How Premarital Counseling Works

How Premarital Counseling Works

Use Premarital Counseling Strategies to Strengthen Your Relationship

Premarital counseling is so important for couples getting married. It’s a positive, empowering experience that helps you get clarity about the strengths of your relationship and work through potential problems before they become serious relationship issues. Most importantly, going through meaningful, high-quality premarital counseling with a marriage and family therapist teaches you how to keep your relationship strong through thick and thin. While intentionally and proactively cultivating positive aspects of your partnership, instead of trying to fix relationship problems once things are feeling hard. 

But did you know that — no matter how long you’ve been with your partner, or whether you’re even getting married — you can still use the principles of great premarital counseling to strengthen your relationship? Couples married for decades can still use empowering, proactive, and productive strategies to make healthy, positive changes to their partnership… and you can too.

On today’s episode of the podcast, I’m speaking with my dear colleague Brenda Fahn. Brenda is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and she teaches our Lifetime of Love Premarital Program. She has provided private premarital counseling services to countless couples over the years, and today she’s here to share some premarital counseling strategies that you can start using in your relationship right now.

If you want to jump right in, tap here to listen to:

Don’t forget to subscribe to the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast while you’re there! 

You can also follow me (@drlisamariebobby) and Growing Self (@growing_self) on Instagram too, if you’d like to stay on top of all the latest pro-relationship info we have planned for you over the next few months. 

Lastly, you can listen to this episode on the player at the bottom of this page, or if you prefer a transcript of the episode we have that for you too (all the way at the bottom). 

I had a blast talking to Brenda (she’s as fun as she is smart) and I think you’ll get so much out of this interview. If you have additional premarital counseling questions you are welcome to leave them here for me/us in the comments section and I’ll respond to you ASAP.

Show notes are below — enjoy!

Xoxo, Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

How Premarital Counseling Works: Podcast Episode Show Notes

Do you want to learn the secret to a long-lasting and happy married life? Then, tune in to this episode to discover some valuable insights into how premarital counseling works, and how you can start using expert premarital counseling strategies in your relationship — no matter how long you’ve been together!

In This Episode with Brenda, You Will…

  • Discover the benefits of premarital counseling.
  • Learn how premarital counseling can prepare you for married life.
  • Identify the common problems in married life and how to face them.
  • Find out why conflicts matter.
  • Know how to become more proactive and authentic in your relationship.
  • Understand the importance of honesty when answering premarital counseling questions.
  • Discover how long-term married couples can strengthen their connection.

Episode Highlights

The Problem With Most Premarital Counseling

Often, couples exploring premarital counseling don't fully understand the value of premarital counseling for the success of their relationship. On top of that, they're not seeking premarital counseling through a professionally trained couples and family therapist (to no fault of their own, they just don't know). Typically, when couples begin seeking out premarital counseling, they're turning to a religious or Christian premarital counseling service that usually consists of a couple of awkward conversations with a priest or pastor. It's not meaningful and doesn't teach them the important healthy relationship skills they get in real-deal premarital counseling.

These couples think they’ve done “premarital counseling” but they haven’t, really. It’s not authentic, or meaningful. They wind up getting superficial guidance, trite advice, and general instructions. Basically, an informational pamphlet on “How to be married” (which is not that helpful, let’s face it). Understanding the difference between religious vs. secular premarital counseling can prevent this problem.

The other problem with most premarital counseling is that many couples really do not understand the importance of good premarital counseling. They think that premarital counseling is simply a checkbox to tick off, like renting the tux, or ordering the cake. And when couples don’t address the questions they need to ask before marriage, they’re ill-prepared to weather the storms that come.

The Importance of Premarital Counseling

Premarital counseling helps couples envision and think about what life will be like when they are married. It also allows them to be more mindful and conscious of how they will make their relationship work. When done right, it’s a great marriage preparation course. Other benefits include:

  • preparing couples for the challenges of married life 
  • helping them differentiate normal experiences from problems to deal with
  • minimizing the risk of disconnection, separation, and divorce
  • normalizing counseling

Moreover, it helps couples catch a problem sooner before it becomes too late to fix. And because it happens when they are in a positive mood, therapy is more successful. As a result, premarital counseling can strengthen the foundations of their marriage. Effective, evidence-based, non-religious counseling can create positive changes in a relationship. 

These ideas can help all couples: As couples evolve throughout major life transitions, there are new and important things to discuss productively. We all grow and change as we move into different stages of life. If you’ve been married for a long time, it’s also worth knowing how to discuss the challenges that you face now — as well as the ones that might be coming down the pipeline. 

How are you staying connected now? How are you solving problems together now? Are the strategies and systems that worked for you at an earlier stage of your relationship still working now? 

These are positive, proactive conversations to have with each other throughout the course of your marriage — not just at the beginning. 

The Myth and Truth About Being in a Relationship

People sometimes believe that getting into a relationship is an endgame. So, they stop working on it. They don’t account for the changes that happen, especially when they get engaged. They fail to realize that they have to expand themselves to adapt to their partners. They also have to work on themselves so that they show up better in the relationship. 

Also, it’s actually at the beginning of the relationship that couples benefit from counseling. This is because they are still happy and positive. Counselors can help them figure out what makes them feel that way. From here, they learn what they can continuously do to keep their relationship working. 

According to Brenda, this helps because “our brains are really good at remembering negative things. They’re not always great at remembering positive things unless you’re conscious about it.”

Premarital counseling helps couples get very clear about their strengths and all the things they love and appreciate about each other. It also helps them create strategies to help each other feel loved, respected, and emotionally connected. 

Focusing on these things can be an incredibly powerful way to strengthen your relationship no matter how long you’ve been together.

6 Common Premarital Counseling Topics 

There are six plus premarital counseling topics that couples work through during premarital counseling. These include things like:

  1. Communication
  2. Conflict resolution
  3. Marriage and money
  4. Sexual intimacy
  5. Creating agreements
  6. Maintaining emotional intimacy, and more

Often, it’s only during premarital counseling that couples have deep, productive conversations about how they’re feeling in these different aspects of their relationship and what they could each do to make their partnership feel even stronger and more satisfying. 

“Communication is the key to life, regardless of what subject that is,” – Brenda 

The key is that, in premarital counseling, couples are talking about these things before they become issues. Although marriage counseling and couples therapy can be extremely effective in helping couples resolve issues…couples are there to talk about the things that aren't working for them, and that are causing pain. 

Premarital counseling is, in contrast, all about discussing important things that we need to be talking about openly but that aren’t necessarily problems or issues. This is a great takeaway for all couples — premarital or not. Figure out a way to talk about important things without it being in the context of a conflict, or argument. 

Why Constructive Conflicts Matter

Sometimes, couples are afraid to speak up when things are not okay because they are avoiding conflict. But Brenda shares that “If you don’t have conflict, I think you might have a bad relationship because you’re not letting yourself be seen.” She also discusses that not only is it okay to have conflict, but it is normal.

The important thing is to learn how to bounce back when these things happen. You have to know how to become happier partners in your relationship despite the conflict. You must also learn how to express that you still love and care for each other.

Remember that conflict is simply an opportunity for couples to have a deeper and more authentic understanding of one another.

Why Are Some People Afraid of Going to Premarital Counseling?

While premarital counseling is good for marriage, not everyone does it happily. Some couples even dutifully attend a couple of premarital counseling sessions to check the box, but avoid talking about meaningful things with their premarital counselor. It is because these people fear that when they discuss these future problems, they are “rocking the boat” and creating problems where none exist.

As Brenda puts it, “Couples who talk about sex have better sex lives. Couples who talk about their finances are more successful. And couples who talk about their conflict learn how to get through it.”

It’s easy for couples to avoid talking about important things proactively. Premarital counseling teaches couples how to be brave and talk about their real feelings from the start. All couples can learn from this wisdom though: What have you been avoiding discussing in your relationship, and how can you be brave and authentic in order to have necessary conversations with your partner in a positive and productive way? 

What Pre-Marriage Counselors Want for Soon-to-be-Married Couples

Pre-marriage counselors help soon-to-wed couples prepare themselves for their future. The counselors want them to learn that conflict is not about playing the blame game. Instead, it is about how you can compromise to stay connected with your partner. This is just one of the many pieces of advice premarital counselors give to soon-to-be-married couples. 

Ultimately, premarital counselors want couples to learn how to enrich themselves. It begins with acknowledging that you and your partner are both growing and evolving humans with feelings and quirks that are unique. How do you love, respect, and appreciate each other for who you truly are? Pre-marriage counseling is also only the beginning of this conversation. Talking about each of your feelings, values, goals, hopes, and dreams should be something happening throughout your relationship — especially as you both continue to grow and evolve. 

Advice for Married Couples

Brenda believes that the concepts learned in premarital counseling still apply to married couples. She also adds that it is crucial to have an openness to learning when it comes to relationships. You also have to constantly be intentional in improving or maintaining your connection.

Long-term married couples can still attend premarital counseling courses. In doing so, they learn how to make their relationships work better. Healthy and happy couples are ones that are proactive. They put the effort into educating themselves and growing together. 

Brenda also adds that most of the time, when people say their relationship is getting boring, that’s not truly the case. What is happening is you are not allowing yourself to grow. And you have to do that and bring it to the relationship to make it better.

Premarital Counseling Resources

The info shared in this podcast is just the beginning. If you’re interested in learning more about premarital counseling here are a few links to learn more about:

Enjoy the Podcast?

Did you enjoy the podcast? Do you think you need to try pre-marriage counseling with your partner? How will neglecting counseling affect married life? Share your insights and questions — we want to hear from you!

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How Premarital Counseling Works

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

Music Credits: “I Do” by Derek Gust

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

[Intro Song: I Do by Derek Gust]

Dr. Lisa: That was “I Do” by the artist, Derek Gust, I thought a great introduction to our topic today. Today, we are talking about premarital counseling, pre-marriage counseling. Not just what it is, not just why, but I really want to empower you in understanding the purpose of premarital counseling and how you can use some of the principles of great premarital counseling to strengthen your relationship. No matter if you are about to be married or if you have been in a relationship or even a marriage for many years, you can still use these ideas to strengthen and heal and grow your relationship. That is what we are talking about on today's episode of the podcast. 

The Problem With Most Premarital Counseling 

Just to jump right in, pretty much everybody has gotten the memo, at this point, that premarital counseling is generally a good idea. It's something that people do typically, though, as part of the wedding planning process. Usually, when people do premarital counseling, it is, unfortunately, of the variety where it's two or three very awkward conversations with a priest or pastor who's going to marry you. Then people think, “Great. We have checked that box. We have gotten premarital counseling. We are good to go.” 

They haven't done real, effective, meaningful premarital counseling, to their detriment. That, in itself, is part of the reason why I am making this podcast today, my friends, is to help you understand that this is not a box-checking endeavor. This is actually really important. It would be a mistake to devalue real, authentic, and deep premarital counseling because of the impact it can have not just on your relationship but on the entire trajectory of your marriage and on your future together. 

When you do that superficial type of premarital counseling with a pastor, you get a worksheet. You get some general instructions: say please and thank you, have date nights, prioritize your relationship, all that trade advice. But they don't really get into the nuts and bolts of the actual, not even tools and strategies, but mindsets that you need in order to have a really amazing marriage. They don't go into helping you understand each other or why you do the things that you do. They certainly don't help you anticipate the drift that occurs in every relationship over time so that you can see it coming and make proactive changes to keep it from impacting your marriage negatively. 

Because people don't get that, you then, have these nice young couples or—who are we kidding, marriages these days, it's a couple of 38-year-olds—glide off into marriage, thinking that they've done premarital counseling, they're good to go. Then, life starts to happen. There are the curveballs, and the transitions, and the lost jobs, and moving from one state to another, or welcoming kids, or if you are coming into the marriage with children already, that's a whole other set of challenges. 

Every couple, even the cutest, happiest, healthiest, most in-love ones, over time, will have to figure out how to talk about very challenging things that are emotionally triggering to both people. There is always going to be unavoidable conflict. I say conflict somewhat loosely because I think of conflict as not an argument, necessarily, but people being in different positions, and having to talk through their thoughts and feelings, and get back on the same page, and resolve problems together, and problems that you may have different opinions about in terms of the solutions. 

That is simply the work of being in a relationship. Then, on top of that: how to stay emotionally connected, how to be good partners to each other, how to understand and unconditionally love and respect your partner even when they think, and feel, and behave differently than you would. This is the growth process. This is just normal and expected. When you go into really, truly meaningful and effective evidence-based premarital counseling, you get a lot of that information that you don't get when it's this superficial experience that so many couples get. 

Today, in this episode of the podcast, what we are doing is diving into the kinds of ideas, the kinds of growth moments, the kinds of information that you get in actual premarital counseling. I have invited my colleague Brenda, who teaches our Lifetime of Love premarital counseling class. She does a ton of individual private premarital counseling. She's a Prepare-Enrich-certified Premarital Counselor. Brenda knows what is going on. She's here today to share her wisdom with you. Brenda, thank you so much for joining me today.

Brenda Fahn: Thank you, Lisa. I love talking about premarital counseling. I tell my premarital couples, they're my favorite because they're coming to be proactive, usually. They're coming to learn. They’re coming to make sure that they have better knowledge. It also shows that they really care that they're saying their relationships are important. As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I always appreciate my premarital clients.

Dr. Lisa: I know. Me, too. I'm so glad for that. One of the things that always comes into my mind when we talk about premarital counseling, or I feel like, at our practice here at Growing Self, we do a lot to try to educate people around the importance of premarital counseling. I think it's because both of us have had so many years of experience working with couples who've been married, 5 years, or 10 years, or even longer, and who come in when their relationships are absolutely on the brink. 

They have had years and years of not doing the things that we teach in premarital counseling. I don't know if you've had this experience, but I have personally sat with some couples that are pretty far gone and thought, “Oh, my gosh. If you guys had understood some of these things in the beginning and not had all of these damaging experiences with each other over the years, we would not even be sitting here right now.”

The Importance of Premarital Counseling

Brenda: No, exactly. And I think that's one of the most important gifts premarital counseling does is it normalizes and de-stigmatizes going to counseling for a lot, especially for certain couples who might be more hesitant to come and say, “Here's what it was like when we didn't have a lot of problems, but it actually was pretty good. We got a lot out of it. We got some knowledge. We got some understanding of our relationship. We got to know what's more normal, what to expect.” 

When I have couples even come back, some of those premarital couples will come back for one or two sessions just to say, “Hey, we're stuck in this piece.” I think the premarital counseling really helped them be comfortable with that process and to realize it's okay. It's okay to catch it sooner because like you said, sometimes it's just too late. Dr. Gottman will say, “Catch the problem within a year.” But most couples wait up to six years before they address issues. Think of what's happened in those six years of disconnection or conflict that's been unresolved versus if you catch it within six months. There's a much better prognosis, like anything in life, if you catch it sooner.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. You bring up such a great point there. Also, I love what you're saying that in premarital counseling, it's a unique experience where couples will come into sessions with me, or you, or your class when they are in a good place. Because what we also know from research is that it is actually when your relationship is feeling fairly good, you both have positive regard for each other, things are going pretty well, that is actually the time when you can make positive changes in a relationship, where you can grow together or understand each other more deeply in a really powerful and effective way. That is the time to come and work on yourselves together. 

Whereas, in brink-of-divorce type of relationships, it is not emotionally safe. People are so defensive and mad at each other. That is not conducive to growth at all. It's a whole paradigm shift to come in while you still like each other. And Brenda what you’re saying is that you bring up a good point, too, is that when you have done premarital counseling and if it's a positive experience that felt good for both of you, it becomes that much easier to say, “Yeah, let's go see Brenda again for a couple of sessions,” at the first sign of trouble, so it doesn't even become a capital P problem. That is one of the primary benefits.

Brenda: I'm sure you know this, too. The more stress or the less safe a relationship feels, the harder it is to have empathy, the harder it is to hear actually, even physically. For some people, it's just hard to hear when they're really defensive. You're working against so many variables if you're already in a high-stress situation where you're feeling like the other person doesn't really have your back, maybe doesn't care versus premarital couples are coming in saying, “We really care about each other. We want to make sure.” A lot of them have come from divorced families, too, that will say, “We don't want to repeat. We didn't see great relationships. We saw how people did things poorly.” 

They're putting this as a priority because I think that adage gets used a lot of “Relationships are work.” It's the work of consciousness and mindfulness. There's a saying that even if you don't do anything wrong in a relationship if you don't do anything right, it will still die. But you have to be doing a lot of positive actions to keep the feelings going. It doesn't mean that the feelings have to go away. They can wax and wane, obviously, but to say, you don't let your emotions just take over like they did at the beginning of a relationship. You're saying, “What do I need to do? What actions do I need to keep taking to keep these emotions in a positive element in my relationship?”

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Oh, my goodness. You brought up such a great point because that was honestly one of my first questions for you: why is this so important? What do people not understand about premarital counseling? And why do it for real? So far, you've mentioned that just the act of doing, deeper work premarital counseling will make it so much easier to nip potential problems in the bud going down the road. 

Also, when you learn, specifically, what to do to stay in a good place with each other over the years, that is worth so much like exercising, and taking your vitamins, and eating your vegetables. In relationships, it's not waiting until you get sick. It's what you're doing all along. So many couples, when they're getting married, they are just awash in all kinds of love and positive things. They think, “This is just the way it feels because we love each other. It'll always feel this way.” 

They're not doing the relational equivalent of eating their vegetables or getting a good night's sleep. They're just coasting along on good feelings. When those feelings start to change because they will always, they don't have any tools to start to re-inject positive interactions and energy back in. Is that it?

The Myth and Truth About Being in a Relationship

Brenda: Yeah, definitely. I think part of it is to say maybe there's a myth of like, “Once I get into a relationship, I can relax.” So many people are so hard, like, “Let me get into a relationship.” But I tell all my couples, “That's when you get to expand.” This relationship will hopefully expand you, sometimes, in really uncomfortable ways. This is hoping to grow, what it means to learn how to love better, to learn how to be loved, to learn how to be the better version of yourself, and to give that to your partner. 

