Coping with Stress

Why Couples Fight About Money — and How You Can Learn to Stop Arguing

why couples fight about money

Why couples fight about money often has deep roots in each person’s core beliefs that extend far beneath the dollars and cents of  finances and budgets.

The problem, however, is pervasive: Studies have shown that one-third of couples report money is a major source of conflict — and that arguments over money tend to be more intense and less likely to be resolved.

We’re going to help you understand those deeper beliefs of which you or your partner might not be aware. As we bring those to the surface, you’ll gain new insight into your money arguments. Then, we’ll offer suggestions on how to use that greater understanding to reduce or end conflicts about finances.

It’s Not Just About the Money!

John Gottman, Ph.D., the well-known author and developer of the Gottman counseling method, points out: “Arguments about money aren’t about money. They are about our dreams, our fears and our inadequacies.”

We said we were going deeper, right? Money in many ways defines who we are: how we dress, the social groups we join, the careers we choose, where we live, what we eat.

“Out of all the forces that determine our relationship with money, the most influential is our personal history — the melting pot of our childhood, teenage and adult experiences that have sculpted and re-sculpted our likes and dislikes about money throughout our lives,” Dr. Gottman explains.

Things to consider include:

  • As a child, was money challenging for your family? Did your parents struggle to pay bills, rent and to buy food?
  • On the other hand, was money plentiful in your family, but for your partner, the picture was far different?
  • How did you look upon other kids who had more than you when you were young?
  • Did your parents argue about money? Did a parent have a problem with gambling, spending too much or spending to keep up with their social group?

Research shows we do “inherit” or learn attitudes, values and beliefs about money from our parents and other family members.

Yet — and here’s the tricky part — we may not even be aware of our beliefs about spending and saving and why couples fight about money.

A Save vs. Spend Scenario

Bruce and Jerry found themselves frequently arguing about Jerry’s spending. Since combining their households, every part of their relationship was great — except the issues surrounding money. And, that “great” relationship was being negatively impacted because of increasingly frequent arguments.

Bruce was fearful of spending money. Jerry much less so. Bruce feared debt; Jerry felt some debt was just fine. As with many couples, they’d never discussed finances to any degree earlier in their relationship. After all, they both had good jobs and, now in their late 30s, enjoyed promising careers.

Yet, the tensions grew.

Jack and Jillian, on the other hand, had no longer argued about money — because they had become so frustrated because their attempts at discussions never ended in  any resolution. Yet the tension between them was eroding trust and confidence. Jillian had been labeled the “spender” by Jack, and he became accused of being the “cheapskate.”

Their negative cycle of arguing had been emotionally charged, indeed. Nothing was ever resolved, understood or changed. They felt stuck.

We’ll return to these couples, but first let’s focus on the true, deeper meanings that lie beneath why couples fight about money and finances.

The Meaning of Money — and How Differences Can Help You Understand Why Couples Fight About Money

Brent Bradley, Ph.D., and James Furrow, Ph.D., in their book, “Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy for Dummies,” cite four different ways partners in a relationship may look at money:

  • Security. We feel secure in our lives when we have stable finances.
  • Pleasure. Money is a source of the good life — we can buy nice things, be generous in giving to others and, it seems, buy some level of happiness.
  • Control. When we’re financially secure, we may feel we have more options and choices in life — where we live, work, send our kids to school.
  • Status. Money shows we’re successful.

But at the root of these differences and beliefs, can lie a major gap in how partners feel and the deepest root is often fear. These deeper fears that can contribute to why couples fight about money include  worry about becoming more disconnected from each other when both partners don’t share the same values related to money. Trust concerns can emerge when financial decision-making isn’t shared before expenditures are made.

Let’s Return to Our Two Couples

Bruce began to explore his fears related to money. He realized his concerns were heightened following the 2008 financial crisis when he’d lost his job in a major downsizing. He vividly remembers, like so many of his peers, when he was told his job was ending and then carrying out his box of personal belongings.

Jillian admits she likes to spend money. She grew up never feeling secure because of times when her parents struggled with housing and even having enough food. When she began her career, she enjoyed the new freedom of being able to buy things she both needed and wanted. Jack had a similar background but felt differently: He adamantly felt having a nest egg of savings was tantamount.

