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Constructive Conflict: Arguments That Help Your Relationship Grow

Constructive Conflict: Arguments That Help Your Relationship Grow

Love

Why Constructive Conflict is Vital to Every Relationship

Having conflict in a relationship is often viewed as a negative thing. In reality, having disagreements is not just inevitable — successfully working through differences is what leads to health and growth in a relationship. Constructive conflict allows you to talk about the most important things, and find positive resolution for both of you. 

Literally, all couples will have different expectations, preferences or hopes around certain things. This causes friction, AND this is normal and expected — not a sign that there is anything wrong with your relationship.

The Difference Between Constructive Conflict and DEstructive Conflict

DE-structive conflict occurs (ironically) when people try to avoid conflict, and let things build up to the point where they’re angry, hurt, or explosively reactive. Generally, this happens between two people who love each other, don’t want to rock the boat, or who don’t know how to talk about their feelings in the moment. 

They tend to NOT engage in conflict until their feelings build up to the point that they are feeling really hurt, resentful or angry. Then they lash out or act out in ways that lead to unproductive conflict that often makes things worse instead of better.

Learning the keys to constructive conflict can help you avoid this.

Learning How to Talk Through Differences Constructively and Compassionately

The first key of constructive conflict is changing your internal beliefs about what “conflict” is. Try this on for size: 

  1. Conflict is NORMAL: Two people will of course have differences of opinion, different needs, different expectations or different wants. All “conflict” is, is discussing those things openly for the purpose of finding compromise and solutions. That’s all!

     

  2. Constructive Conflict is GOOD: Talking through differences constructively will not just resolve the issues, these conversations are the vehicle for partners to understand each other more deeply, strengthen their bond, and develop a more satisfying and functional relationship for both people. In this way, “conflict” (at least, constructive conflict) leads to deeper connection.

  3. Not Addressing Conflict is BAD: In contrast, couples who don’t talk through problems openly and honestly will instead often begin to ruminate about unresolved issues, feel increasingly resentful, and feel more hopeless about the relationship itself. Particularly when people have negative beliefs about “conflict,” they may find it difficult to explicitly express moments when they feel hurt, disappointed, or frustrated. Instead, they stuff their feelings, don’t talk about it… and then it festers like an infected wound.

  4. Avoiding Conflict Damages Your Relationship: When “festering” happens, people become reactive. They are walking around feeling low-grade annoyed and resentful much of the time, and when they have a new (even fairly neutral) interaction with their partner, the anger and hurt feelings they’ve been holding on to often come out sideways. People will be snappy, critical, snarky, or cold.

  5. Avoiding Conflict Creates a Toxic Dynamic: Often the reactions seem out of proportion to the current situation because they are the buildup of unresolved feelings that are (ironically) created by attempting to avoid conflict in the first place. But — here’s the hard part — because in their partner’s eyes they’re behaving jerkily, without obvious cause, their partner will react negatively to them. That’s when an actual fight starts.

Avoiding Conflict Perpetuates Problems

Couples who are not able to learn how to communicate with each other and talk through problems constructively will often have repeated nasty feeling fights about the same issues over and over again. Arguments that never end in increased understanding or positive change, but rather partners feeling increasingly distant and alone. Over time, this rots a relationship from the inside out. 

Couples who have been bashing at each other unsuccessfully for years will get to a point where they don’t fight anymore. That’s when couples are on the brink of divorce: They’ve stopped engaging with each other because they have given up believing that change is possible for their relationship. They are emotionally withdrawing from the relationship. It’s only a matter of time before it ends. 

There Are a Number of Crucial Conversations that Every Couple Should Have

On an ongoing basis as the relationship and life circumstances continue to evolve “going there,” and talking about points of potential conflict as soon as you and your partner feel out of alignment with each other will help you both get back on track, understand each other’s perspective, find solutions, and build bridges to the center. These conversations don’t just solve problems and reduce conflict; they are the engine of growth for a relationship. 

Talking About Expectations in a Relationship

Couples (hopefully!) come from different families. Every family has a culture; a way of doing things, and a set of unspoken expectations about what “should” happen that is transmitted to their children — sometimes explicitly, but often not. When two people come together to form a new family they each carry with them a set of subconscious beliefs about what their partner should be doing or not doing as they build their life together. 

These expectations will often lead to conflict sooner or later, as each partner does what feels normal to them — unintentionally ruffling the feathers of their spouse. This is especially true for partners whose families differed in the way that love was shown or the way that people communicated. It’s critical that partners have self-awareness about their own beliefs, and understand that their expectations are simply a byproduct of their own family of origin experience, not necessarily “correct.” 

