Six Strategies To A Thriving Relationship During Chaos

Six Strategies To A Thriving Relationship During Chaos

Six Strategies To A Thriving Relationship During Chaos

Creating a Thriving Relationship

We are no strangers to change here at Growing Self. In fact, personal growth is our specialty, and with personal growth comes A LOT of change from time to time. However, these past couple of months have introduced a completely new level of change. This change has been rapid, unwarranted, and left many heartbroken, confused, and scared. 

With the ever-changing climate of our economy, health, and lifestyles this “new normal” settling in has many of my couples clients facing new and uncharted stress and anxiety around work, household obligations, family responsibilities, and the health of their relationship. 

As an online marriage counselor, couples therapist, husband, and father – I’ve witnessed this stress firsthand. In the midst of this uncertainty, however, we still are all responsible for making our relationships work the best they can, despite the stress and upheaval we are all enduring.  

To help make your situation feel a bit more manageable, I wanted to share with you the same advice I share with my couples clients in sessions. Here are my top six strategies to a thriving relationship during chaos that will help your relationship stay strong, healthy, and thrive during this challenging time.

You Can Have A Thriving Relationship Through Challenging Change

Before I jump right into my six strategies to a thriving relationship during chaos, I want to first encourage you to take a couple of minutes to quiet your thoughts, to focus on your breathing, and to center yourself. I’m not saying that you need to go into full meditation mode, but take a couple of minutes to just slow down. Slow down your thoughts, center your feelings, and find gratitude in where you are at. 

When we start to feel stressed, overwhelmed, and uneasy in our current situation we can start to scramble and lose sight of what is truly important. I want to encourage you in where you are at and I want you to know that there is support for you here.

If you are facing challenges in your relationship that feel too big, unfamiliar, or distressing – you’re not alone in this. Many couples right now are struggling to balance this “new normal” with their household, children, work, finances, and each other. 

My hope for you is that these strategies can help implement new routines and support systems between you and your partner. Now, let’s get started!

Strategy No. 1 | For the Couple Working From Home with Children: Plan and Communicate

Like many couples out there with children, my wife and I are dealing with conflicting schedules and raising a 22-month old daughter who is suddenly home all the time! One way we and other couples can pull together through this is to plan our work schedules around each other, as someone must watch the baby at all times. 

As partners, you are both there to help and protect one another. That doesn’t mean that you walk all over each other or take advantage of the “more-chill” or “more-giving” partner. But that you work together to be successful as a unit. 

Successfully navigating through working from home with children requires proactive planning and communication. The two of you will need to plan around each other’s schedules and check on them daily together to avoid any misunderstandings and added stress. 

It is imperative that couples work together to make this transition as smooth as possible or to salvage what feels like an overwhelming pattern already taking place. The challenge here is that you are both dealing with the same discomfort and stress around balancing work responsibilities, home, and family care. 

Schedules can change very quickly – couples who successfully work together, accept the fluidity of the situation, and work on keeping grounded and as calm as possible will come out the other side stronger. 

Until this crisis ends, your day-to-day balance between work and home life will constantly change – you and your partner will need to work together to help one another succeed, and this will require good communication and strategic planning if you want a thriving relationship.

If you are like many of my couples clients though, you and your partner may struggle to effectively communicate. If you are looking for tips on building healthy communication between you and your partner, check out this podcast: Couples Communication Strategies for Stressful Times and this article: How to Improve Communication – Fast for tips you can start implementing today. 

Strategy No. 2 | For the Couple with One Partner Out-of-Work with Children at Home

If you or your partner are temporarily out-of-work or have been laid-off, it’s likely that partner will be with their child(ren) constantly, a role many of us are not used to.

The sole childcare provider will need a break and time to decompress when their working partner comes home or ends their workday. Likewise, the working partner will need time to rest and decompress too.

How do you both respect each other’s needs while also taking care of your own?

Circling back around to the importance of healthy and effective communication, couples in a thriving relationship will need to communicate their needs clearly. With a good understanding of what you need and what your partner needs, you can strategically plan your after work hours. 

This lifestyle change will require adaptability and empathy. We are all expending more energy than we are used to spending, and we will all need breaks from time-to-time.

Keep in mind that your partner (whether taking care of the children or working their regular job) is just as tired, stressed, and in desperate need of self-care as you are. If you can look out for one another, you’ll both get your needs met. 

