Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. And you're listening to the Love, Happiness and Success podcast.
[More Than Words by Sarah Kang]
Isn't that the cutest song? That is Sarah Kang and the song More Than Words, I thought this was a nice segue for us into our topic today, because today I am putting on my marriage counselor hat. And we're going to be talking about relationships, and particularly why this very moment that we are sitting in right now together is a make-or-break moment for a lot of relationships, possibly including yours.
Grow Together, or Grow Apart
I have to tell you in my perch, my 30,000 foot view as the clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching, not only do I have my own clients and couples and individuals for therapy and coaching, but I also do a lot of consultation with other marriage counselors and relationship coaches on our team to talk about what's going on and to kind of work together around cases and kind of keep an eye on trends.
And I'm also listening to you, my dear listeners, who’ve been getting in touch with me on Facebook or Instagram or through our website growingself.com to ask your questions. Often, these are relational questions. And so through all of these various sources and channels of information that I have access to, I have become aware that there is a really important thing happening right now relationally for many, many people.
And I feel like today's episode of the podcast is almost going to be like a public service announcement in some ways to let you know that right now, there are opportunities to either grow your relationship in like profound and enduring ways. Like what is happening right now between you and your partner, or you and your friends or you and your children or your closest confidence is an opportunity to have a very deep, solid, trusting, connected relationship that will endure for many years to come. Or if you don't handle this moment, as well as you could, this could doom your most important relationships. And I'll tell you why.
We are currently, as I record this in a time of high stress, a lot of uncertainty, a lot of unknowns. There's so many different things happening in the world. And right now we need each other more than ever. And some of us, not me, of course, but, some other people are not behaving always as well as they could due to all the stress again. Not myself personally, because I don't do that sort of thing. But if I was that sort of person, I might be a little higher anxiety right now. I might not have access to all of my self-care routines that usually support me. I haven't had a massage in 10 months. We can't see our friends as much as we want to.
And in addition to just losing some of the niceties of life, jobs are in peril, economic security is in peril. You may have had—like I have—people close to you who have died or become incredibly ill perhaps, you yourself have become incredibly ill. Perhaps you are partnered with someone who, like so many, is experiencing the ramifications of long COVID, who is not okay right now and is still building back to the way things were before and that future feels doubtful. Like there's a lot of really real stuff going on. And I haven't even scratched the surface of social justice and other things.
Healthy vs Unhealthy Relationships
Anyway, but the point is, we are all dealing with a lot. And because humans—we humans are so relational. In our moments of stress and strain, we have these instincts, these healthy, normal, adaptive, resilient instincts to turn towards each other, to come together in these moments of difficulty and share the burdens with the people that we love the most and who love us the most. This can take so many forms in a relationship. It can mean talking about how you feel. Laying on the floor sobbing while somebody pats you on your back. It can look like so many different things. It can look like being kind of quiet, not really wanting to talk, not being your usual fun, bouncy self, withdrawing, like so many forms.
But the point is that in these moments, we need each other. And when we are in this space of needing support, and we reach out for that support in whatever form it may take, and connect with someone who cares about us, who sees us, who has compassion for what we're going through without judgment, without criticism, without telling us we should cheer up or feel differently, or any of the things—when we connect with that kind of energy, and experience true love in the form of empathy and compassion. And then when that understanding is followed up by responsiveness, like, hearing what we're saying, and giving us what we're saying that we need, that moment, that 90 seconds of relational interaction is like welding you emotionally together in your relationship. You reached out, you connected, your needs were met, and it was this, “I am loved. I'm safe. I'm secure. We are together in this. I love you. I'm so grateful to have you in my life.”
It's these kinds of micro moments that we're all dealing with. And the good news is that many of us are getting them from our partners and because of this, are developing a deep, deep enduring appreciation and gratitude for our relationships and the steadfast love of our partners through thick and thin.
Why Marriages Fail
In the same 90 seconds span, there are lots of people reaching out in healthy ways, and maybe in some not so constructive ways. And we'll talk about that too, but reaching out saying “I'm not okay.” And being met with silence, rejection, ridicule, resentment, hostility, criticism, or just nothing at all. Or somebody saying, “Yes, sorry, you feel that way.” But there's no responsiveness. There's no movement to kind of come together in honor of what someone is communicating.
Couples Who Grow Apart
Those micro moments, it is like a machete hacking through the fabric of a relationship. Nothing dramatic may happen in that moment but every time it does, there's a slice to the core that says, “I'm not understood. I'm not cared for. I'm not safe. I can't trust this person. I can't talk to this person. Even if I can talk to this person, it doesn't matter because either they don't care, they don't care enough. They're not doing anything to help me. Never mind.” And there's this withdrawing. This basic, basic experience of being profoundly alone. And like not just alone-alone, but like existentially alone, like “where is the person I am sharing this with? Who is here for me? What do I do?” And this particularly for us collectively minded humans, if you have any attachment needs at all—healthy, normal adaptive attachment needs, it is incredibly painful and damaging on so many different levels.
I am aware right now that I'm being very dramatic as I talk about this. But like I have this feeling almost of urgency and this is why I really wanted to talk with you guys about this today. And you know, partly this was prompted. I have to tell you.
