Relationship Therapy for Couples & Individuals

Tony Davis, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Tag: connecting

HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN TO GO?

They say that most couples remain in a relationship for six years after the problems start before breaking up or seeking therapy. I have had couples in my practice who have waited longer than that before coming in! When they do come in, part of my job is to assess if there is still an emotional connection–it is sad when there isn’t anymore–and I often need to share this observation with them (and then let them decide what to do). The absense of emotional connection does not mean they have to split–it just lets them know realistically where they are. No matter what they decide, I work to create movement–because the only sign of failure in couples therapy is when nothing changes.

Why do people stay together when they are not happy with each other? This is perhaps harder to understand than why couples break up–but don’t assume that this is because breaking up is easy. It rarely is. Other than a few clear-cut markers, it is difficult to know when to goStaying, on the other hand, can be due to multiple factors: biological, financial, environmental, even political. Marriages and relationships are not just about “being happy” for most people, though it does seem that “relationship happiness” is becoming more important than it was in the past.

So when do you know when to go? In this article I will address this by looking at the clear-cut reasons for leaving, the less than clear-cut reasons, and when the problems instead signal that the relationship would benefit from some work. Let’s get into it…

IT IS TIME TO GO:  Sometimes when it is clear-cut that we need to go, we still don’t. This is because the brain needs time accepting what it does not want to accept, especially when it is trying to accept unpleasant conclusions about our partner. There are a few situations that are definite red flags when assessing the chances for relationship improvement, because these situations rarely correct themselves. They include: alcohol or drug abuse and/or dependence (and yes, this includes chronic marijuana use); violent behavior toward one another; mental disorders; severe PTSD in an individual or shared trauma; or an ongoing sexual or emotional affair.

If any of these situations are happening, leaving the relationship certainly should be on the list of options. But even when it seems clearcut, the course of action can be complicated. Anyone could decide to live with any of the above issues, but accepting something and tolerating it are two different approaches. Often the most difficult aspect is when partners still love each other, despite the issues. Accepting that things may not ever change is not only letting go of our loved one, but also letting go of a part of ourselves. We lose a bit of our identity when we break up, whether we want to or not.

The bottom line: if any of the above issues are happening in your relationship, you will need help to sort it out.

IT MAY BE TIME TO GO, BUT MAYBE NOT:  A good reason for staying if any of the above issues show up is when the one with the behavior issue shows a desire to change, and then acts on it. Perhaps they join AA, or go into a treatment program. Perhaps they enter an anger management program, or start going to individual therapy. Perhaps they get prescribed medication by a doctor or psychiatrist that helps with mental issues, perhaps they finally end the affair. Perhaps they agree to begin couples therapy. Any of these actions are an indication that it does not need to end, but the change has to continue, and it has to stick, or the relationship is back to square one.

Other issues that can cause trouble but do not have to be deal breakers include: lack of sex or desire; performance anxiety; a one-time act of betrayal; breaking a promise; lack of agreement; changing values and changing goals. However, these issues can be difficult to discuss–these are conversations that could be aided by a skilled couples therapist. Dr. Walter Brakelmanns, my mentor at UCLA, once said that couples never get together by mistake, but they often break up by mistake. This is because difficult issues feel like dead ends–but they don’t have to be! They could be opportunities to become closer and build a stronger connection, while allowing you to appreciate how your partner is different than you and an individual in their own right. You may not have to go!

IT IS TIME TO DO THE WORK:  Most of the couples who come to see me in my practice complain of “communication issues”. What this means to me is that they don’t know how to talk to each other when they are upset. Well guess what–not many of us do! Conflict is one of the best things for relationships, because during conflict, vulnerabilities can be presented and responded to–if the couples knows how to do that. This is why, when a couples comes in complaining about communication as the main issue, it is time to do the work.

This work includes not only learning how to talk and listen differently, but also education about how the brain works when it senses a threat. Sometimes the couples work is helped along by individual therapy for each partner–as long as the individual therapist does not “villanize” the absent partner. It includes reinforcing what already works well, and increasing the amount of small things that you do for each other (strengthening the foundation). It means practicing the new skills that are learned, not just when there is conflict, but when you are both calm and able to explore upsets that have not been talked about.