Being able to talk through their beliefs openly and honestly can help a couple understand each other’s perspective, gain empathy for why the other person behaves the way they do, and find ways of meeting each partner’s needs. Ideally, in doing so, they explicitly create a new family culture together; one that they both feel good about.

Talking About The Way You Talk

Couples will always have to talk about the way they talk to each other. As described above, when people don’t know how to lean into hard conversations constructively, negativity in a relationship increases. Then, when topics do come to a head, there is often a lot of negative energy around them. People then begin fighting with each other about the way they’re communicating, rather than about the problem itself. Learning how to stay calm and listen non-defensively is a core skill that is often hard-won for many couples. 

Furthermore, because people come from different places, they carry with them different expectations about how to communicate. One partner may be more conflict-averse, believing that “if we’re not fighting we are okay.” They may seem distant and uncommunicative to their partner, which is problematic. Another person may come from a high conflict family with an aggressive communication style, and their “normal” may be perceived as threatening or hostile. Still others may come from families where things are not addressed directly, but rather through behaviors. They may feel very frustrated when their partner is “not understanding them” when they are, in fact, not actually saying how they feel, or what they need out loud.

The variations of these differences are endless. But without an open discussion of them, and a willingness to learn new skills and bend in each other’s direction, these types of communication issues can cripple a relationship. 

Talking About Teamwork

When you’re dating, and in the early stages of a romantic relationship, your connection centers around being companions and finding novel ways to have a good time. As you enter into a committed partnership and begin building a life together, each partner needs to be putting time, energy, and work in creating and maintaining that life. 

As we all know, “adulting” is actually a lot of work: Jobs must be worked, homes must be cleaned, meals must be prepared, finances must be managed, yards and cars must be maintained. Throw a few kids and pets into the mix, and very quickly, life becomes a lot of care-taking.

All couples will encounter bumps in the road as their partnership evolves into one of increasing responsibility due to each of their expectations about what should be happening. Frequently one partner will begin to feel that their shared responsibilities are out of balance and that their partner is not contributing enough or in the way that they would like them to. [More on this: How to Create a More Egalitarian Partnership] Sometimes this is as a result of subconscious family of origin expectations or gendered roles that overly burden one partner (often the female, in heterosexual relationships).

This is not bad; it’s normal. All it means is that conversations are required to discuss how you’re each feeling, create new agreements, and find new routines that work for both of you. When this happens, and both people step up and follow through, balance and harmony are regained.

Leaning Into The Three “Touchy” Topics of All Relationships

How to Talk About MONEY

Most couples have conflict about money, sooner or later. This too is inevitable; money means very different things to different people. Each individual in a couple has a different relationship with money, different approaches to handling it, and different expectations about what should be done with it. In nearly all relationships, one person will have a more conservative approach to money (the “saver”), and the other person will be a bit more liberal (the “spender.”)

Again this is completely normal. All couples need to build a bridge to the center and create agreements around what “we” are doing with money that feel good for both partners. Many couples clash and fight about this topic, which is simply a sign that they’ve not yet come to agreements and learned how to work together as financial partners. Having constructive conflict where they each feel heard and understood by the other allows them to create a shared vision for their financial lives, as well as a plan for how to work together financially to achieve their goals. 

How to Talk About SEX 

Sexuality is another emotionally charged topic for many couples. Over the course of a long term partnership, most couples will experience ebbs and flows in their sex life. Sometimes people become disconnected sexually when they have a lot of unresolved conflict in their relationship, or their emotional needs are not being met by their partner. This is especially true for women. Other times, life circumstances such as job stress or having children make it difficult for partners to have the time and energy for a healthy sex life. 

While it’s normal for all couples to go through a “dry spell,” losing your sexual relationship can start to erode the foundation of what makes you a couple (rather than roommates, or friends). Because sexuality can be so strongly linked to attachment needs, body image, and self-esteem issues, people are often hurt or angered by the experiences they have (or don’t have!) with each other sexually. Conversations about this topic can feel extremely tense, uncomfortable, and even hurtful. Many couples find this subject more comfortable to avoid than to address, but avoiding it only leads to increasing distance.

It’s vital for couples to talk with each other about how they are feeling about their sex life so that they can reconnect with each other in the bedroom. Over the course of a long-term relationship, as the road of life twists and turns, this conversation may need to happen over and over again as you both evolve physically and as your family structure changes.

How to Talk About PARENTING

The parenting of children is another area in which couples will always have differences that need to be addressed and agreed upon. This is largely due to our family of origin experiences; we all subconsciously parent the way we were parented. (Or we parent as a conscious decision to NOT parent the way we were parented if coming from a patently abusive or neglectful background). 

