Why Relationships Fail

Why Relationships Fail

Why Relationships Fail

Why Relationships Fail… And How to Protect Yours.

Secret bank accounts. Illicit rendezvous with the babysitter. Biweekly fights that end in split lips and phone calls to the police. 

We’ve all heard about “those” relationships, haven’t we? And maybe we’ve even witnessed something close to them playing out between people we know. It’s no surprise when unions with such obvious markers of pain and dysfunction go down in flames. They may even make us feel a little better about our own relationships, or the kind of partners we are. Sure, we’re imperfect, but we would never do that. 

But, as a longtime marriage counselor and couples therapist, trust me when I say that most relationships that fail don’t go down in a big, dramatic burst of flames that everyone sees coming from a hundred miles away. To paraphrase Hemingway, they tend to end gradually, and then all at once. The little injuries that add up to a divorce or a breakup usually seem insignificant while they’re happening, until their cumulative damage is too much for the couple to bear. 

When two people who love each other aren’t able to make their relationship work, it’s sad. Because “making it work” is usually a matter of building certain skills, which anyone can do with knowledge and practice. I created this podcast to illustrate that for you. My hope is that, after this conversation, you’ll have a clear understanding of what really tanks relationships, and how you can avoid that outcome in your own. 

My guest is Matthew Fray, a talented writer with some hard-won knowledge in this area. In his new book, “This is How Your Marriage Ends,” Matthew discusses his own marriage’s demise, and the lessons he wishes he’d learned before it was too late. We’re sharing those important lessons with you today, so you can keep your relationship alive for the long haul. 

I hope you’ll tune in to hear Matt’s heartfelt relationship advice. Listen here on this page, on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. 

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Why Relationships Fail

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Why Do Relationships Fail?

Many of the moments that destroy relationships look like no big deal while they’re happening. They can take the shape of “petty” disagreements, too insignificant to pose a real threat to something as important as your marriage. 

But over time, these minor disagreements certainly can pose a threat. They can carry more emotional weight than you might expect, bringing up questions about love, safety, trust, and respect between yourself and your partner. If they’re not handled with care, these “petty” disagreements will undermine your connection, and can eventually cause you to lose what you value the most in the world. 

Here are some hallmarks of the destructive conflict cycle that causes relationships to fail. By breaking these common patterns, you and your partner can begin to navigate conflict in a way that helps you grow together, not apart

Why Relationships Fail: Defensiveness

Imagine that your partner is furious about something that doesn’t seem particularly important to you. Maybe you wore your shoes in the house when they’ve repeatedly asked you not to, or you were ten minutes late meeting them for dinner. 

What’s your reaction to their anger? Do you feel like you’re being punished harshly for something that doesn’t mean much, considering how much you do for your partner every day? Do you remind them of all the sacrifices you’ve made for them or for the relationship, or of all the things they do that you don’t like? 

That’s defensiveness, which is a totally normal reaction to feeling criticized or under attack. Unfortunately, when we get defensive, we can’t really hear our partners. We’re too busy arguing them out of their perspective to hear the hurt or the pain underneath their complaints, because what they’re saying feels like a threat to us. 

When one partner is angry and the other is defensive, you get stuck. You can’t move forward into repairing the rift that’s opened up between you and deepening your understanding of each other, because you’re locked in a stalemate of “attack” and “counterattack.” Your partner gets the message that, when they’re upset, their feelings will be met with hostility. Eventually, they’ll stop bringing problems to you, and resentments will build. 

So, what’s the antidote to defensiveness? Responsibility. When your partner is upset with you, try to take responsibility for your part in the conflict. That doesn’t mean you have to assume blame that isn’t yours, or always let them “win.” But admit where you’re wrong, and take an interest in their feelings about the situation. You’ll find that you’re able to have a real conversation at that point, and to resolve small problems before they grow into something more serious. 

Why Relationships Fail: Emotional Invalidation

Emotional invalidation is another common cause in failing relationships. When we emotionally invalidate our partners, we might agree with their perceptions — that we were late, that we did wear our shoes in the house — but disagree with their emotional reaction to what happened. We might tell them they’re overreacting, or that we can’t understand what they’re so upset about. 

Invalidation happens all the time. I would bet that, at some point in your relationship, you have invalidated your partner, and that your partner has invalidated you. Invalidation doesn’t make you a terrible person (or a gaslighter, for that matter). Most of us don’t even realize when we’re being invalidating; we usually think we’re being helpful, encouraging our partners to let go of bad feelings or see things from another, more positive perspective.

But chronic emotional invalidation leaves your partner with the impression that you don’t care about their experience, that you don’t take their emotions seriously, and that there’s no point in trying to resolve problems with you, because they’ll only be dismissed. If your partner comes to expect invalidation from you, they’ll likely begin to withdraw from the relationship. Eventually, this will destroy your connection. 

To avoid invalidating your partner, practice listening to them, without trying to “fix” their problems or argue them out of their perspective. Practice accepting their emotional reality for what it is, rather than trying to convince them that the way they feel isn’t reasonable. I use the word practice deliberately here — validating is a habit that we all must build with intention. 

Why Relationships Fail: Broken Trust

Minor conflicts that spin out into defensiveness and invalidation have a damaging effect on your bond to your partner. That’s because they lead to broken trust, which is enough to take down even the most loving relationships. 

Over time, if you dismiss your partner’s feelings and concerns as unimportant or overblown, they will stop trusting you. I’m not being dramatic when I say that — they will learn that you’re not an emotionally safe person who will treat their needs, feelings, and perspective as valid and important. And that’s what we need from our partners, more than from anyone else in the world. 

What happens when your partner stops trusting you? They stop being vulnerable with you, and they stop leaning on you in times of need. They might give up on trying to connect with you on a deep emotional level, and settle for a superficial relationship that begins to feel lonely and hollow to you both. They won’t assume that your intentions are good, and conflicts in your relationship will become more bitter and more damaging as time goes on. Eventually, if something doesn’t change, your relationship will disintegrate. 

So how do you repair broken trust, once it’s been damaged? You can start by listening to your partner, validating their feelings, empathizing with them, and taking responsibility for your part in conflicts, rather than reacting with defensiveness. 

This all might sound like I’m telling you to let your partner have their way, or to disregard your own needs, rights, and feelings in favor of your partner’s. That’s not the case — you also deserve to be heard, and to have empathy and validation when you’re upset. But you won’t get that by “winning” the argument or by being the most correct. You’ll get it by extending generosity and kindness toward your partner, which will make them more willing to reciprocate with kindness and generosity in return. 

Why Marriages Succeed or Fail

If I could impart one bit of wisdom to every couple, from my many years as both a married person and as a marriage counselor, it would be this: When marriages fail, it’s usually not in a high-drama, crash and burn scenario. The kind of dissolution that makes for an intriguing TV plot line is rarely what I see play out between actual couples who arrive in my office. 

Instead, marriages fail when two people who love each other don’t have the skills to navigate everyday conflict in a healthy, supportive way that helps their relationship grow. Over time, these conflicts turn corrosive, and their relationships become damaged beyond the point of repair until someone calls it quits in the relationship

But you can build these skills, and your relationship will be stronger and healthier for it. I hope this podcast gave you some good ideas for where to start.

Music in this episode is by Nocturne Blue, covering “Ship of Fools” by World Party. 

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

Lisa Marie Bobby: On today's episode of the podcast, we're talking about a topic that is very challenging. One that people don't like to think about, but one that is vitally important for you to know about and to be thinking about really deliberately. That is why marriages fail—why relationships end. 

Personally, I'm a marriage counselor; I'm a psychologist; I have sat with so many couples, many of whom very eager and motivated to repair their marriages, repair their relationships. We do great work. Over the years, I have sat with many couples whose relationships were ending. I can tell you that every single one of them went into their relationships with the best of intentions. 

On their wedding day, they meant everything they said about sharing the rest of their lives, together, ‘til death do us part, and they meant it. But then their relationships eroded slowly. Over time, it fell apart. They kept falling apart. By the time they got to my office, they were past the point of no return. There wasn't the fabric left to kind of knit things back together again. 

The tragedy of—virtually all of these situations and I have felt this many times sitting on the couch in my therapy office with these couples—is if only you had seen what was happening and intervened a little bit sooner. The truth is that so many couples have opportunities to mend their relationships, but they miss the opportunities because, in the moment, they often don't realize how serious things are before it's too late.

The truth is that there are small micro-moments that happen in relationships that are much more damaging than people think they are. By understanding this, really truly appreciating it, you become empowered to make changes sooner rather than later so that your marriage endures. Understanding what failing relationships actually look like and actually feel like is what can help you identify these moments, the ones that you need to take seriously and not minimize them, because that's such a natural tendency to do.

So with me today, to take a deep dive into what you really need to be noticing and paying attention to differently, is the author, Matthew Fray. His new book is called This Is How Your Marriage Ends: A Hopeful Approach to Saving Relationships. Matthew learned these lessons the hard way and is here with me today to share his hard-earned insight with you for your benefit.

Matthew, thank you so much for being with me today. I'm really excited to have this conversation.

Matthew Fray: Thank you so much. I'm really happy to be here. I really appreciate the invitation.

The Marriage Lesson I Learned Too Late

Lisa: Well, thank you again so much. I have to—I think I mentioned it to you, but I'll share with my audience. I read all the time when I'm not working. Basically, I have my nose either in a book or an article about something. It was just a couple of weeks ago I was browsing around online, and I came across an article that you had written that, for The Atlantic, an excerpt from your book.

I just remember reading your words, and first of all, just being struck by what a beautiful writer you are. I was reading it, it was like, “Wow, I wish I could write that as well.” But also, like, the message that you conveyed in this article was just like dead on. It was like, “This is what I've been trying to tell people for years and years.”

If it's okay with you, I thought maybe we could start with just this little excerpt from what you wrote to kind of orient our listeners to your message, and then we can go from there. Is that okay?

Matthew: Yeah, yeah, that sounds great.

Lisa: The title of the article was The Marriage Lesson That I Learned Too Late with the very intriguing subheading of—you said, “The reason my marriage fell apart seems absurd when I describe it: My wife left me because I sometimes leave dishes by the sink.” Very intriguing, right? But when you go into the article, I mean, you just so beautifully described, I think this phenomenon that's so real and true for so many couples. 

You write, “The things that destroy love and marriage often disguise themselves as unimportant. Many dangerous things neither appear nor feel dangerous as they're happening. They're not arms and gunshots. They're pinpricks. They're paper cuts. And that is the danger. When we don't recognize something as threatening, then we're not on guard. These tiny wounds start to bleed and the bleed-out is so gradual that many of us don't recognize the threat until it's too late to stop it.”

You go on to say, “I spent most of my life believing that what ended marriages were behaviors I classify as Major Marriage Crimes. If murder, rape, and armed robbery are major crimes in the criminal justice system, I viewed sexual affairs, physical spousal abuse, and gambling away the family savings as the major crimes in a marriage.

Because I wasn't committing Major Marriage Crimes, when my wife and I were on the opposite sides of an issue, I would suggest that we agree to disagree. I believe that she was wrong—either that she was fundamentally incorrect in her understanding of the situation or that she was treating me unfairly.

It always seemed as if the punishment didn't fit the crime—as if she were charging me with premeditated murder when my infraction was something closer to driving a little bit over the speed limit with a burned-out tail light that I didn't even know was burned out.

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of times, my wife tried to communicate that something was wrong. That something hurt. ‘But that didn't make sense’, I thought. I'm not trying to hurt her; therefore, she shouldn't feel hurt. We didn't go down in a fiery explosion. We bled out from 10,000 paper cuts. Quietly. Slowly.

She knew something was wrong. I insisted everything was fine. This is how my marriage ended. It could be how yours ends too.”

Whoa. What powerful words, Matthew. I mean, I read that and I was like,” Yeah, that's exactly what happens.” Most people have no idea that it's even happening when it's happening.

Matthew: Oh, I was really flattered. Nothing has propelled book sales since launch. The book’s been out six or seven weeks now. March 22 in North America was book launch. Nothing had as significant of an impact on those sales as that Atlantic excerpted, so I was extremely grateful for it. As a former journalist, too, being in a publication that I respect as much as The Atlantic was, like, just personally, like a really cool opportunity to have a byline in it. 

As you said, it was an excerpt from the book. It was really more their work than mine to be fair. They took the lion's share of that excerpt from a section of the book, which is based on a blog post that I wrote in 2016, called She Divorced Me Because I Left the Dishes by the Sink. That was far and away the most popular thing that I've ever written. If anybody has ever, like, heard of me or anything like that, it would be almost certainly because of that article.

Millions and millions of times that thing's been read and shared, and I just—nothing else in my world had that level of reach. I've just come to understand that it's a popular conversation for people to have. Although I fear, a great majority of the people miss the point of the conversation because the lion's share of the criticism I receive as either a blogger or now as author of the book, This Is How Your Marriage Ends, is the idea that a dish by the sink.

It's the same argument I made in my actual marriage. The argument that that is such an insignificant thing and our marriage is so important and the idea that “I love you” is so important, “so let's not elevate this dish by the sink to a marriage problem.” 

That's more or less the arguments that I'm getting from predominantly men in heterosexual relationships with women who I assume say things similar to the things my wife said in regards to the way the dish by the sink caused her to feel. How like her experience with that dish, her thoughts and feelings about it. 

They make the case that their desire to leave it there—that's well thought out, and that their individual experiences should weigh equally. I'm very interested in your take on this idea, and I'm fine with people thinking that. Like, I'm fine. The way that I think about it is that putting a dish in the dishwasher and having to take it out again or having to get a new one from the cupboard or finding some new system that—it was a glass by the way.

I think people imagine, especially because The Atlantic had the sink full of, like, all these dirty dishes, that's not what it was. It was and I still keep it there. It's a clear drinking glass. One glass that I put water in once a day to take vitamins and medicine and things like that. It just bothered her because she liked the kitchen a certain standard and clean. 

People take great exception to the idea that my opinion—men who I think identify with me of 10 or 15 years ago feel like we need to defend our position. That our desires, our wants, our “needs” should matter as much as our spouses, and I think they should. I think they should matter the same, but I don't think we're having the same conversation. 

I don't feel dishonored, disrespected, not considered small and visible, because of my wife's desire to have me put the dishes in the dishwasher. The alternative is not true, me leaving it there does, in fact, result in pain, and feelings of disrespect and feelings of being unheard. 

Instead of having a conversation about the merits of that dish being there, I want to have a conversation about the merits of behaving in such a way, speaking and acting in such a way, where the math result is showing up effectively for our relationship partners. You may very well be married to somebody who does not care about that dish by the sink. 

They may share your lack of enthusiasm for that, but there will be a different conversation about something because we're human beings, that will matter to them, that will not, like, resonate intellectually or emotionally with you. You will simply not care the same. I don't know how to say it sort of like more precisely than that—you won't care as much. It's that disagreement that I think is the epicenter of like the common conflict pattern in relationships.

I just think for the person who feels unheard, who feels as if I can never go to my relationship partner and communicate something's wrong because it seems as if they don't agree with me, they will always choose what they think and what they feel over me for the rest of my life. It means I have to deal with that and accept it and voluntarily subject myself to that or have to leave.

Matthew: We leave, in my case, I left my wife with an exceedingly difficult choice, which was keep her son 100% of her life. Like, have him at home and have to deal with that, or leave and give herself a chance for a relationship or not having—regardless whether she was going to be single or whether she's going to see somebody else—not being subjected to the approval of someone to feel a certain way about something because that's essentially what that story is about.

I didn't give her permission to hurt. I didn't give her permission to think that dish by the sink mattered. Go ahead and insert any example from your personal life, dear listener, because it's not always a dish but metaphorically it is. Everybody has their own dish by the sink story in their relationship. Everybody, I think—most people I encounter are savvy enough to recognize it. 

I talked to somebody a day or two ago where it's he’d wore shoes in the house all the time, and his wife just repeatedly would ask them not to. Most of the time if he was, like, coming home for the day, he’d take them off. 

But what if you, like, went outside really quick to, like, go to the garage for something, and there's like, “Oh, I forgot something in the house. I'm gonna sprint over to the bedroom, but I'm not gonna take the time to take my shoes off.” But those were the moments that, like, drove her really. She got really upset with them. Again, it's not about the relative impact of, like, wearing shoes in the house. It is, “I will always choose me over you whenever we disagree.” That destroys trust in relationships.

The Definition of Love

Lisa: Yeah, you're absolutely right. We could crack into that further. But I love that message of really being able to think about your behaviors, our behaviors in the context of what they mean to other people because it's different for other people than it is for us. In some ways, it can be the definition of love, right? Our partner's needs and rights and feelings are just as important as our own, and how do we show them that? 

 Matthew: I think it's reasonable for people to not want to accept responsibility for that. It shows up, I think, particularly in, like, sociopolitical conversations and religious differences. It's the idea that “What I believe is right and true, and if that offends another person, that's really their problem.” That mindset, I think, is fine. I don't adopt it. It's how I used to be. It is exactly the mindset I used to have that I think resulted in the worst thing that's ever happened to me, which was the end of my marriage and family

That's why I'm not in favor of showing up in the world that way anymore. But I don't begrudge people doing that. I don't think it's immoral. I just think if we're not cognizant of what happens to another human when we do that, it's not about you being bad. It's not about that behavior being bad. In my estimation, forgive me, I'm not trying to speak for you or anyone else. But for me, the thing to value is the math results. 

The math results of showing up that way in our interpersonal relationships are really probably with anybody, I believe, means that we won't have as much trust. We will not be trusted as much with the hearts and minds of other human beings. People want to trust that being in our sphere, whether that's being close friends or professional colleagues or best friends or whatever. 

But certainly, when we share homes and bedrooms and money and children, and our lives are super intertwined, the way they are in marriage or long-term cohabitating relationships, and again, particularly when you're raising children together, the stakes get even higher.

When somebody can't trust you to—what I would sort of, like, say is—act in their best interest on account that we don't think the dish qualifies, right? We know we'll walk with you in the parking garage and that will keep you safe from an intruder or whatever it is that people think about what it means to, like, show up lovingly and caring for someone else. It's this miscalculation that something that doesn't matter to you is somehow not able to matter to somebody else. That is such a significant blind spot, I think in relationships. I think I understand why it is because I've sort of lived both sides of it now.

The Glass

Lisa: Yeah, it was about the glass on the side of the sink, but it also wasn't. The glass just became a symbol for how your wife felt. It was a symbol for the relationship unraveling because it wasn't about the glass. It was about what the glass meant. It was interpreted as, “Do you care about my feelings? Am I important to you?” That's what we lose sight of when we get into power struggles about where the glass goes, isn't it?

Matthew: Yeah, that's—I mean, I think that's it. I think it's reasonable for somebody to who has successful relationships. This is something that I talk with a lot of. I work as. like, a relationship coach per se. People come to me. Guys that are like, “Wow. You sound exactly like me,” and I'm like, “I understand.” I try to help them understand that there's no judgment and that, in a certain respect, it really makes sense. 

When all of your family relationships are solid, when you have a bunch of friends, when you're successful at work, when you're liked and respected and appreciated, it's so frustrating when the only person in your life who like levies charges of like mistreatment is the person that you feel like you love the most and sacrifice the most for. It does not compute. 

Then sort of like math data analysis terms, if she's the outlier, she is the statistical outlier. A data scientist eliminates the statistical outlier as the thing that's not like the rest. I just think that is the, like, autopilot thing that so many people do. Again, often men in heterosexual relationships, it would seem that just dismiss these concerns of the other person because they're so unlike any of the feedback that they're getting from any other part of their life.

So I always want to defend these people. There are certainly people with ill intentions that cause a lot of harm. I don't mean to overlook those or trivialize the struggles of being in a relationship with somebody who you feel sort of tricked you or conned you into a life together and then emerged as something really, really awful, and like tyrannical in either subtle or overt ways. 

But I think the majority from a math standpoint of these relationships are exactly as you described at the beginning, where two people voluntarily chose one another and absolutely are in this to go the distance and then are fundamentally confused five, seven, 10,15 years later as to how it could have deteriorated and how it can feel so bad. Because all along the way, it just seemed like nothing rose to the level of being important. 

I equate it to what the American Cancer Society had to do in the 1950s, the 1960s on their campaign to convince the public of the dangers of tobacco smoking. Because back then the societal norm was to smoke in a car with the windows rolled up and babies in the backseat with no meaningful—

Lisa: “Not a big deal. Everybody does it.” Yeah.

Matthew: Yeah, maybe not even in, like, some sort of, like, safe car seat. Just riding on somebody's lap and it's just—that was how things were. We didn't know. If you don't know smoking is harmful, I think it makes sense to smoke. 

Lisa: Totally.

Matthew: In fact, I used to do it in my youth and I'm so glad that I don't , right?

Lisa: Yeah. 

Matthew: People, like, make mindful changes once they understand that this thing equals harm. Not all people but many people, and that is to me the mission is, can people understand that this thing they don't calculate to be harmful is in fact harmful. I don't necessarily know how to do it except just keep doing what I'm trying to do. What so many people in the streets are trying to do.

The Danger of Small Things

Lisa: Totally. I mean, even just talking about this, you're exactly right. People literally do not understand that these small things are dangerous. It's the equivalent of smoking a cigarette, they have no idea. One of the things that I've been on such a mission about like, premarital counseling. We do a lot of, like, that preventative stuff, but also just talking about this, so that people can just have that mirror. Because who talks about this? Like nobody teaches you how to have a healthy relationship, right?

We just—our own divorced parents were the role models, and it's, like, somebody has to be talking about this. That's why I'm thrilled for this. To even crack deeper in this, like, in your book, one of the first chapters that you write and I think that this is such a nice idea too. Good people can make bad spouses.