Online Marriage Counseling and Couples Therapy
So here at Growing Self as you know, I'm sure if you've listened to this podcast more than like half a time. We really specialize in marriage counseling, couples therapy, relationship Coaching. So I would say, 70- 80% of our clients are couples who are either seeking to improve their relationship or they are individual coaching or therapy clients who are coming to us because they need to make some decisions about their relationships. Or like maybe their partners won't come into couples counseling with them, so they're here on their own trying to see if they can make something better. Or if that fails, they're having very honest conversations with us about what they want to do with this—if their relationships can be improved.
So a lot of this going on. I think that we've seen a flood of couples coming into our practice, because I think many, many people and couples have become acutely aware that when everything else falls apart, at the end of the day, like really, all we have is each other. And particularly in this quarantine pandemic experience, like, the people that you live with. Be it your romantic partner, your husband, your wife, your boyfriend, your parents even—it's like this, sort of family experience, either if it's the family, you were born into the family that you chose, the family that you created.
It's like, our most important relationships have become dramatically important. I mean, it's really illuminating how crucial and important these relationships are. It's like this boat that you're floating on together in the midst of this ocean that's chaotic and dangerous, and in ways both emotional and literal.
There's this, I think, renewed importance of relationships right now. And so lots of couples coming in, who are committed to their relationships and are realizing like, “We need to do everything that we can to make this good for both of us and have a happy, healthy relationship.”
How to Fix an Unhealthy Relationship
Also, seeing interestingly, people coming in like adult children with their parents wanting to improve those relationships and deal with some unfinished business, which is always a positive thing. A lot of dating coaching clients who are like, “I'm feeling extremely ready to be in a relationship, what do I need to do to get there?” But again, this other subset of people coming in, figuring out—because they have had experiences with their partners, particularly over the last few months when they've needed their partners so much, and felt like their relationships were failing them. And really just at their wit's end and not knowing not knowing what to do and wanting to get clarity to make a plan one way or the other.
Anyway, this is what has been happening in our practice. And then I had a journalist reach out to me a little while ago, and this happens from time to time, and they're like, “Hey, working on a story about”—this is somebody from, I don’t know, NBC, CBS, one of them, a reporter. It was like, “Hey, I'm working on a story because there's data out right now showing that divorce rates are down.” And the journalist’s angle was like, there was all this talk at the beginning of the pandemic about how much stress and strain this is putting on relationships, and how so many marriages were doomed because of it. And now there's all this data showing that divorce rates are down across the board. “Dr. Bobby, can we have your comment?” So like, “Okay, sure.”
Because it's true. It's true that, again, many couples in this space have had this fork in the road moment, where they have had to figure out how to have difficult conversations about important things that really do need to be hashed out and resolved. They have been spending more time together. You're not running out the door to go to a happy hour with your friends. You are at home with the person that you live with. And so it's spending more time together, figuring out what to do to make life meaningful and good for both of you. Maybe getting reengaged with quiet activities that can help you kind of connect, and even if it's just cooking dinner at home and having a nice conversation. Like these are small, intimate moments that I think many relationships have benefited from. There is a quietness that has settled over our lives that in some ways has been really good because the focus can be on the relationship and on your family. Instead of running around with 97 different friends and these different activities like there's a lot of quiet time at home, and it's good for conversations and for connection.
I think too, when people feel stress and anxiety, there is this natural inclination to bond and to connect and to share. And it goes so deep within us that it's almost an instinctive, reflexive, like, “Where's my person?” in these moments of stress. And I think that because of this, this is part of the reason why divorce rates are down, is because many couples have a renewed sense of appreciation for each other. And I think like this sort of big picture highlight of when everything else falls apart, I can count on you. I can count on this family through thick. And it has really renewed people's commitment to do everything in their power to have a really healthy, high quality relationship, because it matters so much.
As part of this podcast, I'm going to be giving you very specific information about things that you can do at home today within the next 30 minutes of hearing the sound of my voice in order to invest really good things into your most important relationships because we need each other right now. We need each other.
But, so going back to this interview with this journalist who was like, “Divorce rates are down and people decided that during the pandemic, they loved each other. Didn't want to get divorced anymore.” I was like, “Yes. And let me tell you about the other side of this, Mr. Journalist.” And I think honestly, he wasn't really expecting this perspective because on the surface of it, the data says, “Yes, fewer people are getting divorced.” That's a good thing.
However… he has not been privy to the same kinds of intimate conversations that I have with so many people, my counseling and coaching clients, and being in these consultation groups with other people in the team. And what we're hearing over and over again, is the part of the shoe that hasn't yet dropped, which is the other side of this equation. And I know, this is probably true for so many of you also that, that you have experienced probably, in some ways, your worst nightmare over the last few months. Not just in the circumstances of life, but in your relationship, right? That you have felt failed by your partner. You have felt emotionally rejected at the time that you needed the most. And you have felt this wounding that has probably taken your breath away, like, “Oh! Oh my god, did that just how did that just happen?” And again, it doesn't have to be some big crap show fight, right? It can be the smallest things.
I have had people tell me that, and think about it, this is so understandable, a lot of anxiety about getting sick. And in this terrible pandemic and they're really worried about things like keeping their environment relatively safe, as safe as any of us can. So wearing masks when you go places, washing your hands, doing things around the house to keep things a little bit cleaner than usual. And it is totally okay to have a spectrum of comfort with different levels of safety. And there may or may not be an objective truth right now that like, “this is what everybody should be doing.”