So if that was easy work, it wouldn’t actually be that rewarding. The thought that “This should be easy,” is actually a paradox of saying, “No,  because it's harder, it actually gives it a lot more value.” This is challenging you to step up in life, not to just relax and say, “I can do whatever I want now.”

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, definitely. In premarital counseling, for you, Brenda, to be delivering that message to people, while they're still really motivated by feelings of love and affection that they want to do everything that they can to have a great relationship between that and some of our couples that feel like they've been through a war, by the time they get into marriage counseling, they don't want to do the things. They don't feel like being generous to their partner, who has been so mean and unkind to them. It's so essential to be learning about this in the beginning.

Brenda: Yeah, no. Exactly. Because we both do emotion-focused therapy to say that people get into these dances like anything, and they become polarized in a dance of negativity. It's hard to start to convince someone to come back. When someone comes in already positive, they're saying, “How do we build this?” You probably have couples come in, sometimes, they go, “We don't have much to talk about this week. It's actually going well.” 

I'll say that's great because I love those weeks where you feel like things are going well because now we can look at what are you doing that's making this feel good. Our brains are really good at remembering negative things. They're not always great at remembering positive things unless you're conscious about it. Even a couple saying, “There's not much to talk about,” there's probably lots to talk about, but it's the good stuff. It's saying, “What are you both doing every day for yourself and for this relationship that's helping to be in this place?”

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, definitely. That, too, they don't know yet what they should be talking about because it doesn't currently feel problematic. That's what I love so much about your approach, both in the Lifetime of Love class and with your individual premarital counseling. I know it's different in the class because you just walk through a number of topics. But with our Private Premarital Counseling, you always do an assessment, either it's our free in-house premarital counseling assessment or I know that since you're preparing for the fight, you do that assessment a lot of the times. Because it's like an X-ray. It can help couples be like, “Oh, yeah. We haven't actually talked about this.” 

And I'm curious. What are some of the things you see come out, either from that assessment or from the information that you present to couples in your premarital class that you find, isn't shocking, necessarily, but it is new information that premarital couples being like, “Oh, yeah. We haven't thought about that, or we haven't talked about this part, and we should.” Have you noticed any patterns around what seems to be most important and under-discussed, unless you create those?

Common Premarital Counseling Topics

Brenda: Yeah. That's a good question. I think that the major theme that comes out of married couples or premarital couples is communication. We feel like we don't communicate great. Communication and conflict resolution, which go hand-in-hand, usually come out the most if we don't know how to do this differently. I think what comes out, it's not like I wouldn't say it's one topic, because there are some couples who need to work on finances. There might be some couples who need to work on their sex life. I don't feel like there's one theme that I'm like, “Oh, we need to talk about this.” 

I think every couple comes in usually knowing that they have one or two things that they've either been avoiding, maybe mind-reading, or making assumptions, and maybe scared to talk about. It's trying to bring those things up in a gentle way that you… Communication is the key to life, regardless of what subject that is. Where do you guys get off track around communication about any topic? 

I think a lot of education goes with that, too. Seventy percent of conflict doesn't go away, according to Dr. Gottman. It's differences of personality, habits, opinions, lifestyle. How do we learn to live with this? How do we get away from trying to change pr control? What do I need to do to adapt, and accept, and understand who you are better and where you're coming from? I think if couples are on finances, we go deeper to say, “Where does this come from? What's the meaning of money? What are your habits you've had? What did you see, as a child around money? What are you still holding on to that, maybe, is giving them a way of you guys having a better communication about this?” That could be finances, sex, habits. 

Sometimes, couples have a really hard time saying, “You know, what? I really don't like that you”—I'm trying to think of a good one—“don't exercise more. I feel like you're not healthy. And that makes you unhappy. I'm worried about you, but I don't know how to say that in a way without making you feel bad.” Almost every topic comes back to how are we communicating with each other. Couples are going to two camps, a lot of times, either we're avoiding it and hoping that's going to go away, or we're saying it in a way that's pretty critical and attacking. We don't know how to come together, and show up, and be vulnerable in these issues, and really hear and see each other.

Dr. Lisa: Oh, my goodness. It’s so important just to develop those skills about how to talk about these issues that feel hard. Because if you have that, you can resolve any issues. I appreciate what you said that a lot of times there isn't a final solution. But resolve it in the sense of understanding each other and developing appreciation for each other, not even just despite the differences, but because of them towards acceptance and growth and unconditional love.

Why Conflicts Matter

Brenda: If we feel like they care, and I think the one thing that I like the most to tell couples is to say, “You may miss each other. You're going to miss each other in relationships. You're going to disappoint each other. You're going to hurt each other. How do you come back? You fall. How do you get back up?” That's a really important concept for what makes happier couples. But it goes away from what some people think. 

I have a lot of couples who will say, “If we have conflict that must mean we have a bad relationship.” That's not the case. Actually, if you don't have conflict, I think you might have a bad relationship because you're not letting yourself be seen. You're not letting yourself show up as much. You're not letting yourself have your partner look into the nooks and crannies of what makes you, you. 

If you're doing that, then you're going to have conflict, but that's okay. It's giving couples a lot of the times permission to have it, tried to have it in a healthy way, and to say, “Even when you miss each other, how are you coming back? How are you making those small movements to say, ‘We're still on the same team? We're still in this together. I still love you and care about you.’”

Dr. Lisa: Brenda, we need to think up a different word for conflict. As you're talking, I always and I try to teach couples this, but we need a new word. Because when I think “conflict,” and you do, too, clearly, you just said it, but here's an opportunity to understand each other more deeply and authentically. Whenever people are being authentic, they're going to find that they're not exactly the same as others. This opportunity for understanding, I'm gonna put that in the hopper, Brenda. We need to get a new word. 

Brenda: We’ll be like Shakespeare, come up with a new language around it. 

Dr. Lisa: That’s right. That is really a key core skill that you're always going to, in premarital work, is how to talk about things, how to be authentic and vulnerable, but also just setting expectations around the goals for communication. Through that, you cover a ton of topics. There's sex, which can be very difficult to talk about. Also, we do a lot of financial therapy for couples here in our practice, in general, but especially for premarital couples at the beginning of their relationship to get finances straightened out. I think that there are different mindsets for people who do reach out to us for premarital counseling. I think that people who come to us for premarital counseling are wanting a deeper experience. 

I speculate sometimes that the reason why people shy away from the type of growth opportunity, that say, working with you would offer, is that they have this even subconscious fear that “if we start talking about some of these things, we're going to realize that our differences are too great, or that we're not compatible somehow, or we're going to discover things about each other. I love this person so much. I would be crushed if our marriage got derailed. I would almost rather leave the lid on it. We'll just deal with that after we are securely married because it's almost like this threatening feeling.” 

Have you heard that expressed at all in couples counseling? Or the people who come to see you they're like, “We want to bring it on.”

Why Are Some People Afraid of Going to Premarital Counseling?

Brenda: There's probably been some of both. I think there's sometimes… I definitely noticed some couples who are really hesitant to admit to any issues going on. Because if Prepare-Enrich testers gauge that, they’ll say if you're trying to make yourself look too good, we're also going to catch that. We can see it's hard for you to admit things like, “I will always be happy with my partner.” If someone says, “Yes, I'm 100% of the time happy,” then we talk about that. What's going on that you think you might not ever doubt this relationship or that you might not ever wonder if you married the wrong person? 

I really want to normalize that those are the moments, usually, that we want to run. You could say there's a different language that we use in psychology around that. But to say when things are tough, sometimes, we want to run, but you would run to another relationship where you’re going to feel the exact same way, most of the time. So, I want to normalize those feelings that it's okay to be afraid. All of us are afraid to look inside, but what's the cost of not looking inside? 

Our brains are not good at avoidance. We think they are, but they're really not. There's a lot of energy and, sometimes, shame and power that goes into trying to avoid these things. That's why research would say couples who talk about sex have better sex lives. Couples who talk about their finances are more successful. Couples who talk about their conflict learn how to get through it. I think it's trying to just give people permission to say, “No. There's light when you bring it out. There's darkness, actually, when you're trying to keep it at bay.”

Dr. Lisa: The way that you framed that, Brenda, was so profound because I think I even understood something differently about premarital couples feeling hesitant to do premarital counseling because of what the possible consequences could be. You're saying that that in itself is an indication of an avoidant tendency when it comes to addressing relational issues. That in itself is a really strong indicator that you should because it's like retraining you to move towards authenticity and manage that anxiety of talking about things openly as opposed to indulging that avoidance reaction that we know will always, ultimately, cause harm in the end, even if in the moment it feels protective.

What Marriage Counselors Want for Soon-to-be-Married Couples

Brenda: I think there are, obviously, we see couples after years where they want to blame the other person to say, “He's the bad guy.” “She's the bad guy.” We want to help couples not get there to say we're not playing a blame game. We want you guys to see that you interact with each other, sometimes, in ways that trigger each other. We should come up with another word besides trigger because I use that word too much. But we want you to both see how you play your own role and that there's no bad guy or good guy. This is both of us struggling. We're all really imperfect people. We're trying to find a way to still stay connected. 

That disconnection equals loneliness for a lot of people. That's the most painful thing in relationships. So, how can we stay connected even in the moments where we see parts of ourselves we don't love, parts of our partner we don't love? How do we get back to our better selves versus trying to pretend they're not there or stay away from them? It really does give them more power if you try to avoid. Using mind-reading and making assumptions is really dangerous for couples. 

That's why I tell couples all the time in the class, “This is just the beginning of your conversation. I want you to continue these conversations. I want to make it less scary so that you guys know you can go here. It doesn't overwhelm anyone. It doesn't scare anybody. You can get through this.”

Dr. Lisa: Oh, my goodness. That in itself, Brenda, you're modeling exactly the type of emotional safety that we hope that couples can create, really. I just love what you said that the goal here isn't some imaginary, perfect ideal that is impossible to attain. The goal here is acceptance of who we each really are and how to stay connected and loving in the midst of that. That's so important.

Brenda: I will say most premarital couples come away feeling grateful that they have the opportunity to talk about things that would have been hard on their own that we did facilitate. Most couples who come in for premarital counseling don't have 10 issues they need to deal with. They have one or two that they're stuck on. They just don't know how to get through those. So they come in with pretty solid relationships, but they have a few issues that they just haven't known how to navigate. Again, I think going to the scary places makes it less scary. That's my hope, is that then when they go there, they can do it again in the future with or without a therapist.

Understanding Premarital Counseling Questions

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, definitely. Then, another question for you on that note, and I know we've talked about this a little bit, but assessments can be a very important part of the premarital counseling process. Again, we have our free 200-question premarital assessment that we can give to clients. I know that people on the team like you who are Prepare-Enrich-certified, there's a whole other assessment process that you do that is also really valuable. 

Why would you say it's so important for couples to be open to doing this assessment, as opposed to just popping in and telling you about the two things that they want to work on? Why would you do that assessment with a premarital couple, anyway? What information do you think it can generate that they may not be consciously aware of?

Brenda: One is it covers topics, sometimes, topics they haven't even thought about. I hear that quite a bit. We're not even sure what we're supposed to be talking about, or maybe what we're missing. The Prepare goes over about 12 different topics. Some of them are just topics that couples haven't thought about in that they haven't framed it in that way—everything from talking about sex to finances, to roles, to responsibilities, to partner’s style and habits, to leisure activities, to how are their family and friends influencing their relationship, the communication, and conflict. It's a structured way to look at their relationship and to also see their strengths. 

I want to go over their strengths to say, “Hey, these are the areas you guys are getting along really well.” Now, there's sometimes still one or two questions where you say, “Hey, let's talk through that and see how you both are feeling about this one piece of communication,” let’s say. But I think it just brings up, in a structured way, topics that they maybe haven't thought about, but they've been issues that maybe have been bothering them, but they might not bring them up organically. This helps give them, one, some template to look at. And two, it helps them, then, identify things that, maybe, were bothering them that they hadn't articulated or put into language yet.

Dr. Lisa: That's such a good point right there because especially with premarital couples, many times, they're getting along well. There's not Problems with a capital P. Even if there are little annoyances, or they haven't quite elevated to the point where there has to be the talk about the problem. And so they’re like, “Ah. It's not that big of a deal.” But you're saying that the assessment will provide a safe, structured way for them to talk about those things that maybe haven't reached that level of importance yet. But it’s still so important to discuss so that they don't turn into a big, hurtful problem. 

Brenda: Some of the questions are even like, “I can see this becoming a problem versus it is a problem.” But anticipating events around the preparative parenting expectations and marriage expectations. So it's saying, “I think this might happen. I’m afraid this might happen.” 

We're also talking about future fortune-telling of where they see the future going that it's not there yet, but there is some fear or hesitation. It is a feeling of like, “Well, should I bring it up now? Or do I bring it up after it's happened?” “Your mom said something that was so offensive. I couldn't handle it.” Or instead, we’re saying, “Hey, what do we do if that situation comes up? How can I support you in those moments?” Again, it's proactive. I can't think of a better word just to try to anticipate or sometimes avoid certain situations.

Second Marriages and Premarital Counseling

Dr. Lisa: Proactive is the perfect word. You're getting out in front of it before… Well, that's super helpful. Then, another question that I had for you. I think that there can also be a thing with premarital couples who are that kind of stereotypical: they're young-ish, or it's their first marriage for both of them. Those are often the couples who are doing all the things. They are the wedding planners, and the color-coordinated flowers and bridesmaid dresses and doing the premarital counseling, and everything. 

Then, there's this other thing that happens, I think of it as your first baby. When you're pregnant, you have the shower, and you have the photo shoot with your belly bump. Then, by the time you have your second or third kid, you might have a friend drop off a trash bag of old clothes on your front porch, that kind of thing. 

Brenda: You’ve done this.

Dr. Lisa: Right? It’s like, why? I think that there can, sometimes, be that difference in energy with somebody who’s getting remarried after having been to that rodeo once before. I'm wondering if you have seen any differences, or differences in importance, even, with couples who may be getting married for the second time and thinking, “Eh. Why should we even do premarital counseling,” or having different needs in a premarital counseling environment? What would you say to them if that were the circumstance?

Brenda: Their case? The couples who end up coming are usually the ones who just say, “We want to do it differently.” Because, one hypothesis, there might be more of why our divorce rate’s higher in second marriages and third marriages. There's one hypothesis that said you didn't learn what to do differently. You just jumped into another relationship without becoming, sometimes, more educated or self-aware. If you want to lower your rate of divorce, I'd say the need to have more self-awareness is really important, especially because it's usually more complicated. You, a lot of times, are dealing with an ex or exes and dealing with children involved. So there's more stress. The honeymoon period doesn't last, always as long or very long at all. 

The couples who come in to me are just saying, “We want to make sure that what we learned from this last relationship, we're going to do it differently, and how to navigate those relationships.” If you think of someone who's coming in and adopting, maybe, really hard ex with their partner, “Okay, how do we deal with this? How do we be on the same team because that can create a lot of conflict and division? How do we parent each other's kids?” 

The Prepare-Enrich test does do step-parenting expectations, what role might the ex play in the relationship that could be an issue. Then, we're, again, talking about that and bringing it to the light to manage thoughts, feelings, hopes, and expectations to hopefully have a better chance of fighting together and being on the same team.

Dr. Lisa: That's so important because that is so hard, just the circumstances and dynamics. We also do a fair amount of blended family therapy here. But again, it's that importance of premarital counseling, to be talking about these things proactively before it becomes a yucky-feeling issue, not just in your relationship, but potentially, having kids who've decided that they hate your new husband or whatever. Let's not do that because that's just so hard to unwind. 

Brenda: Talking through, I think, for a lot of times, that still comes up in certain areas—finances, sex, conflict—to say, “Hey, I'm really scared to trust you with money because my last spouse ran up our credit card bill to $30,000.” You're bringing in, sometimes, some of those fears to talk through it to say, “Okay, what do you need from my support? I know that there are moments you're not reacting to me. You might be reacting to an ex. And how can we not create some disconnection for us?” And to own that and to see that for what it is versus pretending it's not there.

Dr. Lisa: Absolutely. The awareness about your old trauma triggers from past relationships. We’ll encourage my listeners if you haven't already, and if you just had a moment of recognition from what Brenda said, did a podcast not too long ago about trust issues in relationships. You might want to check that one out because I think that what Brenda is saying is that's a really common experience. If you've had a traumatic relationship, there's no other way to say it. How do you go from having those reactions and projecting those things onto your new partner? I'm glad you brought that up. 

I know we don't have a ton of time here, and I'll let you go. But before we do, I wanted to ask you one last question, which is, unfortunately, and I wish it were different, I'm still trying to figure out how to help change this zeitgeist, but in the kinds of conversations and the work that we do and that we're talking about right now, Brenda, is around premarital couples to be proactive, talking about important things before they become a problem. 

Is there any thoughts that you have for somebody listening to this podcast, who's 10 years into a marriage, nobody is doing premarital anything, that boat has sailed, but to still be able to use some of these ideas or concepts in order to be able to strengthen and support their existing marriage? If you were to apply the power of premarital work during the marriage, do you have any thoughts?

Advice for Married Couples

Brenda: I think, to be honest, the application and the understanding of a lot of the concepts that I teach to premarital couples are relevant to any couple, regardless of how long they've been together. I frequently have one couple within a group that has been married for a while. They do want to do a checkup or be more intentional about the relationship. Those people do still come along fairly often.

I would say there's a thought that every long-term relationship is going to have two or three different kinds of relationships. Sometimes, you're at the end of one, and you can start another one. I think that these concepts have been what really makes relationships work with couples who've been together, who are both open to having a new relationship, and getting away from the past to say, “What do we need to do differently?” I think those couples, if they're both open to it, then it can be a great tool for them. I've seen that happen with couples where they've said basically, “Let's start over it. That worked for a while, but it's not working anymore.”

