Emotions in Relationships: Learn to Deeply Understand Each Other

We All Want to Feel Understood

Last week, we explored the negative cycle at the root of couple fights. Now we will look at the emotions in relationships that

emotions in relationships

keep that cycle in play.  Understanding what is really going on for your partner the doorway to cool the fires of that conflict.

Emotions in relationships can be downright baffling for couples:

  • Why does my partner get so extremely upset about little things?
  • Why can’t we let go of past negative events?
  • When she gets upset with me, I clam up. I don’t want to say anything to make it worse.

Yet, on the other hand:

  • If I just hear my husband’s voice, I calm down and the bad day at the office doesn’t feel so troubling.
  • When I get a loving text from her, well, it’s hard to describe. I’m on Cloud 9!
  • During that crisis we were both afraid — but we knew we had each other. That’s how we got through it.

In this post, we’re discussing the role of emotions in relationships — why they can potentially be so painful with our partner, the role emotions play with keeping couples close and connected and how to better manage expressions of upset and disappointment.

The Brain: Our Most Romantic Organ

Yes, our brain actually is a “love machine.” “Our brain gives us a little dose of the cuddle hormone whenever we are physically near to those we love. In fact, just thinking about our loved one will trigger a rush of this hormone,” explains Sue Johnson, Ph.D.,  the principal founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy. She is talking about the hormone oxytocin.

When we meet and fall in love with our partner, the chemical reaction in our brain is spiked by closeness, touch, intimacy and orgasm. The brain’s reaction helped us bond — powerfully.

This strong bond also is responsible for our being upset (sometimes extremely so) when our partner disappoints us or when we feel distant and less secure.

The most powerful emotions we’ll have are with our partner. Both positive and negative. Therefore, understanding emotion in relationships is key to maintaining our bond, our happiness and our emotional security with our partner.

Strong Emotions in Relationships: What Are Your ‘Triggers’?

Counselors use the term “trigger” to gain an understanding of what sets off strong emotions. Our brain is designed to sense danger — and feeling less connected to our partner is a primal danger to that strong bond developed during falling in love.

Authors Brent Bradley, Ph.D., and James Furrow, Ph.D., in their book, “Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy for Dummies” list some powerful, common triggers for couples as:

  • Broken promises
  • Withdrawal of affection
  • Harsh criticism and contempt
  • Threats of divorce or separation
  • Defensiveness
  • Sorrow or sadness
  • Fear and uncertainty

What are your triggers? What types of feelings are a sure fire way to set you off in your relationship, and can you pair them with any of the above?

What We Learned About Emotions Growing Up

Our early impressions of the meaning of emotions can vary widely, depending on what we learned in our childhood from our parents.

Brad was taught as a child to stifle his emotions. His early cries for attention or comfort were often minimized by his parents. They felt little boys should learn to be tough and resilient, and they would often encourage him to “get over it” quickly and move on.

Now as an adult, Brad struggles to be open and vulnerable with his wife, to express himself when he feels hurt. He sometimes feels hurt because of something she says, or a feeling that she’s being inattentive or distracted. Rather than let her know how he feels, he bottles up his disappointment — which later comes out as anger and resentment when he can no longer contain his fear that he is not important to her. Deep down he feels like a childish, complaining, a weak man for even having hurt feelings. It’s (unintentionally) easier to be the angry guy than the sad one.

His wife, on the other hand, had parents who worked hard to be attuned to her feelings. They freely offered comfort and support and encouraged her in school and sports. She doesn’t feel stupid or weak for having those emotions and sharing them, so she doesn’t get why it’s so hard for her husband. She struggles to understand her husband’s emotions, particularly when he is angry and loud. “You just need to tell me when you’re feeling sad or hurt. I want to be there for you,” she’ll repeatedly remind him. 

what we learn about emotions in relationshipsGender and Emotions in Relationships

Sometimes, the root of our capability to feel comfortable with our own emotions lies in how we were regarded as  little boys or little girls.

Try as we might, gender differences often seep into parenting. Parents tend to be more protective of girls and more tolerant of their varying emotions. With boys, parents may lean toward helping their sons recover quickly from emotional upsets. While unintentional, boys can get the message that their emotions are to be held in, to avoid anger and to minimize feelings of hurt or uncertainty.

