Kat Mindenhall, LCSW

Holiday Stress: 6 Keys for Reducing Couples Tension and Distress

While we love many parts of the season, many people find the holidays can have challenges. Holiday stress for couples can leave both partners feelingholiday stress overwhelmed, tired and irritable. Arguments often surface during the holiday season, as tensions rise in navigating all the demands that tend to emerge.

Here we’re offering six key ideas to reduce holiday stress for couples, to head off or avoid some of the potential stress-producing conflicts and challenges.

Key #1: Plan and Talk First

Problems often arise and produce holiday stress for couples when there’s been a lack of planning and discussion. Often, holiday habits have accumulated over the years without much thought to whether they are both healthy and truly enjoyable.

Failure to plan can look (and feel) like:

  • “We always spend too much time at your parents’ house, and much less with my parents.”
  • “I’m anxious about the credit card bills we’ll be seeing in January.”
  • “We’re so busy during the holidays. I almost feel like I’m looking forward to going back to work because I need the peace and quiet.”
  • “I think we accept way too many party invitations. We eat and drink more than we should, and then neither of us feels very good.”
  • “Every holiday season seems like the last, but not very memorable. I think we’ve lost the meaning of the holidays.”
  • “We seem to get into more arguments during the holidays. I’m not sure why we do, but the disagreements are so exhausting and painful.”

The remedy? Set aside plenty of time before the holidays to discuss what each of you would really like. Even use a calendar to mark out all the possibilities. The visual can help you decide whether it seems you will be busier than you want and whether you’ve included time to rest and relax. Planning can reduce holiday stress for couples by discussing and collaborating on the best ways to spend the time and any vacation days off work.

Key #2: Set Boundaries Together

Grandparents usually want as much time as possible with the grandkids, and there’s often pressure to maintain family traditions of spending the holidays together. Couples often are stuck in how to decide where to visit and for how long.

Stepping back and planning ahead can be helpful. If you both can reach some agreements, then you can stand together as a united team in letting your parents know any differences in this year’s plans.

Boundaries apply to kids as well. As a couple, you can discuss and agree on kids’ activities during the holidays. They’re typically off from school for an extended time, and parents today often feel pressured to keep their kids busy. Extra activities can be draining on family time and finances, so it’s helpful to agree on what works best. Then, spend time talking with your children about what’s available this year. You and your spouse or partner can help each other stay firm when the kids ask for more, which will definitely help that holiday stress level.

Key #3: Discuss and Agree on Holiday Spending

So many pressures abound to spend more than planned before and during the holidays. “Black Friday” used to be a day; now it’s more like a month. The sales are enticing, certainly, and retailers both in-store and online are doing their best to lure you toward all types of purchases.

Budgeting and setting limits is not always an easy topic for couples, yet money often a source of conflict after spending takes place. One path of reducing holiday stress for couples is to agree on holiday expenses beforehand.

Since the Great Recession of 2008, we’ve noticed a shift toward “experiences” rather than “things.” People are focusing more on activities spent together as a couple or as a family than in the past. And, experiences may linger in our memories longer than gifts.

Here’s a quick test: Think about last year’s holiday season. What do you remember most? If your best memories are of times spent with people, of a trip you took or a fun game played indoors or out, then experiences seem to be more meaningful. Sometimes we can’t even remember the gifts we gave or received.

Experiences don’t have to be lavish or expensive. Planning a hike and a picnic . . . a bike ride to a new location . . . making holiday decorations . . . volunteering as a family in your community. . . a one-day road trip to a new location or an old favorite. Creating memories together is part of the “glue” that holds couples and families together.

Key #4: Clarify Expectations & Speak Up About What’s Most Important

It’s so easy to get caught up in our hopes and beliefs about what we would like the holidays to be. And, also perhaps easy to be disappointed when what we hoped for did not materialize.

As part of holiday stress reduction, you can try this process, adapted from Appreciative Inquiry, which is a planning tool used in organizations. Set aside some time for just the two of you. “Interview” each other on the four questions below. Take notes on what your partner says so you can remember the highlights. As you do the interviews, be curious and ask your partner to tell you more so you can truly understand what was meaningful for them.

Here are the four questions:

  1. Talk about some peak experiences from past holidays, either since you have been together or in years prior. What was special or unique that made these times memorable? How did these experiences make you feel? Provide rich details about who was present, where you were, what was happening and the feelings you experienced at the time.
  2. What do you value most about your relationship and/or your immediate family?
  3. What is special and unique about your relationship as a couple? If someone were looking down from a helicopter and watching you two together, what would they see that is positive and joyous?
  4. What are three (or more) wishes you have for your relationship or family for the holidays?

You can use what came up during this process to plan this season’s holidays, as well as other holidays and vacations.

Key#5: Define & Divide Chores & Tasks

Retailers love to remind us of the number of days that remain before the holidays. We, on the other hand, are feeling overwhelmed and can feel our holiday stress levels rising with each pronouncement of how few days are left for all that has to be done.

