Kat Mindenhall, LCSW

Relationship Goals: New Year’s Resolutions for Couples

Relationship Goals Can Feel Difficult

#RelationshipGoals: Everyone wants them. Some think that it’s about how your house looks or how your selfies on therelationship goals for the new yearbeach come out. Are your relationship goals about the quality of your relationship? The idea of New Year’s Resolutions for Couples that focus on relationship goals can focus on things like saving more money next year, remodeling the kitchen, paying off a car loan. Maybe look for a new job, go back to school. Plan a big vacation.

Here, we’re going to focus on relationship goals that we feel are the most important New Year’s’ resolutions for couples: Making commitments to improve and enhance your emotional connection — that powerful force that is the “glue” that bonds you together and that keeps that lovin’ feeling alive and vibrant.

We’re going to offer suggestions to give you a possible framework for true relationship goals — and one based, importantly, in the science of love relationships. As therapists who work with couples using the most proven methods of helping couples reduce distress in their relationships, we want to highlight the foundations of maintaining healthy, loving bonds.

Relationship Goals – Is Your Relationship a Priority?

As life unfolds, with children and busy careers, it’s easy to slip into habits that fail to include conscious efforts to continually nurture a couple’s loving, secure connection.

Your relationship goals might have included both having careers that take you places, but those careers can make connection difficult.

The arrival of the first child causes major changes in couples’ relationships. Explains Dr. Susan Johnson, the primary creator of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy: “For both partners, there is less money, less sleep more tasks and more conflict over how to parent. . . . New parents can soon wind up feeling isolated from each other.” One study by well-known relationship researcher Dr. John Gottman found that in the three years after a baby is born, marital satisfaction dropped significantly in two-thirds of the couples studied.

Life is busy, but relationship goals have to start with prioritizing the relationship in the first place. The couple is the foundation of the family: If the couple is doing well, the family and kids are more likely to be thriving as well. And then whaddya know? Your job satisfaction goes up. Win/win!

Relationship Goals Fundamentals

Research tells us that secure, happy and fulfilling relationships have three things going for them:

  1. Is my partner Accessible? Can I reach him or her when I need emotional connection, comfort and reassurance?
  2. Will my partner Respond to me? When I need to be close, will my partner understand me and make my needs a priority in those moments?
  3. Does my partner stay Engaged with me? Am I truly valued as your special one?

We call these relationship goals the ARE of healthy relationships (as in , “Are you there for me?”). They are intertwined to create and sustain our emotional bond we created with our partner when we first fell in love.

Of course, couples can become less responsive or accessible from time to time due to stressful situations — work demands, extended family needs or the illness or challenges of a child. Part of New Years’ Resolutions for couples is learning to quickly regroup, apologize if necessary and renew having the relationship be a priority.

Creating Your Unique Relationship Goals

A few words about process. We’ll give you some ideas in a minute; however, before going straight to “what should we include,” here are our thoughts on how to develop those resolutions.

Set aside time — perhaps several sessions if needed. Quiet time with no distractions (no phones or screens of any kind). Let kids know you don’t want to be interrupted when you retreat to a quiet space.

Listen more than you talk. If we’re interrupting, we’re often defending ourselves. Truly be present with your partner and listen to his or her thoughts without commenting or judging.

Have fun! You’re mapping your future as a couple, so enjoy!

Something Old, Something New

As you’re sitting down to consider your own New Year’s relationship goals, here’s some questions you can use to spark your discussion. They’re from the corporate world and known as Appreciative Inquiry.

1. Recall some of your best times together as a couple. What were you doing? Who was there? What “ingredients” made those experiences so special and memorable? Take notes if needed. What feelings came up during those unique moments?
2. What do you value most about your relationship?
3. What is special and unique about your relationship or marriage? What is the amazing life force that is positive and contributes to the health of your relationship? What attributes of your relationship sets it apart? What are the strengths of your connection and bond?
4. What are three (or more!) wishes that you have for your relationship/marriage?

One way to do the inquiry is to ask each other the questions, with the asking partner taking some notes to capture the key points. Switch roles, with the other partner doing the asking and recording. This way, you’ve captured all the good stuff to include when you plan your New Years’ Resolutions.

We like this approach because you’re focusing on your powerful connection — not “what’s wrong” or what needs to be “fixed.” You may find the process energizing, enjoyable and informative.

Building New “Rituals” of Connection

Building or rebuilding your close connection can come in many, many forms. What’s most important is to find something thatboth of you would be able to continually repeat and which fits your unique “couple-ness.”
Also, what helped you stay close in the past may not be what can work now. So, you may now want to consider that you’re older, you’re now parents and you now have careers to manage.

Before we list some potential ideas, we want to tell you about the concept of “rituals.” As explained by Dr. Johnson in her first book for couples, “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, rituals are “repeated, intentional ceremonies that recognize a special time or connection.”

Rituals can include always greeting each other with a hug and kiss, saying “I love you” as you depart for work or other times away from each other or an uninterrupted cup of coffee together each morning. Some couples thrive on quick, loving texts during the workday. Sound like great relationship goals to me!

Couples can take a while to develop and remember to repeat their ritual if they have been distant and are trying to establish a ritual to reconnect regularly. Be patient with each other. After a while, the right ritual can become a must-do part of your daily routine.

Ideas for New Year’s Relationship Goals

Relationship Goals can range from a wide spectrum. Even small, memorable changes can make a difference in your closeness and connection.