Strategy No. 3 | For the Partners in Desperate Need of Self-Care and Individual Time Alone

Self-care is crucial to a thriving relationship, and that does not change now. Many self-care options, especially those including gyms and socializing, are not permitted right now. 

For those in need of some gym time, be open to socially distanced walking, jogging, or hiking outside. You don’t need to purchase a full in-house gym system – unless you really want to.

Instead, you can either subscribe to free workout videos on YouTube or purchase a subscription to a fitness app or virtual wellness program. 

For those in need of some social time (apart from your partner), engage in calls and video chats with friends and family. You can virtually go on walks together, attend virtual in-house happy hours, just catch up, or even make a meal together (in your own kitchens of course).

It’s important to maintain friendships even when you’re required to be apart. 

For those feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and emotionally drained: meditate, eat better, get some rest, and do what you can to keep yourself grounded.

This may mean spending time alone, reading your favorite book, getting some sunshine by yourself, listening to music, or simply drinking more water. 

For those in need of a distraction, this may be a perfect time to start a new hobby to keep your mind occupied and not overburdened with stress.

Taking care of yourself will allow you to show up for your partner and your family when they need you most. 

Helpful Tip: Don’t assume your way of self-care is right for your partner! 

Do you have a great workout regiment that you can do from home? Great! That being said, your self-care options are right for YOU, and not necessarily anyone else. Allow your partner to practice their own self-care, as they know better than anyone what makes them feel better.  

Work on accepting your partner’s way of self-care and try to calm any thoughts of your partner’s self-care being wrong (as long as those methods are not harmful). Remember, if you let them take care of themselves, they can show up better for you when you need them most.

Strategy No. 4 | For the “Informed” Couple Needing to Focus On Each Other

It is crucial that we remain as informed as possible during these difficult times but it can be so easy to go down the proverbial wormhole of different news articles, especially on the internet, which can lead to feelings of anxiety and panic.

Stay informed, but limit your own exposure to articles that can dysregulate your emotions and stress. It may be best to stick to official sources like the World Health Organization and your own state’s official guidelines and act through them rather than reading numerous other articles that might inflame your fear and lead to disconnection from loved ones.

Instead of consuming hours of news, schedule a time during the day that you briefly “catch up” on what is new in your state or area of residence. Be strict and put your phone away, close your computer, and turn off the TV when your “news time” is up. Then mindfully use the rest of your day to fully show up for your partner, your family, your friends, and your job.

If you and your partner are both working from home, you may be spending quite a bit more time around one another. Remember, this does not mean that you are spending time “together” – you will still need to find time throughout your week to focus on each other. 

We can get in the habit of forgetting to ask our partner “How are you doing today?” when we see them constantly. Our partner is working through difficult emotions and feelings just as we are – it’s good to recognize that for each other and if needed, schedule time together away from the hectic headlines. 

I encourage you to use the uncomfortableness you may be experiencing in your relationship to highlight areas of growth for you and your partner. Instead of spending extra time in front of the TV or on your phones, engage in conversation. Use this time to rebuild “weak” areas or vulnerabilities that could ultimately breakdown your partnership. 

If you find you are struggling to get the conversation started, check out this article: How to Fall Back in Love with Your Spouse for conversation starters when things start to feel a little stagnant.  

Strategy No. 5 | For the Couple Looking to Regulate Emotions and Get Back on Track Together

Yes, these are historically difficult times – that cannot be denied. However, you can take steps to feel calmer emotionally about the situation so you can be a better partner and parent.

One of the best ways to get out of the funk of flooding emotions and disconnection from your partner is to practice gratitude. Actively practicing gratitude will look different for everyone, but finding the silver lining through this situation will strengthen your relationship and make you and your partnership more resilient to change.

Many couples with children I know are having amazing experiences with their kids right now that they were not having prior. They are now able to spend quality time with their families instead of being caught up in the hustle of shuttling from event to event, being busied by daily obligations that are currently on hold or greatly reduced, and having to stick to a strict schedule that inhibits learning together, game nights, picnics in the yard, or leaving living room forts up for days instead of just hours. 

Similarly, many couples are finding that they are actually finding rest and relief in this season. Where they were previously overworked and stuck in a cycle that they didn’t even recognize as draining, they are now building better self-care and relationship-care habits that in return are making them better people, partners, and parents. Ultimately creating a thriving relationship that they didn’t realize they were previously missing.