It can become challenging to look at our partner as an individual — with a range of emotions that benefit from expression rather than repression and to allow the open and safe discussion of feelings. As humans — male and female — we do seek to be heard and understood. Holding in our emotions stresses both our body and our soul.

Cultural Differences Can Impact Expression of Emotions

Depending on our background, we may have learned to be more open — or more closed — about expressing feelings.

Some cultures foster a more restrained expression of emotions. Others can be rather forthright.

And, each family within a culture is, of course, unique.

Having a discussion with your partner about how emotions were regarded in your families can be helpful. This is not intended in any way to place blame on our parents; but rather to honor the differences you each learned from your families and to deepen your understanding of each other’s approach to expressing emotions. Did you have a family that allowed emotions to be expressed? Or did having strong emotions mean that you weren’t in control, were being a burden, or selfish? 

Opportunities for Growth for Both of You

Learning to understand and express emotions in relationships appropriately with our partner offers ways for us to grow both personally and as a loving partner. We can:

  • Build greater self-awareness by becoming more insightful into how and why we react to those triggers we’ve identified
  • Become more open in expression of our wants and needs with our partner in healthy ways that increase connection
  • Enhance our ability to regulate our emotions by sharing with our partner when we feel sad, hurt or uncertain
  • Increase our knowledge of how to reflect on our emotions, to reach a greater understanding of what pushes our buttons and how to more genuinely react to stressors, disappointment and hurt feelings by learning to speak up to our partner in positive ways

Writes Dr. Johnson in her book, “Love Sense,”:

Learning to love and be loved is, in effect, about learning to tune in to our emotions so that we know what we need from a partner and expressing those desires openly, in a way that evokes sympathy and support from him or her.

When this support helps us balance our emotions — staying in touch with but not being flooded by them — we can then tune in to and sensitively respond to our partner in return.

We learn to regulate our emotions by sharing, not stuffing them.

Emotions in Relationships in Action

Brad is learning to trust his wife with his emotions. He’s had a rough day at the office. In the past he would come home, play some video games to decompress and try to avoid (and hide) his feelings.

Now, he can “download” his thoughts and feelings: “It was crazy today,” he begins. “I had to juggle calls between my own clients and the two people who were on vacation. I finally was able to eat a protein bar at 3 o’clock. I think I need to speak up again to my boss about how we handle the workload when people are out.”

His wife listens, and touches his arm, then takes his hand. She knows she can’t fix the work situation, but she provides comfort.

Brad adds, “I worked hard today to not get too stressed. I’d just take a few breaths and keep going. But it was hard — and there are two more days this week when I’ve got the same situation.”

His wife gives him a hug and asks, “Anything I can do to help?”

“I think you just did,” he replies, hugging her back. He relaxes, feeling more calm and ready to have dinner together.

Learn More About Emotions in Relationships

We encourage you to read about emotional communication for couples, you’ll find additional information to help you better understand how to get your point across with your partner.


Couple Fights – Understand the Hidden Roots of the Pattern

Getting to the Bottom of Why Couples Fight

Couple Fights are one of the main reasons that couples seek marriage or couples counseling at our Denver practice. They Couple recovered from couple fightdon’t understand why their communication often results in fighting, and they want help to get out of their patterns.

Couple fights often actually have a pattern: The most common is when one of you wants to talk and reach resolution, but your partner shuts down.

This in turn leads to greater frustration — and often more anger — as one of you needs to “talk it out” and the other seems to refuse, to not “care enough” to work things out.

If this sounds familiar, you could have one of the most common couple fight patterns.

And, if you’re the one who pursues your partner to talk and stay engaged in the discussion, it probably sends your frustration though the roof when your partner is silent or leaves the room. y

If you’re the one who withdraws from the argument, you may be confused and frustrated about that your partner can’t calm down or let the issue go. The arguments seem to go on and on with nothing getting resolved.

We’re going to help you get to the bottom of these ongoing behaviors in couple fights and to open the door to greater understanding of each person’s reactions. Understanding your partner’s experience is the first step to ending those “endless arguments.”

