DON’T BE A THERAPIST WITH ME!

Working with couples, it is not uncommon to hear similar complaints from different clients. This is not unusual, because the unifying issue for ALL couples who come to me is that they are disconnected. This does not mean that they don’t love one another, instead it means that they have run into any number of differences that are making things, including loving one another, difficult and causing them to turn away from each other.

What is disconnection? In simplest terms, it refers to when you no longer see your partner as your teammate–instead you see them as a threat, an enemy, someone you can’t trust, someone who is not on your side. This happens to everyone at times, not just those who have negative experiences in their past. Our brains are wired to push back when presented with something we don’t understand, that seems too unfamiliar, or that suggests a betrayal. Our goal is to protect ourselves. We do this by disconnecting: pushing the other away or shutting them out of our emotional life.

The problem with this is that it doesn’t work! At least not if you want a relationship that can handle the inevitable difficult conversations as well as the individual growth and changes each partner experiences. So what do I tell these couples who are wanting to reconnect but don’t trust one another? I tell them to start acting like a therapist with one another, though I may not use those exact words. Let’s look at what I mean…

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BAD AND GOOD THERAPISTS: As students, we are told in graduate school that clients don’t benefit from one therapeutic theory/approach more than another. What actually creates change in the room is the relationship between the client and the therapist. This relationship is professional, but it is also a kind of friendship with boundaries. And the important elements of this relationship include empathy, curiosity, and caring from the therapist toward the client.

You might say that these elements make good therapy. What then makes a good therapist? Is it simply the application of empathy, curiosity, and caring? Well, yes, but it has to be genuine.

I will freely admit that there are days when I wish I could go on a bike ride rather than see my next client, but when that client shows up, it is my responsibility to him/her/them to show up authentically–to do so otherwise would betray the trust they have in me. Fortunately, the work always pulls me in, regardless of what I was feeling before the session, because “caring” is a form of mindfulness: bringing oneself into the moment. When I am truly in the moment, caring, there is no place I would rather be, even if it is a good day for a bike ride!

The difference between a good therapist and a bad therapist is that a bad therapist will fake it in the moment. Showing up for someone does not always mean that you want to be there, it simply means that you truly show up, and people can tell when this is happening. We do this for others because, hopefully, we know that others will do it for us. And I remind you that showing up for someone, being needed, is what lends meaning to our lives.

THE BENEFIT OF BEING LIKE A “GOOD THERAPIST” IN YOUR RELATIONSHIP: When a therapist is able to shift into the moment and offer genuine caring, both the client and the therapist benefit! When two people are in the moment with each other, that connection is where healing can occur. The good news is that this healing connection is not only available in the therapist office–you can get it in your personal relationships as well. But sometimes partners need to learn how to do this with each other.

When I talk to couples about the benefits of learning how to truly listen to one another, I can see the doubt in their eyes, because most would rather problem-solve than listen. I then tell them that listening well, when your partner is in pain, is much easier than trying to solve the problem, and it actually works! Easier for the listener, more helpful for the talker. I have nothing against problem-solving, but couples rarely come to me because they are struggling with that–mostly they don’t know what to do if problem-solving is not called for.

Listening to someone we care about when they are in pain or upset with us can be difficult, but the best way out of that difficulty is to turn on your caring and your curiosity. This approach will not only lower the upset in the talker, but will also lessen the feeling you have of being powerless, criticized or attacked. It works because the highest form of caring is interest, not fixing.

This can require some re-wiring of our brains, as many of us are conditioned to fix when we can. We all grow up hearing the phrase: “Don’t just sit there, DO something!”, but in relationships the opposite (Don’t just do something, sit there!) is what is most helpful when feelings are being discussed. Pain is eased when we are supported, listened to, empathized with, and not judged. All of this can be accomplished by simply sitting with someone, perhaps asking what they need from you, and then doing exactly that.

The benefit is that you end up strengthening connection, trust, safety, caring, and understanding. 

APPLYING THIS TO YOUR RELATIONSHIP: So why don’t couples do this with one another? The simplest answer is because it is not natural for us to respond this way when we feel threatened or are upset–this is the reason we rely on our therapists! Therapists have an easier time responding with caring and curiosity because of their training and also the professional boundaries that help the therapist to lean into the caring without taking any behavior by the client personally.

(Additionally couples don’t do this because they have not built a safe and secure foundation of trust through consistent small acts of caring, but that is a topic for another essay.)

The reason for learning how to act like a good therapist with your partner is two-fold: it is good for the relationship, and it save you from having to spend money anytime on therapy anytime you have a conflict that you cannot resolve easily.