There is a spectrum of approaches to parenting that range from more authoritarian to more easygoing. The problem is that couples may have highly negative reactions to the way the other person is interacting with or caring for their shared children if things are happening that are different from the way they think parenting “should” be. This is also an extremely triggering topic for people because of the deep love they have for their kids. When they see their partner doing (or not doing) something that they view as having a negative impact on the children, it’s completely understandable that people get emotional. 

The path to resolution is being able to respectfully talk through each of your feelings, perspectives, and preferences and find ways of parenting together that feel good (enough) for both of you. Remembering that there is no “right” way to parent is often extremely helpful for couples attempting to find unity in this area. 

Remember, addressing conflict openly, authentically, and compassionately IS The Path to a strong healthy relationship. (NOT the symptom of a problem!)

Differences are normal and expected. After all, you’re not marrying your clone! Getting married is an event. Becoming married is a process. All couples need to have a series of conversations as they do the work of coming together and creating agreements for how they communicate, how they show each other love and respect, how they work together as a team, manage money, and parent children. These conversations are critical, not just to resolve problems, but to grow together as a couple. Healthy, productive conflict is absolutely necessary for couples to flourish. Lean in!

All the best to you both,
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She’s the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

Let’s  Talk

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You Are Worthy of Love and Respect

You Are Worthy of Love and Respect

Love

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She’s the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

You are a good person.

Yes, you.

You deserve to be treated well by others. You deserve to be loved and respected. You deserve to be happy. You deserve to have your needs met. You are worth investing time and energy into. You are capable of great things. Your feelings are important. You have power and wisdom inside of you. What you want matters.

And all this is still true, even if you make mistakes. Even if you are not perfect.

As a therapist and life coach, I have sat with some of the most phenomenally put-together, objectively successful, gorgeous, talented, and intelligent people in the world who still genuinely believe that they are irredeemably flawed. They run multi-million dollar businesses, go on international adventures, and accomplish astounding things, yet they struggle to feel like are valuable and worthy of love and respect. The disconnect between how amazing they are and how they feel about themselves is as wide as the Grand Canyon.

So how about you? Take a second and re-read the paragraph at the top of the page. Do those statements feel true to you? Or does a part of you cringe away from them, thinking that such things might be true for others but not for you? Does your brain instantly reject these ideas, firing back with an endless catalogue of your many mistakes and short-comings: all the “evidence” to prove that you are less worthy somehow?

Why is it so easy to lose your confidence, and your self esteem?

You are a perfect, unique snowflake gliding through your time here on earth. There has never been anyone quite like you. You are smart, you are capable, and you are good. You are here to love and be loved. You have things about you that set you apart from other people. Maybe it’s your style, or your humor, or your tenacity. Maybe it’s the fearless way you’ve lived your life, or the heroic mountains you’ve climbed on your journey. Perhaps your most wonderful quality is the way you care so deeply for others.

But it’s easy to forget that when you have to fight for your right to be heard, respected and understood, in a world that pushes back.

Every single one of us has been bruised on this journey through life. We’ve all been disappointed by people. We’ve taken risks, only to fall flat and feel humiliated for our efforts. Maybe toxic relationships have made you feel diminished. Perhaps you didn’t get your needs met at a time that you desperately needed support, and you are still carrying the scars of those primary wounds.

Over time the injuries of life can erode your belief in yourself. You can get tricked into believing that your not-so-great life experiences define you. Niggling doubts like, “Maybe my [insert one: critical father / rejecting Ex / high school chemistry teacher] was right about me,” or “This is probably the best I can expect,” keep you from feeling that you deserve more.

But you cannot let the inevitable traumas of the human experience break you. You cannot allow yourself to be diminished by others. You must never allow your core self to be ground away by disappointment.

Why Your Healthy Self Esteem is So Vital

  1. Other people treat you the way you expect to be treated.
  2. You rise to meet your expectations of yourself.
  3. You make choices and take chances based on what you believe is possible.

Think about what could happen to you if you totally lost sight of your inner beauty, your worth, your potential, and your inherent right to be loved and respected? How chilling to consider the fate that might befall you if your life, and the people in it, began to conform to those expectations.

You must be your own hero. The world is hard enough without you tearing yourself down, beating yourself up for your failures, and punishing yourself. When you stop believing in yourself and your worth as a person, your abilities, and that you deserve to be treated well all is lost. No one else is going to be your champion — because no one can.

How to Heal Your Self Esteem

It’s time for you to take your power back. All faith is a choice. All beliefs are voluntary. You can decide to be your number one fan, and actively, intentionally build yourself up. You can support yourself from the inside out. In fact, you have to. No one else is going to be your champion — because no one can.

Remind yourself daily, hourly, or minute-by-minute on especially challenging days:

Only you get to decide what you are worth. Only you get to decide how you deserve to be treated by others. Only you decide what is possible for you.