  1. Make plans, when possible, for a vacation (even if just for one night) for just the two of you, when overnight childcare is available with extended family.
  2. Break up with your phones and electronic devices. We counselors often hear one or both partners feeling more distant because the couple is spending time on their screens and not with each other.
  3. Upgrade date night. It’s easy to fall into routines. Trying new things together creates new experiences and lasting memories and a new avenue to having fun together.
  4. Commit to more time for intimacy. When we have sex with our loved ones, our brain releases chemicals that foster greater closeness. Busy couples often feel they’re tired in the evening or have too many tasks to get done on weekends. However, our intimate bond is a strong one that keeps us close. For getting close again and refreshing your sexual connection, we recommend the books by Barry and Emily McCarthy. For more information on communication about sex, read Communicating About Sex: 5 Keys to Increased Closeness
  5. Plan a girls’ night out and a boys’ night out. Staying close with friends is part of a healthy life. Providing opportunities for your partner or spouse to stay in touch with friends is part of a successful relationship.
  6. Make a commitment to resolve any personal challenges. If you are coping with anxiety, depression, too much alcohol or other addictions or health problems you’ve neglected, those issues can create a “wall” between you and your partner. Yes, changing habits is often daunting. However, getting help to move forward not only improves your well-being, but also that of your relationship. For insight into loving an addict, you can read Loving an Addict: Supporting Recovery, ReBuilding Connection
  7. Renewing your commitment vows. This can be as simple as a quiet ceremony with just immediate family or a big celebration.
  8. Practice daily gratitude. We’re often drawn to focus on what’s wrong in our lives and neglect to honor and appreciate all that we have. When we draw attention to what is positive and good, our thoughts actually can shift to optimism.
  9. Resolve to address lingering disagreements that are impacting your closeness. Whether the issue is financial, division of household chores or parenting styles, those old issues can be contributing to a divide between you. We just happen to be really good at helping couples with these types of relationship goals, so if you are contemplating a complimentary half hour consultation with one of our Denver Marriage Therapists, click here.

We hope that this helps you think differently about relationship goals and create something that is more meaningful for your relationship than the perfect social media image – a strong and lasting bond! Here at Peaceful Life Counseling, we wish you all the best!

Jealousy Ruins Relationships: Escape the Trap

Jealousy wife listening“My partner’s jealousy and suspicious questions are overwhelming. I get constant texts when I’m just out with friends or a few minutes late.”

“All this jealousy becomes so controlling. I feel smothered! I love my partner, but this can’t continue. It’s tearing us apart!”

“I don’t understand why my partner is so worried. I haven’t done anything to cause concern. I’m loyal, loving and we have a great time together. Yet, the jealousy and the constant questioning has gotten worse the longer we’ve been together.”

Indeed, jealousy is incredibly harmful to even the best relationships. Jealousy, when not understood and talked about, can push couples further and further apart.

We’re going to help you look beneath the jealousy to gain a better understanding. And, if you’re the jealous one, you may find some keys to helping you calm your fears.

Understanding Jealousy

Jealousy is simply defined as a real or imagined threat to a relationship. Some experts point out that there is both “good” and “bad” jealousy. A little jealousy may be okay because it is a sign of commitment to and love in the relationship. In fact, one study showed that 75% of people said they tried to make their partner jealous at one time or another.

Many people see more severe jealousy as “bad” in relationships because we don’t understand how it can occur, and couples typically don’t know how to navigate through the patterns of jealousy and misunderstandings that are taking place. A lot depends on how jealousy happens in the relationship and how the partners handle these feelings.

The difficulties can often stem from not yet understanding the issues faced by the jealous partner. He or she can be very sensitive to any signs of rejection. An “alarm bell” happens in their brain that signals that something might not be secure in the relationship — even though the worries may not be logical. Then, sometimes automatically, the anxiety turns to action. The jealous partner then acts in ways to try to make the relationship more secure, but actually may drive the couple further apart.

As in the examples above, the anxious partner is attempting to make sure the relationship commitment is solid — by calling, texting, asking questions — yet the other partner can become increasingly overwhelmed.

The “Negative Cycle” That Is Your True Enemy

In Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, we help couples see the pattern that develops in their relationship where there is arguing and a growing distance between them. If you look back at the beginning of this post, you’ll see examples of that negative cycle — the arguing takes over and, unfortunately, the core issue never gets resolved.

In a negative cycle, couples develop a variety of ways of coping: One partner may be seeking answers and wants to talk, but the other shuts down or even leaves the room. One partner attacks with mean and unkind words; the other may interrupt to defend his or her position.

For some couples, there is a decline in intimacy because the “blamed” partner is so upset by all the arguing and accusations. Unfortunately, this can add fuel to the jealous partner’s fears if they feel intimacy is no longer welcome as it had been in the past.

What Jealousy Looks (and Feels) Like with Couples

Jealousy, if not understood, leads to a variety of feelings. For the partner:

  • Not feeling trusted by the jealous partner, but not fully understanding why
  • Feeling controlled. The jealous partner wants to know where they are, with whom and for how long
  • Giving up time with friends, family and activities because the jealous partner will become upset and, then possibly . . .
  • Building a resentment because of the lack of trust, for feeling controlled and for limiting  activities once enjoyed with important friends and family members

Meanwhile, the jealous partner:

  • May struggle to explain his or her concerns while feeling at times that the jealousy seems to take over his or her daily thoughts and feelings
  • The fear about the partner’s commitment in the relationship can become a constant preoccupation and burden that makes them feel increasingly misunderstood
  • Can become angry easily because their partner doesn’t seem to understand the concerns, or cooperate

The couple finds they’re walking on eggshells because both have become afraid to bring up the topic for fear that a negative cycle of arguing will be the result. Too, they may be concerned about the impact on their children of their arguing and the tension in the household.

