Attachment Styles in Relationships

Attachment Styles in Relationships

Attachment Styles in Relationships

Hey baby. What’s your attachment style? 

That question is overtaking “what’s your sign?” on dating profiles, and I have to say I think it’s an improvement. When a marriage counseling or relationship coaching client knows their attachment style, I’m thrilled; Becoming aware of your attachment patterns helps you understand how you show up in relationships, and how that impacts the way your partners respond to you. 

Can the Zodiac tell you that? I don’t think so. 

But, as with any psychological concept that gets compressed into 50-second TikTok videos and disseminated widely, confusion about attachment styles is gaining traction as quickly as awareness of them. And that’s too bad, because attachment is both important and fascinating stuff.  

When you become attached to a romantic partner, an invisible machine starts whirring in your brain, monitoring the security of that bond and the availability of your mate. If the relationship feels threatened, attachment prompts you to take action to preserve it, either through bids for more connection, or for more space. 

This machine keeps our relationships alive and in balance, which makes it possible for us to sustain love for a lifetime. So how does it work? And why does attachment look so different from person to person, relationship to relationship, or even from day to day? 

I created this episode of the podcast to answer these questions and more. We’ll be diving into the science of attachment, some popular misconceptions about attachment styles, and common attachment dynamics that may be playing out in your relationship — and how you can handle them. 

I hope this episode helps you to better understand yourself and your partner, and gives you a new appreciation for your brain’s incredible attachment machine. To get the most out of this episode, I recommend taking our attachment styles quiz first. 

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Attachment Styles in Relationships

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Attachment Styles in Relationships — Episode Highlights

Attaching to a romantic partner is a fundamental human drive. It happens without much effort or conscious thought on our part — we simply canoodle with an attractive mate, and before long, find that even the thought of losing that relationship is enough to cause us a full-on freakout. 

Our first attachment is with our primary caregiver when we’re babies. There’s no substitute for this connection; without it, babies can’t develop into happy, healthy kids.  

But the quality of that primary relationship will shape the way we bond with other people for the rest of our lives. This is your attachment style, and it has a major impact on how you show up in your most important relationships. 

Adult Relationship Attachment Styles

The first thing to know about attachment styles is that they exist on a spectrum. Perfectly embodying one attachment style or another is exceedingly rare. Instead, attachment is a bell curve, and most people spend their time hanging out on its hilly center. 

With that caveat out of the way, here are the four identified adult relationship attachment styles: 

Secure attachment — People with a secure attachment style have the core belief that “I am ok and you are ok.” They believe they are worthy of love and respect, and generally trust their romantic partners to treat them that way. Securely attached adults don’t spend too much time worrying about whether their partner loves them, cares about them, or wants to be with them. They tend to recover from breakups and rejection fairly well, and they’re comfortable with both closeness and space in their relationships.  

Anxious attachment — People with an anxious attachment style aren’t so confident that they are ok. They worry that their partner doesn’t really love them, care about them, or want to be with them. They’re afraid of abandonment, and they require a lot of reassurance that their partner isn’t going anywhere. Sometimes their need for reassurance can arise through controlling behavior, and can have the effect of pushing their partner away. They may be labeled “needy” or “clingy.” 

Avoidant attachment — People with an avoidant attachment style don’t feel worthy of love and respect, and they don’t trust other people to meet their needs. They tend to feel it’s safer not to rely on anyone, and they have a core belief that they are on their own. When a partner tries to get close, avoidantly attached people can experience that as a threat. They may avoid commitment and emotional vulnerability, and develop negative narratives about their partners to justify holding them at arm’s length. 

Disorganized attachment style — Also known as anxious-avoidant attachment, people with a disorganized attachment style may display an inconsistent orientation toward their partners. They may want love and closeness, but have trouble trusting their partners, and feel a deep need to protect themselves from abandonment or rejection at all costs. They tend to alternate between pulling their partners close and pushing them away. Disorganized attachment is not the same as having fluctuating feelings about a partner, or a fluctuating desire for closeness; it’s a rare attachment style that’s associated with an abusive environment in childhood. 

Relationship Attachment Styles Aren’t Static

Our attachment styles vary from relationship to relationship, depending on how our partners are oriented. If we’re with an anxious partner, who only feels loved when we’re constantly reassuring them, we’ll naturally feel a little more avoidant. If we’re with an avoidant partner, who seems standoffish and remote, we’ll naturally feel a little more anxious, and a bit more preoccupied about the relationship. 

Even within the same relationship, attachment styles fluctuate. During periods when your partner seems more distant or withdrawn, your anxiety will be piqued; you might find yourself pushing for more affection or attention to alleviate your anxiety about how secure the relationship is, without being conscious that you’re doing so. If your partner starts to seem needy, clingy, or demanding to you, you’ll naturally push for more space, and move a little closer to the avoidant end of the bell curve. 

This is the attachment machine at work, helping your relationship find an equilibrium so that it can be sustained. But sometimes couples can get locked into extreme pursue-withdraw dynamics, particularly when an anxious partner is paired with an avoidant partner. This can cause a lot of conflict, and a lot of stress for both partners. 

If a pursue-withdraw dynamic is happening in your relationship, it can help to understand why you’re either withdrawing from your partner, or pursuing them, and what their predictable reaction to that will be. These cycles can be hard to break, but working with a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, who understands relationship systems, can help. 

Attachment Issues in Adults

When it comes to attachment, there’s a wide range of what’s normal and fundamentally healthy. Just because you tend to lean a little more on the anxious side, or you tend to need a little more space in your relationships, doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong. 

But that doesn’t stop people from armchair diagnosing themselves or their partners with “attachment issues,” which are actually pretty rare. Attachment issues in adults are on the far ends of the attachment style bell curve, and they’re often associated with childhood neglect, abuse, trauma, and abandonment, or with personality disorders that develop independently of those experiences. 

Of course, this happens, to varying degrees. It is possible that your past experiences or your genetic predispositions have led you to develop attachment issues as an adult. But labeling yourself or your partner with attachment issues isn’t helpful; It makes it harder to develop self compassion and understanding, to learn and grow in your relationship, and to develop the trust and emotional safety that a healthy attachment requires. 

Attachment Styles In Relationships

If you suspect that you and your partner’s attachment patterns are triggering conflict in your relationship, working with a licensed marriage and family therapist with an understanding of attachment can be incredibly helpful. 

And just being part of a healthy relationship can also go a long way toward healing insecure attachment. Through secure relationships, people can recover their sense of trust  and safety with others. [To learn more about how this works, listen to this episode on Healing Relationships.]
I hope you enjoyed this episode on attachment styles in relationships, and that it helped you understand some of the invisible dynamics at work in your relationship. Want to learn more about your own attachment style? Take our attachment styles quiz.

Episode Show Notes

[5:52] Attachment Styles in Relationships

  • Attachment is having an emotional, psychological, and, to an extent, physical bond with someone.
  • There are three main attachment styles—secure, anxious, and avoidant. 
  • None of these attachment styles are “wrong” or abnormal. 

[15:17] Do I Have Attachment Issues?

  • People have a tendency to self-diagnose themselves with specific attachment issues without understanding what’s healthy.
  • Most people fall within the normal spectrum of secure attachment with some behavioral tendencies towards anxious and avoidant attachment styles.
  • There is no one with a perfectly secure attachment style.

[22:35] Biological and Childhood Influences of Attachment Styles

  • Attachment has its roots in basic human survival drives; we need communities and family bonds.
  • Answering an ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) questionnaire can help you understand if you have some difficulty with attachment. 
  • If your attachment style is causing issues in your relationships, it’s best to consult a licensed marriage and family therapist.

[30:04] Attachment Issues in Adults

  • Bonds and attachments happen in every relationship, not just with your romantic partner.
  • Changes in relationship dynamics or responsibilities can cause rifts that may threaten a person’s attachments on an emotional level.
  • Relationship distress can make even the most securely attached people exhibit traits of insecure attachment.

[41:03] Opening Discussions About Attachment.

  • It’s okay to talk about attachment behaviors you or your partner exhibit.
  • Talking to your partner or people can help you both feel more secure with each other.


Music in this episode is by Yuutsu with their song “Attached.”

You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://yuutsu.bandcamp.com/track/attached. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.

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

That's the band Youth Zoo with the song Attached. I think doing a beautiful job of conveying the bond of a strong attachment to another person, and perfect for our topic today because that's what we're talking about—attachment styles in relationships, and how to figure out yours as well as that of your partner. 

This is a super important topic, but I think also one that is very much alive in the zeitgeist right now. There's a lot of talk about attachment issues and what they mean, and not all of it is great information. I hope to dispel some of the myths today and help increase your clarity, and confidence, and understanding about attachment styles in order to be able to use this awareness for positive things in your life and in your relationships.

I'm glad we're here together today. Thank you so much for joining me. If this is your first time listening to the show, I am Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I'm the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching. I'm a licensed psychologist; I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist; I'm a board-certified coach; and I am the host of this podcast. I love doing this show for you.

My intention of every single episode is to make these really, genuinely helpful and valuable for you. I'm always listening to your questions that come through on Instagram. Sometimes people email us hello@growingself.com with your questions, and so that I can be sure that I'm creating podcasts that are genuinely helpful to you. 

If you have questions or things that you would like to learn more about, please get in touch with me. I would love to hear what's on your mind. What I have been hearing a lot of lately is how incredibly important your relationships are to you, and understandably so. I mean, our relationships are truly the most important things in our lives in many ways. 

I mean, having healthy relationships with other people is just so fundamental to having happiness and the life that you want. When things are not well with our relationships, or when we want more closeness with people than we have, or if we're feeling a lack of love and connection in our lives, it really impacts us on every level. There is a reason for this. 

This is not some deficit that you should be happy by yourself and you aren't, so, “What's wrong with me?” It’s not even going to bat that away. The truth is that humans are built to bond. It is why we are here. It is essential to our survival from an evolutionary perspective, and attachment is also fundamental to our wellness. 

That is true for children. Children literally cannot develop properly without secure attachment bonds. Some people experimented with this early in the late 1800s, early 1900s of the powers that be decided that it might be a better idea to take poor children away from their filthy alcoholic parents and put them in hospitals or orphanages. Perfectly clean, nice rows of gorgeous sparkling cribs, fed at regular intervals by clean nurses dressed in white and bundled up in identical little swaddles. 

It all seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately, though, the babies kept dying, and nobody could figure out why. Until the psychologist and researcher John Bowlby showed up and had the gall to say, “Hmm, maybe it has something to do with our lack of attachment to one consistent caregiver.” Everybody sort of scratched their heads and said, “Oh, okay, maybe.” 

They revised that policy, thankfully. Attachment in infancy is crucial to literally growth and survival. It is crucial to our developing of psychological health and wellness in very basic ways in early childhood. It is no less important to us as adults, and the idea that it should be otherwise is very much a myth of Western culture.

I'm just going to take that myth away from you while we're talking. Instead, turn our awareness to what attachment really is and how it really works. My hope for this conversation is to help you understand what is normal and also help you understand when there might be signs of real attachment issues, so that you can manage them effectively because you can. So we're rolling into all of it today. 

This is a huge topic. We have a lot to talk about. We're probably not going to cover all of the everything about attachment during this conversation today, but broadly, I'd love to give you an understanding of all of this. Let's start by just defining our terms. Like, when we talk about attachment styles in relationships, what are we talking about? 

Attachment Styles in Relationships

Attachment is essentially having a bond with someone—an emotional bond, and a psychological bond, and, to a degree, believe it or not, a physical bond with someone. In the sense that when we do bond with another person, we experience neurological changes and even hormonal changes. Attachment happens on very deep levels.