Working out a “division of labor” beforehand can help reduce some of this stress. Making a list (and checking it twice!) early in the planning process can avoid tension and arguments later. By listing all that has to be done and selecting who will do what can diffuse some of the feelings of overwhelm. You may want to include older children in the tasks list as well.

This conversation is also a time to make some decisions about how you want to celebrate this year. Are there ways to eliminate some activities or tasks in exchange for fewer obligations — and perhaps more meaningful experiences? Do we really need six side dishes for the main holiday dinner? Which decorations really are important to us? You get the idea: Pick what’s most important and meaningful while being mindful of all the work that’s involved.

This, again, is a time when it’s important for both partners to be open and honest about their needs. The desire to please others really comes to the forefront at the holidays, and a frank discussion between you may lead to some fruitful insights about what is truly important and necessary this season.

Key #6: Define Some “Couple Time” for Just the Two of You

It’s not uncommon when the holidays are finally over for couples to feel something important was missing. So much went into pleasing kids, parents and extended family that the couple can feel less connected, as well as somewhat exhausted.

If one or both of you are taking vacation time from work over the holidays, you know these days are often a limited quantity. Travel time, shopping and preparing were carefully planned. But what about just you two?

As part of your process for avoiding holiday stress for couples, consider planning some time just for you and your partner or spouse. Perhaps some date nights. Or, if grandparents are willing to care for your children, a night or two away just by yourselves. And, yes, some time for intimacy is important, too.

Reducing Holiday Stress for Couples: A Total Game Plan

All told, the above suggestions are designed to get you and your partner talking and planning. To create the best-possible holiday season, it’s important to speak up about what you want — and what you’d like to avoid.

Together, you can work toward consensus — the concept of agreement in which you have talked through the issues and can say that, while a particular plan may not be perfect, each of you can agree sufficiently about what seems to be the best-possible solutions.

Keep in mind that it’s helpful to avoid saying “Yes” when you really mean, “No, I’d really rather not.” Agreeing in order to please others or to avoid conflict can be the root of a later resentment.

Happy Holidays from all of us at Peaceful Life Counseling!

If you’d like to talk about how to approach holiday stress we’re here to help. You can schedule a complimentary half hour couples counseling consultation, or a full session here. For some tips on how to practice healthy communication, check out this post on using G.I.V.E to practice healthy communication with your partner.

 

Loving an Addict: Supporting Recovery, Rebuilding Connection

Loving an addict often sounds like this:Loving an addict

“If you truly loved me, you’d quit!”

“If you don’t stop, I’m done.”

“When you use — after promising me you wouldn’t — and I find out, it’s like you’ve cheated on me.”

 

Looking deeper, loving an addict feels like:

“I’m alone in this relationship. I don’t know whether you will be there for me.”

“I want to support your recovery, but I’m not sure how.”

“It’s hard to trust you because, when you relapse, you’ve hidden it from me.”

“The addiction comes between us. I want to feel close to you again.”

What we know from working with couples and from the research is that when one or both partners struggles with addiction or substance abuse, a “wall” is created between them that can lead to great damage to the loving bond and connection.

So, it’s not unusual for the couple to find themselves in crisis.

However, there’s also hope. First, we’ll explore how loving an addict impacts both partners in the marriage or relationship. Then, we’ll help you understand the role of treatment for substance abuse and how partners can support recovery.

Addiction Leads to a “Negative Cycle” for Couples

We define arguing and distancing between couples as a “negative cycle.” Repeated arguments lead to heightened emotions — including anger, frustration, withdrawal — but rarely to resolution. Unfortunately, couples come to see each other as the enemy — rather than this negative cycle. It’s the cycle of hurtful arguing and the growing distance between you that is your true enemy.

When we fall in love, we establish a powerful bond with our partner. We are drawn to our partner as a source of our well-being and security. When a partner is using a substance, they are not “themselves” as we have come to love them. He or she can feel distant, unpredictable perhaps and less available emotionally. That all-important bond feels less and less secure.

It’s that fraying of the bond that can contribute to the developing negative cycle.

And, the negative cycle has consequences.

For the partner with the addiction or substance abuse, the stress of the now-difficult relationship can contribute to an increase in turning to the substance for relief, for soothing the emotional turmoil. It’s often become nearly impossible to calmly discuss true concerns with his or her partner because the negative cycle has taken over.

The other partner feels an emotional distance, making it challenging to offer support. If his or her partner’s behavior changes when they are using, the non-using partner is intensely impacted. Trust begins to erode, as often the addict hides his or her usage from the partner because of the likely onslaught of the negative cycle.

Feeling hopeless and useless to help the partner, the non-using partner feels lost on how to offer help.

The negative cycle erodes the ability of the couple to address the issue. Yet, hope lies in the couple being able to unite over this enemy that is slowly destroying their relationship or marriage.