Decide today: You are worthy of love and respect. You are capable of great things. You are a good, smart, strong person. Make those statements your mantra. Believe they are so. Act as if they are so. And watch as the world rises to meet YOU…

12 Effective Ways to Destroy Your Relationship

12 Effective Ways to Destroy Your Relationship

Love

What Will Ruin Your Relationship, and Fast

Are you unknowingly making the biggest relationship mistakes? I often speak, write and podcast about all the positive, effective ways that you can improve your relationship. I talk about communication skills, developing empathy, how to work together as a team, ways to get on the same page with regards to parenting, and all the things that couples can do to create a strong, satisfying relationship and a lifetime of love.

Avoid The Biggest Relationship Mistakes!

So, today… I’m mixing it up. I decided to put together a very straightforward list of what NOT to do if you want to have a great relationship. In fact I decided to discuss the twelve biggest relationship mistakes you can make in hopes of helping you avoid the biggest relationship pitfalls.

While this is a tongue-in-cheek bit of satire (mostly) I’m also shining a light on the relationship-ruining behaviors that we can all engage in. (We all do them sometimes, myself included). However, self-awareness and personal responsibility are some of the most important relationship skills that any of us have at our disposal, and I do hope that this exploration helps you (and possibly your partner) gain understanding about the things you might be doing to inadvertently damage your relationship.

Positive, Direct Relationship Coaching

While I did outline some of the biggest relationship mistakes you can make…. my natural inclination to positivity prevailed. I went back through the list of relationship-damaging behaviors and discussed their positive relationship corollaries. 

I hope that this very honest discussion helps you create the strong, happy relationship you want and deserve.

All the best, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

PS: Have you taken my “How Healthy is Your Relationship” Quiz yet? I mentioned it on the podcast as a resource to help you take a snapshot of how your relationship is currently doing in all the areas I described. Take the relationship quiz here.

 

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12 Effective Ways to Destroy a Relationship

by Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby | Love, Happiness & Success

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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She’s the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

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5 Powerful Parenting Tips

5 Powerful Parenting Tips

Love

Feel More In Control

About 5 months ago my wife and I welcomed a beautiful baby girl into the world. We had nine long months to anticipate her arrival. We prepared the nursery, we wrote lists of names, we visited doctors, and we spent time alone together. She finally arrived. In the hospital we snuggled and smiled at her. We definitely didn’t get enough sleep or buy enough diapers. We brought her home days later and it finally hit us. We were parents. We were supposed to move forward with this tiny human in our lives and provide her the kind of life she deserved. We were her source of nutrition, nurturing, and love. What we quickly learned is that being a parent is very different than watching people parent. We felt feelings of fear, inadequacy, confusion, exhaustion and frustration, just to name a few. If you are a new parent, or maybe you’ve been parenting for sometime, and are feeling overwhelmed by all that you are attempting to accomplish, know that you are not alone. After only 5 months I do not claim to know everything, but I have learned at least 5 tips that I feel are powerful tools to help all parents feel happier and more in control.

Have A Weekly Date Night

After having a child it becomes so easy to make taking care of them your sole center of your universe. It becomes easy to put all of your energy into taking care of your child. This shift is natural and important. As you are nurturing, loving, protecting, and watching over your baby, it’s important that you do the same to your partnered relationship. Take time every week to have a date with your partner. I use the term date loosely. You do not have to dress fancy, you don’t have to spend a lot of money, you don’t even need to leave the house! What matters is that you and your partner are being intentional about planning an activity that the two of you can do together (without your child) that will help you maintain the connection that you have. Try to schedule at least one hour of planned time together doing something you both enjoy.

Take Care Of Yourself

Just as it can become easy to stop taking good care of your marriage after having a baby, it can also be easy to stop taking good care of yourself. Make sure that you have time to engage in your hobbies, do the things you love. If you stop taking care of yourself, you won’t have the energy or the stamina to take care of your baby. It may look different than it used to, but it needs to still be a part of your routine.

Work To Tag Team While Parenting

During an intense wrestling match a wrestler who is exhausted from the fight has the option to tag a teammate to replace him in the ring. If parenting with a partner, you have a built in teammate! This isn’t possible at all hours of the day, but when you are both home with your child make sure you are taking turns taking care of your baby. If your child is crying and you can tell that your partner is becoming frustrated or overwhelmed, swap them out. On the other hand, if you’re getting frustrated or overwhelmed, be willing to take 10 minutes for yourself to calm down before you re-engage. If you can tag team your parenting, chances are good that one of you will always be able to handle the difficult moments. My wife’s favorite phrase is “YOUR TURN!” that is when I know it’s my turn to step into the ring. Be willing to seek your partner’s help early. Don’t wait until you are fully knocked down. 