Why are partners hesitant to accept this approach from their partners? Well, the reason I notice most often is because so many people don’t trust caring. They grew up not being cared about, or at least their emotional world was not cared about, or worse yet, they were betrayed by the one responsible for caring about them. This type of experience can wire the brain to be suspicious when someone is curious about your feelings–but with a therapist you might feel like you are on equal footing because you are paying for the service (you have the control).

In a relationship, you might not feel in control when your partner starts to inquire about what’s going on with you, IF they inquire at all! And often the inquiry can feel disingenuous or condescending to us, even when genuine, and we suspect that there are ulterior motives for the questions. This is the time to take a deep breath with a slow exhale, and see if you can access your feelings and express them.

Answering questions about out inner life requires that we take the risk of being vulnerable and trusting in front of the person doing the asking, and that can be hard if we are upset with them in the moment. But it CAN be done! Like any skill that is not natural (a new language, playing a musical instrument, baking sourdough bread), it takes practice, patience, and humility, three qualities that are in short supply these days. But just because there is a disease in society does not mean that you have to bring it into your home.

The next time you feel like your partner is “being a therapist” with you, pause for a moment and ask yourself if they may be trying hard to care about you by showing interest. Help them out–if they are pursuing a dead end let them know, and tell them what road you are on, even if you are “lost”. These are the conversations that bring couples closer, build trust and safety, and heal past wounds, and you don’t need to be in a therapist’s office in order to have them!

DOES YOUR RELATIONSHIP MAKE YOU A BETTER PERSON?

Do you like who you are in your relationship?

I ask this question because, despite what many think, relationships rarely end because we fall out of love with the person we are with–more often breakups happen because we don’t love who we are in the relationship. What makes us fall out of love with ourselves at times in our lives? For our purposes I want to focus on the words, thoughts, and actions that can work against our values. 

When we engage in behaviors that don’t align with how we prefer to be in the world, we become unsettled, and the easiest way out is to look for someone to blame for this unpleasantness. Guess who usually gets the blame? When something happens in the world that keeps us close to our partners for long periods of time, unsettled feelings can get triggered and magnetized. What do we do with them? How do we talk to our partners about what we are feeling without projecting blame? When do we know if talking will help, or if we should just break up?

Believe it or not, the most helpful approach to answering these questions begins with looking at yourself, not your partner. This is because our responses and reactions tell us a lot about how we experience the world, and if we are not satisfied with the results of that perspective, then we have an opportunity to change it. There is a greater chance for success with changing the self than there is with changing someone else! The challenge is that changing the self is hard and sometimes more painful than trying to get someone else to change, but it is the only way I know that works for the long run. So let’s look at how we determine where the change needs to happen: in us or in the state of our relationship…

FOR BETTER OR WORSE: As I wrote above, we often break up because we no longer love who we are in our relationship, meaning that we don’t like how we are responding to what we don’t like in the other. When we say that we promise to stay together “for better or worse”, we are actually talking about the future state of the other, the relationship, and ourselves.

In the courtship phase it is easy to imagine sticking with someone for the long run because the version of that person in the moment is quite enjoyable. This makes it easy for us to show up as caring and kind to the other–we are our best self. We love our relationship most when we feel like a better version of ourselves in it–not so much when we feel like a worse version! 

What factors into these opposing experiences of the self? It is not difficult to be a better version of ourselves when the relationship is humming along nicely. Not so easy when going through a rough patch. Why is this? Often it is because rough patches trigger our fears, vulnerabilities, and in worst case scenarios, our negative beliefs about ourselves. When this happens, our better self, the one who acts lovingly toward our partner, disappears, and our priority shifts to protecting ourselves at any cost. We stop loving and instead attack, defend, or retreat, intent on survival. 

How do you have access to your better self regardless of what is going on in your relationship?

THE FUNERAL EXERCISE: The ability to have consistent access to our better self is dependent on these key steps:

    • a strong and appealing vision of our better self and how our relationship would benefit from us showing up as that
    • awareness of the cost of leaving our better self, both to us and to our partner
    • ability to self-regulate ourselves and/or be co-regulated by our partner
    • ideally, a partner who is willing and enthusiastic about teaming up with you to support you being your better self

You might be wondering how you even figure out what your better self looks like. Let me tell you a story…

Many years ago I participated in a series of workshops that could be categorized as “self-actualization” workshops. It was the 90’s! I remember that one night the group of participants were gathered, and we embarked on an exercise that is sometimes called “The Funeral Exercise”. Over the course of the evening, we all had the opportunity to lay on the floor of the room and pretend that we were dead and buried. We were then instructed to imagine that our loved ones were above us, attending our funeral, and we were told to think about what they might be saying about us and the life we lived. 