What Lies Beneath for a Jealous Partner

Many times, beneath the jealousy is a great fear of losing the partner, of being deeply hurt. There may also be a fear of not being enough for the partner to hold and keep the spouse or partner’s love and affection. Jealousy at its root is really a type of panic that is unprocessed and makes you to things automatically, without understanding how to actually pull for something soothing from your partner. 

Jealousy may have its roots in a past loss: such as a previous partner who cheated or left the relationship for another person. The pain of that loss can be profound — and can unfortunately linger into new relationships, no matter how secure.

When we take a scientific view, we can recognize that humans are wired to bond with another special person. This powerful bond began in primitive times when we needed others for survival. Then, we learned to fall in love — and this person then became more important than any other. Therefore, a hurtful ending of a relationship can leave a wound not easily healed. This baggage can pop up in new relationships, and you need to discuss it. 

Another clue to the jealous partner’s fears may lie in childhood. While our parents may have had the best of intentions, we may not have received the attention and connection to our parents or a caregiver that we needed. These primary wounds can also make us more prone to feel insecure and panicky (read: jealous).

Make New Meaning out of Jealousy

When any behavior, including jealousy, is more deeply understood, change can become more possible.Jealousy about phone

Couples can begin to resolve difficulties between each other by gently bringing the issue or concern to the surface. A calm conversation with a goal of truly understanding each other can reveal a new awareness of each partner’s viewpoint.

It’s important to go slowly, avoid interrupting and listen fully to each other. Set aside time with no distractions and when neither of you is tired.

Be curious. If something isn’t clear, let your partner know. “I hear what you’re saying and that this is important to you. Help me understand a little further. I wonder about . . . .”

Be soft with each other. Put kindness at the forefront. Keep in mind that both of you want to learn how to defeat that negative cycle together. Communication in Relationships can be tough, but there are many ways to get support.

It’s important for both partners to get a chance to be understood. The jealous partner is in pain, AND the partner who is dealing with the jealousy is suffering the impact of that as well.

Watch for Control Issues

Partner demanding phone out of jealousyWhen is jealousy toxic? These fears, if left unchecked, can make the jealous partner try to control that feeling by controlling their partner. The thing about jealousy is that sometimes there can be the belief that if their partner makes them feel insecure (on purpose or not), they deserve to be punished for that, or taught a lesson (“If she makes me jealous, this is what she has to deal with”). Sometimes, partners were raised to believe certain things about the role of women or spouses. If you have a jealous partner and you are increasingly inhibited and feeling afraid of setting your partner’s jealousy off, or you yourself can’t get unstuck from being on guard and making demands, this is a sign that it’s becoming a bigger deal and you may need outside help. We all feel jealous at times, but toxic jealousy can be a symptom of other aspects of power and control issues in the relationship that need to be addressed, and rarely get better on their own. Click here for more information on controlling relationships.

When Couples Continue to Struggle

Our hope is that reading this post helps you realize that you are not alone — either as the person who experiences jealousy and anxiety about the security of the relationship or as the partner who struggles to truly understand the other person’s fears and concern.

When jealousy has taken a deep toll on the relationship, many couples can feel hopeless. Couples counseling may be an important step. Emotionally Focused Therapy offers a brief, proven approach to addressing conflict and the breakdown of communication.

Couples can learn to become more compassionate and understanding of each other while also learning to work through jealousy and other challenges that are limiting their closeness, joy and loving kindness toward each other.

 

Communicating About Sex: 5 Keys to Increased Closeness

happy gay couple communicating about sex Communicating about Sex is the main Pathway to more Satisfying Intimacy 

Communicating about sex – actually talking about what is going on, is so vital to a healthy relationship. Here’s why: Sex is an important part of a couple’s life. It’s a part of the emotional and physical “glue” that maintains a healthy bond between you.

Intimacy also can be a barometer of the quality of the relationship. What occurs — or is lacking — in a couple’s sexual life often reflects the degree that the relationship is close, secure and vibrant.

Communicating about sex with our partner also is a gateway to understanding our partner’s inner world — his or her vulnerabilities, self-confidence and his or her security about speaking up and making their needs known to their partner.

Also, communicating about sex is challenging for many couples — young and older, different cultures and different styles of being close to another person.

First, Respecting Your Differences

Successful communicating about sex begins with understanding and respecting each other’s uniqueness — including their responses to intimacy and their

communicating about sex and kink

sexual “landscape”. As unique people, we all have our own turn-ons and turn-offs, ways we want to be touched and how we respond to being approached for intimacy. Sex play and kink are wonderful ways to explore what your erotic landscape looks like, and what feels safe and sane to you. 

Men and women, also, have different sexual responses. Some women take longer to become aroused; men tend to worry more about sexual function.

Complicating the physical differences are emotional and cultural ones: What we learned about sex from our parents, our faith and our cultural heritage can impact how we feel about sex as adults.

If either partner has ever been a victim of unwanted sexual contact, the trauma can impact him or her into adulthood if not treated.

So, Communicating About Sex Really Matters

Given all these factors, couples truly need to be able to talk about sex!

One of my favorite quotes is from Barry McCarthy, Ph.D., well-known author, sex therapist and researcher: “The last person we talk about sex with is the person we are having sex with!”

It’s important to note that being intimate with another person can be the most vulnerable way of being close. Our basic fears can include fear of not being desirable enough, issues about our appearance, taking a risk when asking for sexual pleasure and fearing rejection. It’s a long list, isn’t it?

Passion is not a constant. Desire naturally waxes and wanes, with events, with the seasons, with health, with a thousand reasons.

