I find couples therapy to be one of the most rewarding and challenging types of therapy I do. It is hard enough to manage one personality in individual psychotherapy but when you add in the unique and differing views, expectations, and character traits of a second person, the intensity ramps to another level entirely.
There are some common threads among couples I have worked with that have had success. These same themes also ring true with those who I know personally and are happily married or together for a very long time. When working with couples, I try to help them foster the following ten traits during treatment:
1. Trust - This one is a no-brainer. When couples trust one another they share a deeper sense of commitment. When one or both partners are insecure in the relationship they will often make efforts to alleviate their mistrust by controlling or manipulating, which will invariably ruin the relationship. The irony is that, by trying to save the relationship, they are inadvertently ending it. This is where infidelity becomes a problem. When one person does not trust they try to control and when the other partner feels controlled they reach out to others which validates the mistrust that started the cycle. Trust has to be there or the other nine are irrelevant.
2. Individuality - This is when partners are still capable of having their own lives without one another. Enmeshment is a term used in both family and couples therapy that illustrates, in the couples context, when the lives of both become so intertwined that one cannot function without the other and all other relationships get lost. This may seem great at first as we envision two star crossed lovers gazing into each other's eyes without a care in the world.....the problem occurs when that person is suddenly not around and we are left to obsess after alienating the supports we once had. When couples are capable of alone time whether it be through activities, hobbies, spending time with the individual's core friend group, etc. it is healthy and nurturing for the relationship as a whole. For obvious reasons, number one must be met first.
3. Empathy - It is critical that couples be able to understand thoughts and feelings their partner is experiencing from their partner's perspective. This is why people with narcissistic tendencies have such a difficult time in relationships; the only point of view that matters is their own. When couples are able to see things from their partner's perspective and feel for them when they do, it makes change more likely and this tends to reciprocate back and forth in a positive cycle. If we are able to feel what our partners feel, we are more apt to make positive changes to appease those feelings. Lastly, it allows us to focus more on making our partner happy, not our partner making us happy.
4. Communication - When couples communicate well they are also more capable of solving problems in the relationship. This is more than just asking about each other's day or planning the next day's events with the kids. This is real, heartfelt discussions of each partners emotions and how they may relate to the status of the relationship, When a partner feels heard and his/her concerns are not dismissed, it opens up all sorts of channels of communication. But when a partner routinely feels not heard, the effort simply stops and this is a cancer to any relationship. Lastly, simply hearing your partner and validating their concerns is not enough. Follow up action indicating you care must follow or, again, the effort to communicate feelings will stop.
5. Forgiveness - Our culture simply does not value forgiveness. We have tricked ourselves into believing that forgiving someone gives them permission to hurt us again or that we are somehow letting our partner off the hook. Grudges DO NOT change behavior in any positive way. It may, in the short-term, fix the immediate problem but will only create oppositional resentment later on. One of my favorite quotes is "holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die." This is true in relationships as well except in this case it hurts both you and your relationship and is a major hindrance to any form of effective communication. Forgiveness cleanses the soul and removes the bitterness that comes with anger.
6. Humility - Approaching the relationship like you really have to keep winning your partner over is a great way to keep things fresh and exciting. Part of being humble in a relationship is also being willing to admit when you are wrong (which our culture as a whole struggles with). It may not seem like it at first, but having this ability de-escalates negative situations very quickly. This also opens the door to a more effective problem solving approach as your partner will immediately feel less on the defensive. Humility also forces us to focus on the self.....the only person in the relationship we truly have control over.
7. Passion - It is important for there to be passion in any relationship. This doesn't just mean the sexual kind of passion where the bed sheets catch fire (though this can certainly throw a spark into things.) This also entails being passionate about each other's lives; the successes, the failures, supporting one another, meeting our goals, raising our children, etc. Being passionate about numerous aspects of your relationship develops a deeper bond that goes beyond the superficial and creates a lasting and more meaningful love. Even better is when you can become passionate about something your partner is already involved in when you wouldn't have otherwise.
