Unhealthy Relationships

Unhealthy Relationships

When to Save a Distressed Relationship

Unhealthy Relationships: All couples go through a rocky period in their relationship. They may grow distant from each other and encounter problems that seem to be impossible to overcome. It is agonizing to decide whether or not to save a relationship because we never know the possibilities. How will we know when our relationship is worth saving?

In this episode, marriage and family therapist Brittany S., will touch on healthy versus unhealthy relationships. We talk about what a normal distressed relationship looks like and how to deal with it. You will also discover the different markers of an unhealthy relationship. Knowing the difference between the two will help make the big decision whether to save your relationship or knowing when it’s time to let go. 

Tune in to the podcast to learn more about the role of attunement, responsiveness, and vulnerability in cultivating an ideal, healthy, and loving relationship!

In This Episode: Unhealthy Relationships

  • Find out what a distressed healthy relationship is versus an unhealthy one.
  • Understand the pursue-withdraw cycle in distressed relationships.
  • Recognize the general markers of an unhealthy relationship.
  • Know where to start and what steps to undertake in couples counseling.
  • Identify when growth is and is not possible in a relationship.
  • Understand the importance of having aligned expectations for the future.
  • Know the importance of attunement as the fundamental heart of every relationship.

Episode Highlights

“Is My Relationship Healthy?”

Brittany shares with us today that a “good” relationship ultimately depends on what you think of yourself and your experience within the relationship itself. She suggests asking three main questions when identifying the health of your relationship:

  • What is the overall quality of the relationship?
  • Do I feel good about myself in the relationship?
  • Do I feel like the relationship benefits and serves me well?

How We See Ourselves

How we see ourselves is affected by the people who surround us. Usually, when you begin feeling like you need to change yourself, you are not enough, or you need to be better for your partner to treat you well, is a sign that the relationship may be unhealthy. 

When we start to believe we are unworthy of love, connection, and belonging, the foundation of the relationship begins to fall away (if there even was one to start with). 

Because of this pessimistic view, we begin to feel more angry, aggressive, and hostile towards ourselves. Brittany shares that most of her clients that are struggling with this dynamic will internalize feeling unworthy, “I have done something that makes me inherently unlovable or unworthy of having this healthy relationship or healing.” 

Fixing the Negative Subconscious Belief

The issue here is that people who find themselves in an unhealthy relationship begin to believe they are the sole problem. To address this, we need to be aware of what stories we are telling ourselves. Fixing the negative subconscious belief requires challenging these stories. To do this, challenge these stories by:

  • Identifying if there is evidence that there is some truth to the story; and
  • Cracking the narrative and expressing it

When working with couples, Brittany shares that partners often blame each other for their unhappiness or unwillingness to show up for their partner how their partner may need. Partner responses can tell so much about the health of the relationship.

If our partner is willing to comfort us and offer help, it provides some reassurance that we are in a healthy situation. But if the partner lacks comfort and responsiveness, it is a sign to take a deeper look into the relationship. 

What does this mean? It means that by challenging the stories that we tell ourselves (I’m unworthy of love…) and getting to the root of why we feel these ways, we can better understand whether or not it is something we can work on and grow through, or if it’s a sign that this relationship really isn’t good for us after all.

Is a Distressed Relationship Normal?

According to Brittany, “When people are in distressed relationships, it impacts each other. Both people are impacted in such a way that they both stop being the best version of themselves.” A distressing situation creates reactions in each person that can be hurtful and support the negative pursue-withdraw cycle

The pursue-withdraw cycle is characterized by:

  • One partner who is demanding, critical, and demands reassurance, comfort, or engagement from the other; and
  • The other partner feeling overwhelmed by these demands and, in turn, withdrawing

The more one partner shuts down, the more the other demands and becomes more aggressive, thus feeding the cycle. The cycle is normal in distressed relationships but requires a path of healing. 

Brittany relays that this cycle propagates because “there's usually a need for comfort or safety or connection or a vulnerable attachment—a need that isn't being met, and we're just scared to ask for it in that way.”

The General Markers of an Unhealthy Relationship

It is important to assess early on in counseling if the relationship is in a distressing situation or more problematic. Some questions to ask yourself if you find you are in an unhealthy relationship are:

  • Is there essential responsiveness
  • Can somebody take accountability and responsibility for their actions in the relationship? 
  • Can they identify their part in the distress?
  • Is there a desire to control or to have power over our partner? 
  • Are there elements of shaming and severe criticism present in the relationship?
  • Is there manipulation happening? 
  • Is one partner trying to isolate the other?
  • Is one partner threatening the other? 
  • Is verbal abuse happening?

According to Brittany, it's common to blame each other. However, partners should step back and realize their part in the problem. If one partner is insistent on blaming the other and claiming no-fault, then it becomes unhealthy.

Brittany recommends seeking individual therapy from a trained professional in domestic violence cases, a professional who has the background to help you keep safe. She also advises seeking domestic violence support.

Starting the Process of Healing

When starting the process of healing, Brittany refers to this time between her couples as a dance. Brittany begins by asking her clients to map out their dance and identify their part in the relationship. It is critical to be aware of:

  • What is happening to your body
  • What emotions you are feeling; and
  • Is there any judgment happening

Partners should become intimate with their dance and tell each other about it. The more open and willing to connect with your partner at this time, the higher likelihood of healing taking place. 

It is essential to identify emotions, bodily sensations, and the stories we tell ourselves. By learning how to communicate better with your partner, you can begin to break the pursue-withdraw cycle. If you find that your partnership needs help better communicating, Brittany suggests seeking the help of a relationship specialist.

Brittany says that when there is growth possible in the relationship, a healthy couple will be able to engage in their dance, self-reflective, and talk about their emotions.

Is Growth Possible?

Healing is a process; being aware of each other's roles and emotions takes time. It may be more challenging for some people to express themselves due to their previous experiences. 

However, having a hard time at first does not mean that the relationship is horrible or will not survive. Brittany emphasizes that her role as a couple's counselor is to help people grow and go through the transformational process. It's normal to have a hard time because the process takes vulnerability. 

However, if you cannot establish vulnerability and safety, consider individual counseling to heal from childhood trauma or past relationships. 

“Couples can do this work together because I really do believe that we heal best in trusted relationships with others,” Brittany says. If the wounds run too deep that you cannot show up in your relationship, that is a sign to work on yourself. 

Keys to a Healthy Relationship: Can This Relationship Be Saved?

If you have been working on fixing your relationship and have been in counseling for months, but nothing has changed, then you can use that valuable information to decide whether the relationship can be saved. 

Responsiveness is an essential factor in the survivorship of a relationship. We have to express what we need and see how someone responds to that. 

Healing requires vulnerability and baseline safety. If your partner disagrees, you may consider the possibility that they are not suited for you.

“It's okay to mess up and make mistakes, but there has to be a motivation to work on things, grow, and stay in it together,” says Brittany.

