'This isn't a good idea, because...' but you didn't pay attention?" and every single divorced person raises their hand! Their voices warned them about what would cause problems in their relationship. And when I ask why they didn't pay attention, they list reasons like, "The invitations were already out," or "I'm being too picky -- nobody's perfect." Sometimes that voice is also your mother's voice: "You're getting older, what do you expect..." It goes on and on. Instead of honoring what it says, you invalidate your own perceptions. I hear this in every city across North America.

And this is the message for people who have broken up: it wasn't an accident; it wasn't bad luck; it's not because men are jerks or women are gold-diggers. There are reasons why relationships don't work and people have affairs, and you can avoid a lot of pain if you pay attention. You can heal from a divorce much more quickly and thoroughly by realizing that learning to trust the opposite sex isn't the issue -- it's learning to trust yourself. That's the main message I have for anyone who's been divorced: it's not your ex, it's you -- because you had some little part of you that wasn't paying attention, that wasn't protecting you, that settled for less. That's the part you need to come to terms with, not the opposite sex. And when you can really trust yourself, you'll be able to go out and know you won't make the same mistake again.

Divorce: Many separated or divorced people seem to be deferring their happiness until they achieve certain goals, like "I'll be happy when my divorce is finalized," or "when I get custody of the kids," or the big one: "when I finally meet that one person in the world who's totally right for me." Do you think there's a problem with postponing happiness?

Barbara: They're wrong, that's the big problem! The "I'll be happy when..." syndrome -- postponing your happiness until some outside event or occurrence changes your life forever -- is one of the biggest ways we sabotage our happiness. The truth is that happiness is not an acquisition, it's a skill. It's not about what you get or experience -- it's the way you live your life every day. And you can get the things you thought would make you happy -- whether it's a house, a job, a husband, the kids, an affair -- and you're not going to be any happier because happiness isn't dependent on the outside. Otherwise, every person who ever achieved a goal would be walking around deliriously happy the rest of their lives, and that's not the way it is. The truth is, there always seems to be another thing standing between us and happiness -- "I know I'm married again, for the second time, but now I want to get pregnant..." It's never ending, because the things that give us true happiness -- what I call "real moments" -- have nothing to do with what's on the outside.

Divorce: In your book, Real Moments, you wrote that happiness only comes from having enough of these moments in your life. What are "real moments"?

Barbara: They're basically moments in which you're in touch with the meaning of life, when your relationship to the rest of the universe makes sense. I think there are always moments of connection -- connected either with another person, with yourself, with your future, with your sense of the universe, with God -- when you think "this is what it's about." And they're usually very, very simple -- not the moment you get a raise, or the moment someone proposes, or the moment you close a deal. If you look back over the last six months and remember the times you felt really happy, even if just for a second, they're always very simple: taking a walk, or lying in bed with your dog, or a child smiling at you.

We don't have enough real moments -- with people we love or with ourselves -- and so we have this hunger inside for meaning, and we fill ourselves up with food or shopping or money or success or ambition, but it never ends. It's never, ever, enough. People are really missing on the inside that which gives us a sense of connection and purpose in the universe, and nothing on the outside is ever going to give us that. This doesn't mean that we should all quit our jobs and move to the mountains; it does mean that we need to look for those moments and recognize them when they do happen.

Divorce: Is this why we have so many love junkies? In the first flush of romance, we experience a lot of real moments.

Barbara: Yes, that's a good point. Your ability to love deeply, to experience the richness of life, does temporarily become enhanced when you first start a love affair. Suddenly flowers become more beautiful, and everything is more wonderful. "Finally," you think, "I've met someone without any stuff!" Nobody has any flaws -- for the first three months. And then, of course, the stuff comes. And all of a sudden, that vision of life from moment to moment disappears, and then both of you are dealing with your stuff again. So commitment-phobics or love junkies are trying to use love in the same way as someone would use drugs to get high. Except that you have to keep falling in love -- one person isn't going to do it for you -- in order to have that beginning high over and over again.

In a relationship, if both people are thinking, "I want you to make me happy," at some point they're going to disappoint each other greatly. Not that you shouldn't try to make your partner happy, and shouldn't try to treat your partner well, but the true happiness that allows us to feel a sense of peace comes from within ourselves. So if you think your husband or girlfriend is going to do it for you, you're going to end up resenting the hell out of them because they can't do it, they just can't. And two people who aren't satisfied with themselves, who aren't both looking into themselves, aren't going to make a relationship with a strong foundation.

Divorce: Our culture is so focused on doing, achieving, having. I heard someone say that a more accurate term for our species is "human doings" rather than "human beings." Is this a problem -- both for an individual and in the context of a relationship?