What Lies Beneath: The Deeper Emotions of the One Who Won’t Let it Go

In Emotionally Focused Therapy (or EFT), the leading and most-successful approach to helping couples in distress, we know that the person who keeps wanting (and needing) to talk may actually be feeling many things under that anger:

  • Unimportant to their partner, not wanted
  • Afraid of abandonment or betrayal
  • Hurt or shame for feeling rejected when they want to talk
  • A fear of not being truly loveable
  • Afraid of being dismissed

When there is tension in the relationship, the partner who pushes for talking and answers feels fearful that the relationship is in trouble, that they will lose their partner. They are reaching for — and longing to feel — close and connected.

When a couple’s fight has ensued, those core issues and the need for reassurance become overwhelming. The partner who pursues to talk needs to know the relationship is secure. Beneath the anger is often anxiety and fear and difficulty coping with now knowing where he or she stands.

We call this person the “pursuer”, the one who calms their distress by trying to work it out in the relationship. Pursuers often get labeled as “too emotional” and too easily upset. Yet, this partner tends toward open expression of his or her feelings. Often times, we don’t see the hurt or fear, only the anger, but the root of it is always an anxiety about the eventual consequences of letting things crumble before their eyes. 

Understanding the One Who Disappears

The person who disappears, by actually leaving or just not saying a word, is a frustrating mystery for the partner to understand: “Why won’t you just talk to me?” “If you really cared, you’d listen and not leave the room.” “If my needs were important, you’d talk to me!” We call the one who tends to calm things down by “not trying to make things worse” the withdrawer. 

However, what lies beneath for the partner who avoids arguments are some profound feelings as well, that may include:

  • Sad about letting the partner down
  • Fear of rejection for always failing to meet the partner’s needs
  • Not wanted or desired
  • Judged or criticized
  • Ashamed for not feeling accepted as they are
  • Hopeless about how to solve the issue at hand or convince their partner that they aren’t trying to fail

lesbian couple counseling denverMatchmaker, Matchmaker, Make me a Match

85% of couples have one partner who pursues, and one who withdraws in couple fights. Some couples are are two withdrawing types who may be proud of avoiding arguments. Not talking about important issues can be fertile ground for building resentments. Other couples are made of two people who aren’t afraid to jump into the ring and defend their own position until the cows come home, attacking each other’s viewpoints. The point is, there is a pattern of interaction. 

Damage of the “Negative Cycles” in Couple Fights

In EFT, we call the patterns of couples’ arguments and distancing a “negative cycle.” It’s a cycle because it can repeat itself like Groundhog Day. After months or even years of repeated arguments, couples often see their partner as “the problem.” It’s an easy trap to fall into. After all, if your partner would just respond differently, you’d be able to reach some agreement on issues that matter.

However, the true “enemy” here is the negative cycle itself. This pattern activates like auto pilot and leaves hurt feelings and  resentments. It often feels like an impossible mismatch. There is hope! Couples can learn to stop the negative cycle and to talk calmly about their concerns in a way that actually helps them feel closer. 

What is Actually Happening in this Negative Cycle?

When couples’ arguments escalate, both partners’ emotional brains fire up: The one who pursues desperately seeks contact – you could say that they are in “fight” mode. The withdrawing partner is in “flight” mode, seeking relief from the partner’s fury.

So, when “fight” or “flight” are in full force, hurtful things are said, name-calling can be harsh and painful. These emotional scars can last unless the couple is able to apologize and forgive.

What is the fight for, and what is the flight from? It feels like each other. But what is actually happening is that it feels like the relationship is at risk. When we fall in love, a powerful bond sets into motion. It is a feeling of being special to someone and a powerful emotional and physical attraction. 

When you’re upset with each other, that strong bond feels at risk. In caveman times, anything that threatened your connection with your important people was literally a life or death threat. Our brains evolved to see relationship conflict as a matter of emergency, even if you aren’t consciously thinking in those terms.

And, over time, when couples’ arguments occur frequently, it can take less and less to trigger emotions (even a raised eyebrow, a “look”) . . . and they’re off to another negative cycle.