This exercise changed my life, because at the time the conversations I imagined happening above my buried body were not flattering! There was a lot of “He was so closed off” and “He lived so carefully”, and I remember imagining that my mother was there, crying because I had kept her at arm’s distance. In other words, I realized that I was not living my best life, I was not being my better self. I was letting fear influence me to protect myself from being hurt, which resulted in me keeping out love along the way. 

Today, I no longer prefer protecting myself to feeling alive and in relationship to others. 

After the workshop, things did not turn around immediately in my life, but they did begin to shift. And what helps to bring my better self to relationships more consistently today is the desire to live a life that is a celebration while I am living it, and celebrated after it is over. The motivation to do this is simple: I want to feel more love and less pain. I realized that by avoiding pain at all cost, I was also avoiding love, which then reinforced the pain. A very vicious cycle.

TURNING PAIN INTO MOVEMENT: What is the turning point for most people–that time when they decide to make changes in how they are living live and relating to others? In the popular play A Christmas Carol, the change happens overnight for the main character, but we can’t all have the benefit of a set of ghostly visits to spark us into action! I have observed that turning points often come when the pain becomes unbearable–when the balance between what we gain and what we lose is tipped toward loss. 

This is the time that most people seek out therapy. How can therapy help? Ideally, it does not give you the answers, it instead leads to better questions. These questions hopefully influence your relationship to yourself, others, and your values. This process can also increase awareness in one’s own choices, bringing recognition that we are making choices more often than we think! 

Mindfulness, as this awareness if often called, invites us to live intentionally rather than reactional. Intentional living has a greater chance of leading you to your better self, since you can not only accept or reject painful choices, you can also adjust your response to pain by being aware of how you are thinking about it. This is what is known as taking accountability not for what life is, but for how you experience it–becoming the author of your own life. 

(Read more about becoming the author of your life HERE.)

Our better selves don’t just fall into our laps–we realize them by first identifying what that will look and feel like, and then surrounding ourselves with those who support our movement in that direction. This is why it is critical to choose a partner who supports your vision of your better self–a partner who even inspires that vision. 

Peter Pearson, Ph.D. of the Couples Institute says that we have been measuring success in relationships all wrong. He says that rather than defining success by the amount of positive change in our partners, we should define it by the amount of positive change in ourselves. Meaning: Are you a better person today in your relationship than you were yesterday? 

This is a powerful question, because it requires that you accept accountability for your life, and that you take responsibility for whether you are enjoying it or not. It does not mean that you can’t seek change in others, just that you realize the path to that change is through influence, not demands. We influence our partner to be better by being better ourselves. If this does not happen, then there may be other issues at play, but at least we won’t blame the other for how our life is turning out. It is more likely that at our funeral our loved ones will celebrate who we have been instead of mourning who we could have been. 

***

Philosophers have been exploring what makes a good life for centuries now, and fortunately we have the benefit of their musings, but it takes more than reading a book to have a good life. We have to live it. The motivation to do so comes from imagining what it would feel like to live a good life–we are driven by our emotions, not our thoughts–thoughts may spark feelings but they rarely motivate on their own (try “thinking” your way to exercise!). 

The reason to live a good life, your better life, is pretty simple: it feels good! A better life is not about being “good”, it is about being better, and you get to decide what that looks like for you. Rather than figuring this out on your own, you can use your relationships as a guide–noticing what works and what doesn’t with others and exploring how each of those feel to you. (For example, we may not hold “honesty” as an element of our better self until we are lied to and we experience the pain of that.)

And every evening before you go to sleep, you can ask yourself, “Was I better today than I was yesterday?” If not, you can adjust course tomorrow, ensuring that your focus is on changing what you actually have control over. When you are a better version of yourself, you will naturally become a better partner, which will aid them in being a better person, and so it goes. Now that is a cycle I can get behind!

WHEN THE OUTSIDE WORLD AFFECTS YOUR RELATIONSHIP

Image

2020 was some year, wasn’t it? We dealt with (and continue to deal with) COVID-19, political turmoil, a damaged economy, and the effects of climate change. Add to that all the issues that were happening even before COVID took over, and some people still might not want to come out from under the covers. Happy 2021 indeed!

I noticed last year that I got more calls from couples seeking help than ever before, and it made me wonder about the connection between what goes on in the world and relationship satisfaction. Couples reported struggling more, since COVID, with isolation, feeling cooped up, boredom, finances, increased arguing and decreased sex.