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The options explored above are less of a rigid template and more of a loose guide to help move couples in a direction that makes sense, given their circumstances. There is a lot of grey area between being madly in love and hating one another, and since a good relationship is hard to find and harder to build, why throw in the towel when you don’t need to? On the other hand, you have to know when it is time to go.

We all want to believe that love is enough to make things work, but it is not enough–it is just the start of the race. The fuel that keeps a relationship going is interest in each other and a level of caring that accepts that you are both individuals, together. They may not sing about this in the love songs, but they should, because if we prioritized these qualities above physical attraction and romance, chances are we would be staying more often than going!

HOW TO APOLOGIZE SO IT WORKS

 

“I’m sorry!” Who has not heard this a million times. And yet I wonder how many of you have felt that these two words are enough to make you feel better, let go of the hurt, and forgive another. I notice that usually the one uttering the phrase is actually more interested in getting off the hook than attending to hurt that may have been caused either intentionally or unintentionally. It is as if the “I’m sorry” really means “I didn’t expect for you to feel the way you feel, and I am sorry that you feel that way.” This is not the same as expressing remorse for our behavior–it actually makes the hurt person feel guilty about hurting!

So what is so hard about apologizing? Well, unlike the Elton John song, love does mean saying you’re sorry from time to time, but the mistake that most people make is that they forget the first step, which is not about apologizing. So what is this step?

WHY “I’M SORRY” DOES NOT WORK BY ITSELF: When we are hurt by something our loved one does or says, our natural reaction is to pull away from them and protect ourselves. The thinking that often goes along with this reaction is that we can’t trust the other to care for us in the way we like to be cared for in the moment. This may or may not be true, but what is important to know is that our thinking can work against us letting the other know about our hurt. Because of this, the other person has to “guess” at why we are upset, and since this is a dicey undertaking, they will usually just default to saying “I’m sorry” without any idea of why we are actually hurting! In these instances, the apology is received as an empty gesture, one that has no intention of actually repairing anything. This can then lead to frustration for the apologizer, creating even more distance between the two people. No fun!

WHEN TO USE “I’M SORRY”: You can’t put the cart before the horse, as they say, and that applies to apologizing before we even know what we are apologizing for. “I’m sorry” can only come after there has been some interest in how your actions or words affected the other person–not how you think they affected the other, but how they actually did. This requires sitting with them and asking what it felt like when you did or said the hurtful thing, and then listening without defending or justifying.

This is hard to do, because we are wired to protect ourselves. And yet what works in the outside world often backfires in close interpersonal relationships because in the latter the goal is to get more connected, not less! The good news is that if you are successful in exploring the feelings of the other, it won’t be long before they are no longer talking about the offending behavior, and instead they are talking freely about their inner world–what happens to them when they feel attacked or criticized. Only after we hear this information and reflect back our empathetic understanding can we then successfully offer an apology that lands. Only then will our apology address the hurt and be received. Only then is the apology an act of relational responsibility and not a way to get us off the hook.

APOLOGIES EQUAL ACCOUNTABILITY: Mark Manson writes a lot about responsiblity and accountability in his essays, and he makes a valuable point about how to clean up a relational mess. In his book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ckhe writes about how important it is to be able to say to someone, “I am selfish. I care about myself [sometimes] more than the relationship.” (p. 185) Admitting that is the first step in being responsible for your behavior toward others, and accountable for the effect it has on them.

Note that this is different than being responsible for the effect–you are not responsible for what they feel, but you have accountability, which means that it is up to you to clean up the mess (respond)! But here is the good news–it works! Not only will you find that your apologies are accepted more often, but you will have less actions held over your head for all time. In addition, you will find yourself being more in control of your experience in the world, since you will be focusing on what you have control of (you!), and not on what you don’t (how others feel!).

To sum up, remember that the apology is what comes after a deeper understanding of how your actions/words affected someone. The apology works best if it is a indication of empathetic understanding, and it can lead to feeling connected and cared for. The best way to approach this is to get interested in the other and what they are feeling, without feeling responsible for those feelings. You are the trigger, not the cause. Your role is to care, not to fix. If you learn how to properly offer an apology, you might just find that you are needing to offer them less often!

 

WHY IS IT SO HARD TO SAY “HELLO”?

“You had me at hello.”