I even have some couples clients that are working as a team for the first time in their relationships – never having known previously the impact that this type of support can have on your relationship and household productivity. 

And yet others are rethinking their priorities during this time of pause. Finding out what truly matters to them individually and as a couple. Dreaming, creating, and planning for a better future that they had not had time to envision previously. 

So much of what is happening right now is frightening, and it is absolutely so, but we can keep ourselves calm in the moment by accessing the positives and good that are sometimes hard to notice amidst all the change and chaos. 

Daily gratitude not only calms your emotions down in the moment, but it also helps buffer against the difficult times. By practicing daily gratitude, you and your relationship can begin to thrive during difficult times. 

Strategy No. 6 | For the Overwhelmed Partners Looking for Answers

The stress and anxiety that you may feel right now are completely understandable. These changes and uncertainties can become too much for any of us at any moment and that’s normal and okay. 

The truth is, no relationship is perfect. We all handle stress differently, individually and as couples. Sometimes it can be hard to navigate these changes or challenges on our own – especially if you and your partner react to stress in drastically different ways. 

It’s not abnormal that one of you may be in fix-it mode while the other is looking for a place to retreat to…alone. It’s not uncommon that you may find that your communication skills aren’t as strong as you once thought they were. It’s not out of the ordinary that you may be questioning your foundation or wondering what’s next for your relationship. 

These are all valid responses and normal, especially in stressful situations.

The good news is that many couples therapists and marriage counselors, including us at Growing Self, are increasingly offering flexible online options to adapt to COVID-19. This means you can find help from the comfort of your own home.

There is never any shame for reaching out for professional help if it is needed – if you’re feeling overwhelmed and it seems like there’s no way out, please reach out and call a professional.

This situation is extremely stressful, and the timeframe for an end to this crisis is unfortunately indefinite. That being said, we are still in relationships and marriages, and those still need to be nurtured. You have the power to manage this stress and to be the most understanding partner you can be during this difficult time.

Wishing you the best,
Seth Bender, M.A., MFTC

Seth Bender, M.A., LMFT - denver marriage counseling, online marriage counseling, relationship coach, breakup recovery

Seth Bender, M.A., MFTC is a marriage counselor, therapist, and life coach who helps people create deeper relationships, heal from difficult life experiences and increase their confidence. His warm, non-judgmental approach makes it safe to discover new things about yourself, and take positive action to change your life.

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Real Help For Your Relationship

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

 

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

 

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

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How To Enhance Your Listening Skills & Improve Your Relationship

How To Enhance Your Listening Skills & Improve Your Relationship

How To Enhance Your Listening Skills & Improve Your Relationship

Are You A Good Listener?

Listening with intent and genuine interest is a skill that, unfortunately, most of us are not born with. This skill is what ultimately builds connection and develops a reassurance in our relationships (romantic, platonic, and professional!). Did you know that most toxic relationship issues (no matter what the topic) come from a disconnect in communication? It’s true! As a Couples Counselor, I have worked with many couples who are going through these exact same disconnects in their relationship, and I want to offer you practical listening skills that you can practice to become a better, more effective listener.

The wonderful thing about diversity is that we all come from unique backgrounds. These different backgrounds make up different cultures, values, and ideals we hold as individuals. However, when you bring two (often very different) people together, there sometimes is a sort of tug-of-war into whose values are more authentic and which ideals the relationship will hold. Since we all have distinct and very personal views of “right and wrong”, this makes hearing other opinions often challenging.

Listening to your partner without judgment is essential to building connection, rebuilding trust, and fostering an environment where a relationship can grow and thrive! We all want to be heard, and when we aren’t we feel as though our emotions and needs are often overlooked. Not listening to your partner can result in power struggles, negative behaviors, resentment, and ultimately…separation.

You don’t want to wait for things to “just get better” in your relationship, because they won’t without intentionally taking the steps for improvement (both personally and as a couple). The good news is, you can start today! Here are six practical and mindful ways that you can improve your listening skills while making yourself a more responsive and connected partner.

TAKE BEING RIGHT OR WRONG OUT OF THE EQUATION

Your values are no better or worse than your partner’s values. An active listener will work hard not to judge his or her partner’s emotions.