Because we think about people who aren't good at relationships as being uncaring or unloving, and that is not true. Lovely people are unconsciously making these mistakes that they don't even know are mistakes in the moment. But can you say more about that idea? Good people can make bad spouses.

Good People Make Bad Spouses

Matthew: I can. It's one of my favorite things that I ever thought of. Because one of my sort of, like, hallmark traits in my marriage was defensiveness—feeling unfairly criticized, unfairly attacked as if my wife wasn't giving me the benefit of the doubt. Because it's like, “Goodness! I do all these things. It's like, why are you interpreting this in the most negative, cynical way possible?” is often sort of how I responded to whatever was, like, happening in her life.

 Just habitually invalidating and dismissive, which is awful when I'm claiming to love ready —again, please understand I didn't. I know you know, but listener.

Lisa: No, no. It happens together.

Matthew: Yeah, I didn't associate how—I just fundamentally thought I was being mistreated, truly, in that moment, even though I really recognized today she was. But it's—that's the danger is, I think it to humans in a shared life together can very honestly believe that they're, like, sort of doing the right thing, that they're on the unfair receiving end of this. 

Lisa: Absolutely.

Matthew: So I want to sell people on the idea of—particularly people prone to defensiveness and a relationship from negative feedback from the relationship partner—that it doesn't have to be about good/bad, doesn't even have to be about right/wrong. It is completely disassociated with character. It is good people can be bad partners. I thought it was useful to think about. 

I described my grandmother as a person that I think is above reproach from a character standpoint. She's incredible, just the nicest human being, and just, I've never, ever in my 43 years seen my grandmother speak ill of anyone or mistreat anyone. She'll make excuses for, like, the worst people actually. She's like that kind of lady and loves humans. 

But I make the case, despite my grandmother's impeccable character, I don't think that’s who you'd want to contract to build a skyscraper to fly an airplane or to fix your watch or whatever. Anything that's difficult in life to do. Developing expertise and mastery of something is about knowledge and about skill building, about practice. So we learn things, and then we practice doing things, trying to execute best practices over and over again.

That's how we develop skills, mastery, knowledge, things like that. I did not know how to associate. I was so busy thinking: because I was a decent human that I was automatically a decent husband, a decent spouse. I just—to me that belief alone creates so many blind spots, so many ways of defending oneself and deflecting responsibilities and things like that. 

If I thought of marriage and relationships as something that I needed to develop expertise and mastery about, and this is nobody's fault, this was my responsibility. But I do think we've raised generations of people without some of the building block, knowledge and skills necessary to relate effectively. 

The Repair in Harmony-Disharmony

Matthew: Again, I think the most important skill that I didn't understand—I say empathy, I think and I don't necessarily mean that organically feel how others feel. When I say that, I mean, this idea of like intentionally choosing to view a scenario through the experiences of someone else that you love, and then sort of modifying words and actions accordingly because you care about them. 

But more to the point and I don't think I talked about this in the book because I don't think I had awareness about the relational cycle of harmony-disharmony-repair is that capacity for repair, like, in that moment was a big, big mess for me in my marriage that I try really hard to encourage people to think about today.

Lisa: Yeah, the repair is so important. But you bring up such another great point—that I think cannot be understated—is also just the power of systems. On this show, something that we talk about a lot is how relationships are a dance. I mean, people aren't just being individuals in the system, right? They're being influenced by each other.

It's very, very easy to perceive your partner as being out to get you or in the wrong, which then allows you to feel entitled to be not very kind to them in return. That the relationship system can kind of take on a cycle of its own. But, also, even those repair attempts, while they are so important, if there's so much—John Gottman calls it negative affect priming—that if it gets to a certain point, repair attempts don't work anymore. 

It's just so key to get into this sooner rather than later. I think what I'm hearing you say is that to have had the humility, I think to consider, like we all do, “Maybe I do have some learning and growing to do in order to be a good partner for this specific person,” right? As opposed to that kind of global message around, “I'm a good person. I can have relationships. I know what to do. So there's something wrong with her.” That's like the easy, the easy default to assume. Yeah.

Matthew: I may very well end up in a long-term romantic relationship with somebody that doesn't care about a dish by the sink, that doesn't care about certain, like, idiosyncrasies that my son's mother, like, may have had, or pain points that she'd felt. But there will be new things, there'll be other things, and it is incumbent on me to learn those, to understand them if I am to effectively, like, prevent negative experiences on her pardon and vice versa.

Again, I don't mean to sound like I don't think both partners. If we're talking again, heterosexual relationships, men, I don't mean that their needs are also important. I just only know how to approach this from my side of it—the personal responsibility side of it. I trust that it'll be reciprocated in a healthy relationship. 

Like, I don't see how being unhealthy will in any way yield a positive result. Another point of negative feedback is mad. Didn't your—surely your ex-wife was imperfect. Surely she did stuff you didn't like. Don’t you think maybe you're taking all the blame here. I'm like, I don't like the word blame. I don't finger-point. I'm like, I'm for personal responsibility. 

I'm like, even if I only did 20% of it, just maybe all of the things that I might not have liked, that my ex-wife was—maybe how can I fairly calculate for what she would have said, done, felt, had I eliminated my portion of, like, the pain that was being caused? I just, I really want people to think about that. It's so critical.

It's not fair to hurt people, and then be angry with them for behaving as a hurt person does, is my take today. Where I used to—that's exactly how I used to act, though. I did things. It hurt my wife. She would say it hurt, and then I would be angry that she was creating a relationship conflict. It was awful. I really see it so clearly today in a way I didn't when I was stuck in it. I hate it for her, I really do, and for everybody who's stuck in like that cycle.

Lisa: Right. Well, you can't see in them. I mean, I can't tell you how many times I've sat with couples, and they're waiting for the other person to change, waiting for the other person to take responsibility. Well, if they stopped doing that, right? To, like, help people wrap their heads around the idea that you actually have to take 100% of the responsibility for whatever happens in your relationship.

Ideally, you'll both be taking 100% of their responsibility, but that's absolutely the only thing that you can do is keep your side of the equation clean. So yeah.

The Invalidation Triple Threat

Lisa: I wonder if that was kind of what you were getting into in the next section of your book where you talked about invalidation triple threat. Can you take us into that idea?

Matthew: Yeah. I'd be curious how you—because I think I value your thoughts and opinions and experiences, frankly, more than mine in the context of the way couples relate to one another.

 But I make the claim in the book that I believe this—literally this invisible, it's certainly not invisible to the person who feels invalidated—but I think to the end-validator who genuinely loves the person and wants to live with them for the rest of their lives, I think this is the greatest blind spot, the greatest source of accidental inadvertent trust erosion, and therefore, the greatest threat to relationships, the leading cause of relationship failure. 

Since whenever speech started happening between romantic partners—I just perceive this to probably be the thing that's ended more relationships than anything else. I don't mean marriage, there's a million—a million relationships never get to marriage. There's so many that never get there. I still think this is probably at the epicenter of so much of it. 

So yes, in the invalidation triple threat, as I call it, are the three distinct ways that I believe somebody with this habit that I had, and I find it's very common in the people that, like, find me and want to work with me. We don't intend to invalidate. As I recently learned from somebody in your line of work from Australia, she said, “Intention does not equal experience.”

That's a more efficient way of saying what I try to say, is that doesn't matter what you're trying to do, pain can still happen on the other side of the equal sign. It disguises itself as harmless disagreement. It disguises itself as a disagreement between two adults. It's reasonable for human beings to feel as if they're allowed to have a difference of opinion, a different experience, a different desire than the other person. 

I was so offended that it seemed like my wife needed me to agree with her all the time. But that's not what validation is. It's not about agreeing. It's not about thinking the same things my wife felt. It's not about feeling the same things my wife felt. 

Here's what it looked like in my life. She would come to me and she'd say, “Matt, a bad thing happened and I feel bad about it.” Version one of this triple threat is I would disagree with her intellectual experience. The thing that she believed had happened, I would have believed something else happened. So I'd reframe it, and say, “That's actually not what happened. What happened is this.”

But the math result of that exchange is your feelings don't matter because it's based on something that wasn't real. That's version one. Version two is my wife comes to me, she says, “Matt, a bad thing happened. I feel bad about it.” This time, I completely agree with her that the event happened exactly as she says it did. 

But this time, I'm confused as to why she's reacting so sensitively or angrily or whatever it is. I'm like, “Okay, that's what happened. But why are you making such a big deal out of it?” So in version one, her brain’s wrong. She's—I don't say this but the implication is that she's dumb—

Lisa: Think about it this way. 

Matthew: That she's wrong—

Lisa: Yeah.

Matthew: That she's crazy. Version two— I don't say this—but the implication is that she's weak, that she's hypersensitive, that she's, she's being dramatic, something like that. Version three is just classic defensiveness, which is why I think that character conversation that good people can be bad spouses idea is so important. 

You can be an amazing human and still not be awesome at some function. So think about it like that when somebody's coming at you maybe with some negative feedback or criticism. My wife would say, “Matt, you did something that hurt me.” My instinct was to, like, defend myself to say, “Wait a minute. I did not mean to hurt you. If you understand, like, what I was trying to do, you won't be mad at me anymore. You won't feel bad anymore or something.”

Anyway, all of these response patterns are inherently invalidating to the person who's trying to communicate, “Something's wrong. Something hurts me. I'm trying to let you know because you're not psychic. I'm trying to recruit you to understand it, so that tomorrow and next week, and next month, next year, the same thing won’t keep happening.” 

That's the goal of the conversation where person whose hurt comes to the other partner, and just wants to let them know, “Hey, something's wrong. Help me.” But if my brain did not align with my wife's brain, I didn't respond in a manner that suggests that tomorrow I wouldn't do the same thing over again if my feelings didn't align, if my intentions didn't align. 

Here's what my wife learned. She learned after 12 years with me that if I didn't agree with what she believed, or I didn't, like, agree that she should feel the way that she felt, that I would always choose what I thought and what I felt over her, even at the expense of her, like, emotional experiences. That's what she learned. 

If we want to talk about trust in a relationship, and trust in my estimation being the most significant condition required for relationship health and longevity, and I just think a lot of people think love is. I think a lot of people painfully leave a relationship with somebody they love. I just think the absence of trust, the erosion of trust is the greatest predictor of relationships that will end. 

We can do this as a decent human who loves his or her relationship partner, but just fails to validate over and over and over and over again. Because the message is simply, “I'll always choose me over you,” even though, like, that's not philosophically how I thought about it. It's the math result of the conversation pattern. 

We have to take ownership of that and learn how to eliminate what I've come to believe this is very unhealthy, toxic, conversational dance that we do in our relationships. I coach people to begin a new habit of validating—replacing the habit of invalidation with validating. 

I like talking about it as habits, because I'm not smart enough and I'm not good enough as a human being to help somebody make some spiritual change, so to speak, or to grow intensely. I do know how to encourage somebody to change a small behavior and practice it over and over and over again, and the hopes that the math result will be trust restoration and a relationship.

Lisa: Definitely. Well, I mean, at the end of the day, it is ultimately all about that behavior change. I think what you just shared is so important and understanding, helping people understand the why. 

It's so significant because I am certain that if I had been in the room with you, and that was happening, and I'm like, “What's going on?” You would—you loved your wife. You had nothing but good intentions. You're probably trying to help her. In that moment, if we had to crack into your point of view, it wasn't— 

Matthew: Certainly sometimes.

Lisa: Ill intention. But that result of really understanding the way that people feel, and I think also understanding what the priority is in those conversations, is that emotional intimacy. It's attunement. It's feeling cared about. That's how adults express that and receive that is often through sharing feelings, and feeling important and emotionally safe with others when they do. 

To be able to learn how to do that is just such a crucial relationship skill. Unfortunately, not to gender stereotype, but you've mentioned several times in our conversation so far, that can often be men in heterosexual relationships who struggle here. 

I firmly believe that this is largely due to just a lack of socialization. That these kinds of skills aren't prioritized in boys and young men as they're growing up, so they literally don't know how, don’t know what's a thing, don't know why it's important. “Why would I do that anyway?” Until they experience the consequences of it and start having these conversations.

The Monster Under the Bed

Matthew: Dr. Bobby, do we have time to talk about this funny little, like, monster under the bed analogy that I like to share?

Lisa: I'd love to hear about the monster under the bed.

Matthew: Do we? Well, it's the thing that helped me. So I went from, like, guy, just like all these other guys, and I now—try to help people not practice this invalidation habit anymore. This is the thought exercise that, like, broke through for me. I honestly don't remember how I even thought of it. It's just the thing I eventually concocted that worked. 

My son is thirteen, but he used to be four. When he was four, he was a threat to wake up in the middle of the night—afraid of a monster hiding under his bed. I like to think about how I would have shown up in that scenario ten years ago, fifteen years ago. 

The way is, let's pretend I'm watching Monday Night Football, and I hear my son crying. So I'm gonna pause it or just run upstairs or whatever. I'm going to open the door and I'm going to discover that my son is crying and feeling fear, because he thinks there might be a monster under his bed. And my default instinct back then, as his father would be, I know there's no monster. I don't want my son to feel afraid. I want him to stop crying selfishly because I want to go watch football again. And the way I'm going to solve this problem is to sell him on this knowledge that I have that he doesn't have, that there isn't a monster under the bed.

And so I might say something really careless and not very good from a parenting standpoint, in my estimation, but many of us maybe grew up like this. That says, “Dude, there's no monster under the bed. There's no reason to be crying right now. You know, you're afraid for no reason. Settle down. Everything's fine.” I might say something super toxic. Like, “Be my big boy. Toughen up. Everything's okay. You know, this has been your bedroom your whole life, like go to sleep. And you know, I'll see you in the morning.” I don't have time for invisible monsters that might be some like gross, selfish thing that I might have done, you know, ten, twelve years ago.

Anyway, I just think there's like really critical ideas to think about for like the guy that's me in this scenario that didn't grow up with relational skills. Because I understand why we know the harmful, the threat isn't there. And if we can just implant that knowledge in this other human, then problem solved and we get to go back to doing whatever we were doing before. I think that's like the way we're thinking about it. And I think there's like if there was a judge in the room, I'm right, in this instance, right. Not all relationship conflict is so demonstrably provable. That a lot of times, it's more nuanced than that. But in this case, I'm right. And I love my son, and I would never, ever try to hurt him.

Despite those three things, what's the math result of this example? My son's alone in the dark, he's afraid, he's crying. And he just learned that if dad doesn't think the thing that's adversely affecting me, is important. If he doesn't think my sadness, or my fear is worthy of his time, he abandons me, literally or metaphorically to cry alone in the dark after implying that I'm stupid or weak for acting the way that I'm acting right now. And it doesn't mean this child in this example, doesn’t know dad loves them. I think it just means trust eroded, I think it means the quality score of our relationship just took a hit. And that if that's how I always show up when he's suffering through things large or small, over time, I'm going to lose all of the trust that I just earned that I was gifted as his father.

And in the future, when he hurts, he's not going to invite dad to be part of those conversations. So right when he's offered drugs, when he's experiencing bullying, when he's whatever, some really unpleasant things in his life that I as his father really want to be included in, in order to like, be like a decent, connected, loving father, he won't invite me to. I'm no longer I'm no longer a safe person to include when life's hard. And so I’d really like the guys that I'm working with to think about that.

And hopefully, they get that this is like a metaphor, our adult relationships in the way that we respond to people when we don't when we think that they believe something that isn't real, or when we're somehow disagreeing with their emotional reaction to something, because there's a better way. Because it's not about agreeing with your relationship partner. It's not about agreeing that there's a monster under the bed. That's not the thing that makes your relationship better. And in fact, being right, I think in this instance, proves to harm the relationship, increases disconnection, increases mistrust.

There's another way to show up, and it's who I want to be today. And I hear my son crying, I'm going to run up, I'm going to open the door, I'm gonna sit on the bed, I'm gonna hug the kid. I'm going to find out what's going on. And I say to him, “I don't think there's a monster under the bed. But I'm really sorry that you're afraid right now. I have been afraid. And it's just about the worst experience one can have. And I'm so sorry. Let's turn the light on to make sure there's no monster under the bed.” And the idea that I really want the guys I'm working with to like, embrace and latch on to for dear life is the following.

This is me talking to my hypothetical son in this example, is: “When life's hard, when things hurt, when things scare you, I want you to know you can always call mom. You can always call Dad, and we're going to show up for you. And even if we can't fight your battle for you, or fix what's wrong, you never have to feel alone. You never have to feel like you're the only person suffering this bad thing that you're experiencing. That's what you can trust to happen over and over again, when you call dad, when you call mom.”

And that is the lesson that I really want the guys that feel like I did 10-15 years ago, to walk away from this conversation with to set aside feelings of correctness, feelings of certainty, feelings of I gotta fight for what's right. Because I know that I know more about this than she or he or they do value the quality of your relationship. And the way it's done is by communicating that in the future, when bad things happen to them. 

You might not be able to fix what's wrong. You can just try to understand, you can care. But most importantly, you're not going to neglect and abandon the people you love to suffer alone. And I think that that really nuanced behavior change, mindset change. And Brene taught me right like that idea. Brene Brown’s work taught me about like the metaphorical idea of sitting with your friend in the dark, so that they didn't feel alone because I hadn't really I was always like, who just sit still and doesn't do anything. You feel so helpless. 

But it's not about that. It's not about it at all. It's about communicating that today and tomorrow and always, if you're suffering. I know that I can't fix it's not about that. You're just not alone. I'll give you space if you need it. But if you want to not be alone, you'll never have to be. I wish I'd given that to the people that I loved. My entire life, but nobody had imparted on me like the wisdom of like, right that that behavior that messaging. And so the only person who's ever really truly gotten it's my son, because I know it's a thing that I've learned and he's about to go to high school and I think he is going to trust me. 

Lisa: Well now you can teach him differently. But I totally agree. We don't attribute a lot of value to just simple connection. I think we're socialized into doing or fixing or problem solving. And it's really just being there together in those moments. That's the most important thing. But it's so easy to miss. 

Hey, can I ask? I don't know if this would be too personal of a question. And if it is, we can scoot over. But I'm thinking right now of people, couples, individuals who might be listening to the show. And in my experience, it is so easy for people to talk themselves out of doing something, getting help for their relationship.”It's not that big of a deal. It'll be okay. It's just we've been stressed.”

Fork In The Road Moments

Lisa: But looking back at your own experience, if you had a time machine, can you identify some of those fork in the road moments that if you had done something or taken action at that time, it could have led to a different outcome? I'm wondering what your advice would be for somebody who's maybe who, for whom that fork in the road is still a little bit ways ahead of them, just to help them see it more clearly than you were able to?

Matthew: I can think of several of them. But the problem is they present small. And so I feel they'll seem so undramatic to everybody. But a quick list would be what I mentioned in the book, and it's one of the things I'm most ashamed of in the world is a couple of these that I mentioned in the book, that some of them that I'm most ashamed of in the world. 

But the very beginning of our dating relationship. Early, I was still really interested in autonomy, and not feeling trapped in a relationship because we'd only been dating, I don't know, a couple of months or something. And I would make plans to like, go see friends and things like that. And then I'd get some negative feedback about that. I don't know if you remember this, but she gave up—she was going to move with three of her friends to a different state. And she completely changed her life plans to remain in the city, just so she could pursue a relationship with me. 

And then what she got in return was me continuing to fight to be like the single quasi-bachelor guy. And I don't literally mean that. I don't mean like, so I could go date other people, but I mean, I had no—at 21 I had no desire or context for this idea of inclusion of consideration of thinking about, if I make plans on a Thursday, or Friday or Saturday to go to this bar, keg party, or whatever I'm doing, I should absolutely be checking in with my person to see how it might affect her. 

It was just not an idea that had fully cemented yet. But anyway, we'd fight about it, and she'd get really upset. And I wish I would have just sat whether I wish I just would have sat with her instead of the like cold, quasi-angry, defensive, “I can't believe this is your reaction to this totally normal thing that I'm doing.” Because it started there. That was like the seed planting for how I was always going to show up in relationships. Man, there's a ton like in our marriage. 

Oh my I hope these don't make her sound ridiculous, because she's really not ridiculous. She really wasn't. She liked white gold better than yellow gold. I haven't talked about this very many times. It's not in the book. And I buy her yellow gold jewelry sometimes. We didn't have a lot of money. So they weren't particularly extravagant things. But most of the things I got her, including her engagement ring, were yellow gold, despite her affinity for white gold. And I just was so dismissive of her preference for white gold on the basis that I thought it looked like silver.

And silver is like the inferior precious metal to gold. And so it's like you're gonna get like the thing that is and looks valuable. And I know that might sound so ridiculous, maybe to somebody listening, but it's right. It was another piece of evidence that I will always choose what I think and why I feel over her. It was just another and so you take a beautiful gesture, a gift and you castrate it somehow. You cut it off at the knees, whatever. You make it a negative event. 

And then that same guy, and I'm really talking about me, gets defensive at the quasi like negative reaction to it. The lukewarm reaction you're sort of offended by, because it's like, “Goodness, how ungrateful can this human be?” And then you almost get like mad about I mean, stuff like that happened with us, I would fail to consider and fail to validate, and then be angry with her for feeling hurt, for feeling dismissed and unheard. And so I mean, just all these tiny, tiny moments, the vast majority of which I can't remember. 

And so we talked about forks in the road, they were the two lines were just like, going by a half degree each time, but over 12 years, you end up out here. And I didn't know how to think about it like that. I kept waiting for her to evolve into somebody that would think and feel about stuff the way that I did, which is really ignorant. But I guess I kind of thought something like that was gonna happen. 

Lisa: Very common. 