Dr. Lisa: I think this openness to learning “What do we now have to do to have a good relationship?” I can't even tell you how happy I am, right now, to hear that married, long-term couples come to your premarital class. That's the best thing I've ever heard. 

Brenda: Glad I made your day, Lisa. That’s awesome.

Dr. Lisa: Well, good. I left you this message. It's never too late for premarital counseling. Even if you're well into a marriage, that it's not too late to say, “You know, what? What could we be doing better or differently?” Come and even show up for couples counseling and say, “We don’t really want a premarital experience. We don't have many specific things, but we just want somebody to get a sense of what we're currently doing. What are our strengths? What are our growth opportunities?” And help coach them on how to be better partners for each other and just have that be the intention of relational growth work.

Brenda: I think, hopefully, again, it gives couples a lot of education. I do some attachment work in, even, the class to say, “Okay, if someone's anxiously attached and someone's avoidantly attached, what's that look like?” That doesn't matter if they've been together 2 years or 10 years. They still start to see patterns. I think it takes away some of the shame to say, “It wasn't us. This is how this relationship looks like. Now, we know how to do things differently. We don't have to keep doing that.” 

Dr. Lisa: I love it. But that's always the truth. The healthiest, happiest couples are the ones who are proactive and really putting effort into educating themselves about how to grow, how to increase their understanding about the attachment styles just throughout the process, as opposed to the ones who are like, “Nope, we're fine. It's not that bad.” Then, by the time they show up, it's so bad. 

Brenda: When I tell couples if you feel like things get boring, it's probably not the relationship. You're probably holding back parts of yourself that you're not sure if the relationship can handle. We're always changing. We're evolving organisms. As people, we’re always looking to learn ourselves, and create ourselves, and recreate ourselves. Are you bringing that to the relationship? If you're not, if you're trying to keep it really contained, it's going to feel flat. Most people don't want that. 

Esther Perel would say, “People don't want more sex, they want better sex.” People want better relationships, but that means you have to, sometimes, go to scary places within yourself to bring that into the relationship: what you feel, think, and who you are.

Dr. Lisa: I love it. What a wonderful note to end on, Brenda. Then, a takeaway for every couple: no matter what stage of relationship you're in, think about what you aren't currently talking about that maybe you should be. I love that. 

While you’re saying that, Brenda, made me think of a little tool that we have for free on the website of growingself.com is our How Healthy Is Your Relationship? quiz that anybody can just come and take. It's not a ton of questions, probably 20 questions, but a little assessment that can help you be like, “Oh, are we talking about this? Should we be talking about this?” This is a little roadmap but to be thinking about what the growth opportunities are in your relationship and being proactive about it, whether or not you're already married. I love it. 

This has been so good. Thank you so much, Brenda, for spending this time with me today and just for sharing your wisdom with my listeners. So good.

Brenda: Thank you. I do love these couples. I hope it helps marriages be long, and happy, and successful. This would be my hope. 

Dr. Lisa: Me, too. Thank you, again.

[Outro Song]


How to Feel More Secure in Your Relationship

How to Feel More Secure in Your Relationship

How to Feel More Secure in Your Relationship

Let Yourself Feel Loved

OVERCOMING INSECURITY | It's not uncommon for both women and men to feel insecure in a relationship from time to time. We often see emotional insecurity as an underlying issue to address with couples who come to us for marriage counseling, couples therapy, premarital counseling and relationship coaching. After all, when couples don't feel completely emotionally safe and secure with each other it tends to create conflict and problems in many other areas of their partnership. [For more on the importance of emotional safety and how it may be impacting YOUR relationship, access our free “How Healthy is Your Relationship” Quiz and my mini-couples coaching follow up video series.]

It's especially true for people in new relationships to have some anxiety, but even people in long-term relationships can worry about their partner's feelings for them sometimes. While very common, feeling insecure in your relationship can create problems — for both of you. 

Root Causes of Insecurity

If insecurity is an issue in your relationship — either for you, or your partner — you might be speculating about the root causes of insecurity and how to heal them. People can struggle to feel emotionally safe with their partner for a variety of reasons — sometimes due to their life experiences, but sometimes, due to things that have happened in the current relationship itself. 

Insecurity After Infidelity: Certainly being let down or betrayed by your partner in the past can lead you to struggle with trust in the present moment. Insecurity after infidelity or an emotional affair is very common. In these cases, the path to healing can be a long one. The person who did the betraying often needs to work very hard, for a long time, to show (not tell, but show) their partners that they can trust them.

Anxiety After Being Let Down Repeatedly: However, insecurities can also start to emerge after less dramatic betrayals and disappointments. Even feeling that your partner has not been emotionally available for you, has not been consistently reliable, or was there for you in a time of need, it can lead you to question the strength of their commitment and love. Trust is fragile: If your relationship has weathered storms, learning how to repair your sense of trust and security can be a vital part of healing. Often, couples need to go back into the past to discuss the emotional wounds they experienced with each other in order to truly restore the bond of safety and security. These conversations can be challenging, but necessary.

Insecurity Due to Having Been Hurt in the Past: Sometimes people who have had negative experiences in past relationships can feel insecure, due to having been traumatized by others. For some people, their very first relationships were with untrustworthy or inconsistent parents and that led to the development of insecure attachment styles. This can lead them to feel apprehensive or protective with anyone who gets close. However, even people with loving parents and happy childhoods can carry scars of past relationships, particularly if they lived through a toxic relationship at some point in their lives. It's completely understandable: Having been burned by an Ex can make it harder to trust a new partner, due to fears of being hurt again.

Long Distance Relationships: Certain types of relationships can lead people to feel less secure than they'd like to, simply due to the circumstances of the relationship itself. For example, you might feel more insecure if you're in a long-distance relationship.  Not being able to connect with your partner or see them in person all the time can take a toll on even the strongest relationship. Couples in long-distance relationships should expect that they will have to work a little harder than couples who are together day-to-day, in order to help each person to feel secure and loved. In these cases, carefully listening to each other about what both of you are needing to feel secure and loved is vital, as is being intentionally reliable and consistent.

Feeling Insecure When You're Dating Someone New: And, as we all know, early-stage romantic love is a uniquely vulnerable experience and often fraught with anxiety. Dating someone new is exciting, but it can also be intensely anxiety-provoking. In new (or new-ish) relationships where a commitment has not been established, not fully knowing where you stand with a new person that you really like is emotionally intense. If you're dating, or involved in a new relationship, you may need to deliberately cultivate good self-soothing and calming skills in order to manage the emotional roller coaster that new love can unleash. 

Feeling Insecure With a Withdrawn Partner: Interestingly, different types of relationship dynamics can lead to differences in how secure people feel. The same person can feel very secure and trusting in one relationship, but with a different person, feel suspicious, worried, and on pins and needles. Often this has to do with the relational dynamic of the couple.

For example, in relationships where one person has a tendency to withdraw, be less communicative, or is not good at verbalizing their feelings it can lead their partner to feel worried about what's really going on inside of them. This can turn into a pursue-withdraw dynamic that intensifies over time; one person becoming increasingly anxious and agitated about not being able to get through to their partner, and the withdrawn person clamping down like a clam under assault by a hungry seagull. However, when communication improves and couples learn how to show each other love and respect in the way they both need to feel safe and secure, trust is strengthened and emotional security is achieved.

Types of Insecurities

Emotional security (or lack of) is complex. In addition to having a variety of root causes, there are also different ways that insecurity manifests in people —and they all have an impact on your relationship. As has been discussed in past articles on this blog, people who struggle with low self esteem may find it hard to feel safe in relationships because they are anticipating rejection. The “insecure overachiever” may similarly struggle to feel secure in relationships if they're not getting the validation and praise they thrive on. 

For others, insecurity is linked to an overall struggle with vulnerability and perfectionism. People who feel like they need to be perfect in order to be loved can — subconsciously or not — try to hide their flaws. But, on a deep level, they know they're not perfect (no one is) and so that knowledge can lead to feelings of apprehension when they let other people get close to them. In these cases, learning how to lean into authentic vulnerability can be the path of healing. [More on this: “The Problem With Perfectionism”]

Sometimes people who are going through a particularly hard time in other parts of their lives can start to feel apprehensive about their standing in their relationship. For example, people who aren't feeling great about their career can often feel insecure when they're around people who they perceive as being more successful or accomplished than they are. This insecurity is heightened in the case of a layoff or unexpected job loss. If one partner in a relationship is killing it, and the other is feeling under-employed or like they're still finding their way, it can lead the person who feels dissatisfied with their current level of achievement to worry that their partner is dissatisfied with them too. 

Insecurities can take many forms, and emerge for a variety of reasons. However, when insecurity is running rampant the biggest toll it takes is often on a relationship. 

How Insecurity Can Ruin a Relationship

To be clear: Having feelings is 100% okay. Nothing bad is going to happen to you, or your relationship, or anyone else because you have feelings of anxiety or insecurity. The only time relationship problems occur as a result of feelings is when your feelings turn into behaviors.

If people who feel insecure, anxious, jealous or threatened don't have strategies to soothe themselves and address their feelings openly with their partner (and have those conversations lead to positive changes in the relationship), the feelings can lead to behaviors that can harm the relationship. Some people lash out in anger when they perceive themselves to be in emotional danger, or that their partner is being hurtful to them.  Often, people who feel insecure will attempt to control their partner's behaviors in efforts to reduce their own anxiety. Many insecure people will hound their partners for information about the situations they feel worried about. Still others will withdraw, pre-emptively, as a way of protecting themselves from the rejection they anticipate.

While all of these strategies are adaptive when you are in a situation where hurtful things are happening, (more on toxic relationships here) problems occur when these defensive responses flare up in a neutral situation. A common example of this is the scenario where one person repeatedly asks their partner if they're cheating on them because they feel anxious, when their partner is actually 100% faithful to them and has done nothing wrong. The insecure person might question their partner, attack their partner, check up on their partner, or be cold and distant due to their worries about being cheated on or betrayed — when nothing bad is actually happening. This leaves the person on the other side feeling hurt, controlled, rejected, vilified… or simply exhausted. 

If feelings of insecurity are leading to problematic behaviors in a relationship, over time, if unresolved, it can erode the foundation of your partnership. 

How to Help Someone Feel More Secure

It's not uncommon for partners of insecure people to seek support through therapy or life coaching, or couples counseling either for themselves or with their partners. They ask, “How do I help my wife feel more secure,” or “How do I help my husband feel more secure.” This is a great question; too often partners put the blame and responsibility for insecure feelings squarely on the shoulders of their already-anxious spouse or partner. This, as you can imagine, only makes things worse. 

While creating trust in a relationship is a two-way street, taking deliberate and intentional action to help your partner feel emotionally safe with you in the ways that are most important to him or her is the cornerstone of helping your insecure girlfriend, insecure boyfriend, or insecure spouse feel confident in your love for them. The key here is consistency, and being willing to do things to help them feel emotionally secure even if you don't totally get it. This is especially true of the origins of your partner's worry stem from early experiences of being hurt or betrayed by someone else. 

Tips to help your spouse feel more secure: 

  • Ask them what they need from you to feel emotionally safe and loved by you
  • Give that to them (over and over again, without being asked every time)
  • Rinse and repeat

How to Stop Being Insecure

Of course, it's very frustrating to partners who feel like they're not just true-blue, but doing everything they feel they can to help someone feel safe and secure… and yet insecurities persist. While partners of anxious people do need to try a little harder to help them feel secure, the person who struggles with insecurity needs to also take responsibility for their feelings and learn how to manage them effectively. Note: This doesn't mean not ever having worried or insecure feelings (feelings happen y'all), but rather, learning how to have feelings that don't turn into relationship-damaging behaviors.

Without the ability to soothe yourself, become grounded in the here and now, and get your emotional needs met by your partner (or yourself), unbridled insecurity can put a major strain on a relationship. But how? How do you manage insecurity? That's the million-dollar question, and that's why I've made it the topic of the latest episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast! 

If you're struggling with insecurity in your relationship — either as the person who worries, or the one who's trying to reassure them — you'll definitely want to join me and my colleague Georgi Chizk, an Arkansas-based marriage counselor and family therapist who specializes in attachment therapy as we discuss this topic. We're going deep into the topic of insecurity in relationships, and how to overcome it. Listen and learn more about:

  • The root causes of insecurity
  • The surprising ways insecurity can impact a relationship
  • Practical strategies to help someone else feel more secure
  • Actionable advice to help yourself feel less insecure
  • How trust and security are healed and strengthened
  • Concrete tools couples can use to banish insecurity from their relationship

We hope that this discussion helps you both overcome insecurity, and create the strong, happy relationship you deserve.

With love and respect, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby & Georgi Chizk, M.S., LAMFT

P.S. Pro Tip: Once you listen to this podcast, consider sharing it with your partner. Doing so can be an easy, low-key way to start an important, and necessary conversation about how to increase the emotional safety and security you both feel in your relationship. xo, LMB

[social_warfare]

Listen & Subscribe to the Podcast

How to Feel More Secure in Your Relationship

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

Music Credits: Juniore, “Panique”

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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.

Let's  Talk

Real Help For Your Relationship

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

 

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

 

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

More Love, Happiness & Success Advice From the Blog

12 Effective Ways to Destroy Your Relationship

12 Effective Ways to Destroy Your Relationship

12 Effective Ways to Destroy Your Relationship

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.

 

Listen & Subscribe to the Podcast

12 Effective Ways to Destroy a Relationship

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

Enjoy This Episode?

Please Rate, Review, and Share The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast!

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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.

Let's  Talk

Real Help For Your Relationship

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

 

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

 

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

More Love, Happiness and Success Advice on The Blog

Dysfunctional Family Roles

Dysfunctional Family Roles

Dysfunctional Family Roles

How to Deal With Trust Issues

[social_warfare]

Dysfunctional Family Roles

Functional vs Dysfunctional Family Roles: Ever wonder why you are the way you are, especially in terms of your patterns in relationships and habitual ways of relating to others?

As a long time Denver therapist and life coach I can assure you that we're all a sum of many things: our innate temperament, our personalities, our thinking styles and our accumulated life experiences. But the dynamics of the family system that that you were a part of growing up can having a profound impact on you too, for better or for worse.

If you're interested in personal growth, self development, and improving your relationships, at some point it is vital to ask: Who  was I in my family? What role did I play in that system? Who did my family want me to be? What did my family bring out in me? Most importantly: Who did my family need me to be?

Understanding the functional and potentially dysfunctional family roles that shaped you can give you insight into yourself, and a deep level of self understanding that leads to choice and empowerment.

Today's episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast is taking a deep dive into understanding the power of family roles, how dysfunctional family roles can create long-term impacts on the adults we become, and how to use this awareness to grow into the person you want to be.

How to Overcome Dysfunctional Family Roles

Our families shape our way of thinking, feeling and behaving. Unless (or until) we do deliberate personal growth work in life coaching, evidence-based therapy in Denver (or online therapy), or couples counseling, we will subconsciously bring these ways of thinking feeling into adulthood. Some of the patterns and expectations we unknowingly carry with us are helpful to our adult relationships, and some are not.

If we want to create positive changes in our adult life and relationships, it's important to understand how we were forged in the crucible of our family of origin.

I've seen time and time again, as a marriage counselor, therapist, and life coach, that as my clients do this work they become aware of themselves in an entirely new way. Most people come into contact with the fact that they are reflexively operating on a set of core beliefs, values, expectations and habits that they didn't even know they had. Many of these “operating instructions” instilled by families of origin are positive and helpful. But some are not.

Let's face it: We were all raised by fallible, imperfect humans who were almost certainly operating on the subconscious legacy from their own family of origin. It takes both hard work and support to become the clear-eyed, self-aware, mindful and compassionate parent and partner that intentionally cultivates healthy family dynamics. Most people never get the opportunity to do that type of personal growth work.

As a result, our parents didn't know what they were doing either. If they came from (mostly) healthy, nurturing families, that's (mostly) what they gave to us. If your parents grew up being forced to participate in dysfunctional family roles, unless they were privileged enough to do high-quality therapy, they probably subconsciously re-enacted those old ways of being in your family growing up.

On the bright side, the fact that you're even reading this and learning about these subterranean psychological forces gives you awareness and power that your parents probably never had. You get to deliberately make changes in yourself that lead to your ability to create an entirely different outcome for your family.

But the first step is developing a genuine understanding of how the legacy of dysfunctional family roles may be operating in you. That's what we're talking about in today's podcast!

Dysfunctional Family Roles: What they are, and how to transcend them.

Listen to today's episode of the podcast to:

  • Learn how your role in your family of origin can affect your relationships in adulthood.
  • Know the impact of our early experiences in how we manage stress and anxiety.
  • Get insights and direction into how you can break the patterns of your dysfunctional family role (and cultivate the strengths of a healthy family dynamic).
  • Learn to recognize other people’s patterns and see them with compassion.
  • Discover how you can be independent and empowered in creating the relationships you want.
  • Know how you can build real and lasting changes in your family life and relationships.
  • Discover strategies to improve your family dynamics.

You can listen to “Dysfunctional Family Roles” on Spotify, on the Apple Podcast App, and anywhere else you listen to podcasts. Or, you can scroll down to the bottom of this page to listen right here on GrowingSelf.com.

If you're more of a reader, I've provided some episode highlights (below) as well as a full transcript. Otherwise, thanks so much for listening, subscribing, and sharing this with anyone in your orbit who could benefit from hearing it.

Family Of Origin

How did your experiences in your family of origin shape you?

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Growing up, who did your family need you to be?
  • Are you the same or a different person when you are outside the family system?
  • How do you feel about yourself when you’re with your family and when you’re with others?
  • Do you change when you’re with other people and go back to your patterns when you’re with your family?

Considering the answers to these questions can begin the process of giving you some insight and self awareness around how the dynamics of your family of origin impacted you.