When we're talking about attachment styles, we're referring to your signature ways of relating to others. Broadly speaking, there are several different kinds of attachment styles. There are what we think of as a secure attachment style, which is the ability to have strong, enduring relationships with other people. 

Where the core assumptions and the core kind of emotional experience of that relationship is, “I am fundamentally okay. I am fundamentally worthy of love and respect, and other people are fundamentally okay and trustworthy. I can connect with someone and feel generally sure that they will treat me well and be nice to me. I will get my needs met in this relationship, and we're all alright.”

That is the nonscientific way of describing what it feels like to have a secure attachment style. Not that there aren't ups and downs, but that fundamentally, “I'm okay and you're okay.” It's important to understand that the attachment kind of style, the way of relating, extends to other people as well as to yourself, “I'm okay, you're okay.”

There are other types of attachment styles that can show up when babies, young children, and anyone through our lives have experiences with other important people that teach you otherwise—either, “I am not okay, and I can't trust you,” is where other kinds of attachment issues start to show up.

Broadly speaking, there are two other kinds of attachment styles. There is an anxious attachment style where the core experience with other humans is, “I'm not sure that I am okay. I'm not sure that I am worthy of love and respect, and I'm not sure that I can trust you to meet my needs.” What that turns into is a lot of anxiety about relationships. 

“I don't fundamentally know I'm okay, so I need a lot of reassurance from you that I am okay. I need a lot more like active love than a securely attached person needs in order to feel okay. I don't trust that you're gonna give it to me. Even if you do give it to me, I can't trust it, that it's real, so I need more, more, more, more, more.”

Somebody with a really anxious attachment style never really feel secure in relationships, never really feel loved, and really needs a lot of reassurance and like active love behaviors. “You have to say nice things to me and give me lots of compliments and tell me you love me 75 times a day. If I text you, you have to check me back within five seconds. If you don't, I'm going to be very upset because what does this mean?” So lots of anxiety.

Also, in very anxiously attached people, it turns into a lot of controlling behaviors because they really need this from others in order to feel okay and secure. When they don't get it, they tend to get very escalated and very upset. You see a lot of control happening in relationships from anxiously attached people who are trying to get their partners to do things in order to help them feel better, essentially. That is one far end of this attachment spectrum.

The other end of this attachment spectrum refers to people with avoidant attachment styles. Similarly, early in life, they had experiences with usually caregivers where they learned, “I am not worthy of love and respect, and I cannot trust other people to be safe or meet my needs. Therefore, I am making an executive decision that I no longer need other humans.”

“Other humans are not relevant. They are not important. I am the only person that really exists, that matters, I can only trust myself. I'm not even going to try to connect with others, or think for a moment that my needs will be met by them. Because not only will they not be, if I get too close to them, I will be in danger, so I'm just not going to do it at all.”

An avoidant attachment style turns into a fundamental psychological solitude, essentially. “I am the only being. Other people are sort of around. I may try to utilize them in order to get my needs met. But without an emotional attachment, because that is not going to end well.” People become very much islands with an avoidant attachment style. Other people aren't safe, fundamentally. 

There's also not a desire to attach to other people, commonly with people who have very serious attachment issues on the avoidant side of the spectrum. What this also looks like in practice is that in relationships with people that do begin to develop some closeness, somebody with a very avoidant attachment style, will begin actively rejecting that other person. 

These happen at like deep emotional levels that are nonconscious, but what that bubbles up into is a lot of consciously all of the reasons why somebody isn't good enough. It's a lot of criticism; it's a lot of comparison; it's a lot of focusing on somebody's negative characteristics—all the reasons why they're not going to be a good partner, and really kind of talking themselves out of a relationship, because fundamentally they feel uneasy being close to other people, and so they rationalize it. 

Somebody with an avoidant attachment style will usually have a series of fairly short-lived relationships. They will either find ways to end those relationships—kind of breaking up with people, and it is always the other person's fault, by the way. Or there can be a lot of, like, cheating behaviors because, in their minds, they're not in a relationship anyway. The other person is not that important to them, and there all these other people that they could be hanging out with, so hey, why not?

It can look like the sort of indiscriminate attachment. Superficial kind of bonds with other people that—but nobody is, like, really important is what that can kind of look like. These attachment styles, as you are inferring, can have major issues on the health of your relationships. If you have a very pronounced attachment style in one of these directions or another, it's going to be global. 

If you have an avoidant attachment style, it's going to show up in every relationship with your significant other, with your family, with your boss, and vice versa. It's very powerful stuff. It's important to know this about yourself if you have these tendencies in every single situation, because this stuff has to be managed or you are going to blow out of every relationship, right? Through no fault of your own, like you didn't make this happen, and was the hand you got dealt, and it's crappy, and it's yours to deal with, and again, it can be managed by understanding it.

It is also true that there are attachments, and attachment styles, and attachment experiences that happen in relationships that can feel like these, and to a degree, they are very, very normal behaviors, truly. Again, while the attachment issues are very significant, either if you see them in yourself or if you're trying to have a relationship with somebody who has very significant attachment issues, it's real.

Do I Have Attachment Issues?

But the thing happening right now that I think is so interesting is people are self-diagnosing, or diagnosing their partners with attachment issues, without a full awareness of, like, the normal spectrum of what this looks like and how attachment always works in every relationship. I think a great example of this, I sometimes get asked to provide expert opinions or whatever, with journalists will, like, reach out and ask for commentary.

I had this one very nice girl reach out not too long ago. She was working on a piece for publication about attachment styles and relationships, and could I provide some insight like, “Yeah, sure.” We're talking with each other about attachment and kind of secure versus anxious, avoidant. As we were speaking, she was like, “I'm pretty sure I have disorganized attachment style. Like, I'm anxious and avoidant in relationships.” 

I heard that was like, “Oh, really? Tell me more.” She's like, “Yeah. Sometimes just when I'm with people, sometimes I worry about how they feel about me, but then sometimes I wonder if I really want to be with them anyway. So I don't know, I'm pretty sure I have disorganized attachment styles.” 

Like, “Okay.” In the back of my mind, I was thinking, unless you were raised in an orphanage staffed by Satanists, I don't think you have disorganized attachment style. It's very rare, and it is very profound. It is associated with, like, really serious early childhood and abuse—abuse, and neglect, and abandonment. Certainly, like, that exists, right? 

I mean, people do end up in foster care and live through terrible neglect, and drug addicted parents, like all those things happen. But even then, like, if babies have even just enough, like, somebody in their lives was good enough, they can achieve so much resilience and so much health. 

But—what, anyway, what I came to understand through talking with this journalist, and what has also come out in conversations with clients, is that I think what's happening is that people are learning about attachment styles, anxious attachment styles, and avoidant attachment styles, and doing the same thing that I and the rest of my classmates did in our first year of counseling school, where we read the DSM and basically diagnosed ourselves with everything in it, and started handing out diagnoses liberally to friends and family. 

It's because with things of a psychological nature, we can see instances of these things in ourselves. If you have just enough information to be dangerous, it is very easy to make kind of sweeping statements about yourself and others that are not just inaccurate, they're also not helpful. Here's the irony, doing that too much can also create issues in your relationships.

If both you and your partner are completely fine, have secure attachment styles, but if you are interpreting either your or their behavior as being in some way pathological and then kind of going off to the races in that direction that will also cause problems. 

I want to unpack this a little bit more with you. What ended up happening with this journalist, and also sort of happens usually with clients, at some point during our sessions, I do begin drawing weird pictures. With this journalist, the weird picture that I drew was one of a bell curve. I don't know if you've ever encountered a bell curve in any statistics classes.

But essentially, if you visualize a hill—a hill with it's higher in the middle, and on each side, it kind of slopes down. What we do with these hills, these bell curves is it's kind of a visual representation of normal distributions of things. When it comes to attachment and secure attachment, imagine that the middle of the hill is fairly broad. Everybody in, like, that highest middle part of the hill has a secure attachment style. 

There is no exact center. There is no perfectly, perfectly securely attached human. We can all kind of trend towards one side or the other based on our normal life experiences. But due to the culture of our families or just some things, we can kind of have a natural tendency towards being a little bit more attached or a little more avoidant, and still be very much within that normal spectrum.

Then, when we start to get to the edges of the hill and start to slope down on one side or the other, this is where attachment issues begin to be more pronounced. They're both on a spectrum. You can go from that normal, secure attachment to slightly anxious attachment. As we continue sloping further down the hill, and we kind of get to that tippy end. That is, is where you'll find severe attachment issues. It represents a very small part of the population. 

Most people are somewhere in that secure spectrum. Whatever happened with their caregivers or early life experiences was good enough—does not have to be perfect, it has to be good enough. When we start getting to the sides of the hill, it means that there are some non ideal things that left tendencies either towards avoidance or towards attachment, much more rare in terms of a percentage of the population. 

Then at the very tippy ends of the slopes are those serious attachment issues that I was describing for you earlier on the show, where people fundamentally have serious issues in their relationships where they cannot feel safe and secure with other people. They're very anxious, they become very controlling and demanding, or, on the other side, they are avoidant to the extent that they essentially block any efforts at attachment.

Those, again, are rare and are associated with serious things. I've had clients who do have those more severe kinds of attachment issues. Every single time it has been associated with things like being in foster care infancy, being raised by addicted or mentally ill parents who were not functional enough to meet children's needs consistently. 

Attachment Style Quiz

If you are curious to know if your life experience is kind of consistent with that serious attachment injuries, you might consider taking the ACEs questionnaire. ACEs stands for Adverse Childhood Experience scale, I think. Anyway, Google it. It has a number of questions, and if you have a relatively high ACEs score, it means that you have had fairly extensive adverse childhood experiences, trauma experiences that would be consistent with those kinds of attachment disorders. 

If that is the case and you're having these consistent issues in relationships, my sincere and heartfelt advice is that you take this to a psychologist—a very good, qualified, licensed therapist. You could see a clinical psychologist. A licensed marriage and family therapist will also have specialized training and education in attachment styles to be able to work with you on some of these things. For the rest of us, we're somewhere on that spectrum, right? 

Why this matters is because the other thing that happens that confuses people is that, again, going back to the very first thing we talked about, because we humans are built to bond, we have hardwired machinery essentially in our brains and in our bodies that create attachments to people. Whether we want them to or not, I mean, we spend a lot of time with a person and kind of have a trajectory towards particularly a romantic relationship, you will develop attachment bonds.

One of the things it's important to know is that these bonds are created and maintained at nonconscious levels. They are related to human survival drives. Our ability to attach and bond to other humans is as fundamental to life. Human life continuing as like feeding yourself and not freezing to death from an evolutionary perspective because humans are a collective species. 

We would not have survived out in the wild without being in tribes, in groups of people who were connected to each other, loyal to each other, and these were often groups based around family bonds, kinship bonds. Then, certainly, when it comes to the attachment bonds that parents have to their children and the partners have to each other, it gets even stronger.

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective because a parent cannot walk away from an infant, that infant would die. Similarly, partners, I mean, if there's a couple that has had a child together, and it's 100,000 years ago, that the female and the infant are going to be highly dependent on the male, or I don't know, maybe, depending on the culture of the tribe, it was the other way around.

But there's so much energy that goes into raising human babies, people literally cannot do it alone. The attachment bonds that people formed with each other held them together, even when things got hard. Even when there's a drought, or a famine, or a war, “I'm not going to leave you.” Because if people were left, people were abandoned, that's it: lights out, right?

These bonds exist in humans the same way that they exist in animals. You're seeing those documentaries of, like, mother bear or little bear cubs, and the mom is trying to, like, take care of the babies; same thing. These are very, very, very old, deep parts of your brain that are older and deeper than the part of your brain that is conscious. It's only the outermost layer of our brains and new parts of our brains that have conscious thoughts. 