So, that aside, what I'm always more focused on is the relational piece of this, which is that one person is saying, “I'm scared. If you did this with me, it would help me feel a little bit less scared. Can I count on you to do this with me?” And the other person says, either “No, that's stupid. Oh my god, really? You're such a pain in the ass, like, why?” Or arguing with them about how it doesn't make sense. Or saying “Yes, sure.” And then just not doing it. I mean, there are these tiny little moments over things that do not seem like that big of a deal but when you look at it through this relational lens, it is this big existential question like, “Do you love me? Do you understand me? Do you see me? Do you hear me? Do you care about me and how I feel? Am I important to you? Can I trust you when I am scared, and I need help?” Like, these are very fundamental foundational attachment kinds of wounds.
And so there are couples, all over the place, where these kinds of things are happening in many different ways. It could be somebody can't tolerate the other person being anxious or sad or worried and shuts it down, like, “Nope, look at this funny cat meme. Look, look, it's a kitten eating a popsicle.” Or whatever. Like trying to change the subject, trying to fix things, cheer people up.
Radical Acceptance to Strengthen Relationships
In a recent podcast episode, if you recall, if you're a regular listener of mine, we talked about radical acceptance and how being able to just hold the space with someone is the most important and healing thing any of us can do, as opposed to trying to, like make people feel better talk them out of their feelings. Like, it feels like rejection when somebody does that to you. But that's happening all over the place. And there are so many other little things that are happening within families, within homes that might not seem like a big deal, but are a very big deal.
In many homes, particularly, if it's a heterosexual couple, and there are children involved, many children—women are feeling extremely burdened with all of the things. And this has been a huge growth moment for many couples to reorganize the way they do things. If everybody's working at home, how do we divvy up the responsibilities in a way that really feels equitable and fair for both of us? So this has been a growth moment for so many couples to be like, “Okay, what we're doing right now is not actually working because I'm not getting anything done. Neither you, what do we need to do here? Our children's needs aren't getting met.” And it's been a really good thing, because it's led to more fairness, teamwork. Every couple needs to create a set of agreements around like, “Okay, I changed the litter box, you clean the toilets, and this is when it's going to happen.” Like in order just to have a functional life together, that some of that has to happen. And, and this has been one of those make-or-break moments for couples to figure that out. And lots of couples have very happily with or without the support of a relationship coach, right.
Healthy Relationships Prioritize Trust
But there are other couples who have really struggled to do this. And it could be the smallest thing from somebody saying, “Yes, I'll be done with work at 3, and then I'll take the kids, and you can do your thing from 3-5” and then, like, okay, so the person is like, “Okay, I'm going to count on this.” And then their partner who said they would be done at 3, comes wandering in at 3: 45. And, like, “What's for dinner?” I mean, it's like, “Wah!”, and it seems like such small inconsequential things. But again, it's the same big underlying themes of, “I can't trust you. We had a plan. We had an agreement and I am being harmed by your failure to follow through with what we agreed on.” And these seem like such small things, but they erode the fabric of a relationship that leads to resentment. It leads to hostility. It leads to a reduction in the things that keep a relationship good.
It's hard to be kind and generous and empathetic to someone when they are not holding up their end of the bargain the way they said they would, right? And so, there are all kinds of negatives like relational cycle that can start spinning out from those micro moments like little mini dervishes. And so, these small, small things are highly consequential, and many couples are experiencing these like, death by a thousand cuts kind of moments.
Some people are acutely aware that that is happening and they are here at Growing Self, talking to their therapists about what this means for the future of their relationship. And some people are just beginning to get very weary and very disappointed and starting to pull away emotionally and feel more distant and disconnected from the partners that are showing them that they cannot be counted on. That is happening quietly in many homes right now as we speak, perhaps even yours. And so, this is again that like do or die, grow together, or grow apart kind of moment that you're faced with now.
And I also want to say, just to normalize all of this, all relationships have, I'm using my finger air quotes right now “that all have issues,” right? All relationships have things that are nice, things that are not so nice, challenges, and strengths. This is just what it means to be a human being in a relationship. We are all a mixed bag. And our partners are all a mixed bag. And all relationships are a configuration of the best and worst of both of us, right? And so, the point isn't that you have some sort of hypothetically perfect relationship where none of this stuff ever happens, that is not a reality-based idea.
What it is, is what do you do in these moments that are an opportunity to grow closer together, or to grow apart? Because if you don't do anything, and just let things fall, where they may—while all relationships have issues and have strengths, and also have growth opportunities, as we like to say around here, stress will illuminate all of the cracks and fissures and fractures. So stress doesn't necessarily create the problems, but it will reveal the problems more acutely. Because again, when we depend on each other for so much more, and there's so much less that we have in the rest of our lives, our relationships, hobbies, my massages, right? Like we notice when we're not getting our needs met from our partner that much more acutely when we're so much more dependent.
This is a real opportunity to take stock of a relationship and say, “Okay, these are the parts that are working for both of us. These are the parts that aren't working really well for me right now. Let's talk about what's feeling okay, and not okay for you. So that we can work together to improve the situation for both of us because if we don't, if we just let it go and keep doing to each other what we have been, this isn't going to work out long term.”