Pushing for the Future

It's part of our culture to encounter difficulties in being present and focusing on what's happening now. We often look forward, believing that the future will be better.

However, it’s important to look at your situation and relationship in the present. We must focus on:

  • What the relationship feels like now 
  • What is and what isn't serving us
  • What needs work; and 
  • Our willingness to put in that work towards the future we are desiring

Make sure that you and your partner have the same desires and expectations for the future. Evaluate and reflect if a compromise on healthy relationship expectations is needed. 

Attunement: The Heart of a Relationship

Attunement is the process of being present with our partner. Attunement is the goal; it is the entire heart of every relationship. It involves engaging in emotional responsiveness and vulnerability. 

If you feel disconnected, think about how you can find your way back to each other and if both of you are willing to take part in that process. It's critical to have that responsiveness, reciprocity, and respect in a relationship.

“You won't have attunement in a distressed relationship, but you can intentionally create it if both people are engaged in that process.”, says Brittany.

Resources

Brittany has shared invaluable advice on dealing with a distressed relationship and differentiating it from an unhealthy one. What did you connect and relate with the most? Feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment down below.

Did you like this interview? Subscribe to us now to discover how to live a life full of love, success, and happiness!

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Unhealthy Relationships

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Music Credits: The Black Pine, “The Morning After She Left”

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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.

That is The Black Pine with a song The Morning After She Left. When I listened to that song, I think about someone who has belatedly realized that maybe they made some mistakes in a relationship that it is now too late to repair. And that kind of regret is what can happen when people, over time, realize that the relationship that they've been in, or the series of relationships that they've been in, have not always been the healthiest or best for them. I think sometimes their partners feel that regret more than they do. 

What we see our clients here at Growing Self describe is this feeling often of newfound liberation, when they decide to stop engaging in relationships that are not good for them, and begin, instead, prioritizing their own health and happiness and well-being. And it's such a joy to be part of. 

It's an important topic, and one that I wanted to talk about on today's show because we see a ton of people here at Growing Self. A lot of relational work, we do couples counseling, relationship coaching, but we also help a lot of individual clients who are trying to get clear about their relationships and about themselves. Sometimes they're coming for help fixing a relationship, maybe with a partner who doesn't want to come to couples counseling. So they feel like they have to do it on their own. But sometimes it's from people who aren't quite sure if they're in a relationship, that they should spend a lot of time and energy on fixing. Somebody who's been in a relationship, that for five years, they're not married. It's kind of a mixed bag relationship. There are things that they're not really happy with, and the relationship is stalled. It's not moving forward, and they're coming to us for help around. “How hard should I try to make it work with this person?” And when do I just say, “You know what? I need to let this go, and move on, and find a better situation for myself?” That is a tough situation to be in, but one that I think is worth exploring and so that's what we're doing today on this episode of the podcast is talking about what a healthy relationship is, what a healthy foundation looks like. What is a sign that there's growth and opportunity possible, and what is a sign that there might not be growth and opportunity possible? 

To help me with those, I have invited my dear colleague. My colleague, Brittany Stewart, is a marriage and family therapist on our team here at Growing Self. She has a lot of experience working with people around this issue, both individuals and couples. Thank you, Brittany, so much for being here with me today.

Brittany Stewart: Oh, of course. Thank you so much for having me, Lisa. I'm really looking forward to having this conversation with you.

Dr. Lisa: Oh. Well, me too. It's one—I mean, I see you in our consultation groups and in our meetings. This is a topic that is clearly just such a passion for you. And that I see and I've always admired about you because it's not just enough for you to help people, like improve their relationships. You're always sort of listening to “How healthy is this relationship?” “Is this relationship good for both people in the relationship?” because those things really matter a lot. Sometimes, even if we can teach people how to communicate and do the skills, if there's not a healthy relationship structure underneath,  we need to have that on our radar. 

To jump into this topic, I mean, can you just talk a little bit about what are some of the things that you first notice or listen for? If you're working with—and we could take it one at a time but like a couple or an individual that might make you think, “Is this really a good situation fundamentally?” And we're not talking about capital A abuse. That is a different animal. But just like that sort of what's going on here?

Characteristics of a Healthy Relationship

Brittany: Yeah, that's a great question. I think the first thing that I'm always looking at is, “What is someone's experience of themselves and their partner in a relationship?” Like, what is the overall quality? Do they feel good about themselves in the relationship? Do they feel like the relationship benefits them, and serves them, and functions while in their life? Do they give their partner the benefit of the doubt? Right? 

When I start to hear that partners believe that their partner is ill-intentioned, or malicious, or doesn't have their best interests at heart, I can really hear that there's just been a lot of erosion in the relationship. That really affects how we see ourselves too. If we're not trusting our partner to be—to have our best intentions at heart, or to really hold us in their hearts in a positive and meaningful way, then that completely impacts how we see ourselves and how we function in the world.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Well, how we see ourselves—let's talk a little bit more about that. I heard you say that when someone believes that their partner is almost out to get them, or is hostile towards them, or is doing things maliciously, how does that begin to change the way someone feels about themselves?

Brittany: I think that can change a few different things about how we might see ourselves. Right? One might be that we start to believe that we're less worthy of experiencing love, and connection, and belonging. Even though, my hope is always that people know that's just inherent, and that doesn't change even with the status of our relationships or the quality of them. But it does impact that belief around ourselves. 

I think the other way it shows up is we might start to experience more anger, or we might start to be more hostile ourselves, or defensive, or aggressive. I think that it kind of forces us to take a look at how we're showing up in the world, and then feel really difficult, and murky to show up with those kinds of behaviors and emotions, and not know what to do with them.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, yeah. Oh, my goodness. The shame of regret that comes when somebody in an unhealthy relationship begins to—themselves show signs of that, like anger, or hostility, or shows up in weird ways. And then they think, “Oh my God, what am I doing? I'm not being a good partner. I'm not being a good mom,” or whatever it is that they internalize that. 

But then I've also heard you say, at the same time, they can be internalizing these messages from their partner that—I mean, I think what we both hear a lot is, “If you were better and if I loved you more, then I wouldn't treat you this way.” But it plays into that self-doubt, that “I'm not good enough,” that “The reason my partner is saying these things to me or not giving me the love that I need is because I'm not quite good enough. And if I were better, they would be behaving differently. They would be better to me, if I worked on myself.” Is that the trick that people get sucked into?

Brittany: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I think I see that a lot, especially, I mean, I would say I see it with people of all genders. Right? That they have this belief over time, whether it's through failed relationships, or chronic on again-off again, or just a long term relationship that has a lot of wounds in it that have never been healed. They really internalize this thought of like, “I have done something that makes me inherently unlovable or unworthy of having this healthy relationship or, have this healing.” And it's really difficult to sit in that. And my hope, again, is always that people know that's not true.