Matthew: So yeah, it's really that the big one that I feel morally obligated to say is that sometime, within a week or two, prior to my son being born, our son being born, a couple of dads had told me, “Listen, she's gonna be so exhausted. If her labor is anything like my wife's was, she's going to be so exhausted. It's critical, it's imperative that you get adequate sleep. So that when you have to make all these decisions about tons of stuff—shots and circumcisions and birth certificate spellings and all the things, you need to be as with it and lucid as possible.”

I had it in my head, that I was gonna go home, we live really close to the hospital. I was eight minutes away, I was gonna go home, and get a decent night's sleep after the baby was born. Well, what actually happened was, there was an induced labor, it lasted more than 24 hours. And then she had to have an emergency C section. And she was a wreck, understandably, a wreck. 

And sometime around 1:30 In the morning, about five hours after surgery in the birth of our son, I was like, “Hey, I'm gonna go.” And then boom, all of a sudden, there's this conflict. Imagine not having the conversation ahead of time, by the way, like, imagine not having it. So that everybody's expectations were met, I have no earthly idea why I was the way that I was. But I was insistent that everything was okay, that she had a nursing staff, and they all knew how to do things. And I was worthless. I couldn't help with any of this. And it wasn't about that, right? It was about sitting alone in the dark with somebody. 

And that, in my estimation, was my greatest abandonment, and the biggest trust killer, by far. I just really think that's the one that really did me in and I didn't know it at the time. And I don't think I ever recovered from that. And I think any thoughts she might have had about having a second child with me, went out the window. Really if not, then very quickly after bringing our baby home and being the default parent from day one. To all the moms out there. I'm so sorry.

Lisa: Oh no, it's so important for people to hear. It really is. Because there's the little things lie the little snowflakes that kind of pile up into a drift. But what you were talking about after birth, there's actually a technical term for that sort of thing and it is an “Attachment injury.” And there are some of these moments that where people are particularly vulnerable, after birth, they're sick, a parent just died, something major is going on. 

And how we respond to our partners in those moments do carry more weight, and they are either opportunities for connection, and you use the word abandonment. That is how it is experienced in those moments, and they can be their traumas, their injuries, they persist long after the event and I hear that that's a hard one.

Matthew: It may still be something she carries. I wouldn't doubt it. She's very kind to me. She doesn't behave in a resentful way with me.

Lisa: Oh, no, yeah, no, I'm understanding but for the relationship.

Matthew: Yes, I would not be surprised if deep down there was still a lot of anger and resentment about that. Despite she lives a very, very near as I can tell, happy, healthy life. She has been in another relationship for like, six, seven years, to an exceedingly decent human being and everything's great. Like her son and I, but that's the one I think, and then we did lose her father. 

And I think this is an important idea for people too. We lost her father a few years later. And it was obviously very traumatic. And I think the single greatest like shock, loss, grieving moment of her life and what's interesting about the loss of her father is, I was all in. Like, I felt it too. There was not any disagreement about the severity of this incident, I was fair, present, locked in, supportive. And after the initial sort of wave, the first two-ish weeks, there was a really hard sort of like, shift and pull, pull away that happened. And she was never the same. And it wasn't terribly long after we ended up in separate bedrooms. 

And then 18 months after that our marriage officially ended. But when I tried to diagnose my marriage, early, as it was falling apart, I believed wholeheartedly that my wife suffered major shock and trauma and grief from the loss of her father. And that she was allowing those intense and understandable understandably intense emotions to usurp the seriousness, sacredness, importance of our relationship, of our marriage. And so she was allowing an understandably horrible thing to in an unhealthy way, infect, our marriage and not want to participate in it. And that's the reason we fell apart and ended. I truly believed that narrative, and felt like a victim of unfair circumstances back then. 

And what I understand today is that through a series of micro infractions, and a couple more major ones, like the hospital incident, I had demonstrated myself to be someone she could simply not trust when life is hard. I treated her the equivalent of the child that I said, “There's no monster under the bed, get over yourself, everything's fine.” So it wasn't about, “he doesn't love me”, it was, “he probably does but his behavior never feels like it. He doesn't feel safe, he doesn't feel like somebody I can count on when life's hard.”

And so I think that is such a common narrative in relationships, where the slow erosion of trust occurs through all these, like tiny betrayals, and all these tiny invalidations, so to speak, but then when the major event hits, the person in suffering, realizes that the other person is not a person that mathematically results in safety, and love and care. It's just not it's not an oasis of peace and togetherness, “It sucks this person is not safe for me. So I'm gonna go seek refuge elsewhere or alone, because it's better.”

 And I really want people to become aware of the severity of the micro infractions, because the collection of those is what yields those relationship ending moments down the road.

Doing The Work Early

Lisa: Definitely, you hit the nail right on the head. That's always why relationships end. It’s one person stops believing that it could ever be different, and what is happening is no longer acceptable. Were you surprised at the very end or did you think you had more time? Did you think it could still be better?

Matthew: I slept in the guest room for 18 months. And that's when the work started by the way. I was probably about three ish months before she left, I read a book called How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It. And it was the first book I've ever read, when I think the title is a misnomer. Because I don't think anybody believes you can have a healthy marriage without effective communication. 

But it was the first time, that was like less the point then I had for the first time the experience of, “I'm not alone.” If two like longtime therapists can write this book, and tell these stories about random people, whether they were real or concocted scenarios, honestly can't remember. But they look sound and feel so exactly like my life, which is the beautiful thing.

I get the feedback I get today that my stories feel like that for other people. And I'm so delighted that that's the experience people are having. I think it's so powerful if you've not had it before, to experience that I'm not alone, because I don't think most people talk about the scary, vulnerable, sad stuff that's going on in our relationships. I mean, we frequently suffer in silence.

But I think men in particular are afraid to tell people. We’re like afraid to announce it to our parents or our best friends or coworkers. Like we don't look, I don't know if we don't look like failures or why or if we're just not comfortable talking about like the hard scary stuff. But to find out that millions of people have exactly the same dynamics and their relationship was so liberating and empowering because it was like “Wow, we're not this anomaly. We're not these like statistical freaks that we’re just like a lot of people. Then that means the inverse of that is there's a path out .”

You said it already that it was too little too late. The damage was done. So was I surprised? I wasn't surprised intellectually that she left. I was surprised at what my body did when it happened. I was surprised at the loss was really severe for me, the combination of her, and then half of my son, he was only four at the time. Losing the—and I know there's a lot of people that you met, you should be grateful you get to see him half the time, well, probably. 

But when you're a dad, and you love your kid, all you can think is I only have 14 years left with them. I've just now, now I have seven. Like, that's how my brain where I'm like, I lost seven years with this little human that I love more than anyone. Anyway, the combo of those two things was brutal. And I know, I didn't like it. But it was the fuel necessary to begin this work. I had to learn how to protect my future self and my son from having things like this happen.

I felt like this sort of great moral responsibility. And the process gave me so much humility, as I slowly uncovered what I believe is the true story of why marriage ended. And it was a series of miscalculations and blind spots. And I very strongly believe that the vast majority of the pain and disconnection and mistrust and the relationship was a result of things that I did. Not because I'm a terrible person, because I did not execute effectively what it means to love somebody in a healthy relationship.

I didn't know better. And my biggest crime was not doing the work, when she was trying to sound the alarm that something was wrong. And just continued to dismiss and invalidate just like all the other things.

Lisa: Did you guys ever think about going to couples counseling at some point along the line? 

Matthew: We did a couple of times. But it's—I don't really know, I don't think maybe what a particularly skilled therapists look like, I think that a lot of couples will forgive me, please, if this implies that I—

Lisa: Oh, please speak freely. 

Matthew: People use marriage counseling wrong, in my opinion, they wait till things are horrible and then they go to a third party. And it's why I refuse to work with two people at the same time in the same conversation. Because I remember what it felt like to have both of us speak and to have your mis—you're never even having the same conversation. I am arguing about whether the dish should matter. And she's arguing about being seen and heard. 

When you're not having the same conversation, everybody hurts and everybody's invalidated. And I just feel like, you drive home and you're more pissed. I remember just how like wound up and awful it felt. And it was not the fault of, of the marriage counselor, the therapist, that was the fault of me allowing this to have built up to where it did. What I really wish people would do. I wish people would go to marriage counseling all the time, as maintenance.

Lisa: Did you know that most marriage counselors—I shouldn't even call it that—most therapists who offer marriage counseling, have no specialized training or experience in couples therapy. 98% of their affiliates who are doing couples counseling, do not have the training and experience to help, what happened to you two sounds like you had the same fight just in their office instead of in your living room. Like why did we go pay for that? 

A truly expert marriage and family therapist who knows what to do in those moments would have handled it very differently. And so I am hearing just another layer of tragedy. Not— I don't know, maybe it wouldn't have been different in that moment. But that is really just crappy. And I'm mad for you that your experience 

Matthew: Thank you. I don't know, I'm certainly not disparaging the profession. And I think it really matters

Lisa:I feel annoyed about the profession for that reason but people are practicing outside their scope of competence and it has very real consequences for families.

Matthew: I'm not trying to pat myself on the back here. But I want to work with one human on personal responsibility, and habits to show up differently for the other person that is like my charge, if you will, and nothing else because I don't know how to navigate so many of those complexities that occur between two people and right. And there's often, there's traumas. 

There's like legitimate traumas that people need to work through as individuals, not just the relationship traumas, but the individual traumas from childhood and things like that. And right that's, I don't even know how to identify or name those things. But in the spirit of consideration, in the spirit of I need to mindfully calculate for my relationship partner, so that I do things that serve their best interests instead of harm them. 

If we're unaware of a trauma, of a pain point. Again, you're just you're constantly flying blind. So I think there's a lot of pitfalls for a lot of people out there. And I did not have the wherewithal ten, fifteen years ago, to say any of the things I just said. To think about the way my wife at the time had dynamics with her parents and her older brother, those family dynamics might have contributed to choose the baby. 

And the thing I know today that I didn't, that I knew back then but I didn't appreciate what she always felt like not, like she didn't have a voice in the family. She was least likely to have any sort of like power in the family or that if her brother picked on her, her parents would and her brother’s awesome. I get it, but her parents like didn't save her, didn't rescue her. She felt like this, she had this like residual sort of disrespect, mistreatment, cast to the side. And this is like a concept that I understand how I was perpetually triggering that through a series of things that I was doing. And I used to poke fun at her a little bit and she'd ask me not to.

Lisa: But we all have our wounds that we're carrying into our relationships, and that's the work, is understanding what those are and what our partner’s wounds are, so that we can attend to them. And it sounds like you understand things now that you didn't then and, and I know that we probably need to glide to a stop here soon. But I also just want to commend the work that you're doing. Now I'm hearing kind of between the lines that when things finally did come apart, it was, as it is, for so many people, I mean, when you lose your primary attachment, it's in your family, it's incredibly traumatizing.

But that you used this painful experience to to really like become an activist to say, “Okay, what what happened?” and really are so committed to doing good work and communicating things that you didn't know, then but that you do know now to other people so that they can hear and understand, and have the opportunity to do something with this sooner than you did. And not that I'm happy for anything that you went through. But I always admire people who are able to do something so positive, not despite of their adversity, but because of it, and you're doing that.

Matthew: Thank you, I feel the same way. I love the guy that gets out of prison, and then spends the rest of his life helping troubled youth. I love those kinds of stories. And it's almost similar, like sort of metaphorically, sometimes this like regular guy way that I talk about things is useful to another quote unquote, regular guy out there. 

Lisa: Absolutely

Matthew: If there is such a thing, at least what my brain calculates to be, “regular guy” they don't know either they they don't have the awareness and the relational skills, and they love their spouse, and they love their children and can we get to a place. And so the feedback sometimes from guys is “Thank you, because your life sounds like my life. And now I'm able to, like, avoid some of the mistakes that you did.” And I love hearing that. 

And then from wives, from girlfriends, I'm frequently hearing, relationship partners, because again, as you know, it doesn't always fall in gender lines. It just sort of statistically commonly does, and but, to feel heard and seen and validated. And it gives me hope that the men in my life might be able to come to some of these realizations. It's just really cool that I get to be like a part of that, considering that the worst thing that's ever happened to me, and in my estimation, the worst things that I've ever done, are rooted in the exact opposite of all of that. 

I am frankly proud of it. I don't want to sound like back patty. Like, I think I'm really great. I don't, but I am very proud of what you said, we're trying to, like, leverage pain into something positive. Because that that's very real. And it's a passion project. I don't know if you know that my parents split when I was four. And then I split, my son was four. And it just been this like life-defining thing. 

Divorce has been like, in the background, my entire life, making everything a little bit more painful, a little bit more inconvenient. And then to learn that in highly over simplified terms, so much of it is blind spots and misunderstandings, a lack of awareness, a lack of skills that nobody has ever taught anybody to come to believe that it feels like such a crisis tragedy. It's like, can I be part of just—I don't know, I think of myself as somebody who raises awareness. 

I just want to raise awareness that things you're not paying attention to are probably the things that could cause you the most harm. So please pay attention. And I'm delighted to be invited to these conversations. Thank you so much.

Lisa: Thank you so much for sharing this message. And I completely agree it's raising awareness, paying attention to things that you might not not think to pay attention to are actually the important ones. Thank you so much for spending this time today and you guys listening so Matthew Fray. His book isThis Is How Your Marriage Ends: A Hopeful Approach to Saving Relationships. 

And you have many more stories and personal insights and also a fair number of strategies and tips throughout that book. So thank you so much for consolidating your wisdom into a manual.

Matthew: Thank you so much for reading. It's embarrassing almost when someone like you does it. I just think about all the times you're like, “Oh, I don't know about that.” But it's so nice. It feels really good to have someone like you sort of like, sign off on it as being like a legitimate piece of work in the world. I value that really highly. Thank you.

Lisa: Thank you and you're 100% spot on. It's right on the money. It's that attachment and connection and emotional attunement and how you create it or not. So anyway, I'm so glad that we got to chat today, Matthew, thank you again for taking the time to do this with me and let me know if you'd ever like to come back if you have other other books coming out in the future. No, we'll talk again sometime.

Matthew: Thank you anytime you'd like to, I will be here.

Signs of a Healthy Relationship

Signs of a Healthy Relationship

Signs of a Healthy Relationship

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

Music in this episode is from
Bedouine with the song, “One Of These Days.”

Did you know that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell? 

I’m guessing you did, because it’s one of those things that every high schooler learns and probably never uses, unless they go on to become a biochemist. Which, to be fair, is a pretty awesome career choice. But there are many things that are essential to becoming a functional adult, that I’m betting no teacher ever devoted a single unit of a single class to teaching you. 

How to do your taxes is one of them. How to have healthy relationships is another. 

Of all the things we learn in school, we get zero education about how to have healthy, loving, meaningful adult relationships. If you were lucky, a Geometry teacher doing double duty as a Sex Ed instructor may have mentioned something about consent. 

But constructive conflict? Healthy boundaries? Attachment theory? We’re on our own! 

As an experienced marriage counselor, I know that healthy relationships are essential to a happy life. Without loving, close, enduring connections with others, the rest of life has little meaning. I also know that we’re not born knowing this stuff, and not everyone grows up watching a healthy relationship unfold between their parents. 

How are you supposed to know what’s normal, and what’s cause for concern? How can you improve your relationship without a vision for what “better” would look like? 

That’s why I created this episode of the podcast for you: so you could learn about the basics of healthy relationships, and give yours some care and attention when it’s sending out distress signals. You’ll learn how to evaluate the health of your relationship, and the steps you can take to make it even better. 

I hope you’ll join me, on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. And while you’re here, be sure to take our “How Healthy Is Your Relationship” quiz


Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Signs of a Healthy Relationship 

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

Music in this episode is from
Bedouine with the song, “One Of These Days.”

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Signs of a Healthy Relationship — Episode Highlights

As a marriage and family therapist, I know that most people have a hard time distinguishing between normal relational turbulence, and surefire signals that their plane is about to drop out of the sky. 

Without understanding what healthy relationships look like, you’re vulnerable to two major dangers, and either of them can destroy your relationship

The first is:

  1. Believing something is very wrong when everything is fine. 

I often meet people who believe they should never argue with their partner, or that minor differences are a sign their relationship is doomed. Adult children of divorce are prone to this kind of thinking, as are people who witnessed an unhappy but enduring relationship between their parents when they were kids. 

These clients are determined to avoid the same outcome, but they’re not sure what a healthy alternative would actually look like. They may refuse to commit to their relationship because it’s (inevitably) imperfect, see catastrophe looming after every fight, or expect too much and become overly critical, eventually wearing their partner down. 

Seeing problems everywhere creates new problems. Both for the partner of the person with unrealistic expectations for the relationship, and for the unrealistic partner, who is prone to reject fundamentally healthy relationships until they learn about what’s normal and what’s not. 

And the second danger:

  1. Believing everything is fine when something is very wrong. 

Without an understanding of healthy relationships, you’re likely to be oblivious or unconcerned about serious issues that are present. 

This often happens like this: Sara is always telling Mike he doesn’t listen. “I’ll work on it,” Mike says, but he doesn’t step back and assess his listening skills, learn about the fundamentals of good listening, and then practice applying those listening skills with Sara. Instead, he thinks this is just something people say when they’re mad. He’s certainly heard it before. 

So Mike stays the course, and Sara gets progressively more fed up. Eventually, she stops trying to be heard and starts withdrawing from the relationship. “Why does Sara seem so distant?” Mike wonders. “Better not ask. I don’t want to start a fight.” Eventually, Sara calls it quits, and Mike feels genuinely blindsided. 

I’ve seen this play out between many couples, and it’s always sad. Mike loved Sara and he would have taken action, if he had understood that his relationship depended on it. 

Characteristics of a Healthy Relationship

To avoid either of these bad outcomes, there are a few characteristics of healthy relationships that you should know. When I’m assessing a couple’s relationship, these are the components I’m looking for. Get these elements right, and your relationship will fundamentally work. 

Emotional Safety

Emotional safety is the most important component of healthy relationships. Returning to our plane metaphor, emotional safety is your relationship’s engine. Without it, none of the other doodads even turn on. 

So what is emotional safety? It’s the basic, felt sense of being loved and respected by your partner. It goes beyond hearing your partner say, “I love and respect you,” although this is nice. It ecompasses actually being shown through your partner's actions day after day that your needs, rights, and feelings are important to them. So much so that you can feel it. 

In an emotionally safe relationship, you know your partner is committed to you, and that you’re not going to be abandoned if you have a disagreement or a bad day. You don’t feel judged by your partner, and so you feel comfortable being your true self with them. You know that they care about you and your wellbeing. 

Emotional safety does not mean never having a fight. All couples have conflict, and yes, all couples hurt each other’s feelings occasionally. But when your relationship is emotionally safe, you trust that your partner doesn’t want to hurt you, not emotionally and certainly not physically. Fights are unpleasant, but they’re not threatening to you, or to your relationship. In conflict, you both manage your own emotional reactions and respond with compassion to each other. 

This makes it possible to address problems as they arise and work through them together; when your relationship is emotionally safe, you’re not walking on eggshells


Communication is about how you talk to each other, but also how you behave toward each other. You’re always communicating something, as the saying goes. 

Healthy relationships have a lot of positive communication. This can look like words of affirmation, which is one of the five love languages. But it can also look like showing your partner curiosity or affection. 

Thoughtful gestures are another form of positive communication. When you know your partner had a hard day, so you take care of the dishes without being asked, that communicates that you understand their experience and want to help. It doesn’t involve words, but it says a lot. 

Of course, we also communicate when we’re not feeling so happy with our partners, and how you approach those conversations is even more important. When you have problems, how do you resolve them? In a healthy relationship, things may get heated and passionate, but it’s always respectful. Name calling, aggression, and abandonment are signs of destructive conflict. 

On the flip side, if you’re not talking about problems, that’s an issue. Conflict happens in relationships, whether it’s out in the open or not. When you can’t address issues without the conversation becoming a catastrophic fight, things tend to get passive aggressive, resentful, and eventually, disconnected. 

Another hallmark of healthy conflict is that it’s productive. When you fight in a healthy relationship, the objective is to find a solution and then to come back together, better than before. It’s like a seasonal wildfire that prevents a forest-engulfing inferno, fertilizing the soil for new growth in the process.   

Unproductive conflict is more like a volcano: erupting periodically when the pressure is right, destroying a few villages, and then entering a dormant phase where things seem basically ok…until next time. 


Every relationship involves teamwork. I call this the “functional partnership” aspect of your relationship. Who picks up the kids? Who mows the lawn? Who pays the bills? 

In a healthy relationship, you’re able to work together in an effective, balanced way. You have dozens of little agreements, many of them explicit, around “how we get stuff done” as a couple. You may argue from time to time about who is or isn’t doing what, especially as circumstances change and these roles need to be rebalanced, but you’re ultimately able to find resolutions that feel good to you both, and that make you a better team. 

When the “teamwork” component is missing, one or both partners will likely feel resentful. One partner may feel like they have to do everything, or it either won’t be done, or won’t be done properly. The other partner may feel their efforts aren’t recognized, or that they can’t do anything to their partner’s satisfaction, so they might as well stop trying. These couples often get stuck in a state of gridlock, where even talking about how they are or aren’t working together feels difficult. 

Without good communication, teamwork is hard. When we feel criticized or taken for granted, we’re not eager to step up our efforts, or to cut our partner some slack. If you’re struggling with teamwork in your relationship, try working on communication first. 

Positive Engagement 

In healthy relationships, we enjoy each other’s company in basic ways. That doesn’t mean planning elaborate date nights or expensive vacations. Healthy couples can have a nice time chatting over dinner, or perusing the aisles of a hardware store. 