As couples explore the deeper meanings of money and learn more about why couples fight about money, they can bring to the surface those seemingly hidden emotions. This new understanding of self and partner can help them bridge the gaps in their differing beliefs.

“Oh, now I understand!” “So, that’s why you didn’t want to help me plan our vacations!” “I can now see why the bill for the new air conditioner really sparked a lot of fear.”

Why Couples Fight About Money: Learning to Defeat the Conflict

Healthy conversations about money are critical to learning how to handle finances together.

Financial experts suggest that before couples move in together, they ask each other:

  • Who will pay for which expenses in the household?
  • How will we handle unexpected bills, such as major house repairs?
  • How much debt do you have? How are you managing that debt?
  • What’s your credit score?
  • What will happen if one of us loses our income (job loss, illness., etc.)?
  • What are your beliefs about kids and money — allowances, school tuition, helping adult children?

Yes, these can be difficult questions to ask, and many couples will shy away from being this direct. However, learning to talk about money openly, frankly and calmly in the earlier stages can make reaching resolution to differences easier later on.

If a couple has been arguing about money, beginning the conversations about finances can be much more difficult. The chance to be emotionally triggered can be greater because of the negative cycles of arguing that developed in the past.

Moving Toward a New Understanding

We suggest setting aside time for these conversations that are without distractions and when children are not present. Plan on a series of conversations so you don’t become over-tired or too stressed. For guidance on having these discussions, read [link to Emotional Communication blog].

If the conversation becomes heated, slow down; take a short break if necessary.

And, we suggest starting off with the possibly easier questions of gaining a greater understanding of each other’s beliefs about money, such as:

  • What did you learn about money growing up in your family?
  • Were there times of financial difficulties? Was there great abundance of money?
  • How were these experiences different from those of your partner?
  • Were there any events growing up that were challenging around money — or other events, such as an illness, job loss, financial losses?

Then, you can try to get to some “present day” issues, which could include:

  • What deeper meaning does money have for you? Look at the information above: How do you each see money in terms of security, pleasure, control and status? Keep in mind there is no “right” or “wrong.” Try to avoid judging each other; rather, seek to understand what shapes your beliefs.
  • What makes each of you uncomfortable about money? What are your fears?
  • What are your values concerning teaching kids about money?

Your conversations may wander a bit and lead to tangents. However, good information may lie in the various stories you each recall about your “money history.”

Going Forward

Areas of difficulty for couples can include when one partner makes a financial decision without consulting the other; not developing a shared understanding of a budget; lack of clarity about who will handle the tasks of paying bills and financial decisions; and how to manage debt.

Consulting a qualified financial planner may also be helpful. That way, you’re getting professional advice that can help pave the way toward a healthier financial life.

Turning to Each Other

The arguments over money may have become a very dividing force between you. However, couples can learn to rely on each other when finances get tough.

If you’ve been able to bring to the surface your deeper (and possibly hidden from your awareness) beliefs and concerns related to money, you can use this new knowledge to actually strengthen your connection, such as:

  • Providing comfort and reassurance when your partner is distressed about finances
  • Problem-solve together to thoughtfully work out solutions. You were “islands” in the past; you can now work as a team.

Repairing Broken Trust

When couples fight about money, issues of trust may have occurred, including when:

  • One partner made a purchase decision without consulting the other
  • The amount of debt incurred was hidden or not disclosed
  • Bills didn’t get paid or paid on time
  • Finances were always kept separate when one partner preferred them combined and the other partner was hesitant

As noted earlier, issues about why couples fight about money often involve varied emotions. And, when couples fight about money, there often is an erosion of trust and confidence in the security of the relationship.

Therefore, some healing may be needed. You can read about how to gain some understanding about the impact of shame and find some general guidelines on communication.

Healing Shame as a Couple: A New Path to a Stronger Bond

healing shameHealing shame as a couple offers an opportunity to draw each other closer, to bring a new level of empathy and compassion to a marriage or relationship and to create a more secure, loving bond.

Sounds like a tall order, huh? Indeed, perhaps, but a worthwhile journey.

Shame keeps us from truly experiencing deep connection with another person and from fully experiencing joy. When we don’t feel good about ourselves, we are less likely to affirm others, to reach out to others or to feel compassion and empathy for ourselves.

However, learning shame resilience allows the joy in. Hence, the worthwhile journey. Here, we’re going to discuss how shame limits connection and the path toward healing shame as a couple.