SIDE NOTE: It’s also important to find ways to parent together. Find opportunities for all family members to engage together. Moments where all family members can be present and interact together are so crucial. For example, my wife and I have put a focus on bath time. We sing, we splash, we play together as a family. I am in charge of scrubbing her arms and head, while my wife covers her legs, tummy and toes. We both help with and engage in the process and it’s one of our favorite times. Work within your family to find something as simple as bath time that you can be engaged in together.

Work Hard To Be Present

In our most recent pediatrician visit, our doctor told us that on average 4-month-old babies watch three hours of TV a day. Now they probably aren’t really watching the TV but the point is, my wife and I had to reevaluate what we did with our baby all day. Being present involves interacting, playing, responding to and teaching your baby. When your baby is awake and looking at you, those are your moments to respond. This can infinitely strengthen your bond. Phones, TVs, computers and screens can seriously hinder our ability to connect with our baby. It is too easy to slip away for hours into the virtual world and distract ourselves from reality. This, ultimately, is a choice to disconnect with your baby. Being present with your baby is an important way to find joy in parenting. I would also caution against slipping into the screen-world when you’re finally alone with your partner for the day. It’s incredibly important to be present with your partner as well as your baby.

Cherish The Good Moments

With a brand new baby we can often fall into the routine of nap, eat, diaper change, nap, eat, diaper change… etc. It’s easy to remember the tense moments (or maybe hours) of screaming and the lack of sleep. Those difficult moments can sometimes overshadow the joy that can be felt in parenting. As parents, even when times are good we may find ourselves worrying about the tense moments that may be right around the corner. We don’t let ourselves fully enjoy or cherish the moments that make it all worth it.

Recently I had the opportunity to go to an event with my family and some of our friends. It went late into the evening passing our daughter’s regular bedtime. She started getting fussy and none of our typical tricks to keep her happy were working. She was tired and cranky. I put her in our baby carrier and left the event to roam the halls. She quickly relaxed and fell asleep. As she slept on my chest, I was overcome by the love I have for her. I thought about her vulnerability and her complete trust in me to keep her safe and meet her needs. To feel her vulnerability, her trust, her sense of safety, and her reliance on me in that moment was incredibly powerful. I held her and pondered on the special relationship that exists between a parent and a child and felt so lucky and grateful to have such a relationship in my life. The longer I held her the more grateful I became for her and the deeper my love for her grew. After that experience I felt more patient with her, I felt more willing to engage with her in a positive way. The 4 A.M. wake up call didn’t feel as disheartening after our evening together. The difficult moments are still there, but they seemed less powerful after I spent time cherishing the good.

Above All Else…

I’m going to provide one bonus tip here, and it’s possibly the most important: give yourself grace. You’re going to make mistakes, you’re not going to be a perfect parent. You’ll miss your child’s cues, you’ll get frustrated, sometimes you’ll make things worse instead of better. Don’t expect yourself or your partner to be perfect! Be willing to ask for help, you won’t know it all, don’t be ashamed that you don’t know it all. Learn, grow, and love. Love yourself, love your partner, and love your baby.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by the transition into parenting, whether you had your first child a week ago or 10 years ago, and would like to talk more in depth about how to parent effectively or how to keep your partnered relationship strong I would love to spend more time with you to get to know your personal struggles better. I am confident that parenting should be a joyful experience and if you are lacking that joy please reach out for support to help you find ways to bring that joy into your life. 

All the best, 
Hunter Tolman, M.S., MFTC

 

Hunter Tolman, M.S., MFTC is a kind, friendly and relatable marriage counselor and therapist who is devoted to strengthening families, helping couples heal, and empowering individuals to grow. He practices emotionally focused couples therapy, and has a compassionate — yet practical — approach to fostering positive change.

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Do You Need Therapy or Life Coaching?

Do You Need Therapy or Life Coaching?

Love

Which Path is Right For You?

THERAPY OR COACHING? If you’re seriously considering getting involved in some personal growth work, you may have wondered whether therapy or life coaching would be the best path for you. There is a lot of confusion about the differences between therapy and life coaching. In all honesty, there is a great deal of overlap. There are also important differences between them. Educating yourself about the similarities and differences can help you choose the path that will be most genuinely helpful for you in accomplishing your personal goals.

Advice From a Therapist Who is Also a Life Coach

 I have both a Master’s Degree and a Doctorate in counseling, and have been a therapist and marriage counselor in Denver for over a decade. About five years ago I also went through a life coaching program and became a board certified life coach too. These days, I practice both therapy and life coaching, (as well as couples therapy and relationship coaching) and have spent a lot of time educating people about the similarities, and the difference between the two approaches. [Read all about “The Difference Between Counseling and Coaching.”]