8. Accountability - I love teaching clients "I" statements and forcing them to role play these in session. The first few times it feels so awkward that clients struggle with just starting a sentence with the word "I" because they became so ingrained with using "you" as a means of deflecting accountability for their half of the issues in the relationship. Defensive posturing only serves to sabotage communication. If your partner starts off a discussion on a contentious topic with the word "you" the rest of the message is likely lost and the defensive, aggressive posturing begins. By using "I" you are accepting accountability for your feelings, expectations, behaviors, etc. and offers a more open, solution focused approach.
9. Vulnerability - This is very difficult. Being vulnerable is an uncomfortable feeling and requires a great deal of practice to become more comfortable with. This entails accountability but also a willingness to discuss our true emotions underneath our anger and frustration. Discussing feelings like hurt, sadness, disappointment, failure are all uncomfortable and expose our ego's to the possibility of an attack by our partner. What typically will happen, however, is increased vulnerability from our partners as well. This too opens up more effective and positive communication.
10. Appreciation - There are few substitutes for feeling appreciated in a relationship. This doesn't mean appreciating a prepared candle lit dinner, bubble bath or rose pedals all over the bed. Those things are nice but are an unrealistic expectation for day to day living. Acknowledgement and appreciation of the little things, like washing the dishes, doing the laundry, taking the kids for a day, etc. are all things we tend to take for granted. Just like anything else in life, if rewarded, these behaviors are likely to increase even if that reward is a simple "thank you!"
In summary, you've likely noticed I left out things like activities or the generic term "love". I think if the above ten traits are fostered you will certainly want to do things together and they pretty much sum up what love is to me. All relationships have turmoil at times as well, my own included, but knowing better ways to respond will certainly minimize the severity, duration and frequency and may even be seen as an opportunity to grow!
Derik S. Berkebile, LCSW
Comments are welcome below!
Fostering Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Resilience: Combining Concepts of Neuroplasticity and Mindfulness
. "Our emotions have a mind of their own, one which can hold views quite independently of our rational mind." - Daniel Goleman
If we stop and think about it, how often do we stop and think about it? Our cultures puts a premium on staying busy. In fact, it is how most people report dealing with emotional difficulties....by NOT thinking about it. In the moment, this seems like the right thing to do. It allows us to function at work, with family, while driving, etc. This "masking" takes a toll, however, as it requires a great deal of mental energy to keep emotions suppressed. Below are listed some of the common effects:
1. Memory Lapses - Emotions are attached to both long-term and short term memory. A good example of this is to compare an emotionally mundane event like breakfast three weeks ago or the attack on 9/11. One you likely don't remember at all and the other likely carries with it very fine details stored in memory. When denying our emotions we deny the brain the ability to pair the emotions to the memory.
2. Mental Fatigue - The brain is a powerful tool but when stretched can begin to fatigue. By exerting a great deal of mental energy on suppressing the memory attached to the unpleasant emotion we limit the ability for the brain to absorb and attend to new information. This is like a boxer fighting two opponents at the same time.
3. You get less Oxytocin - Oxytocin (not to be confused with Oxycontin) is a hormone released as part of the parasympathetic (calming) nervous system and is connected to cuddling, laughter, hugs, etc. Unfortunately, when suppressing emotions we often push away those closest to us never giving ourselves a chance for them to help release this hormone.
4. Sleep Deficits - We've all been there, the mind just won't shut off and the result is a night of repeated wakings and light sleep. The next day feels like a hangover and our productivity is hampered at best.....resulting in more stress. When emotions are effectively dealt with the brain can get out of "fight or flight" mode and ready to rest.
5. Elevated Blood Pressure - This again ties into fight or flight response. We feel this surge with unpleasant emotions and is a natural response to perceived threats. This includes channeling blood flow to the muscles to prepare to fight or run away. Increased respiration, heart rate, blood pressure are all common. By not effectively dealing with our emotions, these perceived threats leave us stuck in an extended period of fight or flight which effects several systems in the human body including blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular events.
6. Weight Gain - Eating comfort food elicits a response in the reward center of the brain. The issue is when used as a comfort, we gain weight, by gaining weight we need more comfort. The cycle can result in rapid weight gain.
7. Digestive Problems - The aforementioned fight or flight again. When oxygenated blood flow diverts to the muscles it is simultaneously diverted away from the digestive system (not like we need to worry about digesting a chimichanga when running from a bear). This results in issues like acid reflux, ulcers, indigestion and there are some theories that attribute gastrointestinal cancers to this as well.