Understanding Addiction: Some Basic Science

Addiction (and alcohol abuse) have been defined as a “state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming.” The addicting substance (illegal or prescription drugs, alcohol, food) or compulsive activity (video games, technology) find a pathway to the reward system in our brain. The reward can be pleasure and a relief from stress. (Side note on Sex and Porn Addiction: A Peaceful Life Counseling subscribes to the viewpoint held by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists that does not support classifying sexually compulsive behavior as an addiction. Read their position on Sex Addiction here.)

What may begin as a voluntary habit, such as social drinking, can evolve into compulsive seeking and use. And, then abuse. Our brain keeps asking for more — and has its own type of rebellion in the form of cravings and obsessive thoughts — when we try to discontinue the substance.

Unfortunately, substance abuse and addiction are accompanied by a social stigma that causes many people to hide or deny their disease and not seek treatment.

The good news is that addiction science continues to advance. There are medical doctors, known as addictionologists, who specialize in treating addictions and can prescribe helpful medications. An array of inpatient and outpatient treatment programs, as well as recovery groups — are available.

It’s important to know, however, that suddenly stopping certain drugs (including abusive use of some prescription drugs) and alcohol can be life-threatening and should be done in a detox facility or under a physician’s care.

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy Unites You Both Against Your Relationship’s Enemy

In Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, we identify the negative cycle as the enemy — not either of you. Couples can learn to stand together to defeat the negative cycle.

So, too, can couples learn to stand together against the enemy of addiction. Understanding that addiction is a disease of the brain helps rename the stigma and view addiction as the medical problem that it is. Treatment has both physical and behavioral approaches.

One of the strengths of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is that it is a very in-depth, yet gentle approach to helping each partner really see and understand what is happening in the other partner’s experience. Not all couples with substance abuse issues are ready for couples work, but couples work can help you to communicate with your partner who is struggling with substance use so they can better hear your longing for a healed connection in a different way. We can help you move away from battling your partner or giving in, and help both of you carve a pathway to greater understanding and forward movement. Your partner needs to be able to see the impact of their addiction on the relationship without getting stuck in feeling criticized, shamed, or controlled. EFT Therapists can help facilitate those needed conversations so that you move from battling each other to battling the addiction together.

If treatment specific to substance abuse is needed, your therapist will discuss what this means and whether your unique situation lends itself toward being able to do couples work and substance abuse work simultaneously, or whether your partner needs to make some progress on the addiction first in order for the therapy to be effective. While no blog post can accurately predict your needs, we can say that we work to help you craft a treatment approach that feels right. Working closely with a person’s individual substance abuse counselor to ensure that both treatments have the best chance of success is one example of how having a couples’ therapist during this process can be valuable. Loving and addict doesn’t have to be a hopeless situation.

 

Loving an Addict: How Can I Help?

The person loving an addict is often mystified as to how to help. Indeed, there already has probably been quite a bit of arguing between you as well as repeatedly asking the addict to get help. What’s difficult for partners and spouses is to learn what is helpful and what is not.

Partners can support the recovery process, but the actual work itself must be done, of course, by the person with the addiction or substance abuse problem.

There are several resources for partners:

  • Al-Anon is a 12-step program for family members of addicts and alcoholics, and there is also a program for teenage children. In a supportive environment, you learn how to support and not enable recovery.
  • Treatment programs often include spouses and partners in portions of the treatment process, allowing partners to gain a greater understanding of addiction and how to be supportive.
  • Couples counseling in Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy helps the couple heal from the challenges that occurred during the course of the addiction.

 

 

If you’d like to speak with one of our therapists about your situation and whether couples counseling could be a first step for healing your relationship, book a complimentary in-person consultation here.

 

 

Help for the Blended Family: Moving From Chaos to Thriving Connection

Your Blended Family Means Everything

This marriage is another chance for love for both of you — yet your blended family has quickly become wrought with issuesBlended Family you had not anticipated. You and your partner may find increased arguing, your new marriage is strained and you’ve both started to feel increasingly hopeless.

What you may not know is that the divorce rate for second marriages is higher than for first marriages, at about 67 percent.

We’ll help you understand the hazards your blended family can encounter as well as key areas the two of you can address to help guide you toward improved relationships for you — and with your children.

Blended Family Challenges Abound

You and your partner have fallen in love and eagerly made steps to move under one roof. However, the others around you — the children, grandparents and previous spouses — may not be so keen on this major change in their lives.

For the kids in blended families, the adjustment can be challenging indeed. They’ve already endured the divorce, separation, or death of a parent. Now, they’re wondering how they’ll fit in with the new household and step-parent. If the move means a change in schools, there’s another major adjustment to be made, as well as feelings of loss and distance from their friends.

Grandparents may fear lost connections to the grandkids and may struggle with how to develop a comfortable relationship with your new partner.

The ex-partner or spouse can be feeling a broad range of acceptance or conflict. Suddenly, there’s a new “parent” in the picture for his or her kids. Importantly, the ex-spouse may hold negative feelings from the separation or divorce. Issues about co-parenting may not have been resolved.