You can have a lot of positive engagement in your relationship even if you don’t share a lot of interests with your partner. If you’re married to a birdwatcher, you don’t have to grab your binoculars and join them in the fields every Saturday morning. But when they come home gushing about the red-flanked bluetail they just spotted, give them your attention, and better yet, your curiosity. Showing interest in your partner’s passions shows your interest in them. 

The opposite of this is judging your partner, or wishing that their personality or interests were different than they are. In an unhealthy relationship, the non-birding partner rolls her eyes when her mate gushes about the bluetail. Eventually he stops sharing this part of his life with her, and they grow a little bit further apart

Shared Hopes and Dreams

Finally, healthy couples share hopes, dreams, and goals for the future. 

You can do this in a million different ways, depending on what feels meaningful to you both. Many couples connect around their children, and the values they want to instill in them. Others connect around their home, or shared financial goals, or a particular community or cause that they both care about deeply. 

Working together toward shared goals is what gives couples a sense of “us.” Together, you both get to become a part of something bigger than yourselves, and create a life that reflects your love. 

If this is all sounding a bit ambitious, since you’re currently arguing about, say, who should take out the trash, don’t fret. Once you have the more fundamental healthy relationship components in place — like emotional safety, communication, and teamwork — your big vision for the future will come together more easily. 

Healthy Relationship Quiz

I hope this podcast gives you a clear sense of which parts of your relationship are working well, and which parts could use a little work. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your partner. You may inspire a productive conversation. 

Still wondering about how healthy your relationship is? Take our healthy relationship quiz

Episode Highlights

[05:23] Is My Relationship Healthy?

  • Consider some areas that need improvement in the relationship.
  • Sometimes, there is a general lack of awareness about what is healthy and normal in a relationship or a marriage.
  • Take the quiz at growingself.com/relationship-quiz to assess the relative strengths and improvements of different parts of your relationship.

[13:16] Unrealistic Expectations of Relationships

  • The irrationality comes when you assume that the relationship is problematic when there aren’t any issues in the first place.
  • Our source of information about an ideal relationship is through movies.
  • We also learn about relationships from our family of origin. However, they also didn’t receive any knowledge about relationships prior to their partnership.

[23:11] Domains of Relationship Health

  • The domains of relationship health are emotional safety, communication, sense of teamwork, level of positive engagement, and supporting each other’s goals.
  • The most important domain is emotional safety.

[26:25] Characteristics of an Unhealthy Relationship

  • Reacting negatively and violently when you’re feeling emotionally unwell.
  • An argument either doesn’t lead to any resolution or worse, triggers a bigger fight.
  • Invalidating and judging a partner’s interest that’s different from their own.

[54:33] The Makings of a Healthy Relationship 

  • A relationship can grow when exploring each domain.
  • Both partners should pay attention to the warning signs in their relationship.
  • Chances are, if the relationship doesn’t feel good for them on some level, it doesn’t feel good for you either.

Music in this episode is from Bedouine with the song, “One Of These Days.”

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

That beautiful song is called One Of These Days. It's by Bedouine. I thought it was the perfect song for our show today because she does such a gorgeous job of capturing the hope of somebody who really wants a relationship to work and believes that it can, and also an awareness of the realities of a relationship — and also to add another layer of complexity, her intention to create the kind of relationship that she wants to have with her partner. 

That is perfect for us because we're going to be talking about all of those things on today's show. In today's episode, I am going to be helping you identify some realities of your relationship. In particular, what are things that signify that you have a healthy, strong relationship with a lot of potential and a lot of opportunities? Even if it's not perfect all the time, what's a keeper? 

On the other side of that, what is really danger/warning signs for a relationship, and things that might be going on in your relationship that indicate there probably are bigger problems that are worth taking seriously. I wanted to offer this because so many people that we talked to in my practice or right into the show, their number one concern are their relationships and what's going on in their relationship. 

A lot of times it's, “What do I do with this? How do I solve this problem? Or, is this a solvable problem? Is this a sign that maybe this relationship isn't what I want it to be, and maybe it isn't ever going to be what I want it to be? Then, on the other side, I think some people really, relationships are a mixed bag — all of them are. All relationships have some conflict and have some turbulence, and it can be really confusing because some people really in great and fundamentally solid relationships still wonder, “Is this okay?” 

That's what we're talking about on today's episode of The Love, Happiness and Success podcast. If this is your first time tuning into the podcast — first of all, hello and thank you for being here. I'm so glad you're here. This show if you haven't listened before, this is all about you and my efforts to help you have better relationships, feel good about yourself and your life, and also do more good things in the world. This is all about empowerment. 

In every episode of this show, I am attempting to step into the gap between where you are and where you want to be to help you just get direction and guidance that will help move you forward. What my sort of place is and why I'm presumptuous enough to think that I might be helpful to you — I am a marriage counselor, a therapist, and a life coach. By trade, I am the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. 

I spend a lot of time talking to people just like you — the therapy or counseling room across from me on my couch about stuff that's going on in their lives, things they can do to fix it. And you too deserve the benefit of good advice and some professional recommendations that can help you move forward. On this show every week, I'm attempting to answer the questions that you are telling me are important to you. 

People get in touch with me and with us all the time with things that are on their mind — things about relationships, or personal issues that are coming up, or how to deal with different things. If you would like to do that, you are so welcome to. The easiest ways to get in touch, you can cruise over to our website — growingself.com

We have a very active kind of comment/question community on those posts on our blog and podcast page. You can also send a general email to us — hello@growingself.com, and also a great way to connect is through Facebook — facebook.com/drlisabobby. Let me know what's on your mind and you just might hear your question answered on an upcoming episode.

Is My Relationship Healthy? 

Again, today, I am here to support you with your relationship. We're going to be talking about how to assess the strength and the health of your primary relationship that you have with your partner. This is really intended to be about your primary romantic relationship with your partner, your spouse. But I think that a lot of what we're talking about really applies to any kind of relationship in your life and how healthy it is. 

As you're listening to this, you might consider how do my relationships with some of my friends feel when I apply these criteria to them, or even with family members  — so that you can decide, “Are there areas of my life — relationships in my life — that could maybe use some extra TLC and/or maybe worth working at to improve? Or even do I set boundaries with some people if it's consistently not feeling good, and the evidence is indicating that it's probably not going to get better? So you can listen for that. 

But before we jump into the criteria — how healthy is your relationship, things to look for — let me first tell you why this is so important. Because I think that this really matters and it's something for you to just keep in back of your mind as you're listening to the rest of this. 

Many people who come into our practice for help, they're coming in because they are really in distress about their relationships. Either they're coming in the context of couples counseling, or even individuals — they're coming in because they're worried about their relationships, and they want to talk about their relationships. 

What I see is that many people coming in, they feel genuinely confused about their relationships, and how they're going. Sometimes, best-case scenario, it's for seeing a couple and it's for couples counseling, and they're both in agreement that, “We have so many strengths and our relationship and so many things we want to build on, and we care about each other so much that we really want to invest in our relationship and make it the best it can be. We're here to get your help and just tweaking a few things and getting back on the same page, and making sure that this is just really feeling good for both of us.” 

They're very proactive, and they're very focused on wellness. They're almost using couples counseling as a preventative kind of thing — coming in at the first sign of trouble. That is the absolutely best-case scenario. We love working with and helping those clients. We do great work. 

Now, there are two other types of couples or people that come in with concerns about their relationships. Sometimes, there is just a general lack of awareness about what is healthy and normal in a relationship or a marriage, and what's not. That can create huge problems, and actually cause issues in a relationship. Let me explain. 

Because I know that sounds really dramatic to say that a lack of awareness or almost education about healthy relationships can cause problems. But I'm not really talking in a hyperbolic fashion here. It's really because I sit with people who maybe have just had their families shattered by a divorce, or it's impossible to not sit with a couple that's like breaking up because of relationship issues and not walk away from that feeling really sobered by the experience. 

Or, also working with people who come in, and they look back at the last 10 years of their lives and it has been a string of failed relationships that never even made it that far to marriage, but just over and over again with these patterns where they're feeling dissatisfied. They're ending relationships or they're connecting with people that aren't good for them, and the relationships sputter out. 

That is really sad for a lot of people and it creates consequences that impact them, potentially for their whole lives is around the way they're handling their relationships. This is really big stuff. As I've mentioned before in articles and other shows, I think it's ridiculous that we spend so much of our lives learning in school about everything else. 

We learn about Math, we learn about Science and Literature, but we get zero education about how to have a happy, healthy, functional relationship with another person. Nobody tells you explicitly how to do that. The ironic tragedy, of course, is that the quality of your relationships has much more to do with the overall quality of your life than your ability to write a coherent paragraph around Lord of the Flies or something like that. This is really important stuff. 

Again, this is why I've been working so hard in other podcasts, and then the work in my group. Also, on this podcast today again is to try to fill that gap and give you information that can really help you and help you avoid the fate of some of the people who do ultimately show up for help in a space where it's pretty far gone — and they've been struggling for a long time. 

This podcast is one way of doing that, and other kinds of educational things that we're doing is to try to correct this educational imbalance. We're overeducated with regards to so many things in life, and not educated enough I think when it comes to life skills around — again, relationships or how we manage ourselves as people. That's what I'm doing here. 

Also, I created a little tool to help you get clarity about your relationship and how healthy it is. I actually created a quiz that is available on my website. You might consider taking this quiz before I launch into all of the information that I'm going to be giving you today because if you listen to everything first, and have an idea of what your answers should be, it may impact your results if you take the quiz before learning about what it all means. 

If you are interested in getting a score on a measurement that can help you assess the relative strengths and “growth areas” of different parts of your relationship, I will invite you to pause this podcast for a second and come take the quiz. It's at growingself.com/relationship-quiz, relationship-quiz, and take the quiz. Then, come back to this podcast when you're done, and we will talk about what it means. However, obviously, don't do this if it's not a good time or if you're driving or something. But you can still just listen and take the quiz later. 

Or, if you want to get really some interesting data, you might send your partner the quiz and see what their answers are. That could be very illuminating. It could potentially launch some really productive conversations between the two of you. That is something to consider as well. If you have the time and energy, take the quiz. But otherwise, I'm going to continue on here.

Unrealistic Expectations of Relationships 

First of all, let me explain the dangers on two different extremes of what can happen when people really don't understand what normal healthy relationships look like and feel like, and why it can be so problematic on both sides of this spectrum. On the one hand, when people have unrealistic expectations about what good authentic relationships look like or feel like, they can perceive that they're good, happy, healthy, solid relationship is actually having problems when there aren't problems. 

It's so that they begin to believe that something is wrong with their relationship when it isn't. Then, that belief, in turn, creates actual problems in a relationship. They may overreact to small issues or they might catastrophize and feel really hopeless about the relationship, become disillusioned with a relationship, or perhaps even become really critical or overly demanding of their partner, and the partner starts to feel diminished and like they can never make them happy. Then, that actually does cause real problems over time. 

You might be thinking to yourself, “That's silly. Who would believe that there's an actual relationship problem when there isn't one? It doesn't make sense.” But think about it for a second, because most people, again, in the broader societal context of zero relationship education — where do we learn about our relationships? We learn about it from the movies and television, or we learn from whatever we saw our parents doing, typically, or the people around us doing. 

On one extreme, we have what the media shows us about the relationship ideal, which often has very little basis in reality. Most rom-com certainly, and many other movies, they end when two people have just become over all kinds of obstacles and discovered how much they love each other, and they're the pinnacle of their romantic bliss. Then, the movie fades out, and they're in love forever. 

It doesn't continue on and follow that rom-com couple for the next five years through the evolution of what happens next in the months and the years that follow after the excitement of a courtship. It doesn't portray a realistic picture of what a normal marriage looks like, and what is normal and expected for people as they transition into having a family or dealing with the ups and downs that life brings. People —  we move, we change jobs, we have stuff to deal with, and our relationships can change and evolve in response to all of that. We don't have good models for that.

Then, on the other side, the other models that we do have are our parents, our family of origin, and the people around us. A lot of us had parents who did not know what they were doing when it came to relationships either. Being a child of divorce, or seeing your parents rotate through a couple of different partners as you were growing up, or even having parents who as so many do, found a kind of stable happiness where maybe they're not really engaging with each other, communicating well or enjoying their relationship, but they're able to have enduring partnership nonetheless. But maybe not one that any of us would aspire to. 

For all of these reasons, we didn't learn how to do relationships. Either we have this romantic ideal for what relationships should be, and also if we saw our parents fighting with each other, and then they got divorced. A lot of people take that as fighting means divorce or unhappiness. There's a lot of fear if people do see things happening in their own relationship that are reminiscent of things that they experienced in their family of origin that their parents weren't able to successfully deal with or overcome. 

Then, when they have normal conflict or disagreement or transitional times in their own marriage, it can become very easy and understandable, honestly, that they might take that to mean that they're about to get divorced, or that something really terrible is about to happen in their relationship because that's what they saw happen play out in the lives of other people, and they don't know how else to navigate through it. 

Again, very understandable, but I hope that helps you understand why some people who have good healthy relationships can almost like misread the signals like the normal relationship turbulence and come away from that thinking that there's something really wrong when. Maybe, there isn't. 

Part of my hope for today's podcast is to help you understand if maybe you lean that way, what is normal so that when you have normal ups and downs in your relationship, or maybe you and your partner do have a fight, you might think back to what we talked about today and say, “You know what? This is okay. We are okay, we can get through this.” And hopefully, have some tools to help you get through that in a productive way instead of getting scared. That is one thing we're going to be talking about today. 

Then, the other side of the spectrum that is at least as problematic if not more so, is the sad side where people are not aware of relationship issues, and what are things that they really do need to be paying attention to and actively working to correct because there are things that people experience in day-to-day relationships that from a marriage counselor's perspective, it’s like, “Buddy, your relationship is about to drive off a cliff six months from now. Do you not see this?” 

It's so hard because if people aren't paying attention to those signals, or if they're ignoring the warning signs, or minimizing them or blowing them off, or saying, “Oh, this isn't a big deal. My partner just needs to get over that. This isn't anything.” Or maybe, they avoid difficult conversations, or they get defensive, or just essentially refusing to acknowledge the issues that their partner is trying to bring up. 

These are the people who wind up getting blindsided by a divorce or a breakup. When I say “blindsided”, I'm using my air quotes right now because as we autopsy of these relationships, there were all kinds of signs that this was coming, but they didn't know. They didn't understand that the whole time, they were wanting to avoid or not deal with, or not participate in finding solutions to their problems. 

Their partner's needs and feelings were going unmet for a long time. Their partners were month by month, year by year really emotionally distancing themselves and losing respect for them, and losing hope for the relationship. In those cases, what we too frequently see is that for years, sometimes one person wasn't taking the problem seriously and their partner was really fighting for their relationship in a lot of ways. 

Over time, the partner who had been complaining and saying, “Hey, we need to work on this”, will eventually stop. They'll give up hoping that change is possible. Then, they decide eventually that it's time to go. 

Then, the person who hadn't realized how big of a deal these issues actually were, or who thought they could handle it on their own and that things will just get better — those are the people who are like hysterically calling us for next day marriage counseling appointment because their partner is like packing their car and begging their about-to-be ex to go to marriage counseling with them. Sometimes, it's too late. 

The other side there, I also hope to offer today some realistic information that you could use, or even if you are with a person who isn't taking things seriously, put this information in front of them to perhaps help them understand that some of the things that are going on really are problematic and that you guys need to work together to improve it because it's not sustainable, the way that it's going. That's my other hope and intention for today. 

So, it’s just to help you stay out of trouble, basically, on both sides of this. Let's now run down some of the basic foundational things that are either solid and in a good place, and the other stuff that can happen from time to time is just noise. If they're not in a good place, that fighting and conflict is really indicative of a much larger problem. 

Domains of Relationship Health

In general, there are five different categories or domains of relationship health that we look at. One of them can be thought of — academically, it's referred to as attachment, but I think of it as emotional safety. That is the number one most important thing is how safe does your relationship feel to you. By safe, I'm not in addition to physical safety. Things like trust and commitment, and just feeling generally loved and respected by your partner. That all falls into the emotional safety domain. 

The second really important domain that ties in with emotional safety is communication. How do you guys communicate with each other? And when there are problems, how do you solve those problems? Looking at communication can give you also a lot of information about how healthy a relationship is overall. 

Another tremendously important aspect of relationship health is around your sense of teamwork, or the kind of functional partnership that you have with each other — the nuts and bolts of how you do things together day-to-day, and how good that is currently feeling for both of you. 

When that isn't a good space, or if you have good processes in place to help you work through those issues as a couple, your relationship is really very strong. Also, if you are having fights all the time about teamwork, and who's doing what, and how that's supposed to happen — that is also something to pay attention to. It can be easy to blow off is just potato-potato stuff, but over time, it can really take a toll. We're going to be talking about that. 

Another incredibly important domain of relationship is the level of positive engagement and enjoyment that you have with each other because even if there is other stuff going on that might feel challenging in other domains of your relationship, if you're still genuinely enjoying each other's company and feeling good with each other, and finding and intentionally cultivating those experiences to share — that is another huge point of resilience for your partnership. We'll be talking more about that. 

Lastly, but not leastly, we are also going to be talking about the aspect of your relationship that has to do with your shared life — like how do you support each other's hopes and dreams, and have also a set of shared meaning and value. The sense that you guys are both working together for something that's bigger than both of you — that is also a huge strength for a couple. Without it, the foundation of a couple can really be damaged. We'll be touching on that too.

Characteristics of an Unhealthy Relationship

Those are our five basic domains. Let's just start by talking about the first one. The first domain is emotional safety. If you have solid emotional safety in your relationship, in my opinion as a marriage counselor, almost everything else is a solvable problem. If your basic sense of emotional safety feels more fragile or doesn't feel as strong, it is going to cascade down and negatively impact so many other aspects of your relationship. We're going to be talking about this one first and at most length. 

If you are getting the sense that your partnership is struggling in a major way as you're listening to this, I would advise you to focus on building up this area of your relationship first because other things will begin to fall into place if you guys have emotional safety together. 

Okay, what do I mean by emotional safety? Emotional safety is this sense, this basic sense, this felt sense of being loved and respected by your partner. It is beyond somebody saying, “I love you” or doing nice things for you. It's really feeling that your feelings, and needs, and rights are important to your partner. They show you that in lots of different ways that you fundamentally know that they are committed to you, they're not threatening to abandon you if you do something that upsets them, you don't feel judged by them. 

You feel safe with them. You can be yourself and they like you. They like who you are. You also trust them to not hurt you physically, of course, but also in other ways. There are lots of different ways to hurt in a relationship and to damage trust and relationship. How does your partner respond to you when you come to them with — I don't know. 

Maybe, you're going through a hard time emotionally, do you feel cared for by them in those moments? Do you feel like they're emotionally available for you? If there is a problem that you need to solve in your relationship, is it okay to say that and say, “I wonder if we could work on this.” Or, do they say, “Babe, what's going on?” Or, do they start screaming at you and throw a chair out the window? Or, do they get immediately angry and refuse to talk, and slam the door and walk out? 

That is not emotional safety. That is a lot of real insecurity emotionally. Emotional safety is really about the basic trust in, “I'm loved, I’m cared for, I'm respected”, and that you're with somebody who is able to conduct themselves in such a way that they can manage their emotions so they're not scary or they're not rejecting. They are also able to be responsive to you — they can listen to you, they can talk to you, they can meet your needs and just basic ways, or work with you to solve problems. 

It's just you don't feel like you're walking on eggshells all the time, or that if you're about to do something wrong, there will be consequences — those things are the opposite of emotional safety. With that in mind, I would like to say that all couples fight, all couples have conflict — spoken or unspoken. It can show up in a lot of different ways. You didn't marry yourself, you're not partnered with yourself. It is natural, and normal, and expected that as people are coming together and trying to do a relationship together, there are going to be times when you don't see eye to eye or that one of you hurts the other person's feelings — that maybe that wasn’t intentional, or maybe it was intentional.

But these are just sort of normal things that can happen across the lifespan of a relationship. The fact that those things might be happening doesn't really mean that much. What matters much more is that, in general, even though you do get into it with each other from time to time — that most of the time, when you do have conflict, it is done in a way that isn't scary. It's not threatening to you or your relationship. Also, the kind of unspoken truth that you're both aware of while conflict is happening is that: 

“We're going to get through this. It's going to be fine. We are not seeing eye to eye right now. We need to make some changes in the way we do things and we are willing to work with each other to create that. Fundamentally, at the end of the day, I know that you love me and care about me, and don't want to hurt me or want me to be in any kind of pain. And I feel the same way about you.” 

If that sort of emotional safety is present, the other stuff is turbulence that can be worked through. Consider how your relationship feels when it comes to emotional safety. Again, if you want item by item, “Are these things happening? Check ‘yes’ or ‘no’.” The quiz might be helpful for you to differentiate what is indicative of emotional safety and what isn't. Again, you might want to check that out at the relationship quiz — growingself.com/relationship-quiz. 

Okay. Now, let's talk about the next domain which is the communication domain. Communication refers to a lot of different things. It does refer to the way that you talk to each other. But communication also refers to the way that you behave towards each other and what you show each other both verbally and nonverbally. Healthy communication has two aspects. 

First of all, there's a lot of positive communication in a healthy relationship. There are words of affirmation like, “Oh, hey! I'm happy to see you and I love you, and you look nice today.” Or, “You smell good”, or whatever it is. Or, “Wow! This is a great dinner. Thank you.” Words of kindness, and appreciation, and positivity. 

Also, caring is communicated through things like curiosity, “How is your day? What's going on with you?” Communicating like, “I care about you and I want to be your friend. I want to know what's going on with your life.” Positive communication — just enjoying each other, and some people are more verbal than others. 