The Power of Shame

Marie* was very controlled by her partner in her last relationship. Now, in her relationship with Devin, she becomes fearful of any signs he could be asserting control or being manipulative. As a child, her alcoholic father was critical and had very strict rules. Marie easily gets emotionally triggered when Devin makes even small requests — that they work on a budget together or when he tries to plan their vacation by making suggestions.

Alice and Jim have begun a negative pattern of arguing over neatness around the house. Jim gets easily upset with Alice when she leaves things around and when she’s not as tidy as he wants. Alice is frustrated because she thinks she’s accommodating Jim the best she can, yet it’s never quite enough.

The problem is that shame stays hidden, so we’re not fully aware of how shame affects us. Here’s the other part of these stories:

Deep down, Marie hides shame that she was not good enough or attractive enough to be an equal partner in her previous relationship. She also lacks confidence from her at-times chaotic childhood. Devin tries to reassure her, but Marie’s fears often lead to arguments and accusations that Devin is asserting control.

Jim was raised by a critical mother, and neatness was one of the ways he would try to get her approval. Though, no matter how he tried, his mother would find fault.

How Shame in Relationships Limits Connection

We can easily see how hidden shame impacts these couples. Unspoken shame has power; as we’ll soon see. Speaking about and sharing our deeper feelings is the weapon that can diminish that power.

Shame in relationships includes:

    • One partner putting on a facade or front to protect their image with their partner (and with others)
    • Keeping deeper feelings hidden to avoid having the partner or others find out about personal “flaws”
  • Connection can be blocked because of the “mask” we wear to avoid being authentic

Understanding “Shame Resilience”

Noted shame researcher Brene Brown, Ph.D., uses the term “shame resilience” to describe how we can combat feelings of shame. And, she says, resilience begins with developing greater empathy toward ourselves and toward others.

And, yes, we begin with ourselves (though as we discuss soon, our partner can help).

We tend to keep shame hidden — we are ashamed of our shame! And, the hiding of shame is what gives it such power. When we learn to face shame head-on and with empathy, we can begin to deflate its impact. “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive,” she writes.

Dr. Brown, in her book, “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead (Gotham/Penguin, 2012), she designates four elements of shame resilience:

    • Recognizing shame and understanding its triggers. Learning to recognize when you’re feeling shame and what events evoke these feelings.
    • Practicing critical awareness. Becoming able to see whether messages beneath your shame and expectations are realistic, attainable and what you actually want to be
    • Reaching out. “Are you owning and sharing your story? We can’t experience empathy if we’re not connecting,” she points out.
  • Speaking shame. Talking about shame and asking for what you need from your partner when shame surfaces.

In counseling, Marie shares her feelings with Devin, as well as her deep fears that she’ll lose the relationship. Now, Devin can make sense of her actions — and he can reassure her that their relationship is secure. She can begin to realize he’s not at all like the manipulator she felt shamed by in her previous relationship.

Also in counseling, Jim reveals his shame that lies beneath his demands of neatness in the home. Alice softens, and now it’s clear to her why their arguments can become so heated. With shame out in the open, they can work together healing shame as a couple with loving acceptance and kindness.

Healing Shame as a Couple Builds Connection

Sue Johnson, Ph.D., the leading developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy, points out the problems of keeping shame hidden. “[Brain] scans show that suppression actually heightened activity in the amygdala, ‘fear central’ in the brain.” People become more stressed and tense when we hold back negative emotions.

And, importantly, she notes, “The most functional way to regulate difficult emotions in love relationships is to share them.”

Think back to a time when you shared deep feelings with someone who was able to listen and respond with understanding. You probably felt lighter, a sense of relief. That’s the power of connection and the power of not containing and hiding shame. And, that’s the power of connection and how healing shame as a couple reinforces connection and trust.

Building Self-Compassion

One of the powerhouses of defeating shame is building our personal arsenal to diminish the hold shame can have on us. And, developing self-compassion is a fundamental tool.

A great resource is the work of Kristin Neff, Ph.D., whose work on developing self-compassion is well known.  Dr. Neff writes: “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?”

Self-compassion involves acting with kindness and empathy toward yourself when you are having a difficult time, experience a failure, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. “Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?,” Dr. Neff explains.

Her website, www.self-compassion.org, is rich with information, including a self-test that’s easy and helpful to complete.