It’s a lot, right? Balancing all the emotions that come into the mix for the blended family is no easy feat. The new couple may find it hard to maintain their connection. The kids’ adjustment can take considerable energy and time, as can any conflict with the previous spouse and in-laws.

When Blended Families Begin to Struggle

Given all the challenges, it’s no wonder couples often find that arguing can begin even shortly after the marriage and relationship blends into one household.

Here’s what we often hear when blended family couples come to counseling for help:

“My partner treats my kids differently.”

“The kids aren’t getting along with each other, and we don’t know what to do.”

“Life and rules at his or her ex’s house makes it difficult when the kids return to our home.”

“My children’s grandparents won’t accept my new spouse.”

“We really disagree about parenting!”

While these dilemmas are fairly common, many couples struggle with how to cope or address these concerns.  Attempts at discussions can lead to arguments because the emotions underlying the concerns are so important.

Yet, what we find most often is that these new couples have failed to fully discuss so many aspects of blending their families prior to moving in together.

Without a foundation of understanding and mutually agreed-upon ground rules, blended family couples are then struggling to resolve issues that have gotten under way and likely caused hurt feelings among many of those affected.

Our “Before (and After) You Blend” Check-List

Of course, it’s always best to discuss and reach agreement on key issues before the “blending” occurs. Yet we feel this list also is useful after you’ve partnered and settled in to the new blended family household. The arguing typically comes from lack of clarity. Taking time to slow down and reach agreements has the potential to clear the way for greater understanding by everyone involved.

  1. Discover your parenting styles. Often, different parenting styles can be the root of conflict in blended families. Learning to take the best of different parenting styles and your personal strengths as parents can produce a great combination to benefit your children.                                                                                                                                                                        
  2. Develop house rules, preferably in writing. After all, it’s a new household — so new rules might be in order.

Older children can be invited to participate in developing the rules. Of course, parents have the final approval; however, when children are involved in creating rules and have agreed to them, they have some ownership. Then, they may be more likely to adhere to the new requirements.

Additionally, you can involve them in setting consequences for failure to adhere to the rules. Again, if they have a voice, they may be more compliant in accepting those consequences. Still, however, parents always have the final say. And, if you understand your parenting styles, enforcing consequences may go more smoothly.

  1. Discuss between you and your partner the needs of each child for support and comfort during the transition. Recognize each child’s strengths as well as how each child may be struggling with the transition. Working to meet these needs early on can aid in each child’s adjustment to his or her new life in the blended family.

This step can be critical. Spending time with each child to hear his or her concerns about the new life can help prevent some of the fears and stress later. Realizing the depth of the change each child is experiencing helps you accommodate their individual needs as best as possible. Also, it’s powerful that the child feels heard and understood by the biological parent and supported in feeling comfortable with the new parent.

  1. Explore acceptable boundaries with extended family members. Friction can result from the absence of a clear understanding between you about interactions with grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins.

A not-uncommon challenge in blended families is when the new partner does not feel accepted by the extended-family members. Discussing how the new partner feels and the type of support they would like can be vital to preventing these issues from impacting your new relationship with each other. Of course, you won’t be able to foresee every possible problem, but knowing how to support each other will strengthen your bond and connection.

  1. Develop some clarity about issues and concerns related to the ex-partner and the biological parent of the children.

For example, one partner may not agree with how his or her partner handles conflict with the kids’ other biological parent. Talking beforehand about what input each partner wants or doesn’t want on this issue can avoid conflict between the two of you.

Conflict with the kids’ other parent is often painful and difficult to resolve in blended families — and can be the source of considerable stress in your new relationship because of the impact on the children. This is another way in which having a clear understanding of how to support each other can help avoid some common pitfalls.

  1. Protect your connection. In Emotionally Focused Counseling, which is the most successful approach to helping improve relationships, therapists help couples develop “rituals” for staying close. These are special times and activities you set aside just for the two of you, such as a quiet time in the morning over coffee, an evening chat on the patio and date nights. Remember: Your relationship is the foundation of your blended family.

Better Relationships = Better Blended Families

You have a second chance at love, AND you also have a new opportunity to model for your children a happy, close, loving relationship.

We know from research that the bond children observe in their parents can have a far-reaching impact. Whether you’re aware or not, parents are making powerful impressions on their kids. Children are like sponges — absorbing the world around them. They’re keen observers of your relationship.

By resolving emerging issues calmly, by being open with children about rules and expectations in the new home and by tuning in to each child’s needs, you set into motion the possibility for children to learn valuable life lessons.

To learn about improving your communication, read Communication in Relationships

To learn more about having challenging conversations with each other, we recommend the book, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Dr. Sue Johnson, the principal creator of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy.

 

What Men Want in Relationships: Keys to Keeping Him Close

Is what men want in relationships so different than women?

 

what men want in relationships
Ha Ha… Nope. Not this…

Well, that depends. What you’ll learn here is that how your man may respond to challenging situations between you may depend on a number of factors unique to him. What men want in relationships isn’t so different from what women want, but it can look different on the surface.