They visualize things; they think in words; they think into the future; they can make sort of interpretive associations or have creative ideas. That is the very outermost layer of your brain. That is what separates humans from animals. We have that sitting on the surface, but the rest of our brains, the inside, is still very much that old mammalian brain, and that is the part of your brain where attachments are formed and maintained.

There are some things that are a little bit different with human attachments, obviously, but it's important to understand that these are just so deep and so powerful, and they are baked into the machinery. I don't know how many of you listening have been pregnant before. But I remember when I had my first baby and was pregnant, I was fascinated by all of these things that my body was just kind of automatically doing that I had no idea. 

It could do, like, all this stuff, just sort of like going on autopilot and things happening. It's like, “Oh, I was built for this. My body was designed, and it knows exactly what to do in order to create another human.” There were all these little mysterious, like, architectures and things that sprang into life when it was time to grow a child, right? The same is true for your brain. You have structures in your brain, you have hormones that get activated, neurotransmitters that get activated when we develop attachment bonds. 

Interestingly, and I've shared this in other podcasts, particularly related to why it can be so difficult to end a relationship, like, some of the breakup recovery podcasts I've done, is that there is evidence to suggest that the parts of your brain responsible for those attachment bonds are the same parts of your brain that have opioid receptors and dopamine receptors.

When we think about becoming addicted to, like, illegal substances, or heroin, or cocaine, or whatever, the reason why people can get addicted to those illegal substances is because those drugs use the parts of your brain that nature originally developed to bond to other people. They essentially hijack it. I think that's very interesting and also important to know that bonding process is a natural, healthy, normal, addictive bonding process, but is just as powerful. 

Attachment Issues in Adults

Biology aside, the reason why it's important to understand how fundamentally just human this is, is because attachment bonds happen in every single relationship. Wow. In the example of two securely attached people who get together, and they have a nice relationship, and generally speaking, they feel comfortable being close to each other. They aren't terribly preoccupied about their partner, worried about things. 

They will, if their relationship becomes distressed, have these attachment kind of flare ups, because our attachment bonds mobilize in efforts to restore kind of balance, or equilibrium in a relationship. 

For example, if you are married to a nice person, you're having a nice time and something changes. I don't know, maybe you start⁠—maybe you had a child, and now all of a sudden, you know, who's taking out the trash or getting up with a baby is more fraught than it was, right? The totally normal, unexpected, but what can happen is that people can experience these kinds of relational problems as a threat to their attachment bond.

“You're leaving me with all this housework, you're not getting up with a baby on an emotional level,” that turns into, “Don't you love me? Don't you still care about me?” When these attachment bonds are threatened, all this emotional machinery flares into life.

What happens is that partner will kind of move towards the anxious end of the spectrum and say, “Hey, why aren't you doing this? Where are you? I need you to do these things. Please help me with this.” They become elevated, can sometimes even become aggressive in pursuit of getting their needs met, because they're trying to restore equilibrium into their relationship. 

On the other side of this same situation, nice secure relationship and all of a sudden, one of the partners is now experiencing their formerly calm, kind, generally loving partner as being aggravated with them, snappy with them, frustrated with them, and on an emotional level, their attachment becomes threatened. It turns into, “Oh, I am not safe with this person anymore. I need to kind of keep away, move away, distance.”

That will sometimes turn into disengagement, defensiveness, kind of in our narratives around, “Oh, you're just being ridiculous. It's not that big of a deal.” That is reminiscent of someone with an avoidant attachment style. That is also efforts to kind of maintain equilibrium in a relationship. This is very common. 

I would struggle to think of a couple that I've ever seen over my decades-long career as a marriage counselor who was in a distressed relationship and coming in for help, and who was not having an attachment bond kind of flare up as a result of it.The most common combination we see is a pursue-withdraw kind of orientation where one person is aggravated, angry, semi-hostile, accusatory, and the other person is withdrawn or avoidant in response to that.

This pursue-withdraw, kind of round and round the thing, not fun, but very normal. Because the pursuing partner is feeling anxious in the relationship and is trying to get their needs met from their partner through outreach, that can often be angry and can often sort of come across as being controlling, right? Nobody starts this, and it's nobody's fault.

The normal behavior is to kind of withdraw in response to somebody who is—you're experiencing is threatening or critical or kind of out to get you, and vice versa. If you are in a relationship with somebody where you aren't getting your needs met, they aren't behaving in ways that make you feel loved and respected, the very normal and natural response to that is to say, “What the heck? Are we still doing this? Are you still there?”

The reason why I wanted to get into this a little bit is because these patterns are very, very common in relationships and have nothing to do with anybody being fundamentally securely or avoidantly attached when they show up. Two people standing at the tippy top center of that hill in any kind of relational distress will always start to fall onto one side or another with each other. 

You can also have different experiences in different relationships. You can be in a relationship with one person who was maybe a little quieter or shut down or did not speak your love language and it made you start to feel a little bit anxious. You will begin to have anxiously attached tendencies in that relationship as a result of your reactions to that particular partner.

In a different relationship, you might be with somebody who's coming on a little strong, who wants to spend more time talking than you do, who maybe wants to have sex more than you do, wants to spend all their time together. You'll be like, “Yeah, I think I need to see some other friends right now,” or “Okay, it's a lot. No more talking.”

It could even be like an introversion-extroversion thing. I mean, there could be all kinds of reasons why there can be these sorts of differences. But in response to that person, you're going to try to regain equilibrium by pulling away a little bit from them. If you think back on your life experience with different people that you've been around, and can observe yourself kind of showing up differently in different relationships. 

That's why our relationships are systems, which means that we react to other people, and then those other people react to us. This is why relationships and and couples counseling honestly can get so complex, is because there's this interplay of attachment, potentially, attachment styles, but also like attachment responses, and understanding these systems, right?, and the way that people relate to each other.  

That is why, like, a marriage and family therapist—a licensed marriage and family therapist will be able to understand all of these systemic pieces. Whereas if you go to couples counseling for a regular therapist, either an LPC or just a psychologist who doesn't have that systemic training, and they will look at both of you sitting in their office and be like, “Oh, well, you're avoidantly attached, and you're anxiously attached, and you guys are not—I can't believe you found each other. What are the odds.” 

There's this tendency to kind of look at individual psychology as opposed to that systems psychology. What winds up happening is that one or both of you gets pathologized. It turns into being about your issues, as opposed to understanding that dance that you two are doing together, so that you can resolve it together, which is what a marriage and family therapist does. As an aside, if you are going to see couples counseling, look for a licensed marriage and family therapist.

But back to the attachment piece. The other thing that can happen here with attachment stuff is that when people don't really understand how significant and severe, very real, like, attachment issues are, they can look at the experiences that they are having in their relationship, either how they are feeling in their relationship currently, or how they are experiencing their partner, and they can also begin to label and pathologize these.

The same way that if you went for couples counseling with a clinical psychologist who may have had one class in couples theory and techniques, there is a tendency to begin pointing the finger. If you are with a partner who is withdrawing, who is uncommunicative, who is not responding to you the way that you want them to, and you read some article or see somebody dancing on TikTok talking about avoidant attachment styles, it's like, “Oh, my partner has an avoidant attachment style.” That's what's wrong. 

Ironically, what that turns into is, first of all, a lack of awareness of how your partner might be experiencing you—that is leading them to kind of avoid, and move away, and experience you as being more hostile and critical because now you're pointing your finger and calling them avoidantly attached and, “You're broken psychologically,” whatever. 

It's really to the detriment of real relationships to pathologize our partners in this way, or vice versa to be in a relationship with somebody who wants more love and affection and attention than you've been giving them. 

If you read a little bit of pop psychology, you might want to label them as having an anxious attachment style, which then gives you permission to basically invalidate everything they say next, because you've already decided that they have broken attachment styles and they're just being ridiculous, so you don't have to change anything about your behavior in this relationship, because it's not your problem, it's their problem, because they have an anxious attachment style.

Again, not helpful. If this is a relationship that you're interested in keeping, it's important to understand systemically what people do in relationships in response to each other. That involves these signature attachment styles in relationships.

Now, of course, it is also possible that you are actually connected to somebody who has adverse childhood experiences that has resulted in nonideal attachment styles. If that's the case, also, just be cautious and understand that these things exist on a spectrum. That nobody is perfectly secure, or avoidant, or anxious. Again, other people might seem different than you based on cultural factors or what was normal in their family, which might be different than yours. 

Also, that there's a wide variety of “secure” in the middle on the top of that hill there, so give people the benefit of the doubt. If you are experiencing somebody as being avoidant, or attached in their interactions with you, it's okay to have a conversation about that. 

I listened to this podcast about attachment styles, and I realized we might be doing this thing together. Listen to—you can get somebody to listen to this podcast with you and say, “I feel like we're doing this. I feel like you might have sort of anxious tendencies with me, and I could feel myself kind of stepping back from you. I wonder what we can do to both help each other feel more stable and secure again.”

Because again, all that means when people start behaving this way is that they're not feeling secure in their relationship. Either they're experiencing danger that they need to move away of, or they're experiencing a lack that they need to pull out of their partner, right? 

Just to be how we'll have a conversation, like, “I feel like we're probably doing this with each other, and I'd like to get back to center again. What would help you feel safer and more secure with me?”, and to have a conversation about that. 

Now, of course, if this has been going on for a while in a relationship, and bad feelings have been happening as a result, what you will also see is that people, their core narratives about each other start to change, it turns into “always/never” kind of language. “She is always complaining. I can never do enough. She's never satisfied. She has unrealistic expectations.” It's fundamental to her character, or “He is just unloving. He's dense. He has zero empathy. I think he might have Asperger's. He's incapable of loving me the way I need to be loved.”

It turns into these, like, global kinds of narratives that we hold about each other. That is a serious danger sign in a relationship, and one of the key indicators that it is time to get in front of a competent marriage counselor quickly, because if that goes unchecked, that'll snowball into a lot of disconnection. 

The on-ramp to this is often just having those interactions with each other where these attachment styles are being expressed. People don't get to that core narrative without having had experiences with that person over and over and over again that teach you, “He will not understand how I'm feeling. He doesn't have any empathy for me. Why try? I'm just gonna give up right?” There's a long on-ramp to that, so just be aware of that. 

Now very lastly, on the subject of those attachment styles in relationships, I will also say that if you believe that you are in a relationship with somebody or that you yourself are kind of on one side of that hill or another. So either an anxious attachment style as evidenced by consistently worrying about how not just this partner, but all your partners feel about you, whether or not you're loved, looking to specific behaviors to confirm whether or not you're loved. If you aren't getting those behaviors, feeling really bad and upset, needing a lot of reassurance and kind of safety seeking in your relationships.

One thing you might do—if you scroll back through my podcast feed, I did a podcast about trust issues in relationships, so you might want to check that out. But also recognizing that the other side, too. 

If you or your partner are on the other side of kind of an avoidant attachment style, so the other side of the hill, there's a lot of distancing from people, a lot of criticism of other people, a lot of ambivalence about relationships, like, “Not quite sure I want to be here with you. Are you really good enough for me? I don't know.”, so like hot and cold kinds of things. 

If you or your partner are either of those, the first step is achieving awareness that that's a thing, it's global, and breaking the idea that you're only feeling this way because of the specific person. If you have real attachment issues, it will be global. It will show up in all of your relationships, not just the one that you're in currently, so that's kind of the big sign. 

Then, also, it's important to understand that just like people are harmed in relationships, that attachment machinery can change in response to what we experienced in very early infancy and childhood, and also through relational trauma later in life, I should add, not to the same extent. But okay, probably too much information.