Needs and emotions are never “correct” or “incorrect” they simply just are. Discussions that lead to black and white thinking, right or wrong, are usually about asserting control. Control then leads to blame, anger, and resentment, not connection. A partner who feels judged or is “wrong” in an argument will feel invalidated and unheard. A listener’s job is to listen, not judge. If a listener intends to hear and not control, then the result is better connection.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO AGREE ALL THE TIME

Our culture has taught us the fallacy that a healthy couple never disagrees or gets into arguments. In reality, many healthy couples disagree about important topics regarding their relationship, and no couple will ever agree entirely about everything.

Authentic listening comes from hearing and validating ideas you don’t agree with, as this shows respect for your partner. The goal is to listen and accept, and not necessarily agree, which can lead to the compromise that’s needed for couples to navigate difficult times and topics together.

REMOVE DISTRACTIONS FROM THE CONVERSATION

For most of us, this means putting the cell phone down, turning off the TV, or walking away from the computer screen. Non-verbal cues are incredibly important as a listener. If you are distracted and disengaged, then clearly you cannot validate your partner (who may feel they’re talking to a figurative wall).

To get even more real with your partner, use non-verbal cues such as touch, eye contact, and body language(as well as the verbal cue of vocal tone). These cues are what babies learn in their early development to feel safe. These same cues will calm an adult’s limbic system – allowing more safety in sharing emotions and needs. Your non-verbal cues of acceptance and security are not just a crucial listening skill, but also a critical skill for building any relationship.

CONTINUALLY PRACTICE EMPATHY

Empathy is being able to understand another person’s experience, and it’s the opposite of judgment. Your partner’s emotions and needs are real and often come from painful, deep experiences. Just as you have your own needs and emotions based off of your experiences, so does your partner.

Try putting yourself in your partner’s shoes to feel and understand their pain, or access your pain and examine how you’ve dealt with it. Everyone at some point will experience a difficult situation or circumstance, your partner included, and showing empathy and understanding will allow for more in-depth conversations and connection between the two of you.

LISTEN FULLY BEFORE FORMULATING A RESPONSE

Few behaviors invalidate more quickly than interrupting. Interrupting usually involves fear or a lack of emotional safety on the listener’s part. This behavior, however, will cause your partner to believe that you feel your opinion has more validity than theirs. Try not to rehearse a response in your head while your partner is sharing, as that disengages you from empathy and feeling what your partner is trying to share with you. Let the conversation happen organically and without distraction or interruption of preplanned responses (that could ultimately cause more pain than healing).

VALIDATE YOUR PARTNER

Many of my clients in couple’s counseling have revealed to me that feeling unheard is one of their biggest triggers to pain and anger.  So how do you show your partner that you genuinely have heard their emotions and needs?

One way that has been proven to be effective is to repeat (in your own words) what you think you heard your partner say to you, and to ask if you heard them correctly. Be careful not to infer your interpretations into what your partner said, as those may be incorrect and invalidating – simply repeat what you heard. If you don’t get everything, that’s okay! You can ask your partner to repeat what you may have missed. This is even more effective when using your non-verbal cues for safety.

IT TAKES PRACTICE…

Listening can be a difficult skill to learn, and you won’t perfect this skill in just one conversation. If you continue to practice these six steps to improve your listening skills you will see improvement overtime (and it will get easier and more natural too!).

Self-care and general happiness are also tied to helping with the development of listening skills, as well as therapeutic techniques such as thought stopping and grounding activities. However, those who have suffered from trauma may have difficulty accessing these skills, and individual therapy to process and heal from the trauma may be needed to listen safely and with compassion. It’s true, listening can be difficult, but the rewards of being able to do so are numerous: clarity, understanding, emotional honesty, and better connection. You have the power to make changes with your listening skills and to show your partner that you can take that next step and truly hear them with empathy and understanding!

All the best,
Seth Bender, M.A., LMFTC

Seth Bender, M.A., LMFTC is a marriage counselor, therapist, and life coach who helps people create deeper relationships, heal from difficult life experiences, and increase their confidence. His warm, non-judgmental approach makes it safe to discover new things about yourself, and take positive action to change your life.

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Read More By Seth Below!

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Are Negative Perceptions Harming Your Relationship?

Are Negative Perceptions Harming Your Relationship?

Are Negative Perceptions Harming Your Relationship?

Seth Bender is a marriage counselor, therapist, and life coach who helps people create deeper relationships, heal from difficult life experiences, and increase their confidence. His warm, non-judgmental approach makes it safe to discover new things about yourself, and take positive action to change your life.