These fluctuations, however, hit a nerve in most of us and, unless we can talk about them openly, can easily spark or heighten relationship problems. Many partners can tolerate infrequent intercourse, but they cannot tolerate feeling that their partners do not desire them. Dealing with such feelings is a challenge most partners have to face. –Sue Johnson, Ph.D., the primary developer of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy

Are Our Expectations Realistic?

Dr. McCarthy notes that realistic expectations are crucial to maintaining a vital sexual relationship. “It is self-defeating and harmful to demand equal desire, arousal, orgasm and satisfaction each time.”

Here are some statistics that can be helpful in understanding realistic expectations:

  • One in three couples struggle with different feelings about inhibited desire and differing amounts of desire for intimacy
  • Only 35to 45% of sexual experiences are very good for both people.
  • Twenty percent of sexual experiences are very good for one and fine for the other, and 15 to 20% are okay for one and acceptable for the other
  • It’s noted that 5 to 15% of sexual experiences are dissatisfying or dysfunctional
  • Seventy percent of women cannot reach orgasm from intercourse alone

How often to engage in intimacy is often a point of argument for some couples. However, the average frequency of intimacy is from four times a week to once every two weeks. New parents often experience a decline in desire because of the demands of caring for an infant.

The ability of couples to communicate about sex helps them avoid guilt or blaming and develops the ability to be resilient and try again when they are more receptive.

Now, Let’s Talk . . . About Communicating About Sex

Maintaining a fulfilling sexual relationship is vital to most couple’s relationship satisfaction. However, as we see above “sexual Sailing” isn’t always smooth.

Just as you initially became comfortable being intimate with your partner when your relationship was new, it’s as important to increase your comfort about communicating about sex and intimacy when concerns arise.

Here are five key points:

  1. If talking about sex is more difficult for one of you, say so! It’s true that fear decreases if we “name it to tame it.” Letting your partner know it’s hard for you to bring up an issue related to sex and that you need your partner to understand your challenges, allows both of you to help each other. Agree to “stand together” to maintain sexual vitality. Openly communicating about sex is, as we’ve said from the start, a major component in keeping intimacy loving and vibrant. Set aside couple time to talk — private time with no distractions (and no screens!).
  2. Let your partner know “the heart of the matter,” that is, your deeper feelings. Here’s what we mean:

Heterosexual couple communicating about sex

One partner feels he or she is always the initiator of sex. To help the partner understand, he or she expresses true, or primary, emotions: “I feel less desired, even sad sometimes, when I’m not invited by you for sex. When you reach for me, I feel even more loved and cared for. Can you help me understand how you feel about this?”

Another example: “I recognize I want sex more frequently than you. When I really think about this, I think I need to know you care for me as much as when we met. I’d like us to touch more, hug more, sit close on the couch when we watch a movie. That means so much to me — to my feeling loved and secure. What are your thoughts on this?”

Here, the partner is stating his or her deeper needs for connection. A request is being made and with a healthy dose of “why” and “meaning.” And, there is an invitation for the other partner to share, too.

The other partner can discuss concerns, too. “I think I’m afraid you’ll want sex, and so I know I stay more distant. I know we have differing libidos. Can we talk more about that, too? I think we need to develop a better understanding of what we’d both really like.”

  1. Accept responsibility for your sexual needs and desires. Your partner can’t guess (at least not always accurately) what you’re feeling. He or she needs to know so you can have a better discussion. As hard as it can be at first, discussions can become easier when they become a natural part of your intimate life. And, this is hard to hear, but the only person responsible for your orgasm is you. You are the one who turns yourself on or off (in your head, physically, etc), and it’s your job to make sure that your needs are being met. If your partner is able to be intimate, but not able to or willing to bring your to orgasm, that’s not their job. 
  2. There are no bad or broken people: Don’t make your partner feel defective, gross, or broken. If you want it and they don’t, or they can’t get an erection, whatever it is. Agree that it’s off-limits to point the finger and place blame. 
  3. Be curious about your partner’s needs. Realize that our sexual responsiveness can change over time with age, health, work pressures. Tuning into our partner’s needs and separating his or her needs from our own can help us lessen a fear of rejection when we reach for our partner to initiate intimacy or propose some new adventure together.

Says Dr. Johnson, “With this openness comes the sense that lovemaking with your partner is always an adventure. ‘Practice and emotional presence make perfect’ is the best guide for erotic and satisfying sex, I tell couples, [rather than] seeking endless novelty to combat ‘boredom.'”

For more about how to have important conversations with your partner, we suggest Dr. Johnson’s book for couples, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, (Little, Brown 2008).

To learn more about the difficulties that can result from avoiding conflict, click here.

To learn more about what Sex Therapy for couples or individual can help you with, click here. Kat offers complimentary consultations to discuss your needs and see if she is the right fit to address sexual and intimacy concerns with you. 

 

Recovering from an Emotional Affair

Discovering an emotional affair on your phoneIf your relationship is impacted by an Emotional Affair there are things you need to know

Lately, we’re hearing the term emotional affair more than ever. Perhaps the internet has made it easier to reach out to other people. Yet, an emotional affair can begin in the workplace or in any setting in which people interact, such as charity work and sports activities.

By definition, an emotional affair is a relationship outside of the marriage or primary relationship in which a person finds comfort, an emotional connection and often some sexual chemistry with this outside individual. Often, there is not any physical or sexual contact, but many times there is a strong feeling of connection. Many emotional affairs are only conducted online.