Reaching a New Understanding of Your Couple Fights

Given all this information, you can see that couple fights:

  • Are the way our brain reacts when our partner — who is so very important to us — seems distant or upset
  • Each of you may react quite differently when you’re feeling disconnected
  • The negative cycle is your true enemy — not each other. When couples’ arguments are taking place, what both partners actually need is reassurance that their bond is safe (by knowing that their partner cares enough about them and the relationship to slow down or engage)

Most importantly, couples can learn to exit the negative cycle and talk about their concerns, hear each other calmly and work toward a resolution. That’s what our Denver Marriage Counseling speciality is. 

In a related blog, we outline the proven approach that is part of the EFT process. Couples learn to slow down their emotional brains, to listen without reacting so each partner is fully heard and then to calmly discuss their differing viewpoints.

Couples also learn to speak from their “deeper” emotions — those feelings of hurt, sadness, fear of disconnection that lie beneath the anger, frustration and withdrawal that the “surface” emotions that your partner sees.




Affair Recovery: Yes, There Is Hope

affair recovery is possible

What You Need to Know About the Stages of Affair Recovery

Affair recovery is one of the most challenging events in a couple’s life. We could have guessed that affairs remain one of the leading causes of divorce or ending the relationship, but did you know that the majority of couples experiencing infidelity choose affair recovery? So if this is you, read on. 

So, it makes sense that how the couple moves toward affair recovery is critical. The quality of the healing process can be a factor in whether the couple can be successful in rebuilding trust and connection. The tricky issue is that there are some predictable obstacles that need to be navigated skillfully along the way.

Fortunately, there is a foundation of research and best practices related to what is most helpful to couples who seek to address the hurt and sadness that emerges after infidelity is discovered.

What to Expect During Affair Recovery

We think it’s helpful for couples to know what’s involved in affair recovery and to offer hope. After all, 70% of couples choose to stay in their relationship. 

In Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, the most-researched and most-successful approach to helping couples, there are three components of affair recovery:

  1. Coping with the strong emotions when infidelity has been revealed
  2. Understanding the affair and why it happened
  3. Rebuilding trust

The healing process itself presents multiple challenges. According to Sue Johnson, Ph.D., the primary developer of this therapy approach, couples may try to avoid the painful process by ignoring or avoiding any painful discussions. “This is a big mistake,” she writes. “Unresolved traumas do not heal. . .What partners need is a special type of healing conversation that fosters just just forgiveness but the willingness to trust again.”

Yes, there will be strong emotions by the hurt partner. The offending partner may be defensiveness and frustrated by unaccepted apologies. There is quite often a roller coaster of ups and downs along the way.

However, while difficult, recovery can be possible when both partners are willing to work toward a new understanding of their relationship, both past and present.

Understanding the Emergence of Anxiety

The hurt partner may, perhaps for the first time in the relationship, express periods of intense anxiety about the security of the relationship.

This anxiety by the hurt partner can take many forms, including:

  • Heightened concern about the partner’s whereabouts — where they are, with whom, when they’ll be home
  • Anxiety about lag time between returned phone calls or texts
  • Whether the affair is still going on and whether there is any contact with the affair partner
  • Questioning their own self-worth or attractiveness

Unfortunately, this anxiety may appear to the offending partner as accusatory in nature. All that’s visible are anger or attempts at controlling. However, (and this is important!) beneath this anxiety is an intense fear by the hurt partner that he or she is no longer important or loved or that the relationship is no longer valued by the offending partner.

Anger & Withdrawal Can Be Heightened

Emotions are very escalated in the early days and weeks after affair discovery. When couples meet and fall in love, they form a powerful emotional bond. So, the anxiety just described as well as anger and rage are part of the emotional upheaval. The hurt partner may also withdraw. They may not want to speak to their partner, feeling too wounded to even face or discuss the situation.

What couples may fail to see during the early phase of affair recovery, however, is that this period of emotional turbulence reveals how important the relationship or marriage is to both partners. Attempts by the offending partner to apologize or explain are not yet received by the hurt partner, and this also contributes to the emotional roller coaster. This can feel like endless promises and apologies. The partner who stepped out of the marriage is trying desperately to reassure their hurt partner, but the hurt isn’t going away. 

“Tell Me Why!!”