Defeating  and Healing Shame Together

Let’s look back at our two couples. Marie and Devin can now stand together as a team to work toward healing shame as a couple and create a new level of empathy. Devin asks Marie to let him know when she’s feeling afraid.

They work at talking through her feelings, and Devin learns what triggers her shame, so he can now approach those “land mines” differently. Marie works hard to accept that her fears were developed in painful past experiences. She accepts that those were very challenging times.

Jim begins to accept his shame as driven from his past. As a couple, they have several healing conversations in which Jim sincerely apologizes for his actions and accusations.

Now that Alice has deeper insight into Jim’s behavior, she is able to forgive. They can become partners in defeating shame and building greater compassion for each other.

These couples made it emotionally safe to explore their inner feelings and the emotions beneath their behaviors. They sought counseling because they were stuck in trying to break the cycles of arguing on their own.

Emotionally Focused Therapy authors and trainers Brent Bradley, Ph.D., and James Furrow, Ph.D., in their “Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy for Dummies (Wiley, 2013) (yes, there is a “dummies” book for EFT!) suggest:

    • Recognize that shame is often colored by fear — a fear of being vulnerable, of not being fully accepted
    • If your partner becomes defensive, understand that shame is an internal battle with oneself. Your partner’s defensiveness may feel personal, so realize it’s not about you.
    • Show appreciation for the risks your partner is taking to reveal shame and the courage he or she is showing to step into such a painful place with you.
  • Validate your partner’s experience. You don’t need to have gone through his or her pain to understand your partner’s feelings.  Keep in mind that your partner’s emotional landscape may be different than your own. Allow them to be your guide by listening with compassion.

Healing shame as a couple is not easy for many. Yet, breaking through the barriers to connection that are the result of hidden shame can lead to new opportunities for closeness and joy together.

* Names and circumstances have been changed to preserve privacy.

How Couples Tame Resentments After the Holidays

After-Holiday Resentments for Couples: A Holiday Hangover Cure

After-holiday resentments for couples can take different forms and can leave couples struggling to recover their connection. Before we talk after-holiday resentments for couplesabout how couples tame resentments after the holidays, see what sounds familiar to you:

  • Tensions that occurred during holiday events still linger between you
  • Hurt feelings caused by extended family have an emotional toll
  • Too much alcohol led to escalated arguments, with hurtful things said to each other
  • Too many holiday activities and no time to relax and just be together
  • Holiday spending that went way over budget and now one or both of you is feeling stressed
  • More arguments because of any of the above!

We’ll help you understand how after-holiday resentments for couples can occur and, importantly, how to resolve any leftover hurts. Then, we’ll give you ideas to strengthen and renew your connection.

Unspoken Expectations: Often the Culprit of After-Holiday Resentments for Couples

Before the holidays, I wrote about Holiday Stress: 6 Keys for Reducing Couples Tension and Distress. Holidays often have hopes and dreams for us. We want each holiday to be special and memorable. In our own mind, we often have expectations . . . of our partner, of gifts we would like to receive, of how others will help us feel special at this time of year. Even if you try your best, the holidays can be a breeding ground for tension and resentments. 

And, therein lies the problem, unfortunately. Those expectations may be in our own mind, yet we have not shared our desires for the holidays with our partner. So, events unfold with the best of intentions by everyone, but those hopes and desires may not have come to fruition.

Holidays are important events. We plan, shop, decorate, gather family and friends together. But holidays unfortunately also can be fertile grounds for misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

The Ghosts of Holidays Just Passed

And, those hurt feelings can linger. If not addressed, the roots of resentment can take hold.

After-holiday resentments for couples typically stem from feeling disappointed in the actions or oversights of someone important to you. If that someone was your partner or spouse, it could feel as if the strong bond you share is somehow not honored or valued.

Resentment can remain beneath the surface of your awareness, but, unless resolved, remain a source of hurt and upset. Then, during a disagreement — often about an unrelated issue, the resentment is brought up by the hurt partner as anger and possibly accusation.

It’s not unusual for therapists to hear about resentments between couples that date back years, perhaps decades . . . even to the early days of the relationship.