Stop Jumping to Conclusions

As a marriage counselor, couples therapist, and married guy, I know that this happens to anybody who is in a relationship – you get into an argument with your partner, and your mind starts racing with thoughts that seem to automatically pop into your brain. In the therapy world, we often call these thoughts “perceptions.” Perceptions are mental images which are triggered by emotions, which then influence how we act towards our partner.

Negative Perceptions = Negative Reactions

If these perceptions of ourselves and our partners are negative, then they might manifest in behaviors that can be destructive to a relationship, especially if they get repeated. But how does this process happen, and more to the point, how can you help manage and control these perceptions in your own relationship?

What’s Your Inner Dialogue?

To understand what perceptions feel like, imagine the initial thoughts that run through your head when find yourself in a heated argument with your partner. For example, do you assume your partner is always losing control? Do you think nothing you do will ever be good enough? Do you assume your partner is running away or abandoning you emotionally? Do you think you have to fix the situation any way you can?

These are all examples of negative perceptions that can then influence how you then behave and communicate with your partner. If your thoughts are negative in that moment, then you will likely behave accordingly in a way that will push your partner away, not connect them to you.

Our Thoughts Create Our Feelings, Which Lead to Reactions

Another important point to remember is that perceptions serve as the bridge between emotion and responding to that emotion. In other words, perceptions are most often caused by anger or frustration — secondary emotions that are fueled by fear and pain. From there, perceptions seem almost automatic. If perceptions are fueled by negative emotions, then they will often turn into negative behaviors. [For more information on the Thought > Feeling > Action response cycle, check out the “Happy Mind” unit of The Happiness Class.)

When your thoughts about yourself or your partner are negative in the moment, then you may feel emotionally insecure and unsafe, and any negative behavior that arises from that is the body’s natural response to feeling emotionally threatened.

But there’s something very interesting to think about in terms on negative perceptions – they’re most often not true!

Challenge Your Automatic Thoughts

For example, remind yourself that your partner is responding to their own fears and is likely not trying to run away from you, you don’t have to fix every problem in a relationship, and you ARE good enough, even if your negative perceptions feel true in the moment, especially when triggered by anger or hurt. Even though the thoughts are in our head, they feel very real and we respond to them in kind.

Fortunately, there are ways to be able to break the cycle and fight these negative thoughts.

Fight Negative Perceptions With Empathy

The antidote to negative perceptions lies with empathy and empathic communication, meaning being able to put yourself in your partner’s shoes and try to understand why they may be acting the way they are.

Empathy can be built in a number of different ways – listening to and validating your partner, sharing softer, deeper emotions with one another, and understanding that your partner’s behavior may be caused by unmet emotional needs and a lack of emotional safety that might have little to do with you are all examples of empathy — and all ways of breaking negative perceptions proactively and in the moment.

Know that a partner’s reactions may seem irrational to you, but emotion is often not rational, and in those moments, try to take a step back. If you can validate and understand your partner’s true pain, those negative perceptions will become less intense and you’ll be able to access kindness to your partner in the moment. Your positive thoughts will connect you to your partner, not push you away.

Remember, you can feel empathy for yourself too! Perfection is never attainable – you are human and you will make mistakes, as your positive and negative experiences help build how you respond to stress and perceived threats. People respond to negative perceptions in attachment styles that feel safest, and you are no different. You have permission to not be perfect!

You’re Not Alone

All that being said, negative perceptions can become overwhelming. If you’d like support in learning how to manage your thoughts and find more helpful responses in moments of stress, a good therapist or coach can help you access your strengths to work on resolving underlying pain and controlling your thoughts. As those thoughts are connected to what has already happened, then healing and coming to terms with the past may be key in helping you move forward.

The brain controls emotions, but the brain can also play tricks on you! Know that even though negative thoughts in the moment feel real and overwhelming, they are often not true. You have the power to manage and change those thoughts, and to change your relationship to one that you always return to for comfort and safety.

All the best,

Seth Bender, M.A., LMFTC

Constantly Arguing in a Relationship? Here’s How to Stop.

Constantly Arguing in a Relationship? Here’s How to Stop.

Constantly Arguing in a Relationship? Here’s How to Stop.

Seth Bender, M.A., LMFTC is a marriage counselor, therapist, and life coach with Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. He helps people create deeper relationships, heal from difficult life experiences and increase their self-confidence. His warm, non-judgmental approach makes it safe to discover new things about yourself, and take positive action to change your life.