First, let’s talk about the similarities between counseling and coaching.

The Similarities Between Therapy and Life Coaching

Therapy / Counseling (generally interchangeable terms) and life coaching have many things in common. The success of either therapy or life coaching are largely dependent on having a positive, strong relationship with your coach or therapist. Both therapy and coaching create a safe place for you to discuss your concerns, and your hopes for your life. 

Whether you’re in therapy or coaching (with a well trained coach, at least) you’ll experience:

  • Focused attention on you and your concerns, and time and space to talk through your thoughts and feelings in order to achieve clarity and new awarenesses about yourself
  • The opportunity to discover new ways of thinking and behaving that will help you grow
  • Encouragement, and the positive regard of your therapist or your coach

Both approaches can be very effective in helping people get unstuck, and move forward in their lives. However, there are also many differences between therapy and life coaching. While both of them can be helpful, both approaches can have serious limitations for helping people with certain kinds of issues and goals.

The Problem With Therapy

For example, while therapy can be an extremely powerful and life changing experience for some people, therapy can be a huge waste of time and money for others. In fact, “therapy refugees” come into our practice all the time feeling incredibly frustrated and put-off by their previous experiences in traditional therapy.

Therapy = Slow & Healing

Specifically, many mental health therapists are extremely “non-directive” meaning that they do not guide the sessions, offer specific input or challenge clients; rather, they allow clients the time and space to talk (and talk, and talk) confident that, eventually, people will arrive at their own conclusions about the right answers for them. Under the surface, traditionally trained therapists believe that people are being healed through the experience of having a positive relationship with their non-judgmental therapist, and by having the opportunity to make contact with and express their feelings. This type of therapy can be extremely helpful to people who have had traumatic life experiences, and who have been abused.

Therapy Emphasizes Process, Not Action

All of this is wonderful, under the right circumstances (and certainly, exploring thoughts and feelings is part of great coaching as well). However, many people seeking meaningful personal growth work don’t need someone to “hold their space,” re-parent them emotionally, or help them “work through feelings.” Life coaching clients generally already have positive relationships with friends, loving parents, and supportive people in their lives. They don’t have deep trauma to work through. They are ready to make actual, positive changes in their lives, and looking for answers and action. They want guidance, they want tools, they want strategies, and they want to take action and get different results in their lives and their relationships.  Life coaching will give them that.

Therapy is “Non-Directive”

Traditional talk therapy is, by design, gentle and slow. This is a good thing for people who are hurting, and in need of a safe space to work through hard things. But for people who could benefit more from coaching, traditional therapists often seem kind of checked out. A traditional therapist may not challenge you or offer any feedback or guidance, and will wait for you to “find your own answers.” This can feel so annoying for people who are ready to dig in and take action.

People seeking life coaching are not looking for a new best friend. They want the personal growth equivalent of a car-mechanic who can tell them what’s not working, and how to get better results in their lives and in their relationships. For these people, therapy is often an expensive, unproductive waste of time. For people seeking positive change, life coaching, career coaching, or relationship coaching will be a much more satisfying experience. 

Therapy is Medically Necessary Healthcare

Furthermore, “psychotherapy” is behavioral healthcare. Therapy (the kind that is covered by health insurance) is seen by the medical community as medically necessary treatment for a mental health diagnosis. When you’re in “therapy” the assumption is that you’re dealing with a disorder that you’re seeking treatment for: Anxiety, depression, PTSD, bipolar, etc. If you’ve ever used insurance to cover the costs of therapy, your therapist has given you a diagnosis and then submitted medical claims saying that they are treating you for a psychiatric condition. That’s how health insurance works.

In contrast, many many people (our clients, anyway) who are looking for “therapy” aren’t reaching out because they have a mental health condition. They don’t have anxiety, they don’t have depression, and they’re not seeking to heal from a difficult past. They just want to evolve, grow personally, improve their relationships, gain self-awareness and self-confidence, and feel like they’re growing into the person they want to be… not “recover.”

Therapy is Focused on Pathology and Illness

If you’re trying to simply make positive changes in your life, but are working with a traditional therapist who’s framing your normal personal growth work as evidence of a “disordered,” it’s demoralizing and not helpful. When you’re trying to simply improve yourself, have better relationships, and feel happier, last thing you need is to connect with a therapist who makes you feel like (and believes) that there is something wrong with you.

In contrast, life coaching and relationship coaching assumes that you’re simply a normal person having normal life experiences, hoping to attain goals or get different outcomes for yourself and your relationships. You’re not sick, you’re not disordered, you’re simply dissatisfied and wanting more for yourself.