The problem lies in the fact that an emotional affair is “an affair of the heart.” Attention is focused on someone outside the primary relationship, the contact can be frequent (sometimes multiple times daily), and is often hidden from the spouse or primary partner. There may be sharing with the emotional affair partner about the primary marriage or relationship and its shortcomings.

There is a “pull” felt within the emotional affair. Starting as a friendship, the connection strengthens, boundaries may become less rigid, one or both may find their thoughts turn to sexual fantasies. The amount of contact escalates. In emotional affairs, both people typically feel compelled to be in touch, to share important thoughts and feelings and to look forward to hearing from the other — often with increasing frequency.

Discovery of an Emotional Affair Brings Many Strong Emotions

When the spouse or primary partner learns of the emotional affair, it may not matter whether there was a sexual aspect or overtones. The hurt is real, yet often not understood by the person engaging in the outside relationship.

“I don’t know what the big deal is. It’s not like we had sex. We’ve never actually even met in person.” Denial of the intent or extent of the emotional affair is a frequent first reaction.

However, the spouse or primary partner feels a deep wound. “Why did you need this other person?” “What was he or she giving you that I don’t?” “If it’s not a big deal, why have you hidden this from me?”

Arguments can escalate easily. Here’s why: The emotional affair is a threat to the emotional bond of your primary relationship. That bond is a powerful force that formed when the couple first met and romantic love developed. Because humans are hard-wired for close, loving relationships, any interference with the couple’s connection that had been formed between them feels like an emotional threat to the primary partner.

The anger and upset expressed after an emotional affair is discovered may mask the deep hurt that lies beneath. It’s important to understand that the hidden, secretive way in which emotional affairs take place add to the sting of betrayal and the new insecurity of the hurt partner.

Misunderstandings Abound About Emotional Affairs

A range of emotions typically surface when the couple attempts to resolve the hurtful feelings. These can include:Couple facing disconnection after an emotional affair is discovered

  • The person who engaged in the emotional affair feels overly accused and may minimize the spouse or primary partner’s feelings of hurt and distrust because there was no physical intimacy. Of course, the primary partner feels not heard or understood.
  • For the spouse, there can be a fear that, if not discovered, the emotional affair would have moved further — and into a sexual relationship.
  • The hurt partner can wonder why there was so much contact with this other person if the relationship “truly didn’t matter.” I’ve often heard partners complain that the other person gets more responses via text, email, or phone than they do. This hurts.

Despite the lack of real in-person or sexual contact, emotional affairs are a threat to the marriage because some needs were apparently being met in the emotional affair that were not fulfilled in the primary relationship.

An Emotional Affair Story

Carmen and Jim met at an art class. Carmen’s husband Michael was busy with work, plus he had minimal interest in Julie’s “crafty” pursuits. She’d go alone to craft fairs and art galleries or with girlfriends. Both had said this was okay, but Carmen really wished Sam would take more of an interest or that they would do more activities together.

She enjoyed Jim’s passion for painting as they talked in class. They began to have text conversations. Carmen found she could not wait to hear from him. She even felt anxious when there was a delay. She began to look forward to painting class even more. Carmen admits to herself there was a certain thrill in this new friendship — though she respected the boundaries of her marriage. After all, she truly loved Michael. It started as having a friend with a common interest, and even though there were warning signs, Carmen tried hard not to think that she was playing with fire.

Then Michael discovered the extensive texts on her phone, and he was devastated. So many of the texts were late at night — and some appeared to be a bit flirty. Michael’s hurt often surfaced as anger. The couple found they argued frequently over the emotional affair. This was the first major problem in their marriage, yet Michael could not recover. He felt his trust for Carmen was slipping away, and the more Carmen reassured him that she wasn’t having an affair, the more Michael felt misunderstood and protective of the relationship. Carmen began to feel suffocated by Michael’s reactivity about the issue. Michael started to feel like Carmen didn’t want to help him feel more secure in the relationship.

An Opportunity for Reconnection

After months of arguing, the couple sought help. They learned in counseling why the emotional affair was so deeply hurtful to Michael. Carmen began to understand the depth of his pain.

But more than only resolving the emotional affair, they were able to explore what was missing in their marriage. The strong attachment bond that brought them together initially had become more strained. Michael’s devotion to his career meant long hours away from home. Carmen did not know how to openly express her needs to Michael for greater closeness and more time together. Michael couldn’t understand why his career driven mindset didn’t illustrate how important Carmen actually was to him – he was doing this for them and their future, but he couldn’t nurture their emotional connection.

Unfortunately, the missing pieces in the marriage got filled with the emotional affair.

Carmen and Michael were able to revisit what kept them connected in the past. They had enjoyed hiking and attending local theater — and now needed to to re-prioritize their time together. They once had a daily ritual of having time together on the patio every evening to share their day and other thoughts. They needed to bring back the ritual that kept them in touch and close in the past.

Staying Close in the Digital Age

Couple having an emotional affair onlineCarmen and Michael were able to recover, fortunately. As with many couples today, there are tons of challenges to making the relationship a priority.

Longer work hours, especially when you are building your career, are very common. Working remotely or on weekends makes unplugging more difficult, mentally and physically.

Additionally, meeting the needs of children can become the priority more than the couple’s relationship. Parents want to be supportive of kids’ sports and other activities, but less and less time seems to be available for the couple to be alone together.