This phase may be blended with the first one, but tends to mark some calming of the powerful emotions. The hurt partner is angry, hurt and sad; however, the need to know why the affair occurred typically is extremely strong.

Yet, talking about the affair remains challenging. Some couples start out with calm discussions, but may find the emotions escalate as conversation continues.

We know from research that disclosure of specific sexual content that occurred with the affair partner is harming and may increase the trauma. The hurt partner might still feel it’s very important to know these details – leading to a tough cycle of a need to know more and that knowledge being really traumatizing. 

The hurt partner will want to know other details: How did the affair start, how often did they meet and where. And, what were the offending partner’s feelings about the affair partner: Was there an emotional connection? What was the meaning or purpose for you to go outside the relationship?

It’s often helpful that the hurt partner can be reassured the affair is over. Access to the partner’s phone and email can calm anxiety as the hurt partner is able to see that there is no further contact with the affair partner. This transparency can be a part of affair recovery for many couples. It isn’t a permanent solution, but if it can be seen as a way to offer reassurance and soothing instead of being a way to feel watched and controlled, it can be helpful. 

Helping to understand the “why” is inherently difficult. SOMETHING made the relationship vulnerable to this. Closeness and the quality of the relationship may have been eroding for a long time. Less attention and importance may have been placed on the relationship and on each other. Differences on key issues may not have been able to be resolved by the couple, creating a distance between them. 

In exploring the “why”, it can often feel like the hurt partner is being blamed for the affair by having contributed to the problems in the relationship. The harsh reality is that it takes two to tango, and the hurt partner usually has contributed to the problems. It doesn’t excuse the hurt of betrayal, but if you want to recover from the affair you must look at what brought you there. Naturally, it may take the hurt partner a while to accept the “why” of the affair. Keep in mind that trust, right now, is extremely fragile.

Uniting Against the Affair

Denver Couples Counseling

During the “why” phase, couples have an opportunity for discovery:

  • The offending partner sees how deep the wound was for his or her partner, opening the door for a renewed understanding of how important they are to each other
  • Together, the couple can discover areas of their relationship that need to be strengthened. Has more attention been focused on the kids than each other? Have jobs and careers become too important at the expense of the relationship or marriage?
  • Have unhealed previous hurtful events in the course of the relationship created a wedge between the couple? For example, if a partner felt their spouse was not there for them during a difficult time, a distance may still remain if this was not addressed

The couple can begin to learn how to strengthen their bond and to once again make their marriage or relationship a priority. This is what we do a lot of in our Denver Couples Counseling practice. 

Forgiveness and Renewing Trust

It will never be possible to erase the affair from the couple’s story of their relationship. However, affair recovery helps the couple move the painful event from the intense emotions and hurt to a place of understanding and of renewed commitment to and enrichment of the relationship or marriage.

The hurt partner can become more willing to take risks and trust again and to reach for his or her partner for reassurance. These risks mean the hurt partner is willing to be vulnerable and, importantly, to make his or her needs known to the partner.

The injuring partner’s apologies are beginning to be accepted. What the hurt partner needs to hear is threefold:

  • That the injuring partner is fully aware of the pain that was caused
  • That there is great and sincere remorse for the infidelity
  • That the injuring partner is willing to offer both comfort and patience

Prevention as Part of Affair Recovery

It’s not uncommon that couples who seek counseling in our Denver Marriage Counseling practice for affair recovery to begin to find a new closeness and openness in their relationship. The Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy process helps couples deepen their connection, as well as learn to resolve challenging issues or differences.

It’s important the couple also work to resolve any past issues that were creating a wedge between them. If these differences were causing arguing and disconnection, part of staying close — and affair prevention — is to not issues continue and possibly contribute to resentments.

When couples work to recover from an affair, says Dr. Johnson, “. . .they become increasingly confident that they can shape their relationship and steer it through any crisis. They have a safe haven and a secure base together.”


At End of the Day – Don’t Give Up

This is not an easy process, it takes a real committment to heal and change. But, if you are facing affair recovery and wonder if it’s an absolute death sentence for your relationship, it doesn’t have to be. To learn more about some aspects of affair recovery, you might want to read about dealing with after affair anxiety and what to do after cheating is discovered. If you are curious about what Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is and would like to learn more, click here.


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.