Psychodynamic Therapy, Attachment Theory & Family Systems

Tackling your deepest, most entrenched patterns often requires the support of a great therapist. There are many effective ways to accomplish this work, but it can be very helpful to work with a therapist who understands psychodynamic therapy, attachment theory, and family systems. In these evidence-based types of therapy, you will have the opportunity to explore your family roles, your patterns in relationships, and why you are the way you are. This type of therapy focuses on first raising self-awareness and insights. Then, once that is established, a good therapist will help you begin to actively experiment with new ways of being that help you overcome dysfunctional family roles, and begin practicing new ones. 

Family Roles Follow Us Everywhere

We think of our patterns in relationships as being exclusive to how we show up in our actual families. Not so. Your habitual ways of relating will also show up in your friendships and even your working relationships. Family systems dynamics appear whenever groups of people form, because people naturally assume different roles in relation to one another. When the roles are complementary, cooperative, and flexible, they make for a healthy relationship.

Healthy Family Roles vs Dysfunctional Family Roles

Dysfunctional family roles are characterized by inflexibility and that they serve to maintain homeostasis. (Meaning that when one person stops engaging in the dysfunctional family role other people in the family fall apart). In contrast, healthy family roles are flexible, supportive, and interdependent. The individuals in a family don't “need” each other to be a certain way in order to be okay. A child can be imperfect or sad without a parent becoming overwhelmingly anxious or angry. One member can step into another’s role. In a healthy family, for example, both parents can be nurturing at times. Both parents can also be appropriately authoritative at times. 

In contrast, the roles in a dysfunctional family are rigid, fixed, and distinct. The members must stay in their roles in order to maintain the functioning of the others. When one steps out of their role, it disrupts the system, and places an enormous amount of pressure on individuals to resume their dysfunctional role. (Often at the expense of their own mental and emotional health and wellbeing). 

Understanding Dysfunctional Family Systems

There is not a cutoff line between a functional family and a dysfunctional family. It doesn’t have an on and off switch. Instead, it is a spectrum.

In some families, someone tends to over-function. This person makes up for the deficit of another who is not functioning fully. People in codependent relationships easily over-function in fulfilling their caretaker or enabler role.

There is also someone who plays the victim. They always blame their problems on others. This person is always having a hard time, usually because of mental health issues. The victim also often has a substance abuse problem because that’s how they cope with the unfairness of life.  

These are the other roles commonly found in a dysfunctional family. Listen to the full episode to learn more some of the most common dysfunctional family roles including:

  • The Problem Child (aka, “The Scapegoat”)
  • The Family Clown
  • The Lost Child
  • The Gold Star Kid

In extremely toxic family systems, the roles are more rigid. There isn’t enough space for everyone. The three primary roles you will see are:

  • The Abuser
  • The Protector
  • The Victim

When a person is in a healthy family, they get to inhabit many different roles — or better yet, just be themselves. They can be funny and nurturing and accomplished, and they can also be sad and in need of help and even lazy too. They can be their whole selves, and it's all okay. In healthy families the roles that do emerge tend to be more task or responsibility based rather than serve an emotional purpose. (Think, one person usually takes out the trash or manages the finances). But again, there is flexibility. For example, even if a family member goes away for a while, the family can adjust and cooperate because they are an interdependent system.

Examples of Dysfunctional Family Roles

In this episode of the podcast I talk through a number of examples of disfunctional family roles in order to illustrate how they all work together.

A family composed of a victim-feeling mom, an enabling dad, a perfect daughter, a clown son, a silent child, and a problem child is a stable family system. However, just because it’s stable doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Being in a dysfunctional family system creates an artificial sense of stability. If any one of the family members decides to change for the better, the others would be forced to confront their problems, disrupting the system.

Self-awareness and recognition take an enormous amount of emotional health, emotional stability, and emotional regulation skills. Dysfunctional families can't do that easily. Professional family therapy is often required.

The Path of Growth

This podcast was intended to provide information and awareness about the fact that dysfunctional family roles exist, and to help you think about to what degree they may have impacted your life. However, this podcast is in no way meant to resolve these patterns: It can't. Growth and healing from dysfunctional family roles is a process — often a long term one. However, you can absolutely change and overcome the impact of dysfunctional family roles. Through the awareness and self reflection that you get from therapy, plus guidance around how to experiment with different ways of being, you can take action to change yourself. And when you change yourself, you will become a force of positive change in your family too.

Dysfunctional Family Roles —Resource List

If you think you've been impacted by dysfunctional family roles that are affecting they way you think, feel and behave as an adult, the most important thing you can do is get involved in effective therapy. Look for a highly qualified therapist with a background in psychodynamic therapy, attachment therapy, and / or family systems. If you'd like to do this life-changing work with one of the therapists at Growing Self, the first step in getting started is to schedule a free consultation session to discuss your hopes and goals and see if it's a good fit to work together.

In addition to therapy, there are some self help activities that can support your work to overcome the effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family role:

I have shared valuable advice on coping with dysfunctional family roles. Which part of the episode was the most helpful? Feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment down below.

Back in touch soon, with more Love, Happiness and Success advice for you. 

xo, Dr. 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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Dysfunctional Family Roles: Podcast Transcript

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Access Episode Transcript

Dysfunctional Family Roles —Podcast

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

[playing Stars by Ayla Nereo]

Isn't that a great song? That's Ayla Nereo—I hope I'm saying that right—Ayla Nereo and the song is called Stars. Such a nice song. We’ll listen to it together more at the end of our show today, but I thought it was a nice intro for our topic. Today, we're talking about something I think incredibly, not just important, but also interesting. And I think it will be very relevant for you and the kinds of questions and concerns that you've been bringing to me lately. I've been hearing from a lot of you through Instagram, through Facebook, and certainly through the blog at growingself.com with questions about your relationships and how to improve them.

And we're taking a deep, deep dive into this topic today. We're going to be talking about family systems. Specifically, family systems and the way that our roles in our families of origin can shape us as adults and have a pretty big impact on the way that we feel in relationships. The kind of partners that we choose, the way we relate to others, the way we communicate, the way we manage stress and anxiety can all often be found in some of our earliest experiences.

And my hope is that by talking about these things today with you, you will be able to recognize and notice where some of those might come from inside of you. And also be able to more compassionately see this in perhaps your partner, or your mom, dad, brothers, sisters, family of origin, and also even in your friends, and extended circle to be able to gain awareness of who people are, why they are the way that they are so that you have some insight and also like direction for how you can begin to break some of these patterns, if you decide that they are actually not serving you well anymore. And really feel empowered to act more independently and create the kind of life and relationships you want. I know that this sounds like very big stuff, and it is. And I feel like we kind of need to go here because, again, I get so many questions from you guys about specific relationship kinds of questions lately.

And I think it's very easy, and even tempting, for relationship coach types or family therapists to say, “Let me give you some strategies. Try this specific thing”. And the risk here is that while the specific strategies can be very helpful, they are often blown away like a little dandelion puff in a hurricane. And the hurricane, the much more powerful thing at the root of why these relationship experiences are happening, why you're feeling the way you do, are in these family of origin issues. And so for me, to hand you this little dandelion puff and say, “Good luck with that,” it feels like not me being a good friend to you or truly of service to you. And so I really wanted to talk more about the issue of family systems to provide you with a little bit more meaningful and hopefully helpful guidance that will lead to your making real and lasting change in your life and in your relationships. Not just one more piece of dandelion fluff, three little tips to change your life kinds of things. There's a time and place for that too. But I mean, we are keeping it real here on the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.

And if this is your first time tuning in and you're wondering what in the hell you have just stumbled into, I am Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I'm the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. I’m licensed as a psychologist. I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist. I’m a board-certified life coach, and our practice at Growing Self, we say we specialize in love, happiness, and success. We do a lot of couples counseling, marriage counseling, but also, like, take a holistic approach to life. So we're doing individual therapy, life coaching, also career coaching, and professional development coaching, because all of these different aspects of life are intrinsically related. You are a whole person. And to have any of these things: love, happiness, or success, it really involves paying attention to all of them and, really, particularly the stuff at the center that impacts the way you think, feel, and behave in all different aspects of your life.

And again, the family systems, ideas, we’re going to be talking about today are incredibly impactful. It goes into the way you feel about yourself, the way you take care of yourself, the way you manage your own emotions, the way that you communicate, also directly impacts the way that you relate to other people, the expectations that you have of your partners, the kind of partners you select, your responses to people, particularly in moments of stress. And it is absolutely incredibly salient to the way we relate to coworkers, or tasks, or the way we show up on the job, or the way we communicate in professional roles, or even the role that career or work serves in our lives are all directly rooted in some of our earliest life experiences.

So I'm excited to talk about this with you today. And as I'm recording this, we are going into the holiday season. And I think it can be very helpful to talk about family roles, and family dynamics, and family issues because much of the time around the holidays, we get to spend more time with extended family. Although, this particular year, as I'm sure you're well aware, the year of the pandemic, this is different. You may or may not be spending the holidays with your family of origin, or you may be in a situation, like many of the therapy or coaching clients that I have here at Growing Self, that I hear people on my team consulting about are increasingly adults now bunking with their parents again, or siblings again or having your mother-in-law move in with you, just because of the pandemic situation and the realities that many families are facing. There is an increased incidence of multigenerational households. So you're having the opportunity to splash around in family of origin. Dynamics may not be contained to just a challenging Thanksgiving dinner. It may be waiting for you at the breakfast table, eating cereal and calmly looking at you first thing in the morning when you get up and pad into the kitchen for your coffee. So lots of excitement, and let's call it an opportunity for growth.

So diving in to the topic of understanding family roles and understanding, in particular, dysfunctional family roles compared to healthy family roles and family systems. Again, this is a huge, huge topic. And I feel a fiduciary obligation to give you a disclaimer, is that I'm going to be talking about a lot of things on this podcast today. And many, many books have been written on this subject. The subject is one that has been studied for decades by people who have devoted their entire careers to this. There are whole university programs that will train you for years on the different facets of this topic. And so we are going to be going deep, but please know this is a drop in the bucket of the complex and fascinating topic of family systems. And so I hope that this is one informational tool that you use along your path of growth. But do not think for a moment that this is all of it. There's much, much more.

I'll be throwing other resources out for you as we talk through things. And of course, there's much, much more on various aspects of this topic on the blog at growingself.com. You'll hear me referring to those through the podcast. But instead of boring you with a lot of specific links and titles, for all of them that I'll be mentioning, if you just go to growingself.com, and go to the expert advice page, we have hundreds and hundreds of blog posts, articles written by experts, other podcasts, videos, all kinds of stuff, and there is a search bar on that page. And so if you hear me mention a resource over the course of this podcast or like, “I want to learn more about that,” that's where you'll find it. Just go to the blog at growingself.com, and type communication, or boundaries, or whatever it is into that search bar that I'll be mentioning. And you will find the article in question as opposed to having to write everything down as I'm discussing, because who has time for that?

Okay, so jumping in. Let's start with a question. When you think about your family, your family of origin, the people that you spent most of your time with growing up, and what that experience was like for you, most of the time, I would like for you to take just a second and consider who you were when you were in that situation? Who did your family kind of need you to be? And how does that maybe feel similar to or different who it feels like you really are when you are outside of that family system? Did you sort of feel one way about yourself when you were with your family? And then when you went to college, or moved out, or built your own life and your own family, did that change? And do you notice yourself kind of being drawn into those same types of patterns when you're back around your family?I’ll just pause for a second to let you reflect on that.

Because our families shape us. We're born with personalities. We're born with basic ways of being. But then it is because of our role in the family that we were born into is where we really learn how to be in relation to others. We learn who we are. We internalize a kind of narrative about ourselves. We learn what to expect from other people. We kind of develop ideas about who other people want us to be. It's where we develop our ideas about our worth as people. Like, “What do I need to be or do in order to be loved and respected and cared for by others?” 

And this is not conscious stuff. This is so subconscious. It is preverbal much of the time. But it's also very real. And it matters because we take this with us into our adult lives, whether or not we want to, whether or not we're even aware of it. And, we kind of need to know who we are, and where we came from, and what shaped us, and why we do the things we do in order to be empowered, to create positive changes if we want to—if we want to. And it is the case that many people, I would say most people—all people, really, I mean, even people who come from the most difficult and traumatic family backgrounds, it wasn't— very rarely—is it ever like all bad. We get so many good and valuable things from our family experiences.

And so this is no way to bash families, because I would venture to say that when we reflect on the best parts of ourselves, many times—our values, the things that give us meaning and pride—there are so many wonderful things that we pick up along the way from our families of origin. And those are all to be embraced, and shared, cherished, and feel so grateful for. And it is also the case that we sometimes have developed ways of relating to others in our families of origin that made perfect sense. And were really even necessary at that time in our lives, but that when we get older, and get into adulthood, and create our own families, and own relationships, we can arrive at the conclusion that those old ways of being are no longer serving us or helping us achieve the goals that we have as adults. Or that we are now partnered with someone that our old family of origin way of being is not really compatible with, and that we need to make some changes in order to have a really healthy relationship and family. And so the process of being able to do that begins with awareness and beginning to reflect on “Who am I?” and “Where did that come from?” Now we're going to be talking about this.

But I also want to just say out loud and very clearly that there is a certain breed of therapist, a certain type of therapy, that's called psychodynamic therapy. It was born out of kind of the Freudian school of thought, the sort of original therapy. But psychodynamic therapy is all about exactly this. How did your earliest relationships shape you, and why are you the way that you are? It is very insight-oriented. And if you get involved in psychodynamic psychotherapy, you will spend many, many, many, many sessions talking about family roles, and relationships, and why you are the way you are, and this all makes sense. And this is the thing that I personally have like… kind of makes me crazy. Many, in my experience, psychodynamic therapists will analyze all of this, and be like, “Okay, your dad was cold and emotionally unavailable. And your mom was depressed. And so this is why you avoid conflict”. And you're both like, “Okay, yeah”. And there's this like triumphant, “Okay, so we figured it out”. And then the therapist is like feeling very pleased with themselves for having figured this out. And you're like, “Oh, okay. That makes sense”. And then that's where it stops.

It's like that insight was the goal of the therapy. And many times if you have been involved in this kind of therapy, you may have had this experience. If you're like, “Okay, well, all right. Well, now I know that. So now what? Like, what do I do with that?” And the therapist is like, “Well, you know, we need to process that.” What does that mean? Okay, and so I have a reaction to that. And my way of being as a therapist and a coach is much more practical. And it's not to knock that self-awareness and that insight. We need to have that in order to be able to make conscious changes, and understand ourselves, and have compassion for ourselves. But there also needs to be more. And so, our way of being here at Growing Self is a more direct route like, yes, okay. We need to figure it out, make sense of it. But then we need to actively work to change it. And so you'll— if this is— you've been in therapy before and what I'm describing to you today sounds a little bit different, that’s why.

It is because really my primary orientation is more of a coach. I am a licensed marriage and family therapist. I'm a licensed psychologist. That is part of my background. But I think a bigger part of my work and way of helping clients is through more of a coaching model, which is, “Okay, what do you want to do with that?” Like “What's your goal?” So with that in mind, if this is something that you want to explore, the first step of gaining that foundational self-awareness—with the assistance of a therapist, or coach, or not— is to first notice, or even do some journaling around who do you become when you are around your family, and how is this functional in your early life

And figuring that out, like when I reflected on that and was well, well into my 20s before I even considered any of this as a possibility, realizing that when I was around my family, I kind of needed to hide certain parts of myself. I had to be fairly like rational and kind of stable. Family therapists are also made in the crucible of their family system. And that was very much my role as a child. And while that was helpful to stabilize my family, there were consequences to me later in life in terms of my own relationships and my ability, I think, to be as vulnerable or authentic as I wanted to be, and I think on a deep level, craved. But in my family, it wasn't really okay for me to do that. So that was something that I had to do a lot of work around as I got older and wanted to have a good relationship with my husband. That's been an area of growth for me. And this can look like so many different things. And I'd like to invite you to sort of reflect on how you feel, or what you find yourself doing or saying, or ways of being when you get around your family that are maybe a little bit different than who you really are or who you want to be.

And with that in mind, I also want to share that family systems are always present in the sense that people in families are really any group. You see it in coworker kinds of groups or working relationships too, is that people will always kind of naturally move into different roles. And that is very healthy, particularly when roles are cooperative. They are complementary, and also when they're flexible, they can change as needed. And also, a virtue of a healthy family system or a healthy relational system is that people can grow and change without it creating disruption in the rest of the system.

So like, for example, and this is a very superficial example, but I'm sure you can relate to it in your own life, like in in my house, I do not take out the trash. I don't know what day the trash comes. It always surprises me. My husband, he rolls our trash cans out to the curb on the correct day of the week. He knows what time they're going to be there. It is just not something that I think about. It is his role in our home to think about that and to do that. Therefore, I just don't. Now, there have been times when he's gone out of town. And thankfully he'll text me or something like, “Don't forget to take out the trash, okay?” and I can go do that. I can be flexible in that role. Or God forbid, if he got sick or something like, I would do that. It's completely fine, I could step in to that role.

And so there are practical kinds of functional roles in families that people just kind of have their little jobs, and so that everything comes along. But there are also emotional and relational roles in families. In healthy families, these roles tend to be cooperative, flexible, and like much less fixed. Like, in a healthy family, both parents can be nurturing at times. Both parents can also be appropriately authoritative at times. Sometimes mom makes breakfast. Sometimes the other mom makes breakfast, if that's a same-sex couple, or sometimes dad makes breakfast. There's this flexibility and a— what am I trying to say? People can make space for each other and behave like this healthy interdependence, as opposed to what happens in a dysfunctional family system with dysfunctional family roles. Those tend to be much more rigid, much more fixed, much more distinct, and functional in an emotional way that when people stop their roles or try to move out of those roles, the system becomes disrupted.