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? We come home and see our loved one, thinking that it will be a reprieve from the stress of our day. Why then do so many couples struggle with greeting one another? I have noticed that rather than feeling relieved, some feel the pressure of meeting needs or getting needs met. Many couples report feeling as though it is a “competition”.

Things are not as simple as the old days (see picture above), when men worked and wives stayed home. While not a fan of that template (it had its own problems!), I suspect that the rigid structure made it simpler to attend to each other at times, or at least simpler for men to get their needs met! Men brought home the bacon, and women fried it up in a pan. (Again, not a fan!)

Nowadays most households have both partners working, and often with opposing schedules, so who attends to whom? If both are bringing home the bacon, who does the frying? Does it have to be a tug-of-war? Is it possible to greet one another in a way that reconnects and refreshes rather than it feeling like a task? Yes it is! And it has to do more with your intention than your actions.

IT DOES NOT HAVE TO BE A COMPETITION: I often hear how tired people are–the demands of work, family, and relationship can contribute to all three feeling like tasks, rather than the first serving the latter two. If you have a job where you are meeting needs for others all day long, it is reasonable to want your needs met when you get home! But is that what your partner is for? What about their needs, their tiredness? Does it have to be YOU vs. THEM?

If viewed as a competition, the choices made will serve the individual. There is nothing wrong with getting individual needs met, but many couples favor this and neglect the needs of the other and the relationship. Conflict can happen if one relies on the other for ALL their needs, seeing the relationship as a vehicle for getting some of the things that they could and should be providing for themselves! If both partners are doing this, it can cause a sense of competition to get what is wanted, with the relationship and connectedness suffering as a result.

Needing another is NOT co-dependence! We have evolved to prosper from healthy inter-dependence, which means that as I attend to you, I attend to myself. “Need competition” can only exist in relationship when a couple is disconnected, because in this state the main concern is protecting the self–there is no “relationship” to fight for. When you are connected, the relationship is as much a concern as individual needs, so attending to the other and the relationship means you both win!

WORDS CAN GET IN THE WAY: Granted, modern living can make it difficult to do this, especially if our individual needs have been neglected all day long. What can make this easier?

If you are in a relationship, how do you greet your partner(s) when you get home? Is it a kiss on the cheek and an inquiry into how their day was? Do you launch into your day, with the expectation that they will be interested and engaged in listening to you? Do the words you say often end up looking like a demand or a criticism? Are you interested in each other?

Words can get in the way of connecting meaningfully. I notice that the things many couples talk about are about everything except what would connect them: their boss, the traffic, the kids, the plans for tomorrow. All of that can wait until you actually spend some time finding out who the other is in this moment and what is going on with them, while letting them know the same about you. How is this done? Without words, sometimes! I regularly assign my couples clients the exercise of GAZING, a simple and effective way to connect to the other without talking. You simply spend a few minutes looking into their emotional world. (Click HERE for a link on how to do this exercise.)

If you want to use words, I suggest getting curious about the other who you are seeing “anew”. Some questions you could ask include: What did you find out about yourself today? What have you been waiting to share about your day? Did you talk to anyone interesting today? Where are you at right now? You can even use the time-worn “How are you?”, if you are willing to really hear their answer! Let your interest guide you as you consider what you really want to know about this person who you haven’t seen all day. Think about the effect it would have if you set aside the thought that there were exactly the same as when you last saw them.

ATTENDING TO SELF AND RELATIONSHIP: They say that how we think about reality defines our experience of reality. If you see your relationship as a place where all your needs must be met, then it is likely that you will spend a lot of time being resentful and disappointed. If, however, you see your relationship as an entity with needs of its own, apart from individual needs, then your approach will be relationship-serving as well as self-serving. The relationship will refresh you.

The result is to keep it feeling new, to stay away from the thought that there is nothing more to learn about your partner and nothing new to offer them. I see the greeting as a way to ask one another, “Who are you now?” If you ask this with genuine interest, you might be pleasantly surprised by the answer, and find yourself looking forward to reconnecting!

NOTE: Connection doesn’t always happen simultaneously. It helps to be curious about what the other needs before diving back into the relationship. How these needs are communicated is key, however. If you are one of those people who needs to “unwind” for 30 minutes before you listen to your partner, then let them know that, with the added information that you will be available in 30 minutes. Don’t leave them hanging! This is a way to take care of yourself AND take care of them!

 

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