If you're — I hate to gender stereotype because there are plenty of women who tend to be more introverted, and are partnered with men who are just dying to talk about stuff, believe it or not. In many relationships, it can also be true that the woman — the female partner if it's a heterosexual relationship — might desire that more kind of verbal communication, positive communication than their male partners. 

When I'm talking about communication, that kind of verbal engagement can be a piece of that. But also, we need to recognize and value the other ways that our partners might show us they care about us through the things that they do for us through physical communication. Certainly, physical affection and sexuality can be a part of this too. 

Also, just the thoughtful gestures that people can make — doing the dishes without saying anything can be part of it because they know you've had a hard day or spending 45 minutes helping you find your car keys because you're stressed out and don't know where they are. All of these things can be meaningful forms of communication that say, “I care about you. You're important to me. I'm here for you.” In healthy relationships, there's a lot of that going on. 

The other side of good communication is that, while all couples have disagreements, and all couples have misunderstandings, and all couples have growth moments where something isn't working for one or both of them and they need to work through it — that communication, while it can be passionate, or heated, or, “No, you really don't understand. This is really important to me.” 

That even though it can get intense emotionally sometimes, it is also done fairly respectfully. There's not name-calling, it's not screaming, and being scary and hostile — going back to that idea of emotional safety — and it's not rejecting. It's not defensiveness, “I don’t know what you're talking about. You're crazy. I don't want to talk about that. That's stupid.” That is really just as hostile and destructive as somebody who's very critical and attacking. 

Or, again, going back to that emotional unsafety idea that you're walking on eggshells, or that you can't bring up things that are important to you, that it isn't safe to talk openly about potential problems without it turning into a big fight or a big catastrophe. Those would be evidence that in the communication domain. There are more serious problems happening where as long as everybody is like on best behavior and says “please” and “thank you”, and “pass the salt”. 

It doesn't bring up any big deal if you guys can have a good time, but you can't talk about other more authentic things. Those are indications that you really need to take a look at what's happening in the communication in your relationship and work on improving that because those are problems that are going to get bigger over time, particularly if those communication problems result in one or both of you feeling fundamentally uncared for, or emotionally unsafe with each other. 

Now, again, with communication, all couples fight, and those conflicts can get heated and passionate — but in a healthy relationship, that happens. But the difference between a healthy relationship is that in a healthy relationship, two people can have a disagreement. They can be upset with each other. They can feel frustrated and, “No, you're not understanding me.” 

But what happens too is that they are able to either stay in the ring with each other and have that eventually become a productive conversation where they learn something new about the other person, or where they're able to identify some improvement that can prevent that misunderstanding or that hurt from happening again in the future, and then are willing to follow through. There's a certain sense that their conflict is productive in a healthy relationship. 

Whereas in an unhealthy relationship, even though the beginning stages of an argument might look exactly the same, there isn't that ultimate resolution. It's like a big fight, and somebody slams the door, and the other person drives off. Whatever that fight was about doesn't really get resolved on a deeper level. That is evidence of, again, a much bigger problem if communication doesn't allow the two of you to ultimately come back together again, and find a solution. 

The goal here is not to avoid conflict or not to ever be frustrated with each other. That happens in healthy relationships. But the difference, again, is that it's not productive at the end in an unhealthy relationship. Okay, hope that makes sense. 

When it comes to the teamwork domain of a relationship — again, this also ties into communication and to emotional safety. But teamwork refers to the way that you guys do things together as a couple. 

All couples, over time, in order to be happy and healthy and satisfied with each other, need to come together and create a preferably explicit set of agreements around, “This is how we do things as a couple.” It could be tied to housework, “I do the cooking, you do the dishes. You mow the lawn, I clean the bathrooms”, “We are intimate with each other on Tuesdays and Saturdays because that's the only realistic times we really have to be together.” 

Or, we don't make plans with each other's family before first consulting the other person. There are all kinds of little — I hate to use the word “rules to live by”, but they kind of are. Not rules, but really guidelines around, “This is what I know you need in order to feel like our relationship is in balance. There is a balanced division of labor that we both feel good about. Neither of us is feeling resentful at the other for maybe carrying more than their share of the burden for keeping the wheels on this bus that we're doing together. 

Also, agreements and understandings around, “This is how we do show each other love. This is the time that we connect together as a couple. I'm going to set boundaries around this time because this is our time to be together. We do Family Day on Saturday, so I'm not going to book myself up with a mani-pedi with my girlfriend on Saturday because I know that you're counting on that time to hang out with me. This is our time.” 

It's all dozens of these really small little agreements in a healthy relationship. The health of a relationship fundamentally, I think in many ways, it can be assessed by — how many of those agreements do you have? Are they working for both of you? In couples that are really distressed or when communication isn't good enough to allow two people to continue a conversation long enough to come into a compromise around, “Okay, I'm going to do my yoga class on Sundays, and that'll be your time to hang out with the kids. You can go do your thing on Saturdays, and I’ll do the kids.” 

Couples who are fighting all the time and who don't have good communication, it turns into a crap-show argument around attacks and defensiveness so that they cannot arrive at a productive conclusion where they're like, “Okay, I know what my job is.” Again, the presence or absence of those agreements can indicate one of two things. If you have a lot of these that are working really well, I think that's a really positive indicator that your relationship is fundamentally happy and healthy. 

I would say that any conflicts that you might be having are just opportunities for you guys to arrive at new agreements that there may be areas of your relationship that have not been agreed upon yet. It may be, as happens with many couples, that life changes. As couples go through transitional periods — maybe you have a child, maybe one person takes a new job, maybe you move to a new community — for whatever reason, the agreements that you had in the past no longer totally applied to your life as it is currently. 

All conflict means is that you guys need to come together and figure out this stuff. Again, that is normal, healthy work that all couples need to do. If you're having those kinds of conflicts, that doesn't mean that anything bad is happening. If you do not have a lot of these agreements around your partnership, if one of you is persistently feeling resentful towards the other, and if you are not able to have productive conversations that help you come to resolution, that to me would be a strong indicator that you have serious work to do. 

If you leave these undone, or if you ignore them, what will happen is that the resentments will continue to pile up — and that it will become harder and harder to talk about this stuff productively without it turning into a big yucky fight. Take a look at what's happening with regards to your teamwork. 

Now, the next important domain of relationship health goes back to your enjoyment of each other. To say very clearly, healthy couples that have a lot of strength and resilience, they enjoy each other's company in just basic ways. That does not necessarily mean that they are superficially — air quote again — “compatible”, or that they share a lot of common interests, or that they like to do the same things. 

You would be surprised at how many couples I've worked with that are really worried that they are not good together, or that their relationship isn't going to be happy long term because they don't like to do the same things, or they don't feel like they have a lot of shared interests. The actual truth is that enjoying each other's company and having a good time doesn't have that much to do with whether or not you both like to do the same things. 

What is much more related to is how flexible, and generous, and tolerant you can be with each other. Also, how much you just enjoy each other as a person. At the same time, there are all kinds of couples that are both really going to music festivals, or really all the stuff that one would put in an online dating profile, “I like walking on the beach. I like to travel.” 

They like doing those same things, but they're still fundamentally not that compatible because when they go to the music festival or go travel to Tahiti, they're fighting the whole time because

they're not enjoying each other's company. I just want to reframe your idea around what a good solid healthy relationship means in terms of that fundamental enjoyment piece. 

Again, when it comes to enjoying each other, what I'm talking about is, “Do you like your partner's personality and fundamental ways? Do you have a good time together when you're just doing regular stuff? It's nobody's idea of a good time to go to Costco for half a day on Saturday. But when you do that, are you having a good time? Are you just enjoying that? Do you have just a basic interest in your partner? 

A huge area of health and strength for a relationship is that even if you are not personally that interested in something that is important to your partner, you are still willing to be generous and genuinely curious about their interests in it and what it means to them. Are you willing to join with them from time to time in the things that are meaningful, and valuable, and important to them? Or, can you support them in doing their thing even if it's not something that you can directly participate in for whatever reason? 

Again, think about the health of your relationship. Do you typically feel good? Does your partner make you laugh? Do you think they're interesting? Or, if they're telling you about some obscure hobby that they're into that you're like, “Oh, really?”, can you extend the graciousness of being interested in them and what they care about, and communicating that care. 

Likewise, maybe you're into some really obscure like baseball card… I don't know, whatever — statistics, and your partner isn't. But you feel that your partner is at least willing to talk to you if you came home, and you're all excited because you just found some rare Collector's Edition baseball card and whatever. Do they get excited with you? And are they willing to, every once in a while, go with you to the garage sale to go look for baseball cards, or whatever it is, even though it's not their first choice? 

It's just the feeling that your partner is being generous with you, and that they could care less about baseball cards, but they are still enjoying just driving around on a Saturday with you and going to different places because they like your company, and vice versa. 

Now, on the other side of this, what I would look for as a sign that a relationship does have more serious issues has nothing to do with whether or not people like the same things. But it is: 

Are they judging their partner for liking the things that they like? Are they contemptuous of their partner's interests? Are they refusing to participate in things that are really genuinely important to their partner? Do they ridicule things that are genuinely important to their partner? And are they just day-to-day just having conversations? Do you feel like your partner doesn't like you and thinks that you're dumb, and the stuff that you're into is lame and feels like they're always rolling their eyes when they talk to you? Or do you feel that way towards your partner? 

Those behaviors or those feelings to me would be indicative that there's a much deeper problem, and it is not about finding hobbies that you guys can both do together. It's about figuring out what's going on that's feeling so abrasive to both of you and really working on how do you cultivate a feeling of tolerance and acceptance for who your partner really is. 

How do you learn how to appreciate them for who they really are and have gratitude for who they really are as being individual and distinct from you? Because if you're in a relationship that's colored by a lot of judgment where one person is really feeling like the other person should be more like they are, or vice versa — that is problematic, and that is also going to lead to… Over time, it will erode your sense of emotional safety and the foundation of your relationship.

Lastly, joined to that but different is the sense of shared hopes and dreams that a partnership has. In our last category, we were talking about that enjoyment, and that is really around appreciating and respecting each other and enjoying each other as individuals so that you both have space to be yourselves and that you like each other anyway even if you're different. 

The other piece of this is — do you have shared hopes and dreams for your partnership and your family? Are there things that you can connect around that do feel meaningful to both of you, whether it's your kids or your home, or if you have financial goals, or if you have things that you're working towards — like in 10 years, we would like to be retired and buy a house in Vail, and whatever it is. 

It could be other kinds of things. Maybe there is work that you both feel is meaningful and important to both of you. Or, maybe it is volunteer work, or maybe it's a particular cause that you guys both feel really good about. I could look like anything. But there is this sense of shared meaning and shared purpose, and like you're working together to create something or that you have values in common that both of you are working together to express jointly in your lives. 

In healthy relationships, there is at least an element of that. There is at least some sense of “us”, of “we”, “This is what ‘we’ are doing with our lives. This is what ‘we’ want ‘our’ home to be like and ‘our’ family to be like. These are the values that we'd like to instill in our children, and this is how we are working together to create this future reality that we’ll share. 

Then, strong couples, strong partnerships are talking about those things explicitly, “What are our five-year goals? What are our 10-year goals? Are we saving money for our kids to go to college? What are we doing with our lives?” Having open conversations about that — again, going back to that last category is also making space for the things that might be individually important for each of you, but that you're working together as a couple to make those things happen. 

Maybe, the goal for you guys is that one of you could go back to school, and this is what the other person will do in the meantime. Or, that one of you has always had a dream for staying home and nurturing children, and this is how the other person is going to make it happen. Again, it's not that you guys are both doing the same thing, but that you are working together to create a life that both of you feel good about and having conversations around that. 

On the opposite side of that couples that I worry about don't have that sense of “we”. They don't have that sense of future, they don't have that same sense of shared meaning and shared purpose. It's not to say that couples can't create that because I tell you what — 

To people who don't have emotional safety, who their communication is going off the rails and are still struggling about the right way to load the dishwasher, they have kind of prerequisite work to do in the foundational aspects of their partnership before they can have those headier kinds of conversations around, “What are we doing with our lives?”, kind of thing. 

Just because you might not be in that space now, that doesn't mean that if you can't do some repair work around those more foundational aspects of your relationship that you couldn't build a beautiful life together that's really based on your shared dreams and your shared goals, and feel like you're both working together to create that.

The Makings of a Healthy Relationship 

Those are the different relationship domains that signify health in a relationship, or that signify growth opportunities in a relationship. Me talking through these, I hope that the number one thing that was conveyed to you is that every couple can grow. By working together on specific areas of their relationship, it can improve. Just because some of this warning sign stuff is happening, all that means is that you need to pay attention to it and work together to make it better

That is the only thing that it means. It does not mean that your relationship is doomed. What is more concerning is if you're coming to your partner and saying, “This is a problem. We need to work on this.” And they are saying “no” — that may eventually spell doom. But we're not there yet. Because you're listening to this podcast, you're educating yourself and you're going to work on this with your partner. It can be okay. 

If you have been listening to this podcast under duress, if your partner has you trapped in a moving car and is playing this podcast for you, so you'll listen — I hope that what you heard is that your partner really cares about your relationship and wants it to be better, and has wanted you to listen to this podcast so that you could learn about what areas of your relationship are feeling problematic for them and what healthy relationships look. Because chances are, if it isn't feeling good for them on some level, it isn't feeling good for you either. 

I hope that this has put together a roadmap in your mind around goals that both of you can work towards, around what a happy, healthy relationship can look like for both of you. To my other listeners on the other side, if you have been worried about your relationship or having anxiety about certain aspects of it, the fact that your partner does disappoint you sometimes, or that you do have conflict every once in a while, or that you don't have a lot of things in common, or whatever — 

I hope that you have also learned that those things don't always really matter that much and that you can have normal relational, turbulence, and friction and things can not always feel perfect. You can still have a really fundamentally happy, healthy, strong relationship; that this is just the experience of being in a long-term relationship as this kind of stuff happens sometimes, and I hope that it's helped you gain a deeper awareness and appreciation for all the strengths in your relationship. 

As always, I hope that this podcast was meaningful to you and helpful to you. It is my labor of love and just my way of giving back to the world. I will ask, though, that if you feel like you've benefited from this podcast, or any others — if you could pay it forward to other people by leaving a review for this podcast, preferably favorable, but on iTunes or Stitcher or wherever you listen to this, it only will help other people find this podcast or stumble upon it in their own times of need. 

They've just gotten into a fight and are trying to figure out what the heck is going on and what does this mean about their relationship —  they can also hear this and get information that could help them. They won't unless you leave a review about this podcast because when you do that, it will make the podcast more available for them. Again, this is a totally free — I consider it to be a community resource more than anything else. This is a resource that only exists because listeners just like you have put it in front of other people. 

We don't do any advertising or this isn't a financial thing. This is just free help. Anyway, that is my request of you. Also, I'd like to invite you to take advantage of the other resources. Again, if you want to take that quiz come to my website — growingself.com/relationship-quiz. That too is free. 

If you have questions that you'd like me to answer on an upcoming episode rather, get in touch with me through my website. Again, through Facebook — facebook.com/drlisabobby. I love all of your questions. I read every single one, and I am compiling a list of things to discuss on the podcast based on the questions you're asking me, so keep them coming. 

Alright, thank you again for listening and I'll be back in touch in a couple of weeks with another episode. Until then, take care.

How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People

How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People

How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People

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

Music in this episode is “Watch Your Back” from The Coathangers

How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People

You walk into the office after a much-needed vacation, feeling rested and ready to get back to work. “How was it?” says Camille, your questionable coworker. “I’m so glad you got to go, instead of staying to help us finish that project.” 

She’s mad at you…right? But then again, her sweet tone of voice and wide grin doesn’t seem to match that impression. So you thank her and keep walking, wondering why the whole exchange left you feeling defensive and icky. 

If you’ve been on the receiving end of a “nice remark” like this, you’ve experienced passive aggressive behavior. Passive aggression happens when we can’t or won’t express negative feelings directly, and instead resort to covert hostility as an outlet for our anger, jealousy, or resentment. 

When you have a passive aggressive person in your life, whether it’s a coworker, friend, family member, or romantic partner, you’ll find yourself questioning your own perceptions, and wondering whether you’re just being sensitive, or if there’s actually some antagonism beneath their pleasant exterior. 

Doubting yourself like this can be absolutely crazy-making, leaving you unsure about how to respond. That’s why I wanted to create this episode of the podcast for you: so you can recognize passive aggressive behavior, understand where it’s coming from, and deal with it in a compassionate, assertive manner that’s healthy and fair for you. 

My guest is Kathleen C., a therapist and life coach here at Growing Self. Kathleen has helped many people set healthy boundaries with passive aggressive people or redirect their own passive aggressive impulses so they can have healthier, more authentic relationships with everyone in their lives. 

We’re talking about what causes passive aggression, why it can be so damaging to relationships, and how you can deal with your own Camilles — without losing your cool, or your sanity. 

I hope you’ll tune in, on this page, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. 

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People

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

Music in this episode is “Watch Your Back” from The Coathangers

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How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People: Episode Highlights

Passive aggressive behavior is confusing, exasperating, and damaging to relationships. When someone says everything’s fine, but their behavior says otherwise, that’s a form of gaslighting whether it’s intentional or not. The sooner you can get clear about what’s actually happening in a passive-aggressive dynamic, the better. 

Understanding what passive aggressive behavior is about (hint: It’s not you!) will help you deal with it. Just recognizing passive aggression can be a big relief and can help you respond in a confident, emotionally healthy way. 

Examples of Passive Aggressive Behavior

Passive aggressive behavior can take many forms, but it always involves expressing negative feelings indirectly rather than out in the open. 

When you’re on the receiving end of this veiled hostility, it can feel confusing because there’s a mismatch between the passive aggressive person’s words and their actions. They may tell you they’re not angry, but then slam the door as they exit the room. 

Here are a few other examples of passive-aggressive behavior: 

  • Giving a compliment in a sarcastic tone. 
  • Sabotaging someone else’s plans. 
  • “Forgetting” to do something you agreed to do. 
  • Giving someone the silent treatment when you’re upset. 
  • Excluding a coworker from an important meeting. 
  • Talking badly about someone behind their back, while being polite to their face. 
  • Sulking when you don’t get your way. 
  • Speaking to someone in a condescending tone. 

Behaviors like these aren’t always passive aggressive, but they can be, especially when they’re part of a pattern. If you’re unsure whether someone is being passive aggressive, tune into your own feelings about what’s happening between the two of you. If a “friendly” exchange leaves you feeling confused or mistrustful, you might be picking up on some covert hostility. 

Reasons for Passive Aggressive Behavior

People behave in passive aggressive ways when, for whatever reason, they don’t feel able to express their emotions directly. 

People with a tendency to “people please” are often prone to passive aggressive communication. When you have a strong fear of being disliked, it can feel impossible to confront others directly. Instead, a people pleaser may try to get some emotional relief by being hostile to the person they’re upset with while maintaining plausible deniability about it. For this reason, many self-identified people-pleasers are experienced by others as quite passive aggressive. 

Others may become passive aggressive because they have anxiety about conflict, they don’t believe anger is an acceptable emotion, or because they have low self-esteem and worry that if they’re assertive and direct, they’ll have no friends

Whatever the reason, passive aggressive behavior erodes trust, builds resentment, and leaves issues in a relationship to fester. 

How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People

If someone is chronically passive aggressive toward you, particularly if you’re not close to this person, the best way to deal with it is to distance yourself as much as possible. You could do this by choosing not to be around the person, or by simply not engaging with them to the extent that you’re able. Certainly don’t react to their behavior in the way they’re most likely hoping you will — by getting angry, upset, or defensive. 

Keeping your cool signals to the person that you’re not going to engage in the passive aggressive “dance” anymore, which makes treating you this way a little less gratifying. 

How to Fix a Passive Aggressive Relationship

If it’s a relationship you value, you can try talking to the passive aggressive person about what you’re noticing, how it’s affecting you, and where your boundaries are

You may say something like, “I’ve noticed that you make jokes at my expense in front of our friends sometimes. When you tease me like that, I feel embarrassed and hurt. I’m not going to spend time with you if you continue talking about me like this.” 

This response is both vulnerable and direct, a combination that can sometimes disarm passive behavior. Either way, their response will tell you a lot about how emotionally safe you can feel with this person, and whether they’re actually a friend you can trust and count on

And if your goal is to improve the relationship, it’s important to be an emotionally safe communicator yourself. Refrain from blaming, accusing, or lashing out in anger at the passive aggressive person. Instead, focus on your own observations, feelings, and boundaries. 

How to Stop Being Passive Aggressive

Have you ever asked yourself, “Am I passive aggressive?”

We often don’t realize when we’re being passive aggressive, so it’s worth taking a look at your own behavior and being honest with yourself about your motivations. 

Notice if you’re feeling angry, jealous, insecure, or threatened around a certain person, and how you might be acting those feelings out in your relationship with them. You might find yourself talking about them behind their back, being disingenuous with them, or being unsupportive of their success. 

If you notice these things, don’t beat yourself up. Just think about why you may be feeling this way and what needs you’re trying to meet. By treating yourself with compassion, you can find better ways to get your emotional needs met, without resorting to passive aggressive behavior.

Episode Show Notes:

[1:59] The Passive Aggressive Patterns

  • Passive aggressive behaviors leave us in a place of self-doubt due to a lack of clarity about the person’s intention. 
  • The classic passive aggressive pattern is mixed messages, for example, when someone's words and tone don't match.
  • Intentional “forgetfulness” toward crucial promises is another example of passive aggressive behavior.