These are just a few issues related to suppressing emotions. So....what do we do about it? In order to answer that question we need to first understand some terms. The first we'll review is emotional intelligence. This is simply knowing how you are feeling. Seems silly to think we have to develop this, but because of our busy bee existence we don't often know how we feel or identify this and subsequently that emotion is left to control our day. Fostering emotional intelligence requires willfully focusing on what emotions we are feeling throughout the day and getting more comfortable with this. I often assign clients a check in assignment where they set a reminder on their phone or alarm every two hours and they will write in what emotion(s) they are feeling and what thoughts or events are triggering them.
Emotional resilience is the ability to gain a "tolerance" of our emotions. Instead of exerting so much effort on suppressing our emotions, why not try sitting with them, immersing ourselves in them? Allowing ourselves to FEEL them completely and without judgement.....acknowledging our emotions as just that....emotions. They don't define us nor are they the whole picture of who we are. Over time, the mind begins to dull the effects of the emotions we feel. It's like when you are exposed to the same bad smell over an extended period of time, that smell becomes less severe as the brain adapts. If we don't allow ourselves to feel we never are able to develop this resilience.
Mindfulness, in a very oversimplified explanation, is practicing a present oriented awareness. To beat a dead horse, our culture is one of preoccupation. We are constantly thinking of the next thing we have to get done or prepare for and rarely allow ourselves to enjoy this very moment. Obviously, by practicing a present orientation we are inherently more capable of identifying our emotions in the present moment as well.
Lastly, neuroplasticity is the understanding that we are not "fixed" as human beings and that we are capable of fundamentally changing the way we perceive and interact in our world. We can, through practice and repetition, undo old neural pathways that communicate how to respond to perceived threats and also our emotions. Using the information above, if we routinely practice sitting with and exploring our emotions and not suppressing or hiding them we begin to do this automatically, thus fostering an inherent ability to immediately identify and eventual cope well with our emotions.
Some of the more common tools I have clients utilize are things like journaling, "check-in" assignments, meditation, mindfulness exercises, and many other activities designed to improve emotional intelligence and resilience. I also assist clients in challenging the thoughts they have that contribute to these uncomfortable emotions which could be a whole other blog entry.
Feeling emotions is a part of human nature. Everyone has them, Our emotions drive us to action and are meant to be helpful to us. When they are suppressed they can eventually begin to take away from our enjoyment of our lives. When you catch yourself pushing down your emotions, I challenge you to accept those emotions, immerse yourself in them and begin to see the benefits of working through them instead of hiding from them.
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I wish I had a dime for every time I've asked a client, "is that something you have control over?" I could easily be retired and nestled away quietly in a log cabin in the beautiful foothills of Montana. So many mental health issues today are directly a result of things completely outside of our control. Think about this for a minute, how much control do we have over our co-workers behavior? How much do we allow the behavior of our co-workers to effect our day? The answers to both might initially be "a lot" but realistically the only thing we have control over is the way we choose to respond (if we respond at all) to the behaviors of others.
There are all sorts of therapeutic directions to go from that point of the discussion but the focus will now shift to kindness. Let's take a look at a potential scenario and what our options might be in handling that scenario. A mother is standing in line with her children at Wal-Mart and one is screaming she wants a toy, one is tapping her on the shoulder loudly yelling "mom!" over and over again, and another is bouncing up and down on the front of the cart. You come up behind her in line and she sees you looking at one of the kids and she says sharply, "what are you looking at?!" Most, if being honest, would immediately shift to defensive mode or simply ignore the woman, however, the person who truly loves themselves seeks to aide others and also is more capable of seeing things from other's perspectives. One choice that many would not have thought of is to simply be honest, "I was looking at your beautiful children and admiring how you have been able to keep it all together, I know when my kids did this I struggled to be as patient as you."
This choice not only deflects any further negativity but also helps in picking up a Mother who, based on her initial reaction to you, is at wits end and likely needs a daily dose of kindness at that point. It is also an opportunity to teach kindness as well.... sort of like a happy, fast spreading plague.