And so people stay in those roles, and they become increasingly rigid for like matters of emotional safety, and sometimes even literal safety or survival. They're not flexible. And also, in a healthy family system, the roles are good for people. Everybody feels okay. And while nobody is perfect or needs to be perfect, there is a— people are able to be authentic. It's healthy, it's nurturing. Nobody's being harmed by any of the family roles. Whereas in a dysfunctional family system, the roles that people inhabit are often not really healthy for them. They're not the highest and best for them. And also, people feel locked into those, not consciously but subconsciously, because if they try to be different, it will be very disruptive to the system. And they might experience personal consequences, or the system might experience consequences.

And I know we're talking about this very theoretically right now. So let me let me go into some more concrete examples so you can understand what I'm really talking about. So when we look at a dysfunctional family system with dysfunctional family roles, people from, oftentimes, early childhood, get kind of shuttled into various adaptive roles to support various parts of the system. And these roles, over time, tend to turn into like almost personality features or identities. And they have a almost global impact on the way that people relate to others, both inside their families and outside of their families. A lot has been written about different types of roles. There are many of them. But I'll just go over some of the most common ones so that you can think about, “Hm, is this me? Was this happening in my family or not?”

In dysfunctional family roles, there is quite frequently a perfect person who gets the gold stars—who is amazing, who is responsible and conscientious, and does not need to be told to do their homework, and will clean their room, and pick up after themselves, and kind of often inhabit like a caretaking role as well. Like “Oh, somebody needs to make dinner. I'm going to go ahead and do that.” Caretaking for other children in the family and generally like not needing a whole lot. It's this parentified child many times, but can also have a like achievement orientation. Like they can be stabilizing the family by virtue of being a gold medal winning figure skater at age 13 or gymnast. There are a lot of ways the perfect child can show up in a family.

In addition to having usually at least a perfect one, there is often a dysfunctional family role that is really more like actively a caretaker that is so caretaking, so over the top in terms of rushing around kind of over-functioning and doing things for other people that it can really be kind of an enabling role. That this person is really making up for the deficits of another, or kind of propping up another person that isn't really functioning fully.

If you recall, I did a podcast a little while ago around codependent relationships and what those look like in marriages and in families. Oftentimes, people who have strong codependent tendencies and find themselves falling into those patterns in their own marriages were the caretaker or enabler in their family of origin. And so they're very used to this like, “If I don't wake my mom up for work or make my little brother breakfast, mom might not get to work, or my little brother might not eat the breakfast. And so I need to be very vigilant and kind of like motivating everybody to do what they're supposed to be doing.” You often see that in families where there is a parent who is chemically dependent or has a substance abuse problem. Very, very common.

Additionally, dysfunctional family roles, there is usually at least one victim. The person who is having a really hard time, and who is being treated unfairly, and who isn't feeling good, and who went to see the therapist. But that therapist didn't give them good advice. “And I don't think that I like them anyway. So I'm not going to go anymore.” Kind of can have on like some murder-y sorts of tones, but often this person can have mental health issues in a family, or always sort of have a problem that makes them not feel good. It's usually the fault of someone else and that other people in the family need to sort of help them because they are not being treated fairly, and not feeling good, and have chronic migraines. “And I just don't think I could deal with this today.” That's sort of the victim-y kind of role. The victim person is, often in alcoholic or chemically-dependent families, the one with a substance problem because they need to have four glasses of wine at night to cope with the stress of their unfair life and the cruel world. And so they're just going to drink the whole bottle. You know, it's like that kind of mindset goes along with the victim mentality.

You will also commonly find a problem child in a dysfunctional family role. There's at least one kid in a dysfunctional family who is acting out, and being bad, and doing poorly in school, and is clearly the problem. And if only this child could get it together, all this stress would be reduced in the family. And so this is the kid who gets taken for therapy appointments to fix this kid. And the rest of the family is like, “What? We're fine. It's the kid that's the problem.” And that this can often be like a rebellious sort of angry child. And this could look like all different things.

There is very frequently and in certainly larger families where there is space for all of these roles to be inhabited. You will generally see a clown show up. The clown is the sort of irrelevant, irreverent, possibly hyperactive, usually entertaining and witty, good talker, can sometimes even be anti-social but gets away with it because they're funny. But it’s kind of this “look at me” kind of distracting force in a dysfunctional family. Often starts using alcohol or other substances as teenagers or young adults, but usually have a good time. And you can often also find a silent child—a lost child—in a really dysfunctional family.

And all of these roles make a lot of sense when you think about the way they work together, and variations of these roles can be found in lots of families. And also, just let me add that there is not a cut off line between a healthy, functional family and a dysfunctional family. It's not like an on/off switch. There is a spectrum. And in healthy, functional, happy families, you will also see people going into various family roles and sort of emotionally occupying these kinds of spaces, but in a very gentle way that aren't extreme.

They are also flexible. Yes, there's probably always going to be one kid that's a little bit of the gold star kid. But sometimes, that kid can goof off and eat all the Cheez-Its and not always have to be perfect, right? Or another kid can be the family clown and sort of the fun one but is also okay for them to have a sad day and tell their family about it. And that's all right. Like there's a flexibility to it. And in many families and in a parental dyad, one person notices when, “Somebody needs to buy stamps,” or “Has that bill been paid?” There’s that one person who's kind of the nerd, and the other person who's like, “I think we should go on a hike this weekend. You know, we'll clean the garage later”. So there's always this stuff, but it's gentle.

The person who's like, “Let's go on a hike,” could also say, “We are out of so many things. I'm just going to go ahead to the grocery store. You guys make a list. Let me know what you want.” Like, they can also be in that kind of functional role. And maybe the person who's a little bit more of the taskmaster can also say, “I am going to get a massage. You people fix yourself lunch. I'll see you later.” Like it's not rigid. There's space for people to be all kinds of different ways, even if primarily, they are usually the one that buys the stamps. It's healthy. It's flexible.

And so on the spectrum of healthy families on one side and more dysfunctional families on the other, at the lower ends of dysfunction., if we get into more extremes of dysfunction, is when you'll see a lot of rigidity around these roles. And they will be very extreme, that people are very much fully inhabiting these roles. And in really, really bad toxic family situations, there isn't even enough space for all of these different roles. You see three primary roles, and I'm talking about families in which there is abuse, very serious substance abuse problems. The roles are an abuser or an oppressor, a protector, and a victim, and that's about it. And people stay in those roles, and it is incredibly toxic and unhealthy for everybody involved.

And so we're not talking about that end of the spectrum. That if you've come from a family where that was happening, that is, you require specialized treatment, often in the form of trauma-focused therapy to recover from some of that stuff. And so, if you would like to learn more about that very far end of the pathology spectrum, you could Google—it's called the victim triangle based on Karpman’s work, which was in the 60s, I believe. So anyway, just that is not on the blog at growingself.com, okay? You want to Google that elsewhere because that's trauma. Trauma-focused work really requires a specialized kind of therapy that we don't really do at a Growing Self. But I wanted to mention that because if you have lived through that life experience, you probably should get that type of therapy. And I hope that provides you with some guidance about what to do with that.

But there is also quite a continuum of dysfunctional on one side and healthy on the other. There is a lot of space in the middle that, honestly, most families are kind of in, where not everybody is perfect, not everybody is fully actualized. Maybe mom and dad do have some issues, and you see some of these family roles popping up, but it's kind of like matters of degree. And the reason why these roles start to happen and perpetuate is because families are systems, like work groups are also systems. But families, because they spend so much time together, form these systems that maintain themselves because people react to each other's reactions. You've heard me talk about— if you’ve listened to the show before, you've heard me talk a lot about this dynamic when it comes to couples. And so like, husband and wife having reactions to each other's reactions that then elicit more reactions, that kind of keep that cycle going. And it happens between two people. But it also happens within a family in a way that it all sort of sticks together and works together.

So, for example, imagine a family of five, or seven, or however many, sitting around the dinner table, and the family clown falls out of his chair because mom and dad start to get into a tense conversation. Nobody else notices. But the clown immediately falls out of his chair and starts flopping around like a halibut on the floor. Everybody would be like, “What? What are you doing? Get back on your chair!” Right? And mom and dad are getting irritated with each other because mom is kind of drunk at dinner. So Dad is getting irritated. At the moment of the clown falling out of the chair, the perfect child will say, “Oh mom, I'm going to the national championship for fencing. I think, you know, and I'm also getting nominated to be the captain of the fencing team at school,” which in her mentioning that immediately soothes mom's kind of underlying anxiety.

Mom, the victim— she doesn't have to think, “Oh, maybe I'm drinking too much, and my family is suffering as a result.” Because she's like, “Look at this perfect child. I'm such a good mom. My child would not be this perfect if I wasn't such a good mom. I'm going to have another glass of chardonnay to celebrate this, as a matter of fact.” And so it like maintains the system. Now, mom also is probably drinking too much because dad is working nonstop. He's working ten, twelve hours a day. He's always preoccupied. He's kind of working himself to death and doesn't really have anything else to say when he gets home because he's exhausted, because dad is totally worried about making enough money to pay for the fencing lessons, paying all the bills, making sure that all the stuff happens, and that we can continue paying for this nice house in the suburbs to pacify mom, and her desire to be like good enough, and maintain her social status. And he is not getting any of his emotional needs met because he doesn't trust mom, who's a little bit erratic and doesn't believe that she's even competent to pay the bills if he did hand that over to her and let her be responsible for it. So he's kind of in that enabler, caretaker role in the family.

And then, there's the kid who is upstairs in her room as the family is eating dinner, refusing to come down because she is smoking pot out the window, and cutting her arm with a razor blade, and making melodramatic videos on TikTok, “Goodbye, cruel world,” to get fifty people being like, “Are you okay?” And the mom and dad are both very preoccupied because we have got to get her into therapy like right away, possibly residential treatment. And as soon as we do, that will be so much less stress because dad won't have to work so much because the kid will be on the other side of therapy. And how are we going to pay for residential treatment, which is like twenty thousand dollars? And so it's like all perpetuating, all perpetuating this.

And the kid with a problem has everybody's attention because she's clearly not okay and wait, there is— we have another kid right? Where? What is his name again? Oh, the one who's in the closet reading books with a flashlight? I think he's on, like, book 17 of some 27-volume sci-fi series that he's read for the fourth time. Who doesn't talk to people or plays video games for like 11 hours a day. Like, that's the kid that hides because there's no space for him to get any of his needs met.

And so when you— this is kind of stereotypical example. But if we look at this system with all the different parts, the sort of victim-y feeling mom, an enabling dad, a perfect daughter, clown son, another kid who's clearly having issues, and the silent child, like this is an incredibly stable family system. All of these people are in roles that support the roles of the other person. And it's very, very balanced. If any one person in the system started to change, or become more emotionally healthy, or self-actualized, it would be incredibly disruptive for the rest of the system because everybody else would be confronted by their patterns, by their difficult feelings. And it would be emotionally uncomfortable. And while we think of these family systems, I mean, none of these roles are good for anybody that I'm talking about. But they're familiar.

They're sort of safe. They're sort of known. Like, imagine if we start at the beginning and the clown kid, instead of falling out of his chair is like, “Mom, you're drunk. Dad, you're being mean to mom. What is going on?” That kid would get punished and maybe sent to his room, and maybe start turning into the problem child because parents cannot cope with that kind of confrontation because of their own unresolved pathology. They're like, “I'm going to make that kid the problem.” Right? As opposed to saying, “You know what? You're right. I am drinking too much.” Or dad saying, “I am totally emotionally unavailable and so focused on overfunctioning for your underfunctioning mother that I don't even know what's going on around here half the time.”

So, I mean, that kind of self-awareness and recognition takes an enormous amount of emotional health and emotional stability, emotional regulation skills. And in dysfunctional families, people can't do that. So everybody has to stay in their roles in order to kind of just get through it. And so, again, these things can exist on a spectrum, but that's why they become so inflexible is because as soon as somebody starts to change, it requires other people in the system to change. And what you can always expect in a family system is that if you try to change and have a healthy relationship with appropriate boundaries and a level of authenticity that would be considered healthy, if you bring those things back to a dysfunctional family system like, “Mom, I want to have a more authentic relationship with you. And I think that we need to have authentic conversations about how we're both feeling,” and you and your mom have been in dysfunctional family roles for a long, long time, your mom is going to be, “Why are you being so mean to me? You are so selfish. You always make everything about you. Don't you care what I'm going through?” And will essentially beat you back into that old position where you're like, “Oh, okay. Mom. I got a promotion at work. Did I tell you about that?” She's like, “Oh, really? Tell me more about that,” because that makes her feel good. That's what she wants from you. And so it's like through our interactions, these roles all get reinforced.

So going back to the original question that I posed to you, who does your family want you to be? And who did you have to be in your family in order to maintain the system? What did you get in trouble for? What did you get attention for? What did you get positive attention for? What did you get negative attention for? In our little story about the problem child up in the room, cutting her arm with a razor blade, and crying, and on TikTok, she's getting a lot of negative attention that is very functional for her. She's feeling loved, and cared for, and taken to therapy appointments, and all kinds of things. And people reaching out to her on social media telling her that there's so much to live for. That is negative attention, but it is attention, and it really works.

So it's like, “How is this functional? How is this working?” are always the questions to be asking. And also know that systems are always balanced. One thing that you will see very green and inexperienced therapist is looking at a family or a couple and seeing, “This is the person with the problem. And this is like the good, nice, functional person.” That is never true. People are always balanced. And you see it over and over again, even in a couple where like one person has the problem, they are “problem.”

And you see this like in recovery. So there was one partner who was abusing substances. They get into recovery, they do their treatment. They do the work. They get into this healthy place, and you will often see the codependent spouse who had been the one who was overfunctioning and so upset with their partner for not getting it together, like, as soon as they do get it together, the partner who had been over functioning, oftentimes, is all of a sudden like getting depressed, and withdrawing emotionally, and starting to wonder if they even want to be in this relationship anymore after all that they've lived through. Because now they are in the situation with a healthy, emotionally available partner who would like to have a authentic, emotionally intimate, sexually intimate relationship with them. And this partner, who was the overfunctioning, codependent one, had, in actuality, been very protected from any kind of vulnerability, or any kind of challenge to be working on their own stuff because they got to be the perfect one in the relationship when their partner was an alcoholic.

And now, all of a sudden their partner is saying, “Well, you know, how can we do this better? Here's what I need from you.” And that can be incredibly uncomfortable. That as difficult as that dysfunctional role was, in many ways, it felt safer and more comfortable for them than having to risk trusting someone or being vulnerable with someone who might actually be able to be emotionally available and responsive to them. Intimacy is very scary, and particularly, people who are coming out of dysfunctional families are very wary of authentic emotional intimacy. So don't ever think that it's— there's actually a good one and a bad one in a family.

You see this a lot like with the perfect children. The straight A valedictorian squash champion who finally goes off, gets into the Ivy League school, and goes off to college, and sort of immediately falls apart, and has to be hospitalized for anorexia, and suicidal ideation because they're eating like one crouton every day because they can't cope with all the pressure, and these sort of self-imposed things. And they're very, very fragile in actuality. Particularly when they're confronted with, like, “What do you want to do? What makes you happy? Do you really want to keep being the international squash champion or would you rather do something else?” Totally blows them apart when they have been in these very rigid family roles.

So there's a lot here. And if you're just sitting here trying to take this all in, I want to say, I know, I know that this is a lot, and these are very, very different ideas. These are family systems ideas. And there is so much that's been researched on this through the 50s, 60s, this whole family therapy movement in the 1970s. I mean, this is big, big stuff. And I feel like in our day and age when people want little quick, digestible nuggets of “tell me what to do,” or “tell me what to say,” or “give me a strategy for fixing this relationship thing,” again, it’s so tempting to say, “Okay. Try this. You unload the dishwasher Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. He does it Tuesday, Thursday,” and whatever those kinds of superficial fixes are totally ignoring the whole foundation that a relationship is built on. And so when you go into these family systems ideas, you begin to see how they interact, how they impact people, and maybe even how they have been impacting you, whether you have been conscious of it or not.

And so this podcast is in no way intended to serve as the work itself. Right? I mean, to really be digging into this, and specifically what it looked like in your family and in your family currently, you know, it involves a lot of deep digging. Family therapists will do things called genograms, which is like an assessment of family roles. Different kinds of assessments, a lot of like structured interviewing to sort of flush out like, “Okay, who are you? And tell me about your brother,” and all these different things. We could do enactments, like recreating certain situations. But also, even, I think, through really solid cognitive behavioral therapy or cognitive behavioral coaching, we're still going into, “What are some of the core beliefs that you have internalized without being aware of it?”

You may have heard a podcast that I released a while ago about the shadow side. We're getting into, “What do you believe without knowing that you believe it? How do you automatically feel without fully being aware of why?” Oftentimes, our clues to our family of origin roles can be found when we feel dark feelings, when we feel guilty about things that we probably shouldn't feel guilty about. But if you find yourself feeling guilty anyway, there's a good chance it's related to a dysfunctional family role. Or if you're feeling angry, or victimized, or if you're feeling a lot of shame about something that happened, or anger towards another person—resentment. These are oftentimes clues, not always, but it's like— a good family therapist would be like, “Sounds like you feel guilty a lot and in situations that not everybody does feel guilty. And so let's pull on that string together and see if we can figure out why this makes sense that you would feel guilty when you know somebody else has a problem. Take me into this feeling. And how does this make you want to behave?” I mean, like these kinds of questions can begin to get into it.

And so, again, this kind of work is very much a process that's beyond the scope of this podcast. But it's also really important. And if you have been one of the many people that has reached out to me lately with a specific relationship question, “Dr. Lisa, what do I do in this situation?” Believe it or not, me talking about these things is an attempt to meet your need in a more meaningful and authentic way than providing you with sort of a superficial fluffy strategy that probably won't work, or at least not long-term. Like it might work for a little bit, but it won't create real and lasting change because the origin of the dynamic that is happening in your relationship or with your family member is worthy of deeper exploration. And whether or not you are aware of it, you are participating in this dynamic, and it is contributing to the result that you're getting.