Barbara: It's a real problem, because the real meaning of life, the real truth of life, and the real learning in life all take place on the inside. The inner world is so rich and vast: it's the direction we're supposed to be looking in. What we do, how muchmoney we make, what we wear -- none of these define who we are as much as how we feel, how we love, how we deal with pain, how we deal with challenge. In Eastern cultures, the inner life is revered: people study it, they long for it, they understand it. Getting more and having more is a Western invention; the idea of quantity taking over for quality is a Western concept.

Divorce: I really enjoyed your story in Real Moments about the accomplished mountain-climber who tried to "climb a lake". Do you feel that's what many of us do, not just in our relationships, but in our lives? That we try to use a skill we've honed rather than going through the difficult process of learning a new one?

Barbara: Absolutely. Especially ambitious, successful, creative people: that's how we function; that's how we get things done. If you tell somebody like that, "Just let go; surrender; let go of control," they'll say, "I don't know what you're talking about. I hear your words, but I don't know what that looks like; I don't know what it feels like. I don't know how to do it, and if I try to do it, it makes me so uncomfortable that I have to stop." It goes against every instinct they have, which says, "This is not the way to be successful!" And yet the way to succeed in your inner life usually has very little to do with the skills you've learned in order to deal with your outer life. It's like saying to someone who's been walking, "OK, now I want you to fly."

Divorce: Do you think that most relationships fail (or people have affairs) because of a lack of compatibility? Or is it because of our disposable culture? That we think we can "trade up" and get a better model?

Barbara: I don't think that "trading-up" thing is very accurate. People don't know what to do when they get to a turning point in their relationship, and so they bail out, but I don't think it's because they think they can do better. Anyone who's actually gone through the trauma of divorce knows that it's not a frivolous decision: it kills you. Even if you don't have children, divorce is wrenching to your dreams.

Relationships don't work for several reasons. One reason might be that you're not compatible; love is not enough to make arelationship work. There are a lot of people we could love, but marriage is like a business arrangement: it's a partnership, and it takes a tremendous amount of compatibility to make a partnership work. The second reason that relationships don't work is because people don't understand the real purpose of a relationship. Its purpose is not to make you feel good, it's to make you grow. And if you understand that, you'll interpret the events in your relationship very differently.

For example, if you thought you were going to the gym to make yourself feel good instead of to get in shape, then the first time you worked out and your legs ached, you'd say, "OK, that's it; I'm not feeling good anymore; there's something wrong." But if you go to the gym thinking "This will make me strong," then that bigger vision allows you to go through your workout and slowly get in shape. The purpose of a relationship is to teach you the things you don't know about love. And it'll teach you in all sorts of ways -- including some that make you uncomfortable. If you understand that, you'll have a lot more acceptance of what happens; you'll have more patience and compassion for each other, and you'll understand that your partner -- as difficult as he or she is being -- is often being your teacher.

Divorce: How do you know when to work on a troubled relationship, and when to call it quits?

Barbara: There are several ways you know that you have to call it quits. One: when your partner isn't willing to work on the relationship with you. You can't have a relationship when one person is committed to making it work and the other isn't. Two: when you find out that you're not compatible; when your basic values are so different that you're not going in the same direction. And three: when you realize that there's so much emotional damage between you -- perhaps because of an affair, or perhaps because of neglect -- that you just don't want to continue.

Most people don't know how to break up properly. We wait too long, pretending it's fine, until we just can't take it anymore. Or we break up because everything is dead; we have no feeling left. It's easier to leave when you don't feel anything for that person, when you don't feel the pain of that dead relationship. But this sabotages yourself, because you have to relearn your ability to feel again -- and that could take years.

Divorce: Some people never really divorce themselves from each other. They get the legal piece of paper, but they're never really divorced...

Barbara: If you think you'll be divorced when you stop loving your ex, that's trouble, because you could love him or her for the rest of your life. In fact, if you get divorced in a healthy way, then continuing to love your ex may be a good thing. True divorce happens when you divorce the pattern that caused you to choose the wrong person. Until you do, you'll just get another clone of that person with a different body and a different name, and you're not divorced -- you might as well still be with the first one.

Divorce: Do some people never get over their divorce?

Barbara: Some people are victims; they won't take responsibility for their part in a relationship breaking up. I don't mean that their partner isn't also responsible -- sometimes in a big way -- but a victim's responsibility lies in pretending the marriage was fine when it wasn't. They didn't ask for what they needed; they cut their standards so that the marriage could look OK. It's never a shock when someone just gets up and leaves; if you're shocked, it's because you weren't paying attention. There's no such thing as "I had a perfect marriage until the day my spouse left." That just doesn't make sense. You may have been saying it was good, but you know when you're not being loved. You know when it just doesn't feel right; you know when your partner isn't there. You know it! You may have suppressed it; you may be numb; you may not have expected more from yourmarriage because your parents didn't have any more.