How to Break a Negative Relationship Cycle, and Fix Your Marriage

Do you find yourself stuck in the same types of relationship arguments over and over again with your partner? Or like there is constant arguing in your relationship? Do you feel like you’re always making up after a fight? Does it feel like no matter what you do or say, your disagreements with your significant other never get resolved?

If you answered yes to any these questions, don’t worry, you’re not the only one! As a marriage counselor and couples therapist (as well as a married dad) I know that all couples have interactional cycles that get triggered by what partners say and do, and all couples have disagreements from time to time. But when you’re focusing on the wrong things, arguments are never resolved so they keep coming up over and over again. If that’s happening in your relationship, it’s likely that you’re stuck in a negative relationship cycle. Learning how to identify and communicate about primary emotions can help you break free.

Why Couples Get Stuck in Conflict

What usually happens when couples try to work through things after a fight is that discussions around disagreements usually only
center on the topic of the disagreement, or the behavior and anger surrounding it. That is the only the tip of the iceberg, though — the true emotions and needs often lie beneath the surface and rarely get discussed, and that’s why the negative cycles are so hard to break out of! One of the most well-researched, evidence-based approaches in couples counseling is called Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (the type of marriage counseling that I specialize in). This form of marriage counseling centers around helping couples be able to communicate the deeper issues and primary emotions so that they break negative cycles and build better connection and safety.

What is a Primary Emotion?

Here’s a hint; a primary emotion is not anger or frustration! Those two emotions, while very real, are
often secondary emotions, which are reflections, or by-products, of a deeper emotion beneath the surface.

Primary emotions, on the other hand, usually center around softer feelings – fear, vulnerability, pain, love, and other,
deeper needs. These softer emotions often are based on our needs for emotional safety, connection, and wanting to feel loved and respected by our partners. But when these needs go unmet in our relationships it can lead to anger and negative behaviors that push couples away from each other and destroy trust.

Often in arguments, however, usually anger and frustration are the only emotions that are communicated and talked about afterward, and primary feelings are not recognized or addressed. This leaves the true core issue unresolved, and ripe for another conflict. This dynamic leads to repetitive arguing, and makes couples wonder why they keep having the same fights over and over again. To change the cycle, couples need to learn to access and communicate primary emotions safely. [More information about practicing emotionally “safe” communication here: How to Communicate With Someone Who Shuts Down]

Tapping in to Primary Emotions

Notice How You’re Feeling: One way to start accessing the softer primary emotions is to pay attention to what you’re feeling  – where is the emotion showing up in your body? Emotion always manifests itself somehow in our body, whether through muscle tension, quickened heartbeat, stomach discomfort, or any other bodily reaction you might think of.

Secondary emotions are easier to access – anger in the body can often be accessed before or after is triggered, but primary emotions such as fear or pain will likely manifest some other way. Try to become more aware of your body when you become emotional and begin to match different bodily reactions to different emotions – you’ll notice the difference faster than you think.

Practice Naming Your Feelings: Some people have an easier time accessing primary emotions in the body, but have a more difficult time assigning a name to the primary emotion. This can be especially true for men (but many women can struggle with this too). [For more on this topic check out my “Understnding Men” podcast.] An emotion wheel, or “feelings wheel” (available readily online,) can help put a name to an emotion than a general “fear” or “pain” that may not accurately describe what you are feeling in that moment.

Remember, if you can access and name your primary emotions, then you are taking the first step in communicating those emotions that can help break a negative cycle. [Learn more about how being in touch with your feelings can help you improve your communication in, “Empathy: The Key to Communication and Connection”]

Communicating Your Real Feelings

Get Support: Learning how to communicate primary emotions safely usually should be done with the support of a couples counselor or relationship coach, as many people can find this surprisingly challenging, especially in the beginning. A marriage counselor who is trained in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy will have the most skill and experience in helping couples get in touch with their feelings, and communicate them in a productive way to their partner.

Create Safety: Communicating primary emotions in a way that is safe for the sharer and listener can feel challenging, especially in cases where couples have had bad experiences when expressing their authentic feelings. However, this type of couples counseling can lead to more effective, longer lasting relationship repair than types of marriage counseling that feel like more of a “band-aid” than a healing process.

Avoid Blame: Someone with a history of not feeling safe expressing emotion will need assurance and trust that they will not be hurt doing so, and that can be difficult to find. Sharing primary emotions in a safe way requires the sharer to own their emotions and share them in a way that is not blaming to the listener.