Dr. Lisa: Well, I'm glad that we're talking about this, though, because I think that what we're just putting our finger on right here is the—almost like subconscious core belief of people who come—will come in for help with their relationships is like, “Can this be fixed? Should I work on that?” Sometimes I think the place where we need to go to is what they're telling themselves about the relationship. If for example, they believe that their partner could be much different with a different person who was better than them, and if they just worked on themselves and became the person that their partner wants, then they could be loved. To talk about how, what if that isn't actually what is happening? What if this is how the person you're partnered with would show up, whether or not they were with a different person or a better version of you? That can be a big step sometimes, because I think that people really believe that they're the problem. 

First of all, let's just say for everybody within the sound of our voice, this is a process. There is not anything that Brittany or I am going to say. There is no piece of advice or wisdom that is going to help you jump over that mountain. But Brittany, when you're working with a client who is stuck in that place, where they've gotten tricked into believing bad things about themselves, where do you even begin? If somebody's listening to this right now who probably needs to do some of that work, where would they start?

Unhealthy Relationships

Brittany: Yeah. Well, I think that's a complicated question because I would approach it differently, right, if I'm just working with one person or been working with a couple. But I think the first step for any change is always just being really aware of what stories were even telling ourselves. And I love Brené Brown’s work. In her Netflix series, or in her Netflix special, when she says “The story I'm telling myself is…” Right. And so I always encourage clients to identify, “What is that story that we're telling ourselves?”

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. 

Brittany: And just to name it, and so if I'm sitting with an individual, can they just get really clear on what is that story they're telling themselves? Or if I'm working with a couple, can they just share with each other in a really disarming way? Like, “This is the story in my head.” Right? It may not be true, but it feels very real. And can they just get it out there and name it so that we can work with it? Then of course, it's really identifying like, “Can we challenge that?” “Is there really evidence that this… that the story you're telling yourself is true?” “Is it based in any sort of fact or reality, or is it just some emotion that's coming up, and we're trying to make sense of it, and the story is the best way that we're doing that?”

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Yeah. I get it. Just kind of cracking into that narrative and bringing it out into the open, and then just sort of looking at it together. Yeah.

Brittany: Yeah, and then I think, if I'm working with a couple, what can be really powerful about this, right, is we often don't share the story that's in our head in a disarming way. Usually, we're sharing it in a blaming way with our partner. We can tell so much about the health of a relationship and the ability of our partner to really be in it with us when we share that story just based on their response. Right? 

So if we share this awful story or this painful story we're telling ourselves, and our partner is able to move toward us and comfort us, and say, “Oh, my gosh. That's the story in your head? Let me help you with that. Right. That's not how I see it. That's not what I'm feeling.” That can be really powerful. Right? To help offer that reassurance. Or if there is that lack of comfort and responsiveness. And maybe that story gets reinforced, then that's a—I would say—that's a sign. Right? Or something else to look at deeper. Maybe that story is based in some truth about the relationship. Yeah.

Dr. Lisa: No, that's a great way of looking at this. So on that note too, so you—like all of the marriage counselors on the team here at Growing Self—practice evidence-based forms of couples counseling, and one of the things that the approaches that you've really focused on is one called emotionally-focused couples therapy that takes a closer look at the attachment needs of two people in a relationship. What we know from research into emotionally-focused therapy is that when people are in distressed relationships, it impacts—and because relationships are a system—I mean, people impact each other. Right? But what we see is that both people are impacted in such a way that they both stop—how do I say this?—being the best version of themselves. I mean, being in a distressed relationship creates reactions in each person that can be hurtful, and can sort of support that negative cycle.

I think it's important to talk about that because we expect that in a distressed relationship. Just because that's happening doesn't necessarily mean that it is a fundamentally unhealthy relationship. It's just that we need to do that work of healing. So let's just even start there. I mean, when you're working with a couple who has not been in a great place for a year or three—I mean, for a lot of couples, it takes a while to show up in our office. But what would you expect to see that would be normal?

Brittany: Oh, yeah. So usually, right? EFT, or emotionally-focused couples therapy talks about—we get into this dance with our partner, and every one of us has a dance in our relationship. It's totally normal, and it's part of being in an attachment relationship. So what I might see that is really normal, I would say the most common thing I see is what we call like the pursuer-distancer or the pursuer-withdrawer. This looks like when partners are in distress, and one partner might like protest, as Sue Johnson calls it.And they might start to demand, or criticize, or try to get any sort of engagement from their partner. Right? They're just seeking some sort of reassurance or comfort, but it comes out in a way that might be kind of critical or…

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Angry.

Brittany: …and distressing to their partner. When that happens, their partner then gets overwhelmed, and kind of withdraws, or shuts down. It kind of reinforces the cycle over and over again. The more one person shuts down, the bigger one person gets. The more the other partner shuts down, and so on, and so forth. I would say that's the most common thing I see and it's really, really normal or common. I guess, I would say, it's really, really common. 

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. 

Brittany: There's a lot we can do with that, because really what we know underneath, right?  When there's basic safety there, right? This isn't an abusive relationship. Again, this is a healthy relationship overall, is that we normalize that distress, and we try to identify what's really happening underneath that. Right? There's usually some core attachment need for comfort, or safety, or connection, or anything like that. Just really vulnerable attachment need that isn't being met, and we're just scared to ask for it in that way. 

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Relationships

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, yeah. I'm so glad that you said all that. I think it's important to put that out there because I think that's part of what can get confusing for people who are like, “Is this a bad relationship? Is this an unhealthy relationship?” Because if you're in a distressed relationship with someone who is engaging with you in a way that makes you sort of feel like withdrawing, and avoiding conversations. The perception from that position is that you're living with somebody who's critical, and judgmental, and never quite happy with you, and always complaining about something, and who wants you to be something that you're not. I mean, that is the inner experience. Right? On the other side of it, the person is experiencing their partner's being withdrawn or avoided. “They never talk to me. They shut me out. They ignore me.” It doesn't matter. They just don't like…

Brittany: They don't care. 

Dr. Lisa: They’re emotionally checked out. They don't care. Right. When somebody comes into our office and is like, “This is what's happening at home. They don't care, they're checked out, they'd make me feel like watching ESPN is more important than our marriage.” That's how it feels. We also need to talk about the fact that this is normal in a distressed relationship, and that this—because this is happening doesn't mean that you're in a bad relationship necessarily. But it does require a path of healing, where you can start in a safe place talking about the things that are important. Kind of get reconnected. And I also just want to say, again, that is not a like, “Do these two easy things, and it'll be all better.” This is a process that requires…

Brittany: Absolutely.

Dr. Lisa: …probably months of, “How do we find this?” So there's setting everybody's expectations. Okay, so there's that. That is normal and expected distressed relationship. How would you say that is different from somebody who is in a relationship, that may feel in some ways similarly, but is actually not a healthy relationship? Do you think that there are sort of like markers that we can look at, or think about that would indicate what is this? Or does it really require that assessment process? Do you have to start doing the work to try to fix it, and then see what happens? How do you begin to sort that out?