And so, me telling you to say “please,” and “thank you,” or use I statements is not helping you understand what your role is, related to the current relational dynamic, or where it came from, and what is keeping that alive inside of you in terms of the core beliefs, in terms of your negative emotions, in terms of what you feel like you need to do in order to be worthy of love, and respect, or care, or consideration. And without that kind of awareness, you can't really take meaningful action because this isn't strategy; this is a growth process. I talked about my work that, again, I did not even know this was a thing until I was well into adulthood. And realizing that when I get stressed out, or when I'm feeling vulnerable, I tend to withdraw emotionally from my husband. And that was creating problems in our relationship.

And so I was like, “Okay. How do I make my relationship better?” And had to confront, like, why do I do that? And let me think about why that made sense as a functional part of my family of origin, and that that allowed me to be able to really change it. But even now, I still have to be aware of that when I'm getting stressed out or when I'm feeling threatened, and I feel myself kind of withdrawing. I have to very actively say, “No, I'm not going to do that. I'm okay. Say what you're feeling. Be authentic, trust this person. It's okay. You can talk about it.” And I kind of have to move myself into that space of who I want to be, which is hard won through a lot of effort and through not, I think, just the therapy strategies around realizing why but the coaching strategies around “How do I manage my anxiety in such a way that I'm able to stay in the ring with people, and be authentic, and communicate appropriately, and say what I want to say, and what I need to say?” I mean, those are our very real and deliberate relational skills that we need to learn.

So again, closing questions, “How do you react when you get stressed? How do you try to cope with anxiety or fear when you're feeling vulnerable or insecure in a relationship?” You see it in a lot of ways. People who feel unlovable and are worried that they're not good enough for that caretaking role, or even a perfectionistic role, you'll see them in relationships when they're dating, like with promiscuous sex, like kind of using sexuality as a way of gaining love or attention. Caretaking, over-giving to people, not having healthy boundaries with people, not being able to say no to people, coping by sort of gentle self-harming behaviors. Even like eating all the banana bread, or drinking too much, or sort of anaesthetizing themselves with various substances or activities.

And so, when you think about this and what you do when you're stressed, and who you feel like you have to be around your family, and contrast that with, you know, who do you get to be when you feel healthy, and safe, and emotionally accepted? Those are the clues. Those are the clues, and while they're not the whole answer, they're the breadcrumbs on the trail that can guide us to the ultimate truth. And, I’ll also share, I am a huge advocate for self-help. I believe that you can read books, and you can listen to podcasts, and you could do online classes, and get so much benefit from those. Journaling is helpful. It's all good. And I don't think that the answer to growth is always in private therapy or coaching.

But when it comes to tackling these kinds of things that we've been talking about today, we all have blind spots because these patterns and ways of relating are so ingrained. They're so baked into us that we literally have no idea that we're doing anything until we are in a relationship with someone who is either getting upset with us for being the way that we know how to be. And we're like, “What? What's wrong with you?” Or when we are in a relationship with someone like a therapist or a really good coach who can see what we're doing, maybe we start engaging in those kinds of behaviors with a therapist or coach, which is a thing it's called transference. Somebody shows up to my office with a loaf of banana bread, I am going to want to talk about why that just happened, and why they thought that that would be something that I wanted or needed from them. And like going into those relational kinds of patterns and doors.

So it's being in a helping relationship with someone who can shine a light on those blind spots and help us understand our own patterns and ways of relating because when those things are lifted up into the light, we can see all of it. We can see the good things, and the things that we're so grateful for, and the things that we love, and cherish about our families and about ourselves. And we can also see the old patterns that maybe we needed to do in our families but are no longer serving us well as adults. And then we can make intentional choices to do things a little bit differently so that we can get better results in our most important relationships.

So thank you so much for listening to these ideas with me today. And I hope that they helped you. Again, listening to me talk about this stuff is not the work. This is me standing here with you, pointing my finger in the direction of the road that you will need to walk down to achieve this growth process. But I hope that just by virtue of listening to this podcast, you are more aware that the road is there, and that there is an invitation for you to walk down it and do that work if you feel that it would be helpful on your journey of growth and personal development.

If you have follow up questions for me or would like for me to expound on another topic that would support you on your journey of growth, don't hesitate to get in touch. You can leave a comment for me on the blog at growingself.com. You can get in touch through facebook.com/drlisabobby or track me down on Instagram, @drlisamariebobby. And last of all, thank you so much, all of you who have left positive reviews for the podcast, either on iTunes or Apple Podcasts, or Spotify.

This is a labor of love for me. It is intended to help others. That's why we don't do advertising. I'm not doing affiliate programs or pushing weird things on you guys. It's really intended to be genuinely helpful. And your reviewing it or sharing it with others is the payment. You are paying it forward and putting this information in front of other people who need to hear it. When you leave a review or share it on social media, you are giving one of our fellow travelers the opportunity to stumble upon it. So thank you in advance for your generosity. In doing so, you just might change a life in the process. Thank you.

Okay, that's it. I'll be back in touch next time with another episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast. Bye-bye.

[playing Stars by Ayla Nereo]

 

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How to Deal With Trust Issues

How to Deal With Trust Issues

How to Deal With Trust Issues

How to Deal With Trust Issues

[social_warfare]

Trust Issues In Your Relationship? Here's What to Do…

HOW TO DEAL WITH TRUST ISSUES: If you've ever felt insecure in a relationship or found it difficult to trust your partner, and thought to yourself, “I think I have trust issues…” today's episode of the podcast is for you.

Listen: I know from years of experience as a Denver therapist, marriage counselor and relationship coach that being wary of others after being hurt is normal and healthy — at least to a degree.

In my opinion, having “trust issues” can be a good thing. It takes a long time to get to know people, and not all people are trustworthy. Part of having healthy boundaries is practicing discernment: figuring out who is emotionally safe for you (and who isn't) and then acting accordingly.

If you've been burned in the past, it's normal to feel twinges of anxiety as you become increasingly vulnerable with a new person. You're still getting to know them and figuring out whether or not they're trustworthy. Let's not label healthy apprehension as problematic “trust issues” that need to be eradicated. It's your emotional guidance system's way of being protective of you, and telling you to slow down and take your time to get to know people.

How to Deal With Trust Issues

Particularly if you've been hurt in past relationships, it's absolutely normal to have “trust issues” that need to be worked on in your new relationship.

But here's the thing to know: There is a difference between healthy caution and strong boundaries, and persistently feeling anxious about your relationship even after your partner is showing you they are trustworthy and emotionally safe.

If you are in a relationship with someone who is (generally, if not perfectly) kind, emotionally safe, and consistent, and you're still watching their every move, feeling like an over-caffeinated feral cat ready to run for your life at the slightest twitch… you might have trust issues.

What are trust issues? Having trust issues means that the source of your mistrust and feelings of insecurity are not due to what's happening in the relationship, but are stemming from unresolved wounds you experienced in past relationships. If you have been hurt in the past (particularly if you've survived a toxic relationship) and never really worked through it, you could be with the most honest and trustworthy person in the world and still struggle to trust them fully. Because your feelings of mistrust have nothing to do with them, specifically. You'd carry armloads of anxiety with you into every relationship.

If you're reading this and thinking, “Yep, that's me.” [Raising hand] “Right here. I have trust issues.” I'd like you to know that it's really important that you work on trust issues and not blow them off or live with them for too long.

The reason is that if you have unresolved trust issues in a relationship that run rampant, they can wind up harming your relationships. Even sabotaging them. And as your unresolved trust issues implode your relationships, one after another, it will only create more hurtful experiences and increasingly entrenched “trust issues” for you to work through down the road.

If you've become aware that you might have trust issues, especially trust issues in relationships, it's important to take action to resolve them.

How to Get Over Trust Issues

That's why  on this episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast, we're talking all about how to overcome trust issues. I'll be answering questions like,

“What are trust issues?”

“What causes trust issues?

“Why do I have trust issues?”

And most importantly: “How to get over trust issues?”

I will share with you the signs of trust issues. You will also learn how a lack of trust can hurt you, your partner, and your relationship. As a licensed psychologist and relationship coach, I will discuss how you can start overcoming trust issues and start feeling more secure in your most important relationships.

Tune in to the full interview to learn how you can let go of your trust issues to:

  • Learn how to overcome trust issues that create problems for your relationship.
  • Find out the causes of trust issues.
  • Learn how to manage feelings of anxiety in relationships
  • Understand how and why you should take responsibility for your emotions and response.
  • Know the effects of trust issues on your relationship and partner.

Ready to start? You can listen to this “How to Deal With Trust Issues” podcast on Spotify, on the Apple Podcast App, or scroll down to the bottom of this page to listen to it on GrowingSelf.com. (Or anywhere else you like to listen to podcasts.) While you're listening to this episode, don't forget to subscribe to the podcast!

If you're more of a reader than a listener, keep reading to learn more about about “how to deal with trust issues” and get an overview of what I'm discussing in today's show…

What Are Trust Issues?

You might think that that people have “trust issues” related to a partner who has betrayed them in the past. This a reasonable assumption: many people wouldn’t trust someone after they've been betrayed and their trust has been damaged. 

However, having “trust issues” in a relationship where trust has been broken is not an “issue.” It's a normal, healthy response to be suspicious of someone who may not be trustworthy. (As evidenced by past experiences.) Repairing trust in a relationship is an entirely different thing than having “trust issues” that you carry around with you. 

Please check out “Sorry's just not good enough: How to repair trust,” and “Repairing Trust After Infidelity” for more on this topic.

There's a distinction between broken trust and the trust issues I’m going to talk about today. In this episode, I will talk about feeling mistrustful or not feeling safe in a relationship even if nothing terrible has happened.

Learning how to deal with trust issues and insecurities in a relationship in which nothing bad has happened is challenging. Having these types of trust issues are also really common.

Signs of Trust Issues

These are the signs you should watch out for to recognize whether or not you have some trust issues to work on:

  • You've been hurt or betrayed by people in the past.
  • You doubt your partner despite the absence of betrayal.
  • You often question if your partner is trustworthy or is telling the truth.
  • You are extra-vigilant for any signs of lying, cheating, and concealing.
  • You perpetually feel anxiety or insecurity about your relationship.

People With Trust Issues…

Someone with trust issues will often have feelings of anxiety, worry or doubt about their relationship.  This can result in big feelings, and attempts to get more information from your partner (which can wind up feeling to them like they're being accused of something they didn't do).  For example, a mistrustful person might ask for additional evidence regarding their partner's whereabouts or what they were doing… but have a hard time believing what ever their partner says.

If their partner can explain their whereabouts, or provide reassurance, that additional information might temporarily soothe the anxiety or insecurity, but it's a trap — it doesn't resolve the underlying cause of trust issues. Even if, in the moment, the explanation or reassurance helps, its only a matter of time before you start to worry again. 

It's exhausting.

Unfortunately, the constant cycle of worry – requests for information / reassurance – temporary soothing – more worry is exhausting for your partner too. If you have trust issues it feels like you're always asking for reassurance that you're emotionally safe. But your partner may feel like nothing is ever enough, and that they are not emotionally safe with you. It turns into a negative pursue / withdrawal relationship cycle that just keeps spiraling down.

Trust Issues in a Relationship

Trust issues — if not dealt with and worked through — will eventually damage a relationship. Someone with trust issues will be worried most, if not all, of the time, which will place a great deal of pressure and strain on the relationship. This negatively impacts communication and emotional safety for both partners.

If you're in a relationship with someone who has trust issues you may feel like: 

Over time, if your partner has unresolved trust issues you may begin to view them as being excessively needy or demanding. The problem is that without lots of reassurance, the mistrustful person might think that you don't love them, or that you're doing something behind their back, or that you are angry with them.

If you are in a relationship with someone who is always thinking bad things about you, you aren’t going to feel loved, respected, or trusted. The relationship will stop feeling emotionally safe for you as a result.

Over time, you will feel yourself withdrawing emotionally — a self-fulfilling prophecy of your anxious partner's worst nightmare come true!

How to Fix Trust Issues

Trust issues will not heal or go away on their own. You need to actively address them. The first step is to recognize that unresolved trust issues are damaging your relationship. Therapy for trust issues is particularly useful if you become aware of longstanding patterns of feeling anxious or insecure in your relationships.

If you decide to pursue therapy to resolve trust issues, you should be sure that your therapist knows how to handle this type of relationship problem. Ask your prospective therapist these questions:

  • Why do you think people have trust issues?
  • What is your process for helping someone overcome trust issues?

Your therapist should provide you with a coherent answer and explain it in ways that make sense to you. In particular, a therapist with a background in attachment theory, emotionally focused couples therapy and / or cognitive behavioral therapy can help.

Relational Trauma + Attachment Styles

Sometimes people develop trust issues after having had bad experiences in past relationships. It can be helpful to understand these past experiences as a “little t trauma” that needs to be resolved and healed.

Other times, particularly if trust issues are longstanding, you may discover over the course of therapy that the cause has more to do with your attachment style than with one specific “relationship trauma.”

What are attachment styles?

Attachment styles are the ways we relate to others that we developed through our early life experiences.

Most people are generally secure in their attachments to others. They trust people until given a reason not to do so. However, people who's earliest relationships were not always safe or consistent can develop “protective” attachment styles.

  1. Avoidant Attachment Style — You can become overly critical of others or actively reject other people. Avoidant people don't trust anyone enough to get close to them and think they don't need anyone.
  2. Anxious Attachment Style  — People with an anxious attachment style feel insecure and doubtful of their romantic partners and may need extra reassurance. They might also unconsciously anticipate rejection. This anticipation isn't something they consciously do.

Even people who are generally or were formerly secure in their relationships can exhibit qualities of the above attachment styles after having experienced a relationship trauma, which is wholly natural and valid. Particularly after ending a toxic relationship, you may need to heal and recover to feel safe in your relationships again going forward.

“Why Do I Have Trust Issues?”

If you're reading this and beating yourself up because you may have trust issues, it's time to stop. Having self-compassion and understanding that there is a reason you feel the way you do is the first step of healing.

Being compassionate with yourself cultivates healthy self awareness, and this is vital. Without awareness of your trust issues, you may find yourself becoming hyper-vigilant and suspicious of your partner. Instead, the work ahead of you is learning how to provide yourself with soothing and reassurance to manage your anxiety in relationships.

Healing Trust Issues

To heal trust issues, you need an understanding of what's going on inside your head, self-awareness, and compassion for yourself. People with trust issues have experienced relational trauma, and it would help both partners if they understood that these feelings are real and normal. However, their feelings are not related to the current relationship.

If you have trust issues, you need to learn how to manage your anxiety and respond to your triggers effectively. Having individual therapy or relationship counseling can be helpful. Be kind to yourself, your partner, and your relationship by taking responsibility for your feelings.

Tips to Overcome Trust Issues

Here are a few resources that can support your work to overcome trust issues.

  • Go through a process of evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy with someone who understands relational trauma and attachment styles.
  • Take online courses, such as our Happiness Class. It will not explicitly resolve your trust issues, but it will set your expectations. 

By undergoing therapy, you can reprocess your relational trauma, learn how to handle your anxiety, and know your triggers. These things will lead to a healthier relationship and set you on the path to healing.

Just remember, that this type of healing can be quite slow. It's important to be committed to the process of therapy. Especially if you've had trust issues for a long time (or trust issues that stem from early life experiences) this is not going to go away overnight.

But you can learn to understand them, manage them, and cultivate safety and security in your most important relationships.

Wishing you all the very best on your journey of growth and healing…

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

 

 

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How to Deal With Trust Issues

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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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How to Deal With Trust Issues: Podcast Transcript

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How to Deal With Trust Issues — The Podcast

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

Could there even be a more perfect song to set the tone for a conversation about trust issues? I don't think so. What we're listening to right now is a band called Monk Turner + Fascinoma with a song “Trust (Is Just A Word)” from their album Emergency Songs. I don't know about emergency songs, but they're all fantastic songs, so you should check out Monk Turner + Fascinoma if you want to learn more about what they're up to. 

But in the meantime, we are here today to talk about trust issues and how to deal with trust issues and insecurities, particularly when it comes to relationships. And the reason why we're talking about this today is because I get this question a lot. And if you are one who's reached out to me through Instagram or Facebook or on the blog at growingself.com with questions like, “how do I trust again after I've been hurt in the past?” or one of the many, you know, variations of that question. I want you to know that I have been listening and collecting your questions and this show is for you. Today we're going to be talking about why people have trust issues and things that you can do to overcome the trust issues so that your relationship is no longer stressed, strained, or damaged by trust issues because that can happen. And we'll talk about why.

Now, if you have a question for me, or would also like to pose a topic for an upcoming podcast, I hope you get in touch with me. You can always track me down on Instagram at @drlisamariebobby, Facebook at Dr. Lisa Bobby, or of course jump into the fray. You can cruise over to growingself.com and join the vibrant community of commenters and questioners and discussers. That is often found at the bottom of blog posts that you're interested in. So enough about that. Let's jump in to today's topic.

Today, we are talking about trust issues. And I want to make a very careful and deliberate distinction. People often have trouble trusting their partners after they have experienced a damage in trust. So in past podcasts, I've talked a lot about how to repair trust in a relationship after betrayal has occurred. I've talked about how to restore trust after an affair as a separate topic. And those situations are different than what we're talking about today. We're not talking about that. Because there's a difference in having trust issues in a relationship after an actual betrayal or breaking of trust, like an affair like financial infidelity, like someone had a substance use disorder and there was all kinds of broken trust and lies and betrayals that happened, you know, over the course of their disease. And so, when couples are setting about to repair trust that has been broken in the context of a relationship, it requires a very special process to do that. And also, I don't see that kind of mistrust as necessarily being problematic.