Stop a Divorce and Save Your Marriage
I don't mean this to sound scary, but I have talked to so many people over the last few months who have said very plainly and clearly, “I am no longer interested in being married to this person. I can't trust them. When I really needed them, they weren't there for me. I've tried everything I know how to do to improve the situation, I don't think it's possible to improve it. But circumstantially, this is not a good time for me to get divorced. It's financially—I don't even want to go look at apartments right now, with the masks and disease and all that. I don't want to have to deal with finding a different childcare situation for my kids. Financially, it feels safer for me to just stay put right now. But, this is just me, waiting until the time is right. But I know very clearly that I am done and that we are getting divorced as soon as possible.”
They're saying that to me, they're not saying that to their partner. Their partner may have no idea what's going on. Their partner might not understand the micro wounds that has led to this person sitting with me to be firmly and clearly convinced that they're done with this relationship. So yes, divorce rates are down. And there is this thing simmering under the surface that has yet to grow into fruition.
I want to change gears now that I've hopefully impressed upon you the importance of taking this moment seriously if you would like to remain married or partnered or in a connected relationship with a person that you're thinking of right now. We're going to talk about that.
Just as a side note, because I know that many people are sort of on the down low thinking about or actually making plans to get divorced once we're past this. I have actually—had sought out— why can I say this? I'm just going to say this. There is a divorce lawyer who's based in Denver—a Denver divorce lawyer who's incredibly, not just knowledgeable, but really ethical and extremely honest. I had the great pleasure of interviewing her a little bit ago. And it's such an interesting conversation. She absolutely spilled the beans around things to think about if you are entertaining the possibility of divorce. We talked a lot about strategies to create an amicable divorce situation, a collaborative divorce, which is the best possible outcome, if you're going to get divorced is figuring out a way to part as, if not friends, at least, yet still have some kind of relationship at the end of it. Particularly if you're going to be co-parenting with each other or have a business together. So we talked a lot about that.
She also offered a lot of her insights into the aspects of divorce, the experiences of divorce that people don't think about before they pull the trigger. Really great questions to ask a divorce lawyer, I asked them for you. And so if you've, if you have been leaning in this direction, I do hope you join me for that podcast. I'm going to be airing it next week. So look out for that.
But for the rest of you who believe that there's still a glimmer of hope for your relationship that maybe it has felt like it's been sliding down the unhappy path towards disconnection, towards disappointment towards growing apart, I want to discuss some ideas that will help you begin to turn this around and begin to use this opportunity to grow back together again.
Because I tell you what, and if you take nothing else from this podcast, take this: relationships that are good and healthy and happy, don't have any less problems than anybody else's. They are not relationships with two highly evolved people, who just don't have the same weird quirks and things that the rest of us do. And great relationships don't come into being because they don't have issues, problems, or circumstances that are difficult. Great relationships happen because of all of those things. They are grown through difficult circumstances. They are grown through facing challenges together. They are grown through having very difficult conversations and figuring out how to solve problems together. Great relationships are grown by very intentionally, doing certain things at critical moments that strengthen a relationship. And strong relationships are stronger for having gone through challenges together and having worked through difficult issues together.
People who are in new relationships that have been together for six months, not to knock it, it's fun, and it's cute, being in love and all that good stuff is lovely. But that is not nearly as strong, or as deep or as intimate of a relationship as the kind that couples create because of having gone through the crappy crap together and come out the other side successfully. That's the path to creating a deep relationship—is not avoiding the problems or not trying to create a relationship without any problems. It is addressing them courageously and also competently. So this is good news for a relationship. Because of all the hard stuff right now, this is the path to creating the kind of relationship that you would really like.
Let's talk now about some strategies for how specifically to do that. There are several things that you can do in order to create a healthier relationship and to have growth moments with your partner.
So first of all, and I would also just like to back up a second and say this is not my opinion, the things I’m going to share with you. These are things that are based in research. There are all kinds of self-proclaimed relationship coaches everywhere, who just like basically make crap up. I am not one of them. I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, in addition to being a relationship coach. And I myself, like the rest of the couples, counselors on my team here at Growing Self, exclusively practice evidence-based forms of marriage counseling, couples therapy, and relationship coaching. So we are looking at what do we know from fact that helps couples form healthy, happy relationships? And how do we guide couples through having these very specific experiences and new skill sets offered to them so that they can replicate these positive outcomes. So that is what we're doing here.
And also, I've mentioned this before, but myself and the people on our team here at Growing Self are really specialists in marriage counseling and couples’ therapy. So it’s like even get in the door to be able to be a couple's counselor here at Growing Self, you have to at minimum, have a master's degree in Couples and Family Therapy. So like not just being a garden variety therapist, you have to have specialized education and training. You have to be eligible for licensure as a marriage and family therapist, which is 1000 to 2000 hours of postgraduate experience seeing couples and families under the supervision of a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.
I think we have two people on our team who offer couples counseling, who are not licensed Marriage and Family Therapists. And the only reason they're here is because they have done extensive postgraduate training in couples and family therapy that is really the equivalent to what they would have learned if they'd done a master's degree in couples and family therapy.
So I just want to preface what I'm about to share with you through that lens because I think that it's wise for you to be discerning about where you're getting your information, particularly when it comes to something as important as your most important relationship. Because when it's like really real and very serious, date nights are not going to cut it, they're going to make things worse instead of better.