Recovering from an Emotional Affair

  1. Do not to underestimate the damage that an emotional affair can have. They can be as destructive as a physical affair, especially for partners who highly value an emotional connection in their relationship. Recovering from an affair is very similar to dealing with an emotional affair.
  2. Understand that to heal, you must feel. That means that if your partner is upset, you need to get it. Truly work to understand and feel their pain in ways that you can show that you are touched by the impact this has had. The worst thing you can do is tell your partner that the emotional affair wasn’t anything to worry about.
  3. Try to get underneath your anger or efforts to “fix” and communicate your needs clearly. Instead of accusing your partner of hurting you in anger, share your fears and hurts. Anxiety after an affair is common, and there are ways to address it.
  4. This is tough, but you have to stop the emotional affair. It’s best not to have any more contact with the person, but if that’s not possible because you work with them, put some boundaries in place. Your relationship won’t heal if you are continuing to poke holes in it.
  5. Seeking help is smart! Even for an emotional affair. If your partner doesn’t think that you need counseling just for an emotional affair, well that may be the first therapeutic issue we tackle. Reach out to a couples therapist, especially one who practices Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. Here in Denver, we are happy to chat with you about your couples therapy needs and see if we can be helpful at no charge. 

 

 

Boundaries for Couples: Healthy Holidays with Extended Family

Boundaries for couples often become strained during the holiday season.

We’re spending more time with our relatives and have added family expectations that surround holiday traditions. Without having clear boundaries for couples, you can wind up feeling frustrated and misunderstood. 

And, couples can face struggles with boundaries with in-laws and extended family throughout the year as well.

Setting boundaries for couples can be indeed challenging — and can be the source of hurt feelings, arguments and  unresolved conflicts. During our interactions with extended family during the holiday season, these long-standing issues often come to the fore.

So, we’re devoting this post to helping you understand the challenges you and your partner might be encountering (you’re certainly not alone in this dilemma), as well as helping you talk through boundary concerns in order to build greater understanding between you two.

“Setting Boundaries” Defined

Boundaries are the rules and limits we set for ourselves — and as a couple — in our relationships with others.

Healthy boundaries enable us to say “no” and set limits with others while also allowing us to have closeness and good, positive relationships. Examples include: sharing information in appropriate ways, being able to communicate your wants and needs and being able to say “no” to others and accept when they say “no” to us. We don’t feel we have to compromise our values to please others.

Rigid boundaries may keep us distant from others, may prevent closeness with others, both emotionally and physically. We may be hesitant to ask for help, we can seem detached even from our partner and we may keep a distance to avoid rejection.

People with loose boundaries may tend to become over-involved and concerned about others. We can share too much personal information, struggle with saying “no” and may act against our values in order to please others.

Setting Boundaries Can Be a Mixed Bag

Establishing healthy boundaries can be challenging for some people more than others. Much may depend on what we were taught or experienced in our families as we were growing up.

As we mature, we can examine our own ways of connecting to others and determine our own choices about setting boundaries for couples.

Different cultures may have varying traditional boundaries. Some avoid closeness; others freely share information, hugs and connection with family and friends.

Also, each family develops its own style or culture as well. Some families maintain closeness with extended family members, neighbors and friends. Others are more distant.

Types of Boundaries

Several different types of boundaries are common and can include:

  • Physical Boundaries are how we handle physical touch and personal space. Healthy boundaries include an awareness ofFamilies enjoying good boundaries what makes others comfortable and how much physical contact you welcome from others. Some of us are “huggers” and easily embrace those close to us. Some people are less comfortable with physical contact.
  • Emotional Boundaries for couples involve how and what we may share with others. Sharing information with friends and family members can be a cause of hurt feelings if not first agreed upon. Poor emotional boundaries can include criticism, blaming and put-downs of others.
  • Material Boundaries include how we handle money and possessions. If we feel pressured to lend money or an important possession (such as a car), our boundaries help us identify when to set limits.
  • Time is also a source of boundary confusion. How and how much time we spend with others can impact any relationship. Couples often neglect to have thorough discussions of how their time will be spent: Pressures to spend time with children and extended family members may leave sparse time for the couple to have alone together.

Boundaries for Couples: Understanding Competing Priorities

Our first, and most powerful, attachment bonds were formed with our parents. As adults, our most important bonds are established with our romantic partner.

However, the bond we formed with our parents, siblings and other family-of-origin folks, remains a powerful influence. We can find we are straddling between both significant relationships — family and spouse or partner.

Attachment bonds are strong and enduring — therefore, when there’s conflict of any type, the emotions can be strong and easily triggered when problems arise.

“In-laws and extended family members often require couples to navigate a three-way relationship,” write authors Brent Bradley, Ph.D., and James Furrow, Ph.D., in “Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy for Dummies.”

“You and your partner chose each other, but you didn’t choose your partner’s family,” they explain. “If you’re like many couples, you and your partner have to work at navigating the expectations of family members.”

Typical expectations of couples by their families can include gender roles (what’s expected of each partner), opinions about parenting, receiving or giving financial support from or to family members and participation in family rituals, such as holidays.

How Do I Matter? How Do I Fit In?

holiday boundaries for couplesSpouses and partners can feel hurt or less emotionally secure when it seems the other is siding with or giving in to their own family’s influence.

To understand why issues with boundaries for couples with extended families can create such strong emotions and conflict, it’s helpful to be reminded of the powerful emotional bond created when we met our partner and fell in love.

The strong bond we initially felt — and that continues to keep us close and connected — means that our partner is the one we reach out for in times of distress, the one we miss when we’re apart, the person we count on to be there for us.

This attachment, through evolution, is crucially important to our well-being. We feel more confident, we feel secure and we feel we are not alone in facing what the world sends our way.

“We are never more emotional than when our primary love relationship is threatened,” notes Sue Johnson, Ph.D., the primary creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy, in her book for couples, “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.”

So, it makes sense, then, that when we feel our spouse or partner’s greater loyalty is to someone other than us — even a parent, sibling or close friend — we question our importance to our partner and whether we’re indeed a priority.