Focus on Listening: Accepting primary emotions requires the listener to not judge or try to “fix” the pain that sharer is revealing, only to listen, accept the emotion for what it is, and validate the sharer. It sounds easy to do, but it is not, which is why couples counseling or coaching is highly recommended to learn how to and practice communication in a way that provides safety for both the sharer and listener.

Why Change The Way You Communicate in Your Relationship?

Yes, learning how to communicate differently can be challenging but the benefits of safely communicating primary emotions and needs can be relationship-changing. All people need connection and attachment, and couples often feel more connected and trusting after communicating fear and hurt rather than anger. Feeling safer with communication will often also reduce triggering behaviors such as withdrawing/stonewalling, criticism, defensiveness, and trying to “fix” problems, and reducing the frequency of those will also being a couple closer together!

More to the point, learning to communicate softer primary emotions will help break negative interactional cycles – you’re no longer just communicating anger and going around in circles; you’re getting to the root of your anger and frustration, and trusting your partner to hear your authentic feelings. What could bring a couple closer than knowing they can talk about their deepest feelings, and knowing that they will be validated and accepted?

Those deep feelings and primary emotions are already part of all of your arguments, whether or not you’re currently aware of them or talking about them. When you learn how to communicate them directly, you’ll see your relationship change in ways you might not imagine, replacing resentment and anger with understanding, trust, and connection.

I hope this relationship advice helps you stop fighting, start understanding, and find your way back together again.

Seth Bender, M.A., LMFTC

Do Long Distance Relationships Work?

Do Long Distance Relationships Work?

The Challenges of Long Distance Relationships… And How to Make Them Work

Imagine missing your partner to the point where you feel your heart about to explode.  You need to connect to the person you love, to feel their physical presence, and experience their love and affection.  Now imagine that your partner that you miss so much does not live in the same city as you do.  Maybe your partner is states, countries, or even continents away.  How do you maintain your love for your partner when you cannot physically see them nearly as often as you’d love to?  

I love marriage counseling and relationship coaching, but it wasn’t until I started doing online couples counseling that I was led to working with a new, interesting demographic – the long-distance relationship.  Sometimes our globalized world requires a partner to move away from a loved one to keep a job, or a loved one who is a member of the military may be deployed for months or even years at a time.  These types of relationships can be very difficult to navigate for both partners, but understanding some of the unique challenges of long-distance relationships can give couples a better chance to weather the storms and come through the separation strong and connected.

The most obvious and painful part of long-distance relationships is the most obvious – you do not get to physically see or be with your partner on a regular basis, if at all.  Physical connection and time spent with each other is a crucial part of any relationship.  With the best case scenario, couples in this situation would work to see each other physically as much as they can.  But what if these couples can’t see each other, be it for financial or logistical reasons?  That sort of separation can cause loneliness and emotional turmoil for a couple that can turn toxic very quickly, leading to possible breakups and affairs.  Couples in long-distance relationships always have to be on the lookout for how they feel in the moment, as that lack of physical connection can make the temptation to stray even more intense.

What can a long-distance couple do to keep their connection alive and vibrant?

  1. Open Communication: Making it a commitment to see each other physically when possible can work, but the key truly lies with honest emotional communication.  Learning how to communicate emotions honestly, without criticism or defensiveness, can help bridge the gap that lies between these couples.  
  2. Listening, With All Your Heart: That being said, it’s not just about sharing how you feel to your partner –  you need to be able to listen to each other without trying to “fix” how the other feels.  Attachment literature and research has shown that feeling heard when you share, without being judged or disregarded, can help build attachment bonds.  In other words, knowing that your partner is truly listening to your emotions and pain without judgment will bring you closer to that partner, building the connection and closeness that all healthy relationships have.  
  3. Practicing Empathy and Validation: Imagine how you’ll feel when you share your pain with your partner, and the person you love validates that pain and holds you close, even if you’re a continent away.  There’s nothing like it, and through practicing attachment-style communication (sharing and listening without judgment) you won’t just learn to hear your partner.  You’ll learn to empathize with your partner, to feel your partner’s emotion as your own.  The connection that can be built at that point can be extraordinary!

Your partner is thousands of miles away, and you miss them so much.  But the avenues of communication must be open to building connection during this separation.  If you can’t see each other physically, make sure you’re either talking or communicating with your partner as much as you can.  When you do talk to each other, be emotionally honest and listen to each other without judgment.  The conversations may be painful at times, but they will be true, and that’s an experience that couples who even live together often don’t have.  