So, anyway, sorry, I'm going to get off my hysterical soapbox, now. So let me tell you, they're the fork in the road moment, the fork in the road, there is the happy path towards growing together, there is the unhappy path of growing apart. What we know from research is that there are very, very specific and important things that happy successful couples do within themselves and within their relationship.
First of all, we know that one of the most important factors for having a great relationship is something called psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility, and this refers to the ability to be able to kind of like shift gears and stay in the present, not get overly attached to specific outcomes, or rules or shoulds, or muster black and white thinking. But rather be able to kind of take things as they come and make decisions and react to situations that are in alignment with your most deeply held values.
So that means, being able to let go sometimes of your preferences, or the way that you think things should be. And being able to come into the center of “We're having a problem. I'm unhappy about this. And I love my partner. I want this to be a good outcome for both of us. What do I need to do in order to create that?”
It kind of ties in to emotional intelligence, which is one of the things we're also going to be talking about, but psychological flexibility, I think, is a very important component of emotional intelligence because it has less to do about how you feel, and even what you do compared to what you think and being able to have a flexible mindset, where you can sort of shift gears cognitively to be able to like handle appropriately whatever is coming up in the moment, either from your circumstances or from your relationship or inside of yourself. And having some mastery around what's going on between your ears so that you can stay in a good enough place. And you can also be flexible and responsive to whatever’s going on with your partner right now.
The opposite of this is extreme rigidity and getting very bent out of shape when things don't go your way. Or when your preferences aren't always accommodated and having big feelings and reacting from those feelings as opposed to being able to kind of mediate cognitively what's going on and what you would like to think and being able to reach for a more helpful thought instead.
So, I mean, look it up yourself—psychological flexibility in relationships is huge. And if this is a growth area for either you or your partner, you might consider getting involved in cognitive slash cognitive behavioral therapy, or cognitive behavioral coaching. There is such a thing as evidence-based coaching. It is not for the treatment of mental illness. It is for people who would like to develop things like cognitive flexibility, and be able to manage their thoughts in a way that feel better for them. So there's that.
And when you're able to practice psychological flexibility, it allows you to regulate your emotions, communicate effectively, and most importantly, work with your partner to find productive solutions to inevitable problems. The problems are inevitable. It's just when you're psychologically flexible, you can figure out a path through them, staying connected to your partner.
And when couples can do this together, they're really able to stay aligned through thick and thin, because life throws a lot of stuff at us. And there are lots of times when things don't work out the way we'd quite like them to or when our partner isn't being the way we would want them to be and is being able to shift gears and be appropriately responsive to what is actually happening.
Kindness and Generosity
Okay, another key core thing. If you want to take your relationship down the happy path right now, is to be practicing kindness and generosity. That sounds fluffy. I know it does. But here's this. One of the most prolific and well-respected researchers in the field of marriage and family therapy is Dr. John Gottman, he's written about 97 books, are all amazing. He has developed a evidence based form of marriage counseling called the Gottman Method of Marriage Counseling. The Gottman method is different from other kinds of marriage counseling in the sense that is extremely behavioral. It is very coachy. And so a lot of what we do here Growing Self with Relationship Coaching is based on the Gottman model, because it's so amenable to kind of a coaching model. Again, not for mental health stuff, but for more of a coaching focus.
And what Gottman his research has found is that you can basically throw 90% of everything else out the window if you keep kindness and generosity at the center of your relationship. If you have kindness and generosity flowing between two people, nothing else matters quite as much. Like, you can have bad communication, you can not have date nights, you could not do a lot of other things that you would think would be very destructive to a relationship. But I mean, obviously relationships are better when you do have those things. But if you have kindness and generosity, in ample amounts, you're going to be okay.
And so what do I mean by that? Kindness and generosity is when you very deliberately make efforts to treat your partner with consideration, with kindness. And like, being able to—this is actually connected to the next thing but like, have a lot of empathy for how they're feeling, what they're needing right now, even if that is different from what you are needing or wanting, and to be able to give that to them, and communicate your respect for how they're feeling and what they're needing through—here's the important part—not just your words, but your actions. And that's where this generosity piece comes in, which is being able to give things to your partner generously, that are what they need and want from you. There's generosity there.
And there needs to be balance in a relationship at a certain point like it's nice and we get our needs met in return. But in a relationship where you are focusing on kindness and generosity, what you are getting or not getting is not always going to be your number one priority. You're going to be thinking, “Wow, what, I'd really like to have more conversations with my husband. And I know that he is not okay right now. He is not feeling good. I know that he's super stressed at work. I think he feels bad about what's happening to us financially right now. And I know, because I know him, that when he gets into that space, he goes internal. It is not easy for him to talk about things like this.
What can I do to show him that I understand that, that actually, when he is checking out and playing Fortnight for three hours at night, he is maybe doing that, because it's his way of trying to manage some of the stress right now. How do I show him that I get that, and that I love him, and that I want him to have what he needs? You know what? I am going to bring him a big bowl of popcorn and put it right next to his video game chair and just kind of wave and give him a kiss on the cheek and let him know that I love him and that I am so happy that he is playing Fortnight with a bunch of 14 year olds right now.” Can you tell that I'm a Fortnight widow, my husband and son playing fortnight constantly. I get stressed out but I try to play any video games or I have to shoot at someone or I get shot at. I’m like a candy crush person, 100%.