Healthy Boundaries for Couples Don’t Just Happen

“Family relationships can be both a resource and a challenge for couples. Extended-family relationships may provide social, emotional and practical support, especially in the early years of a marriage. At the same time, these relationships can create obstacles between partners that can endure for years,” according to Drs. Bradley and Furrow.

Here’s a type of scenario:

David and Marie typically spend holidays with her parents because they live in the same town. But, during their visits, David feels Marie is so involved with everyone there — except him. He feels more and more like an outsider, even though he can carry his own weight in conversations with her extended family.

Still, he feels hurt. He wants them to spend more holidays with his family, even though it involves a three-hour drive. And, he wants Marie to stay closer to him on visits to her family.

David is afraid to speak up because he knows how important these family events are to his wife. Yet, he harbors a resentment.

David clearly has a choice: Continue the resentment or speak to Marie and share his deeper feelings that include hurt, sadness and a desire for his family to feel as important to the couple.

Of course, very little will change if David doesn’t risk having that conversation — except, of course, that his resentment can continue to grow.

Let’s look at some ways boundaries for couples can be better addressed.

Keys to Greater Boundary Understanding

  1. Take time and initiate conversations with your partner to build a greater understanding of each other’s family traditions and culture. What’s most important to each family? What are the long-time holiday traditions? How does the family value closeness? What are each family’s expectations of the couple?

There may be vast differences between each partner’s family. Understanding and appreciating those differences can enlighten each of you and help you feel more comfortable.

  1. Avoid sharing personal information with family members. If your relationship has some challenges, your partner may feel his or her privacy was violated if these issues are discussed with members of your family. Too, it can be hard to “erase” the perceptions those family members may have developed after you and your partner have resolved the concerns.

Confiding in family members can feel like a source of relief; yet, it’s also a major breach of the trust you have built with your partner.

  1. Avoid criticizing your partner’s family members. Keep in mind that your partner has an emotional connection to his or her extended family, and your criticism can be hurtful to your partner.
  2. Along with understanding more about your partner’s extended family, be curious how your partner relates to them. Families are complex, indeed, and the relationships your partner has can be important. The greater your understanding of the familial bonds, the easier it will be for you to accept and honor your partner’s feelings.
  3. Plan, plan and plan! Holidays also can be stressful times. Spend time before the holidays discussing how to support each other should family holiday stressproblems emerge. Discuss, as well, how you’ll stay close and connected to your partner amidst the many family events. How can you make some time for each other during the visits? What does each of you need from each other to handle any challenges?

We spend lots of hours and dollars on holidays. Yet very little time often is spent on discussing how to keep your relationship strong during all the many interactions, family expectations and kids’ needs.

Resolving Old Issues

Speak up — we know it’s difficult — about any past emotional wounds or hurt feelings. At the end of this post, we’ll link you to some other articles on how to do this. Resolving old painful events helps each of you stay in the present and enjoy the holidays with a new perspective.

Work to resolve old or unresolved issues between the two of you related to helping or accepting help from extended family members. These may include:

  • Asking for or providing babysitting
  • Financially helping your adult children
  • Providing care and financial support for aging families
  • Offering family help when siblings aren’t equally contributing

Honor Each Other’s Family; And Prioritize Your Partner

Remind yourself that the effort to connect and accommodate your partner’s family is one of the greatest gifts you can offer in your relationship. Your understanding, patience and acceptance — despite challenges — requires rising above the smaller issues and minor hurt feelings.

What is often at the root of couples’ issues and arguments about extended families can be basic and profound: Does your partner truly feel they come first? That they are your Number 1 no matter what?

When you met and fell in love, your partner became the most important person in your life. You doted on each other, spent as much time together as possible and built your own history of emotional and physical connection. That powerful bond is the force that keeps you close and is the foundation of your partner’s security.

He or she needs to know — and feel — that they matter most. Yes, extended family and your parents were your first emotional bonds. And, they were the foundation of your ability to form adult-relationship bonds.

Often what we find is that boundaries for couples become a source of hurt and conflict when the partner does not feel he or she is a priority. Consider the information above. It might be time to rewrite a chapter in your own love story of cherishing your partner while balancing the emotional ties to your own extended family.

More Help

Learn more about after-holiday resentments for couples. Read more about How to Communicate Effectively with your Partner. Learn more about Taming Holiday Stress

 

Dealing with Anxiety After an Affair: When Will it Get Better?

Anxiety After an Affair: Very Common and Very ChallengingAnxiety after an affair

Anxiety after an affair is a major obstacle for couples to work though, and, while common, can be a substantial challenge in the healing process.

What we’ve found in working with couples is that:

  • The amount of time for the anxiety to lessen varies greatly with the individual who was hurt by the cheating
  • The partner who went outside of the relationship may become frustrated because he or she is working hard to alleviate the partner’s fears, but can feel helpless as the anxiety continues
  • The healing process is most effective when both partners understand the challenge and are able to work as a team to address the anxiety.

In this post, we’ll aim to deepen your understanding of why anxiety after an affair is so challenging. We’ll then explore some ways in which partners can collaborate to ease the nervousness that has become so prevalent.

Not Unusual at All

Infidelity is a traumatic event in a relationship. Our biggest fear in relationships is losing our partner. This fear is the root cause of the anxiety and can result in varying types of actions as the hurt partner strives to be certain the connection is secure.