Our goal here is to help you open up communication between the two of you on how better to understand each other and to help you understand how to further nurture and deepen your connection.

Gender Differences Can Contribute to What Men Want in Relationships

In our culture and in many families, little boys and little girls often are raised with some subtle, yet important, differences. For example, when a little girl falls and scrapes her knee, parents often rush to her aid, comfort her and let her pick her favorite Band-Aid.

When little boys experience the same tumble, they’re often told to pick themselves up and that they are not hurt that badly.

Little girls typically are encouraged to express and share their feelings; on the other hand, little boys are guided to be brave, stoic and to manage their feelings on their own.

These different messages, while unintentional by most parents, begin to shape how children see themselves and society’s expectations. And, these same views are typically carried on into adulthood — and into our adult relationships. 

How Men & Women Differ in Conversation

Girls and boys develop different ways of engaging with one another and, thus, how they see interactions with others.

Boys and girls (and men and women) speak from different “languages” or perspectives, according to the work of Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., well-known for her years of research on how men and women interact in conversation.

“Girls play in small groups or in pairs; the center of a girl’s social life is a best friend,” Dr. Tannen writes. For girls, what’s most important in connection and closeness with her peers.

Boys, on the other hand, play in large groups that are hierarchical. Boys learn to value status and independence. Their groups have a leader who tells others what to do; their games have winners or losers.

Gender differences in ways of talking have been described by researchers observing children as young as three!

As adults, friction can occur when one partner wants to be heard and gain empathy from their partners and men offer advice or try to fix the problem. Sound familiar? 

It’s important to note that these differences are things that result from how we are raised and the messages we get about relationships through our childhood. This isn’t to say that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, but men and women often approach conversations differently. This makes understanding what each of you want a trickier thing.

Does Your Man Shut Down When You Want to Talk?

Most people become angry — even infuriated — when their partner shuts down during an argument or important discussion. A cycle may develop: You want to talk, he shuts down or leaves the room, you follow him and you’re angrier now because he won’t talk. Your increased anger causes him to be even more removed from the discussion. Unfortunately, the original issue rarely gets resolved. Or, maybe you learn not to even start the conversation in the first place. 

You’re frustrated, yet your man, actually, is often in a state of fear. A fear you won’t get to see or understand because he has gone silent. What men want in relationships often isn’t spoken. Again, men are often holding in their emotions, trying to withdraw from experiencing and/or sharing them. This often results not only in withdrawing from emotional intensity, but in withdrawal from their partner as well. 

Outbursts of anger are a typical exception: After a while of suppressing their feelings, someone may have an outburst of anger. The result can be a shouting match between you. Yet, again, issues are rarely resolved.

The Emotions Underneath Your Man’s Withdrawal

What we know is that men who withdraw from conflict have deeper feelings of which their partner may be unaware. These can include:

  • Sad about letting partner down
  • Fear of rejection for failing his partner, or being weak
  • Inadequate to meet partner’s needs
  • Not wanted or desired
  • Judged, criticized
  • Sad and ashamed about not feeling acceptable for who he is
  • Anger about feeling disrespected

In couples counseling, we help both partners look beneath the withdrawal (and, yes, women can withdraw also!). Often, the woman who tries to get her partner to talk is quite unaware that her man has so many deep and sad feelings and a fear of disappointing her.

How Men and Women Experience Shame

We now turn to the work of Brene Brown, Ph.D., the well-known “shame researcher,” to further understand those deeper emotions.  She defines shame as an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and, thus, fearing we are somehow unworthy of love and belonging.

“Shame is the fear of disconnection,” she points out. “We all have it. Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions that we experience.” She notes that we’re all afraid to talk about shame. “The less we talk about shame, the more control it has over our lives.”

Dr. Brown notes that most of women’s shame centers around her appearance and being “perfect” as a wife, mother and daughter.  For women,  the struggle is to feel “good enough” at home, work, with the kids, in bed.

Men, on the other hand, feel triggered by shame when they fear being weak or a failure. Your man can struggle with:

  • Fear of failure at work, in sports, in marriage, in bed, financially and as a father
  • Being wrong
  • Revealing any weakness
  • Showing fear
  • Being criticized or ridiculed
  • A sense of being defective
  • LGBTQ issues around shame and acceptance, coming out, family support

The Aha! What Men Want in Relationships Becomes Clearer

All told, we can gain insight into how our man reacts to varied situations and stressors. And, we can begin to understand why men and their partners can clash and misunderstand each other.

First and foremost, all humans — men and women alike — seek to be heard and understood. We seek acceptance and love for who we are, an absence of criticism from our partner and to have someone who is there for us no matter what.

To His Partner: The challenge in fulfilling what men want in relationships requires our own understanding of ourselves — our fears of disconnection, of not being important to our partner and of not being good enough and loveable just the way we are. It’s often out of this fear that we pursue our partner to get him to talk when we are not getting along.

Which, may, in turn cause him to freeze up or leave the conversation. It’s easy for us to not understand that he fears letting us down, being rejected or feeling inadequate to please us. After all, we only see his silence or withdrawal!