Brittany: Yeah. I mean, sometimes, I think that we assess very early on so it can kind of become apparent very quickly. If there is just this common distress happening, and we can work with that. Or if it's actually that there's something unhealthy, or problematic, or unsafe happening in the relationship. I think general markers. right? Like the thing I'm always looking for is, “Is there like basic responsiveness?” “Can somebody take accountability and responsibility for their actions in the relationship?” “Can they identify their part and the distress?” And if not, right? I think, again, it's common to experience where we get caught in blaming each other. But usually, we're able to eventually step back and say, “Oh, I can see that I do have a part in this.” If we're just really inherent, or really set on blaming our partner and absolving ourselves of any part of the distress, I think that that's problematic. 

Then looking for things like, is there a desire to control or to have power over our partner? Is there—are there elements of shaming, and just really deep criticism present in the relationship? Is there manipulation happening? Is there—is one partner trying to isolate their partner? Are they threatening their partner? Is there verbal abuse happening? Those are some markers that I think are indicative of there being a bigger problem in a relationship, beyond just common distress. 

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, I get that. Just to say out loud, what you're also talking about are markers that we would associate with domestic violence, or intimate partner violence like the power, and control, the isolation, manipulation. Just to say very, very clearly, it is never appropriate for an ethical couples counselor to attempt any kind of couples counseling in the presence of actual domestic violence or intimate partner violence. It is just a no-go situation. We would not do that because it's not safe ever. That's not what we're talking about here. 

In those situations Brittany, if somebody was listening to this and being like, “Oh, no. It's actually violent.” Just for the record, what should they do?

Brittany: Oh, absolutely. I would always recommend they both go seek individual therapy, right? Is there something that can be done to help both partners, or at least a safety plan, or do something that really will establish safety for both partners, especially the victims.

Dr. Lisa: There's a wonderful national resource, it's called thehotline.org. Day and night, you can call or chat with one of their representatives, who can help you either on the spot if it's an emergency or also provide you access to all kinds of resources through community mental health agencies, like safe houses, that kind of thing. So if you're really in trouble, go thehotline.org. Brittany's recommendation is to get involved in individual therapy, ideally with someone who has that background to help you get safe. So that is not what we're talking about. 

But Brittany, so what we're talking about is sort of the—if there's a spectrum of basic safety in a relationship, and it's starting to get to this link, I don't know, sort of area. As a couples counselor, if you've determined that it's okay to continue working with a couple, it's not that bad that you are going to pull the plug… what are some of the things that you would want to be talking about with that couple? The things that you're seeing the patterns? Again, it's not a process. It's not information all necessarily. It's a process. But where would you hope to take that process and what would you expect to come from it?

Brittany: Yeah. I always start by helping couples what we call like mapping their dance. Right? So they're each identifying what moves are they both making in the dance? Are they doing different dances with each other? How are they showing up? And will actually map it out and say, “This is what I'm doing.” And part of the things that they're becoming more aware of—are some of the things they're becoming more aware of—are what's happening in their body. Right? Because we know that emotion shows up in our bodies first. 

So usually, even if it's subconscious, or even if we're not really aware of it, there's probably some somatic sensation happening in our body that were triggered by, that's telling us that distress is happening, or there's a loss of connection happening. It kind of sets the stance in motion. So I'm asking each partner to identify, “What's happening in your body?” “Can you just check in and notice what's happening?” “What emotions are coming up for you?” Can they name, right? Are they experiencing anger? Are they having… experiencing sadness? Is there judgment happening? What are they thinking right now? What emotions are coming up? 

Then I ask them to name a story they're telling themselves, and this includes the story about themselves, about their partners, about their relationship. Right? So these might be the like, “I'm not worthy. They don't love me. Our relationship is broken.” Whatever story they're telling themselves, and they name it, and then identify what do they do with that. Right? 

Because usually those three things: the emotions, and the sensations in our body, and the stories we're telling ourselves become too much. And so then we kind of.. we react. How we all handle that distress is going to be different. That's when we might protest, and become critical, or it might become too much, and we might completely shut down and say, “I'm going to go ahead and move into self preservation and shut down.” So it's really important that the couples just become really intimate with what is their dance? Can they map it? Can they tell each other about it? Can they do this together—most importantly, versus… it's me versus you. It's—this is our dance, and we're going to talk about it, and figure it out together. And so the first step is really just naming it, getting really familiar with this. 

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. So that's what you—what sounds like the place where you would always star. And I think what I'm hearing is that with a couple where there was growth possible, they would be able to engage in that, and be self-reflective, and talk about, “Yeah. This is how I feel. And when you do this, I do that.” And kind of that awareness. How would you contrast that with a couple, maybe that you started working with where you started to think, “Yeah, I don't know if how much growth is possible here.” How would it be different?

Brittany: Yeah. I mean, I always try to give it a little bit of time, right? Because this attachment work can be really deep. And sometimes it's harder for people, depending on experiences they've already had in their life. If they never have experienced a secure attachment, it might take them a little bit of time. We might have to map it over and over and over again, and give them kind of homework to “go and just see what you notice.” If they can't really identify, so that's one thing that might come up.

Building Relationships

Dr. Lisa: Thank you for saying that. Yeah. Because that's really important. Because just if that—if it's not easy to do at first, doesn't mean that it's a horrible relationship that needs to end. It means that there is a therapeutic component involved. And that's why we're here is to help people grow, and go through that transformational process.

Brittany: Absolutely.

Dr. Lisa: And so at the beginning, it's normal that it's not easy to do that. Okay. Thank you. Yeah. 

Brittany: Oh, yeah. Yeah, this is—it takes vulnerability. This process is really vulnerable. And we have to ease into that. But if beyond that, right? If we're not ever able to kind of establish that safety to feel vulnerable, and to do this work, then there might come a point, right? Where I might suggest that someone does some individual work around some emotional intelligence, or if they maybe have some attachment stuff to heal from their childhoods, or past relationships, or whatever it might be that's coming up for them. 

I do—I hope as always, that couples can do this work together because I really do believe that we heal best, and trust that relationships with others. And sometimes we need some individual work just to support us, and identifying what's happening for us, before we share it with our partner, or therapists in the couple setting.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, to work on yourself. If the wounds run so deep, that you're really not able to show up in a healthy way in your relationship, that's a sign that you need to work on yourself a little bit. I would imagine that for someone who will be very unlikely to be able to have a healthy relationship, they would reject that idea, and they would not want to do individual work. So that would be a sign. I would think that it's probably not going to work out, at least in a healthy way for you. 

Brittany: Yeah, right. Absolutely. I think that at that point, it's up to everyone to decide, “Is this something that I'm willing to kind of wade out, and hope that my partner changed their mind?” Or yeah, changes their mind? Or, “Do I really have to kind of accept that they're not in a place to do this growth work right now?”