Resentment Is Often Hidden, Yet Keeps Resurfacing

After-holiday resentments for couples are indeed tricky to understand. In fact, we may not be aware we hold a resentment. Yet — here’s the sneaky part — the feelings of hurt and disappointment may be affecting our behavior. Here’s how:

Christina felt Steve was aloof on their first Christmas together with her family — 8 years ago. Now, when they visit her family at the holidays,Christina feels she’s somehow upset with Steve. Of course, every bride envisions her first Christmas as near-perfect and even the smallest misunderstanding can feel larger in scope.

Steve felt he could not pleaseChristina with any holiday plans or gifts. Eventually, he stopped trying because he felt he would always fail.

In counseling,Christina finally and angrily talks about how she felt on that Christmas week so long ago. Steve suddenly has a deeper understanding of her. He explains, “I was so scared that day. You had planned the holiday down to each detail, and I didn’t want anything to go wrong. I wanted the day to be everything you wanted.”

Christina then remembers how shy Steve was around her family in the early years, and he begins to make more sense. “OMG! I wish I had known. I’ve been hurt and angry all these years.” Both realized they should have talked about this issue far, far sooner.

This example (names and circumstances have been changed, of course) may seem simplistic, but therapists who use Emotionally Focused Therapy are often witness to similar revelations.

Moving Toward Healing Resentments

If we’re holding a resentment toward our partner, we do have the opportunity to clear the air. Here are some helpful ideas:

  1. Be brave and take the risk to initiate the conversation with your partner. Softly tell your partner what’s bothering you. “Softly” is important here; if you’re angry, your partner or spouse may become defensive or not know how to handle your anger.
  2. Listen with compassion to your partner’s response. It’s important to try to understand his or her perspective and to hear new information about your partner’s views.
  3. Be curious. Encourage your partner to explain if you don’t understand their perspective.
  4. It’s certainly possible your partner’s explanation isn’t what you’d hoped. Perhaps he or she was insensitive to your needs at the time.
  5. Importantly, we’re informing our partner of our hurt feelings that we may not have shared. So allow him or her to absorb and reflect.
  6. Share responsibility. You’ve held in the resentment, and it may have grown. Your partner is unaware and may have unintentionally caused hurt feelings. Stand together to try to resolve the issue. Accept apologies and help each other reconnect and heal.

In some cases, couples do need the help of an EFT therapist, particularly when the negative cycle has been active for some time.

Reconnecting After the Holidays

Talking through after-holiday resentments is a great step. Then, it’s time to consider recovering your connection.

There are so many pressures on couples today that make maintaining connection a challenge: Career and work demands, active children and their scheduled activities, caring for aging parents and all the chores of maintaining a home. Holidays can add to that stress.

Successful couples make their relationship a priority. Unfortunately, there’s no one formula; each couple needs to find what works for them. Here are a few suggestions, however, to get you thinking:

  • Make a list of the best times when you’ve felt most connected. What were you doing? Where were you? How did you feel? So, consider putting into place these same activities on a regular basis.
  • What do you love doing together? A sport? Hiking? Cuddling on the couch with a good movie? These are items to consider putting into your “staying connected plan.”
  • Make time for intimacy (challenging with young children at home). The emotional bond is strengthened and maintained through intimacy.
  • Select a time each day for connection: perhaps over the morning cup of coffee; talking after dinner instead of watching TV; or go to bed earlier so you have time together.
  • Set boundaries with children that Mom and Dad have set aside special time for each other and to please save interruptions for a little later.

If the holidays contributed to disconnection, it’s helpful to realize this is a common occurrence for couples — and that, with a focus on reconnection, many couples can get back on track.

For more ideas on how to communicate with your spouse, read our post on Communication in Relationships.

If you’d like to learn more about Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy that we offer here in Denver and Longmont, check out the article about this effective approach to couples therapy.

Holiday Stress: 6 Keys for Reducing Couples Tension and Distress

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

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

Key #1: Plan and Talk First

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

Failure to plan can look (and feel) like:

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

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

Key #2: Set Boundaries Together

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

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

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

Key #3: Discuss and Agree on Holiday Spending

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the four questions:

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

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

Key#5: Define & Divide Chores & Tasks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reducing Holiday Stress for Couples: A Total Game Plan

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

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

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

Happy Holidays from all of us at Peaceful Life Counseling!

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

 

How to Control Anger in your Relationship

How to Control Anger: Yes, You Can Tame the Beast!