Just like how people are wounded in relationships, people are also healed in relationships. The best thing that you can do if you have an anxious tending attachment style or an avoidant tending attachment style is to be in a healthy relationship with a person who is somewhere in the middle. Somebody who has a secure attachment style will be able to kind of ride the waves and the ups and downs of life with somebody who has anxious or avoidant tendencies and kind of help restore equilibrium.

They will not be as reactive, and it will be an emotionally safer relationship. Although you can take the most securely attached person in the world and put them in a relationship with an anxiously attached person, they will exhibit avoidant tendencies in response and vice versa. 

The most perfectly securely attached person in the world, match them with somebody who has an avoidant attachment style, and they will become anxious in that relationship with that person in efforts to kind of restore that emotional equilibrium. 

But recognizing this and working towards achieving a healthy, secure relationship with that person will not just  feel better for everybody, but it will also be very healing. You might want to check a podcast that I recorded a while ago now with one of my colleagues, Dr. Paige, here at Growing Self, who specializes in relational trauma and talking about the power of healing relationships. 

Even if you did have negative experiences early in life, and you might always feel a little anxious or a little ambivalent about people as a result, if you understand that about yourself and create a healthy healing relationship with a partner, you will have corrective emotional experiences that essentially retrain your mind, retrain your body, retrain that really deep attachment, bonding place in your brain that other humans are okay, they can fundamentally be trusted, and that you are fundamentally okay. You are worthy of love and respect. You're good, and you can expect generally good things from other people, too. 

When you have those experiences over and over and over again, no matter what stage of life you're in, it is fundamentally healing. You deserve to have that. Healing relationships are key. I would invite you to go back and check out the podcast on healing relationships. Also, if this is an area where you'd like to work on yourself, I would strongly suggest that you get connected with a really good therapist who can help you unpack all of this, uncover the blind spots, and help you gain the self-awareness that we talked about so much during this episode. 

Very lastly, there is another resource that I have for you on a previous podcast where we addressed attachment styles and relationships. I did a attachment style quiz that is really more of like a self-assessment and almost like a mini workbook. It's totally free. But if you want to check it out, you can text 55444 and then text the word “attach”. Wait, I’m embarrassing myself now⁠—“attach” to 55444. 

Anyway, you'll get an email with this activity that I created for you. It is a series of questions that isn't, like, some trite true/false, “Oh, this is your attachment score.” It's really more complex. It'll invite you to walk through, like, some journaling questions. You'll have some prompts to like reflect on your experiences growing up, some of those core assumptions, and I designed it to help you gain some awareness around those old patterns in yourself, so it's a useful tool. 

If you have a therapist, you could certainly show it with them and do it with them. It might even be something interesting for you and your partner to do together if this is something that you're working on together as a couple, provided that you can have emotionally safe conversations about it together. 

But anyway, it's a nice set of activities that can help you get clarity, but also even, I don't want to oversell it. You're not going to resolve attachment issues just by participating in the activity, but it will get the ball rolling, so there's that. 

Again, you can text 55444—to text that number and then just type in the word “attach” and you'll get the link to the activity. Okay, that is all for now. Thank you so much for spending this time with me today. I hope it was helpful to you and I will talk to you soon on another episode. I'll be back next week.

All right.

Feeling Emotionally Invalidated By Your Partner?

Emotional Invalidation

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

Feeling Invalidated

Hi there. Are you reading this “advice from a marriage counselor” article because your partner just forwarded it to you, as a way of attempting to communicate that you invalidate feelings or they feel emotional invalidation and that they would like this to change? First of all, sorry, but second of all… never fear. I'm the couples therapist in your corner. This one is going to boomerang nicely and wind up working out in your favor. Promise.

I'm going to let you in on a little secret that your partner — possibly not having read this article themselves before impulsively texting it to you on the headline alone — might not know yet: we all invalidate our partners accidentally. I'll bet you probably feel invalidated by them from time to time too. Am I right? Yes? Welcome to relationships.

Emotional Invalidation

How do I know that you're feeling emotionally invalidated sometimes too? First of all, I've been a marriage counselor and relationship coach for a long time. It is extremely rare to find a couple where one person has *actually* been exclusively responsible for all the hurt feelings and conflict. (Except in the tiny percentage of couples counseling cases that I could count on one hand where the hurt-inducing partner has actually been a diagnosable sociopath and/or narcissist. But I will save that tale for another day.)

Secondly, I've also been married for a long time to someone I adore and would never want to hurt on purpose. And I'm a marriage counselor! I should know better! And To. This. Day. I still do things that accidentally invalidate my husband and make him feel bad. More than once I have had to apologize for making him feel like I don't care, despite the fact that I love him very much. 

But I'm working on it and it's better than it used to be. You can do the same. On today's episode, I'm talking all about emotional invalidation and what to do when you're feeling invalidated to make it stop. Listen below or scroll down for show notes and a full transcript of today's episode.


Emotional Invalidation

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

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Emotional Invalidation: Episode Highlights

Step One: Let's Define “Invalidate”

First of all, let's talk a little about what “invalidation” means. When you invalidate someone, you basically make them feel like you (a) don't understand them or their feelings or (b) if you do understand, you don't care. The impact of this original invalidation will then generally make your partner swing one of two ways, towards either hostility or withdrawal and emotional shut down. Neither of those are good.

In order to not invalidate feelings anymore you need to be self-aware of when it's happening, and what you're doing to cause it. This is the hard part, because almost nobody is intentionally trying to make their partner feel diminished or unimportant when it happens. If you call an invalidating person on it in the moment, they usually get really defensive and start sputtering about how “that's not what I meant” and protesting that their intentions were good. 

Again, except in the case of narcissists (see link above) this is true. Emotional invalidation is generally unintentional. So, no need to beat yourself up if you've been unintentionally hurting someone you love. But you do need to take responsibility for how our actions impact others. We all do.

So let's get familiar with what invalidation actually looks like so that you can become more self aware. Emotional invalidation comes in many flavors, and can happen in both subtle and dramatic ways. 

Let's review.

“It wasn't that bad. You're Overreacting.”

Types of Emotional Invalidation

Now, take a deep breath and non-defensively read through the following descriptions of “emotional invalidators” and see if you can spot yourself. 

See if you can spot the invalidating behaviors your partner uses. (They are in there, I'm sure). 

But again, the hard part is recognizing your own. Bonus points if you can think of other ways you might be invalidating sometimes that I haven't put down here. The possibilities are limitless!

But here are some of the “usual suspects.”

Inattentive Invalidators: These types of invalidators don't pay attention when their partner is talking about something important. (C'est moi! I totally do this.)

Example of Inattentive Invalidation in Action:

Them: “I had a really hard day at work today. I think I might be getting sick.”

You (And by “you” I mean “me”): “I was just thinking that it would be fun to go to Canada this summer. Or Newfoundland. Newfoundland! What do you think?” [Picks up phone to start checking flight prices.]

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Belligerent Invalidators: Their M.O. is to rebuttal rather than listen, and put their energy into making their own case instead of seeing things from their partner's perspective.

Example of Belligerent Invalidation in Action:

Them: “I feel like you were rude to my friend.”

You: “Your friend is an annoying idiot who drinks too much and if you want to avoid these problems you should stop inviting him over.”

_________________________________

Controlling invalidators:  These types of invalidators are extremely confident that their way of doing things is right and just, and will either intervene or undo things that their partner does in efforts to correct, (i.e. “help”) them. This happens in many situations including parenting, housekeeping, social situations, and more. 

Example of Controlling Invalidation in Action:

Them: “No, Timmy, you can't go out to play because you have to take a shower and clean your room.”

You: “You need exercise, Timmy. Be back before dinner.”

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Judgmental Invalidators: These types of invalidators minimize the importance of things that they do not personally feel are interesting or important to them, in a way that creates disconnection in their relationships.

Example of Judgmental Invalidation in Action:

Them: “What should we do this weekend? So many fun things! Do you want to go to the farmer's market / prepper expo / rv show / rodeo?”

You: “Pfft. NO. That is so boring, why would anyone want to do that? Personally, I'm busy anyway. I have to spend the weekend finishing my Fortnite challenges. Wanna watch? No? Okay see you later.”

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Emotional Invalidators: Then of course there is the stereotypical, garden-variety Emotional Invalidator, who feels entitled to “disagree” with other people's feelings, or argue that other's feelings are not reasonable, or to talk them out of their feelings.

Example of Emotional Invalidation in Action:

Them: “Crying”

You: “You shouldn't be sad. At least we have one healthy child already….”

You some more: “….That's not what I meant. We can try again next month. The doctor said that this could happen for the first time….”

If this conversation sounds even remotely familiar… I'm glad we're here right now!

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Fixit Invalidators: Then, there is the “Fixit” Invalidator, who would prefer to leap over messy feelings entirely and go straight to helpful solutions — having zero idea they are making things infinitely worse by doing so.

Example of Fixit invalidation in Action:

Them: “I am heartbroken about my argument with my sister. I feel really bad about what happened.”

You: “She's just a drama queen. Forget about it. You should make plans with some of your other friends. I'll see if Jenny and Phil want to come over on Friday.”

Does this sound like something you might say?

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Owner of the Truth Invalidators: Lastly, there are the reflexive “that's not what happened” invalidators who pride themselves on being rational and who sincerely believe that their subjective experience is the yardstick of all others. If it didn't happen to them, it is not a thing. A kissing-cousin of codependency, this type of invalidator will often follow up their original invalidation by explaining to you how you, actually, are the one with the problem.

Example of a Truth Owner in Action:

Them: “I am feeling really invalidated by you right now.”

You: “I am not invalidating you. You were just telling me that your day was hard and you're feeling overwhelmed, and I know for a fact that you shouldn't be feeling that way because it wasn't that bad. You just need to get more organized. You're overreacting.”

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Good times, right? Yes, there are so, so many ways to invalidate someone. This is just a small sample of the many ways, shapes, and forms emotional invalidation shows up in relationships. There are many more. Not sure what kind of invalidator you might be? Ask your partner. I'm sure they'd be happy to tell you.

Next, now that we've “cultivated self awareness,” as we say in the shrink-biz, we're going to talk about how to stop doing that, and start helping your partner feel validated instead.

Step Two: Understand The Importance of Validation

While the first step in learning how to stop accidentally invalidating your partner is to figure out what kinds of emotional invalidation you are prone to, the second step is to learn what it means to be validating and why it's so important.

What is “Validation” Anyway?

So, what is “validation?” To validate someone means that you help them feel understood, accepted, and cared for by you. It requires empathy. Empathy happens when you really get how others see things, and that you support them in their perspective — even if you do not share their perspective. 

Because empathy is such a foundational skill in so many areas of Love, Happiness and Success, the development of empathy is often a big part of what is happening in emotional intelligence coaching, personal growth work, as well as couples counseling. Empathy requires intention, but it's incredibly powerful when you start really getting it.

This is super important in relationships because validation is a cornerstone of emotional safety. And emotional safety — feeling like you are accepted and valued for who you are, like your thoughts, feelings, and preferences are important to your partner, and that your relationship is loving and supportive — is the foundation of a happy, healthy relationship.

Just consider how wonderful it feels to hear these words, “I can understand why you would feel that way.” No matter what's going on, when you hear that it feels like you're accepted by the person you're with and that it's okay for you to feel the way you feel. That right there is the strong foundation from which you can then find your own way forward. (And in your own time).

Also, if we were to dissect pretty much any basic argument that a couple can have, 98% of the time, arguments start with one person feeling invalidated by the other. When anyone feels invalidated the natural response is to then escalate their efforts to be understood. Which can sound like yelling. Then if the invalidator doubles down on defending their invalidating behaviors in response, it can get pretty ugly pretty quick. 