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Completely.

Brittany: “Maybe that's not going to serve either of us or this relationship?”

Is My Relationship Healthy?

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Well, this is really clarifying because I think a lot of people that are stuck in this conundrum, are in a place where they're trying to figure out, “Is this relationship healthy?” “Can this relationship be saved?” “How much do I want to invest in this relationship?” before having had the opportunity to do the kind of work that you're talking about Brittany?” So they're attempting to make these major life decisions without having the information that they need because after four months of working with Brittany, and there's no movement, and Brittany is recommending that your partner go to individual therapy, and they're refusing— that is good information upon which you could make a life decision. But before you've done that, it's like you don't even know what's possible or not and that is what feels so paralyzing.

Brittany: Yeah, yeah. I think, something that I see with—even people in the dating-coaching world, right? Who are seeking relationships, and also individuals, and people in relationships, is they're just hoping that they can read the mind of whoever they're dating, or their partner, and just know what's going to be possible, or if it's going to be a functional, healthy relationship. Really, I think that responsiveness is just so important. We have to be able to express what we're needing, what we're wanting, what our core needs are, and see how someone responds to that. Which really does require that vulnerability and baseline safety to do that. But how does somebody respond to us, right? When we say that we really want this type of relationship, we want a secure attachment, we want to be able to express emotions, how does somebody respond to that? And if it's—they're pushing back on it, or that's not what they believe in a relationship, then maybe that partner is not suited for us. Or are they interested in doing that, and they want to do that work, and are we willing to allow space for that growth to happen?

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, yeah. Well—and that's, that's a wonderful way, and certainly for people who are maybe single and in that dating coaching realm, because we often work with a lot of individual clients who are interested in creating healthy relationships. I think what I have certainly experienced are, oftentimes, people who have become aware that their last several relationships haven't really been great for them. So they come to us for help with, “Okay, what do I need to do differently this time to connect from the get go with somebody who will be a better fit for me? How am I showing up in relationships?” So that's an important area of growth work. 

What I'm hearing you say is that one of the keys to that is, as you're developing a new relationship with someone, just to be really observant. “How is this person responding to me over and over and over again?” And from that, begin to figure out, “Okay, can they respond to me?” But it's so hard, though, because at the same time, if your core narrative is, “But if I were more lovable, they would be nicer to me,” or whatever it was. And if they're saying, “Well, if you were just not X, Y, Z, then I wouldn't be so snappy with you.” It can be so hard as an individual to figure this out and sort it out. It’s complicated.

Brittany: Complicated. Yeah. It really is. Which is why I think responsiveness also includes like, “This is hard for me. I don't know what to do with this. But I want to be in this with you.” 

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Right.

Brittany: “I want us to figure it out together.” It's okay not to have the answers. It's okay to mess up and make mistakes and not get it right. We're all not going to get it right sometimes in our relationships. But where's that motivation to work on things, and to grow, and to stay in it together?

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. And yeah, so you're saying that in a healthy relationship, you should be hearing some version of that from a partner who has the capacity to be responsive to you? 

Brittany: Yeah. 

Dr. Lisa: Could grow with you? 

Brittany: Yeah. 

Being Present in Relationships

Dr. Lisa: Okay. So now one last aspect of this I want to run past you. I think another trap that people can fall into, particularly women, although I see this happen with men too. When they've been in a relationship, and maybe for the last couple of years, it's a long distance relationship. Or maybe they've been dating, but they're not living together and one person is, “I really—I want to live with you. I don't want to be long distance anymore. I want to get married.” In their mind, there is the sometimes subconscious core belief that goes, “Because if we weren't long distance, this experience would be different. Or when we get married, this experience will be different than it is right now.” 

That is what they're sort of holding—so they're really pushing for this future thing. But that—what they may be missing is like warning signs of an unhealthy relationship that they have interpreted, as well, “When we get married, this won't happen anymore.” Have you noticed that? And could you speak to that?

Brittany: Yeah. I mean, I think I noticed that in both unhealthy relationships and also just relationships that might be healthy but are having some distress. 

Dr. Lisa: Okay. 

Brittany: I think it's just part of our culture that it's really hard for us to be present and focus on what's happening now. Right? And so we, of course, we create this idea in our head that the future will be better, and there's like that hope which is positive, and the future might be better. The only thing that changes with time is what we do with it. So it's really important that we focus on what does the relationship feel like now? What's serving us? What isn't serving us? What needs work, and are we willing to put in that work so that we can have that ideal future we're thinking of?

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. 

Brittany: Or we're thinking, it won’t be present in the future, or this dynamic will be different in the future. What are we both going to do now…

Dr. Lisa: Right.

Brittany: …to help that be a reality? Or is there something actually happening now that is really unhealthy, and i just need to be really aware of it, and name it?

Dr. Lisa: Yeah.

Brittany: And maybe walk away from something that isn't serving me anymore.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. To differentiate, “Will it actually be better once we're married or whatever?” Or “Is this the way this—is this actually the relationship?” And Brittany, what you're saying again is there needs to be effort on both sides to—okay, “How do you imagine it would be once we are married or whatever, and how close to that can we get before this?” Because that's kind of the sign that it would actually be different once you are married, or once you were living in the same town, or whatever, in terms of the emotional responsiveness and the empathy. Is that it?

Brittany: Absolutely. Do you both have the same expectations? Right?

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. 

Brittany: What I am—and this is part of like naming that story again—is what I'm naming, “Is that true for you as well?” Right? Or “Do we have the same expectations, the same hope for our future?” “Are we both hoping that this dynamic is different in the future?” Or “Is this maybe uncomfortable, or painful, or difficult for me, and to you it feels fine?” 

Dr. Lisa: Yeah.

Brittany: If so, that's a conversation that we need to talk about and see. Are there some—is there a compromise that needs to happen? Is there something that actually does need to be addressed and healed? Or is this something that's going to cause a really big rupture, and maybe the relationship is not going to work long-term?

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. What a great point because if this feels intolerable to me and it's perfectly fine for you—how close—how can we close that gap at all? If the answer is no, or there's not willingness on one side to have it be different, that's important information that is worth listening to.

Brittany: Yeah. Absolutely.

Dr. Lisa: Wow. What a great conversation about such an important topic. I know we need to wrap things up here in a second. But do you have anything else to add on that question around healthy relationships versus unhealthy relationships, and how to tell the difference?

Brittany: Yeah. I think, really, what it comes down to—I tell every couple of this that I work with, “My hope is that you can walk away with what we call attunement, and know how to practice attunement.” Attunement is really just like a process of being present with our partners. It's where we engage in that emotional response—responsiveness, where we can turn to our partner, we feel like we can be vulnerable. Even if something is difficult, or painful, or uncomfortable, we really trust that our partner is going to be in it with us. 