[11:23] How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People?

  • Understand why they act that way.
  • The root of passive aggressiveness is insecurity.
  • Passive aggressive behavior can keep us from having close, meaningful connections.

[21:29] Passive Aggressive Relationships

  • If someone's being passive aggressive toward you, that's a reflection of their feelings, beliefs, coping mechanisms, and communication skills, not of you. 
  • Sometimes, it is ideal to disengage and ignore the passive aggressive comments.

[32:16] How to Handle Passive Aggressive People?

  • Set a positive precedent by modeling vulnerability when confronting passive aggressive behaviors.
  • Create a space that encourages authentic and meaningful communication.
  • Disengage if the person doesn’t feel emotionally safe to communicate with.

[43:44] Am I Passive Aggressive?

  • Are you honest with yourself about your motivations when you communicate?
  • Find other ways to get what you need, without resorting to passive aggression.

Music in this episode is “Watch Your Back” from The Coathangers

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

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: Today, we are talking about a topic that I know so many people wrestle with. I, myself, have encountered this, which is passive-aggressive people. They're everywhere. They can show up at work, in our friendships, in your relationship with family members, and it can be really frustrating and difficult to know what to do in these situations. Also, this is just an exasperating experience. 

You know that type of thing where somebody is sunny, and pleasant, and fun to your face, but then you know they're saying or doing things behind your back, or maybe even somebody making those ambiguous comments that can be taken a few different ways in your presence, but knowing them and their history, you know what they're talking about, but you can't really confront it directly. 

It's just so hard to know what to do in these situations without making the situation worse. That is why I enlisted the support of my dear friend and colleague, once again, Kathleen S., who is a therapist and coach here on our team at Growing Self who has so much experience in helping people develop truly healthy relationships with healthy boundaries, healthy communication, high degree of emotional intelligence. I'm hoping that she can shed some light on this phenomenon to provide you some direction for this situation. 

Kathleen, thank you so much for being here with me today. You are just such a joy to talk to. You're one of my all-time favorite podcast guests because you always are just so generous with your information and ideas. I'm confident that you will be able to shed light on this for us today too, so thank you.

Kathleen S.: Oh, thanks. Thanks for having me. I do hope to give some helpful information today to help us all deal with, I think, this experience that we all share like you said.

The Passive-Aggressive Patterns

Lisa: It happens. So many examples — this can take so many different forms. I mentioned a couple in my intro. But when your clients, your counseling, or coaching clients are describing this experience to you, what are some of the patterns, or ways, or even your own life that this passive-aggressive behavior tends to show up? Because it can take many forms.

Kathleen: So many. As I was always thinking about this preparing for today, I was struck by how many versions of this there are. You’re right — iy can come up at work. and certainly also closer to home, in your friendships, or even in your family or in your romantic relationships. I think the hallmark is that kind of like you were alluding to — that it leaves us feeling confused, and disarmed, and embarrassed or doubting ourselves and disempowered kind of.

Lisa: There's that. I won't use this term because we have clean language on this podcast, but kind of like that “mind-f” experience where you're like, “Did that just happen? I felt like that just happened. Did it? If I say that out loud, then what will happen?” It totally just puts you in this precarious situation interpersonally.

Kathleen: You feel threatened in a way and intimidated for sure. Then, unable to trust yourself, and therefore unable to really directly address it, or do anything about it because you start to doubt, “Am I seeing this clearly? Is that really what that meant? Did that really happen? Or am I interpreting…?” We tend to personalize, “Am I interpreting this in a faulty way because of my own insecurities?” 

That's part of the reason why passive-aggressive behavior works because it does kind of leave you without clarity, and stuck in that place of self-doubt — unable to assert yourself. That's kind of one of the… We can talk about the different ways people are passive-aggressive so you can identify it. But then also when you recognize it's happening, not personalizing it, and recognizing what it's really about and that it's really about the person who's doing it — that leaves you in more of a space to take care of yourself.

Lisa: Okay, that sounds like a fantastic plan. I would love to start with, just as you were suggesting, what it actually looks like. Because I think even just having that conversation would be so incredibly validating to so many of our listeners because there's that confusion, that unknown. What does this look like from your experience in action? What are the types, if you will?

Kathleen: We have your classic mixed messages where maybe someone's words and tone don't fit. Maybe they're complimenting you, but their tone has an edge of sarcasm or sickly sweetness. Or perhaps their nonverbals their body language don't match their tone or what they're saying. Maybe, even they say they're going to do one thing, and they don't follow through. All of those messages or contradictions.

Lisa: I see that the ladder in couples counseling, honestly — in couples, it's so hard for people where their partner will say they'll do something, and then they don't. Then, the other person is left to figure out if that was like an intentional forgetfulness to wound them, or if they actually forgot — because that also happens.

Kathleen: When you start to see patterns because forgetting is definitely can be a passive-aggressive technique. If you start to see patterns where, “My partner is really good at remembering these things, but conveniently forgets the things that are important to me or the things that expressed are important to me.” 

Making excuses or procrastinating, and sort of in ways that don't make sense where there doesn't seem to be a strong logic for why I didn't follow through this time, or, “I've been procrastinating. I don't remember us talking about that. That's not what we said. We were on the same page, we had the same conversation, and now it's different. That can be, so I'm glad you brought that up. 

That's just one way in couples and relationships that we can experience passive aggression. It's not to say that that's always the case. Sometimes, we do forget things. But if you see a pattern of that, especially along with other passive-aggressive types of behaviors, and I think you can feel it sometimes too. Trust your guts. 

Lisa: You're saying the mixed messages where people are saying one thing, but you feel icky. It just flashed in my mind when you're saying that. You're from the South, so I'm sure you'll know if somebody says, “Bless your heart.” It's actually not a good thing.

Kathleen: A condescending tone can also be a marker of passive… That's a good example of that, “Oh, bless her heart.” But you can feel icky. Trust your gut — if you feel this person is being kind, but they don't feel safe, or they're complimenting you, but you don't feel close to them. They're telling you something is important to them, and that they're hearing you, and they're going to follow through, but you don't trust it. These are all just good, I think, markers. 

There isn't one, unfortunately — I can't say, “Here's the stamp. We can stamp this person as being passive-aggressive to you. You can be 100% sure.” I think it's more of a pattern of experiences and feelings.

Lisa: You know what? One is coming into mind, and I don't— I'm not sure if this counts or not. But just as we're talking about this, have you ever had the experience where someone might set rules, or limits, or something, boundaries, with you that you know for a fact they don't set with other people? 

It's not that the rules or expectations or boundaries are necessarily inappropriate, but that it feels like they're just for you. Have you ever experienced that, or is that just my life that we're talking about right now?

Kathleen: Listen, I haven't experienced that one personally, but it's a great example. I can imagine it at work in particular — like unnecessary red tape, making things unnecessarily difficult for you and you being the exception to that, chronically disagreeing with you — these are different ways that… Holding you to different standards whether those be boundaries, or, let's say, work standards in a professional setting, and then other people. 

That's a good example — stonewalling. Whether it's the silent treatment from your partner, or maybe it's in a social setting talking to everyone in the group, but not looking at you, or at work — not responding to your emails, or including you in a business meeting that you should be included in. That kind of exclusion and silent treatments which can look those different ways and take those different forms. That can be a form of passive-aggressive behavior. 

Guilt-tripping is another big one by holding you responsible for their feelings, playing the victim — that kind of thing — or even being in the victim role themselves and sort of guilt-tripping you around that, or sabotaging themselves, believe it or not. This can happen a lot in romantic relationships. I've actually heard it said before, “I will do this to myself and I will be so unhappy, then they'll finally see how much they hurt me.” This is passive-aggressive… 

Lisa: Like that emotional blackmail. Passive-aggressive way of expressing…

Kathleen: Of expressing your feelings because that's part… It's not the only reason we're passive-aggressive but it’s one of the reasons is when we feel like we don't know how, or we can't — we're not allowed to directly talk about what we need or how we feel. We can’t sustain that, stuffing that forever, so it can come out in passive-aggressive ways. That's just one reason that we can behave passive-aggressively. When that is the motive, sometimes it can look like playing the victim.

How to Deal with Passive-Aggressive People?

Lisa: You know what? I did actually want to ask you about it, and I certainly want to talk about how to deal with passive-aggressive people. But I was actually interested in hearing more about this perspective as well like why people do behave in passive-aggressive ways just to illuminate it. 

I have compassion for it even, but what you just said was super interesting is that people tend to engage in these behaviors or communicate in this way when they don't feel able to express their feelings in more direct ways. Is that it? 

Kathleen: It's one of the reasons, yes. I actually think the first step in being able to deal with passive-aggressive people is to understand the reasons why people act that way because it helps us with that lack of clarity and that confused feeling. It kind of  — that proverbial facing your fears, like “look the monster directly in the face”. Then, that scary threat shrinks, and becomes something a little less scary and more manageable. 

If we can understand why people are passive-aggressive, then we can go up. That's what's happening there. And be a little less scared. Then, we're able to think clearly about what we want to do with that. It's an important piece. Having beliefs that it's not okay to express your feelings, to ask for what you need, to take up space to have conflict, which are — we talked about it when we talked about people-pleasing, a lot of us have learned that. 

What are we left with, then? To either completely neglect our needs, or try to get them met by beating around the bush in a passive-aggressive way because we feel scared or insecure about actually being vulnerable, and authentic, and direct in our communication. That is one big reason. 

Lisa: Interesting. I never really thought about this in the same way until you brought this up that it's on this… We had that marvelous conversation about people-pleasing that I think so many of us can identify with too. But what I'm hearing you say now is that maybe that people-pleasing tendencies and passive-aggressive tendencies are actually two sides of the same coin.

Kathleen: They definitely can be. We might have to the best of intentions, and then do things that or express ourselves in ways that you're not happy with for sure. 

Lisa: If you're people-pleasing, and you're sort of doing things that don't feel good to you, and you feel like you have to. That even though you're not maybe talking about how you feel in the moment, it's still coming out sideways, and it's likely to be in those passive-aggressive kinds of…

Kathleen: sideways. 

Lisa: Yes, like your nail polish kinds of…

Kathleen: Then, you're really thinking, “You didn't invite me to go get your nails done with you, but you invited Sarah or whatever.” That's one reason. But there are other situations too. If I had to pick one root for all the different ways that passive-aggressiveness can show up, it would be insecurity for sure. I would say all passive-aggressive behavior is rooted in that, but it can come from, “I feel too insecure to be — we were just saying — to be clear, and authentic, and direct. I shouldn't do, I shouldn't be upset”, that kind of thing. 

Or it can be, “I feel like I don't have power and control in this situation. I need to figure out — I feel like I need to get that to be strong, to be competent, to be respected.” Or it can be “I feel threatened by you or jealous of you, And then I might handle that with passive-aggressive behavior which is sort of another way of feeling like I have some power and control there.” 

Rooted in that sense of, “I'm not secure here”, but can have slightly different motivations. Not everybody who is passive-aggressive is always fully aware that they're doing it, and not everybody comes from a place of, “I really want to tell you how I feel, but I'm scared to.” Some people are just being adult bullies. It depends very much on the situation and the person. 

Lisa: Totally. What I'm thinking of right now as you're sharing this — I know you're familiar with Brené Brown’s work around the role of vulnerability and having the courage to talk about things like, “That hurt my feelings”, or “That made me feel left out”’ or like “You don't care about me”. That is so scary, that passive-aggressive behavior is sort of the opposite of that. Those feelings in a highly defended form, basically, is what you're saying that people aren't expressing.

Kathleen: Absolutely. That’s it.

Lisa: Anti-vulnerability. 

Kathleen: Absolutely. We've talked about having sort of a continuum for maybe we have aggression on one end, and passivity on the far end of that continuum, and assertiveness, if it's in the middle of those. I have always said its assertiveness is our pathway to genuine connection. It should open up communication. It is vulnerable to be assertive, actually. It can be scary, but it's also very authentic and can lead to intimacy — just like Brené Brown talks about. 

I would definitely say that passive-aggressiveness which might be, depending on the version of it, sort of closer to either end of that continuum, a little not quite aggression, but near it, not quite being passive, but somewhere near that. It’s just another version of not being authentic and vulnerable — protecting yourself from how scary that can feel. But it keeps us from having closer, more meaningful connections at the same time.

Lisa: It's so easy to hide, I think, in that passive-aggressive place because if somebody does dare in the phase of that passive-aggressive moment or communication to say, “I feel like you're upset with me right now. Is something going on?” So easy for people to be like, “I don't know what you're talking about. It's a joke.” Whatever that it can look like.

Kathleen: “I’m just teasing you. I’m just messing with you.”

Lisa: You can hide forever in that place.

Kathleen: That's the thing about it — it's veiled. It’s sneaky, and that's what makes it so confusing.

Lisa: Over time, in your experience, what does that passive-aggressive communication style — because it is a communication style. People are being passive-aggressive — they're communicating something. What does that do to relationships over time, both in that space between people, but also for the sort of recipient of the passive-aggressive behavior, but also for the person doing the passive-aggressive behavior — what do you see this turn into over time?

Kathleen: I think it creates almost an ever-growing, not even a gap but like a wall between the two of you. It definitely erodes trust, I think, on both sides because when you're trying to get your needs met, but you're doing it in a passive-aggressive way, you're not going to get… At first, you might get some satisfaction, let's be honest. Seeing the other person be affected, “This is what I wanted, and I don't know how else to do that.” 

But with time, you don't actually get those needs met, you don't feel seen and heard, you don't feel like you're on the same team, you don't feel safe and trusting — even if you're the passive-aggressive one. 

Lisa: I could see it pushes people just further away from you, and if you're really trying to be cared for and understood, it's like the opposite.

Kathleen: “I can't trust you, I can't trust what you say, I can't trust that you're going to be honest and transparent with me, which means I don't have a way to keep this relationship healthy and growing.” Then, even the person being passive-aggressive begins to feel hopeless as well. We kind of almost create these deep grooves that we get stuck in this — of a relationship dynamic of mistrust and resentment. Does that make sense? 

Lisa: That it's impossible to have the kind of emotionally safe, authentic, courageous conversations that are required to keep our relationship healthy. It's like that just starts to feel impossible after a while.

Kathleen: The more that we have those, and that we are heard and safe when we have those, the closer we can get, and the safer that we feel, and the more we trust, the more we open up and so on and so forth. It can go, unfortunately, in the opposite direction as well. The less often we have those conversations, the more unsafe we feel.

Passive-Aggressive in Relationships

Lisa: Well, I'm glad that we're talking about this. If we were to shift a little bit into — your advice for if someone is recognizing that they're caught in this kind of loop with someone that they wish to maintain a relationship with because I think that that is a piece of it. I know, I have encountered in social situations or situations where you do have the power to kind of distance yourself from people because I'm an extremely direct person most of the time. I don't know how else to be. 

When I feel that energy, I separate myself from that person when I have the power to do so. But I've also — and I know that many our listeners and our clients have had experiences where that's like a family member, or someone that you are connected to in perpetuity, but don't have like even enough of a relationship to be able to… Like your wife's brother or something like that, sort of an extended family, or even like a parent, or in the worst-case scenario, a spouse, but like a sibling. 

When you have to deal with this, how do you even begin to mend that? I heard you say — understanding what it's about.

Kathleen: That's sort of the first step. But you're talking about someone that you have to have in your life who can't really cut off ties, but you're not close enough where they're not safe enough to be really vulnerable with them basically. That could be a boss too or a co-worker. Yeah, yeah. Or work. situation. Yeah.

Lisa: A workplace situation. But that's even good advice that they're kind of like different categories of people. Maybe for some people that you do have the opportunity for more intimacy with you, you can have more meaningful healing. But there's like that separate category of people that you're sort of stuck with. I think the hardest thing in those situations is that like with a co-worker, or a boss, or like an extended family member — whatever I say or do, they're just going to be defensive and deny, and I'm going to look like the idiot, and it's going to make things worse. It's such a bind.

Kathleen: Yes, let's kind of look at this in levels I suppose, and you can kind of get a sense of which categories of people in your life some of these levels of addressing passive-aggressive behavior would apply to or not. If we start the beginning like we said — understanding this is about them, not you. It's not your fault. So don't get too caught up in the content of the comments they're making because you're not doing anything wrong. 

If someone's being passive-aggressive towards you, that's a reflection of them and how they're feeling, what they believe, their coping skills, their communication skills. We talked about Brené Brown — she talks about how vulnerability combats shame. By understanding, “Look, this is what's happening. This is about them, not you.” We can kind of decrease the intimidation factor and the embarrassment or the shame factor a little bit. 

Level one of dealing with somebody in your life like this is kind of to, like you were saying, when it's possible to avoid it and to distance yourself if you can — ask to be put on a different project at work, or don't be caught alone in the room with your mother-in-law or whatever, whoever it is. Have an escape plan prepared ahead of time and make that a boundary for yourself, “I'm not going to be cornered.” 

Sometimes, we do have to just not engage — ignore or pretend we didn't hear the question or the comment that was was made. This is all part of our avoidance strategy here. It's kind of like — somebody once used this term to me, and it stuck and that like, “Not letting them put the coin, the quarter in the pinball machine. Not reacting in a way…” 

Lisa: Getting activated. 

Kathleen: “…giving them the reaction that they're looking for.” Kind of making it not really fun or purposeful for them anymore by not getting upset, by not getting defensive, or explaining yourself if that makes sense. For some people in your life, this is how handle it.

Lisa: I always take the bait, I always have that tendency like, “I want to confront it.” That is what I'm hearing you say — not the right strategy. Okay. Lisa takes notes. 

Kathleen: I'm the same way. 

Lisa: Because that's what it feels like. 

Kathleen: I either want to confront it or I just want to be around it. But sometimes, we are in these situations where we have to navigate a little bit more subtlety, and when you have to have — to keep the harmony.

Lisa: Kind of expecting it like, “I know what this person does, I know how unlikely to feel in this moment, and I am in advance deciding that I am actually not going to react and make this gratifying for them, and I will try to minimize my contact with them to the degree that I can. If I can't, I am just going to smile and nod.”

Kathleen: Exactly. 

Lisa: Pass the salt. 

Kathleen: Know what this is, what's happening — and then just by being able to identify it and label it in your mind, be prepared to not engage in that dynamic with them. Sometimes, we can take it a little step up, and we can get into some broken record boundary-setting like, “Well, I'm not really going to talk about that right now. 

Or let's say somebody brings up something from the past, “I don't really care about that anymore.” Just kind of putting the big “stop” sign. It's a variation of the avoidance technique that we can use. It's just a way of saying, “I'm really not going to do that dance with you.” Sometimes, we can do that, and sometimes we can't. We have some other options. But when that's all you can do, sometimes it is what is best for you. 

If that's not possible, you can have, kind of getting out of the victim role. It is another way of not giving them the response that they might be looking for, but it's less avoidant when that's not an option. Just showing them other ways that you're not upset and it's not working on you like laughing with them when they tease you, “Oh, yeah, that's true. I am really bad at time management. Got to work on that.” 

Showing that you have the self-confidence that you're not going to be passive-aggressively bullied that you can laugh at yourself — that's not going to work if that makes sense.

Lisa: I think I'm hearing on this emotional level, you're also really shutting the door on any emotional safety or emotional intimacy with this person. It's like you're in a room, and there's a snake who's trying to bite you and just handle it like that. I think where a lot of people get roped in is feeling like, “This relationship has the opportunity for me to talk about how I'm feeling right now. Maybe, we can like do this differently next time.” 

What I'm hearing you say is like, there's a whole class of relationships where actually, “No, this isn't going to change. You shouldn't be telling people how you actually feel and just understand what this is and protect yourself.” 

Kathleen: There is a whole class of relationships like that.

Lisa: Good. That's good to know.

Kathleen: There are people, hopefully in your life, too, that maybe they don't — some people don't realize that they are being passive-aggressive, or it's something that they've learned to do, but they've never really had the kind of relationship that allows them to look at that in a safe space and be really vulnerable with somebody. 

For those people, maybe it is your significant other, maybe it is a really close friend who teases you sometimes when you're out socializing or something like that. Maybe it is a family member that we can use assertiveness techniques with them. Again, it kind of helps to have a plan prepared ahead of time if possible as far as, “These are the kind of things I've noticed happening. The next time it happens, or the next time I feel that way, here's what I'm going to do.” 

When I work with clients on assertiveness, we have different scripts that we use because in the beginning, it can feel really hard to think on your feet and it keeps it really simple. One of them, we kind of touched on earlier, and that is just pointing out those discrepancies, pointing out the mixed messages that you've noticed like, “Hey, you've been a really great friend to me in so many ways over the years. I've also noticed, though, that when we hang out with ‘so and so, and so and so’, sometimes you will make jokes at my expense, you'll tease me. I'm just wondering, what is that about?’ 

That might be a discrepancy strategy where we point out differences or messages that don't match, “You said you were going to get back to me by email by Thursday, and we agreed on the plan on how to deal with this issue, and you didn't do it, what's happening there?” This is just your basic discrepancy assertiveness technique. But when it's someone that we feel that we're closer to, and we really do want to have a close relationship with, we can get a little bit more vulnerable, and talk about how we feel, “When you tease me like that, I get really embarrassed and I feel really hurt.” 

I think like we talked about last time — how they respond to that is something that gives us information about how emotionally safe we can be with them. But people aren't perfect, it takes a little bit of time to open up. It's hard to not get defensive when someone points something out to you or tells you that their feelings are hurt. But if it's somebody that's really important to you, you can be a little bit patient, and try being vulnerable and honest, giving them the chance to let their guard down.

How to Handle Passive-Aggressive People?