As I'm sure you know. Incidentally, if you have been feeling like your partner is emotionally reactive and unnecessarily hostile towards you, it can actually be an important clue that you've been making them feel invalidated without realizing it. (Read, “Twelve Effective Ways to Destroy Your Relationship” for more on this and other common relationship mistakes.)

So if you work towards being more validating, you will not just stop pretty much any argument in its tracks but your partner will feel emotionally safe and accepted by you, and you will have a much stronger, happier relationship. Win, win, win.

Step Three: Validate Feelings Intentionally, Through Practice

The real problem with changing your (our) tendency to be accidentally invalidating is that it can be really hard to wrap your (our) brains around the fact that we really are hurting the people we love without meaning to. 

In none of the examples of “types of invalidators” was I describing anyone who was trying to be hurtful. They were just failing to understand their partner's perspective or needs or feelings, and prioritizing their own instead. 

Human beings are generally self-focused, unless they put purposeful effort into being other-focused. Sad but true.

The good news is that it's not hard to be more other-focused if you decide that it's important enough to make it a priority. It just takes intention and practice, and a genuine desire to want your partner to feel more cared for by you.

Here's what my perspective of me being invalidating (and then trying to practice validation) looks like at my house:

My husband is telling me something but I'm not really connecting with what he is saying. He's talking about his day at work, and how he's not feeling great. And now he's going on and on about this guy he works with who's super annoying, and incompetent, and how he's thinking about taking the day off tomorrow to go take photos and how he might drive out towards the mountains, and now he's talking about this new video game that he started playing with our son, and how there are these avatars that build sawmills and jump over sharks and there are dances (or something) and …

….I've now officially zoned out, and am now following the spark of ideas that whatever he just said to me has just ignited into being, through the chambers of my own mind.  Day off… Mountains…. Nature documentary…. Camera lenses…. Majestic landscape photos…. I want to go somewhere beautiful… Catherine said good things about Quebec…. He's still talking but I'm now having an entirely internal experience. I know he's still there, but it's the muffled, “Wa-wa-wa” like the adult in the old Charlie Brown cartoons. I am now entirely absorbed by my own thoughts rather than what he is saying, but not on purpose.

Sometimes he can tell when I'm not there anymore, but most of the time neither of us realize what is happening until I say something apparently out of the blue, like “I was just thinking that it would be fun to go to Canada this summer. Or Newfoundland. What do you think?” [Picks up phone to start researching flight prices]. Then I look up from my phone to see his shoulders slump a little and this look cross his face like, “Do you even care about what I'm saying?” Only then do I realize that what he was talking about felt important to him, and I made him feel bad. He's annoyed. He should be.

Because in that moment, my lack of attention left him feeling invalidated in our conversation. He was left feeling like he wasn't important or interesting enough for me to pay attention to, or worse, like I just hijacked the conversation to talk about whatever I was thinking of instead of what he was bringing up. Which I totally did.

But like you, I didn't mean to hurt his feelings. It just happened because I wasn't making him a priority at that moment, but indulging my own self-absorbed thoughts instead of really deliberately tracking what he was saying to me. (If you, too, have a tendency towards adult ADHD, I'm sure you can relate.)

In contrast, when I remind myself of my intention to be a good friend to him, to help him feel cared for and validated by me, it's a totally different experience. I will myself to focus on what he is saying. I look in his eyes. When I feel my mind starting to slide towards something other than what he is talking about, I bring it back to him by very deliberately reflecting something I heard him say. I think about how he might be feeling and ask about that. Or I ask open-ended questions to help him say more about what is going on for him, but also as a strategy to keep myself engaged. In short, I am using communication skills and empathy to help him feel validated.

I try really hard to stay present, and stay on topic. Sometimes I am more successful than others, but I know he sees me trying. We know each other well enough now and we can even laugh about it, as we do when I glaze and he just stops talking and makes a face at me. Humor helps. So does managing your expectations that your partner can or should be perfectly perfect at validating your feelings all of the time.

But truthfully, if you want to stop making someone else feel invalidated it requires a certain level of courage and humility. It's hard to think about, “What's it like to live with me” and really allow yourself to understand, deeply, what you do and how it makes your partner feel. I think that embracing personal responsibility without being defensive is one of the hardest things to do in a marriage, and helping other people move into this receptive, honestly reflective space is often the hardest thing for me to do as a marriage counselor. That's why I wanted to model this for you.

How to Validate Someone's Feelings

Every flavor of invalidation has an antidote that's a little different. Just as there are infinite ways to invalidate feelings, there are many strategies for how to validate someone's feelings too. I could go into great detail about what the antidote for each involves, but then this would be an actual self-help book rather than a blog post. But, briefly, here are some pointers:

I hope that this discussion of how you may be accidentally invalidating your partner was helpful to you, and gives you clarity about how to shift the emotional climate of your relationship just by making your partner's feelings and perspective as important to you as your own. Not easy to do. It requires emotional strength, the ability to be honest with yourself, and the willingness to grow in service of your relationship. But it is so worth it.

Now, please send this post and episode back to your partner so they can think about what THEY need to be working on in order to help you feel more heard, valued, and understood by them. 

All the best,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

The music in this episode is “Dive” by Beach House from their album “7”. You can support them and their work by visiting their website or on Bandcamp. Each portion of the music used in this episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act. Please refer to copyright.gov for more information.

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[Intro music: “Dive” by Beach House, from their album “7”]

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: Hey friends. Today, on the show, we're going to be talking about something that we need to talk about. It is a silent killer of many relationships. You may be experiencing this on your own. It's feeling invalidated. Either you might be listening to this because you are feeling routinely invalidated by your partner, which is hard, or perhaps you are listening to this because your partner is telling you that you are making them feel invalidated. 

This is a really significant issue and one that we need to address together. So that's going to be the focus of our time together today, is talking about what invalidation is, why it happens, and most importantly, what you can do to either feel heard and understood by your partner in your relationship or potentially do a better job of helping your partner feel validated and respected by you. 

If this is your first time listening to the podcast, I'm so glad you found us. I am Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I am your host. I am also the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching. I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. I'm a licensed psychologist. I am a board-certified coach. But what I love doing more than anything else is helping people improve their relationships. I am very married. I've been married for a long time. I've also just worked as a counselor and a coach for so many years. 

Just one of, I think, my main takeaways from all of this life experience is that truly, our wellness, our happiness, our health comes from the quality of our relationships largely. That's why so often on this podcast, I want to talk about things that can help you improve your relationships. Because when our relationships feel strong and successful, everything just feels so much easier in our lives. We feel better emotionally. We have more fun. We have a nicer time. We have a strong foundation from which to launch off and do amazing things. So I am a relationship person. 

That's what we're talking about today is in the love quadrant: what you can do to increase the emotional safety in your relationship. I think that that's one of the things that happens when invalidation is present in a relationship is that it really erodes the emotional safety between you and your partner. And ugly things can start happening in a relationship when people aren't feeling safe, and respected, and heard, and understood. That's what happens when invalidation is a frequent issue in a relationship. 

What Is Validation?

To just dive into our topic today, first of all, allow me to just take a couple of minutes to orient you to validation, what it means, why it's important, to set the stage. When I am talking about either validation or invalidation, to validate someone, it means that you're helping them feel understood by you, that you get whatever they're sharing, you are accepting what they are telling you about how they feel. In that space, also, helping them feel cared for by you, that they're not just saying something and dropping a stone into a well. 

There's this response. You get them. You understand how they see things. You can see the situation through their eyes. Also, there's the sense that their perspective is supported by you. I also want to say that in a truly healthy, vibrant relationship, there is always some diversity of thought. We're not partnered with clones of ourselves, right? People can have different perspectives, different opinions. But there's this sense of fundamental respect for each other's perspectives, even if it is different from yours. It's like this: “Yeah, you know when I look at it that way, I can see why that makes sense.” 

Just think about it. When somebody says that to you, “I can understand why you would feel that way.” I've had friends in my life just naturally say things like that to me in conversation, and it's the relational equivalent of somebody just walking up to you and just folding a warm, soft blanket around your shoulders. “Yes, that makes sense. You make sense. Your feelings make sense. I can see why you feel that way. I would feel that way too if I were in that situation.” It's just like this, “Ah, thank you so much for saying that.” It's just such a nice experience to have.

I think that we all crave that from our partners from time to time. Again, that's a cornerstone of emotional safety. Now, if the phrase emotional safety is a new one for you, I would encourage you to scroll back through my podcast archive. I have done a podcast episode on emotional safety, specifically, where I talked a lot about that concept and how important it is in healthy relationships, and would encourage you to check out that episode if you'd like to explore more about all the different elements of emotional safety. Keep in mind that to be able to validate someone's feelings is an incredibly important part of that. 

When we're creating emotionally safe relationships, and when we are validating people that we love, it is, again, it's like this experience that people are having with us, that we accept them, that we value them, we respect them for who they are. We think that their thoughts, and feelings, and preferences are important. They're important to us, right? In that context, over communicating that regularly, through the way we're communicating and the way that we're interacting with our loved ones, it just creates this very loving and supportive relationship. That's a foundational component. 

How Does Emotional Invalidation Happen?

I have to tell you, as a marriage counselor, 95% of the time, when a new couple drops into the practice, and they’re, “We'd like to work on our relationship.” “Okay, great. What's going on?” 95% of the time, it is some variation of communication. “We're not communicating as well as we'd like to. Communication feels hard.” When you dig into that, like, “Okay, what about communication is feeling hard right now,” invariably, one, often both partners are not feeling validated. It's not that the words coming out of each other's mouths are not terribly problematic in and of themselves. 

It's that they're not getting a validating response from their partner. The problem with communication is that they are not feeling like their partner hears them or understands them. They're feeling like their partner is misinterpreting their intentions. They say something well-intentioned, well-meaning, their partner takes it the wrong way. Here's something that they are trying to say that is interpreted very negatively, that is responded to in an angry way. Or they're feeling like their partner just doesn't have empathy for their perspective, or slaps whatever they're trying to share out of their hands, or making them feel uncared for, or that their feelings or perspectives aren't important in that moment. 

That is very much about a validation issue. Because validation, really, at its core, is around having empathy for the other person. Being able to accurately understand their feelings, understand their intentions, and then reflecting back to that person: “Yeah, I can understand that. I'm not sure that I see it exactly the same way. But when I look through it, at the situation through your lens, I can understand that. Also, I understand that this is important to you. And I understand that you are actually feeling this way.” 

I think the other big meta message within that is “I love you, and this, whatever this is, is important to you. You care a lot about this. This is making you feel a certain way. Because you are important to me, I care about it too because I care about you.” Again, it's just this whole experience of being cherished when we're talking about validation and how impactful it is. So many arguments, again, start this way. If we were to dissect pretty much any basic argument that a couple can have, almost all of the time, these arguments begin with one person feeling invalidated by the other. 

When that happens, when anyone feels invalidated, the natural response to this is to escalate your efforts to be understood, which often sounds like yelling, am I right? If you say, “Yeah, I feel this way,” and the response you get from your partner's like, “That's wrong.” Right? “That didn't happen, or no, it's not that big of a deal.” That, I think, makes all of us say, “No, you don't understand. No, this is true. This is happening.” All of a sudden, we're really fighting to be understood, aren't we? We are not fighting to win. We are not fighting to control. We are fighting to be heard and to feel like we're cared about, to feel like we're important. 

So the other thing that happens, so one person feels invalidated, and then they escalate, “No, I really need you to understand this.” Then, what also happens is that the invalidator, the person who originally came out with a less than ideal response, will double down on defending their position and will defend their invalidating behaviors. “No, that's not what I said. That's not what I meant. Why are you making such a big deal out of this? This always happens when we talk about your mom or your job,” or whatever it is, right? 