The power of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy is that couples learn to more deeply understand themselves and their partner at a much deeper level and to gently understand those deeper, often-hidden fears.

Honoring What Your Man Wants in Your Relationship

Give some thought to the following (and consider discussing these with him):

  • How do I help him feel important in our relationship? Is he certain that he is my priority in my life? 
  • How can I avoid criticism when we have differences in style, preferences, opinions?
  • Do I let him know when he has pleased me?  We all need feedback from time to time.
  • Do we work together to make time for just the two of us — away from distractions and even the kids?
  • Can I open the door to conversation without pressuring him? How can I soften my approach to him so he won’t freeze up? Do I make it easy for him to respond to me?
  • Physical intimacy is one area that can be a contentious issue within a partnership. It’s an undeniable physical and emotional need for both, which can make coming to a balance between each person’s needs tricky. Often it seems that what men want in relationships is sex, and women want emotional connection. We can help you bridge that seeming gap because that’s not the whole story.

To learn what women want, we invite you to read this companion post What Women Want

For more on Dr. Brown’s work, you can watch her TED talk and read Daring Greatly (Gotham Books, 2012. For more about Dr. Tannen’s studies you can read her classic You Just Don’t Understand: Women & Men in Conversation (Ballantine, 1990)

 

What Women Want: Mysteries Unlocked to Keeping Her Close

We know you’re mystified at times to truly understand what what women want in relationshipswomen want.

You want to please her, keep her happy, console her (and that often goes wrong, eh?) and, yes, keep her satisfied. Whether you are a man or a woman in a relationship with a woman, or a woman yourself, we want you to hit the mark. We want you to know what women want, or rather, what your woman wants. 

We’re combining researched-based, scientific findings from the two leading couples-therapy experts. Thus, you’re getting the factual results of decades of study by the top people in their field.

We’re taking the knowledge to help you deeply understand what women want (and, also, what men want, because the title was totally a trick) from Sue Johnson, Ph.D., the leading creator of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, and psychologists John and Julie Gottman, creators of the Gottman method and the famous Love Lab.

So, let’s introduce you to Everywoman — she’ll be your guide to help you understand Your Woman. And, Your Woman may be different — so we’ll help you in finding out the needs, wants and desires of Your Woman at the end of this piece.

The Science Behind What Women Want

If I were to speak as “Everywoman” to help you understand me and the path to staying connected, this is what I would say. 

Above all, you matter a great deal to me. When I fell in love, we formed a bond that is so powerful for me. You’re my go-to for everything important to me — for sharing my feelings, to comfort me when I’m upset and to help me weather the tough stuff that life delivers from time to time. You help me be my best self.

Scientifically speaking, my brain goes haywire when I believe I can’t reach you emotionally, or when you don’t turn to me or respond when I need you. Over time, humans have evolved to find comfort in a significant other (yep, that’s you!).

Dr. Johnson writes, “The most functional way to regulate difficult emotions in love relationships is to share them. Our hearts and brains are set up to use our partners to help us find our balance in the midst of distress and fear. We are designed to deal with emotions in concert with another — not by ourselves.”

I deeply want us to stay connected — even at the times when I’m upset with you. And, when we’re not getting along, it’s usually because I don’t feel that all-important closeness.

I know, too, that when I’m upset, you may feel overwhelmed and not know how to best respond. Your brain becomes flooded with emotion — and your response may be along those lines of Fight, Flight or Freeze. I know our bond is important to you, too. (A note: As you read this, you may think,, “Hey, I want this, too!” The needs of men and women in their love relationships sometimes aren’t that different. More on this later.)

Let’s get started on what women want — the three areas where we need you most.

  1. Can I Count on You?

I need to trust that you are emotionally connected to me. By trusting, I need to know you’ll do what you say you’ll do, will follow through on commitments and let me know, if, for any reason, you can’t.

At the heart of trusting you is being able to maintain our emotional connection. Here’s what Dr. Gottman has found in his years of studying couples:

  • Give undivided attention when I need you. No phones, iPads, etc. I need eye contact — my brain actually connects to you this way, so turn toward me when we talk and put down your phone.
  • Understand me. Even if my viewpoint or feelings don’t make sense to you, please ask me questions. Be curious — I love it when you are! I feel important and connected to you when you care about my thoughts and feelings and seek to understand me on a deeper level.
  • Listen without defending or interrupting. OK, I know I do this too. So, let’s work together to listen to each other before responding. You may not agree with me, but Dr. Gottman points out that my feelings are my reality, and I deeply need you to share my world. This doesn’t mean agreeing, but being able to see my world so I don’t feel alone in it. When I’m upset, you’re the one person in this world who calms me. Really. When I don’t feel alone with my problems, I can handle them so much more easily. The empathy you show me when you listen, focus on me and are curious — no one can give me that like you can. Think of all the times you have been there for me — it’s magical how I can calm down and find peace.
  • This one is important (and a common response by a lot of guys): Don’t try to “fix” the problem I’m sharing with you or start to give me advice. Just listen. Then ask, “How can I help?” I’ll tell you if I want ideas or just to download a painful or difficult situation. “Being heard” by you calms me! And, by the way, it’s way easier for you because you don’t have to work hard to try to solve my problems. Your listening and attention are often all that I want and need.
  1. Be Accessible to Me.