When you know your partner loves you, can share with you, and can listen to you, your connection and bond will be that much stronger when the both of you are finally physically together again.  

Seth Bender, M.A., LMFTC

How to Manage Relationship Stress During Pregnancy

How to Manage Relationship Stress During Pregnancy

Growing Together: Nurture Your Relationship During Pregnancy

As a marriage counselor, couples therapist and premarital counselor, (and a guy who’s had a pregnant wife), I know that perhaps no event is more life-changing for a couple than having a child. Babies bring joy and meaning to our lives, but there is no doubt that having a child, and caring for that child, will drastically change a couple’s relationship.

However, did you know that those changes to your relationship do not begin after a child is born, but long before? Those drastic changes often begin in the first trimester of a mother’s gestational period, sometimes even shortly after conception. In my experience, relationships can even change immediately after pregnancy is discovered. Rather than seeing those changes as obstacles, viewing them as opportunities to learn together, grow as a couple, and strengthen your relationship as you prepare for a baby’s arrival is a great way to begin this new chapter in life.

Pregnancy: An Opportunity to Increase Compassion and Empathy in Your Relationship

To begin with, the first trimester is often an emotionally turbulent time in a mother’s life. Many pregnancies do not carry past twelve weeks, so the emotional burden on couples playing that waiting game can be excruciating for a relationship. This is a time for a partner to listen and understand a pregnant partner’s uncertainty. Know that an expectant mother in the first trimester already has hormones spiraling inside of her, which can inflame an already uncertain situation. A partner that listens and feels their pregnant partner’s fears can build much more connection than a partner who judges or wishes their expectant companion would “handle things better”, especially with difficult, high-risk pregnancies. It might help to remind yourself that pregnant mothers in the first trimester are handling their emotions the best they can!

Deepen The Trust and Emotional Support in Your Relationship During Pregnancy

A couple expecting a child can also count on physical obstacles in the first trimester that can tear at a relationship if not understood. Most of us know about morning sickness and food cravings, but gestational diabetes (which onsets during pregnancy) is also often diagnosed during this time. So, not only does a couple have to emotionally contend with the possibility of a baby not carrying past the first trimester, but an expectant mother may have to drastically change eating habits or even begin taking insulin too. Again, this can be heartbreakingly difficult for a mother to cope with on her own – she needs the support of her relationship to help carry her through.

My advice to partners of pregnant moms: Be pregnant too. Go on that diet with her, go to all of the ultrasounds that you can, and support her to show her that she can count on you. Especially in the difficult times, your efforts to build trust and connection does wonders for a relationship, both during and after pregnancy.

Negotiate Major Changes to Your Relationship, As a Strong Couple

Many couples believe that having a baby changes a couple’s social and love life, but that process of change often begins much earlier. A couple will often find that an expectant mother in the first trimester will likely not feel up to seeing friends or socializing much at all. Even a formerly extremely social couple may find themselves staying and not going out from the first days of pregnancy, not just after a baby is born. With that sudden, drastic change comes a period of grief that a social couple will undoubtedly feel, and couples that are less social will still feel obvious, immediate changes to their lives. Also, a formerly sexually active couple will see changes in their love lives, as the hormonal changes in many early-term pregnant mothers often reduces sex drive. During this period, emotions may flair and couples may say things to one another they may regret in the heat of the moment.

The key to getting through this period with more trust, and not less, is to understand one another and to honestly express emotions without judgment. Change creates emotional confusion, and both members of a couple will experience that emotional change in their own ways. The thing to remember is that you, as a couple, are in this together, not separately, and being able to share and listen to each other doubts and fears, as well as hopes and dreams, is crucial to building connection throughout a pregnancy.

Prepare Your Relationship For The Adventure of Parenthood

And guess what? All that emotional uncertainty will not go away immediately after a little one is sleeping in a crib next to you! What better way to prepare for all the changes of new parenthood, than to practice changing and growing together during your pregnancy? Enjoying the good times and understanding the not-so-good times of pregnancy will bring couples closer together, not tear them apart. Practicing your patience, compassion, flexibility, and acceptance of each other now will make you an even better team for the baby that will be here before you know it.

Knowing that your life changes immediately after pregnancy, and not when the baby is born, can help you make positive change in your relationship, and your love, that will strengthen your bonds and create a more joyful family experience.

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