Lisa: Like in those moments to kind of go into that with what you were describing — that compassionate understanding of why people might be communicating that way in the first place. Because what I'm thinking about right now is that sort of systemic impact that — like maybe they don't feel emotionally safe enough with me to tell me that they're angry with me, or that I hurt their feelings. That's why they're teasing me or doing whatever in the first place. Would you recommend trying to address that with somebody who has been behaving that way with you?

Kathleen: Absolutely. Right now I'm imagining someone really close to you, like a significant other, or very close friend, or maybe a sister — it depends. Someone you feel close to, a relationship that you value, then yes, I would say, “Why not say? Why not ask?” I would imagine that it's difficult sometimes to say they're upset with me, “Is that what's happening? Or is it something else? I just want to understand what's going on with you because I care about you.”

So setting the precedent modeling vulnerability, and that it is okay to be human, and to take up some space, and to have these big uncomfortable feelings, and to talk about them. Let's bring them out into the light of day, they're not that scary. Sometimes, we can sort of disarm passive-aggressiveness and change the relationship dance that we have with that person.

Lisa: Totally. This is so interesting because when we started talking about this, I was thinking about the passive-aggressive experience from the perspective of an individual who may be dealing with this. But as we're talking, I'm just starting to think about all of the couples I have worked with over the years where there has been — and I'm using my air quotes right now — “passive-aggressive behavior” in one partner, where the other partner doesn't realize, and this is very common and like a pursue withdraw dynamic.

I am going to gender stereotype with it. It is not always this way. It's sometimes it goes different ways, but it is a passive-aggressive appearing man and an angry woman who are married to each other. That oftentimes, what is actually happening in that relationship dynamic is when that guy says, “Actually, this is how I'm feeling”, or, “I don't want to do that”, or “I think we should do it this way”, it's like all hell breaks loose, and there are very severe relational consequences for his disagreeing in an authentic and vulnerable way, so he stops. 

I think looking at this through my couple’s counselor lens right now, the other piece of this I think we can extrapolate is how very important it is to be an emotionally safe person if you want somebody close to you to stop engaging in that sort of avoidant behavior because it's real easy to point your finger at somebody else for being passive-aggressive and not realizing that you're kind of scary, and then they might want to avoid having a conflict with you. 

To have that self-awareness — and that's me stepping into the couple’s counseling lens right now. But thank you for reminding me of that because I think that can be important and intimate partnerships. That's the thing.

Kathleen: Then, we're not really talking about what we really need and how we really feel. We don't really know each other anymore. Sometimes, it's not that obvious. Sometimes, it's clear — one of us is getting really angry, “What do you mean you don't agree with me?” We'll have someone shut down and just fall in back on passive-aggressive behavior because again, that's the only way I can communicate it all ear safely. 

Sometimes, it's more subtle than that. It's, “Oh, okay. Well, I'm still going to do it my way.” Or we have the passive-aggressive meets passive-aggressive pattern, “Oh, okay. Alright. Well, sure, I'll consider that. Then go and make the decision on your own, “Oh, I forgot. I didn’t say that.” Or, “I don't know how to do that, and so I did it differently”, or whatever. 

Either way though, when you start to feel like, “This person isn't a safe person for me to open up to either because they get angry”, or because, “I'm not heard and seen. My feelings are invalidated.” We kind of fall back on, “How can I be heard? Passive-aggressive communication might be our last step before we just stop trying to connect or make an effort at all sometimes.”

Lisa: Well, that's really, really good advice is just to try to talk about it openly, and compassionate, and emotionally safe way because your only other choice in some ways is to withdraw. Now, can I ask you about one other little facet of this or variable? 

Part of what is coming up for me too, as we're talking, and I will say this as someone who has, personally ADHD tendencies, in case you haven't noticed over all the years we've known each other Kathleen, and I have seen a dynamic in relationships where one partner actually does have trouble remembering things, trouble with task-based stuff, time management, and it is interpreted as being passive-aggressive when actually they have like thinking differences that make that kind of thing hard for them, and it can create so much hurt feelings in a relationship when it's being interpreted in a hurtful… 

People feel like their partner doesn't care a lot of the time when they are struggling with ADHD. Do you have any guidelines or recommendations to help somebody kind of differentiate, “Is this person being intentionally hurtful and passive-aggressive, or are they just sort of a mess, and that's why they're late or forgetting to pick up the whatever at the store?”

Kathleen:: I've experienced this with clients more than once and… 

Lisa: Probably with me. It’s been a really important moment for them in their relationships to be able to understand their partners in a different way. I think the reason that was able to happen is because you'll see other signs of ADHD outside of the relationship, “Does this person forget things? Do they forget what they said and conversations they had with other people too? Do they forget or have difficulty managing their time for themselves — doctor's appointments or whatever other obligations outside of their relationship with you?” 

You'll see it gets confusing too because… Also with ADHD, you have a difficult time regulating your emotions often as well, or can feel — well, we won't go down that. I would say the best path is to actually — there's a great book on this topic. There are two books — Married to ADHD, and Is It You, Me, or ADHD. Those are two great books. 

Or meet with a counselor, or a therapist, a counselor, either by yourself or with your partner to learn a little bit more about this because there are a lot of things that go into ADHD — hyperfocus is one of those things, difficulty with time management for getting things, losing things. But the point is that you'll see that pattern across the board with your children, with their friends, in their job, not just with you. Does that answer your question?

No, that's great advice. I think, even if that is what it is, your original recommendations — like having an authentic, vulnerable conversation about how this is making you feel is also probably the answer. Even if it's a different origin, your partner needs to know that the way they're showing up in your relationship is not feeling good for you and that we need to do something a little bit differently, even if it's not intentional. 

I love just your advice for this compassionate, authentic, vulnerable — and I think that's one of my big takeaways from the conversation. It's that you have to be that person, you have to be the brave one almost — is that it? 

Kathleen: Absolutely. 

Lisa: In a relationship worth keeping.

Kathleen: I would say that's a really important takeaway from this conversation. If you want authentic, meaningful communication, you kind of have to create the space for that by doing that yourself, and being receiver of that, and being willing to receive that. Then, we can get the ball rolling in that direction in those safe relationships. Again, we're not robots, we can't flip a switch and say, “I'm not defensive anymore.” 

Or for people whose partners have had ADHD, they're not always aware of it, and they don't, and they can still get defensive — and so, “I don't know what you're talking about. That's ridiculous.” But are they open to looking into it? Are they open to even just hearing how these behaviors affect you, and looking at what they've tried to do about that, and if it's worked or not? Are they open to getting some help? 

Starting the process of having those scary conversations that are really, really rewarding in the end. When it's not someone who's safe or close, don't let yourself slip into the trap of trying to figure them out or argue with them, disengage as much as you can.

Lisa: That's really good advice. I love that idea. It's like if you want to have a different relationship, if you want to have an emotionally safe relationship and an authentic, vulnerable relationship, we can't tell the other person to stop being passive-aggressive. That's this moment when you need to show up in that really courageous way, and then that's the path of change. 

One last question, then I'll let you go there. There was a comment that you made earlier in our conversation that I thought was so interesting which was that many times passive-aggressive, or people like we should say — people who are engaging in passive-aggressive communication or behaviors are not always aware of it. Just for fun, somebody listening to this podcast, how would they know if they themselves are actually showing up in this way, and having this impact on others? 

Kathleen: That's a great question. 

Am I Passive-Aggressive?

Lisa: That's a hard question. I'm just curious, if you were doing passive-aggressive things, and you didn't realize it, what would be your clues? How would you look at this?

Kathleen: It does kind of go back to our conversation that we had about people-pleasing — check in with your feelings, and be honest with yourself about your motivations when you communicate, “Am I actually feeling underneath this — sometimes frustration or power trip feeling? I might actually be feeling scared, or hurt, or jealous?” 

Notice that those are emotions that you're experiencing, especially particularly around a certain person, “Am I feeling threatened around them, or insecure around them? Do they sort of push my insecurity buttons?” Are there…

Lisa: Or if I have to act certain ways around certain people even though I don't really want to. That would be a…

Kathleen: Am I different around certain people rather than others? Although I think sometimes when we learn to be passive-aggressive in order to communicate in relationships, it becomes sort of a habit. But I really honestly think slowing down — and I always go back to this — to being compassionately curious with yourself, “I am really annoyed by her. Gosh, you really get the EEG whatever. Gets on my nerves. Man, I really can't stand that — did you see with it? 

Do you find yourself talking about them behind their back? Do you find yourself being disingenuous with them? Or really being irritated with them? Slow down and check in with yourself, “Okay, what am I needing? What is this situation bringing to my attention that I need to do for myself?”

Lisa: Resentment or even that narrative around, “She asked me to pick up the whatever at the store, but she wouldn't do that for me. Besides, she was mean to me yesterday, so I'm just not going to.” There's that narrative in your head up. But I think in summary — again, we recorded that beautiful conversation about people-pleasing behaviors. 

Maybe, it’s if you really strongly identified with a lot of what we talked about and that people-pleasing episode, there is a chance, that unless you're working on that intentionally, you may be coming across as passive-aggressive to other people because even though you think you're hiding your anger or resentment, maybe you're actually not. Is that a fair way of saying?

Kathleen: I don't think people can successfully hide that too well. Well, I don't think they're really doing anything. They can’t do that for any significant length of time. If you're feeling that way, you're not addressing with assertiveness, with vulnerability, it's not going to go away. You're probably not hiding it as well as you think you are. 

It's an opportunity to face some of your fears, and maybe as a reward, feel more seen and heard than you have before. That's the good news.

Lisa: I love it. But that's the message is that personal growth, working on yourself, developing healthy boundaries, creating congruence in your life, having healthy affirming relationships is really the path out of both situations. What a positive note to glide to a stop off. 

This was such a fun conversation, Kathleen. Thank you so much. You just illuminated so many different aspects of this. I know that even myself talking with you today understood this in different ways because of our conversation. I'm sure that some of our listeners maybe have as well, and that they can use these new insights and put them to work in their life. Thank you for doing this with me.

Kathleen: Right, absolutely. Glad to be here. Thank you.

Healing Relationships

Healing Relationships

Healing Relationships

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

Healing Relationships

A healing relationship is one that helps us regain our sense of value, autonomy, safety, and respect — our birthright as human beings. After bad experiences that may have seemed to call these basic truths into question, healing relationships can affirm these truths to us, building our self-esteem, confidence, and sense of security in the process.  

Let’s try a little thought experiment — think back to a time when you made a truly regrettable mistake. When you were filled with regret and would have given anything to hop into a time machine, blast off to the past and undo what you’d done.

You probably felt pretty bad about yourself at the time. Was there someone you turned to, who listened with compassion and understanding? Maybe they helped you remember that, despite your mistake, you were still a human being worthy of love and respect, even at a moment when you didn’t feel like it. 

I hope so. And if you have had an experience like this, you’ve been touched by a healing relationship, an important topic we’ll be exploring on today’s episode of the podcast. 

My guest is Paige M., a marriage and family therapist and coach here at Growing Self. Paige is an expert on healing relationships, and she has some fascinating insight into these nurturing connections and the positive impact they can have on your life. 

Healing relationships are so important to all of us. In fact, they’re the key component of effective therapy. So learning to cultivate healing relationships in your own life is incredibly worthwhile. This conversation will help you recognize a healing relationship when you find one, and embrace the experiences that will allow you to grow into a happier, healthier version of yourself

Join me here, on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Healing Relationships

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

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Healing Relationships: Episode Show Notes

What Is a “Healing Relationship?”

The safe, therapeutic relationship between counselor and client is the foundation of all effective therapy. But other important relationships in our lives — with partners, friends, family, even coworkers — can also be incredibly beneficial to our mental and emotional wellbeing. 

Maybe you’ve experienced this. You may have been cheated on by an ex, but the next person you dated showed you it was safe to trust again. Or maybe you had a teacher who humiliated you when you gave the wrong answer, but other teachers were kind to you, even when you were wrong. 

These are the kinds of corrective experiences that take place within “healing relationships,” and they are so important for anyone who has experienced relational trauma (which is to say, everyone!). 

When we have new experiences with safe people who treat us with empathy and respect, we offer our brains “counter-evidence” against old narratives about who we are and what we deserve, helping us regain our feelings of safety, security, confidence, and trust in our connections with other people. 

Can You Heal While In a Relationship? 

You may have heard that it’s best to get over any past relationships before moving into a new one. This isn’t bad advice — getting back to your feelings of wholeness and happiness as a single person can be an important part of breakup recovery. But in reality, many relational wounds stick with us, even after we’re feeling “over” the relationship in question. 

If you’ve been betrayed in the past, it’s totally normal to have trust issues in new relationships, even if your current partner has been nothing but trustworthy. If you’ve experienced a traumatic abandonment, you may be anxious about being left again, and that anxiety might show up as controlling behaviors toward new partners.

When you’re in a healing relationship with a safe, trustworthy person, you can begin to notice these feelings, and then attend to the old wounds triggering them in the present with self-compassion. By being mindful of your feelings and where they’re coming from, you can avoid acting out, and instead have conversations with your partner that help you both understand each other better

How to Heal from Relationship Trauma

As young children, we’re completely dependent on our caregivers to meet our physical and emotional needs. If we don’t get the care, love, and support we need at this vulnerable stage of our lives, it has a profound impact on how we see ourselves, and how safe and secure we feel in the world. 

Children who suffer neglect or abuse can carry the residue of relational trauma well into adulthood. They can develop issues like chronic stress, difficulty regulating their emotions, or difficulty making contact with their emotions at all. 

These are remnants of the survival mechanisms that protected your psyche as a little kid, but as an adult, they can keep you from being open and present in relationships. Learning about these survival mechanisms usually isn’t enough to shift them, but gathering new experiences that help you feel autonomous, safe, respected, and loved by others can be. 

Experiencing healing relationships can help you begin to let go of some of those defenses and become more vulnerable, open, and secure. 

Healing Relationships: When It’s Time for Therapy

Healing relationships are a beautiful thing, but we can get into trouble when we start to believe the power of our love is enough to heal another person. It’s a seductive idea that comes from a good place, but it won’t lead to the healthy relationship you want and deserve. 

If your partner has a problem, like an addiction or severe trauma, the healing relationship they really need is with a professional, who can guide them through a structured, evidence-based healing process. If you decide it’s your responsibility to help them heal, that relationship dynamic can easily veer into codependence, which isn’t healthy for either of you. 

When someone you love has lingering relational trauma, you can be a loving pillar of support, but you can’t take charge of their healing. 

Building Healing Relationships

Compassionate, emotionally-safe relationships can teach us it’s safe to trust other people, be our true selves, and be open to deep, meaningful connections. 

When you build healing relationships with others, you’re not only getting companionship. You’re laying down new connections in your brain, and helping yourself become the authentically happy and healthy person you were born to be.

Healing Relationships: Episode Highlights

[01:20] Healing Relationship

  • Paige leveraged “healing relationships” through her own work with trauma survivors.
  • In therapy, predictability and structure are essential to creating a safe space for clients who are going through trauma.
  • Reciprocity of love and support are crucial in healing relationships. 

[12:03] Adverse Childhood Experiences

  • When adults are incapable of addressing their child’s emotions, they would manifest them in an uncontrollable manner.
  • In some cases, the traumatic experiences of children lead them to pushing people away to protect themselves.

[18:03] Healing From a Traumatic Relationship

  • Individual therapy is beneficial for clients who have experienced numerous traumatic events. 
  • A healing relationship is egalitarian; both sides need to be accountable to one another.

[25:14] Attachment Styles vs. Relational Trauma

  • There's an overlap between attachment styles and relational trauma.
  • The types of attachment styles are secure attachment, anxious attachment, and avoidant attachment.
  • For people with relational trauma, their style of attachment can be disorganized.

[35:29] Addressing Trauma in a Relationship

  • Externalize the trauma.
  • Have an open and honest conversation about your traumatic experiences.
  • Reflect and validate the harm that was done.

Music in this episode is by Oliver Riz, with the song “Healing Love.”

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

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: Conventional wisdom says that we need to love ourselves first and that you should be over any past relationships before starting a new one. But the reality is that healing our emotional wounds isn't something that happens all at once. A lot of times, our wounds occur through our relationships, and they are healed through relationships. 

To help us unpack all of those big ideas, I have invited my colleague, Paige McAllister, to speak with us today. Paige is a Marriage and Family Therapist on the team here at Growing Self. She's also a doctoral candidate in Marriage and Family Therapy. She has a background in so many relevant things. She has expertise in sexuality, in interpersonal violence, in trauma, and she has done so much wonderful healing work both with individuals and couples on the path to healing on every level. 

I am so excited to invite her into the conversation today to share her expertise with you. Thank you soon-to-be Dr. Paige for joining us today.

Paige: Thank you. Thanks for having me. 

[01:20] What is a Healing Relationship?

Lisa: Do you get a little thrill when people call you Dr. Paige? Hard-earned. We were just chatting a little bit before we started this interview that you are in the final stages of the dissertation process, and talking about how amazing it's going to feel to be on the other side of that. Congratulations in advance. That's a big achievement. 

You, in addition to that, have so much experience in helping people, particularly in healing from trauma. Just to kind of catch our listeners up a little bit here — one of the things that we do in our practice here at Growing Self that I love so much is that we have different kinds of community events in our group where we'll talk as a group about different topics. Some of it is personal growth in nature, but some of it is professional growth in nature. 

You hosted a group the other day that I was so privileged to be in attendance of. You were talking about healing relationships and the significance of them in our work. I just left that group wanting to know more. Maybe, we can just start there. I mean, healing relationships — what do you think of when you think about healing relationships?

Paige: Well, I came to this idea through my own work with trauma — survivors of trauma, and thinking about what kind of relationship did we need to have in the room in order for them to heal. 

Lisa: Between you and your client?

Paige: Between me and my client. I was thinking like, “Well, if trauma is violent, and it violates boundaries, and it's unpredictable, and people don't take accountability for the harm that they've done, then in therapy, we need to have some predictability and some structure. I need to acknowledge that I can do harm.” 

Then, I think it just naturally flowed out of that to think about — I talk with my clients about those kinds of relationships that they have with other people in their lives. We're doing a very specific type of healing work as a therapist and a client. But they were doing lots of that healing work on their own outside of session. 

When I think of relationships for healing, I think of egalitarian relationships — mostly just the opposite of trauma, not the absence of harm. But more than that, the presence of support, and trust, and safety, and consistency, and place where people say they're sorry and mean it when they've done something that's caused harm.

Lisa: I love what you just said. I honestly hadn't thought about it in that way that it's not just the absence of trauma. A good relationship is not the absence of things that lead to a bad relationship that you're saying that they're actually very specific, positive qualities that a healing relationship has, and you can create that kind of relationship with a good therapist. 

But that you can also have those kinds of healing qualities in a relationship with a partner or friends, families, loved ones. Can you say a little bit about why it is so important for people who have lived through hard things to have healing relationships with others?

Paige: It's important: a) because we are social creatures, and we all need people around us. We all deserve to have positive fulfilling relationships. I think it's especially important for people who have had damaging or traumatic relationships to have them for their healing, but also because they deserve them because as humans, we deserve that. 

Also, in good healing relationships, they're not just one way; they're reciprocal. It's not just that I'm supported and loved, but I get to support and love others. I think we all need those experiences as well. 

Lisa: It gives us an opportunity to see ourselves showing up in positive ways in relationships. That can be very healing as well.

Paige: The number one thing I work on with survivors of trauma is helping to reestablish autonomy because trauma takes so much away from us. When we're living with traumatic responses, our behaviors, our emotional reactions often feel so out of our control. We're not really choosing how we're responding to the situation, we're just going into survival mode and doing what we feel like we have to do. 

Healing relationships can be a place for people who have been any kind of trauma, but especially trauma that happens within relationships — to be able to show up the way they want to, and to determine how that relationship is going to go, and have some autonomy there which I think supports overall healing when trauma feels like it takes so much away from us that in healing relationships, I do have control, I do get a say — which I think is really critical to healing overall to feel autonomous.

Lisa: You're bringing up so many important points here. I think maybe for the benefit of our listeners, I think when therapists use the word “trauma”, we're often thinking of different things — just a bad experience. Also, there are different kinds of trauma. There are traumas where your physical safety is threatened, or you are hurt, or you're witnessing something horrible happening to other people. 

There is also such a thing as relational trauma which is a very real trauma, but I feel like we don't talk about that kind of trauma as much. Can you take us just into that? I know we've tried to talk about on past podcasts around trust issues, healthy relationships — but I don't know that we've really unpacked relational trauma on the show before. Can you say more about that? No pressure.

Paige: It is. In general, I use a really expanded definition of relational trauma because I think it's most helpful. But relational traumas are things that happen in the context of relationships that threaten our relational safety — just like violence or natural disasters can threaten our physical safety. I find with my clients often, those are the traumas that are harder to identify for them. But they're like, “Well, my parents are my caregivers. They didn't hit me. They fed me, and they provided a roof over my head. I shouldn't be upset about the other things that happened.” 

But then, they told me these stories about emotional neglect — that people didn't take care of their emotions, didn't help them navigate their own emotions, that when they, as children, had really big emotions, parents and caregivers tried to shut that down either because they were uncomfortable, or they didn't know what to do, but they were overwhelmed. 

Or they were told that they were being dramatic or childish — but they were a child. Of course, there was — they're just expressing normal emotions. The way people responded were really critical or negative, but they just ignored them. I think that's harder — I think those are the kinds of traumas that are harder to recognize but fit within like a relationship.