How Fighting to be Heard is Invalidation

When this starts to happen, one person is like, “No, I really need you to understand how I'm feeling right now.” The other person is like, “That's dumb.” It can get extremely ugly, so fast. I think everybody within the sound of my voice right now has had this experience at one point or another in their relationship. I know that I certainly have. Truth be told, if we're all going to move towards healthy humility here, I think that our partners have probably felt this way with us from time to time. 

I think that when we are fighting to be heard, we are experiencing invalidation. We're not getting the response that we want. We are really looking for comfort, or connection, or reassurance, and when that isn't what we're getting, right? It feels bad. I think it is very, very easy to miss the moments that we are accidentally and unintentionally making other people feel that way with us. Because I have to tell you, it is so easy to do. When I sit with a couple in marriage counseling, or couples therapy, or whatever it is, and unpack all of this at the core, I do not find narcissists. I do not find sociopaths. I do not find people who are irredeemable and incapable of having healthy relationships. 

What I find are people who are simply unaware of the impact that they are having on others just because they're in a different place, or they're not fully understanding how important that particular moment is. It's just all these missed opportunities to connect. I have been so guilty of that in my own life. I think that chances are, if we are going to be humble and with healthy humility here together, you could probably reflect on some moments in your own life when you have unintentionally done the same. 

The reason why I want to talk about this part for a second is because one of the easiest ways to just melt away all that defensiveness, and restore emotional safety, and increase love and validation all around, is when we can be humble and reflect on our own process because it helps us be more emotionally safe. It helps us be more validating and responsive to our partners, and I think it also helps us handle the moments when we are feeling invalidated by someone else. 

It helps us handle those moments so much more effectively because we can shift away from that automatic response of, “You just totally invalidated me. I'm going to be mad at you.” “No, that's not what I said. I'm going to start fighting to be heard.” We can shift out of that and into a much more helpful and respectful way of getting our emotional needs met in that moment when we are able to stay soft, and empathetic, and emotionally generous with our partners, and make an effective repair attempt, which is, “You know, let me try that again. I feel like maybe you didn't fully understand what I was trying to communicate to you in this moment and how important it is for me right now just to feel heard by you, and respected by you, and understood by you. So I'm going to have a redo.”

Particularly, if you and your partner have had the opportunity to work on some of this stuff together in couples counseling, or relationship coaching, like it's not the first time they've had this conversation with you, it immediately orients them back to, “Oh, this is one of those moments when you're not looking for me to do anything. You are not attacking me. You are not presenting me with a problem that I need to solve. I don't have to be defensive right now. This is one of these moments when you're just trying to connect with me emotionally. I can do that. So thank you for giving me another go at this so that I can be a better partner for you right now. Because I love you, and you're important to me, and that is what I want to do. Okay? Okay, so let's do this again.”

Then, you can literally have a redo with your partner, where there is a different outcome. That outcome is one where you feel loved, and cared for, and respected, and supportive, and have had the opportunity to share your feelings about something that's on your mind, and not have it turned into an argument. It turns into a conversation where you just get to share and be heard. Maybe that is 100% the goal. That's fantastic. No other action is required. We do not have to change anything. We do not have to fix anything. You got to say it. It was received, and we're done. That's fantastic. 

Other times, I think another component of validation can be attached to, “I'm feeling this way, and I would like to find a solution to this problem because I'm feeling bothered by the situation. I'd like to have a productive conversation with you where we could maybe just talk about different ways of handling this because I don't like feeling the way that I'm feeling right now. So I'm just hoping that we can sort through this.” When there is validation happening on both sides, it isn't just you saying, “I have a problem, and we need to fix that because I'm not okay, right now.” 

It turns into, “Let me tell you about how I'm experiencing this situation and help me feel like you understand what I'm saying. Now tell me how you are feeling in this situation and what you see is the ideal outcome or different options here.” Because when you are being intentionally validating, and respectful, and supportive, you start asking your partner questions like that. “I'm not the only one in this relationship. You might have a totally different perspective here. Tell me more about how you see this, or how you've been feeling in these situations. How are you experiencing me when this stuff happens?”

Because in that space of emotional safety, when you are able to validate your partner and help them feel really understood and cared for by you, they will tell you how they're feeling because they trust you. You're not going to freak out when they tell you how they're actually feeling. But if there isn't that trust in your relationship, they won't tell you. The trust has been broken to the point that people do not feel safe enough to share how they are really feeling with each other. 

Overcoming Emotional Invalidation

We think of trust many times as something that is broken through betrayal. There's an affair or there's some catastrophic lying going on in a relationship, and that can certainly damage trust. But there are many more subtle kinds of betrayals of trust that I think people don't fully recognize or understand the significance of because they're subtle, and a betrayal of trust that happens all the time. 

Unintentionally, nobody's doing this on purpose. But when someone tells you how they really feel, or what they need, or what their hopes are, or what is upsetting them even, and when that is invalidated, or dismissed, or rejected, or reacted to with hostility or contempt, it is a betrayal of trust. The message that people receive is, “I don't care about how you feel. I disrespect your experience right now. I reject this.” What happens is, they're like, “Okay, cool, noted. I am never doing that again. The next time you ask me how I'm feeling, I don't think I want to enter into that ring of emotional intimacy with you because I don't trust you enough to tell you how I really feel right now.” 

This is hard. This is, I think, a place where I find with many couples, I often need to stay for a fairly significant period of time in couples counseling or in relationship coaching, because people really do not understand the impact that they are having on each other. Again, and I say this as someone who has done exactly the same thing, we all get so focused on our own perspective, our own needs, and whether or not they are being met in a relationship, and whether or not we are feeling validated, or getting the response that we want. 

We get very hyper-focused on what is happening in that regard and really miss the systemic nature of relationships, which is, “When I'm feeling that way, what do I do? How do I approach my partner? How do I engage with them?” Because especially people who perceive themselves as really fighting for their relationships, fighting to have greater emotional intimacy or greater connection, have no idea how scary or emotionally unsafe or even threatening they themselves are being in these moments when they feel like they're seeking emotional intimacy. 

I'm going to do a whole other podcast on that topic, that concept, specifically, around emotional intimacy and what to do when we're feeling lonely and disconnected in a relationship. So more on that topic to come soon. Just that one takeaway from today would be to ask yourself: Are you validating your partner? Are they feeling invalidated by you in those moments? Or has trust been broken in the past that accidentally trained them to hide from you, and to not communicate with you, and to not tell you how they're really, really feeling even though you want them to, but something has happened, where they feel like they can't? 

That's a really, really common thing that happens in relationships. It is frequently due to that primary issue of people feeling invalidated or rejected by each other in these potentially tender moments of connection. 

What Does Emotional Invalidation Look Like in Action?

With that in mind, I would really like to turn this conversation to talking a little bit about understanding what invalidation looks like in action so that we ourselves can be more conscious of the times that we're doing it and then, also have a little bit more empathy or understanding for the times when our partners may be doing that to us without fully realizing it. Because empathy is so key. 

To begin, when invalidation is happening, what we are communicating, what is happening is that people feel like we don't understand them. We are misinterpreting them. We are taking what they are saying, and then running it through our own filter of meaning, and coming up with something different than what they were trying to communicate to us that they don't feel understood. Or that if we do understand what they're saying conceptually, we don't care about their feelings. Not that we don't care, but that we are rejecting it, and it can be very, very subtle, you guys.

It could be like, “I'm sure they didn't mean that when they said X, Y, Z. You're probably just overreacting.” Those kinds of things, which might be true. I don't know. But the truth of what is happening or not happening is so insignificant that the truth of what's happening is that your partner is actually trying to tell you how they are feeling, emotionally, in this present moment. You have just been offered the gift of trust and emotional intimacy. What are you going to do with that? 

Are you going to make them feel like you don't understand, or they're stupid, or their feelings are ridiculous or not important, or they're being overreactive, or they're just not thinking about this the right way? Because that doesn't feel good. We all know how that feels, right? It is not good. Or are they going to be leaving whatever interaction they just had with you feeling like, “I love them so much because they love me.” Just feeling loved. In order to improve this experience, we need to be self-aware of when it's happening and what we are potentially doing to cause it.

Types of Invalidating Behaviors

There are different flavors of invalidation. We all have our unique styles, I think. When I am being invalidating to my husband, I'm usually doing it in one of a couple of ways. So let me just run through these types of invalidating behaviors. See if you can see yourself in any of these and maybe if some of these are true for your partner. 

Inattentive Invalidators

One, and I think this is probably the most common, and this is the one that I am so guilty of, is an inattentive invalidator. These types of invalidators, they're just not paying attention when their partner is talking about something important. Oh my gosh, I can so easily do this, because I don't know what you're like. Me, I'm just kind of usually zooming along at 900 miles an hour. I am a habitual multitasker. I know it's not good to do that. But I am doing the dishes while I'm on the phone with somebody, and I'm thinking about five things that are happening.

Sometimes in these moments, this is when my husband wants to tell me about something. What happens is, they will say, “Oh, I had such a day. I'm not feeling good. I think I might be getting sick.” Then, you might say — by you I mean me — you’d be like, “You know what, I was just thinking that we should go on a trip to Canada.” Or, “Oh did I tell you that Julie called. She was thinking that we might go camping this… Would you want to do that?” So, I am now picking up my phone and researching campsites or travel reservations. 

My husband just said something totally unrelated to that. He was trying to tell me something about how he felt. It triggered an idea in my mind, or I wasn't really paying attention to the impact of what he was trying to say. Because there can be emotional connotations to certain things that people say. They're very easy to miss unless we're really paying attention. So he, in that moment, felt like I was totally disconnected from what he was trying to communicate, which I was. It's just because I wasn't fully present. 

I was kind of thinking about something, and he said something, and I had a random thought in my head and just sort of impulsively acted on it. I'm nowhere near where he is in terms of what he's trying to communicate or what he is needing for me in that moment. It’s not intentional. It’s not like I'm trying to harm him in those moments. I'm not mad at him. It's just really a simple lack of attention. I, in order to be a better partner, need to slow down sometimes. Also, one of the things that I have found over the years, and I see this routinely with the couples that I work with too, is to be able to set some boundaries or guidelines around these conversations. 

When I can tell that he is trying to communicate about something that might be more important, and I am not in a headspace where I can do that. I have a crisis situation at work that I'm thinking about or needing to deal with and that maybe he doesn't know about that, right? So he's trying to talk to me all of a sudden, and I have learned to say, “I want to hear all about this. Can you give me 15 minutes? I need to take care of this. I need to X, Y, Z or whatever.” Then, 15 minutes later, I am like, “Tell me more,” blink, blink, and I’m looking in his eyes asking appropriate questions. I'm all there. 

But I need to communicate to him when I can't be present. Because if he doesn't know that, he's going to try to communicate with me and not have a good experience. I think we've learned a lot about each other over the years. He's like, “I would like to talk to you about something important. Is now a good time? Or when can we talk about this?” That conversation right there has been a game-changer, I think, in our relationship. But for so many couples that I work with, particularly, in relationship coaching, people come in, and they have been feeling so badly with each other, and it's just felt so hard. 

When we unpack it and when we dial down into it, sometimes, you guys, the answer is as easy as that. “Tell me what is going on in the moments that you're trying to communicate, and it's not going well, or it's feeling frustrating. Literally, where are you?” It could be, sometimes, people are telling me, “It was during dinner, and our three-year-old was having a meltdown, and X, Y, Z.” They start talking about all of these different circumstances. When we're able to identify the practices that people are using, the boundaries that they're setting around their communication, and how they are communicating their needs in those moments to each other, it's so much easier. 