But it's like how do we be generous with our partners when they are showing us what we need from them as opposed to getting all resentful and demanding when we're not getting what we need. Right? That will be a quick, quick turn down the unhappy path if we stay focused on that kind of opposite of kindness and generosity, which is sort of selfishness and self-focus and lack of empathy. So how does your partner feel loved and appreciated by you? If you don't know the answer to that question, find out and then lavish them with it every chance you can.
Another core piece of a healthy, happy relationship with a couple that grows together. And it's related to kindness and generosity, certainly, but it's this core piece of empathy, which is not just understanding how your partner feels or how your loved one feels. It doesn't have to be your partner, it could be your child, it could be your parent, it could be your friend. But, “I understand how you feel and how you feel is valid. And how you feel is important.”
It's not quite enough to just get that someone else is sad or afraid. True empathy goes into, “If I were to put myself in their proverbial shoes and look at the world, through their eyes, through their set of life experiences, through their belief system, through their values, through the things that they tell themselves in their own mind, this makes sense to me, when I see it through their eyes, without judgment or criticism or blame.” Or that if you did this differently, more like how I do it, you wouldn't have these problems, right? Without that kind of, of condemnation or ridicule. It's just “Yes, I could see why you feel that way.” When I put myself into this, this point in space, if I fast forward through all the years of your life and arrive at this point in time, I would probably feel exactly the same way too. I get it. This makes sense.
And here's the other piece. The way you feel is actually just as important as the way I feel. My feelings are not more important than yours. I might understand my own worldview better than I understand yours and I might be more contact with my feelings and I am in yours. But the way I feel, the things I want, the things I think about, my values are not more important than yours are. They are equally important.
And so this sounds like a simple thing but it is very easy to slip into conflict and just like that waterslide, like shoot down the unhappy path of disconnection. When you begin to believe that your partner is behaving unreasonably, and that they're wrong to think and feel and behave the way that they are, and judge them for it. Empathy is the antidote. Everybody makes sense. Trust me. I have sat with—I can't even tell you how many, hundreds, possibly thousands of people. Some of them are doing things that are surprising or feeling things that are different than other people feel. And I have never in my entire life met a person that when I sat down with them, and didn't like really get a whole story, and all the information and kind of put all the pieces together, that didn't make perfect sense. You make perfect sense, and your partner behaves and makes perfect sense—behaves in a way that makes perfect sense. If they're behaving in a way that doesn't make sense to you, it's because you don't have all the information yet.
Find out the information with empathy, with empathy, without judgment, without criticism, without blame. Because when you understand somebody’s why, things fall into place. And in having this kind of attunement with your partner and being really compassionately accepting of your partner's thoughts and feelings, even if they're different from yours. But when you achieve that level of understanding, all conflict immediately melts away. There's just nothing to argue about. There is only the opportunity to have a deeper connection with your partner that they feel understood and cared about by you. And then you'll have the opportunity to open a door so they can understand your perspective a little bit more deeply. And from that point, all that's left to do is figure out how to solve solvable problems and appreciate and respect each other's differences for the rest of it. Empathy is really important right now.
Another core skill, if you want to have a growth moment with your partner. This might surprise you, but it's true, to have courageous conversations that might even feel like fights. Let's just reframe those, they're not fights, they are passionate conversations about things that are important to people. A while ago, I did a podcast about how to have difficult conversations that is really geared more towards having productive connecting conversations between two people who might be in very different ideological places or have different values. Because if you don't have those, there is distance and disconnection, and relationships will just wither and evaporate.
And the same holds true for our intimate partnerships. People sometimes erroneously believe that having a healthy relationship or a good relationship is kind of defined by having lack of conflict. “Well, we don't fight, everything's fine,” right? No, if you are not having important, meaningful conversations about important things, you are not having a relationship in some real ways.
Now, there are couples that have worked a lot of stuff out. I mean, my husband and I have been together for—I don't know what year is this, it was sometime in the early 90s, I don't even know. But anyway, a long time, and we've worked out a lot of things. And so we still have courageous conversations from time to time about growth areas. And that is the engine of growth in a relationship. When somebody says, “This is how I feel, and you might not be happy about this, or you might not like what I want, but I have to say it because I have to be authentic with you. And I have to be real with you. And I have to let you into my inner world. This is me. And if I'm not talking about this, you don't really know me. You don't know who I am. And if I'm not hearing about what is important to you and how you really feel it means I don't know you.”
And so these conversations can feel challenging sometimes because people can discover that there are areas of their relationship that feel out of alignment. There are differences in values or perspective, or needs or wants or desires. And that is all okay. The goal is not to be exactly on the same page and an alignment about all the things but is to achieve, understanding and respect for each other's differences. And to be talking very openly about what those are, and how you can work together to make this as good as possible for both of you.
Also, courageous conversations are absolutely necessary to be solving and facing the issues of life right now. From how do we communicate about things? How do we work as a team together in our house? “You know what? I did dishes five times today, how many times did you do dishes? None? That is not okay with me.” And it doesn't need to be I'm being more conflictual than I probably would be in real life. But although Matt Bobby could handle it. Because he's actually usually the one that does dishes five times a day, and I'm like, “What's for dinner?”