Because you mean so much to me, it’s incredibly reassuring that I know you’ll be there when I need you. It’s not just what women want, it’s what keeps me close to you.

“Being there for me” means that I’ll have the emotional availability listed above. Dr. Sue Johnson describes what happens to people when they are totally disconnected and in conflict with their partners at times of need as a “primal panic”.

I know you can’t instantly always be available to me. However, if you let me know you’ll connect with me later, I can ease that panic. I’ll be more able to let stuff go, give you the benefit of the doubt, and not jump to the worst conclusion about our relationship.

I need to know we can connect emotionally. This means that I can get your attention easily when needed.

This has become more difficult for couples lately. We’re so easily distracted by and drawn into our electronic devices — checking our phones and email repeatedly, staying too long on video games and spending more time watching videos and shows. And, we’re also trying to meet our kids’ needs, too.

Sometimes we argue about this. I get upset if I don’t feel I come first with you — particularly when I need you. I don’t want to feel shut out or lonely. I need to know I matter most.

Please understand: It’s not that I want all your attention all the time. But when I need time with you, I want to become your main focus.

  1. Be Responsive to Me

I want to be assured you value me and will stay close. We work to keep alive the emotional connection we had when we first met and fell in love.

What this means is:

  • I feel confident that when we’re apart, we’re still feeling close. You think about me, reach out to me when you can
  • I fully know you care about my feelings — what brings me happiness, what’s hurtful and any fears I may have
  • I can take “emotional risks” with you — I can share deep feelings and you’ll try your best to understand

What Does Your Woman Truly Want?

This is going to sound really simplistic but it’s the real key to her heart and mind.

Ask her! We promise she’ll try to tell you. You can show her this article (she’ll be delighted you’re trying to learn) and ask her to tell you her thoughts.  You’ll be beginning a very important discussion and one that can continue as your explore not only what she wants but also what you most want and need from her.

But Men Want All this, Too!

Dr. Johnson says the three main items above are essential for healthy, loving relationships — for men as well as women, gay or straight. Men also want the same close, secure bond with their partner – though some women may be more likely to be expressive about their emotional needs. As you talk with your partner about what she wants, you open the dialogue to share how you also want to feel close, and what’s most important for nurturing your desire to be important, loved, and valued.

To learn more about what women want, (and what humans want), you can read:

By Dr. Sue Johnson: Love Sense: The revolutionary new science of romantic relationships. New York: Little, Brown 2013.

By Drs. John & Julie Gottman: The Man’s Guide to Women: Scientifically proven secrets from the “Love Lab” about what women really want. New York: Rodale, 2016.

To learn more about how we help couples understand using Emotionally Focused Therapy, click here, and you might also want to check out our post about Communication in Relationships

 

 

Cheating Discovered! Now, Can We Recover?

Learning that  a partner has been cheating is devastating. The security of your relationship is suddenly shattered. You can feel everything you relied on about your partner has profoundly become a thing of the past.

cheating recovery

If you’re the hurt partner you may feel overwhelmed, perhaps asking yourself:

–How did this happen? I thought we were fine. Or,

–Okay, maybe we were having some rough patches — less time for ourselves with busy careers and kids’ needs, less connection, but, still. . .

— And, often, the most challenging: Why??

For the partner who went outside the marriage or relationship, there is often both intense shame and a desire to move on as quickly as possible. No matter how hard you try, your partner’s extreme emotions do not subside.

In this post, I’m going to reassure you that couples can work to recover trust and close connection following the acknowledgment of cheating. I’ll also share with you how a proven, well-researched approach to healing has the potential to guide you back to a secure relationship.

First, Some Facts About Cheating

Research tells us that about 70 percent of couples choose to continue the relationship after cheating is discovered. While divorce is two times more likely following disclosure of infidelity, the research indicates the majority of couples want to work things out.

Unfortunately, cheating is not a rare occurrence. We know that 25 percent of men and 15 percent of women engage in affairs that involve intercourse. And, when emotional and other intimacies with an outside person occur, these numbers increase by 20 percent.

What Constitutes Cheating?

The ease of reaching out on the internet has brought up the need for many couples to more clearly define what is meant by “cheating.”

A partner may see texting with others or corresponding with someone outside the marriage or  relationship as “harmless,” particularly if there’s been no in-person contact. His or her partner or spouse may strongly feel otherwise.

The best definition we’ve found of cheating is: Cheating is whatever your partner feels is unacceptable.

When one partner puts time, effort and energy into contact with another person, the impact on the other partner or spouse can feel threatening to the relationship and hurtful — no matter what form the cheating took. The partner may feel he or she is not important enough or inadequate and that what started as casual contact could evolve into something even greater.