It was actually not this big, horrible, catastrophic thing. We don't have to spend nine months in therapy talking about, “Yes, your mother was an alcoholic, and all of these big things about why you can't communicate.” No, it's actually learning how to say, “Is this a good time to talk?” to your partner. Not always. Sometimes, there are old things, and it goes deeper. But, you'd be amazed at the impact of making these small procedural changes can make on the way that everything unfolds. So I just wanted to share that. If inattentive invalidation is a thing at your house, just try it. Let me know what happens. 

Belligerent Invalidators

Now, there are other kinds of invalidating behaviors that we should talk about. Another common one is a belligerent invalidator. The MO of a belligerent invalidator is to rebut rather than listen and put their energy into making their own case, instead of seeing things from their partner’s perspective. 

Example, somebody, either you or your partner, is talking about, “I didn't feel good about that situation. That person was being rude, or that felt uncomfortable.” A belligerent invalidator will basically tell you why you're wrong for feeling that way. Or say, “Yeah, well, this is what was actually going on.” 

What's happening in those moments, and again, it's not on purpose. It's not intentional. But it's like they are replacing your perspective or whatever you just shared with their own perspective. They are not trying to be hostile or belligerent. But it really feels that way. Because it was like you just put something out there, and then, they just steamrolled over it with their concept of reality. 

This, again, is super common. I think it is very easy to identify people or situations when we have felt that way. Less easy to identify when we ourselves are accidentally doing that. Somebody shares something, and it's very easy to say, “Oh, no, that's not what happened. Let me tell you what really happened.” Sometimes, when you do that to people, they'll fight back and it'll turn into an argument, which in some ways is great. It's healthier in some ways, and it’s like, “ No, I need you to listen to me right now.” 

Other times, you will do that to someone. You'll say, “No, no, no. That's not what happened. Let me tell you what actually happened.” People will just take it, and you will have made them feel really bad, and uncared for, and disrespected. They just kind of go inwards. You just steamrolled right over them and broke their trust in you. You're not emotionally safe. But they're like, “Okay.” We'll exit that. You might not ever know what just happened. You'll feel fine because you were just telling them what you thought. What's the harm? You're just calling it like you see it right? You’ll never know that that was actually a real wound. 

That's another thing about relationships. We've all heard that saying, “Death by a thousand cuts.” These micro-moments? Those are cuts, and if you're with someone who isn't real assertive in telling you how you're making them feel, you can just keep cutting, and cutting, and cutting, and they'll just eventually be done with you, and you will not have known why. That is a terrible thing to consider, and it is a reality of relationships. So, belligerent invalidation. Please keep that one on your radar. 

The next time somebody tells you something, particularly, if it has anything to do with how they felt, or perceived something, or reacted to something, is just to keep in mind, they are telling you how they feel right now. Their truth is how they feel. Your job as a partner, or a friend, is to help them feel understood by you, not corrected by you. Nobody's asking you for that. So, again, I'm being direct. I am being your friend right now. Because the alternative when you're doing that to people and not fully aware of it can be really bad for relationships, and it's very easy to do. 

Controlling Invalidators

Another very common kind of invalidating behavior are the controlling invalidators. These types of invalidators are often extremely confident, which is a good thing in many situations. But they are very confident that their way of doing things is right and just, and will either intervene or undo things that their partner does in efforts to correct it. 

Now, I have also been guilty of this in my relationship. Again, I think it's more due to impulsivity than ill will, right? When someone is invalidating in a controlling way, they often feel like they're helping. They are stepping in. They're going to manage something. They're going to prevent a possible problem that they foresee in the future and that maybe their partner doesn't. But this happens in so many situations, including parenting, housekeeping, social situations around finances. 

One example would be, one partner saying, “No little Timmy, you can't go out to play because you have to take a shower and clean your room.” The other partner is, “Oh, yeah, Jim's mom called and wants you to play. Just be back before dinner.” So it's this really subtle and common kind of invalidation that happens when one person's preferences or things that they are trying to create or do are, again, just undone by someone else. 

This can happen in very small ways, too, around someone's preferences for how you do things. I think, for many couples, teamwork can feel hard. One aspect of every successful relationship is just being able to work together as a team, right? Like the most banal things. Who does laundry? Who folds the laundry? Does laundry get put away in the drawer? Or does it stay in the laundry basket even if it's clean? Who gets the mail? Who opens the mail? How often does this happen? Who pays the bills? 

These little procedural things, even around cleaning, cleaning the house, or making the bed, or cooking a meal that people who have a tendency towards this controlling kind of invalidation, they wind up taking over for a lot of different things because they have stronger opinions about the way that things should be done. The message that is sent to their partner is, “You're not doing it right. Your way of doing things is wrong, and I am taking this away from you.” 

The experience on the other side, again, can be very subtle. People may or may not be talking about this, but it leads to a lot of withdrawal in relationships. It's like this: “Okay, I tried. It wasn't good enough. Fine. You do it.” It is this sense of being, sometimes micromanaged, but just disrespected. “My preferences, my ways of doing things, my feelings in the situation are not important to you.” It's like, “This is your show. This isn't my show.” 

It comes through these small interactions and through these very subtle and seemingly insignificant, controlling kinds of invalidating behaviors that many of us are not aware of. Because, again, our intentions are not bad. We're not trying to make our partners feel micromanaged or disrespected. It's that we maybe have done this before, maybe we have our preferences; we already have a system. “No, the bread goes here,” that kind of thing. But again, what it leads to, particularly, if it's a pattern in the relationship is the other person withdrawing and just feeling like there's not space for them. 

I do not want to genderify this because these patterns can exist for both men and women and in same-sex relationships, certainly. But usually, controlling invalidators, in my experience, tend to be women. Not always, but many, many times. So just check in with yourself. “Am I doing this?” See if you can notice it in yourself. Again, notice, too, that when this is happening, you're not trying to be disrespectful. You're not trying to be damaging. You are not trying to communicate contempt. But that's how it can still be received. 

Again, I'm not saying these things to make you feel bad. When we shine the light on ourselves and understand how easy it is to accidentally make other people feel this way, we can become much more gentle and compassionate when we are experiencing invalidation from others. We can see the other person not as this invalidating enemy who is trying to hurt me emotionally. It's, “Oh, they don't understand what's happening right now.” Because I, sometimes, don't understand the small things that I do make other people feel a certain way. 

When we can move into that space of compassion and collaborative understanding. It's so much easier to talk about that authentically and have grace for the other person to say, “Let's have a redo. This is one of the things that we've been working on. We've been talking to Lisa about this or whatever.” It softens it. It makes it much more likely to have your needs met when you can have empathy for the noble intentions of your partner, noble intentions much of the time. 

Judgmental Invalidators

One other thing, a couple other kinds of invalidating behaviors, there is also such a thing as a judgmental invalidator. These kinds of validators, again, in my experience, they are truly trying to be helpful. But what they do in action is that they are minimizing the importance of things that they don't personally feel are interesting, or important, or significant that their other person sees. They do so in a way that creates disconnection in their relationships. 

An example of judgmental invalidation would be somebody saying, “What should we do this weekend? There are so many fun things. Do you want to go to the farmers market? Do you want to go to the RV show, rodeo, anything? It could literally be brunch with my friends.” The judgmental invalidator would say, “No, that's boring. I want to spend this time playing video games with my friend. Or I am not even remotely interested in brunch or your friends. Why would I want to do that?” 

Again, they probably feel like they're being authentic, right? They're telling you how they really feel. Also, a judgmental invalidator can also communicate this way about emotionally laden things. “That's, again, the wrong way of looking at it.” Or “Why would you think that?” What they're doing is, they're so entrenched in their little perspective of the world, their own little fiefdom of reality, that it is very difficult for them to look over the wall and understand that other people have other interests. 

They have other cognitive filters. They have other expectations of relationshipse. They are interpreting the world differently. They have different motivations. They have different tastes. They're just, again, so stuck in their own one worldview. It's like they're just looking down at their feet. This is the way things are. To have that acknowledgment of the diversity of all humans, they struggle with that. But again, they're not doing it out of maliciousness. They are simply being authentic. 

They’re like, “Why would I do that? I've never gone to a rodeo. I don't really get it. No, I don't want to do that.” Again, what happens is that it sends this message of what you are interested in doing, what you like, what you might want to try, “First of all, I don't understand that, and I will not participate in that with you. That isn't important to me, so I won't do it.” 

Again, it can be very subtle. But I tell you what, I have seen so many relationships break apart on those rocks, I can't even tell you. Because what happens is that the person on the other side feels like if they want to maintain a connection with this individual, they have to enter their world. They have to be into what they are into. They need to hang out with their friends. They need to participate in their interests because their partner is not coming over the line onto their side of things. 

Now, just to state this very plainly, and clearly, it is also true that in vibrant, healthy relationships, partners have different interests. It is 100%, okay, to have hobbies, or sports, or activities that you are into that your partner is not into. You don't have to be doing all the same things together all of the time. I think, in some ways, to have that kind of diversity in a relationship is quite healthy because you have this sort of interdependence. You can have your separate lives and separate friend groups. 

I think that makes for a more interesting relationship, right? You can go do something fun with your friends, and your partner can go through a different thing. Then, you can come back together and have an interesting conversation because you have stories to tell and things to share. It's great, right? So that's how people grow and evolve. All of those things are healthy. 

But I think when there is this, almost absolute refusal to enter into someone's worldview ever, what is experienced is a lot of judgment. Because, again, I think people are not intended to come across this way. But the meta-message is that “Well, that's dumb. Why would you want to do that? Ew, no, that's boring.” For whatever it is. That feels really bad. It feels really bad to be partnered with someone who is judgmental of who you are and what you're into. 

I think that the lesson we can take here is that even if you are not into the things that your partner is into, it is okay to help support their interests by talking to them about it or doing things with them sometimes. You don't have to spend every weekend of your life doing the thing. But, what we want to communicate is that “Your interests are important to you. Therefore, they are important to me.” 

Listen, you guys, I have a 13-year-old who is super into video games right now. Candy Crush stresses me out. That's all I can take, right? Not only am I not interested in playing video games, I do not really care that much. But my 13-year-old is super interested in this. So, I will be a video-game spectator. I will watch him play. He's telling me about all these different missiles, and guns, and squads, and things, and whatever. He is so excited. 

To connect with him, I am not being judgmental and rejecting of the things that are important to him because it would be so easy for me to do that. Because inside my head sometimes I'm like, “Why would you want to, anyway?” But in those moments, my role is to like, “Tell me more. What do you like about this game? Or tell me about what happened when X, Y, Z. Or who's your favorite character? Or what do you like about? Tell me about the plotline.” 

Asking questions being engaged, because the alternative is to subtly communicate judgment, and rejection, and invalidation in a way that can create a lot of disconnection in a relationship and sends a message, “You're not important to me. What you're into is dumb. I think you're dumb. I don't care about this.” It feels like “I don't care about you.” We don't want to do that for the people that we love. Again, easy to do. Easy to do. 

Emotional Invalidators

Now, there are a couple of other kinds of invalidators that I'm going to talk about really briefly. One of the most important, and this, oftentimes, I think, is a very obvious one is the emotional invalidator. How many times have we encountered these people in our lives? This is the stereotypical garden-variety emotional invalidator who disagrees with other people's feelings, or argues that other people's feelings are not reasonable, or tries to talk them out of their feelings.

For example, if you have ever been crying for some random reason, and your partner wanders in and says, “You shouldn't be sad about that.” Or “It wasn't that big of a deal.” Or doesn't even acknowledge the fact that you are in the grips of a big emotion, or tries to cheer you up. Again, these responses to emotion often come from — this is hard to even say out loud, but it's so true — they are honestly well-intentioned. 

Somebody thinks that they're trying to make you feel better. “Look on the bright side. Or at least, X, Y, Z.” Or, “You know? Forget about that. Let's go do something fun. Let me distract you from your feelings.” Oftentimes, people are trying to help you because they perceive emotions as being problematic, dark emotions as being something negative that need to be avoided. They themselves are often not that great in noticing how they feel or being able to stay engaged with their own negative emotions, which is a core component of emotional intelligence. It's hard to do. 

Again, not to genderify, but many men, as we've talked about on this podcast previously, are not socialized to have a really deep relationship with their own feelings. So many little boys to this day get yelled at for crying or punished for having “negative,” I prefer to call them, dark emotions. There's a lot of negative connotations around those. Emotional invalidators often will see someone in the grips of a negative emotion and be like, “Oh, no, I have to get them out of there because that's not good,” not recognizing that it is so positive and so important for all of us to really be in those fully present spaces sometimes. 

Like, “I am having an authentic experience right now. I am feeling really, really sad about this situation.” Or “My feelings were hurt.” Or “I just feel really bad about this situation that happened at work. I don't know what to do.” Or “I'm feeling so overwhelmed” Or… Whatever it is, in order for us to grow and to be genuinely healthy, we need to go into those spaces, and stay there, and process our feelings, and take wisdom from those feelings. 

The best thing that any of us can do when our partner is in that space is to say, “Tell me more about what's going on.” Open-ended questions. “When did you start feeling this way? What were the triggers? What happens to you in these moments?” Or to say nothing at all, just to sit there with somebody and allow them the luxury of having their feelings validated in your presence. Because just to simply be present with someone when they're not okay is such a gift. It's so emotionally intimate. We don't show everyone in the world that side of us. 

But in our most intimate relationships, we are extending this treasure of, “This is how I really feel. This is who I really am. This is what is true for me.” To simply have that be acknowledged, and accepted, and not argued with, and not to have someone try to change it or do something about it, is the greatest gift that we can ever give. That really is how to connect with someone. Anything else leads them to feel like, “They don't care about how I'm feeling. My feelings are not important to them. My feelings are making them uncomfortable. So I need to fix myself back up again because they can't handle it.” 

Do you want somebody to feel that way with you? I don't. So just to be aware of that in those moments. Even just a hug, or “I hear you,” or “Yeah, that is a really hard situation. That is legitimately so hard. I'm so sorry that that is happening. I know that there is nothing that I can do, and I'm just so grateful that you're sharing these feelings with me right now. Because I appreciate that we have that kind of relationship where you let me into this.” Just even saying simple things like that can be just the most amazing thing you could possibly do.

Mr./Ms. Fix-It 

A close cousin of this emotional invalidation, somebody who's very uncomfortable with dark emotions, is the other well-intentioned person that is a Mr. Fix It or Ms. Fix It in those moments of, somebody is struggling with something hard and what they're trying to do, honestly and legitimately, is saying, “I love you so much. I'm going to solve this problem. Let's fix it because I don't want you to feel bad about this. Let's fix it.” So it is, “I'll pick the kids up tomorrow.” Or “Let me. It's okay. Here's what we should do instead,” and jumping right into solutions.”

Hey, I am all about solutions. Yes, all couples need to solve actual problems together. There are so many moments of opportunity for productive, collaborative problem solving that do actually make changes in the way you do things, where you talk to each other, the way you handle things, related to parenting, or finances, or boundaries. So much stuff. There is a time and place to actually focus on making specific changes. 

What often happens to the detriment of relationships is when people jump into that problem-solving space at the expense of the emotional-connection space. Again, it is so well-intentioned, but I can't even tell you how many couples I've worked with in couples therapy or relationship coaching, where we had to stay awhile on helping people understand how those efforts are actually received on an emotional level by their partner. 

Because when someone says, “I'm just feeling so overwhelmed by the situation, right now. I'm feeling so frustrated.” And somebody is like, “Okay, well, let's just do this. And then, it'll never happen again,” they don't experience that as being helpful. The message it sends is, “I don't want to hear about it. We need to just fix this immediately, stop talking about this. I don't want to know how you're feeling about it. I am going to shut the door of emotion. We'll fix this, so we can never talk about it again.” It's kind of how it's experienced.

Again, noble intentions, problem-solving is good. But without the space of being able to connect and really talk about the feelings and help your partner feel genuinely validated in that moment, it does the opposite of what is often intended, which is to fix something. What it actually does is create emotional disconnection in the relationship. It turns into, “Well, she doesn't want to hear about it, or she's just going to tell me to do this thing differently. So, whatever.” It creates withdrawal. It makes people feel uncared for and they're not truly known by their partner, which over time leads to serious disconnection in a relationship. 

Again, we'll talk more about that emotional intimacy in upcoming podcast episodes. But be aware if this is something that you tend to do in relationships is that rushing in to fix or trying to talk people out of their feelings. I will bet you a cookie that subjectively, you feel in those moments like you're trying to be helpful. You're trying to make them feel better. You're trying to look for solutions, all positive things. But there is a whole other dimension of relationships. 

We must make space for the authentic emotional experience of our partners, and help them feel understood, and respected, and affirmed, and validated by us. Because even if we're fixing things, and trying to keep things positive, our relationships, over time, become really hollowed out when that emotional connection, emotional safety, emotional trust, emotional intimacy is eroded. That is what happens when people are invalidating each other. 

The Arc of Change is Experiential

Lastly, just want to share that these patterns are often entrenched in relationships. They can be difficult for all of us to see when we are doing them because our intentions are often good in those moments. I would just like to float the idea that your partner probably experiences those moments similarly. They struggle to understand how their responses may be impacting you. So, certainly, would invite you to get them to listen to this podcast if that would be helpful, just to raise some awareness. 

Also, these things are hard. I spend, easily, several sessions with couples, helping them gain self-awareness about these interactions, in these small moments that invalidation is happening in order to help them recognize them and do something different instead. So I always feel bad in some ways. I love making these podcasts for you. I hope that you find the information in them to be helpful. But I also just want to say out loud that the process of creating change in these areas is not just about getting information, listening to a podcast, and being like, “Okay, cool, I'm gonna do this instead.” 

The actual arc of change is experiential. It occurs over time. So I just want to say that because I always worry that people will hear one of these podcasts and then assume that they should be able to do all of this stuff now that they've heard this, or even worse, that their partner listens to this podcast and should be able to do this stuff differently because of having benefited from this information. Personal growth does not work that way. Personal growth is never an event. It is a process that starts with maybe information. But then, it has to turn into self-awareness and recognition. That is very experiential in nature. 

I just wanted to offer that so that you are gentle with yourself if this is a growth opportunity for you. Also, so that you are gentle with your partner. I hope that if you take nothing else away from our discussion today, please do take away this idea that if you are feeling invalidated in your relationship, as is so common, to take away that the fact that when people are engaging in behaviors that are experienced as invalidating, they are not intending to hurt you. There is a huge lack of awareness around the impact of these behaviors. 

To be gentle and compassionate with your partner, and shift into a more effective stance of “Let's work on this. Let me help you understand what's happening in these moments. Let's try this again. Here's what I'm looking for you. I'm looking for emotional intimacy right now. I'd love to feel more of this with you. When these things happen, I don't feel emotionally connected to you. I'd like that to change.” 

Having those kinds of conversations are just so much more helpful in the long run than having it just turn into a fight or being really critical with your partner because they maybe don't have the self-awareness or the skills yet to help you feel validated in those moments. Because we all engage in invalidating behaviors, sometimes, it's so easy to do, and I hope that we can all have grace with each other and help each other grow and evolve. That is my intention for us today. 

I hope that you took something away from this podcast. Hey, if you did, as a favor to me and your fellow travelers on this journey of growth, if you could, trot over to wherever you're listening to this podcast, and leave a review. That helps this podcast reach more people. As you probably know, we don't do any advertising. This is not a mercenary thing. 

This is me trying to help people who are probably never going to be my clients but to take hopefully valuable little bits of information away that will help them have more happy, and loving, and stable, honestly, relationships, and marriages, and families, and homes that can improve their lives, also the lives of their children, for kids to grow up in a home where there is an emotionally safe relationship happening with them, and their parents. To witness that in their partners, that is what lasts for generations. 

So help other people find this show. Review it. Share it on social media, this episode and others. I would really appreciate it not just for myself, but for everybody that can benefit from hearing this message, too. So thank you again for being here today. I will be back in touch next week with another episode of the Love, Happiness, and Success Podcast. Bye-bye.

Withdrawn Partner? Stop Pushing Them Further Away…

Withdrawn Partner? Stop Pushing Them Further Away…

Withdrawn Partner? Stop Pushing Them Further Away…

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.

Are you trying to have a relationship with a partner who avoids, defends or worse… refuses to talk at all?

Few things are as frustrating, or as hurtful as trying to engage a disengaged partner. It's hard NOT to get upset and angry when you're feeling rejected, unloved, or uncared for. The problem is that many people who clam up as a defensive strategy when things get tense don't understand how destructive their behaviors can be to your relationship.

But there is help, and there is hope. Because these types of communication problems are so common, I thought it might be helpful to you if I put together a “Communication Problems” podcast-mini series.

“Communication Issues” is the single most common presenting issue that brings couples to marriage counseling. The first thing to know about communication problems: Absolutely ALL couples struggle to communicate with each other from time to time. Just because it's happening in your relationship does not spell doom. Truthfully, by making a few positive changes in the way you interact with each other, you can avoid many communication problems — and start enjoying each other again.

In episode 1, “Communication Problems and How To Fix Them” we discussed the most important and empowering things you can remain mindful of if you want to improve the communication in your relationship: Systems theory, and your own empowerment to affect positive change.

In episode 2, “Dealing With an Angry Partner” we addressed the oh-so-common “pursue / withdraw” dynamic that so many couples can fall in to. This idea is at the core of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy — one of the most well researched and scientifically supported approaches to couples counseling. (And what we practice here at Growing Self!)

Specifically in episode 2, we looked at this communication pattern from the perspective of the “withdrawer” (i.e. the person in the relationship who might be perceiving their “pursuing partner” as angry or even hostile). In that episode I gave you some tips to help get back into the ring with your partner, some insight into why they may be so angry, and things that you can do to help soothe their anger and bring the peace back into your home.

In the third and final episode of our “Communication Problems” series, “Dealing With a Withdrawn Partner” we'll be looking at this from the perspective of the partner who pursues — the one who is attempting to engage with a partner who seems emotionally distant, avoidant, and unresponsive.

If you've been feeling frustrated or angry because your partner refuses to talk to you, this one is for you. In this episode I'm talking about what may be leading your partner to seem emotionally withdrawn, as well as things that you can do to help your partner come closer to you emotionally, and start opening up again.

We're discussing:

I sincerely hope that this series helps you understand what may be happening at the root of your communication problems, as well as some real-world tips for things that can help you improve your relationship.

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

www.growingself.com

 

P.S. One fantastic, low-key strategy to start a dialogue with your partner is by taking our “How Healthy is Your Relationship” quiz together. You can send your results to each other, which opens the door to talk about how you're both feeling — with out an anxiety-provoking conversation for your conflict-avoidant partner. Just be ready to learn some things you didn't know! Here's the link to get the relationship quiz. xoxo, LMB

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Communication Problems and How To Fix Them, Part 3: When Your Partner Refuses to Talk

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

Music Credits: Nick Drake, “The Time of No Reply”

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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.

 

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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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Dysfunctional Family Roles

by Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby | 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.

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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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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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Access Episode Transcript

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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The online dating world can be a jungle. Online therapist and dating coach Jessica Small, M.A., LMFT shares her top tips for online dating. From creating your profile, avoiding red flags and disappointment, to setting yourself up for success!

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