Divorce: I've heard many divorced parents say: "Thank goodness our children weren't affected by our divorce; we were so civilized; everything is fine." You experienced divorce both as a child and as an adult -- do you think there's ever a case where children are totally unaffected by their parents' split?

Barbara: I don't think children are unaffected by anything that goes on in their parents' lives. You learn about love from two things: one, how your parents treat you; and two, watching how they treat each other. To me, whether the parents are living in the same house or not is secondary. There's been a recent study that showed that it wasn't the actual divorce, or the years of going back and forth between two houses, that damages children. It was the years preceding the divorce, when both parentswere still at home and the tension between them was affecting the children. It's not ä the event of the divorce but the history of the whole marriage that damages the children.

Divorce: Some studies suggest that parents should stay together for the sake of the kids.

Barbara: I could not disagree more. They're not looking at things holistically. They're looking at people whose parents got divorced, but they're not taking into account what made their parents get divorced, and how it affected them as children. I've never in all my years working with people had an adult say to me: "You know, my parents were miserable, they didn't havesex, they fought all the time, they never showed affection for each other, but I'm glad they stayed together so that my brother and I could have the illusion of a happy childhood." When I ask my audiences: "How many of you think your parents should have gotten a divorce?" three-quarters of all the people whose parents are still married raise their hands. I don't think that divorce is always the answer, but to stay together in an unhappy relationship -- when you're feeling tense, angry, and you're not treating each other well -- for the sake of the children -- thinking you're doing them a favor because you're living together in the same house -- is absolutely stupid. I feel very strongly about that.

If you ask your seven-year-old daughter: "What would you rather have for dinner: ice cream or chicken?" she's going to choose ice cream. But you don't give her ice cream. She might be unhappy for a while, or think, "I have a mean mother," but as a parent, you're supposed to do what's best for your child, and you know that chicken is the healthy choice. If you ask a child: "Do you want mommy and daddy to stay together?" what do you think she's going to say? But when she becomes a teenager, when she's dating and trying to figure out who she is and how she should be treated by men, and all she's seen is that dad really doesn't like mom and treats her badly, then that teenage girl is going to accept scraps from a guy. She doesn't know what love looks like. She'll be mistreated, and it's going to be her parents' fault. How else are you supposed to learn what healthy love looks like? Where is she going to see it? If mom and dad get divorced, hopefully mom will date again, and will hopefully develop a healthy relationship. The daughter may miss dad a lot, but at least she'll see how a happy couple talk to each other and resolve their problems. And if mom and dad talk about their relationships, and include their daughter in what they're learning, that's even better.

Divorce: You've also had personal experience with divorce. Do you think this has made you a better relationship counselor?

Barbara: Absolutely! When people challenge me, saying, "You've been married and divorced several times; are you really qualified to counsel me?" I tell them that it's one of my best qualifications! If I'd been happily married from the age of 20 to my high-school sweetheart, I'd have no understanding of what the problems are, and I'd have no compassion for people. I wouldn't have the conviction about one's ability to heal and to start over again -- and to do it right. I think I transmit that conviction to people, giving them a lot of hope. The truth is that most people are struggling in relationships, whether they stay together or not or have an affair. I've been through every side of every issue; there's almost nothing I can hear that I've not been through or been exposed to. So I'm talking from experience. And I've come out the other end, and that empowers people tremendously. Nothing in our lives happens by accident. I think the whole first part of my life was designed to prepare me: to teach me compassion that I could then use in my work.

Divorce: Do you feel that your early life was a preparation for your current marriage?

Barbara: Oh yes! But I'm constantly preparing for the next day of it. We've been together for seven years, and marriage is a full-time job. If you just want a living arrangement, then you can just wear a ring, come home at night, and have a roommate. A high-level marriage isn't just a ring and a piece of paper -- it's the way you treat each other every day.

Divorce: If you had met your partner 20 years ago, would things have been different?

Barbara: Sure: I would have blown it! I just didn't know then what I know now. There are people out there who could have had a great relationship, but they didn't know how to love properly. So they got divorced, and that's sad.

You always meet the right person for where you are in your own personal growth. Everyone who comes into your life teaches you something: something you need to learn. And if you learn the lessons fast enough, you won't need to have more lessons, and you can finally get on with the rewarding work of having a true soulmate.

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By Diana Shepherd| August 16, 2006

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