The Challenge of Healing After Cheating

When an affair is discovered, the emotions of the hurt partner are complex. He or she feels this intense pain because their partner felt a need to look elsewhere for connection and/or intimacy.

Compounding the pain are the deception and hiding of the outside relationship that occurred during the affair. The hurt partner can feel, “Not only did you cheat, you also lied repeatedly.” The hidden and deceptive nature of cheating can be as damaging to trust as the intimacy that took place.

The couple now is challenged to restore trust and confidence in the relationship, but amidst the initial shock and dismay after cheating is revealed.

Understanding the Emotional Roller Coaster of Cheating

Indeed, the emotional turbulence that typically follows discovery of cheating is, in itself, a tremendous challenge for the couple to navigate. The injured partner is flooded with anger and sadness, and the injuring partner feels any attempt to soothe or reassure is never sufficient.

And, here’s why emotions are so heightened: When you met and fell in love with each other, you formed an strong, compelling bond or attachment. You were powerfully drawn both physically and emotionally to your partner. You became the most important people on the planet to each other!

We know from years of research that humans are hard-wired to connect with a special someone. Our brains are — and this is verified by brain scans — highly activated when we are in the loving presence of our spouse or partner.

Chemical reactions heighten our attraction and connection to our partner. You can recall how much you were drawn to each other, and how being apart in those early days could be so difficult.

If you have children together, you are powerfully connected through those experiences as well.

Therefore, it is no wonder that the discovery of cheating causes so much emotional distress. Suddenly, there is anger. anxiety and emotional intensity on the part of the hurt partner. Couples are often surprised by the intensity of these feelings . . . and how long they can continue.

Surviving the Emotional Intensity

As part of successful healing, each partner learns to fully and constructively express their emotions.

For the injured partner, he or she is not only angry and hurt, there may be intense anxiety about whether the cheating is still occurring. Trust has been broken, and this partner struggles to contain his or her fears for the future of the marriage or relationship.

For the partner who went outside the relationship, the challenge is to not avoid listening to their partner’s concerns or to diminish the hurt their partner is feeling. The deeper emotions of the injuring partner can center around shame and guilt for harming the relationship and the hurt that has been inflicted.

Too, the offending partner doesn’t know what to say to ease their spouse’s pain. “I’ve apologized so many times, but my partner is still so angry.” “I don’t know what else to do.” “I don’t know how we can move forward when my partner’s emotions are so intense.”

“We’re Stuck! Nothing Is Making this Better.”

It’s not unusual for the wound of infidelity to take over many aspects of the marriage. Small arguments become easily escalated because beneath daily interactions is a profound disconnection.

For example, one partner’s failure to remember to take out the trash is suddenly an expression of lack of caring for the hurt partner’s needs or of the disconnected status of the entire relationship.

A phone call or text that is not answered promptly now causes the hurt partner to become both angry and anxious.

At times, intimacy is often unwelcome by the hurt partner.

Often the couple is unable to reach resolution and healing because attempts to discuss the cheating often result in intense emotions by the hurt partner and avoidance by the partner who went outside the relationship. They are seeking to reconnect; however, they are both frustrated — and often feeling overwhelmed — because so little progress is taking place.

How Counseling Helps Couples Heal From Cheating

After so much expression of anger and pain at the discovery of cheating, the tendency for many couples can be to “let it go.” In other words, because couples feel so stuck, they may begin to avoid further attempts at discussion.

Unfortunately, the unresolved trauma to the emotional connection and trust is not healed. The injury to the security of the relationship is still likely to resurface.

In the words of Dr. Susan Johnson, the leading creator of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT), “The only way out of these attachment injuries is to confront them and heal them together.” EFT is one of the most-researched and  most-successful couples-therapy methods.

To heal the pain of an affair, the couple needs to go beyond forgiveness and re-establish the ability of the injured partner to trust again.

The “good news” is that a skilled therapist (trained in EFT or the other leading method, Gottman Method Couples Therapy) can gently guide you toward resolution. We have a proven road map to not only address the pain of cheating but also to strengthen your relationship.

These powerful, tested couples-therapy methods offer you not only the possibility of recovery, but also the potential for renewing your bond and to learn to maintain a closer, secure connection into the future.

Taking the First Step

As experienced couples therapists, we know how difficult it can be to come to counseling following disclosure of an affair.

The most common fear we hear is that the therapists will “take sides” with one of the partners. Fortunately, the care and thoroughness of the development of these two powerful couples-therapy approaches actually eliminates such a position for the counselor.

Rather, we help you understand the role of secure connection in your marriage or relationship. You’ll learn how to communicate differently — and much more effectively! — and how to more deeply and thoroughly tap into each other’s emotional needs. To learn more about Emotionally Focused Therapy and our approach, click here.

To help you with making your decision, we offer a free 30-minute consultation so you can meet your therapist, ask questions and learn about the counseling process. We want you to be as comfortable as possible as we begin this important journey together. Click here to sign up for a consultation or a session.