So I encourage partners, “If you're feeling disconnected, or you're feeling like you're not in attunement, that's okay. But how can you find your way back to each other and do you both take part in that process?” I think it's just so, so critical to have that responsiveness and reciprocity in relationships.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. I love that, especially with the idea that you were talking about earlier, That in a distressed relationship you won't have that attunement because of that pursue-withdraw cycle. Yet it is something that can be intentionally created if both people are engaged in that process. so that that's the goal, though, is that attunement. That's really the fundamental heart of every relationship is that emotional connection, emotional intimacy, feeling of emotional safety. That’s the goal, and that's what is present in healthy relationships and what feels you know fundamentally not possible, even with work in relationships that aren't healthy. Is that a good way to summarize it?

Brittany: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

Dr. Lisa: Well, Brittany,  thank you again so much for your time and meeting with me today. This was wonderful. Thank you.

Brittany: Oh, of course. Thanks so much for having me, Lisa.

Dr. Lisa: You can learn more about Brittany and her work as a marriage counselor, a couples therapist, an online relationship coach at growingself.com. While you're there, you can also take our free, “How Healthy Is Your Relationship?” online quiz. You can take it yourself, you can share it with your partner, and then you can compare results. It's an easy kind of lowkey way to get a snapshot of your relationship with its opportunities for growth, as well as its strength. So you can check all that out and more at growingself.com and I will be back in touch next week with another episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast.


Keys To A Successful Marriage During Quarantine

Keys To A Successful Marriage During Quarantine

Keys To A Successful Marriage During Quarantine

Connecting with your partner

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In a time of rampant uncertainty, it is reasonable to experience anxiety and fear, as so many around the world are. As an online therapist and marriage counselor, many of my clients are experiencing new challenges and growth opportunities in their partnerships. Today I am sharing my top three keys to a successful marriage during quarantine. 

Couples around the globe are worried about their financial security, meeting basic needs, taking care of loved ones, and protecting the health of their families, themselves, and their communities. 

We are inundated with news of an ever-escalating public health crisis, which can severely disrupt our ability to be present and to feel grounded. Many couples and families are finding themselves together at home more now than ever before. This can be quite tough to navigate as partners are working from home and tending to children who are now without their usual forms of childcare and school. 

Needless to say, we are all facing an increasing amount of stressors, which can lead to increased disconnect and conflict for couples during this time in close quarters. However, if we look for them and actively cultivate them, there are opportunities for increased connection and intimacy through these trying times. 

The keys to a successful marriage during quarantine will open up new dialogue and growth opportunities between you and your partner.

Create And Maintain Rituals Of Connection

Daily routines and structures have now been interrupted, but that doesn’t mean we can’t create new supportive structures and connection in our daily lives. 

Without long daily commutes and shuffling kids to activities you might find that you now have more time at home. The reason I most often hear from couples as to why they have limited connection is simply, time. 

“We just don’t have enough time in the day to connect with each other in the way we’d like.” 

In this moment we have, in many cases, been given the gift of time. Time to slow down, time to talk to each other, time to connect. So why not create a new routine for your days, one focused exclusively on connecting with each other. 

A ritual of connection is something we can easily create that doesn’t require money or leaving the house. I encourage couples to create a ritual of connection that they can engage in daily. It can take five minutes, or an hour. There can be plenty of flexibility in creating rituals. I’ve listed some possible rituals you might try below.

  • Have your morning or coffee together and share your hopes for the day
  • Take a break in your day and go for a walk outside (of course while still practicing social distancing with others)
  • Have lunch together
  • Start and end your day with a slow kiss and warm embrace
  • Check in about your day by asking each other for a high and low point of the day
  • Share gratitude with each other 

Make Space For All Emotions

Inevitably we all handle stress, anxiety, and fear differently- and that’s okay! 

When we notice our partner is worried or overwhelmed, it can be easy to launch into solution mode. This isn’t always necessary or helpful though. Instead, when you notice that your partner is worried or overwhelmed, you might tell them that whatever they are feeling is okay and makes sense. 

Ask them what they are feeling and thinking and ask how you can support them. Ask how they prefer to be comforted when they are feeling the emotions they express, and if you are able, move to comfort them in that way. 

Some people might need a warm embrace while others might need to do something to regulate and practice self-care like meditate or engage in some form of movement. Inevitably, it’s likely that your partner could benefit from hearing that you are there with them and that they are not alone in this

Try to validate your partner as much as possible, and if you find yourself having a hard time understanding what is happening for them, be curious! Ask them to tell you more about what this is like for them. Avoid telling them that they are overreacting or that their emotions are wrong as this can lead to disconnect and conflict.

Share Gratitude

In a time when stress and anxieties are elevated and people have very real worries, it can be helpful to make space for gratitude where possible. 

Try to spend 5 minutes with each other each day to share what you are grateful for in your relationship. Perhaps you’re grateful for having more time for rituals of connection, or time to play in the yard with your kids as a family. 

Share gratitude for your bond that gives you the strength to be resilient during hard times and hope for the future. Share gratitude for the qualities in your partner that help keep you grounded, like their sense of humor or kindness for the community you live in. 

Remind yourselves of the bond you share and ground yourselves in these truths during this time.

My hope for you and your partner is that as you implement these three keys to a successful marriage during quarantine you will cultivate greater connection and a stronger bond between the two of you.

Here’s to you and your partner surviving quarantine together!

Warmly, 
Brittany Stewart, M.A., LMFT-C

How are you turning toward your partner during this time? Do you have a favorite ritual you like to engage in with your partner? Leave it in the comments for others to get inspired!

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Brittany Stewart, M.A., LMFT-C is an online couples counselor, individual therapist, premarital counselor, and a life and relationship coach. She works with her clients to build connected relationships, restore emotional bonds, and grow in their capacity to love others as well as themselves.

Let's  Talk

Real Help For Your Relationship

Lots of couples go through challenging times, but the ones who turn "rough-patches" into "growth moments" can come out the other side stronger and happier than ever before.

 

Working with an expert couples counselor can help you create understanding, empathy and open communication that felt impossible before.

 

Start your journey of growth together by scheduling a free consultation.

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Invest In Yourself

Invest In Yourself

Invest In Yourself

You Deserve Compassionate Support

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As a therapist, life coach, and marriage counselor, I admire each and every person who gathers the courage to schedule an appointment with me and seek support for themselves, their relationships, or their families. I know that they're investing in themselves because they believe they are worthy of investing in. Such self-awareness, wisdom and healthy self-love is always inspiring.

Do You Prioritize Everything Except Yourself?

Too many people put themselves on the bottom of the heap, investing in every other aspect of their lives — their education, their career, their children, their friendships, their homes — but rarely their own personal wellness, or their hearts desire. Is this you?

If so, you probably put off investing in yourself, getting professional help, and taking positive action to improve your life… though you're there for everyone else. You may think about it sometimes but quickly talk yourself out of it, minimize your feelings, or prioritize someone else's needs

If this sounds familiar, my guess is that you would describe yourself as a naturally strong person, but the downside of “being strong” is that sometimes it comes with a price: Not taking care of you, the way you take care of others.