But that aside, to be able to say, “I have to talk to you about something important. XYZ is not working for me right now. And I want to have a conversation with you about what we can do together to make this feel better for both of us because I am not okay.” And it can be about anything, but it is the conversation that you least want to have is the conversation that you most want to have. It can be very tempting to think about avoiding difficult conversations as not rocking the boat, as being not communicating well, I'm not saying anything about things that really bothered me, and I'm just stuffing it in that bottle until I get more and more resentful until I explode. Let's not do that. Have courageous conversations when things come up because that authenticity around your true thoughts, feeling needs, desires, will help you feel known and be known, you will know your partner. And you'll be able to achieve this deeper understanding and a deeper union, really, through courageous conversations. And couples who don't do this will inevitably grow apart.
I will tell you a secret. One of the most insidious destructive ideas that you can have in your head, that will be the seed of destruction for your relationship is this idea of, “No, I don't want to say anything. It won't change anything. It doesn't matter, we'll just have a fight. No, it's not worth bringing it up. I'm just no, I'm just going to deal with it.” That is the narrative that will land you in a divorce lawyer’s office, that inner narrative in your head is what will become the barrier for the necessary courageous conversations that we all need to have.
Related to this is the deliberate practice of emotional safety. I have also done standalone podcasts on this topic. But as a quick refresher, emotional safety is the primary foundational component of a healthy relationship. It is related to empathy. It is related to kindness and generosity. It's related to communication. It is also related to psychological flexibility. When we are being emotionally safe partners, it is okay for your partner to not be okay sometimes. That means that they can say thoughtless, insensitive things, and you can say, “I don't like the way that sounded but I love you so much. I'm going to give you a redo, try again.” I use that one with my 12 year old son on a fairly regular basis, but it's like, you are not going to explode. You're not going to fall apart. You're not going to criticize. You're not going to reject people. You are being emotionally safe for your partner when they need you.
And that goes both ways that when you're in a high quality relationship where you are feeling emotionally safe, it means that you can be mad sometimes. You cannot feel like talking, you can be you're not best self. You can be imperfect. You can have your own little weird quirks and things and you can feel sad or scared. And it's just that like unconditional positive regard that even if you're not okay, it is emotionally safe for you to be authentic. And to be not always okay that you're loved anyway.
Not that we don't all have a responsibility to do the best we can to bring the best we can to the table like it does require intention, but it's like committing to being a safe person for your partner to talk to, to be empathetic, to be non-judgmental, to try to be kind and generous when someone is sharing their authentic feelings with you, in a way that fosters this feeling of safety, that is not being the fixer, or the solver of the problems or the whatever, it's not that type of safety. It's emotional safety, it's, “I am a safe person for you to be real with. What's going on?” And to have that going both ways in a relationship is I think, what we all really, really need right now, particularly when there's so much going on in the world.
I mean, just this morning, my husband saw something on the news and had a solid, I think four minutes of ranting in the kitchen, about whatever it was like “Ahh!”, smoke actually coming out of his ears and just, and just kind of like, “Yes, that is so messed up. I can understand why you're angry.” As opposed to telling him to calm down or like “think about this instead,” it's like, “Yes, this is bad.” You can do this, too.
Our next skill, and then I promise, I only have two more, and then we'll be done because it's like a 19-hour podcast. But the next skill is emotional intelligence. This is another core component of a healthy relationship. I am planning a podcast on this topic specifically to come out for you in the next—probably February. But anyway, about how to increase your emotional intelligence. But here's why. Your ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, and then respond to them appropriately and effectively depends on not just emotional intelligence, but like the foundation of emotional intelligence, which is the ability to understand and manage your own thoughts and feelings first.
So to have that emotional intelligence is a skill set that allows you to be aware of how you're feeling, regulate it if you need to, have control over your reactions, be able to communicate effectively during times of stress. And it's also related to empathy, not just empathy for others, but also really empathy for ourselves. Particularly under times of stress or disappointment, and by very deliberately building up your own emotional intelligence skills, and working on that part of “Okay, how am I showing up?”, you will immediately see positive results in your relationship.
And so if you feel like you and your partner have been growing apart lately, I would recommend getting real serious about emotional intelligence and working on what you can, which is how you are showing up as—are you being an emotionally safe person? Are you having courageous conversations, that are productive and well intentioned? So not like attacking people, but having honest, important conversations. Are you showing up with empathy? Are you showing up with kindness and generosity? And are you really working on psychological flexibility that allows you to kind of roll with things as opposed to freaking out about all the things like these are all related
And so I want you to also hear that all of the constructs that we've been discussing, hang together. Psychological flexibility is an aspect of emotional intelligence. You can't have kindness and generosity without empathy. Having courageous conversations requires emotional safety. If you are not being emotionally safe—people, yes, your partner is not going to talk to you, because it will be unpleasant, conflictual experience, right? So, these are things that all hang together.
Remember: Relationships Are Systems
And very lastly, is one last idea, is that people who have healthy, enduring relationships that are made stronger for having gone through difficult times and coming out the other side, have a high degree of awareness for and respect for the fact that your relationships are systems.