In fact, I view that as being a normal, expected, and actually quite healthy response to not fully trust someone who has demonstrated that they are not trustworthy unless and until you go through that process of repair and healing that takes time and effort on both sides, and is a very special special kind of work. So if you are listening to this podcast hopeful that that is what I'm going to be talking about, I would actually refer you back to those previous podcasts I've done. You can scroll back through the podcast feed of the Love, Happiness, and Success podcast to find them. Or you can also go to the blog at growingself.com and onlet's see what are we calling itin the main nav there's like an expert advice tab. Click on that and then you'll see a search bar in addition to like the most recent articles and podcasts, not just for myself, but from other experts on our team. But in the search bar, you could just type the word ‘trust’ and you will see all kinds of articles as well as links to those past podcasts about how to repair trust after betrayal. And I hope you do check those out because that's a hard path and people doing that often require a lot of support. But hopefully the information you find there will give you a head start.

Trust Issues: Not the Same Thing as Broken Trust

So, that is not what we're talking about today. Today, what we are talking about are trust issues that happen when you don't feel safe in a relationship where nothing bad has happened. It means not feeling safe or secure with your partner, even if, as far as you know, you are actually emotionally safe with them. So when you have more broad trust issues that you're carrying around with you, you could be in a relationship with the most honest, trustworthy, committed person in the world and in a relationship where nothing bad or weird has ever happened and still think, “I don't know about you,” or “I'm not totally sure that I can believe this,” or “ what if something is actually happening that I just don't know about yet?” 

So when we have trust issues that are our trust issues that we're bringing in places with us, those are the kinds of things that can be happening on the inside, even in a great relationship. And to kind of go into this just a little bit deeper, here are some signs of trust issues just to kind of help you reflect on whether or not you resonate with any of these experiences. So generally speaking, people with trust issues, in the absence of a betrayal in that particular relationship, will often worry about whether or not their partner is being trustworthy, whether they're being told the truth, whether there's something going on behind the scenes that will sooner or later come out and hurt them. And so because they sort of have this kind of, you know, running fear in the back of their mind that something could happen or something is happening, I just don't know yet. They're oftentimes very, very vigilant for any signs that their partner might be lying or cheating or concealing things. So they're like looking for signs that they're not quite safe. 

Signs of Trust Issues

And also, another sign of trust issuespeople with trust issues aresince they're always kind of like simmering in this broth of ambient anxiety or feelings of insecurity about their relationshipbecause of that sort of inner emotional state, they often have a lot of just like general insecurity. So if they don't have a great deal of overt reassurance and signs that they are loved and cherished, they will start to feel scared that they're not that important, that they're not loved, and that means that sooner or later they will be rejected or hurt. So it's not just a vigilance for like, signs of lying or cheating, it's also thisin the absence of really like being lavished with love and attention and affection, they fear that they aren't loved. So like neutral things can lead them to feel a lot of anxiety and to be kind of reactive, even when nothing is happening. 

So it's as you can imagine a really hard situation for both people, you know, someone with trust issues is really feeling worried a lot of the time. And because this anxiety makes them feel so reactive in relationships, it can create a lot of stress and strain and pressure on the relationship and, you know, lead to damaging the relationship over time. So it's super important to be aware of any trust issues that we are carrying around. And also really learn how to overcome trust issues because if you don't, the trust issues themselves will begin to create problems in a relationship, and then you'll really have something to worry about. So we need to understand trust issues. 

And so, you know, what I often see in my work as a, you know—in Growing Self I do marriage counseling, couples counseling, relationship coaching, also dating coaching, but additionally, like individual therapy, life coaching, and I have had trust issue conversations in the context of all of these different situations. But particularly in couples work, if one person in a relationship has trust issues, and they are, you know, doing that hyper vigilant thing where they're like looking for signs that the other person is hiding things or lying or not being completely honest, or if they are really like needing these over-the-top-expressions of love and adoration, and without that they feel worried that they're not loved.

What that does, and I say this with love and respect, but understandably, because people feel upset and anxious, they can become sometimes really demanding of their partners, for their partners to do certain things or say certain things or “treat them a certain way so that they feel less anxious,” or if they're not, you know, talking about it, they can just go into this really like sad place and really feel bad and jump to a lot of negative conclusions about the relationship when they're not getting what they feel they need to manage their anxiety. And then they start to withdraw from the relationship assuming that a breakup is right around the corner. 

Trust Issues in a Relationship

And so as you can imagine, either of these things becomes really exhausting for the partner of someone with trust issues. It leads to that partner feeling like they're always walking on eggshells, or feeling like their partner is always upset with them, or finding them lacking, or not loving them the right way, or that their partner doesn't respect them enough to trust them, that their partner doesn't think well enough of them to trust them, or doubts their character. And that feels really bad, you know, to the person who is in a relationship with someone who has trust issues. And again, this kind of dynamic can really damage a relationship and, you know, paradoxically create the situation that the person with the trust issues is most worried about, which is that over time, their partner will begin to view them as being unreasonably needy or demanding, and will in fact withdraw from the relationship or start to feel ambivalent about the relationship, which of course, as you can imagine, sends someone who has trust issues anyway through the roof with anxiety because they can see that their partner is maybe concealing things or withdrawing or feeling a little bit more ambivalent.

I'm not saying this to be scary, I'm saying this to be real and to help create an understanding of why it is so important to be taking responsibility for trust issues that we are carrying around with us. And to do something about it, we can't just like, you know, hope it gets better. This is not one of these things that just kind of gets better over time. We really need to be like working on it intentionally in order to make a change. And the other thing that I routinely see as a marriage counselor or relationship coach is that people with trust issues, they often as we discussed, feel sort of suspicious of their partner, and have a tendency to jump to negative conclusions about their partner's motivations or things their partner is doing or how their partner feels.

And because it's sort of fear-fueled, they feel that those things are true because they feel afraid. And what that fear does is it leads to this kind of heightened emotionality where people with trust issues will also often become quite like accusatory, attacking, you know, like kind of ambushing their partner with like, “what about this thing?” And really, you know, like demanding answers, demanding information, demanding explanations, and because their fears are not really reality based, it turns into this thing where nothing their partner says or does will quell this anxiety, or at least not for long, like even if they say, “Yes, I was with Tim. Here is a text fromhere's a screenshot of my text with Tim.” Or you know, whatever it is that the person is wanting more information about like, it might soothe anxiety in that moment, but because that anxiety is kind of bubbling around inside of them all the time, it's kind of like that whack-a-mole thing. Like, it'll come up in a different situation where they will again be potentially accusatory or attacking or suspicious. 

And, you know, if you're in a relationship with someone who is routinely accusing you of various nefarious things, various nefarious, I can't believe I just said those two words next to each other, but I did. You were here. Anyway, but nefarious things. You know, if you're in a relationship with someone who is accusing you ofkind of all the time of bad things being partnered with someone who has unresolved trust issues. So, you know, over time, what happens in couples is that there's this emerging sense of, you know, it will lead to a relational dynamic where you actually do start hiding or concealing things from your partner because you feel like it will upset them. So whatever it is, so it's better that they don't know.

And also, if you are in a relationship with someone who has major trust issues, and is always thinking bad things about you, you aren't going to feel loved or respected, or trusted, or that they hold you in high esteem. And the relationship will stop feeling emotionally safe for you as a result. And so again, you do see that withdrawal, and ambivalence start to happen because of being partnered with someone who has unresolved trust issues. So, you know, over time, what happens in couples is that there's this emerging sense of, you know, one partnerthe partner with a trust issuesreally believes that if only their spouse or their partner would do things differently, or say things differently, or finally provide them with all the information that they need to feel safe, their anxiety would go away, which is not true.

But there's, you know, frantic efforts to try to get those things from, you know, an increasingly tired partner. And the person who is partnered with someone with trust issues will begin over time to feel that their partner with the anxiety is just this, like, black hole of insecurity and anxiety, and no matter what they say or do, it's never going to be enough to touch that inner anxiety. So they stop trying, you know, and then of course, the relationship dynamic intensifies, with the already anxious person even becoming more anxious, and the already kind of detached person who's kind of backing up a little bit will start doing that more explicitly. 

So that is a real risk to any relationship you are in. If you are a person who has your little suitcases packed full of trust issues that you're bringing around from one relationship to the next, and if any of what I just shared resonates with you and sounds familiar, it sounds like these trust issues really are impacting your relationship or your relationships, if there's a string of them that have that have, you know, experienced this kind of dynamic. And so it's time to work on them. And I just want to say too that knowledge is power. And I could sort of understand why me being so just like, transparent and honest about like, you know, “Okay, here's the deal,” could feel worrisome and, you know, might make you think, “Oh, geez,” but I would like to just reconceptualize the feeling as motivation for change. You know, anytime people grow and change and do things differently, it is because they are motivated by not wanting to have, you know, the experience that they have been having. Not wanting to feel anxious anymore, not wanting their relationship to be damaged by trust issues. That is fabulous. And we need to be motivated in order to grow. So I'm okay if you're not feeling great about thinking about trust issues in this way because that is the energy that is going to mobilize you and lead to healing and wellness, if you do something productive with it. So we have to be real. 

I will also say that therapy for trust issues is very effective provided that you are doing evidence-based therapy with someone who really understands kind of the underpinnings of trust issues and why they happen. I'm going to outline some of this for you so that you can be an educated consumer. But you know, also if you do decide to pursue therapy for trust issues to improve this, as you are interviewing prospective therapists to find the right person, I would encourage you to be asking questions around, you know, “why do you think people have trust issues? What is your process for helping someone overcome trust issues?” And if whatever therapists you are talking to cannot provide you with a coherent answer that makes sense to you, they might not really know how to help you in an organized kind of effective way. So just stick that one in your back pocket.

But to provide you with more information, so you know more about what kinds of questions to ask, and so you can kind of organize what's happening inside of you, you know, for the purpose of changing it. It's important to understand what causes trust issues in the first place. But very briefly and simply, trust issues in relationships are created by relational trauma of some kind. So when I work with clients and in therapy, or in some cases coaching, but it's really more of a therapy thing—when I work with clients in therapy who are seeking to get over trust issues, I find it really helpful to conceptualize their experience as a kind of subclinical PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder, and to set up our conversation here is a very quick and dirty PTSD lesson so you can understand what I mean by this. 

Very briefly: whenever we humans live through something that is highly traumatic, we subjectively experience terror. So like this hugely physiological fear response, you've heard of the fight, flight, freeze response. That’s what I’m talking about. And it is evolutionarily adaptive, and our brains basically save us by changing our physiology in the moments when we're going through something that's super traumatic. You know, our heart races, our breathing shallows, our circulatory system changes, our digestive system changes, our immune system changes, and it's all response of, you know, our body's way of like, saving your life in that terrifying, dangerous moment. And when we are put in this physiological space, it changes the way our brains work. 

And here's the punchline, it changes the way that our brains encode the memories of the traumatic events. When you have experienced a trauma you will not remember it as a normal memory, you know, like, birthday party, junior high dance, like, high school graduation, it is not that kind of memory. It is a traumatic memory. It lives in a totally different part of your brain than normal memories do. And it sort of like lives there and hangs out. And whenever someone who has been traumatized is exposed to anything that is similar to that past like life threatening experience, this huge traumatic stress response will be triggered, and they will essentially re-experience the terror and the horror and the paralysis of the original traumatic experience. And so, then what happens is that people who have this like intrusive flooding, terror, re-experiencing thing start working really hard to avoid that triggering and not re-experiencing because it's horrible. 

So the classic example would be, you know, the combat vet who comes back from Iraq or something, and you know, almost died and had people around him die and will hear a car backfire down the street and like disassociate into this like state where they're completely flooded and like, you know, having big flashbacks, and so that happens periodically to this vet, so that vet, you know, quite understandably develop a very serious substance use disorder in efforts to anesthetize themselves and protect themselves from having that experience, which you know, isserves them well in one respect, but of course, it creates serious consequences and another. A sexual assault survivor, same thing you know, in a sexually intimate situation he or she can re-experience all this kind of flooding intrusive thoughts, feelings of terror, have nightmares about it, which leads them to avoid, you know, situations of sexual intimacy or develop substance use disorders that are kind of compensatory. So that's my little PTSD mini lesson. 

And I also just want to say very, very explicitly, I, while I am a licensed psychologist, I am a licensed marriage and family therapist, I do not specialize or treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and no one in our practice here at Growing Self specializes in this particular disorder. So if you have lived through a, you know, life endangering experience, or you know, saw someone else being victimized violently, and if you listen to my little description, and you know, think, “Yeah, I might actually have that post traumatic stress disorder.” You require specialized trauma-focused therapy with someone who has significant training and experience and specialization in those disorders. That is not what I do.

There are people out there who do that type of work, it's wonderful work. So I just wanted to mention that because if you've lived through that, and you're experiencing symptoms of like, ‘capital T’ trauma, post traumatic stress disorder, you can absolutely heal, and you deserve to have effective treatment. So look for evidence-based forms of trauma informed cognitive behavioral therapy. There is experiential reprocessing kinds of therapies that work. There's some evidence to support a type of work called EMDR. And so I would look for those. So that was my little public service announcement to just, you know, educate you around things and what you might look for if you want to seek treatment for that, or if you know, somebody who does require treatment for that sort of thing. But again, that is not what I do. And that is not what this podcast is about. 

However, I wanted to talk about the “big T” trauma, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder response because it's relevant. There is also “little T” trauma. There are difficult, unpleasant life experiences that we live through that also leave a stain on us emotionally and psychologically unless and until we deliberately resolve them. And I believe that relational trauma falls into this category and can have a similar impact on people as full blown PTSD, but not nearly to the degree of PTSD. But in some ways it is sort of similar. So going through a terrible breakup, or being in a relationship with someone who betrayed you, or cheated on you, or abandoned you can create this relational trauma. I think that “little T” relational trauma is super common and this is something that I often work with, and that we often see here with our clients at Growing Self. People who have sustained “little t” relational trauma, and that trauma shows up aswait for ittrust issues in relationships. They have lived through something hard and scary. And they went through this experience, and now, when they are in slightly similar relational situations, they are experiencing this similar type of triggering, and flooding, and anxiety that needs to be soothed and resolved. And so it can lead to, you know, hypervigilance, safety seeking, which in the context of relationships is always, you know, demanding information or evidence. But you know, it's related. 

Now, another really important thing for us to be considering is to also, and again, this is so far beyond the scope of a podcast, but in my efforts to be like fully just real and transparent and honest with you, I also want to fully inform you, and so to talk about this other aspect of trust issues I think is important. When I am meeting with someone who shows up or a couple where I can see that trust issues are impacting relationship negatively, a big part of my process is to do a really careful assessment to understand like why this makes sense. And also just sort of get a sense of where this is coming from. 

Now, you may have also heard me talk on past podcasts about something called attachment styles. So brieflyattachment styles are very general ways of relating to others that we developed often through our early life experiences, either in our family of origin or in, you know, childhood or preteen kind of social or romantic experiences can also impact attachment styles. And most people are generally secure, meaning that they tend to think well of themselves and others, and generally trust people unless they have a reason not to. And, I will also just say that even someone with a very secure attachment, who comes from a perfectly lovely family with good enough parents, and nothing bad ever happened to them, they can also become anxious in relationships or even avoidant in relationships, depending on what's going on in the relationship itself. So there's no, you know, even securely attached people can exhibit some of the other stuff that I'm going to talk about. 

But for people who had, you know, significant relational trauma early in life, like, you know, really inconsistent parenting, or parents they couldn't totally trust, parents who weren't emotionally safe, maybe not physically abusive, verbally, or emotionally abusive, or parents who are rejecting, or maybe addicted to substances that, you know, impaired them—having these kinds of early life experiences can lead someone to have an anxious attachment style, where they anticipate rejection, they anticipate not being able to trust people, and it's not like a conscious thing, it's sort of just like a baked in feeling that they can't trust people. And people with an anxious attachment style often need a lot of reassurance and feel insecure and doubtful of their romantic partners. So it can look like somebody having trust issues can actually be an anxious attachment style, which needs to be handled differently in therapy.

So that's why it's important to think aboutor, you know, another attachment style that is also relatively common is if people have had experiences with, you know, caregivers early on that weren't safe, that they felt like they needed to protect themselves from or were failed by over and over again, they may develop an avoidant attachment style where they become kind of super critical and rejecting of other people, and they don't really trust anyone enough to get close to them. Sort of this, “I don't need you, I don't need anybody,” kind of emotional space, which can also really impact relationships. 

Again, totally beyond the scope of this one particular podcast, but an important variable to consider. I would, if you'd like more on this subject, would refer you back to the blog at growingself.com. You can go to that search bar on the blog page, type in the word ‘attachment’ and you will see past podcasts I've done specifically on the subject of attachment styles, as well as a number of articles that I have had colleagues write on the site of growingself.com. There are also marriage and family therapists just to provide insight into attachment styles and how they can impact you and what to do to manage them. If you are not securebut again, healthy, securely attached people will become or appear avoidant or anxious in certain relational situations, certainly in conflictual relationships. And in relational dynamics, like the ones I was talking about at the beginning of this episode, you know, a perfectly secure person who is in a relationship with a very anxious person who has a lot of trust issues, or even an anxious attachment style, will over time become increasingly avoidant in efforts to protect themselves. Also, you can take a perfectly secure person and put them in a relationship with someone who is really critical and avoidant and rejecting and they will very predictably become anxious in response. So these things are fluid and dependent on what's happening in the relationship too. So it's never that simple. Never that simple in my field, is it?

Anyway, so it is important to think about where these trust issues are coming from. And also, I always like to kind of come at this with the primary orientation of, and how does this make sense. You know, again, even if you weren't, you know, in a family where you developed compensatory attachment styles to survive, but have simply lived through difficult life experiences, have had relational trauma with past romantic partners, somebody who hurt you, or betrayed you. I mean, if you were in a relationship with someone who cheated on you, or turned out to be a sociopath, it is totally normal that you would feel anxious and afraid the next time you're in a relationship with a new person, even if he or she has done absolutely nothing wrong because you've lived through something that was really, really scary and very real.