But it's easy not to take care of you, isn't it? Especially when it comes to things like getting involved in therapy, couples counseling or life coaching. There are so many persistent myths in our culture about all the reasons NOT to get support, and it's time to bash them! 

What's Keeping YOU From Investing In Yourself?

Let's talk through some of the most common reasons I hear for why people avoid getting help and investing in themselves, and why they're not true!

Myth #1: “Therapy should be reserved for times when you really need it, and I don’t have it ‘that bad.'” 

This is one I hear frequently, even when people have resolved to book a therapy or coaching appointment with me. 

Believe it or not, even people in a lot of pain sometimes feel guilty for doing something to help themselves. They tell me about challenges they face, or hard things they're grappling with but then quickly say, “But so many others around the world have it so much worse. I'm really so lucky.” 

While being grateful and keeping things in perspective is a wonderful strength to have, it's also a liability if it makes you feel like you don't have a right to your feelings, or can't feel sad, angry or hurt about something true for you. 

As a feminist-oriented therapist, I am always happy to have a conversation about power and privilege, and I firmly believe that we are all worthy of healing and belonging. 

If there is something in your life that feels painful or difficult to overcome, my hope for you is to feel like you deserve to be supported just as much as anyone else. 

If you feel guilty when you think about making your feelings a priority, think about it this way: investing in yourself as a way to make yourself even stronger, and more able to give empathy and compassion to other people. 

Truth: Your experience and your emotions matter. YOU matter. 

Myth #2: Therapy is for couples who are on the brink of ending their relationship or divorcing. We aren’t there yet, we can fix this on our own. 

Too many couples buy into this. 

Perhaps conflict in your relationship occurs fairly infrequently currently, yet when it does occur you notice that you and your partner tend to sweep things under the rug and avoid addressing the conflict. You might write this off to a one-time thing, or feel that because it’s infrequent, it won’t matter in the long run. 

However, each time we sweep conflict under the rug or avoid it all together, we are slowly solidifying the pattern of our relationship. This pattern makes it not only more likely that conflict will become more frequent, but potentially also increasingly eruptive and ultimately, more damaging to your bond over time. 

If you happen to notice early in your relationship that you and your partner are conflict avoidant, talk about reaching out to a therapist or a relationship coach so that you can identify effective ways to face conflict together and strengthen your bond and understanding of each other.

Myth #3: If we go to couples counseling we are admitting that our relationship is unhealthy. 

We know from marriage and family researchers Drs. John and Julie Gottman that conflict is inevitable in every relationship. What separates “healthy” couples from “unhealthy” couples is what they DO with it. 

The healthiest, happiest, strongest couples are the ones who openly address their differences and find ways of proactively, constructively working through things together. Couples who do this important growth work strengthen their relationships. Couples who seek support for their relationship, and who are open to learning how to communicate and compromise will have more positive outcomes. Investing in their relationships sets them up for success long-term.

Couples who avoid this work, or who allow unresolved conflict to simmer, fester, and become increasingly toxic are inadvertently damaging their relationship. By sweeping things under the rug and not getting help for their relationship, they are increasing the likelihood that their relationship will fail. 

Furthermore, research into couples and family therapy shows that the couples who choose to work together on their relationship sooner rather than later have better outcomes. Any marriage counselor will tell you that it's much easier to work with a couple who still like, love, and trust each other. 

Couples who wait, ignore problems, and let anger and resentment build up often enter couples counseling on the brink of divorce. There is so much regrettable history between them, so much hurt, and so much damage done that — even with the best marriage counseling — sometimes their relationship is simply too far gone to repair. 

Investing in your marriage sooner rather than later is like taking care of your health: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

Myth #4: I’m too busy, whatever I’m dealing with can wait, it will be too expensive, and / or there just isn’t any time. 

When I was in graduate school a common phrase we heard was “What we resist, persists,” and the more I sit with couples and individuals in my office, the more I find this to be true. 

I frequently meet with those that have been “avoiding” therapy by placing it lower and lower on their list of priorities and by the time they’re in my office, they are overwhelmed and exhausted from carrying their distress for so long. 

Often times, these are the individuals who spend a great deal of time taking care of others and rarely make time for themselves or their own needs. Or they are couples with children and stressful careers and aging parents who truly can’t fathom stepping away for an hour for fear of everything falling apart.

Or sometimes people put this off because they're worried about how much therapy, life coaching or marriage counseling will cost…. Without considering the value investing in themselves will bring to their lives. They'll spend money on furniture, vacations, or home improvement projects without much thought. But when it comes to investing in their own health and happiness, their success, or in their most cherished relationships… they stop themselves. 

One way to shift this self-limiting perspective is to think about this from the other side. Asking yourself questions like: 

  • “What is the cost of me NOT investing in myself?”
  • “What is the real price of me continuing to feel unhappy, or dissatisfied with my life?”
  •  “What am I losing, long term, by NOT investing in myself, or in my career, or in my marriage?”
  • “How is neglecting myself, my happiness and my relationship impacting my children?”
  • “How is the way I'm currently living impacting my health?”
  •  How much will it cost me — in dollars and cents — if we get divorced, or I never achieve my full earning potential in my career?”

When you put the short-term investment in yourself in context of the costs or benefits to aspects of your life that are genuinely priceless… it changes your perspective.

You Deserve Love, Happiness and Success

I want you to know that I see you, and that your well-being and happiness matters just as much as anyone else’s. You deserve space to cultivate growth and healing; you deserve time to rest and reset. You can’t pour from an empty cup, and you don’t have to carry this alone.   

 If you see yourself or your relationship in any of the myths above, my hope for you would be to spend some time reflecting on what is keeping you from this work. 

Remember though, whenever you are working with a coach or a therapist, you aren’t in this work alone. Are there other myths or beliefs you have that keep you from reaching out for support? Comment below and let's continue this conversation!

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Brittany Stewart, M.A., LMFT-C is a couples counselor, individual therapist, premarital counselor, and a life and relationship coach. She works with her clients to build connected relationships, restore emotional bonds, and grow in their capacity to love others as well as themselves.

Let's  Talk

Read More by Brittany Below!

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How to Improve Communication — Fast

How to Improve Communication — Fast

How to Improve Communication — Fast

Turn Conflict into Connection

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“Why do we keep having the same argument over and over again? How do we move past this?”

As a marriage counselor, I hear this all the time. Whether I'm sitting with a couple in my office for marriage counseling in Broomfield, or meeting with a couple for online marriage counseling, the struggle is real: Couples get stuck in predictable cycles of conflict, and once there, it's hard to get unstuck.

 

I'm here today to give you a roadmap for how to stop the cycle of arguing, and improve communication in your relationship.