It seems the environment’s effect doesn’t stop when you get home, no matter how tall your hedges are.

This is nothing new, of course, it just feels more intense. It is hard to attend to your partner when you come home after a bad day at work, but what happens when you have that bad day at work just four feet from where they are also working? What about if your bad day is because you have been laid off for months from your job? What if our bad day is because of how often they interrupt us? How do we keep from taking out our fears and frustrations on the one person we see the most? How do we minimize the affect the world has on us and our relationship?

These are big questions, but fortunately the answers are within reach. And the good news is that couples can use skills they have already developed to create positive change at home. First, we have to be able to recognize what is invading our home, where it is coming from, and where we do and don’t have control over it. Second, we have to have a clear vision for what we want our relationship to look like not only during this time, but after, because that is the motivation to do the work. So let’s dive right in, shall we?

EXTERNAL/INTERNAL INFLUENCES: We are products of our environment as much as we are products of our genetic line. The old tug-of-war between nature and nurture has mostly settled on a draw–both assert influence on our development. We don’t have much control over either influence initially, but as we become adults we can at least make choices other than our default reactions, and change our environment if we wish to. Still, some external influences are far-reaching and hard to escape, and they end up seeping into our relationships.

The “biggies” that affect the couples I work with are, of course, racism, culture, homophobia, and sexism, and the effect they have on relationships can depend on one’s race, family of origin, sex, gender, and sexual orientation, but they are not limited to those boundaries. Racism, for example, can affect us all, just in very different ways.

Some of these external influences become internalized as well, making it easier for them to come, with us, into our homes. They affect our relationship when we find ourselves acting out these attitudes and ideas with or toward our partner, sometimes without even being aware that we are doing so (the fish is not aware of the water). In some cases, the person who is oppressed in the world will become an oppressor in the home.

External–COVID-19: Who knew, in 2019, that we would be entering into a pandemic? Nobody had it on their 2020 calendar, that’s for sure! And yet, the pandemic came into the world, and into our homes. As mentioned above, its affect on relationships spans the gamut from finances to sex and even decisions about getting married or having children.

In some cases, couples are isolating together 24-7, and in others, they are isolating from one another, and what I see quite often is a disagreement on safety protocols regarding COVID. Choices we make on how to interact on the outside now affect our partners in ways that they never did before. And it doesn’t help when the information changes as the science progresses.

The good news is that external influences don’t generally create new problems with couples, they instead amplify what is already happening (good or bad) or reveal what has not been acknowledged. For these reasons, this is an ideal time to finally address the issues that have been pushed aside–couples can come out of the pandemic better than how they entered it! Fortunately, couples who were doing well pre-pandemic are doing as well or better now, since their strengths have been activated and amplified.

External–Culture and “isms”: In this article I will only briefly talk about the many “isms” that can affect couples from the outside, because even though the sources may differ, the effect is often similar. External “isms”, whether it is racism, sexism, or homophobia, can invade the home in damaging ways. Men who are sexist rarely leave their sexist tendencies at the doorstep. Racism can show up in couples in the form of colorism or classism, either as a strain economically due to marginalization, as internalized prejudice acted-out on each another, or as depression and anxiety.

(Read: “The Difference Between Racism and Colorism”)

Another population where internalized prejudices can show up is in LGBTQ relationships, simply because all marginalized populations grow up learning the same prejudices that non-marginalized people do. Gay men in particular struggle with internalized homophobia expressed directly or indirectly toward themselves or their partners, since biases against gay men are historically stronger than those toward lesbians.

The effect of these external cultural “isms” is that hidden resentments, fears, and biases may contribute to lack of connection and trust between couples. One way to address this is to talk openly about what is explicit and implicit, and a couples therapist can help to identify the issues and guide the conversation so the result is greater understanding, empathy, and connection.

Internal–Trauma: Trauma is defined as the response, not the event. This is why some people are traumatized by things others are not fazed by, and vice versa. It depends on our individual histories and sensitivities. Unprocessed trauma usually rears its head in relationships, because our partners inadvertently trigger it! Trauma can also be triggered by external events–either local or global, and the result is disconnection–when we are triggered we want to create distance between ourselves and the trigger.

Internal–The Four Taboos: I teach couples that there are four taboos during times of conflict: criticism, defensiveness, demands, and dysregulation. This comes from the Inter-Analytic Couples Therapy approach, and it is similar to the Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in that they always result in disconnection. These stressors show up in the relationship even though they are learned externally and stored internally. In other words, they are adaptive, meaning that we learn them in order to protect ourselves.