You’re not alone if you and/or your partner struggle with how to control anger in your marriage or relationship. Do any of the below sound familiar:?

— “One or both of us gets easily triggered when certain issues are brought up (such as his or her family, finances, challengeHow to Control Angers with the kids . . . even sex)”

— “The smallest things lately can lead to big arguments.”

— “My partner doesn’t seem to hear me, so anger is the only thing that gets his or her attention.”

— “When we argue, we often end up saying hurtful things to each other — and those mean statements linger and linger.”

— “We don’t like conflict, so we never resolve anything important. Then, it comes up later in anger.”

Emotions are part of being human and — of course — part of our relationship with our partner or spouse.

However, you can learn to tame the anger and turn feelings of hurt and disappointment into productive conversations that yield greater understanding of yourself and your partner.

In fact, you’ll learn that sharing our emotions with our partner is the best way to calm our heightened feelings and how to control anger. What’s complicated, though, is that our partner  actually can be the trigger for our anger and other strong emotions.

Understanding Emotions and How to Control Anger

There are two levels of emotions: secondary and primary. Understanding the difference is key to developing greater understanding of our partner’s needs — and to expressing our own requests in a healthy way.

Secondary emotions are ones we can see. These include anger, irritability, becoming quiet and avoiding, criticism, blaming and defensiveness. Secondary emotions show we’re upset, yes; but they don’t reveal the true cause.

The primary emotions are what push the secondary emotions that you see. The primary emotions are where the true meaning lies. The most common primary emotions in relationships are fear (of disconnection from your partner) and sadness and hurt.

Other primary emotions include: Hopelessness, feeling rejected, feeling not important or loveable, feeling inadequate to meet partner’s needs and feeling unwanted or unattractive.

All told, primary emotions are powerful. Yet — and here’s the tricky part — we ourselves are often are not aware of the primary emotions that are surfacing for us. Our partner can’t know either because all he or she sees are those secondary emotions.

Let’s See Anger in Action:

Drew is angry that Avery is repeatedly late and that he doesn’t call to tell her he’s behind schedule. When he arrives home, she lets him know how upset she is. Her voice is raised, and her facial expressions warn him that she’s furious.

The way out of this is, actually, both simple and difficult: Drew calms herself, and goes inward to try to understand why Avery’s lateness is so troublesome to her. She believes it’s because she gets afraid something has happened to him. Too, she feels maybe he doesn’t care about her or her feelings and is not respectful of her needs.

Avery feels bad, but he doesn’t know what to say. He felt he’d be even later — and Drew would be even angrier — if he took the time to stop and call her. In truth, Avery hates to disappoint Drew. He feels sad and anxious anytime he does.

Here’s the good news: Drew can let Avery know the real reason she’s upset. It’s about fear he’s been hurt and a fear she’s not important to him. Avery, in turn, can let Drew know that he feels both shame and guilt when he upsets her.

Tips for How to Control Anger

I’ll help you understand the basics of, first, how to calm yourself and, second, how to constructively discuss your feelings with your partner. I’m going to take you step-by-step through how Drew and Avery were able to get to the root of Drew’s anger.

To begin, one of the basic approaches of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, the most-effective approach to helping couples, is teaching couples to “slow down.”

When you’re upset, the emotions-control part of your brain is activated. Our responses to an anger trigger can be fast and furious with minimal forethought. But the escalated anger can cause our partner to shut down or become defensive and limit the potential to work through an issue.

You Can Learn to Slow This Angry Automatic Reaction

First, take a few moments to ask yourself some key questions:

  1. What was the “cue” or event that caused me to feel upset or angry?
  2. What deeper meaning did this cue have for me? (For example, “My partner doesn’t care about my needs.” “He or she is selfish.”  “I’m not important.”)
  3. What primary emotions lie beneath my anger? Sadness? Hurt? Fear?
  4. What do you need your partner to understand about your experience? 

Letting Your Partner Know Your True Feelings

This leads us to how you and your partner can learn how to control anger and have a very-different type of conversation. I advise couples to calm themselves first, avoid accusatory words or tone (such as “When you . . .”) and to remain curious and open about your partner’s feelings and his or her response to the issue you are raising.

After you’ve taken a few moments to understand how to control anger and answered the four questions above, you may be more calm. This way, your partner is less likely to become defensive as a response to your anger.