Coaching is For Personal Growth and Positive Change

Coaching provides feedback, guidance, new ideas, and always guides you towards action. The first stage of great coaching involves creating clarity about what you want. Then we identify the obstacles (internal and external) standing in between you and your desired reality. Then you develop strategies and an action plan to begin having new experiences and creating positive change. Your coach is your accountability partner, your cheerleader, your guide and your co-collaborator. Together, you’ll look at what’s working, what isn’t, and where to fine tune your process as you go. Over time you’ll not just learn and grow, but create real-world changes that you can feel great about.

The Problem With Coaching

After reading through the above, coaching may sound pretty great. And it’s true: life coaching, career coaching and relationship coaching are fantastic, effective vehicles for personal growth and positive change, for people who are able to make use of them. However, coaching isn’t always a great strategy, especially when deeper things need to be addressed and resolved first.

Doing Life Coaching (When You Really Need Therapy) Can Make Things Worse

In fact, coaching strategies are not going to be helpful at all for people who need to heal and grow before they can start making big changes in their lives. If you attempt life coaching when you have more serious underlying issues, life coaching can actually make you feel worse. Why? Because when you have depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance use problems, or other underlying mental health issues, you cannot make good use of coaching strategies. The feelings are too strong; they’re like a tidal wave wiping out your good intentions. 

In order for action oriented positive change to occur, you must first heal from these conditions. This takes time, and specialized skills and experience of an excellent therapist who knows how to help you resolve the underlying mental health conditions that will always sabotage your attempts to take positive action. 

The net result is often that people wind up 1) with untreated mental health symptoms, and 2) feeling badly about themselves because they cannot make the positive changes they “should.” This is not helpful at all.

Coaching is NOT a Treatment For Mental Health Issues

For example, we often have people reach out to us interested in life coaching. However, sometimes, through our interviewing process and assessment process (and because of the fact that all our life coaches are mental health professionals, and know enough to tell the difference) we become aware that the issues they’re describing are actually consistent with a mental health condition like anxiety, depression or PTSD.

People really want to make positive changes, but life coaching strategies are not going to be enough to move the needle. They’re feeling so badly on the inside, that they just can’t follow through. In these cases, we suggest that they engage in therapy in order to heal first, and then come back into life coaching when they’re ready to move forward.

The ONE exception to this can be the treatment of ADHD. Research has found that insight oriented, non directive, standard therapy does not help people with ADHD. (Unless they have developed associated anxiety, depression or substance abuse disorders as a result of a lifetime of untreated ADHD, which is not uncommon). But if you are simply seeking to develop skills and strategies for managing ADHD symptoms, coaching may be helpful to you.

Mental Health Issues Are Common and Treatable… By Educated, Mental Health Professionals. (Aka, Therapists)

And really, mental health issues are common. National statistics show that at any given time one in five Americans are struggling with mild to moderate mental health symptoms. One in twenty-five American adults, annually, will experience a mental illness episode that is severe enough to impact daily functioning. Over their lifetime, nearly half of all Americans will meet criteria for a diagnosable mental health condition.

Mental health issues are real. They are common. They are treatable. However, it requires specialized education, training and experience to identify and correctly diagnose mental health symptoms (as different from dissatisfaction due to life circumstances). There are also very specific types of evidence-based therapy that work best for different conditions. Many mental health practitioners spend years and years educating themselves, attending trainings and seeking out consultation with other mental health experts to ensure they are providing the highest quality treatment in their area of expertise, like trauma, depression, anxiety disorders and more. 

There Are No Educational or Training Requirements Necessary To Be a Coach

Buyer beware: The biggest risk of coaching is to get involved with someone who is simply a life coach, who does not have the education, training or experience to recognize when mental health issues will sabotage coaching. (Much less the ability to help you resolve these foundational issues first). At best, a “life coach” may have attended a 1 to 9 month certificate program… maybe. If you’re lucky.

Not-so-fun-fact: Life coaching is not a recognized, regulated or licensed profession. There are zero educational requirements needed to call yourself a “life coach” and absolutely anyone can roll out of bed one day, decide to be a life coach, and start taking clients. They don’t have to register with the authorities, agree to any ethical standards, or even take a test! You don’t need a high school diploma, you don’t need to pass a background check, and there is no regulatory agency overseeing life coaches. You just start introducing yourself as a life coach, and it is so.

Your weird next door neighbor with the ferrets who drinks too much and is always offering unsolicited advice? He could decide that he’s really smart and has lots of great life experience and wisdom, and that he’d be a great life coach.  He can put together a little website one afternoon and be in business the next day.