These typically stem from an intense need to know the partner is now faithful, and may include:

  • Strong desires to verify partner’s activities; “Why were you late?”, “You didn’t answer your phone or return my text for so long!”
  • A need to check the partner’s phone and email for any signs of improper outside contact
  • Behaviors seen by the partner as controlling: “Who are you going to lunch with at work?”, “When will you be home?”

Healing is hampered, often, because these fear-driven behaviors by the hurt partner are not understood by the offending partner. The behaviors feel demanding, overly controlling and totally distrustful. The offending partner may feel, “Will you ever trust me again?”

Stay with us here; we’ll help you understand the fear and what lies beneath.

At the same time, when cheating is discovered, the hurt partner experiences a range of emotions that can include:

  • Shame that he or she is inadequate to meet partner’s needs
  • Intense waves of feelings from sadness to anger to withdrawal
  • Insecurity about the relationship, often for the first time in the couple’s history together

Anxiety of the hurt partner can thus feel as if this worry and fear is taking over the relationship. And, at times, these fears actually do become a dominant force between the couple.

Anxiety After an Affair: A Deeper Understanding

When any difficult or traumatic event occurs, our brain is wired to now be on the alert. We are  suddenly more likely to be fearful about any sign of disconnection in the relationship. A person may now react quickly and automatically to any possible trigger related to the trauma.

At times, the hurt partner herself or himself can’t figure out why the anxiety persists and continues to cause such highly escalated emotions. The hurt partner may be trying to recover from the affair, yet still has strong urges to search for any signs of “danger” to the relationship.

“Her emotions go from zero to 60 in a matter of seconds,” a partner might remark. “I try to reassure her, but my attempts never seem to go very far.”

“He just doesn’t understand that I can’t just ‘move on’ and let go of all this anxiety,” is a common reply.

The anxiety on the part of the hurt partner can impede recovery because arguments often result from one partner feeling controlled and constantly questioned. The hurt partner then may feel their partner is defensive and insincere — and those responses can trigger a fear that there is something being hidden.

It’s important to realize that the hurt partner’s anxiety is a natural and very human response to a hurtful event.

We’re Hard-Wired for Strong Connections

Anxiety after an affair is so common because of the strong emotional connection that occurs when couples fall in love. We are drawn to our partner both physically and emotionally and a strong, powerful bond is created.

This human bond developed in early, primitive times to keep us safe from predators. We banded together in groups to be more secure. We then became bonded as well to one special individual.

Any disruption, or threat, to that bond can become embedded in the emotional center of our brain. Hence, those intense feelings of anxiety after an affair is discovered.

Because we humans learn to love deeply, we hurt deeply, too.

Understanding Anxiety

We most often find that both partners are struggling to cope with the hurt partner’s anxiety after an affair. After all, anxiety is unpleasant and often misunderstood.

Therefore, it can be helpful to understand more about the nature of anxiety so you can collaborate together in coping, rather than becoming more upset when the anxious feelings occur.

It’s helpful to know:

  • Anxiety varies greatly with the individual. How each person experiences anxiety can have a range of intensity, from mild to very extreme.
  • Anxiety can include an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, racing thoughts, difficulty sleeping, problems with concentration, stomach discomfort, chest pain, fatigue and a general feeling of restlessness and being on edge
  • Anxiety is often accompanied by unwanted, repetitive thoughts and compulsive behaviors — such as persistent questioning, a strong need to check the partner’s phone and email and a great need for ongoing reassurance
  • For some, anxiety feels like a sudden panic.

Anxiety is the body’s natural response to stress, fear and apprehension of a possible future event. Accepting and understanding this “natural response” can be quite challenging, however.

Coping with Anxiety

There are several self-care ways to assist in coping with anxiety. These can include:

  • Eating healthy, avoiding excess sugar, caffeine and alcohol, which can trigger anxiety in some people
  • Learn breathing exercises to help your body gain a sense of safety and security (which, in turn, helps the brain learn to relax). You can find several ideas on the internet, and there are a number of phone apps to assist you in learning to breathe for relaxation as well.
  • Exercise is very helpful for many to reduce anxiety
  • Working to get enough sleep, even though this may be more difficult after the affair discovery

In some cases, counseling and/or medication may be an important component of coping with anxiety after an affair if the hurt partner’s anxiety is disruptive to daily well-being and health and if the anxiety continues with intensity.

Healing Together

Coping with the hurt partner’s anxiety can be — and this may indeed seem contradictory — an important way of healing and a key component of affair recovery. You can learn to stand together in helping the anxious partner work through periods of anxiety.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Work together to accept the anxiety as a common occurrence after infidelity. Rather than “fighting” the anxiety (which creates even more tension!), acknowledge that anxiety will occur. Or, as therapists often say, “Name it to tame it.” You can both say, “Yes, it’s that anxiety again. We know it will happen.”
  2. If you’re the hurt partner, try to discover what will help reassure you. Can you request that your partner provide what you need? Is it a calming discussion, acceptance of your pain, reassurance of commitment to the relationship?
  3. If you’re the offending partner, avoid being defensive. This is critically important, as you’ll see in our related articles. Its helpful to learn to accept your partner’s feelings as genuine and that he or she is struggling to stay calm. You may not fully understand your partner’s emotions or anxiety; however, they are real and true for him or her.

The majority of couples seek to recover from infidelity. However, not all can heal without help. Counselors trained in Emotionally Focused Therapy have a proven roadmap for helping couples heal after a hurtful event. Seeking professional help may be the best path for this difficult phase of your life together.

More Helpful Posts

Because recovery from infidelity is such an important and challenging area, we’ve devoted several articles to this subject. You can read more about affair recovery  

If you’d like to book a free consultation to discuss healing after an affair, click here. Or, you can read more about our approach to Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy.