Parenting Teens

Parenting Teens

Parenting Teens

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

Parenting Teens

Any parent whose child has crossed into their teen years knows how difficult this time can be. 

Teens can be moody, unpredictable and defiant. They can ping pong between being exquisitely sensitive in one moment, and cold and withdrawn in the next. Meanwhile, they’re beginning to occupy the bodies of adults — and to take on adult responsibilities — while making decisions with a brain that is, in many ways, still child-like. 

It’s enough to test any parent, and it’s no surprise that many counseling and parenting coaching clients need a little support with parenting teens. And it’s important that they get it — the wrinkles that can develop in relationships between teens and their parents can last well into adulthood, without the right care. 

If you’re the parent of a teen, this episode is for you. My guest is Kanya D, a marriage and family therapist and parenting coach here at Growing Self. As the mother of two teens herself, she truly understands this challenge from all sides, and has some excellent advice you’re going to want to hear. 

We’re talking about what teens today are struggling with, how to communicate with your teen, how to keep them safe, and how to keep your relationship close and connected as they grow into happy, healthy adults. 

I hope you’ll listen, and walk away with some fresh insight and actionable tips on being the parent your teen needs. 

Xoxo, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Parenting Teens

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

Spread the Love, Happiness & Success

Please Rate, Review & Share the Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

Apple Podcasts

Stitcher

Spotify

Parenting Teens: Episode Highlights

The brain undergoes major changes in our teenage years, and these changes often lead to surprising shifts in a teen’s personality. Even the sweetest, most mild-mannered kids can suddenly grow a little snarky and obstinate when they become teens. 

All of this rapid change can be crazy-making for parents. If your teen seems like a different person overnight, know that many parents have been where you are. Fortunately for all of us, the radical growth of our teen years doesn’t last forever. 

Parenting Today’s Teens

In the midst of the pandemic, there’s been a dramatic increase in teens suffering mental health crises. The pressures to be a high academic achiever and get into the best schools haven’t eased up, even as the fun activities that once gave teens an emotional release valve have fallen away. 

Two years of a pandemic seems like an eternity for all of us, but for teens, this period represents an enormous chunk of their lives. Coupled with ongoing racial injustice, school shootings, and climate collapse, a lot of teens feel serious stress and anxiety about the future. 

Today’s teens need more emotional support from their parents and the people who love them as they come of age through multiple crises.  

How Teens Grow

Teens mature physically much faster than they mature cognitively. The human brain takes about 25 years to finish developing, which means your teens will probably have graduated from college before they’re mentally adults. 

This can really frustrate parents, when a person who’s taller than they are is still making decisions that seem child-like. Always keep your child’s true maturity level in mind, rather than expecting them to act as adult as they’re beginning to look. 

Parent-Teen Relationships

Kids are often afraid to come to their parents about serious issues, because they’re worried about getting in trouble or being forbidden from hanging out with certain friends. This can leave teens navigating really difficult things all by themselves. 

When your teen comes to you with something serious, try to put the consequences aside and put the focus on your relationship with them. Of course teens need limits and boundaries from their parents, but it’s even more important that they always know they can come to their parents for support and guidance when something is wrong. 

What Teens Need Most From Their Parents

What teens really need from their parents is someone who can teach them how to care for themselves. This aspect of parenting starts long before their teen years, and continues after they leave your home. 

Teach them good self-care habits, how to communicate, how to set healthy boundaries, and how to function as an independent adult in the world. This builds their confidence and sets them up for a happy, healthy life. 

Communication Between Parents and Teens

Keeping your attachment to your teen secure is the most important thing you can do as a parent. 

Teenages occasionally push their parents away, and it can be hurtful. They may withdraw, shut down, and refuse to share with you at times. Just like a little kid will run away from their parent on the playground and eventually come rushing back, your teen will return, as long as you remain an open, emotionally safe person for them to talk to. The back and forth may seem totally unpredictable, and that’s because they’re splitting between the worlds of a child and an adult. 

When they do want connection and support from you, welcome them back with open arms. 

Keeping Teens Safe

Any teen’s behavior can be erratic and strange, but there are a few signs of serious trouble to look out for. 

If your child withdraws from friendships and family relationships, dramatically changes their eating habits, is listening to a lot of sad music, and appears down a lot of the time, they may be depressed and possibly even at risk of suicide. 

If you’re worried about them, don’t accept “I’m fine” as an answer. Trust your gut and get them help. 

Parenting Modern Teens

The most important part of parenting teens is maintaining a safe, open relationship with your child. Yes, it’s even more important than controlling their behavior or making sure they’re successful in school.  

Put your relationship with your teen first, and the rest will come much more easily. 

Parenting Teens Podcast Spotlights

[04:38] The Pressure of Modern Teen

  • Well-meaning parents say and do hurtful things to their children without realizing it.
  • The suicide rate of teens has gone in up the past two years, and the rate for teenage girls is significantly higher than for boys.
  • Hardworking teens are pressured to achieve unrealistic academic success.

[10:19] Parenting Today's Teens

  • Teenagers have almost unlimited access to information today compared to before.
  • Adolescents nowadays need emotional support and safety to address their overwhelming anxiety.

[16:59] Parenting Out of Control Teens

  • Teenagers tend to think with their emotions and feelings.
  • Parents are encouraged to ask their children open-ended questions and listen and respond without judgment.
  • When adolescents vent about their dangerous participation, listen to them with an open mind.

[27:53] What Teens Need Most From Their Parents

  • Parents need to model their kids from a young age by teaching them essential habits and skills.
  • Taking accountability for your actions and apologizing to your children will reduce the risks of early woundings.
  • Children can sometimes dismiss their parents for space. But when they come back, accept them with open arms.

[39:08] Figuring Out the Communication Between Parents and Teens

  • Setting boundaries is crucial between teens and parents.
  • Find common ground when communicating with teens.
  • Keep the line of communication open for your children.

About Kanya

Kanya is a therapist and coach with more than 20 years of experience in helping couples develop deeply loving and satisfying relationships, helping parents and families thrive, and helping individuals reclaim their happiness.

Transcript: 

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

On today's episode of The Love, Happiness and Success podcast, we are talking about a very special kind of love, and that is the love that happens in a healthy family. One of the most important relationships any of us have is that between parents and kids. If you have been a parent or even a child, as a matter of fact, you'll know that this kind of relationship has ups and downs, and it really evolves and changes over time. 

The parent-child relationship, as you're possibly aware, can get very difficult during the teen years. If that is managed well, it sets an incredibly strong healthy foundation for the adult-child relationship that you have as a parent or a child going forward. 

But if you're not careful, things that happen during the teen years can take a toll on everybody involved — kids, parents, a marriage. So it is super important that we're talking about this topic. I've actually heard from a number of you, listeners, that this is something you'd really like to have more conversation around and more guidance around. 

For that reason, on today's show, I have invited my colleague, Kanya, who is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with more than 20 years of experience in not just helping couples and individuals have healthy relationships, but she does a lot of work as a parenting coach and has a special area of expertise around parenting adolescents. 

I wanted her to join us today to talk about the trials and tribulations of parenting teens, and give you some, hopefully, strategic and actionable ideas that can help you create as positive of an experience as possible for yourself, your kid, and your whole family. 

Kanya, thank you for joining me today.

Kanya: Oh, it's a pleasure to be here.

Lisa: Well, let's just jump right into our topic. I mean, you are a Marriage and Family Therapist — you've been doing this for 20 years. Maybe, we could begin with just talking about some of the pain points that you've seen — both from the parent side of the equation, like trying to do the right thing by kids and having a positive relationship with a teen that you're trying to help and support. Also, the other side of that. You know what I mean? Some of the things that you've seen from kiddos around how they're experiencing that relationship and the kinds of things that could help them as they evolve through this period. I know that's a giant, far-ranging question with tentacles and flourishes. But let's just start there.

Kanya: So I think that being a teenager is hard for teens, but it's also hard for parents and family members. There's a big change that occurs in a teenager's brain that often makes them — sometimes, we don't recognize them because they become so different than the child or tween that they were. 

Lisa: Oh, my goodness! I personally have a 13-year-old, and he has always been the sweetest like Hufflepuff — just kid. Starting about the time he was in his — getting towards the old side of 12. He turned into this — I was like, “Who are you?” Like snarky and weird. It's such a shift to it. It took me by surprise.

Kanya: It takes a lot of parents by surprise. It can be frustrating and challenging, and also really painful, especially if you had a relationship with your child where they talk to you about things and they let you in, and then all of a sudden, it's like a brick wall, and they can be mean. They can be really mean sometimes. That’s very, very painful for parents and confusing — and a lot of parents are like, “Did I do something wrong? What can I do to change it?” 

It's a very complicated time, and I don't think that we get a lot of information about how to manage that time. 

The Pressure of Modern Teens

Lisa: From the teenager side too. I mean, I have spoken with so many individuals over the years as a therapist about things they experienced with their parents during those years when they were teens. That was so hurtful and invalidating. It took a lot of time and intention to work through in therapy because that was hurtful.

Kanya: I think sometimes really well-meaning parents say and do things that are hurtful without realizing it. When our child is in pain or suffering in some way, of course, we want to do something to make it stop for them. Sometimes, parents will minimize what they're going through, or try to rationalize it or say things like, “Well, it could be worse.” To a teenager, they're going to shut down when they hear that, and they're going to say, “This isn't a safe place for me to go and to talk.”

The parents aren't doing this on purpose. They just haven't — I think it's really hard for parents to understand what kids are actually facing today. It's really terrifying to find out what these kids are dealing with. A lot of parents want to be involved, but don't necessarily know how to ask open-ended questions, don't know how to receive information when their child says like they are a friend of theirs is going through X — which is, for the parents sometimes, it's just so shocking like, “What do you mean?” 

This happens to us all the time. It can be overwhelming to know how to deal with it — how to deal with it in a positive way. A lot of times teenagers, they'll just shut down so quickly that even if a parent realizes they made a misstep, they don't get the opportunity to repair with their teenager.

Lisa: When that emotional safety is broken, and you're saying it's fragile, it's vulnerable, it's really easily broken, and it's hard. It's hard to read them. I'm wondering if we can maybe just talk a little bit more about the reality for teens. I mean, I’m going to put you on the spot and ask how old you are. But I am a card-carrying Gen X-er. Back in my day — left on our own, setting fires in the woods, learning how to smoke cigarettes — like that kind of thing. 

I mean, pros and cons — it wasn't all wholesome and good. But what we do know — I actually just saw an article very recently that there's this mental health crisis among adolescents, and they’re a totally different set of stressors and struggles that we analog teenagers may not have experienced in the same way. I'm wondering if you could just talk a little bit about that. Can you set the stage — the context?

Kanya: Sure. I will say that just — I think it was yesterday, the surgeon general came out with a report saying that —- that might be what you're referring to — the crisis that was there prior to COVID has been exacerbated. One example was, visits to the emergency room for suicide attempts in teenage girls have gone up 50% in two years. 50% — 4% boys, 50% in teen girls. Obviously, there's a lot happening even before this. There was a lot happening. 

Prior to COVID, what I saw kids dealing with — variety of things. But the first thing that comes to mind is the academic pressure of going to a good school, getting good grades, having a job, and doing activities. The expectation that we were raising these kids to be super-achievers at a very young age doing college-level work in 10th grade. It was just never enough, and these kids were just so frazzled by the time they got to college. 

Their expectations were really unrealistic. They would get depressed if they got like a 92 on a test because that wasn't good enough, and they weren't going to get into the best college. That's ongoing, and that was a lot worse during COVID because then, they're at home in their room learning, expected to live up to the same standards as when they were in the classroom. 

I think that was a huge disservice that we did to our young people to say, “Everything's different, but nothing should change.” Because that really wasn't realistic.

Lisa: Just out of curiosity, do you find that the pressure around achievement, and there's like outward signs of achievement — so like grades and AP classes, and all the things. Is that coming from parents? Or are those like kind of cultural forces and messages that teens are absorbing osmotically? Maybe, they're not hearing that specifically from their parents. What are your thoughts about that?

Kanya: Right. There's a lot of parents who don't push and yet their kids are pushing themselves. I think a lot of that is social pressure and what they're seeing online. If you take a kid who's dedicated and a hard worker, and you have a teacher say, “You guys are really going to have a hard time if…” That teacher is not talking to that child in the classroom. That teacher is talking to the child who doesn't take school seriously. But the kid who takes school seriously thinks it's for them, and they get even harder on themselves. 

Usually, they've had success, academic success, at a young age and it becomes pretty of their identity. So it's hard for them to let that go and to say, “I need to have a little more balance in my life.” They're afraid — they're afraid of the future, they're afraid of failing. They're afraid. 

I have kids who are in some of the best schools in the state with great grades saying, “I'm never going to get into any college.” They're not seeing things clearly, unfortunately.

Lisa: Well, and I think, too, that there's anxiety probably on both sides of that equation. It’s certainly kind of cultural and societal messages. But I know, as a parent, I think I do carry a certain level of anxiety about my kid’s future because it seems like the world is getting harder and more competitive. With the robots are coming for us all, thinking about, “How are my kids going to be successful in this new economy?” 

I think that there is that desire to help them like be okay in a world that's changing so quickly, and is foreign in some ways. I just wanted us to have empathy for parents on the other side of that, too, is that even though it may manifest in pressuring things that — I think there's just anxiety everywhere.

Kanya: There's anxiety everywhere. I recently heard a young person say, “It feels like the world's going crazy. It's like they're dealing with COVID, which is taking up a larger and larger percentage of their life. They're seeing a lot of issues with race in our country, political strife, global warming… It's just — school shootings. I mean, when I was young, I didn't go to school every day, wondering if that was the day that somebody was going to bring a gun to school. 

I think sometimes they have a hard time thinking of the future because they're trying to figure out, “How do I get through the next week?” Because there's a lot of scary things in the world right now. I don't really have the bandwidth to do what I need to do right now and think about the future.

Parenting Today's Teens

Lisa: Absolutely. So pressures around achievement, pressure and anxiety around just like fundamentally, “Am I safe in the world?” Either through violence or racism or weather catastrophes — I mean, all these things. Also, I'm imagining social media is something that's really changed the landscape so much in the last 10 years.

Kanya: Absolutely. So their access to information is completely different. But also their access to one another is completely different. When I was growing, I had this one phone in our house, and it was in a kitchen, and then at this wall. Then, I think when I was 16, I got one in my room. I was like — big, right? 

But everybody knew you were on the phone and who you were talking to — you had very limited privacy. Now, kids are communicating with each other constantly like they're on Facebook, house party with people they don't even really know — different kids from different cultures. There's some benefit to that, but then there's also the ability to interact with kids who are not kind and who belittle you for having the wrong haircut and being fat. That is the universal insult for girls. Regardless of their sizes, you’re fat. 

They know how scary it is for girls to be told that they're fat. It's like, the information is just coming, coming, coming at them all the time. Even though I pay attention to things on social media, I don't catch everything. The whole thing with Snapchat, it disappears, right? So our kids — because they have access to smartphones, they're being exposed to pornography in grade school. 

Trying to figure that out, oftentimes not telling their parents because they're afraid they're going to get in trouble. They're trying to make sense of that, and the pictures that the boys and girls send to one another when they're in middle school, in high school — it's just it's pretty shocking what's happening. I know.

Lisa: So this like super hyper-sexualization, and a lot of focus on superficial appearances or behaviors. I'm so disappointed about the fat-shaming thing that you referenced. I think in my kind of idealistic — we're moving on from that, but no. Then, also combined with these messages around — achievement and unrealistic expectations of the self in a context of a world that is not really trustworthy or safe.

Kanya: It's not safe, and kids who no longer have that buffer of time to get to adolescence before they get exposed to things that are scary — scary for adults to think about. Now, they're getting exposed to it at 10 years old and having to make sense of it which is very difficult and it's very scary. Lots of anxiety in kids these days — understandably so. 

Lisa: I think what I'm taking from this is that in the context of this reality that you're describing — that teens, tweens need more emotional support and emotional safety with, ideally, their parents or people that love them. Maybe, struggling with big feelings and confusing situations that make it harder to get that support. Is that…? 

Kanya: I think you're right on with that, especially if they're — we know in children and teens, their behavior is impacted by stress. If they're really stressed out, they tend to misbehave. Then, parents want to correct the behavior without sitting back and going, “Hey, wait a second. What's stressing them out so much? I need to talk to them. I really need them to talk to me and just listen.” Help them get it off their chest and for parents to learn how to compartmentalize their own reactions to what they're being told. 

Because as parents, we want to be like, “What did they say? What did they do? Did you tell that the principal?” Like, “Mom, it happens every day.” And to them, it’s like, “No, you don't understand this. This is the norm. We're just dealing with this all the time.” 

So learning to ask those open-ended questions like, “Wow, how do you feel about that? What was that like for you when that happened?” They see someone getting bullied, “What was that like for you? How did people react? Looking back, is there anything that you could have done differently, or somebody else could have done differently?” Starting to really just open the door for them to let it out. There's a lot in there. There's a lot for kids today. 

Parenting Out of Control Teens

Lisa: Well, I think there's also another component that — I think you brought up in previous conversations that I'll bring into this conversation — which is the cognitive differences between teenagers and adults. I think that, particularly, if you're looking at a kid who's taller than you are  — and in some ways, looks mature, it can be easy for adults to forget that there are really profound differences. Can you say more about that? 

Kanya: Sure. So the human brain takes 25 years to fully develop, which is astounding. They're going to be finished college before the brain is fully developed. It’s amazing, right? 

Lisa: That explains a lot. 

Kanya: So adults are thinking with the prefrontal cortex — the rational part of the brain, the part that lets them think about long-term consequences, A plus B equals C. Teenagers, they’re thinking with the amygdala which is the emotional center in the brain. It regulates the fight or flight. Sometimes, we look at teenagers, and we're like, “What are they thinking?” And the reality is they're not — they're feeling. They're going off of emotions. 

So one thing a parent can do is come in and just slowly calm them down, and help them think through different options. Because that forces them to become more thoughtful about consequences versus just talking to their friends who are all also driven by their emotions and adrenaline. You have to slow the conversation down. If they say like they did something dangerous, don't yell at them for doing something dangerous. Talk about it. “Oh, that's kind of interesting. I wouldn't expect you to do that. What do you think led to that decision?” It could be — I mean, there's a lot of vaping. I know that there are kids vaping in the classroom when the teacher is writing on the board. They’re sleeping in the classroom. I'm like, “What are you talking about?” I hear this from a lot of kids. 

They're just so — they're being exposed to it. It's in the bathroom, it's everywhere at school. So like, “How do you work through — if you're really clear you don't want to do it, but then slowly, your friends start doing it, how do you face that peer pressure? How do you say ‘no’? What if they tease you? What if this…?” And kind of walk them through the different scenarios so they can figure out, “How do I stay strong in who I am and what I want to do even when somebody is giving me a hard time?”

Lisa: But I hear all of that, and I'm also reflecting on how challenging I think it feels, sometimes, to even have a very basic conversation. There are days, sometimes, that I asked my son, I'm like, “How was school?” And he's like, “Stop talking to me. You're always asking me questions.” And it's like, “Oh, okay. I'll just… Bye.” But it's like there's so many walls — like even just creating a space where a teenager would be that open and authentic with a parent. It probably takes some work to even create that. Then, of course, our contact with that is to not freak out and react when they do start talking to you.

Kanya: Exactly. In the way, you want to pretend to be completely disinterested in whatever it is you're talking about. Because if we're really interested, they're like, “Too much. Like back off. This is annoying.” I'll be like, “What did you learn in school today?” “Nothing.” Like, “You had a class? Film or anything?” You're a little disinterested, but you look for the openings when they might say things like, “I'm so bad.” Or, “There's so many kids at school who are depressed.” Just like, “Oh, really?” 

Keep doing whatever it is you're doing, but start asking some of those open-ended questions like, “I heard that that was happening to you.” I would always ask “To you or your friends?” because that gives them an out. They can talk about it without saying they're the ones feeling that way. So I always say, “Have you or your friends ever felt that way? Do you guys ever feel sad or hopeless?” It's frightening what they're dealing with. 

So looking for the signs. Then, sometimes I'll tell parents — like have that conversation at dinner, “Oh, I was listening to NPR today, and they said this really interesting story about X, Y and Z.” You guys start having that conversation, and then it gives the kids the opportunity to chime in, like, “Oh, they do that at my school all the time.” “Oh, really? What's that like?” 

So you're not going directly to them to find out what's happening in their world, but you're just talking about this issue about sexuality, or gender or drugs or sex, and you're just having this more open conversation about it that they can then see like, “Oh, well. Mum and dad are talking about this. They're not getting heated and upset about it. Maybe I could…” Then, they'll start to test the waters and see if they can talk about it.

Lisa: One of the things you're also saying is to have those opportunities for conversation — like sitting together at the dinner table, or for doing kinds of basic day-to-day activities where it is possible to have interactions. Because I think even some families get so busy — those moments of everybody's in the car together, or we're going on a walk, or having dinner — those things can fall by the wayside. I think particularly, as people piling on activities and things and friends. So you’re saying that those small, quiet moments become increasingly important.

Kanya: Finding those times because that I think initially with COVID — because we were home for a few months. All of a sudden families were like, “Oh, my God. We're having game nights. We're eating dinner together.” They returned to that, and they really liked it. 

So as the world opens up again, I think it's important to say like, “A couple nights a week, we're going to have dinner together. Or, “On Sundays is Family Day, and we're going to go for a hike, or we're going to watch a movie.” We're going to continue to make sure we have that time together so that there's fun time, but then there's also the opportunity to talk about things.

Lisa: We call that forced family fun. 

Kanya: There you go. 

Lisa: Get in the car. No, that's awesome. But the context is going and doing an activity. But really, the intention is creating those moments where people can connect on a deeper level on a voluntary basis. 

Kanya: Talk about things. And it's important that if a kid starts to open up that they don't get any trouble for whatever it is they're sharing. 

Lisa: Say more about that. That's easy to do, and also fairly toxic — not dynamic. Say more.

Kanya: I think a lot of kids are frightened of talking to their parents because they're afraid they will get in trouble for something. They're afraid that they won't be able to be friends with somebody because their friend is participating in a dangerous activity of some kind. So they don't tell. If they come to you — I do these things with my kids, and I also talk to my coaching clients about it. You can let your kids know, and you can start this at a really young age, “I'm going to have my parent hat on, or my friend hat on. If you need to talk to me like I'm your friend, you just need to say, ‘Dad, mom. I need you to have your friend hat on.’” 

Then, they have total immunity. Whatever comes out of their mouth, there's no punishment, there's no consequence for it. Of course, you're going to help them figure out solutions to the problem — with their input, of course. 

But you can't — if they come to you and say, I was at a party, and I drank, and I did X, Y, and Z, and it's like, “You're punished.” Well, they're never going to come to you again. They're not going to call you from the next party when they're too drunk to drive. They're not going to call you when they're in a dangerous situation to come and get them. 

Of course, we have the parent, and we have to have limits and boundaries for them. But if they're taking the risk to open up and say, “Hey, this happened, and it scared me and I don't know what to do.” You have to put the consequences to the side and make the relationship the most important thing at that point. 

I've worked with kids for years, and I'll say like, “Oh, you talk to your mom about that?” “Oh, no. I would get so much trouble and they would kill me.” So they're navigating really big things all by themselves. Usually, when parents understand that, they're more than willing to work with that. Because the alternative is — kids are facing serious consequences without any support from an adult, and that's just not okay.

Lisa: Just the way you phrase that a moment ago, that your child is in a dangerous situation whether or not you like it, and they are all alone. 

Kanya: All alone. 

Lisa: unless they have the safety of your relationship. 

Kanya: Like if they're your kids at a party, and they have to get home by midnight, and the only person driving them is drunk, do you want them to get into that car? Never. They need to know like, “I don't want you to be doing those things, but if you're in a situation where you need me, you just need to call me and I will come and get you and there won't be a consequence.” 

But now that doesn't mean as a parent, you're not more tuned in at that point. Of course, you're going to have conversations about the drinking part with them. I think in a way, we don't do a good job of preparing kids for drinking as adults. It's just like, “Don't do it.” Then, you're 21, and you somehow know how to do it.

Lisa: Or 18 and leave for college.

Kanya: Exactly. That's a whole other subject. But let them know, “If you're in danger, or if you're on a date and they're not treating you well,  just call me. Go into the bathroom and call us. We'll come get you right away.” If something's not right where you are, they need to know that you will come and help them. It’s really, really important. 

I think of — I had a very similar growing up as you. We just kind of figured it out for ourselves. But there were times I did really dangerous things and I'm really lucky. I could have been killed, and I wasn't, thank God. I was too afraid to tell my parents. I was too afraid to call them and say, “Can you come and get me?” And I don't want my kids or anybody's kids to feel like that. 

What Teens Need Most From Their Parents

Lisa: I get that. I'm so glad that we're talking about that so that it’s just — particularly when it comes to safety issues — so just move away from any ideas around punishment. Because I think that it's easy for parents to talk themselves into, “I'm setting limits and boundaries.” And that kind of thing. 

The image that's coming up for me right now, I was exposed to  — it was kind of a graphic of a funnel, really. When you have a teeny tiny little toddler who really does need to have structure and boundaries and “now it's time for a nap”, and all of the rules and guidelines. 

That widens, and widens, and widens, and widens so by adolescence — kids are operating fairly independently and kind of self-policing in some ways because I think we've both also heard about some other statistics or worked with some other families that have had very kind of structured, controlled home environments where there's lots of rules and regs and boundaries. 

Then, a child leaves that environment to go off to college or something, and absolutely falls apart or is not able to function without somebody else telling them what to do — setting external limits on behavior. Can you say more about what you've seen with that — like the parents’ number one job is that self-sufficiency and helping their kids make good choices without being told?

Kanya: I like the funnel image because it doesn't happen overnight. Like it's not like, “Oh, I'm 18 now. I can make all my decisions by myself.” It doesn't work that way. It has to happen incrementally, even from a young age. 

Even like little guys who are toddlers and they spill something, it's like, “Well, let's help you clean it up.” You model to them, and you teach them how to care for themselves and the importance of why we need to get a good night's sleep so that by the time they're teenagers, they're not up to four o'clock in the morning every night on their phones or playing their games. 

It's really important because there are kids that go to college that don't know how to do laundry, and can't talk to adults because they've never talked to a teacher. Their parents had all those conversations. I've had some kids who were really shy who never ordered a meal in a restaurant before. Then, they go to college, and they're completely unprepared for just advocating for themselves and asking for things. It's really, really sad because it affects their self-esteem so much. 

They don't understand like, “Oh, I just didn't learn these skills yet”. They think there's something wrong with them, which is really sad. Then, they're far away from home, and their parents aren't there, and they're not asking for help. You want to be there for your kids throughout the course of their lives — it doesn't stop at one age that they're suddenly independent. They're going to have big decisions to make throughout the course of their lives. 

When you develop that relationship with them from a young age, they will always come to you to talk about those things. In high school, it might be about grades and sex, and those kinds of things, and drugs and alcohol. But then, it's like, “Oh, well. What grad school do I go to? Should I buy a house? Am I prepared for this? I think my spouse and I are thinking about having a family — what was it like for you?” 

They include you in those conversations about big things and they have a community — like that village that we raise our kids in, it doesn't stop when they're 18 or 21. That's a village that just keeps growing. It's really, really important.

Lisa: But that as they grow into adults, they trust you in their relationship, and that you can continue to support them in the role of like a trusted mentor really, or just somebody to bounce ideas off of even though they're in control of their lives. That's really the hope to maintain that connection. 

Kanya: We don't need our parents in the same way, but it's really nice to talk to them about these things — them and other adults who were important to us over the course of our lives. 


Lisa: I'm wondering if we can look at this from the other angle too. I know that you and I have both, over the years, worked with so many adult clients who — over the course of therapy — really need to talk about things that happened or didn't happen in the relationship that they had with their parents. 

Oftentimes, the adolescent teenage years are when regrettable things happened in that relationship that they're still working through. What are some of the things that you have noticed — adult clients working through that are kind of those wounds from adolescence, particularly in their relationship with their parents? I know parents aren't responsible for everything, but to be able to use that as a guidance for things to do or not do in that parenting relationship helps to avoid those consequences.

Kanya: Sure. I think being willing is the big one — being willing to apologize to your child if you've hurt their feelings. I think in our culture, we're so weird about — we think, “Well, if I apologize, it means I was wrong.” But really, I think of it as if I've hurt someone's feelings, or I've done something that they misunderstood, I want to apologize to them because I want to repair the relationship. 

I think it's important for parents when they say something, their child opens up, and they don't handle it well, and there's a wounding that occurs, they want to to be able to go to them and say, “I'm so sorry that I did that.” And explain why you said that, “I wasn't thinking. I didn't realize how would affect you. It was short-sighted of me. I was thinking about what my parents would have said to me when I was worried.” And explain the context to them, but also work to repair the relationship. 

Because your kids want to see that — they know you don't have to be perfect, but when you can be humble, and apologize and ask for their forgiveness, that will open up the relationship tremendously. 

I was just talking to a young man who's going through a tough time, and his parents have never apologized to him for anything. It's not that they're bad parents, they just don't understand the value of admitting when they've made a mistake. It's really important that we all do that. We want to — whatever you're teaching your child, it's far better to model it to them than just tell them to do it. 

Modeling is so much more powerful for that teenager like, “Oh, it's probably hard for my mom to apologize to me like that. But that was really cool that she did that. My friend’s mum won’t do that.” It changes the relationship a lot. I think for parents who did have that core wounding from their parents and adolescence, when their child starts to pull away and put up the walls, it's particularly painful for them. 

Because they probably decided to parent in a very different way, so that their child wouldn't feel that. But now they feel rejected once again. So that would be a good time for them to do some coaching or some therapy to work through that so they're not continuing to feel wounded for something that, developmentally is just — it doesn't have anything to do with them, and it certainly doesn't have to do with love their children feel for them. 

More than anything, I think our kids want us to hear them and understand them even if they don't know how to make that happen, and we don't know about how to make that happen — that's really what they want. But it can be really, really difficult to do.

Lisa: But I love that message around modeling emotional intelligence and really just intimacy, and authenticity, and just to say something as simple as, “You know what, I didn't handle that as well as I would have liked to.” Or, “I was inflamed by my own anxiety in that moment, and realized that I kind of shut you down.” To be able to take ownership of that can be tremendously healing. 

But also, I'm hearing you say to be conscious of the dynamics of that intergenerational influence really that unless we're doing a real conscious manual override, we tend to parent the same way that our parents parented us — and many of us who have tried to make intentional differences in that. Even though we sort of feel like we're doing things differently, there's old stuff that can come up in that relationship that's really worth processing and bringing into conscious awareness. Because I think if you don't, that's when it can create problems. People get triggered — they become emotional, or reactive, or angry about things, stressed about things, and they don't really know why. So I love it that you're bringing up that point that as parents, it's really important to continue doing your own personal growth work around that in order to be a healthy partner in a relationship with your kids. 

Kanya: I think it's really important. Like I was raised — my mom was much more authoritarian. And then I became a therapist, and I saw the value in a really different kind of parenting. But my kids became teenagers, and they became oppositional, like somewhat oppositional. I was like, I started to respond the way my mom would have responded to me — more like, “You will do X, Y, and Z.” 

That doesn't work very well with most kids because they live in a world where it's like, “Well, this is all a democracy. We all have say in everything.” When you're like, “You will do X, Y, and Z.” It doesn't work well and it really affects the attachment that you've worked so hard to build with them. 

We know like when your attachment with your kids is solid, they're highly cooperative. They want to have a good relationship with you. So there are times when you know, things come out of their mouth that I have to let go, have to work with myself to let go of, to not take it personally. When they come back 20 minutes later acting like nothing happened, and they're like, “Hey, Mama. What’s up?” I had to work with the part of me that wants to be mad back. 

You’d be like, “You hurt my feelings. I can't be nice right now.” But just like when kids are little, like three and four years old, they have that safe space around their parents. They kind of go off at the park and they explore, and then they run back and they grab on to their mom or dad's legs. 

Teenagers do that too. Like they run off and they come back. But when they run off, they can push us away and be a little bit mean. When they come back, it's important for us to just have the open arms and to let them know that, “This is safe. You don't have to be perfect. I'm going to love you no matter what.”

Figuring Out the Communication Between Parents and Teens

Lisa: What a great reminder. And thank you too for sharing about your own experience. Just as you were talking, I was thinking about how vital it is for all of us to be doing that work because I think that it's so easy to not fully appreciate the culture of our family of origin and how the way that your parents shaped you. 

Just to share, my mom was probably the total opposite end of the spectrum. She was so permissive and like, “Whatever.” There wasn't a lot of boundaries or structure in that way, which had its own consequences in terms of trust and having to figure some things out around that. I think as a parent like trying to find that balance between being accepting and supporting, and kind of flexible, but also the times that doesn't work either when I need to step up and be more firm or have more like… 

I just wanted to put that out there that it's so deeply personal — the work that we all have to do to figure out our styles, and things that informed us, and what parts of it are working and aren't working in our relationships with our children, and also how that evolves over time. Because as kids change, we need to change. 

I think that's the hard part — I don't know about you, Kanya, but for me, it's like, “Finally, I have this figured out.” And then, it's like totally changed. I need to figure it out all over again.

Kanya: You have to be very — I think the boundaries are really important. I didn't realize this, but my mom kept her word. If she said, “This is the rule.” That was going to be the rule. Of course, there were situations where she would be flexible. But it's interesting because my daughter's like, “If you tell me something I know, I can't talk you out of it.” I appreciate that I got that from my mom that when I make a decision about something like, “No, this is the decision.”

But I do think we have to be flexible. Even within the same family, children have different personalities, and they respond differently. There's some kids when you just have — I found this interesting with children — they think of yelling very differently than we do. Yelling to an adult is loud volume, yelling to a child as intensity. You can have a quiet voice, but be intense, and they’re like, “You're yelling at me!” And some kids, you could yell at them every day, and they're like, “Whatever. It doesn't bother.” 

But other kids — any kind of sign of disappointment is very wounding to them. So it is hard to be a parent and to follow the cues from the children, and figure it out. Definitely not for the faint of heart — this parenting.

Lisa: But it's necessary. I mean, what's your other alternative if you're not doing that work? Well, I know we don't have a ton of time left, but I do have just a couple more specific questions for you. You mentioned something that I thought was so insightful and important — which is there are different personalities in the home, not just of children and you, but also with partners. 

In my experience too, oftentimes, married couples or partnered couples can run into a new area of growth in their relationship because sometimes parenting differences become a real point of friction in a relationship and in a family system. This is a total stereotype and it's different in many families, but it's often centered around one partner being more permissive than the other, who really wants kind of more of that law and order experience. 

The parents start fighting with each other around how to handle situations with teens. I know that this is a huge topic, and worth spending many therapy sessions on — so we're not going to give all the answers in the next two minutes of a podcast. But do you have any sort of general guidance for a couple listening to this, if that's happening around, how this should be handled — arguments? Where do they even start? 

I mean, is it just to book an appointment with a family therapist or parenting coach? Or are there books that you would advise or parenting models?

Kanya: There’s a lot of different books on parenting models. But I think finding common ground is probably where you want to start. I do think it's really important not to have those conversations in front of your kids. Like sidebar it, “You know what, mummy and daddy are going to talk. We'll get back to you.” And have that conversation yourself. 

Be willing to look at different models. If you're really not able to resolve it yourself, then I would definitely talk to a coach about this so you guys could figure out what's driving your desire to have it your way versus what's really best for your child because there are some things that don't work well for a child. They could be actually not just ineffective, but harmful to self-esteem into the relationship with the parents. 

I think attachment-based tells us that the attachment to the child is the most important thing, the relationship is the most important thing. When you have that, you have a high degree of cooperation and understanding in the family. They're willing to listen to the rules.

Lisa: Even that right there, I think for many people who grew up in a family where that wasn't explicitly done — they literally do not know that their relationship, the quality of the relationship is the most important thing. I've had so many family therapy sessions where it's really that psychoeducation around this piece because many people get very fixated on rules and what should or shouldn't be happening — just that, relational component is not part of the conversation. 

I'm glad we're talking about it today. Very lastly, you brought up a point earlier in our conversation that was shocking and just so awful, and also so real that this newer research — I think the statistic was a 50% increase in suicidality of girls, specifically, much more so than boys, which has gone up a little bit, but not nearly as much. Briefly, can you talk a little bit about why the difference between boys and girls around that? Then also, if you have any suspicion that that might be going on with your kid, what do you do to keep them safe?

Lisa: Sure. I think that the pressures for girls and boys are different. I think the reaction to those pressures are different. I think that there's been a lot of things in the media and on TV shows, and whatnot about suicides that girls are more tuned into which is scary. I think that there's just so many different things that go into that that makes them more susceptible to that.

I do think we have expectations of females that are much higher across the board. You have to be a good student, you have to have a job, you have to have activities — you just have to excel in everything and you have to look good while you do it. It's just kind of off the wall what's happening. But if you think that your child is suffering, you just need to have conversations with them and have them talk with a therapist, and get support and be willing to listen to things even if it's hard to hear. 

Because they might say things like, “Part of why I'm sad is because of something you guys are doing or because of something that's happening in our family.” And that's hard to hear, but you want to hear those things and realize from their perspective that's really real.

Lisa: Just for parents to have this on their radar, if there aren't open lines of communication, what are some of the warning signs that you would look for —  just observations of the kid that this kid is really sliding towards a psychiatric crisis, and we need to keep them safe and get them help ASAP. What are just some of the red flags that you would advise a parent to watch out for?

Kanya: Isolation. So we're used to teenagers ignoring their families and being in the room. But if they stop talking to their friends, and stop wanting to do those things, that's really big. Changes in eating, changes in sleep — you can see in a child's face, sometimes, their sadness is very pervasive. 

Changes in eating or in weight and sleep, changes in academics — if they're just suddenly not interested in things anymore. If they're listening to sad music a lot or watching sad movies a lot. Having conversations with them, and then getting them into therapy and seeing what level of care is appropriate for them.

Lisa: That is often the first step of that clinical mental health treatment is really that assessment so you would have a mental health professional kind of talking to them and doing an evaluation to figure out, “Okay, does this kid need outpatient mental health treatment? Or do we need to take them to the emergency room?”

Kanya: Exactly. So working with your primary care physician and doing blood work, and those kinds of things. Because sometimes like vitamin D deficiencies — there are symptoms are the same as depression. So just making sure that their blood work is good — there's not something happening there that can’t be helped. Then also, with the primary care doctor, and also the mental health provider. It's really important to get a team together basically for that child.

Lisa: Definitely. Okay, that's great advice for any parent. You’re a general practitioner, you’re pediatrician is often plugged in and has referrals, and can do a medical assessment, as well as a psychiatric assessment. 

I know that in many medical clinics, they're moving towards a model where there's a psychologist or a therapist in the building who could even come in and do some screening. But I think my big takeaway here, Kanya, is to not minimize it, not chalk it up to teenage weirdo-ness, but just to get it — to take some action, even if it's just making an appointment with your kid’s pediatrician.

Kanya: Yeah, action. I still hear parents say, “Well, they're just doing that for attention.” Well, then give them attention. They do need your attention if that's what's happening. They need your attention to help figure this out. They can't do this alone. 

So taking action, and I know right now it's really hard to find a mental health provider. But don't give up. Keep looking, keep looking, keep talking. Don't let it fester. And trust your gut because if your child's like, “No, no. I'm fine.” And your gut is telling you something else, trust your gut.

Lisa: Great advice and I love this. I'm glad that we talked just some more about the concrete specific things there at the end. But my big takeaway is just really, above all else, to be focusing on having a really positive relationship with your kid that's built on authenticity, and just like emotionally safe communication.

Kanya: Very, very important. Absolutely.

Lisa: Is there anything else that you'd like to share before we glide to a halt here?

Kanya: I think that just knowing that our kids are exposed probably a thousand times more than we were exposed to as a teenager starts to put into perspective everything they're trying to figure out. So being willing to have those open conversations is very, very important. 

Lisa: Without freaking out.

Kanya: Without freaking out. When you're done the conversation, you go into the next room and freak out. 

Lisa: Scream into the pillow. 

Kanya: “Oh, my God!” But not with that. You need to have a spouse that you could do that with or a friend that you could do that with, and be like, “Oh, my God. I cannot believe what I just heard.” And to be able to download yourself because it's a lot. It's a lot for you to contain for your child. 

Lisa: Thank you so much for this conversation today.

Kanya: Absolutely. I love being here. This is really fun. I hope it helps people.

Lisa: I think it will. 

Kanya: Alright, thanks so much.

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

Spread the Love, Happiness & Success

Please Rate, Review & Share the Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

Apple Podcasts

Stitcher

Spotify


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.]

_________________________________

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.”

_________________________________

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.”

_________________________________

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!

_________________________________

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?

_________________________________

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.”

_________________________________

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.

Enjoy the Podcast?

Did you enjoy the podcast? What did you learn about self-limiting beliefs? How has this episode helped you identify yours? Tell us by commenting on this episode. Subscribe to us now to discover more episodes on living a life full of love, happiness, and success.

[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

Listen & Subscribe to the Podcast

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”

Enjoy the Podcast?

Please rate and review the Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

iTunes

Stitcher

Google Play

Real Help For Your Relationship

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

 

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

 

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

Long Distance Relationship Questions

Long Distance Relationship Questions

Long Distance Relationship Questions

Love From a Distance: Making it Work.

[social_warfare]

Love From a Distance: Long Distance Relationship Questions

Since we do so much online marriage counseling, online couples therapy, and online relationship coaching here at Growing Self it's only natural that we routinely work with couples in long-distance relationships seeking long-distance couple's therapy online. Over the years, I've learned a lot as an online marriage counselor specializing in long distance relationships about the special strengths and vulnerabilities unique to long distance couples.

For starters, long distance couples have so many strengths! Most people see a long-distance relationship as a challenge or not an ideal situation. However, when you have strategies to make your long-distance relationship strong and successful, a good long distance relationship actually offers many opportunities and positive aspects that a typical relationship does not.

With the right formula and a strong foundation, love can bridge any gap. Distance, after all, makes the heart grow fonder.

Questions About Long Distance Relationships, Answered.

In this episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast, I'm answering questions about long distance relationships and how to make them work. Despite the downside of physical absence, there are many unique opportunities for growth that a long-distance relationship can provide. While it has its challenges, it also has advantages. I am ecstatic to bring this topic to the table and share some insights and best practices to help long-distance couples get through the bouts of doubt. 

Tune in to this episode to learn more about what makes a long-distance relationship work. 

Long Distance Relationship Questions: The Podcast

If you're in a long distance relationship, here's what you'll get from tuning in today:

  1. Learn the different kinds of long-distance relationships.
  2. Discover actionable strategies that successful long-distance couples use to deepen their relationship.
  3. Learn how to manage anxiety and feel secure in a long distance relationship.
  4. Understand some vital long distance relationship questions that you and your partner need to be asking each other, if you have long term intentions.

So much great information for long distance couples in this episode. Listen right now to “Long Distance Relationship Questions” on Spotify, on the Podcast App, or scroll down to the bottom of this post to listen to this episode.

If you're a reader, you can scroll through the highlights and / or access the full transcript of this episode below.

 

Long Distance Couples Therapy Online

Let's get a super-basic long distance couple's therapy question out of the way first: “Do you provide long distance couples therapy by three way video?”

We get this question all the time, and the answer is Yes! Our experienced relationship experts routinely work with long distance couples for online relationship therapy and online relationship coaching via secure, three way video.

For more common questions about our therapy and coaching services you are officially invited to our FAQ / Help Center page or you can also spend some time with our chatbot. (Lower right). Now that one is out of the way, so we can move on…

Kinds of Long-Distance Relationships 

Did you know that there are different kinds of long distance relationships? And that depending on the kind you're in, you'll have different things you'll need to think about and do to make it strong?

For example:

  • One kind of long-distance relationship is when a long term, married, or committed couple who lived together is now living apart. It can be a temporary separation, usually due to work or military deployment. 
  • Some couples have a more permanent or semi-permanent long-distance relationship, and that’s just the kind of way they operate. 
  • Another type of long-distance relationship is when a couple becomes a long-distance couple during the early stages of relationship development or dating. 
  • There are also long-distance relationships that develop from meeting once in person, sometimes while on vacation. 
  • The last kind of long-distance relationship is when people meet online and don't physically interact — all their interactions are over the internet. This kind of relationship is happening more frequently due to the pandemic.

Advantages of Long-Distance Relationships

Long distance relationships can work. Long distance relationships can flourish! Here's why:

  • Long-distance relationships can give a different kind of individual growth. 
  • There are many opportunities for personal growth that are sometimes hard to achieve when couples are together every day. 
  • A long-distance relationship challenges people to change and evolve to keep the relationship strong and healthy despite the distance. 
  • The independence and individuality that long-distance relationships bring about can keep the relationship vibrant, novel, and engaging. 

How to Nurture a Long-Distance Relationship

The secret to having a healthy, strong, and satisfying long distance relationship is to very deliberately find ways of maintaining your connection so that you both feel loved and cared for despite the miles between you. Here are some things to think about:

  • Long-distance relationships have mostly conversation-based interactions: this is a huge strength.
  • Invest in conversations to deepen the connection. Remember, your partner needs to hear from you even if you don't feel like talking. 
  • You have to manage your expectations regarding who you think your partner is and what kind of person they are, especially when your day-to-day interactions are limited. There might be some things about your long-distance partner that you haven't seen yet.
  • Work on emotional responsiveness and open communication in order to keep your connection strong.

Questions For Long Distance Couples

Part of the “success strategy for long distance couples” needs to be making sure that you're on the same page about what you're doing. (You may need to have this conversation periodically!)

Part of what our relationship experts do when providing long distance couples therapy online is a comprehensive assessment to understand the strengths and growth opportunities of your relationship, including a couple's most important long term goals, values, and hopes.

Here are a few long distance relationship questions to get this ball rolling:

  • What are your long-term goals as a couple? 

  • Is the relationship feeling good for the both of you? If it stops feeling good, what will you do?

  • What are your values? What is important to you?
  • How do you maintain your connection as a couple? 
  • What would you consider to be a deal-breaker in a relationship?

For even more, we invite you and your partner to take our “How Healthy Is Your Relationship Quiz” to get insight into your relationship's strengths and growth opportunities. This is a low-key way to have  connecting conversations about how to grow your relationship together. 

And, free advice from a marriage counselor:  If you are not able to have productive conversations about these (or other) essential topics, that is a sign that it might be time for couple's therapy or relationship coaching.

Enlisting the support of a relationship expert can help you improve your communication, connect on a deeper level, learn how to show each other love and respect in the way that you need it, and get on the same page about your long term needs and goals. If you'd like to get involved in long distance relationship therapy online, the first step is to schedule a free consultation session. 

Understanding The Needs of Long-Distance Relationships

It's additionally important to consider the unique needs of long distance relationships. Here are just a few things to think about:

  • Knowing each other’s love languages can help maintain the connection amid the distance.
  • One of the biggest challenges for long distance couples is that or both partners may experience heightened anxiety or insecurity, which requires responsiveness, reassurance, contact, and information. Here's more info about “How to Feel More Secure in Your Relationship”
  • The lack of physical presence can be a point of conflict. 
  • Couples therapy or relationship coaching can support in creating conversations between a long-distance couple. 

Advice for Long-Distance Couples About to Cohabitate

Many long distance couples long for the day when they'll be together again. The challenges they face when moving in together can therefore surprise them.

  • Couples have to plan and handle their reintegration carefully when they reunite.
  • There is an opportunity for growth in conflict. Welcome it and deal with it constructively. 
  • Find ways to get to know each other on a deep and realistic level. 
  • There are many opportunities to be emotionally available and to be vulnerable with each other. 
  • Do not get attached to any particular outcome, especially for long-distance couples in the early stages of dating. 

5 Powerful Quotes From This Episode

“And so one of the biggest stress points for long-distance committed couples that are having a temporary separation is that they have to reconfigure all of those roles so quickly. And it can be challenging to do that.”

“There is also a neat opportunity for a healthy interdependence, and opportunities for individual growth that are sometimes more challenging to achieve when long term couples are, you know, breathing each other’s air every single day and sort of doing the same thing.”

“And so, you know, it's almost like a fire that needs some air to breathe. relationships can be like that too.”

“But again, even just having those conversations with each other can be the opportunity to really learn so much about each other- long term goals, values, hopes and dreams. Also the way people operate in terms of their willingness to bend on your behalf.” 

“Conflict in a relationship is always simply a sign that there are things that need to be discussed and worked out. All conflict is an opportunity for connection. It is not a bad thing to have conflict in a relationship. That is an opportunity for growth.”

Enjoy this Podcast?

Learning how you could create love, happiness, and success for yourself has never been this easy. If you enjoyed today's episode of the Love, Success, and Happiness Podcast, I hope you subscribe where ever you listen to podcasts. (And consider leaving a review!)

Post a review and share it! Did this podcast help you? Or did it make you think of someone else who could really benefit from having this information? If so please share this with your family and friends so they can discover how to handle long-distance relationships. 

Have any questions? You can contact me through our website or find me on Instagram or Facebook. You may also reach out to us and inquire about online therapy and life coaching. Growing Self is also on Instagram and Facebook.

Wishing you all the best, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Listen & Subscribe to the Podcast

Long Distance Relationship Questions

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

Spread the Love Happiness & Success

Please Rate, Review & Share the Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

iTunes

Stitcher

Spotify

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

Let's  Talk

Real Help For Your Relationship

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

 

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

 

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

Long Distance Relationship Questions: Podcast Transcript

.
Access Episode Transcript

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby and you're listening to the Love, Happiness & Success podcast. This is another one from the band, An Eagle In Your Mind, a band that I am slightly obsessed with right now, doing good stuff. This particular song is called “If You Open The Door” and I thought it was a great mood setter for us today.

Today we're talking about love at a distance, long-distance relationships, and how to make them work. I really wanted to speak about this topic, because we have been getting, I think, even more couples than usual and long-distance relationships here at our practice at Growing Self. More questions from long-distance couples coming through on the blog at www.growingself.com, through Facebook, through Instagram

And understandably so, because long-distance couples really do have unique challenges and also unique strengths, but really need to approach different aspects of their relationship differently than real life couples do. And so we're getting so many requests for long-distance couples. 

And I have to tell you the funniest thing. Recently, we started noticing long-distance couples reaching out and saying, “Do you guys do couples counseling for long-distance couples through three-way video?” And, like, yes, we see so many long-distance couples, and we did prior to the whole pandemic situation. I think we're probably even doing more of that now. But it's like how else would we do couples counseling for long-distance couples if not through a three-way video call? So the answer is an absolute yes. If you would like to do long-distance couples counseling with us, we have two of you in different places and a couples counselor in the middle. 

And now under normal circumstances, certainly we have had some long-distance couples, like fly in for a weekend and do like couples counseling intensives. But we're not doing any of that right now. Maybe in 2021. We'll see how it goes. But what we do have tons of experience with, of course, is working with long-distance couples. And so I am going to be talking today about long-distance relationships and best practices to make them not just work but work really well. And let's just dive right in, shall we? 

Actually wait, no. I do want to mention that I'm going to be talking about different variables related to long-distance relationships in this episode. And in addition to this episode, I did another podcast on this topic. I think it's been a couple of years, but also really good stuff. I interviewed a marriage counselor on our team who had a lot of experience with long-distance couples, as many of our counselors do. But anyway, so you'll want to look back on the podcast feed to find that one if you would like to hear more. 

And then in addition, on the blog, at www.growingself.com, we have several articles around long-distance relationships and couples counseling for long-distance relationships with different perspectives besides just mine. I have a number of colleagues with a great deal of expertise on this subject. And so you'll want to cruise on over to the blog at www.growingself.com, and do a little search in the search bar for long-distance relationships or three-way couples counseling for long-distance couples, and you'll see all kinds of information there. So I wanted to mention that just to resource you.

But for today, one of the things we're going to talk about first is the fact that believe it or not there are different kinds of long-distance relationships. And depending on what kind of long-distance relationship you're in, there are different practices and ways of handling certain situations that will improve your relationship, but you have to take into consideration what kind of long-distance relationship is this. Because otherwise, it won't be the right approach for you and your unique situation. 

So with that in mind, one kind of long-distance relationship is when there are married or like long-term committed couples in long-distance relationships. Two variables here. Many times, it is a couple that has been together for a long time prior to living apart and usually the reason why they moved away from each other. Sometimes, work obligations is the most common. Certainly, military families going through a deployment kind of situation will experience this sooner or later. But that's what I have most often seen. Sometimes people need to live apart, in the event that somebody has to like be with another family member, like caretaking for a parent who is in a different state. So there are all kinds of reasons why. But it is a long-term married or committed couple who lived together, and did a relationship for a long time, and is now living separately, either for usually a temporary period of time, but sometimes not. 

Now, there are also long-term married or committed couples who have permanent long-distance relationships or semi-permanent long-distance relationships. And that's not a temporary thing due to a job or deployment. But that's just kind of the way they operate. And those typically work really well for both people if they are using the best practices that I'm going to be sharing with you today. 

I think it can be generally harder and more stressful for couples who are circumstantially long distance when prior to that, they lived together for a long time, because it's very disruptive. All couples and all families create roles, and responsibilities, and kind of organizational systems in order to manage their shared lives together that depend on both people participating. And so one of the biggest stress points for long-distance committed couples that are having a temporary separation is that they have to reconfigure all of those roles so quickly. And it can be challenging to do that, but then also to reintegrate once a couple comes back together again, that can be a stress point that we'll talk a little bit more about. 

Now, another different kind of long-distance relationship is one where a couple has become a long distance couple at a much earlier stage in their relationship development. So sometimes, they had been dating for a while or either talk, maybe talking, about marriage at some point, but like, they are not in the same kind of stage of development as a long-term married or committed couple. Their relationship is newer, I guess. 

And sometimes, that can be the same sort of thing, like somebody has to leave for a job, or work, or school, and for whatever reason that the relationship just wasn't quite in the place that it needed to be in order for it to make sense for somebody to pack up their life and move to Indiana with the guy they've been seeing for three months or whatever. But there's a lot of interest, and excitement, and people want to be together, and care about each other. But the relation just hasn't evolved to the point where it made sense to move together. 

And in this situation, one of the primary challenges and obstacles is how do we continue to deepen our relationship, and get to know each other, and have our relationship progress and evolve as it might if we were in the same town continuing to see each other multiple times a week and do sort of a normal relationship path? And so there's that, like how do we progress as a couple? 

And also in this situation, there can be a lot of anxiety, and like insecurity, and worry for partners on each side, because their contact with each other can be much more limited and not being able to be together on a more regular basis in person. And that in itself when people are in that kind of anxious or insecure feeling place, particularly in a new relationship can lead people to behave in ways that are different than they would if they were together in real life. And those ways of coping with the anxiety and the things that people might need to have from the person that they're dating can be different to the degree that in itself can put stress on the relationship and create its own set of problems. So we need to talk about that.

Now, there is another. We're not done. There is another kind of long-distance relationship that happens surprisingly commonly. I have talked to so many clients, usually individual therapy or coaching clients that I see who will come bouncing back in after a vacation or something and say, “I met the most amazing person while I was in Cancún or whatever.” I’m like, “Great! That's exciting.” And my client lives in Denver and their love interest lives in Chicago. And now we have to figure that out. 

And so, that's getting to know someone who, from the very beginning, they may have only met, met once in person. And so again, how do we continue progressing in the relationship and from the very get go? How do you get to know a person in a way that is boundaried, and healthy, and slow enough to be appropriately cautious, but also giving you opportunities to really get a clear sense of who someone is and figure out whether or not you would like to pursue a relationship with them? Because you know, you can't just meet up for a cocktail on a Thursday night with somebody who lives in Chicago when you live in Denver. That is different. So lots, lots to talk about there.

And then lastly, another kind of relationship that is a whole other animal is a phenomenon that occurs when people meet online and do not have any interactions with each other in real life. IRL, as the kids say. Their entire early-stage relationship is conducted exclusively online. And in the context of this pandemic situation that we are all enjoying so much, this is happening more and more. Like even people in the same town will have first, second, fifth dates by video conference, or FaceTime, or Zoom, and get to know each other that way. 

And because the online dating, so not just online dating apps, but literally online dating has so many different variables, and opportunities, but also potential pitfalls. I have actually created a podcast that will be airing in a few weeks on this specifically as a separate thing. I think we're entitling it something like “Pandemic Dating.” But even prior to the pandemic, more and more frequently, people might meet online through social media, or friends of friends, and be in different states, and have that whole getting to know you process online. And there can really be a unique set of pitfalls and perils when you begin a relationship from the outset through that medium. So that deserves its own separate podcast and that will be coming out for you soon.

But today's discussion is going to be focused on the three primary kinds of long distance relationships that I've discussed. So committed couples who are now living apart. And then couples who date and are then disrupted. And then also couples who randomly meet each other and then want to figure out how to establish a relationship with a long-distance situation.

So there are, believe it or not, as well as challenges in long-distance relationships, there are also some advantages that many couples enjoy. Like we think of a long-distance relationship as being non-ideal and it certainly is for some couples. But for many of them, it can really be a very interesting, and growth promoting, and satisfying way of life, particularly for established, committed couples. 

While there are certainly the challenges that I described at the outset of this podcast around roles and responsibilities I mean, certainly when children are involved there is also a really neat opportunity for a healthy interdependence, and opportunities for individual growth that are sometimes more challenging to achieve when long term-couples are breathing each other's air every single day and sort of doing the same thing. People in long-term relationships always have to grow, and change, and evolve within the relationship in order for that relationship to be a really genuinely healthy, and satisfying, and vibrant relationship over the decades. And so, it's almost like a fire that needs some air to breathe. Relationships can be like that, too. And so in a long-distance situation with an established couple, they're doing different things. They're having, maybe time and energy to pursue other hobbies, or hang out with other friends, or go other places, or be around other people, and just have different life experiences that will grow and change them independently. 

And so the neat thing can be when they do come back together again, or have opportunities to talk and hang out, there is, I mean at a basic level, more to talk about sometimes than when you're doing the same thing as the other person every single day and watching the same TV shows, right? So there's like, novelty, and interest, and conversation, and just interesting things. And it can really also be a neat way to put each other in a position where you can learn about different aspects of each other or grow in different ways. And that is the kind of energy that keeps a long-distance relationship, I mean, a long-term relationship interesting over many years are opportunities to do that. So if you're a long-distance couple, you have that built in which can really be to your relationship’s advantage. 

And also, in addition to that, when you are in a long distance-relationship, a committed long-distance relationship, it requires a couple to have conversations around, “What are we doing? What do we want? We need to talk about this. And do we want to be doing this two or three years from now? What are our long term goals as a couple? What do you want? What do I want? How do we get that into alignment?” 

And having like, kind of deeper, in some ways, more meaningful conversations than couples who are just kind of like falling into the same rut and just sort of doing the same thing over and over again without thinking about it too much or talking about it too explicitly. In order to have a satisfying, healthy, long-distance relationship, you have to be doing that, and talking about plans, and coordinating things. So lots of opportunities there. 

Now, what is I think true for all long-distance couples are also, the question that comes up around, “How do we stay emotionally connected as a couple? How do we remain each other's friends? What are the rituals that we need to have in place to stay connected, to stay emotionally and even physically intimate with each other?” Because, again, there aren't natural opportunities to do that day-to-day if you're living apart. And so the building of those, the intentional building of those is very important.

So when it comes to the second kind of long-distance relationships, where people have been developing a relationship and that relationship development has been disrupted because of a move or a separation, the question is really more around: how do we continue to develop our relationship, and get to know each other, and learn to love and trust and connect with each other in the context of this long-distance situation? 

Again, there are real opportunities here. When you are dating someone long distance, the opportunities to connect are almost exclusively around talking with each other, either on the phone, or through text, or through video calls, but it's very conversation-based. So I can't remember the last time I sat on the phone talking to my husband for an hour-and-a-half about things, right? Certainly, we talk about things, but a lot of times it's in 10-minute increments in between childcare duties, right? But with this situation, you really have the opportunity to invest a lot of time into conversation-based interactions. And in doing so, you really can have the opportunity to get to know someone even more quickly and on a deeper level. 

So conversations around who are you and what's important to you? And where did you come from? And what do you want? And tell me a story about your life. Or tell me a story about your day. These are all doorways to getting to know someone and to deepening connection. 

I think that one of the big challenges here is the possible I won't say possible. I will say frequent experience, which is very common in long-distance relationships, which is sometimes the difference between our ideas about who someone is versus the reality of who someone is. Like the whole story. And so, what we humans always do is that when we have little bits of information, we tend to extrapolate many other things from those little bits of information that are reality based. 

And our constructions are pretty much always in alignment with what we want things to be, right? And particularly when we're very excited about someone in an early-stage romantic relationship, we tend to have all kinds of highly optimistic ideas about who someone is and what they really like. And when you're talking with someone, periodically on the phone or on a video call, or maybe you get to spend a weekend together once a month or two, there can be limited opportunities to gather enough information about how people really are when they're stressed, when they're disappointed, when they don't feel like talking. How do they handle conflict? How do they solve problems? How do they load the dishwasher? Like, those kinds of things can be absolutely missed, when you're spending not that much time with each other, or when your opportunities for kind of day-to-day interaction are limited. 

And even if you are spending time together in person, that time is often a short-term couple of things and it oftentimes feels more like a vacation. You're getting together, and it's like we're gonna go do these fun things, and we're so excited to be together. And people are behaving and feeling differently than they do when you live together day-to-day. I mean, it's just a different experience. 

And not that it can't be fun, and wonderful, and all good things, and you can certainly deepen a relationship. Just always keep in mind that there are going to be new things that you will learn about this person, as you get to know them and spend more time with them, which, you know, can vary in terms of their importance. 

I personally have worked with couples who spent most of their relationship like a one to three year long relationship long distance and just loved each other to pieces. “We’re having the best time.” And then, they decided eventually to move in together or get married and had all kinds of things that surprised them. And that would, maybe not deal breakers, but we're creating conflict and disappointment, and that really needed to be worked through constructively, and that they had not been aware of prior to living with each other or getting married. So just keep that in the back of your mind. 

And it can be really helpful to figure out, how can I get to know this person as they really are? So don't try to keep it necessarily light and fun. I mean, super early stage of relationship, fine. Keep it light and fun. But if you're really considering this person for long distance or long-term relationship potential, figure out what you need to know. Like what is actually super important to me? What is a deal breaker? Let me hear about a bad day or also noticing how they operate when they are maybe busy or stressed. How emotionally responsive are they? Are they able to answer your bids for connection? Are they giving what you what you need, even in the context of a long-distance situation? 

And I'll just share; it may be a big mistake to assume that relationship issues that you're experiencing in a long-distance situation are just because it is a long distance-situation. It is also worth considering that if someone isn't emotionally responsive or isn't available when you want them to be in the context of a long-distance situation, it may be that that could be the way that they actually are, and that it is not likely to improve if you were together day-to-day. 

And that may not be true. Some people just aren't great technological communicators. But don't make too many excuses or blame too many things about the relationship on it being long distance, because people tend to be consistent in the way that they behave in many different situations. Of course, long-distance situations do, again, present their unique set of challenges. So there's that. But it can be hard to figure out what is ultimately the truth. 

And it's also, I think, a stressful situation for many couples who are developing their relationships and getting closer and closer together to figure out, “When should we move in together or be in the same town together? What do I need to be seeing or experiencing with you from a distance in order for me potentially or you to feel comfortable with packing up our lives and moving to Omaha to be together?” Particularly, if you're still in a phase of our relationship where it would be prudent to live close to each other and see how it goes. And I think it's wonderful to be cultivating a relationship with someone where it seems like there's enough opportunity there to find out whether or not it is a good long-term match. But that can be a hard decision to make if your relationship has been long distance exclusively prior to that. 

And then, there's also all kinds of conversations around who's going to move? And what is that going to look like? And should we move in together? And is that okay? Do I have a backup plan if that doesn't work out? There are so many things to consider. But again, even just having those conversations with each other can be the opportunity to really learn so much about each other long-term goals, values, hopes, and dreams. Also the way people operate in terms of their willingness to bend on your behalf. That in itself can be a very important, I hate to use the word metric, but let's do it as a data point, when it comes to evaluating whether or not this is the person for you. So there's this. 

And I think that this dynamic is even more pronounced for couples who meet each other in a long-distance kind of context and have to, from the very get go, figure out how to do all of this from the very beginning. And whether it's orchestrating time together or regular calls and routines or dates. Like what does that look like online? So those are things to be thinking about. 

And now, some of the things that we have found to be super, super helpful for long-distance couples are really like, and just to say this out loud. Just like with any relationship situation, there are very rarely like hard and fast rules. Like if you want a good relationship, do this, not that. I mean, there are some things that are easy to generalize, but every person is unique. Every couple is unique. And there are so many “correct” ways to have a really high-quality, long-distance relationship. 

So it is not the job of a couples therapist to tell you what to do. It is our job to help you as a couple create systems, and ideas, and practices that work for you and your unique needs. But I will just share some of the questions that a good long-distance couples therapist would always be asking you and encouraging you to be thinking about and talking about. And I just offer these so you could have some of these conversations on your own if you'd like to, but certainly conversations related to what are our long-term goals as a couple. How do we feel about this long-distance situation? Is one of us okay with it and the other person not okay? What do we do with that if there's conflict around it? Is this feeling good for both of us? And also, what how are we going to handle this if it stops feeling good for both of us?

And relatedly, I think that there's always an important conversation to be had around, what are your values? What is actually more important to you? Is it more important for you to live in Omaha than it is for you to be in the same location with this person you're in a relationship with? Or is your pursuit of this career goal more important to you than being with your partner in person? And is that true just for now? Or will that always be true? 

And helping people get clarity around what they want and what their priorities are in life, not just for their own benefit but for the benefit of their partner, who can then to have all the information, make informed choices about what they want to do long term. Because if you're in a relationship with someone who is always actually going to prioritize their career goals over their connection with you and your family together, you should know that, particularly before you invest a whole lot of time, and energy, and years, and have children with this person, right? So those kinds of conversations are really, really important. 

Secondarily to that, many couples can experience challenge and friction in long-distance relationships when it comes to, “How do we maintain our connection as a couple? How do we feel close to each other day-to-day when we live apart? How do we not just maintain but strengthen our attachment to each other?”

And this can often involve developing different aspects of a relationship. It can involve building a new sort of way of being friends and partners to each other. Lots of opportunities to increase your emotional intimacy. And beautiful things can come of it in terms of rituals, of connection, and things that you do with and for each other in order to help each other, not just know intellectually, but experience, to feel that you are just as important as you always were, even if they're not able to show you day to day through small things. 

People who tend to have like a love language that's oriented around conversation, and emotional connection, and words of appreciation. For those types of people, this maintaining connection can feel much easier in the context of a long-distance relationship. People who really need a lot of like physical connection — hand holding, hugs, things like that. Or acts of service — doing things around the house for each other can feel like a little bit of a crisis. But if you're in a relationship where those things are not really possible in the same way, a couple has to get creative. How do we make it possible or more possible? It requires effort, but it is definitely achievable. 

And also, for many couples in long-distance relationships, sooner or later, there will be a, most of the time, for one, sometimes both partners, to experience a little bit more anxiety or insecurity than they would in a relationship, because it's a long-distance relationship. So it's, “We were supposed to talk at eight, but you weren't – where were you? You weren't home? Who were you with?” Like those kinds of things. Or you know when people seem less emotionally available or kind of distracted. That's like more fraught than it would be many times if you're living together. 

And in these situations, people need more overt, like, reassurance, maybe more contact. There needs to be more information. And that often needs to be really freely given. There has to be a lot of priority around, “How do I show this person that they're important to me, that I am their partner, that I care about them, that they can trust me, they can count on me, that this is a stable situation in the absence of my physical presence and my ability to be there with them day to day in real life?”

So that can be a point of conflict for many couples. And again, as I mentioned at the beginning of this podcast, when people are anxious or feeling insecure, it can create a pursue-withdraw dynamic in a relationship, as I have discussed on many past podcasts. I will refer you back to those for more information. You could listen to the communication podcasts I've done. 

But there needs to be a lot of sensitivity to that and what anxiety is doing to you. Or also, if somebody is wanting more from you. If you experience yourself kind of withdrawing from that, to be just real conscious of that, and how it may be impacting the relationship situation in even more dramatic ways than it would if you were together in real life. Because if you don't have that much time together, your interactions in those small moments become the majority of what people have to understand you. So there can be a lot there that's worth discussing. 

And I will say on that note, I think that is probably the reason why the majority of long-distance couples decide to pursue couples therapy or relationship coaching in a long-distance context is because when they try to have these conversations, it feels very difficult, or it winds up feeling frustrating, or it turns into a conflict, or they're not getting their needs met from each other despite having conversations around that. And if you have these conversations and have that experience, that can be a real good indication that it might be time to have some more support and helping you really kind of figure this stuff out if communication is feeling hard or if you're asking for change and change isn't happening. Those can be signs that it's time to get some support.

So those are things to be considering and to be doing for long-distance couples. In addition to those points of conversation, it's really important to have deliberate, intentional conversations, particularly for that first type of long-distance relationship a married or committed longer term couple who has been living apart that is now anticipating reintegration and to be planning in advance for that reintegration process. 

Certainly, for military couples and families where one person is active duty and has been on deployment and is now coming home, that needs to be handled thoughtfully. Because, in the meantime, it is highly likely that his or her partner has established all kinds of new routines, and rhythms, and ways of doing things. And then for you to walk in the door, and throw down your coat, and start messing around, and doing things, and touching stuff, and moving things around, like that may or may not be welcome or helpful. Just talk about this. 

And also for the person on the other side. If you have hopes or expectations that your partner is going to walk in the door, and throw down their coat, and start doing laundry, like to be talking about that at the very least to help them understand what those expectations are and how they can be helpful to you. And just together, as a couple, figure out what that's going to look like and expect that there will be friction, which is good conflict in a relationship, is always simply a sign that there are things that need to be discussed and worked out. 

All conflict is the opportunity for connection. It is not a bad thing to have conflict in a relationship. That is an opportunity for growth. So expect it. Welcome it and have a plan for how you're going to deal with that constructively. Because it's constructive. It's always constructive. When you handle conflict productively, it is constructive. 

For people in a newer relationship, last words of advice for you would be to be really deliberately considering and actively participating in ways that you can really get to know each other on a deep level and on a realistic level, so that you can make informed choices about the potential for a future with each other. And there are so many opportunities again, to be emotionally available, to be vulnerable with each other, to be emotionally responsive to each other, particularly if one of you is feeling anxious about something. So many opportunities to show each other who you really are. 

And also very, very helpful to if/when the time is right to potentially move in or move closer to each other, find ways of doing so where you can mitigate the risk to each other, in the event that you know either it's different than you were hoping it was or if, for some reason, it doesn't work out. Be thinking about how you can get to know each other be in the same place without it being this like do or die, life or death, like super pressure-y situation. Because that in itself can add like a weird and difficult pressure to a relationship that a relationship doesn't typically experience when people are getting to know each other who do live in the same town. That would be absent of that kind of pressure. And so just to be thoughtful about that.

And then, while it is so difficult to do this when you are really excited about someone, and you're in love, and really hopeful about your future together, I always caution clients in my work as a dating coach is to not get attached to any particular outcome and really be kind of focusing on, how am I feeling in this relationship? Does this feel good to me? Is this working for me? Is my long-term happiness and satisfaction dependent on this person and making all kinds of changes and then I will feel happier and better about the situation? So like, just being really clear and honest with yourself about those things.

And I think approaching it with an attitude of cautious optimism that, “They seem really great and I'm really enjoying this so far. And I'm really looking forward to getting to know them better.” Before really like making major life decisions on your experiences of them so far. 

Because everybody is a mixed bag. Every relationship has aspects about it that are wonderful, and aspects of it that are challenging. And the key to having a really happy, healthy, enjoyable long-term relationship is not finding your perfectly compatible, perfect soulmate who does not have any issues, because everybody does. It's finding a person that has 75-80% of the things about them you really like and appreciate. And those things outweigh the 20-25% of them that is actually non-ideal, possibly annoying. That's always going to be there. That part doesn't matter. Does the good outweigh the bad significantly enough? And just know that that bad is there. You just may or may not know what it is yet. And so the point of dating is to figure out what that is, and if it is stuff that you can live with. So just keep that in mind unsolicited advice from a jaded dating coach.

So I hope that these ideas were helpful to you. I hope it kind of opened the window into some of what we do with long-distance couples that we see for couples therapy online or the work that we do as dating coaches, and just kind of like giving you some of the questions and strategies and things to think about, so that you can use them in your own life and make good decisions about it.

And of course, if you are in a long-distance relationship and would like to pursue couples counseling through a video or if you're in a dating situation and would like to do some dating coaching about how to handle long-distance relationships, we are always here for you. Come on over to www.growingself.com. You can schedule a free consultation, and we can talk get to know more about your situation, and how we may be able to help. 

Or otherwise come over to www.growingself.com and browse around all the other articles and podcasts that we have just for you around long-distance relationships, about strengthening your connection and your strong bond, about communication strategies. It is all there for you, so I hope you come take advantage of it. And I will be back in touch with you next week for another episode of Love, Happiness & Success.

 

More Love, Happiness & Success Advice

Getting Past You and Me

Want better relationships? Try getting over yourself first. In this episode, Terry Real shares tips for moving from “me” to “we” for a happier life.

read more

Why Relationships Fail

Ever wonder why relationships fail? On this podcast, we’re exploring the anatomy of a failed relationship, so you can keep yours healthy and strong.

read more

How to Stop Being Codependent

How to Stop Being Codependent

How to Stop Being Codependent

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

Let's  Talk

How To Stop Being Codependent

Overcome Codependency and Get Your Life Back

[social_warfare]

If you're in a codependent relationship, it's time to stop. But how? How do you stop being codependent?? Today's relationship podcast is going to show you how to spot the signs of codependence, understand why codependent relationship dynamics take hold, and then offer real-world strategies to stop the madness and cultivate healthy interdependence. Really!

I know as a Denver marriage counselor and online couples therapist who's spent years helping couples get unsnarled from emotional enmeshment, that many couples struggle with codependent relationships. Codependent cycles drag everyone down, and relationships feel miserable when they're happening.

I know from firsthand experience as a marriage counselor that codependency recovery is possible, but it takes a lot of self awareness to spot it — much less break free from a codependent cycle. It's hard work, but it's the only thing that can stop feeling angry and frustrated with your partner, and start feeling good about yourself and your life again.

Here's a quick rundown of what we're discussing on the podcast today. (To skip the commentary and just listen to the episode, scroll down to find the podcast player.) Or, here's the link to listen to How To Stop Being Codependent on Spotify, and here it is on Apple Podcast. Subscribe to the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast while you're there!

Onward!

What is Codependence, Anyway?

“Codependence” is a pop-psychology term that was birthed in the Al-Anon movement. Back in the mid-century era, counselors who treated patients with substance use disorders began to notice common elements in their partners. They were often completely anxious, often angry, and absolutely hyper-focused on what their alcoholic partner was (doing or not doing) at the expense of their own wellness. They were over functioning in response to their partner's under functioning, and were mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted as a result.

They were termed “codependent,” and the Al-anon movement was launched in efforts to help the “partners of people with a problem” get emotionally un-fused from their spouses in order to not just feel better and more in control of their lives, but stop trying to “fix” their partners. (So that their partners could have the space to do the work of recovery, or fail.)

Nowadays, the term “codependence” is tossed around like popcorn at the movies in our popular culture as a short-hand way of describing everything from feeling highly attuned to another, to financially dependent on another, to simply being reactive in relationships.

But when marriage and family therapists like myself talk about “codependence” and what it means, we're actually referring to something much more specific: Codependence is a problematic level of over-involvement and enmeshment in a couple or family that leads to anger, anxiety, and — usually — a great deal of frustration.

In a codependent relationship one person is usually working really hard to try to control, “help,” manage, monitor, coach, or assist the other into acting they way they want them to. As you can imagine, these efforts are not just unproductive, they lead to a really problematic “parent / adolescent” type of dynamic in a couple. In the language of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, a pursue / withdraw relationship cycle predictably ensues with the “helping” spouse becoming increasingly frustrated with their non-compliant partner, who in turn, views their spouse as unnecessarily controlling and hostile (and becomes defensive and avoidant as a result). Not fun for anyone.

If a codependent relationship dynamic has been happening for a long time, it can take the assistance of a really good marriage counselor to help a couple get unfused and achieve healthy interdependence again. Ideally, you can nip it in the bud!

The Problem With Codependent Behavior

Here's the sneaky thing about codependent relationships that is easy to miss: When you become codependent, you feel like you're “helping” or “protecting” your partner, or trying to get them to be the person you want and need them to be in order to have a good relationship with them. But over time, often unintentionally, your happiness becomes almost entirely reliant on their actions or behaviors. Maybe you think your partner isn't doing enough or that your lives will fall apart if you don't do everything you feel needs to be done. Whatever the case, codependency will drain you of your energy and take away your sense of empowerment for your happiness.

Furthermore (oh, the irony) when codependent relationship dynamics are happening, it makes it less likely that the “under functioning” person is less likely to change and grow. Crazy, but true. (I will explain to you all about why that is in the podcast, promise!)

In this episode, I define what codependency is and paint a picture of how and why it manifests in our relationships. I will be explaining how to shift away from codependency so that you and your partner can flourish together. Through this episode, I hope you can enter a space of healthy interdependence with your partner.

Codependency Recovery Stages

In order to empower YOU to make positive changes in your relationship and learn how to stop being codependent, in this episode I'm covering information that will help you:

  1. Understand what makes a relationship codependent.
  2. I'll ask you some of the same “codependency quiz” questions I ask my clients to help determine if their relationship is codependent
  3. Learn how to become more self aware around codependent relationship characteristics (so you can stop participating in them!)
  4. Discover the importance (and methods) of taking back your power, either in codependence therapy, or on your own.
  5. Learn about the steps you can take toward recovering from codependency as a couple.
  6. I offer some examples of what codependency recovery stages look like in action, so you have a  roadmap for YOUR relationship.

Thanks for joining me in the How to Stop Being Codependent podcast today. I hope it helps you, and that you subscribe to the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast on Spotify (or wherever you listen) to take full advantage of all the resources, tips, and info I create to support your journey of growth each and every week. It's all there for you!

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

P.S. Did learning about codependence and “how to stop being codependent” is making you think of someone you know is struggling with this situation, I hope that you share this information with them.

P.P.S. If that person you're thinking of is your spouse or partner, and you're fearing that you two may be in a codependent dynamic together, a super low-key thing to do to begin creating change is to simply listen to this podcast together and discuss it. If you want to take your DIY, kitchen-table couple's therapy session to the next level, here's the link to take our “How Healthy Is Your Relationship” quiz together too. Establishing open communication is always the first step to creating positive change! — LMB

[social_warfare]

Listen & Subscribe to the Podcast

How to Stop Being Codependent

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

Music Credits: Les Hayden, “Ophelia”

Spread the Love Happiness & Success

Please Rate, Review & Share the Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

iTunes

Stitcher

Spotify

How to Stop Being Codependent: Podcast Transcript

.
Access Episode Transcript

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

That song is called Ophelia. The artist is Les Hayden and I chose that song for us today, not for his lyrics so much but because of the tone of the song, I think, but also to have the opportunity to speak with you about the lesson of Ophelia. If you remember from your high school Shakespeare days, Ophelia was a character who was so overly involved in her relationships with other people, that when those relationships were disrupted, it absolutely ruined her. And I know that's kind of heavy, but I thought it was an appropriate kind of symbol for our time together today because today we're going to be talking about something that has that impact on people, might even be impacting you, and your life, and your relationships—and the term for it is codependence. 

When we talk about codependence, we're talking about being so focused on what other people are doing or not doing, particularly our romantic partners, and feeling like unless and until they can get it together, you cannot be at peace, or happy, or satisfied with your life. And so, so much energy goes into trying to help another person function at the level that you want them to function to, that in the meantime, you yourself are just awash in stress and anxiety and anger and all kinds of negative emotions that takes such a toll on you. 

So on this episode of the podcast, I wanted to explore this topic with you in particular, so that you can understand what it is and how it shows up in relationships and kind of think about whether or not it might be happening in yours. But also, I'm going to be leaving you with some ideas that you can use to begin shifting this dynamic so that you can feel happier and more at peace and more in control and, paradoxically, create positive change in your relationship without all of the drama and stress and pain that you might be experiencing now. I know that sounds crazy when you let go you have more opportunity for change, but it's so often the case, particularly when it comes to relational dynamics. So lots of exciting stuff planned for us today. 

And if this is your first time listening to the podcast, I'm so glad you're here. I'm again Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, I'm the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching, and I am a licensed marriage and family therapist. I'm also a licensed psychologist. I am a board-certified coach. And I am here with you every week sharing love, happiness, and success tips and strategies and insights that are all designed to help you and also to be responsive to what it is that you are needing. 

So today, we are talking about codependence, and I also have all kinds of podcasts ready and available for you—anything from communication and improving your communication and your relationship to understanding how to handle different situations and your relationship with your partner. If you haven't yet, please subscribe to this on iTunes, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, wherever you like to listen and scroll back. I had years worth of podcasts, and they're all available for you, and every single one of them hopefully has an actionable takeaway that can help you improve some area of your life, your relationship, your career. So I hope you take advantage of all of it. 

And also, it's not just me, in my practice growingself.com we have over, I think, 40 at this point therapists, couples counselors, coaches who I work with all of them very closely. And in addition to me and this podcast that I do, they are always putting together blogs and articles and answering listener questions. And so, anytime you want, cruise on over to the blog at growingself.com and you can see not just my thoughts but all kinds of expert advice and take advantage of it because it is all there for you. 

How to Stop Being Codependent

Alright. So let's talk about this situation. Let's talk about codependence and why this is so important. And as you know, if you listen to this podcast, I always try to design shows around your needs and what I'm hearing from you guys about what's important. And lately, I've been getting so many questions coming through the blog at growingself.com, Facebook, Instagram, that are all some variation of, “Dr. Lisa, how do I get my partner to do XYZ? Or to stop doing

XYZ? Let me tell you about this terrible thing that my partner is doing or not doing and how upset I am about it. How do I get them to change?” That's the gist of a lot of the questions, and in honesty, like I think that that is the energy that drives a lot of people into couples counseling is that the perception is that they are having unhappiness and distress in their relationship because of the things that their partner is doing that is making them absolutely crazy. And they're just beside themselves, they do not know how to get them to change or improve the situation, and there's lots of fights around this, and it's just so exhausting. 

And so we hear about this a lot, and I think even more so lately, like so in addition to me, I get this podcast and other things for our practice, and I also see my own clients, certainly. But I also am at this point in a supervisory role, and so every week, I'm in multiple consultation groups with other counselors and coaches on our team, talking about different cases, not people's names or anything—it's all de-identified—but part of what responsible, ethical therapists do in order to be as effective as possible is case consultation with other professionals in order to say, “Here is a situation. How would you guys handle it?” In order to make sure that we're always handling things really appropriately, and doing the very best we can to make sure that the work is always effective for our clients. 

And in so many consultation groups lately, I've also been hearing about my colleagues, working with couples who are struggling with these codependent dynamics that are very entrenched and very powerful and hard to change. And the reason why it's so important for us to be talking about is because until it changes, it is really impossible to, paradoxically, effect the change that you would like to see in your relationship. 

What is Codependence

So the first thing I want to talk with you about is just a little bit more about what codependence is and what it refers to. And just to be perfectly transparent, the term “codependence” is not a psychological term. It is not in the DSM. It is very much like a self-help pop psychology kind of term that came to be through the recovery movement, like AA. And you know that, essentially, back in the day, alcoholics were the focus of treatment. They would go to groups, they would have sponsors, they would have their meetings, they would have their work. And it became clear over time that it wasn't just the alcoholics that needed help—their partners and their families were also really struggling. And what counselors in the recovery movement observed is that the partners, the spouses in particular of alcoholics, would be a mess. They would be so angry, and they had characteristics in common. They were often very high in anxiety, they were often very angry, and they were often spending a lot of time and energy trying to control or police or supervise or improve or protect their alcoholic spouses at the expense of themselves, and also, really unsuccessfully. 

And so because of that, there was a whole separate wing that was created which you've probably heard of called Al-Anon, which is a separate type of support group and growth process specifically for the partners of people in recovery. And that movement is designed to help people become un-enmeshed and un-codependent from their partners and really just start focusing on themselves and their own happiness and well being again, which paradoxically, for reasons that we will discuss, changes the dynamic of the relationship system and makes it even more likely that their alcoholic partners will heal and grow in addition to helping to helping the codependent person feel a little bit better.

So that is where this came from. And so certainly, codependence, the term itself is often heard or found in, in those sorts of circles. In my experience, yes, that is absolutely one of the applications of it in our counseling practice. But there are also different ways that it shows up in relational systems that are not necessarily specific to addiction, recovery, and addiction recovery stuff is really not what I am talking about here on the show. If you are in a relationship with someone who has a substance use disorder, I would encourage you to get involved with addiction specific treatment because that will be more helpful to you. And if you would like to look into Al-Anon, you can just google Al-Anon meetings. They're all over the world, and they're free, and I'm sure they're online at this point. So very easy to get involved with if you'd like to do that. 

But outside of addiction's recovery, people will throw around the term codependent all the time, and it means really different things to different people. And so when somebody comes into the office and says, I am codependent, and I want to talk about that, or whatever, that my very first question is, what does that word mean to you, just to be sure that we're kind of on the same page. Because here's what it means to me when people talk about codependence or what it means generally. It means that they need their partner or someone else, a family member, sister, brother, whatever, to behave in a certain way, or be a certain way, in order for them to feel a certain way; they are essentially trying to regulate their emotions through someone else's behaviors. I know that sounds a little bit weird, but they ‘re—so that's why there's all this energy going into trying to control other people because they are attempting to regulate their own anxiety or sense of safety through the behaviors of another person as opposed to what they feel in control of. 

And so this can take a few different forms, there is a kind of codependence that I actually think of is more like an emotional enmeshment. And that happens when someone cannot feel happy if their partner is upset for whatever reason, angry, sad, stressed, whatever, that they're so sort of enmeshed together, that they will put all kinds of energy and effort into trying to get their partner to cheer up or feel better, or be happy again. And until their partner does feel better, the person who's attempting to upgrade that change feels really bad and anxious, and it's like they cannot be okay if their partner is not okay. Or if their partner like, gets angry or upset, they kind of fall apart or feel super angry and upset in response. Like there's this emotional enmeshment within a system that almost prevents people from being able to behave independently of each other. And that creates a lot of reactivity and problems in relationships. 

Another aspect of codependence is people who tend to feel like really anxious or unsettled or not. I don't want to use the word unsafe and like a literal physical unsafety but like, kind of insecure or not at ease, or not calm or relaxed unless their partner is doing certain things or saying certain things or behaving in a certain way. And that when their partner doesn't do what they need or want them to do, they feel very agitated and anxious. And again, it turns into efforts to control their partner and try to get their partner to be different in order for them to feel secure and well. And then, of course, there's the addictions recovery aspect of this where this sort of dynamic is often very pronounced. 

But what I see more often in our practice is kind of like a functional codependence. So it's either somebody who doesn't like the way their partner behaves or doesn't like the way their partner communicates or doesn't like the way their partner prioritizes time or feels unhappy that the partner isn't like more of a team player in their home. And just to be very clear, that it's absolutely okay to be upset about any of those things, I mean, nobody likes that, right? But the difference with a codependent dynamic is that there is this like, hyper-focus around what is my partner doing or not doing. And I'm going to try to control them, change them, police them, monitor them because unless they change, nothing is ever going to be different. So there's like this exclusive focus on changing of the partner trying to get the partner to be different. And unless and until that happens, I am going to be so unhappy and upset.

And again, it's this like, external locus of control, because when a codependent person goes into that place, they are absolutely dependent on what another person is doing for their own sense of happiness, or security, which as you can imagine, puts them really into a place of powerlessness and dependence because they are unable to feel okay, independently. Hence, the term dependence. They're dependent on their partner for their own sense of well being, and attempting to change the way they feel by controlling someone else's behavior. And of course, as you can imagine, because it is essentially impossible to control someone else or change someone else, people who have a codependent orientation to relationships usually feel absolutely exhausted and depleted, and resentful, and angry, and so incredibly frustrated because they feel so, so powerless, and they're putting so much energy into trying to get their partner to change so they can be okay, and it's not working. So it's a really difficult space to be in.

And so, first of all, the very, very, very first thing that we always do with codependent dynamics is, first of all, we have to raise awareness in either the couple if people are coming in together, or if it's an individual person who's coming in for help on their own to talk about how incredibly distressed they are about what's happening in their relationship, which also happens. The first thing we have to do is get clarity around what's going on, and helping people, if this is what it is, but helping people figure out how much of their power and time and energy and mental energy, emotional energy are they giving away to this codependent dynamic without even realizing it. 

Codependency Quiz

So let me ask you some of the questions that I often ask clients who are grappling with this. Question one would be: Do you persistently feel frustrated, upset, or angry at your partner’s inability to make changes? You're kind of always annoyed that you really want them to be doing something different, and they're not, they're going to keep doing it over and over again. That would be a clear one that there's a codependent dynamic at work. And particularly if that question number one is yes, and it is also coupled with a true answer on this question, do you believe that your relationship problems and like even life problems would be resolved if only your partner would change in some way?

And then thirdly, do you personally feel like it's hard for you to be happy? Or you feel good about yourself in your life because of things that your partner is doing or not doing? And so if you answered yes to all three of those questions on my little mini codependence quiz, you may be struggling with a codependent dynamic in your relationship. And if so, I have a lot of empathy for that because you are likely feeling really annoyed and stressed and like even hyper-vigilant a lot of the time, it's a very difficult place to be in. And so that's why I wanted to talk about this today, in order to give you some, some clarity and some strategies. 

So I feel like we're kind of talking about this in theoretical terms right now, and sometimes I think it's easier to illustrate examples by telling you stories instead. So one example that immediately comes to mind to illustrate this, and I think so many of us can relate to, is one couple who is kind of a mishmash of many couples, but if we were to distill it all down coming in, and one person is sitting on the couch, or in the video session, and just like vibrating with anger and annoyance about all the things that their partner is doing, and can't wait to tell me about it. And legitimate things like, “I found another beer bottle in the trash can when he said that he wasn't going to drink on school nights,” or “He said he was going to mow the lawn, and he didn't,” or “She came home late again, and I can't make plans, and I feel like she's always leaving me holding the bag with housework, or kids or whatever, going out with her friends,” like they're the type of complaints can be endless, and they vary.

 And just to say this, what I'm talking about in this podcast here with you is going to be in the spectrum of like garden variety codependent dynamics. And if you had the unfortunate circumstance of being in a relationship where there's really serious stuff going on with your partner like substance abuse problems or serious like mental health issues that are untreated, you're probably going to resonate with some of what I'm talking about, but the strategies won't work as well in that situation because it's a different animal. And I would refer you to other podcasts that I have created on related topics, I think one was called, What to Do When Your Partner Has a Problem, and I think I also did a podcast a while back around, you know how to get somebody else to change if they have really serious stuff. So scroll back through the episodes, and you'll find them. 

But this situation that we're talking about is a couple where one person is absolutely so frustrated, so angry, and also oftentimes feeling very, like self-righteous in their anger, really feeling like their partner is behaving so badly, and that they just can't stand it anymore. And they're starting to, many times, like lose respect for their partner, but really just putting so much energy into trying to get their partner to change, and sometimes it's nagging, and sometimes it's arguing, and sometimes it's just doing things for them, but sort of resentfully. I mean, it can take all sorts of different forms. And that is the sort of operating emotional space that the partner who's like really wishing the other person could be different days and all the time. 

And then on the other side of this, the person who is the “changee”, that is the person in the relationship that has been identified as the one who has all the problems that need to be changed, is often feeling incredibly resentful, sullen, withdrawn, often puts just as much energy into minimizing their partner's feelings. “Oh, it's not that big of a deal. You need to lighten up, it's not that bad. It's fine.” That is often this dynamic, and it becomes a very well-developed and entrenched relational dynamic where one partner is pursuing the other, in efforts to get them to change, respond, listen, do something differently. And the other person in response is withdrawing and becoming less emotionally available, less responsive, less often considerate, and thoughtful. And so then what that leads to is an increase in the anger and resentment and kind of pursuing of partner number one. And so as you can imagine, this gets more and more intense over time. 

And I think we can all relate to this experience, probably even on both sides. I mean, I think everybody who's been in a relationship over five years has at least at some point had well-developed ideas about what their partner should do in order to make things better. So following my partner, exercise more, drink less, eat healthier foods, or took antidepressants, or stop playing so much video games, you know, I mean, whatever, “Then it would be better for us.” And on the other side of that, I think many of us can also relate to being the recipient of that kind of criticism, and that constant like feeling like you're never doing anything, right, and that you're not quite good enough the way that you are, and how bad that feels.

So, that's the dynamic on both sides. And so that's many times where people start when they come to us for couples counseling. And I just, I wanted to kind of like bring that to life a little bit more to see if any of those things are things that you could relate to. And the problem is, really, that what happens is that over time, couples become more and more polarized and to each of these positions. The partner who is righteously indignant, is becoming more and more convinced that they have the answers, and their partner needs to do XYZ, and every time they don't do XYZ, it is more information that their partner can't meet their needs, or be a good partner, or that they're ever going to have the kind of relationship or like that they want, and kind of falling into this despair. And also, it creates a dynamic where the person who is really like in that codependent place, will oftentimes become extremely hyper-vigilant to notice. “What is he doing? Did he clean the kitchen? Did he take out the trash? Did he drink too much? What is going on? Or…” 

I don't want to make it very gender-y. It happens with both ways with men and women that happens, same-sex relationships, but there's this like constant on edge of, I have to monitor and police and nag and almost like supervise my partner to make sure they are doing the things that they need to be doing. In order for us to have a good life together. It's like, I need to make my partner be the person that I need them to be. Because the person as they are, I don't totally like them. I don't trust them. I doubt their competence. I don't think they make good decisions. And I feel like if I wasn't making them do what they needed to do and be who they needed to be. Our lives would fall apart. Important things wouldn't get done. bills would go unpaid, things would bounce, we wouldn't have groceries, we wouldn't get places on time the kids wouldn't get their needs met.

And as you can imagine, to be in this space where it feels like you are the one that has to be the policeman or policewoman of everything and like always kind of on guard to make sure that things are happening the way they are, or should be rather, it is absolutely exhausting. It is so stressful. It feels like you can never let your guard down, you can't relax. 

And I just wanted to say this to kind of like, bring some empathy into this because I think that there's like a caricature stereotype. A naggy person or controlling? We'd like to throw the word controlling around, “Do it this way. Do it that way. Why didn't you blah, blah, blah?” It's very easy to see a person who is inhabiting in that space as being overbearing, or overly, what's the word, controlling, I think, is the one that comes up most often. And can we all just agree, though, that the emotional experience of people who are behaving that way, is one of anxiety and fear.

I have personally never met anyone who is behaving in ways that are controlling who has not, when I help them talk about what's going on, shared that they have this overwhelming sense of like fear and anxiety about what would happen if they stopped being “controlling” if they just let things go and stopped paying attention to what's happening and what should be happening and who's doing what things would actually fall apart. 

And also, I don't think I've ever met a “controlling” person who has not wished and longed on a very deep level, to relax and to be in a safe place with a person that they trusted to just handle things for them so that they could finally rest and feel taken care of and supported and not have to be worried and on eggshells that if they aren't vigilant for five minutes, something terrible is going to happen. 

People who are in this space are over functioning. And they are overly alert and overly active in a relationship, because it feels like they have to be. So if you are listening to this podcast, and you are in a relationship with someone, and you feel like they are nagging at you and criticizing you and being overly controlling, and like why don't you do this, you should be more like, I would invite you to consider why that might make sense from their perspective, and that you have a lot of power to change the system because they will step back in direct proportion to their experience of you stepping forward, they would love nothing more than to say, great, you cook dinner, I'll be over here and they would love to do that. But they might not trust you to do that. 

So there's that to consider. It's really important to think about systemic dynamics in these situations. Because the alternative is that if we're not aware of the systemic dynamics, the alternative is to develop a narrative about your partner and the type of person they are and that leads to all sorts of things. 

So for example, if you label your partner's being controlling and unreasonable, and that's just the way they are, that's like their character, their personality, where do you go from there, right? And it's usually not true, there's always a reason why people are the way they are. And a reason that is very understandable. And that we can work with that you have to see your partner with empathy. So I wanted to leave you with that.

Now, let's talk about this from the other side. So if you are the one who has been really just putting in so much energy to try to get your partner to understand and to change, you may have noticed that it's not that effective. I mean, really, like, most people who are doing this and engaging in these kinds of codependent behaviors are trying over and over again, to get their partner to be different and listen to them and respond to them and do things a different way. Or they give up and just start doing everything for their partner because they have lost confidence in their partner's ability to follow through. And it takes such a toll on you. And the thing that can be hard to see when you're doing this is that when you put so much energy and effort and take so much responsibility on yourself, for things, you actually make it less likely that the other person is going to step up and do things differently in response to you. And I know that's incredibly frustrating because it feels like you're trying to make things happen and you're trying to protect yourself and the family and even them by doing all that you do. But paradoxically it leads on a systemic level, to a persistence of the problem that you are seeking to change and I mean, reflect on this, if you will. 

Is it true that the more you care about change and what your partner is doing or not doing, it seems like the less they care, or the more they fight you on it, or the more they tend to minimize and dismiss what you're saying. That is what happens over time it creates this power imbalance and even though it may feel like the person who is doing the running around and being upset and trying to get things to be different, feels like the dominant personality in the relationship, in truth and in practice, you actually become disempowered and have much less power. Then you're kind of passive partner as the months and years progress because you are killing yourself and putting in all this energy and effort. And they're like watching you around, run around like a crazy person. Like you need to relax. Just chill out. And so that doesn't work.

Stages of Codependency Recovery For Couples

And now that we've kind of talked about the dynamics of codependent relationships, I'd like to turn our attention to the emotional kind of underpinnings and what can change it. And so the thing that is really important to understand, and the part that gets missed for many couples in this dynamic is that people get so focused on what is happening, or isn’t happening or what the partner is doing or not doing, the attention is much less about their internal experience and about the feelings underneath all of this on both sides than it is about the signals or the behaviors or the communication patterns. And so I think it's really important for people who are in the active side of a codependent relationship, to really make contact with the level of fear they have around what could happen if they stopped, and to really get a handle on how much of their own personal power and their own happiness and their own satisfaction with their life is really so highly dependent on what their partner is doing and on the relationship itself. Because that in itself can be just a huge awakening, like, “Oh my gosh, I am spending most of my time being anxious and upset about this, what this person is doing or how they're behaving and I can't live like that anymore.” And it's in that kind of moment of recognition that that power gets taken back. 

And now I'm talking about this as usual, like, it's an easy thing, people often don't arrive to this place without a lot of growth and work that is achieved through either individual therapy or coaching or through couples work is where people can move into the space where they're like, you know what? This whole control thing has been an illusion anyway, even though I am managing my anxiety because I feel like I am in control of the situation. I am really quite objectively not in control of the situation because these things keep happening. And you know what? I don't want to do this anymore. This is not good for me and there's also an increase in anxiety when that happens. Because you know, if somebody stops being the police person, your partner might drink too much or spend too much money or not follow through with things or ruin their health with junk food or waste their lives playing video games. But can we just agree that they're basically doing that anyway, with or without your hyper-vigilance, they're just like trying to hide it from you and fighting with you about it. 

And so what is a much more productive space to go into, is this idea and this new recognition that for many people, the core of the anxiety is around the practical matters, certainly, but when you really dig down into it, there's almost this like, existential crisis that comes out around, “Can I be with this person? Can I maintain my marriage and my family with this person? Because it feels like I can't. What is happening now feels unsustainable to me. And so I am twisting myself into pretzels trying to get my partner to be a partner with me so that we can have a nice life together. And I'm so afraid that if they won't do it, I will have to go.” And that's like this, this core like fear that many people make contact with when they begin grappling with this. It's very, very powerful, and can be very interesting to make contact with and share in a vulnerable way with the partner who has been creating so much pain, that you feel has been creating so much pain because it really turns it into being less about them, and more about you and what you can tolerate and what you can't and what your options are in the situation. 

So, many times, what this kind of exploration leads to are productive conversations between two people where there's like a new recognition of why the struggle is happening and that really powerful and understandable like noble intentions and attachment needs, both people are bringing to the table. Many times on the other side of this, people who have been functioning in a manner that is different than how their partner would like them to be sometimes is feeling very withdrawn because they feel like they're going to be rejected anyway, whatever they do is wrong. So why even try, or they feel like there isn't space for them to bring their own way of doing things to the table in the relationship, like, and so they really feel minimized and diminished, so they kind of give up and stop trying in some ways. 

But they're also underneath of that can be a very real experience where, believe it or not, some people have arrived in adulthood, without having the same set of skills around getting things done. Prioritizing activities, managing time I mean, to be very, like task-oriented, and a planner, and like, executive functioning skills, if I do this, then this will happen. I shouldn't stay up too late playing video games, because I have to get up for work in the morning. And, it is not that unusual, like, well, it doesn't happen all the time. But sometimes when I'm working with couples who have this kind of dynamic, we discover that the partner, who has been maybe struggling to do some things that is creating a lot of anxiety and stress for their spouse, has undiagnosed ADHD that has never been recognized or dealt with or treated. And so they're behaving in a way that isn't actually consistent with adult success, and it's driving their partner insane. But they really legitimately do not know how else to be because they've never talked about it before. They've never considered it before. 

And sometimes couples work turns into almost coaching around; how do you keep track of what needs to be done throughout the week? So that your partner doesn't have to be the one who's always managing the time and the activities for everybody. How do we begin to develop those skills? So that you can do these things. So I just want to float to the possibility that it isn't always that a partner won't do these things, because they're being contrary and an obstructionist, it may actually be that they don't know how to do these things, as well as you do. It can also be true sometimes that partners have different values or expectations around things that are related to how things were done in their family of origin. If you grew up in a family, where there were very kind of well-defined gender roles, and your partner wants you to be doing things that were not done by people of your gender in your home, it's going to create confusion. And that in itself can lead to these kinds of dynamics in a relationship. 

But regardless of the reason why, the first step in resolving this dynamic is getting to the bottom of why it's happening, to see if anything can be done to change the functioning itself. Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes the answer is no, and changing the functioning of the partner who may be under-functioning in the relationship, but also maybe doing some work around the expectations and values of the partner who believes that all of these things need to be happening to ask some questions in a safe, compassionate, non-judgmental space around, “Why do you believe that we need to have a protein, a fruit, and a starch warmed up at breakfast every morning, or else you're both failing as parents? Some people eat cereal most of the time, and they're okay.” So let's talk about where some of these ideas about what breakfast should look like, came from. I mean, that's a more trivial example. Right? But I mean, you'd be amazed at what I think we all take as being the truth from our family of words and experience, and then apply that truth to other people.

We are measuring our partners by our own yardstick without even being aware that we are carrying a yardstick and holding it up to other people and say, “No, we cannot have a granola bar for breakfast, that is not sufficient, it needs to be an egg or a waffle.” So I mean, it's like, we all carry that. And many times, there's a period in couples counseling or relationship coaching, where we have to do a deep dive into what those things are. Because there are blind spots, we do not know what we are expecting or projecting on other people at a subconscious, until we do this type of focused growth work, which can be incredibly productive and opens so many doors. So that's kind of phase two of recovering from a codependent dynamic. 

Now, phase three can happen in addition to sometimes instead of phase two, and this is where the person who has been trying to be the change agent in the relationship and feeling really bad and anxious and angry and stressed a lot of the time may arrive in a place again, where they have decided that they don't want to feel that way anymore. And it may be that their partner is not able or willing to work with them on creating the dynamic to step forward a little bit more so that they can step back. And in this case, stage three, you need to take your power back through your own volition and what this means is almost like repeating this mantra to yourself of, “I am only in charge of me, I can only control myself, I am responsible for my own happiness, I am responsible for the quality of my life, I am in charge of me and my outcomes.”

And when this happens when the formerly codependent person stops trying to control other people and instead really shifts into taking responsibility for themselves, and the quality of their life independent from what their partner is going to do or not do, they will feel happier and more confident and more at peace, they will also have to work through some anxiety that will immediately spike around what will happen if I just start focusing on me and stop being so concerned about what my partner is doing or not doing that we do also have to deal with but it can be achieved, I think, through a very deliberate intentional growth period where you start thinking a little bit more about what you need, and how else you can get it if you're not getting it currently from your partner and from this relationship. 

So many times people might say “I have them working my tail off to create this set of circumstances in my home and I haven't done anything fun for myself. And I don't even know how long, I can't remember the last time I got some exercise or spent time with my friends. And I feel like I'm always so angry and what feels positive and good to me. Where can I get my energy replenished and nourished if this particular well is currently dry?” And so sometimes this turns into, you know, spending more time doing other things and taking care of what you can. And in doing so you are helped to kind of manage your own anxiety and feel happier and more content and it's like less dependent on your partner for your sense of well-being. 

So going back to that idea codependent when you're a codependent your sense of self and safety and security and happiness is entirely dependent on your partner and we're going to shift that so that you can be okay, no matter what they decide to do.

And so, oftentimes what happens here in practice is that when people are getting their needs met and just going about their lives as they wish to and not thinking quite as much about their partner, they feel better. They often stop nagging, they stop caring as much about what their partner is doing or not doing and, there's like this new dynamic where the partner who had been withdrawn and kind of like, fighting for their independence, and, “No, you can't control me and tell me what to do.” When that stops, they're sort of like, “Oh, nobody's telling me to stop playing video games at 2 am. So I'm gonna stay here till 5 am and play video games” and just they're being themselves. And what happens is that scary as it may be, they begin to experience natural consequences for their own decisions, they have hangovers, they miss work meetings, they start to have overdraft fees on their checking account because they forgot to pay the bill. 

 

And instead of their over-functioning partner, getting angry about it, or rescuing them, or berating them into behaving, all of a sudden, it is really on them. And they are experiencing the consequences for their problems, and it is on them to figure out how to fix it. And in doing so, two things happen, it sends a lot of clear messages to both people in this dynamic, the over-functioning person moves into the space of, “I deserve to be happy, and I know what I need to be happy, and I am not sure if you can be part of my life if I am actually going to be happy because this is not currently working for me.” And it is not a threat, it's this truth of, “I don't know that I can tolerate this, and I'm not going to tolerate it. So let me know if you would like to work on this with me. I'll be over here.”

So the fighting kind of stops. And what also happens is that it can be very easy in this type of dynamic for the under-functioning partner, to have a lot of like, almost passive aggressive hostility towards their spouse, and like kind of secretly blaming their partner for being so controlling and naggy and critical and when they begin experiencing consequences for their own actions, there is this new sense of clarity that what they are doing is actually not working for them. And it raises their anxiety enormously because it sort of turns into this existential crisis of, “If I am going to, nobody's coming to save me and if I am going to maintain my relationship with this person, and my family and have the life I want, I have to figure out how to do these things. Because before it was my partner's problem, they were the ones that were stressed out and anxious about it, but they're not anymore. Now, it is my problem and I need to get stressed and anxious about it and figure out how to change it or not, and accept the consequence of that outcome, potentially.”

But the power dynamic completely shifts, when you decide to take your power back. Because if someone wants to be a good partner for you, they will be, but it is up to them to be a good partner, you cannot make them be a good partner. And this is almost like a crisis that couples walk into and I would really advise you if any of this is resonating for you that you do this with the support of a marriage counselor to make sure that it is productive. 

But to walk through these stages together and reshift the power dynamics in a relationship, what often emerges is that both of you are doing the best you can you are both lovely, well-intentioned people, many times and this is particularly true for men that I've worked with in relationships, who were occupying this space of kind of the belligerent teenager in their relationship and their wife was kind of turning into this angry mommy lady like because of these, these power dynamics and when we're able to shift this and get people sort of like pulled apart and functioning more independently. We can see that people like under-functioning partners are often very nice people who love their partners very much and don't actually like the way that they had been functioning themselves but didn't almost have the space to figure out how to make those changes on his own. Because when we're focused on another person criticizing us, the natural reaction to that is to defend yourself. 

I have all these reasons why it made sense. But in the absence of that, when somebody isn't criticizing you, then you have the emotional space to connect with “I don't actually feel good when I drink too much in the evening, or I don't feel good when I don't get enough sleep or exercise, or I don't feel good when the house is a mess. I don't like that.” And so again, we're moving away from codependence and back to independence where someone can say, “I like feeling like my partner is happy with me. I like how I feel when we get things done, or when we can work together as a team.” And so what happens is a shift back into intrinsic motivation on the partner, who had been getting harassed into changing previously, when the harassing stops, only then intrinsic motivation, their desire to change and grow, can emerge.

And the other neat thing, so that's kind of like stage, what are we at? Stage four of all of this? It’s space where people kind of separate from each other not literally separating, although sometimes, but really, it more of that, like emotional separating around, I'm going to do me, and you're going to do you, and let's see who we each are in the absence of this codependent power struggle that we had been engaging in, previously.

So when this happens, and people begin focusing on themselves, and what makes them feel happy and fulfilled, it can go a few different ways. That way I always root for is what's really neat is that when people stop focusing on who and what their partner isn't, and take responsibility for their own happiness and own well being, they can then reconnect with their partner as they are. Because at the end of the day, and I say this as someone who has been married now for a really long time, that I truly believe in my heart of hearts, and as a long-married person, also as a marriage counselor that true love and genuinely happy relationships certainly require both people trying in attempting to be their best selves and taking responsibility for themselves in the way they're showing up, certainly.

And in addition to that, they require a high degree of acceptance and appreciation for who and what your partner is, and how their gifts and their differences can enhance your life and the experience of your family. And it's a really interesting, like emotional shift that occurs when we work through codependence and help people become independent, then we can come back together into healthy interdependence where people are relying on each other for the things that each partner can give freely and that is appreciated and cherished. 

So for example, many times in the classic, codependent relationship where there's the I mean, I hate to genderize again, but kind of angry controlling wife and a sort of juvenile under-functioning husband, a lot of times, what can really happen is that when people come into this place, take responsibility for themselves. We can come back together again, and appreciate the differences. 

So for example perhaps in a classic example, the wife begins to realize that her partner's a lot of fun, and that he's funny, and that he likes to do fun things and it's a gift to her to have him in her life because you know what, he is different from her and he's the one who will pry the mop out of her hands on a Saturday morning and say, “Let's go do something fun today put down the mop. Come on, let's go do XYZ, right?” And in contrast, I mean, instead of feeling resentful about the, “controlling partners,” always making them do things that they doesn't want to do, being able to move into the space of appreciation for the gifts and talents and intelligence and planning and competence that many people who are often in the disempowered place and in a codependent relationship of the ones who have just the weight of the world on their shoulders, they're often naturally strong, competent, capable people, and can do so many things.

And a real shift occurs when the partner who perhaps had viewed them as being aggressive or rejecting, can see them for the person they really are, which is someone who also needs support and understanding and a soft place to fall because even though they are so strong and so competent, and so smart, they also do need to rest and just be loved and cared for to and it helps people kind of move towards each other, and see each other through much more compassionate and forgiving and appreciative lenses when that happens. 

Now, it is also sometimes true that when couples go through this whole process of exploration and growth, they may discover that they are intrinsically very, very different from each other. Relationships are formed for all kinds of reasons and as we have talked about at length on many podcasts, the early stages of romantic love, create almost intoxicating kind of experience that can weld people together emotionally, people who may or may not be compatible in many ways, or as easily compatible, I should say. And so then you can decide is, who and what this person is, and always will be, “Can I be happy with who and what they are? Can I accept them as they are, and have enough left here to be satisfied and fulfilled with what I can get out of this relationship or not?” And that answer can always be a complex one to resolve.

And can also I think, sometimes test our notions of what relationships should be, there is no one right way to have a relationship. I am actually not a huge believer in fundamental compatibility. I will absolutely agree that some combinations and pairings are easier than others couples who are further apart from each other and their basic needs and desires and value systems and the things that are important to them will have more to work through and more challenges in order to be good partners for each other, they will have to be more accommodating, and more flexible, and more compassionate, and more generous, and figure out a way to respect, not just a respect, but help their partner create a life that is genuinely meaningful and satisfying to them that both people will have to do that. And it will be a further reach to find a bridge to the center when there are bigger differences, which sometimes at the root of a codependent dynamic you will discover. 

And it is also true that every couple has differences that in the experience of a codependent dynamic become quite polarized, and people become more different because they are fighting about those differences than they actually are in reality. And that when we can move back into a space of healthy interdependence, many couples discover that they have a lot more in common. And they're a lot more of a cooperative, collaborative complimentary couple than maybe they had known previously. 

So I hope that this discussion has helped you. If you are one of the people that has reached out through Facebook or on the blog at growingself.com or Instagram with a, “How do I get my partner to XYZ?” type of question. This is why I didn't shoot back some kind of two sentence answer, is because there's not a two-sentence solution. It's a process. And so that's why I wanted to make this podcast for you is to kind of walk you through what that process is, so that you can develop just a clarity of understanding of what lies ahead and that there's no secret trick to getting your partner to do what you want them to if you can only phrase it this way or use this little trick, as, with so many things related to relationships, it is a process of growth. That is not for the faint-hearted. It takes so much courage to do the kind of work that I'm describing to you, we have to walk into fear around, “What will happen if I let go of the control? Or what will happen if my partner stops trying to make me XYZ? Can I take responsibility? Who am I without someone else telling me what to do? What do I really want for my life? And how do I take responsibility for creating that?” It is as frustrating as it is, it is much safer, emotionally, to blame other people for our problems than it is to turn that back on ourselves and say, “How did I get here? And what do I want? And what am I going to do to change it?” 

And as scary as it is, that's the kind of conversation that will ultimately create change, it's a little bit of a trust fall. And again, that's why getting the support of a really good therapist or relationship coach to help you, almost like stay in that challenging, not scary place, but like to help you feel confident that this is the path forward can be really essential. Because many times when people get scared, they just sort of collapse back into doing what they know or trying to create change in a way that feels safer, or that makes more sense logically. And as we've discussed here today, the real path forward is not one of logic. It's one of emotion and deep understanding both of yourself and your partner. 

So I hope that this conversation has been helpful to you and let me know if there are other things you would like to hear about, you can get in touch with me, growingself.com, you could always leave a follow-up question for me on this topic or any other through the post for this podcast. And I'll see, you can track me down on Facebook, Dr. Lisa Bobby on Facebook or @drlisamariebobby on Instagram. And I'll be back in touch next week with another episode of the Love, Happiness, and Success podcast.

 

More Love, Happiness & Success Advice

Getting Past You and Me

Want better relationships? Try getting over yourself first. In this episode, Terry Real shares tips for moving from “me” to “we” for a happier life.

read more

Why Relationships Fail

Ever wonder why relationships fail? On this podcast, we’re exploring the anatomy of a failed relationship, so you can keep yours healthy and strong.

read more

Embracing Your Cultural Identity

Feeling connected to your cultural identity can be an important part of life satisfaction for many people, and it can be a large part of one’s identity as a whole. Online therapist, Josephine M., shares more here…

read more
How to Let Go of Anger

How to Let Go of Anger

There is a time and place for healthy anger, and getting stuck in anger can keep you anchored to a painful past. Learn how to release anger and reclaim yourself, on this episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.

read more

How to be Successful Online Dating

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!

read more

Loading...