It may be helpful to take a few deep breaths, which tell your brain to become more relaxed. Also, try to let go of any negative assumptions you may have about how the conversation will go. Common assumptions could include, “We never get to the bottom of things” or “My partner never hears me.” You’re going to try a different approach this time.

Five Steps to Anger-Free Communication

Here’s how you can apply what Drew did to let Avery know how she truly feels when he’s late. There are some basic steps.

  1. Begin with your primary emotions. “I’m feeling so anxious when I’m expecting you at a certain time. I get so afraid that something has happened. It feels almost paralyzing. I get stuck in a circle of worry.”
  2. Allow your partner to hear what you’re saying. If he or she has questions, be calm and open to learning their thoughts and concerns.
  3. Calmly let your partner know what you need. “I’m okay with your being a little later if you let me know. I’d really appreciate you calling me. This way, I won’t worry and be angry if you’re behind schedule.”
  4. Again, slow down so you can hear your partner’s thoughts by asking, “What do you think?”
  5. If you both have agreed on a solution, restate your agreement and future actions you’ll take. “Thank you for understanding me! I’m glad you’re Okay with calling if you’re running behind schedule.”

Giving yourself time to tune in to your own primary emotions helps you get to the real root of the issue. Together you can “make sense” of your anger,  learn how to control anger and have discussions that lead to greater understanding and to resolving important concerns.

 

Angry familyA Few Words About Anger Out of Control

When anger turns to violence in a relationship, there is great cause for concern. The couple needs a physically safe environment in order to be able to have meaningful conversations and resolve concerns.

Importantly, children are impacted emotionally by violence in the home.

If there is violence in the relationship, this issue needs to be addressed. If you feel unsafe at home, you can reach out to local resources, including domestic-violence shelters such as Safehouse Denver that can provide assistance in how to get the help that is needed.

 

If you and your partner want to learn how to control anger in your relationship, our couples counseling can help you identify what’s really going on under that anger and how to communicate it in a way that doesn’t cause fights or shut each other down.

 

Counseling for Anxiety and Relationship Issues Actually Changes Your Brain

Help Ahead for depression and relationship issues'Did you know that counseling for anxiety and relationship issues (as well as a host of other things) can re-wire your brain?

Many people have heard of how the way that we think influences how we feel. And most of the time, the way we feel influences how we think. If we experience a worry, that can create a physical feeling of anxiety. This physical feeling and the fear that come with it cause us to do things that might not be helpful, such as worry more or avoid situations that cause us stress. Sometimes it’s the physical feeling that comes first. All of these things seem to be wrapped up together.

The same is true for conflict in relationships. It’s easy to go on autopilot and have that same fight with your spouse over and over, without ever wondering if there’s something that your brain has been trained to do. You feel nervous and defensive in your body, and you know there’s going to be a disagreement. So you go ahead an strike first.

All of this happens without even thinking most of the time. And the more your do and experience certain types of things, the more they are likely to happen.

Your brain chemistry changes with your experiences.

In science this is called brain plasticity, but what it means is very practical. It means that even adults have a tremendous capacity to change how their brains are wired, for the better. You can actually learn how to create an upward spiral for yourself that is even better than antidepressants or anxiety drugs. Sometimes these drugs can be a lifesaver, but pills alone never work at both the symptoms and their causes. When you learn how to re-wire your brain through powerful techniques learned in counseling for anxiety and relationship issues, you are not only learning how to address the causes of the problem with different behaviors, but you are actually changing your brain’s chemistry, much like an antidepressant.

The details of how your brain changes are too detailed to get into here, but think of it this way: If you drive a Jeep down a muddy road, you leave tracks in the mud. The more you drive through that, the deeper the tracks get. When the mud dries and hardens, you are left with hard tracks that the wheels of your Jeep will naturally fall into the next time you go down that road. Our thoughts, feelings, actions, and brain chemistry create these tracks. These tracks represent how our brains are wired to have a certain chemical and neurological makeup. It is within your power to create new tracks, and actually have different chemistry and neurology. This means a new experience with a re-wired brain. You aren’t destined to drive down that same path with those old brain wires if you have some help in creating those new tracks.

If you are interested in learning more about how to create real and lasting change through counseling for anxiety and relationship issues, we’d be honored to help. Call our Lakewood office now to get your  free consultation and explore what new tracks you’d like to create on your road to the life you want.