I mean, the successful couples or people with harmonious relationships with their family members know what Family Therapists like me have been preaching for decades, which is that any relationship is more than just two individual people kind of bopping along. A relationship is a system. And that means that people are not just existing independently. Two people in a relationship are reacting to and responding to each other's reactions and responses. So there's like the cyclical thing. Your partner is having reactions to you. And your reactions are in turn what you perceive your partner to be doing or not doing.
So there's this like, cyclical thing. And by understanding that whatever is happening with your partner right now is at least in part influenced by what you are putting into the system. You immediately become empowered to change it. And not by demanding change in your partner and insisting that they change 19 things about yourself, themselves, rather, so that they can be closer to perfection, right? But is to really get very deliberate about, “Okay, what is it like to be in a relationship with me right now? What am I contributing to this relational system? And what adjustments can I make that might help my partner have a better reaction to me?”
I know that that can be very difficult to take on board. And I also know—I'll just say this out loud, some relationships are in fact irredeemable. There are such things as narcissists and sociopaths, and people who just can't or won't be emotionally safe or have empathy for others, or have courageous conversations, or have emotional intelligence. Those are realities. I would refer you back to another podcast that I did about when to call it quits in a relationship. Like if you don't know if your partner can do these things with you, time to find out. So listen to that podcast for some advice on how to create that.
I do hope that this honest, courageous conversation that you and I have had together today can provide you with a little bit of a roadmap to help you understand the importance and the significance of this moment for your relationship and can empower you to do everything that you can do in order to help you and your partner grow together right now instead of apart.
If that isn't possible, next week, we're doing a podcast on amicable divorce. So stay tuned. But in the meantime, I do hope this conversation has been helpful. And very lastly, I tell people this all the time, I'll tell the same thing to you. Resources to get this started, you could certainly have your partner listen to this podcast with you, trap them in the car, go on a drive and turn on the podcast.
Also a tool—we offer a free relationship quiz on our website that is super like low-key. It's the How Healthy is Your Relationship quiz. And I think it was growingself.com/relationship-quiz, I'm pretty sure is the URL. You can go on the Growing Self website and Google. Or there's like a search bar on our site. So you can look up different resources. But look up the How Healthy is Your Relationship quiz. And you can take that quiz together. You can take it. Your partner can take it. You won't see each other's answers. But the neat thing is that then you can kind of just come together in a nice emotionally safe space and just compare answers.
For the purpose of yes, sure communicating to your partner how you're feeling, it can kind of get the conversational ball rolling. It also provides some information in the results of the quiz to help kind of orient each of you to like some of what we're talking about and somewhat is different. But like the different domains of your relationship. So you'll see the parts of your relationship that are strengths for both of you, and the parts of your relationship that are growing areas.
But to have like that be the intention of the conversation like “Okay, let's take this quiz together. And let's just talk about what parts feel like they're working for each of us and then maybe talk about some ways that we could improve how this is feeling for both of us.”
You might be surprised at some of the things that you learn about how your partner is feeling about this relationship. Going back to what we talked about before, that once you have that information, the way they're behaving and feeling will maybe make more sense to you once you have that. So there is a resource for you.
I also just want to say this and again, as I said on previous podcasts including a recent one about discernment counseling, when relationships are strong and healthy, fundamentally—so yes, there are problems and parts that people are not happy with each other about—but fundamentally, people love each other and they want it to work, they're still committed. That is typically when people show up in couples counseling, in relationship coaching. As “We want to make this as good as possible. We're having trouble talking about this, without it sort of disintegrating into an argument. We really want to learn how to do this together, can you help us figure out how to do this together?” Yes! And in those cases, it's usually fairly easy. Like, 4, 6, 8 sessions, we do all this stuff, and teach couples how to do these things and be these things with each other, and they go off on their way.
If you are in a relationship, where you have not been getting these things for months, perhaps years, and you are having really negative relational cycles with your partner. They are refusing to talk to you. There's a lot of hostility and resentment. There are a lot of automatic negative assumptions about each other's motives. There are feelings of hopelessness, almost about their relationship. I just want you to know that this is also not just normal but expected.
If you have been living without kindness and generosity, empathy, psychological flexibility, emotional intelligence, a real dedication to emotional safety—to have a very, very difficult feeling relationship is a predictable outcome of that. And it is still not too late. It does mean that you will probably need the support of a good—and by good I mean, someone with specialized training and experience, look for a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a at least a master's degree or a doctorate in marriage, family therapy, and who practices, evidence-based forms of couples’ counseling to help you. It can take a little bit longer to kind of peel this onion and be able to understand each other with empathy and compassion again. It's going to be a little bit of a process. Because what we have to do is really help you to restore your empathy and compassion for each other.
So that it stops feeling like an adversarial thing or like this person is somebody that you don't understand and who doesn't understand you. This can be achieved. It just takes a little bit more time and it takes skilled evidence-based couples counseling, and we do it routinely. I cannot tell you how many couples I've worked with who came in being like, “I do not understand this person and I never will.” And, yes, it took a few months, but at the end of it was like, “Wow, you know what? They're amazing. I can't imagine my life without them.”
So just know that and I hope that that helps you hold on to hope even if it feels like you guys have been drifting away.
Big podcast. I'm going to stop now, and I'll be back in touch with you next week for another episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast. Thanks for listening.
[More Than Words by Sarah Kang]