 

First, let's talk about predictable cycles of conflict. A predictable cycle is when you know that the conversation or the action taking place leads to “the conflict zone,” and yet feels impossible to stop. These moments are not unfamiliar, and often in my couples therapy sessions, these conflict patterns show up in dialogue between partners.

 

Know that you are not alone; Your relationship is not broken. These cycles of conflict are common, but they are also an opportunity for personal growth and growth within your relationship.

 

Research-Based Couples Therapy For Real-World Relationships

 

Dr. Sue Johnson, the primary developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy (an evidence based approach to marriage counseling, and the one I practice), wittily describes these communication patterns as “Demon Dialogues.”

 

Dr. Johnson shares that we most often fall into these ways of communicating when we are feeling disconnected from our partners. I bet that is true for you, too.

 

To interrupt and overcome this pattern within your relationship, you will both need first to understand what it is, and how you can work through it together to cultivate a healthy relationship and connection.

 

Here's a real-world example of what happens when a negative cycle of conflict takes over your relationship:

 

Joe and Angie sought couples counseling with me after months of “miscommunication,” frequent arguments over reportedly small matters, and lost intimacy. Joe would shut down and withdraw, and Angie would try and try to get him to talk, and get increasingly angry with him when he didn't seem to listen or care.

 

Angie voiced in their first session the struggle she had getting Joe to communicate within the relationship. She was really frustrated by the lack of emotional intimacy they shared. She felt really disconnected, and she was hurt and angry because it seemed like Joe didn't care or understand her. Angie felt like she was the only one fighting for the relationship.

 

Joe felt differently; it wasn’t that he didn’t care about the relationship. He cared a lot, and was inwardly upset when Angie was upset (even though you couldn't always tell from the outside).

 

He felt as though his efforts were overlooked and even when he tried it was never enough to make Angie happy. Deep down he was worried that he didn't even know what would make her happy, or that he would ever figure it out.

 

Joe found it easier to retreat from his wife’s complaints than to get drawn into an argument that neither of them could win. So he shut down, in part to protect himself but also to protect the relationship.

 

However, as Joe retreated, Angie became more persistent, which led Joe to withdraw further, which made Angie more upset… creating an unending negative communication cycle. This cycle, or dance, continues to grow stronger the more frequently it occurs. (And it occurred more and more frequently as time when on.)

 

Can you relate? Has this happened between you and your partner?

 

If you have, you know that when you are in this dance with your partner, it can feel like a revolving door – one that you both get stuck in and that whirls you around and around. It feels like everything happens so fast, and before you know it you're in that same argument again.

 

What we often forget when we find ourselves in these patterns is that a revolving door can slow, and we can exit. When we exit this dance with our partner, we can create a new one fostered by empathy, compassion, and connection.

 

Five Steps to Improve Communication In Your Relationship

 

Interrupting this dance and creating one that is increasingly harmonious, liberating, and compassionate is possible for you and your partner. Here are five practical steps you can take together to move into new healthy patterns within your relationship.

 

1.       Name It to Tame It

In order to improve communication in your relationship, you must first see how what you say and do impacts your partner. We cannot change or heal that which we are not aware of. Begin working to notice and increase your awareness of the moves you make in the dance so that you can create a path out. Once you are aware of the dance, you can deliberately choose to not proceed in the usual pattern.

 

Once you are clear about what YOU usually do when you're heading towards an argument with your partner, you can say so. This way, you can signal to your partner when you notice the conflict cycle, and instead of getting wrapped up into the dance, you can work together to move in a different direction.

 

Need help identifying your dance? Try completing the following exercise by Dr. Johnson: “The more I _____, the more you _____, and then the more I _____, and round and round we go.”

 

For example, once Angie had more self awareness around the feelings that came up for her when Joe shuts down she was able to own them. She could say, “I know I'm getting angry, and I can see that this is shutting you down. The more you shut down, the more upset I get. Let's do something different this time.”

 

She broke the pattern, and they could finally have a different conversation. (Instead of a conflict!)

 

2.       Stay Present Focused

I know, you hear this all the time but staying focused on the present will allow your relationship to evolve with time. If you remain rooted in the past, you will continue to struggle with past conflicts. If you want to interrupt this destructive dance, then you have to open yourself up to what’s happening at this moment and share it with your partner.

 

If our friend Joe said, “You always yell and criticize me!” in a moment when Angie is calmly talking about her feelings… that's just not helpful. Staying rooted in the present moment gives you the chance to notice when your partner is trying. Let them be different, and your relationship can change for the better.

 

3.       Be Specific

When you speak vaguely about what is happening in your relationship or expect your partner to pick up on subtle cues (maybe even read your mind) you are not setting yourself up for success.

 

Being explicit about your experience and your needs when speaking to your partner will give them a helping hand in understanding what it is that you need. It can feel overwhelming when we are unsure of what our partners are asking of us – which often leads to a disconnect or emotional shutdown.

 

When Angie started to ask Joe things like, “I would like to tell you about my day and have you ask me questions (but not give me advice.) That would help me feel more connected with you.

Can we do that even for just fifteen minutes?” Joe was very happy to sit with her and listen. That was a much better strategy for both of them than her slamming cabinets in the kitchen.

 

4.       Dig Deeper, Go Beneath the Surface

Anger and frustration are the most readily voiced emotions my clients share in our sessions. I often say that anger is the low hanging fruit – it’s easily accessible, it can protect us, and it signals to others that something is wrong.

 

While anger serves an essential purpose, it often is a sign that other emotions are lingering beneath the surface. These emotions are known as primary emotions. When you identify and share these emotions with your partner during the conflict, you can often grow closer and strengthen your bond.

 

It changed everything for Joe and Angie when Angie could say, “You know, I'm not even angry right now. I'm actually hurt. I feel so sad when it seems like you're not interested in me, or you don't seem to care about how I feel.” Joe had a completely different reaction to hearing Angie say she was sad. It made her seem softer, and more approachable. And Joe really loved Angie, and cared that she was hurting. When he could communicate that to her, in a moment of softness, their relationship started to heal.

 

5.       Give Yourself Time and Patience

Above all else, permit yourself to be human and to error as you work hard to interrupt this pattern. This process takes time, patience, continuous effort, and vulnerability. But I believe it is worth all the hard work because it is possible to find a new way to be in a relationship. I believe you can find your way out of a dead end and back into a meaningful connection.

 

Wishing you peace, love, and connection

Brittany Stewart, M.A., LMFT

 

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Brittany Stewart, M.A., LMFTC is a couples counselor, individual therapist, family therapist, premarital counselor, and a life and relationship coach. She works with her clients to build connected relationships. Brittany is an attachment-based therapist, and she incorporates models of therapy focused on the emotional bonds between people.

 

Brittany has advanced training in evidence-based models of couples therapy such as Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) and Gottman Method Couples Therapy.

Available In: Broomfield, CO | Online Video

Read Brittany’s Bio | Schedule Now

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