And these taboos work. At least if your goal is to distance yourself from the threat. They are also reinforced by  many of the popular movies and songs we consume and love, because they create great drama and high emotion, at least if they are happening to someone else. But the reality is that when they affect our relationships, they are no fun at all, nor are they in the least bit romantic. When they are used during conflict, they can strengthen resentments and lack of understanding, and result in anger and sadness. Right when we need our relationships to be a “port in the storm”, the ship starts to sink.

HOW TO WEATHER THE AFFECTS:

I wish there were a magic button we could use to eliminate negative effects on our relationships, but there is no such button. That does not mean that we don’t try to find one! Substances, shopping, sex, affairs, media, and food are all used to minimize or ignore what is going on in the outside world. The problem is that these “fixes” are only temporary, and they can cause new negative effects on their own when used to excess.

Tool #1: Fortunately, there are ways we can minimize the effects of the world on our relationships without working too hard. The tool I talk about the most (and I am not the only one!) is mindfulnessthe ability to pay attention in the here and now without judgement. Mindfulness is our best tool because, when practiced, it gives us the chance to make mindful choices about what we think, what we say, and what we do.

The difference between a mindless choice and a mindful one is that the former is a reaction while the latter is a response. We have more control over our responses than we do over our reactions, and when we respond to what is going on we have an opportunity to get the outcome we prefer.

How to we practice mindfulness? Well, there are many ways, some more disciplined than others, but I often recommend meditation, yoga, sitting in silence, or simply paying more attention to the task we are engaged in at the time. I remind clients that our brains are not wired to remain in the present moment, but we can train our minds to spend more time there before darting back to the past or the future. And when we are focused in the present moment, we are more likely to stay regulated (right brain and left brain engaged), meaning we can make choices influenced by who we are now rather than who we were in the past.

Mindfulness does not change what is happening out in the world at the moment, but it can change how it effects us and our relationships. It is preferable to ignoring the world or distracting ourselves, because it builds resilience and compassion, two elements of a good life.

(Read: “How To Practice Mindfulness”)

Tool #2: In my training to be a couples therapist, I learned that there are three actions that strengthen relationships by building closeness and trust. These are called the “Three T’s”, and are Talking and Listening (The Dialogue of Intimacy), Time Together (quality not quantity), and Touch (affectionate and sexual).

When attention is paid to all three T’s, relationships find they can weather the effects of the outside world as a team, and though we can handle things on our own of course, research has shown that pain is lessened when we are holding the hand of our loved one. I let couples decide how to divvy up the three T’s because this depends on their relationship priorities (for non-sexual relationships touch can be non-sexual), but when one of the T’s is forgotten, the relationship will feel off balance, and we become more vulnerable to outside negativity.

Each of the three T’s attends to a different aspect of right-brain connection:

    • Talking and Listening: increases understanding, empathy, and connection
    • (Quality) Time Together: increases safety, trust, creativity, and intimacy
    • Touch: increases passion, imagination, vulnerability, risk-taking, and closeness

Note that intimacy and passion are different sides of the connection coin, and both need to be attended to if you value having both in your relationship.

Tool #3: Finally, there is a question that I ask all of my clients who come in to discuss the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on their lives and relationship. That questions is: “Who do you want to be after this is over?” Here is the thing–pain is just pain, hardship is just hardship, until we assign meaning to it. Without meaning, we lose purpose for putting up with something, since assigning meaning gives purpose to what is happening.

Ever hear that statement “Everything happens for a reason?”. Well, I don’t agree with that at all! I don’t think things happen for any particular reason whatsoever, but we can decide if there is a reason for us to endure what is happening. That decision can make the difference between us just suffering, or learning and growing from an experience.

The pandemic is no exception. Who do you want to be once the threat is diminished and the world opens back up again? How do you want your relationship to look afterward? Do you want to be the same as you were when it all started, or do you want to be someone who is a bit more compassionate, more patient, more mindful, healthier, simpler, and closer to those you love? The difference between being the same (or worse) or better is intentionchoosing to improve yourself as a response to what is happening that is out of your control.

***

It is my intention to help my clients and my readers “weather the storm” in a way that moves them closer to being the person they want to be in the world, and in the relationships they want to be in. There is so much that happens that is completely out of our control, but I am always impressed by those who spend zero time complaining and most of their time responding.

Without exception, I notice that those who respond with care and compassion towards themselves and others tend to be more at peace with the world, rather than at war with it. Their relationships serve as that essential port in the storm, where resilience perpetuates more resilience. We can’t outrun the world, but we can make mindful choices about how much it affects our relationships; as a result we become more accepting of whatever happens, knowing that we get to decide what it means!