And so that fear, and that ‘little T’ trauma response is absolutely valid. It is normal, it is expected, and it doesn't mean that you're a bad person, or that you've done anything wrong because you're having that experience. It's just like your body's emotional guidance system saying this happened, and that you need a process of healing and recovery in order to feel safe in your relationships again. But I think it's important to keep these things in mind because, again, unless you have a lot of self-awareness and can like, say, “Oh, I am getting triggered right now. This is a trauma trigger.” It can be easy to, like, point to things that are happening or not happening in your relationship as being the source of your anxiety as opposed to having that self-aware understanding of, “Oh, this is my trauma trigger that's happening right now.” And without that self-awareness, it's really easy to go into that space of vigilance and suspiciousness and being attacking, or really needing like a ton of reassurance in order to feel safe, and over time, that will hurt your relationship. 

So, again, I hope that that just provides a foundation of understanding. And again, if you are in a relationship where patently bad things have happened, and your trust has been brokenif you're in a relationship or your partner had an affair, or there's financial infidelity, substance use, it requires a different healing process. But, if you have, or are, you know, over the course of our conversation recognizing that you are having trust issues that are related to traumas of relational traumas in past relationshipsthat is something that you will need to take responsibility for and do something about in order to overcome them. And the reason again why this is important and is hard is because when we are experiencing a really intense, emotional experience to saylet's see how many times I can use the word experience in one sentence. When we're having a really intense emotional experience, particularly if it's a fearful or anxious emotion, we will feel scared, and we will look around, we will scan our environment for things that support that fear, and you will always find them. If you are feeling anxious and scared, you will always find them. 

I mean, think about it. You know, I have worked with people who had trust issues and had relational anxiety and it could be literally something like, “He didn't put the cereal box away. I wonder why he didn't put the cereal box away. He must have been distracted. Why was he distracted? Was he texting with someone? Is that why he didn’t put the cereal away? Was he messaging someone on Facebook? Maybe it was just thinking about her? Who was he messaging? Who would he message? That pretty girl he went to high school with? The oneI saw her she liked the photo that he posted about our vacation. Oh my god, what if she's been sending him her vacation photos? And I bet there's pictures of her in a bikini and she's probably liking them.” And then this, you know, the person with anxiety, is showing us full lot of anxiety and can easily spend like the next three hours ruminating and feeling so anxious and like coming up with all these different scenarios in their head. And then their boyfriend or husband or whatever walks in the door four hours later, and it's like, “Were you going to tell me about Kimberly?” You know, and this person's like, “What is going what did I just walk into?”

But there are just these very well developed ideas that have bloomed inside of her head about all these things that could be happening that were you know, triggered by a cereal box not getting put away. And then it turns into, you know, this back and forth like, “Who's Kimberly? I don't know a Kimberly.” And then the person with anxiety is like, “Don't lie. Kimberly is the woman that you went to Facebook or went to high school with that you’re Facebook friends with. You've been messaging with her,” and like, “No, I haven't.” And then you could say, “I saw her like your vacation photo, you're totally lying to me right now.” 

I mean, you know, some people are like nodding their heads in recognition of arguments that may have happened at their house. And I know it seems kind of funny when you talk about it sort of out of context like this, but this is the sort of thing that trust issues and relationships can easily turn into if you're not really conscious of the impact of fear on you, and how it makes you think, and how it makes you feel, and what it makes you do. And that is honestly the first step. Because, you know, what we're talking about this people are always like, “Okay, well, how do I get over trust issues? What do I do to overcome my trust issues?” And what's important to know is that while the first key step in healing trust issues is understanding what's going on inside of them, and having that self-awareness, and also having compassion for themselves because, you know, the people with trust issues have experienced relational trauma, it's helpful to understand that their their feelings are very real, they're happening for a reason. But those feelings are not in alignment with their current life experience. They are out of proportion to what is happening in objective reality. And that right there is really, really hard. 

How to Fix Trust Issues

I will spend weeks with a client, months with a client, on that one thing, you know, “Is this out of proportion to my experience? Or is something actually scary happening right now that I should be worried about?” People with trust issues have a very difficult time differentiating whether or not they're safe in relationships because even if there's no evidence that they're not safe, it is so easy for their traumatized minds to say, “Well, but, what about this?” or, “Maybe I just don't know yet.” And also the fact that they feel unsafe, even if there's nothing bad happening, and this is really difficult to unwind if someone has been in a relationship where there was relational trauma in the past, and that there were periods in that relationship that felt very safe for them. So like, you know, somebody say, “I never suspected anything with my ex-boyfriend, either. He was so wonderful and so loving and communicative and affectionate. And then one day he drained my bank account and vanished. But before that he was perfect, too.” So then when they're in a relationship with someone who is perfectly nice, that in itself can feel like a trauma trigger because their abusive, horrible ex was also very nice sometimes, too. 

And so this is why it's really, really important to get into good therapy for trust issues, evidence-based therapy for trust issues, like CBT can help you figure out what part of your fears and worries are coming from inside of you that are related to relational trauma. What is that “little T” relational trauma response doing, and differentiating that from what is a valid concern about something happening in your relationship that you should be talking about with your partner. People who have been traumatized in relationships have a lot of trouble figuring that out, and that is a core skill that must be achieved is figuring out how to like manage anxiety and stay in a good place, and figure out what is actually a problem vs. what is my trauma response? And also, how do I manage my feelings of anxiety independently of whether or not my partner is doing something or saying something the way that I imagined would make me feel better? Because that's a really important piece of this puzzle too. So that clarity is super vital. And so individual therapy for trust issues is definitely important. 

And I will also say that it can also be super helpful to do couples counseling or relationship coaching if you have trust issues, and it is not a couples therapy to try to make your partner say or do all the things so that you don't feel anxious anymore because no one else can change the way you feel on the inside except for you. And so if you are, if you're like, “But what if he did this, I might feel better.” You possibly temporarily you would feel better, but really, that's like you have to take responsibility for the anxiety first. And so if you are currently attempting to manage your anxiety by controlling your partner's behaviors, I would encourage you to listen to a podcast that I recently did about codependence and relationships. And you can find out more on that topic again, on the blog at growingself.com. Type ‘codependence’ into the search bar and you'll see articles to help understand why, what I'm talking about there. 

But, sowhile you should manage your expectations that couples therapy isn't going to get your partner to change so that you don't feel anxious anymore, what it can do is help both you and your partner understand together what happens for you on the inside when you feel scared, and why that makes sense based on your life experiences. And by talking about this openly with your partner in a safe space, your partner can begin to have more empathy for what you're going through because it really is hard, and it is very, very real. But they can have more empathy for you in these moments. And they can also stop taking your anxiety personally and like as a statement that you're upset with them, you know, and that can help them stay emotionally closer to you instead of withdrawing. And also good couples therapy can help you two figure out ways of turning towards each other in these moments. And so I would recommend what—and being able to turn towards each other and connect and really like feel loved and supported and connected in these moments when you're feeling scared can be enormously soothing. You know, there's a real benefit to secure attachment with someone who loves you. And to beto feel scared and be able to say to someone, “I feel really scared right now,” and have them be appropriately responsive to you, give you a hug, tell you they love you can be enormously soothing, you know, so that could be really, really helpful.

And so to find a good marriage counselor to help you with that, I would recommend looking for a marriage counselor or a couple therapist, again, who understands relational trauma, and who practices either The Gottman Method of marriage counseling or emotionally-focused couples therapy, those are both evidence-based forms of couples counseling that can be really effective for this kind of thing. So that can help your relationship. And also a side benefit is by talking about these things openly in couples therapy, your partner will also I think feel encouraged to be understanding what's happening and also see you be taking responsibility for the anxious responses that you're having in certain situations, and see the work that you're doing to change that, you know, particularly if you're working with a therapist who's encouraging you to take responsibility for those moments, to manage your anxiety, and to provide you with accountability for doing that. And also working with you to develop solid cognitive and behavioral strategies for managing that anxiety. That can be really helpful and healing for your relationship too. 

So, you know, what those specific cognitive behavioral therapy strategies are is obviously, again, beyond the scope of any podcast. It is not a here's, you know, three quick tips to totally overcome all of the historical trust issues that you have for a reason, like there's nothing I'm going to say in this podcast, you're like, “Oh, I feel better now.” But to go through a process of evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy with someone who understands relational trauma will help you understand what's happening inside of yourself, and help you develop both cognitive and behavioral strategies for soothing yourself and manage your anxiety in those moments. So that not just you know, you feel better, but also that you are more in control of what you're doing in your relationship so that you're not, you know, inadvertently behaving in ways that are damaging to your relationship as a result of your anxiety. So, you know, again, I would recommend looking for a therapist who does evidence-based therapy, who understands relational trauma. 

Other resources for youthere are online CBT courses which if you don't feel quite up for, you know, therapy with a person, which honestly, in this situation, I would really encourage because when you've been traumatized in a relationship, and when you're carrying around these kinds of trust issues, it can be really difficult to kind of gain that self-awareness that you need. And also like the feedback, you know, the perspective to figure out when you're safe and when you're not safe, and sort of make sense of the past experiences vs. make sense of the present experiences, so certainly online CBT courses, like, you know, the happiness class that we have here at growingself.com can provide a foundation of some of those specific CBT skills. They're not going to be specific to resolving trust issues, and that type of work—again, just to set your expectations—it’s a process I mean, you know, progress is usually measured in months, sometimes longer when you're doing therapy for trust issue because there's a lot of kind of unwinding, and figuring out what happened, and reprocessing of trauma, learning how to manage anxiety, learning what your triggers are, learning how to appropriately kind of turn towards your partner in those moments, and also to have like a sounding board for, you know, to have somebody who knows you and cares about you. So you can come into our sessions and say, “My husband didn't put this cereal away. Do you think he's having an affair with Kimberly?” And your therapist will be like, “Let's break that down a little bit,” as opposed to, you know, these automatic assumptions and associations that can very easily happen when you have trust issues. 

So, you know, to have somebody just to bounce things off or, you know, to be able to say, “Yeah, you know, he's been coming home really late a lot and he isn't returning my calls. And I went past his work and he said he was going to be at work and he wasn't there. And then he told me that he, you know, had a flat tire on the way home.” And you know, for therapists to be like, “Yeah, that actually sounds like something that we should probably figure out. I'm glad we're talking about this.” You know, so just figuring out like whenthat we need to listen to anxiety vs. when it is an artifact of old relational trauma. 

Anyway, there's a lot of information here in this podcast. As always, I hope I didn't overwhelm you. But I also hope that me kind of just being super honest with you, and going into depth about all the different things to think about when it comes to resolving trust issues helps you, you know, understand the cause of trust issues, what you can do to overcome trust issues, and also provides you with that motivation and kind of direction for your next steps. You know, if this is the thing for you, and you want to change it, with the goal being to create a situation where you feel more secure and confident in your relationships because you deserve that. And also, so that you can create really healthy and enduring relationships with people who, you know, deserve to be loved and respected by you, too. So I hope this helps and I will be back in touch with you soon for another episode of the Love, Happiness, and Success Podcast. Bye-bye.

 

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Premarital Counseling: Conversations for Commitment

Premarital Counseling: Conversations for Commitment

Premarital Counseling: Conversations for Commitment

What to Know Before Marriage

Imagine you and your partner want to go on a big trip together, you know you want to do this together, but what else do you plan for? Are you going somewhere sunny and beachy? Or somewhere where you can go skiing? What does your budget look like for this trip? Do you want to go big on where you’re staying or on food and experiences? Does one of you organize the activities or do you decide on them together? 

These questions might come naturally to some, and maybe to others they’d rather point to a place on the map, throw caution to the wind, and have an adventure. They all have something in common though; they highlight beliefs and expectations we each bring into big decisions about our future and what we would like it to look like. What’s even crazier, we might not even be aware of certain expectations until you catch yourself feeling disappointed or frustrated over something that didn’t cross your mind to talk about ahead of time. 

For example, you get to your warm and sunny beach vacation and your partner DID NOT pack the sunscreen. You might think, “Why wouldn’t they think to do that, we’re going to the beach!” A question to ask yourself in this situation might be, why did you expect them to pack the sunscreen? 

We each have lenses through which we view the world that have been shaped by our own subjective experiences, messages we get from families, teachers, and society that lead us to having certain beliefs and expectations. Sometimes we can forget that and get caught thinking, “well I would’ve definitely remembered putting the sunscreen in the suitcase first because we’re going to the beach,” but our partner might not have that thought due to their unique beliefs and expectations. 

 

Premarital Counseling: The Road Map to a Successful Marriage

 

Expectations, both conscious and unconscious ones, can be really important to discuss ahead of making big life decisions, like deciding to get married. This is where premarital counseling can be so helpful. Talking about these expectations ahead of time, before you find yourself wondering why the heck your partner didn’t pack the sunscreen, can be helpful in understanding more of what to expect from each other in marriage. 

What is helpful to me when working with premarital couples is having a sort of roadmap ahead of starting our work together, another way I’ve described this to couples is “let’s do a relationship check-up”. Maybe you’re a really strong couple, or maybe there are areas you are both struggling, a check-up can be helpful in both scenarios. 

In order to stay healthy, we don’t just go to the doctor when something is really hurting or broken, we go in annually to make sure everything is working the way it should. This is how I like to view premarital counseling as well as counseling or therapy in general. 

 

Topics of Discussion in Premarital Counseling

 

So, what does this “check-up” look like? We can assess common areas that couples may have mismatched expectations, such as managing family relationships, finances, sex, deciding whether or not you want to have children, etc. These are great topics to go into to give each partner time to describe their beliefs, expectations, and meanings of these topics in their future together. 

A few examples of questions that might come up are shown below.

Finance Examples

  • When we get married will we merge our finances? What will that look like – will we share access to all accounts or just some?
  • What are beliefs about money that impact the way you spend, save, or invest? Where did those beliefs come from?
  • What are our shared financial goals? How can we come up with a plan to reach those goals? What does that timeline look like?

Extended Family Examples

  • How involved do we want each side of our families to have in our decisions as a couple? How involved would we want them in the lives of our children if/when we have them?
  • What boundaries already exist between your partner and their family, are they healthy? 
  • What is the meaning of family to each of you? Is it different? How might that impact your expectations around spending time with or making decisions about family in the future?

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Exploring Relationship Strengths and Weaknesses in Premarital Counseling

 

In addition to exploring expectations and beliefs around topics such as these, part of our “check-up” is assessing areas of strength and weakness in your relationship. 

Maybe you both have an incredible friendship and agree on a lot of things, but a disagreement ends in yelling, defensiveness, and anger. Or maybe you find it hard to talk openly about certain topics and might need more tools to feel confident in having that conversation and feeling heard by your partner

These seemingly “small” things might feel like things you’ll both just figure out in time or things that don’t matter as much because you both really love each other, but why not have a place to explore them with someone who could give you tools, help you both gain clarity, or even just share a different perspective?

Things we might “check-up” on in your relationship include:

  • What does your friendship look like? How well do you know and attempt to learn about your partner’s world?
  • What does trust and commitment look like in your relationship?
  • How are you both supporting each other's goals and dreams?
  • How is your communication with your partner? Do you feel heard and validated? Are there often misunderstandings?
  • Do you see your partner in a generally positive way? Or do you catch yourself seeing your partner more negatively, maybe in the form of past mistakes?
  • What does conflict look like in your relationship? What does resolution look like?
  • Are there past hurts from previous relationships that keep coming up in your relationship and causing stress or conflict?

As you’re reading this you might be thinking, “My partner and I have such a strong relationship and we’ve talked about so much ahead of this decision, I don’t think we need to consider something like this.” Maybe you’re right and your relationship is super solid, AND I bet there are still things you might uncover in this work that you didn’t even know to ask or didn’t know about your partner. 

 

Preparing to Go the Distance

 

I think of premarital counseling more like training ahead of a race. Maybe I feel confident that I’ve taken the necessary steps in preparing, but I haven’t run this race before so I might get some training tips from someone who coaches or who has expertise in how to get me ready for something like this. Regardless of the state of your relationship, premarital counseling or this relationship check-up, can help celebrate and bolster the strengths you already possess, give assistance and tools in areas of weakness, and give space to conversations that might have layers of beliefs, expectations, and meanings associated with them. 

 

What to Expect in Premarital Counseling

 

A couple of questions might still be coming up for you as you read this. I think a common question I hear when a couple starts premarital counseling is, “so how long do you think this will take?” and I love this question. I think it really depends on the couple. 

Generally, going through this work together can take time, so I like to understand what expectations my clients are coming into premarital counseling with. Are there time or budget restrictions that I should be aware of that might impact how long we are able to work together? 

I like to start with an assessment of the relationship that covers a lot of the topics and areas mentioned above, to have an idea of what we’re needing to make space for in session. Then I bring this to the couple and highlight areas of strength and areas and topics that might need further discussion. If there are restrictions on our time together, maybe we prioritize the most important topics or areas for you, and I get you connected to supplementary resources that could help outside of session for the topics we don’t get to. It’s possible to spend a few sessions on a topic, or discuss it in one, it all depends on what you both need out of it and if there is clarity at the conclusion of that topic. 

Another question that typically comes up after this is, “well what if we work together and find that we have some deeper issues going on somewhere in the relationship?” There is no shame in this. You’re actually in the perfect place to process deeper issues if they do come up. 

If we assess areas of strengths and areas for growth, and during our work, come across something that needs more time and processing, we can work together to reexamine our goals to accommodate what is most pressing at that time. 

Premarital counseling is beneficial to any couple wanting to get a relationship check-up ahead of a big decision such as marriage. It doesn’t have to be reserved for religion or couples that are struggling, it can be a helpful space for assessing strengths and weaknesses and identifying topics and expectations that could use more discussion. 

Wishing you all the best,
Kara

Dr. Rachel Merlin, DMFT, LMFT, M.S.Ed.

Kara Castells M.S., MFTC is a couples counselor, life coach, and individual therapist who creates an accepting and supportive environment for you to find clarity in your personal life and relationships. She is skillful at applying systemic and evidence-based approaches to create lasting change. Kara can help you and your partner prepare for a happy life together through premarital counseling and couples therapy. 

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