Kindness is incredibly empowering. It's something we can always choose and by having that ability we gain power over our lives and we feel awfully damn good doing it. Had the response in the above scenario been negative, who actually had the control, me or her? What would I have felt afterward? What might have she felt afterward? Being kind to those who are unkind is like hitting someone with a surprise left hook they didn't see coming because negative responses are often the only thing that people like the above mentioned Mother have ever experienced.
So, why are we so negative and why aren't people more kind? A lot has to do with our culture and media exposure. We don't really value kindness as much as we should. When watching any action movie where there is an antagonist and a protagonist, the plot usually revolves around the bad guy doing something to the good guy and the rest of the film is the good guy getting revenge on the bad guy. You can trace this from Gun Smoke to today's blockbuster superhero movies. Revisiting control for a minute, we have been duped into believing that being mean, aggressive, vindictive somehow promotes change in others....giving us a very false sense of controlling those people. In all truth, those above traits create fear, resentment and a eventually abandonment. Another influence is our constant bombarding of negative posts through social media. I once counted 30 posts and of those only 5 could be considered positive or neutral. Lastly, our mainstream media outlets have a firm understanding that people pay attention to what they are afraid of. By fear mongering they draw ratings and by drawing ratings they make money. Thus perpetuating this culture of negativity. I encourage clients to unplug as often as possible to get away from the daily deluge of awful.
Practicing kindness is at times difficult because we feel that we are somehow letting those who have wronged us get away with something, but if you hold grudges they truly are getting away with stealing your enjoyment for however long you hold the grudge. Practice kindness and take your power back!
Derik S. Berkebile, LCSW, CMH, ACHP-SW
For couples, just the idea of seeing someone to help work through their issues can seem defeating, or at the very least, make you feel like maybe you just weren't meant to be. Couples often come because during the course of their time together they lost touch with what made the relationship desirable in the first place. So, how does therapy help?
I guess I should start off by stating what couples counseling is NOT. This might save me a few sessions of changing expectations in the future. First, it is NOT a sounding board to get the therapist to validate that YOUR issue(s) with your partner are correct. In other words, don't come to counseling expecting the therapist to say to your partner, "oh, John is right, if you just do what he is suggesting, Jane, you'll be fine." If your therapist is blatantly siding with one or the other, it may be time to see another therapist. Couples counseling is NOT a venting arena as well. This may establish a baseline of what the communication patterns are like, but after a few sessions the communication should be improved and the disrespectful yelling, name calling, belittling, etc. should be improved. Finally, it is not a place to get the therapist to FIX your partner or your problems. For all the faults you may perceive your partner to have, successful counseling usually starts by focusing inward and relies on the COUPLE to fix the problems with insight provided by the therapist.
It may seem counterintuitive, but relationships thrive when the individuals involved first feel good about themselves. They are confident and secure in who they are and do not require much in the way of validation (see Maslow's Hierarchy and self-actualization.) Many relationship issues begin with the need for one partner to receive validation from the other. For example, "I did the dishes tonight so my wife should say thank you and express gratitude." When the validation isn't received the negativity cycle begins spinning out of hand and arguments ensue. "She didn't say thank you so I am not doing anything more tonight." Wife sees this behavior and questions it in an all too familiar pattern, "are you just gonna lay around all evening?" Knowing the mindset of the husband, how he is already primed for aggression, this response elicits further negativity.
Now, imagine if John had just done the dishes because he likes the part of himself that is helpful and didn't look for validation. What if Jane had expressed her concerns in a less aggressive way? What if John realized that he felt disrespected and hurt by his wife's reaction instead of going straight to anger and was able to share that and work through it with her? That is the essence of couples counseling. We first learn to undo some of the dysfunctional schema that result in unrealistic expectations for our partners. We then strive to build self-confidence and how each partner can aide in this for each other. Mindfulness strategies are often used to teach clients to "cue" themselves when they are starting into the old patterns of communication and to use a more positive means of communicating with one another. Therapists teach self accountability, taking ownership of your problems in the relationship and working together to fix those instead of pointing out how the partner is at fault. Homework assignments are often included to keep the couple on track between sessions. To summarize, in an overly simplistic way, couples counseling is the undoing of the patterns that lead to the undoing of the relationship. Couples who engage in counseling often go on to lead better relationships together than those who never went at all. It is not a sign of individual weakness, but an important step in having the best relationship possible.
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