Coaches Can Cause Harm

As a mental health professional as well as a board certified coach who actually did go through a very involved, accredited coach training program (which was offered online, and which I zoomed through in about 6 weeks), I find this thought to be extremely frightening. Imagine that a person with legitimate clinical issues such as depressionanxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, etc. reaches out to a random, completely untrained “life coach” for help? At best, they risk wasting months and years of ever-worsening (and sometimes life-threatening) symptoms without the effective treatments that will set them free. At worst, it ends tragically.

While mental health conditions are treatable, if left untreated they can become life-threatening. They can also ruin relationships, destroy families, and tank careers. If you have a mental health condition it is vital that you get involved in evidence-based therapy with someone who has the skill and experience to help you. 

Relationship coaches are often times even more dubious, in my experience. Really: Someone can say, “Well I’m smart and I’ve been married five times so I know a lot about relationships and I can help people with theirs!” They set up a website and start taking clients.

If It’s Important, Go To An Expert

A licensed marriage and family therapist will spend years in graduate school learning about general counseling and mental health, PLUS many courses on family systems and assessment, relational dynamics, family therapies, methods and theory into couples and fa therapy. THEN they have supervised practicums, internships, and generally spend several years post-graduation working under the supervision of a licensed marriage and family therapist. THEN they have to accumulate thousands of clinical hours and pass a difficult national exam. Only then will they be a licensed marriage and family therapist themselves.

And even for licensed marriage and family therapists with all that education and experience… couples counseling can still be extremely challenging. What we know from research into couples and family therapy is that couples often delay couples counseling or relationship coaching until their relationships are feeling very difficult — they may even be on the brink of divorce.

Imagine some poor couple, who is on the brink of divorce, reaching out to a self-proclaimed “relationship coach” who doesn’t even know enough to know what they don’t know about how to help? That couple will likely wind up divorcing, thinking “Welp, we did everything we could do — we even tried a relationship coach, so our relationship must have been beyond repair!”  How sad to think that that same couple, if working with a true relationship expert, could have had a very different outcome. 

Not to be overly dramatic here, but the fate of your family and your future could be hanging in the balance. Divorce especially has significant emotional, financial, and material consequences for both adults and children. If your relationship is on the brink, please seek the help of a marriage and family therapist, NOT a coach. (Or any therapist who does not have specialized training and experience in marriage and family therapy, for that matter). 

Knowledge Is Power

If you’re still with me, I must say that I am SO thrilled that you’ve read this article. The general consumer of therapy OR coaching typically doesn’t know about any of the differences between therapy and coaching, or the risks involved in different approaches. That is why I’m taking the time to explain these differences to you! As a licensed marriage and family therapist and a licensed psychologist who also happens to be a certified coach and a relationship coach, I feel that it is my obligation to educate the public around these types of things so that you can make educated, well informed decisions about the best option for you. 

In addition to informing yourself, please DO share this article with anyone else in your life who might be 1) inappropriately seeking help from an unqualified life coach (and getting worse) or 2) feeling totally frustrated by therapy that isn’t going anywhere.

I’d also like to add that, when you’re feeling dissatisfied with your life and hoping for change, it can be difficult to know which path is the right one for you. Many people ask, “Do I need life coaching or therapy?” Unless you have a master’s degree in counseling and can spot the difference between a mental health condition and a personal growth issue, it can be very challenging to know which approach is going to work for you. To help cut through the confusion I’ve put together a free, online quiz. Take it by clicking the link below and answering a few questions.

I hope that it helps you learn about yourself, and which option will be most effective in helping you move forward.

All the best,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Do You Need Therapy, or Life Coaching? Take the Quiz.

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She’s the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

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The Season of Transformation

Did you know that right now is possibly the best time you’ll have all year to make real and lasting change in your life? That’s not hyperbole. In my experience as a therapist, life coach, marriage counselor, and fellow traveler on this journey of life, I have noticed that this season — the annual transition from summer to fall — is often when people are feeling most intrinsically motivated, and most able to make real and lasting change in their lives.

Perhaps it’s a natural itch to get back to work after the languid summer season, particularly if you’ve done a good job of relaxing well. Perhaps it’s a lifetime of major life transitions in the form of back to school experiences. For whatever reason, now is the time when you’re ready to cultivate fresh new energy in your life and plant the seeds of a new chapter. Whether it’s your career, your clutter, your personal habits, or your how you spend your time that is begging for re-evaluation, the time is ripe to sweep out the old and usher in the new.

On this episode of The Love, Happiness and Success Podcast, I’m going to be teaching you four crucial steps to practice as you harness the natural, transformational power of this season and use it to affect real and lasting change in your life. You’ll learn how to access your self awareness, create intentional change, get deeper access to your core values, and make changes that last.

Here’s to your liberation!

Lisa Marie Bobby

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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She’s the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

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