Lisa: And hard to validate. Because just as you're talking, I'm sitting here thinking that we really, I think, don't do enough in our culture to talk about the very real attachment needs that we have, particularly as children. They're very much tied into survival drives. I mean, there are fundamental needs to feel safe, and respected, and understood by the people around you on an emotional level like security. When that is threatened or damaged, it is quite damaging to people. But we don't talk about that reality. I think that people struggle to legitimize their own feelings when that's coming up for them. Is that — ?

Paige: Also because when we're children — when I'm eight, nine, ten, I can't just go off.

Lisa: This isn't a fundamental attachment need right now, mom! Exactly. 

Paige: Because I need my parents both to take care of me emotionally and to provide for me, physically. I don't have choice in those relationships. I don't just get to go find new parents if the ones I have aren't doing what I needed to do for whatever reason. I think it's hard for people to validate, but also just like the trapped-ness of, “I can't choose another relationship here.” 

When we talk about childhood trauma, and this also came up in my dissertation work with survivors of intimate partner violence, the narratives that we have are really overt, extreme demonstrations of physical violence, sexual violence, and neglect — extreme neglect like people aren't being fed and basic needs aren't being met. 

That's what we tend to talk about. When we talk about intimate partner violence, the image people have in their minds is really extreme physical or sexual violence. But there's all sorts of emotional violence, verbal violence, and neglect in those areas as well. We just don't talk about them as much. We don't have those narratives. It's also in my experience — people are really uncomfortable if identifying as a survivor of trauma now means a bunch of things for me. I think there's some self-protection there as well. 

[12:03] Adverse Childhood Experiences

Lisa: Well, let's talk a little bit about that part because — and I like the way that we're sort of breaking this down a little bit: like there's relational trauma that happens in childhood. The time in our lives when we're vulnerable, we're really dependent on people in a very real way — and that impacts us. Then, certainly, there can be relational trauma in romantic relationships, or friendships. But can you talk a little bit about the impact of relational trauma when you experience it as a child?

Paige: Fundamentally, it changes our view of ourselves and how we relate to other people. When we're children, we don't know much else. If we look at the researchers doing really great work on childhood trauma, and chronic stress is often what they call it — adverse childhood experiences. They talk about the buffering aspects that can happen with a strong, stable adult to show what that relationship can look like.

Lisa: A healing relationship. 

Paige: A healing relationship. But if we don't have that, or if most of our relationships with our primary caregivers or parents are traumatic, or aren't fully meeting our needs instead of meeting our needs, often the way it changes how we view ourselves and others is… 

I mean, it's not a one-to-one; it's not just like this week. It is somewhat true that in those initial relationships, we learn about what we deserve, we learn about — that's our main example of what human relationships look like. So we can internalize some beliefs about ourselves about what we deserve, about what we're worth. 

In addition to when we talk about other types of trauma, we talk about an increased vigilance for danger in the world, and having trauma responses where we're triggered by something, and we go into “fight, flight or freeze” because our central nervous system is activated. That all holds true with relational trauma as well, depending on the severity of it. But we will develop ways to survive in those relationships. 

If I'm a child, and when I am showing big emotions or any emotions at all, I'm told I'm dramatic and people get mad at me. I might just start shoving those emotions down, and down, and down, “The message I'm getting from everyone is my emotions are too much, so I'll just put those in a box, and put that box in a bigger box.” It's not really how emotions work. They're going to pop out in other places, and sometimes in bigger ways because we're not working through emotions as they come. 

Other people might rebel against that. Maybe, I'm going to do more dramatic things because I'm trying to get attention, I'm trying to get care of — I'm trying to take care of my own emotions but I don't know what to do because I'm a child. We develop ways to survive. Everyone's got their own thing that they do. It looks different for everyone, but we often take those survival strategies into adulthood, even into relationships that are healthy or could be healthy. 

Then, we're still acting on those survival strategies of trying to manage ourselves and relationships by editing our behaviors, or — I don't like the phrase “acting out”, but we're trying to do something. It's not that we're being malicious, but we're trying to protect ourselves, so we might engage in behaviors and relationships that are not helping us accomplish those goals. 

Lisa: I think this is maybe tying back to what you were saying at the beginning of our conversation, like the idea of autonomy. Meaning, that you have sort of control, and independence, and volition. I think what I'm hearing you say is that, understandably, people who have been experienced relational trauma, especially earlier in life, maybe having feelings that are coming out in ways that are sort of uncontrollable in some ways. Their big feelings — they’re manifesting in weird behaviors that they themselves don't fully understand. Or they are being — you use the word “editing”, sort of containing themselves to the degree that it's impacting intimacy, vulnerability in a relationship. It can look like a lot of different things. Just that it carries over, it's like ghosts from the past that don't sometimes have anything to do with the relationship that you're actually in — in the present. 

Paige: Which is really frustrating when you're in kid. 

Lisa: It is.

Paige: Because I think most people with trauma, it's not one or the other — it's kind of all of it. There are moments where they're doing these behaviors to protect themselves — like pushing people away, or coping with intense emotions maybe in ways that they don't want, or aren't as healthy, as well as trying to contain it and edit it. I think that's part of the struggle of traumas. 

Its extremes in multiple ways that sometimes it's our emotions are too big. Other times, it's that we're trying to keep them very small, and neither of them are going to… I mean, both of those are very frustrating, exhausting processes. Also, it can be really difficult to manage within the context of a relationship that somebody wants, and with people that they trust and love.

[18:03] Healing From a Traumatic Relationship

Lisa: I want to talk more about the healing relationship idea because that is really a crucial component of healing for people who have had that life experience. But we have to talk about something else too, which is that… I mean, I can't tell you how many clients I've worked with who have been in love with someone. They're in a relationship with someone who has experienced relational trauma in their past, and who is still dealing with the impacts of it.

They are working so hard to be a kind partner, to have a healing relationship for that other person. At least in my experience, that is not actually enough to change it. Working with clients would be like, “I thought I could help him. I thought that through the power of our love, it could be different.” And they get hurt in the process. So healing relationships is certainly crucial — we'll talk more about that. 

But what is — there’s sort of a bigger problem because it seems like the person who has had that early trauma needs to be aware of it, and actively participating in that healing in different ways in order for a healing relationship to be beneficial. Would you agree with that? Or do you see it? I mean, you have a lot more experience in this than I do. I'm coming at it from a very couples counseling kind of orientation. You're the trauma expert in this conversation. What have you seen with that?

Paige: I strongly believe that — like individual therapy to really process trauma, like structured processing of trauma is really helpful when it's happened. I think that relational trauma or — relational healing is helpful and critical. But when there have been intense traumas, when people are experiencing lots of trauma responses in their everyday life or in the context of their relationship, then individual therapy would be really beneficial, and sometimes critical before we can move forward. 

I also talked to my clients about — this is a therapist’s trick. I don't know if you talked about it on the podcast before — but externalizing the trauma. We take the trauma out of the person, “You are not your trauma.” But in relationships, trauma very much becomes a third entity, like a third person in the conversation we're having, a third actor in the dynamics of our relationship. We both need to be able to look at it and see it for what it is. 

I often find as well that when one partner is trying to heal someone else with their love, they aren't always asking — sometimes they feel like they have to be kind of delicate with that person. They can't ask for accountability; they just got to give, and give, and give love — and that's what's going to fix it. 

But in a healing relationship, it's egalitarian. We're both being accountable to each other. It's not that one person is always accommodating for the other, or trying to make it better, or holding their own feelings back because you've been through so much, so I can't bring it up.

Lisa: Well, it's not a healing relationship for the other person at that point. That it is not a healthy relationship for both people. It's imbalanced. Well, then just for the purposes of this conversation, because that self-awareness of, “Ooh, I do have trauma that is maybe coming out in my relationships. It is my responsibility to do something about this so that I can be a good partner to my partner.” 

What would your guidance be for some just like — how do you know if the things that… Because every single one of us can scroll back through our mind’s eye, think about the time that our mom yelled at us, or whatever it was — how do you develop that gauge of, “This is actually — it impacted me, it's still impacting me. I need to do something about this.” What would your tips be for someone?

Paige: If there are other mental health struggles going on, there's depression and anxiety — anything in that range. If you're already meeting with a therapist, I would just ask your therapist like, “I think this thing might be impacting me.” and have a clinical conversation about it. My clients don't always know how to bring it up. I try to ask good questions, but sometimes we just don't know it's something.

Lisa: But again, if we're not aware that it was a trauma, we're not legitimizing it — how do you even know that it's something to talk about in therapy like, “I had a critical parent”, or whatever?

Paige: Kind of a sign that I look for in my clients to help them talk through is — are there situations where your emotional reaction is out of proportion to what happened? It is either too big, or it's too small. This thing happened, and all of a sudden, I jumped to 100% anxiety. I got so, so overwhelmed. Anything in that range — like my emotional reaction. 

It's a frustrating thing that happened, but I go to rage, or just immediate panic, or it's something that happened. I think that “out of proportion” is key because we're allowed to have feelings. We're going to have things happen in our lives. But if we notice that we're just shut down emotionally, that our, “God! It’s just…”

Lisa: Like, “We had a fight, and I would not talk for three days.” “ Like that kind of thing. There's something there.

Paige: If the way you're responding to things feels confusing to you, if it's mysterious like, “I don't know why I reacted that way. It wasn't how I wanted to react. But you said something, or this thing happened, and I just  — my gut reaction was this, and I had to run away. I had to shut down.”

Lisa: Like losing control of yourself a little bit.

Paige: Those are some of the big things — kind of the classic PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The symptoms are having flashbacks or nightmares, have an increased startle response. That could be happening and that would be a good indication. But for some of those relational traumas, I think it's more like our individual responses to things — just paying attention to them. 

But clients that I've worked with that have experienced relational trauma, they don't feel in control of it. It feels really confusing and exhausting both in terms of in the context of relationships and in other situations in their lives.

[25:14] Attachment Styles vs. Relational Trauma

Lisa: Here's another question. I hope that this is okay to ask. But on the show, we've talked before about attachment styles — secure attachment, avoidant attachment, anxious attachment. 

What is the difference between an attachment style and a relational trauma — particularly that happens earlier in life? Or do you see a lot of overlap in that? Are there differences? I've never even thought about this before our conversation today. I don't know if this is a fair question or not.

Paige: I haven't thought about it a ton, and I'm not like an attachment expert. But all the trauma people reference attachment. Attachment theory is really foundational. I think there's an overlap between attachment styles and relational trauma, and our responses to relational trauma. The way I talk about it with clients is that we're all managing needs for connection and needs for autonomy in relationships. 

Like a secure attachment is, “I can hold both of those. I can be close to you. I can be connected to you. I also can be on my own and have my own goals, and hobbies, and interests”, where avoidant attachment is, “I can't stand being close to people, so I'm going to go on here and have my own little island.” Anxious attachment, “I can't stand being away from you, so I'm going to pull even close.” 

I think often with people with relational trauma, there's more disorganized attachment where, “Sometimes I'm feeling really anxious, and I need you to close.” Other times, “I'm feeling anxious about you being too close, and I'm going to push you away.” That fits within our understanding of attachment styles. 

That's how I explained it to my clients, though, because I think sometimes people can identify with a label. I'm sure you've talked about this with attachment styles — like they really cling to that label like, “This label is me.”

Lisa: It’s not that helpful. Totally. I think it can be helpful in certain ways like to just understand yourself more compassionately, and I heard somebody say… I think it might’ve even been somebody in our group — that there's no such thing as a perfectly, securely attached person. We all sort of fall to one side or the other. We all have, in certain situations, different reactions that could be avoided, could be anxious, sort of depending on what's going on and stuff. I hear you. I'm 100% there.

Paige: I think trauma can help maybe understand, “Why is this kind of more of my go-to?” Or help explain if it is both — if I'm feeling kind of a push-pull like, “I want you close, but not too close.” I think trauma does a lot to explain that. Then, honestly, the work in therapy is looking at the exceptions as well like, “When are you able to balance that? And how are you doing that?” 

Lisa: That's good to remember. So turning our attention back to this idea of a healing relationship. One of my takeaways honestly, from what we've just been talking about, is this idea that even if you're trying to have a healing relationship with somebody who is unwell, who has unresolved trauma, it is not going to be a healthy relationship for you. 

I guess, because part of this, I think that many people, many of our listeners have had adult relationships — maybe in addition to early stuff, but certainly adult relationships that felt toxic, that felt damaging, that felt really traumatic. 

Do you think that there's a correlation between somebody having a traumatic relationship experience as an adult? Is that an indication that maybe the partner that they were with was so traumatizing to them? Probably a good indication that their partner had had some stuff that maybe neither of them were aware of at the time they were in that relationship with each other. Is that fair to say, or am I extrapolating too far? I want answers, Paige.

Paige: I'm a therapist. I'm going to say, “Well, it really depends. Sometimes.” There's just so much that plays into how we treat each other. My own trauma — it’s definitely going to impact how I’m treating others, especially in close relationships. 

I think sometimes people, like you mentioned, are aware where they're like, “Oh, I know my partner has been through all these things. I'm just going to try to heal them, fix them with my love.” I also think just our general narratives about what relationships are in our developmental phase play into that as well. 

Having worked with teens and young adults that are out in their first relationships, trying to decide what relationships are — don't always have good skills, or good models of “this is what a healthy relationship looks like”. But definitely, trauma impacts how we treat each other and how we're able to show up in our relationships.

Lisa: Although healing relationship is not enough, it is really a crucial ingredient. If you have lived through toxic or damaging traumatic relationships in the past, a lot of important growth and healing does happen in the context of relationships. Can you talk a little bit more about what that can look like for people? 

In particular, I’m thinking of somebody who was maybe mistreated in previous relationships — it damaged their self-esteem, it damaged their trust, it was traumatic. How can a new relationship — a healing relationship help start to resolve some of that?

Paige: I think, firstly, it's got to be the right person. I always help my clients think through traumas, especially relational trauma is going to tell me that all humans are unsafe. All the people could be dangerous. When we work through our trauma, and we're working towards autonomy, then I get to decide who I trust, and who I don't, who I let in. 

But healing relationships with others — the scientist in me struggles with this part because there's something about it that's not magical, but it's like that feeling of being in a relationship that's strong and supportive. 

It feels like a hug even when you aren't getting a hug when we can show up as ourselves, we can share parts of ourselves, and we're validated, and we're accepted — all the words that are coming to mind are just the word again, like it's so healing to be in those relationships.

Lisa: But it's compassionate, it's emotionally safe. I think I'm also hearing between the lines — like you were talking about that feeling understood, feeling accepted. That makes me wonder if part of that key ingredient of having a healing relationship is that your partner knows and understands your trauma and your trauma response, so that when you do have those moments — maybe when you feel scared or angry, they're able to see that for what it is, as opposed to doing that typical relationship dance. 

I think many times when people don't understand what or why their partner's sort of reacting the way they do, it becomes very easy to be mad at your partner for being mad, or be defensive in response. You're saying that healing relationship is almost the opposite of that. I see that you're getting triggered right now and sort of meeting that with compassion, as opposed to more criticism or rejection. Is that part of it that like understanding?

Paige: Then as the partner, maybe without trauma, or maybe the partner with my own trauma, I can view your trauma as separate from you. You are still a whole human being to me who is making choices and doing things that impact me. But you are a human being that you are not your trauma. I can hold space for your trauma impacting, the choices that you're making, the things you're saying or the way that you're saying them.

I think really critical to healing relationships is that there is a lot of repair. When trauma responses come up when we don't show up the way we want to, there is space to make it right. We can apologize, that we can come together and discuss, “What actually was going on? How can we take care of this together?” 

But if there are big relational triggers in our healing relationship, we're going to do everything we can to avoid those triggers. If it's something yelling comes up for my clients a lot, “I grew up in a chaotic household. I can't handle yelling. I just go into survival mode right away.” Those two partners do work really hard to not have yelling be a part of their relationships — find other ways to work through it.

I think healing relationships also, and that’s something I work with couples that they're navigating this a lot, we need to take lots of breaks. We need to slow down and be able to soothe our trauma response so that we can have productive conversations. In healing relationships, there's lots of space. We can slow it down, we can take a break and come back. 

[35:29] Addressing Trauma in a Relationship

Lisa: But the bit like giving ourselves and each other permission to stay in a good place and be self-aware enough to know like, “I can't keep having this conversation right now.” 

One of the things — I'm thinking about two different situations right now. I’m thinking about a couple — and I'm sure that you have seen this couple. It's a relationship where no betrayal has occurred, and one of the partners has experienced betrayal in a previous relationship, either sexual infidelity, financial infidelity. They were really traumatized by a previous relationship. 

Now, they are in a new relationship and they're having those like anxious flare-ups, and that vigilance. Over time, that does, I think, start to take a toll on a lot of partners because they're like, “I didn't do that to you. I haven't done anything wrong.” I know that this is a big thing. And this is not the kind of thing that can be resolved through a couple of pieces of advice. There is an experiential healing process that people go through. It takes months, sometimes years. 

But generally speaking, what would your advice be for a couple who is grappling with that kind of dynamic, and it is eroding kind of the safety and health of their relationship? How do they identify it? Where will they even start to move back to a healing relationship space?

Paige: My biggest advice is to start to do what you can — have your partner that has experienced that betrayal, that trauma to externalize that trauma. The way I talk about it with my clients is, “What is your trauma telling you? What is trauma saying in these moments where you're having this anxiety?” Potentially your trauma is saying, “My current partner is going to hurt me just like my past partner did. I'm watching this movie play out again. I don't want to be hurt again — I need to protect myself.” 

When we're just caught up in those anxious thoughts, they feel like us, they feel like our own thoughts. Even just saying like, “This is what my trauma is telling me. This is what my anxiety is telling me”, and being able to communicate that to the partner instead of making accusations, or “I need to check your phone. I need…” 

There's other things that we can do when anxiety gets really high and say, “My anxiety is telling me that I am unsafe right now.” Then, we can have a conversation around it rather than always dealing with kind of the patrol fallout.

Lisa: “You're cheating on me.” The accusations and — right.

Paige: If we can have a conversation from a space of, “This is what my trauma is telling me”, and start to have that conversation, I think that's really, really critical. In those moments where, and I think this is helpful with all anxieties, just check our thoughts a little bit, “Is this actually true? Is this just feeling true? And this feeling is coming from this place that I can identify that I know where this is coming from?”

Lisa: I'm so glad we're talking about this right now, Paige, because I think that this reality, this truth often surprises people. I tell my clients all the time like, “Don't get tricked into believing everything you think or everything that you feel”, because I think there's so much pop psychology that, “Everything you think and everything you feel like is true.” Exactly. 

Actually, that's not always helpful. To be able to have that sort of psychological distance — that meta-awareness of how you're thinking, how you're feeling in the moment that is maybe not actually — it's like an artifact of trauma, as opposed to some fundamental truth that you need to take action on right this second. Thank you for bringing that up. I think that that is just so crucial to be known. 

One last thing. We talked about a relationship where one of the partners had — in a previous relationship — experienced relational trauma. Here is a trick question, hopefully not a trick question — pop quiz. 

I know you too have also worked with so many couples where there has been trauma, betrayal in the context of the relationship. It's not that some horrible other person five years ago hurt me — it's that actually you hurt me. There was an affair, there's financial infidelity — something of that nature. Do you feel that the path of healing and recreating an emotionally safe healing relationship is similar in those circumstances? Or does it look a little bit different in your experience?

Paige: I think it looks a little different because we have that person who's caused the harm is still there, and they can take accountability. There’s something I've been thinking a lot about in this context. It comes from Dr. Harriet Lerner's work on apologizing. She recently came out with a book on it, and she talks about how an apology… 

Lisa: Is it like apology languages? Or is it different?

Paige: It's different. I think the book is called Why Why Won't You Apologize? She talks about how an apology validates the experience of the person harmed. I've been thinking about that a lot in terms of relationships where one person has caused harm. We have to validate the experience of the harm that was done — which is really uncomfortable. 

It is very uncomfortable to look inside yourself and to actually own up to that rather than when we were trying to just make it better. We're saying whatever we can think of or do to just make it better like, “Please stop being mad at me”, rather than like, “I recognize that this is what was going into it for me, and this is what I did, and this is caused you harm in this way, this way, and this way.” 

When there's been betrayal in relationships, I use the language of trauma with my clients. We talk about trauma responses and triggers, and we talk about self-soothing and working toward safety so that that couple can soothe together. But until we're there, we're going to build up to that emotional safety and normalizing that, first of all, “Of course, you're not feeling totally safe to do that, and that's okay. We're going to work toward it. Everyone's going to get space here.”

Lisa: What a useful model to be bringing in the idea of trauma to those situations because I think one of the — it's almost a cliche. The person who did the betrayal is like, “That was such a long time ago. Why are you still upset? Nothing is happening. I've like totally reformed.” I think there's this lack of awareness that there is still a very active trauma response that gets triggered by certain things that's very real, and it’s the legacy of that relational trauma.

That does not go away easily. But I think that people imagine that it's — you've heard that phrase, “It's time to get over it.” Just like that, isn’t that how humans work? Bringing that idea of the impact of relational trauma to those situations I think is a very compassionate way of looking at it that helps people wrap their heads around what's happening and why the feelings persist.

Paige: And give us some language to talk about why it's still there, and kind of give us a path, a path forward. If we know this is a relational wound, well then we've got some steps — how are we going to address this wound? I think at least a part of its hardest because in our culture, we're fairly punitive. We think about like when people have done things wrong, they deserve to be punished. 

But that doesn't heal in the relationship. We've got to think of different ways to interact around harm that's been done that we can find healing. Often, that includes some of those other things about a healing relationship that we've got to not just trust, but maybe, in addition to a loss of trust, there was — I'm losing the train a little bit here. 

Lisa: No, it’s okay. Well, and I won't keep you but I'm glad that we're talking about this. I think that my biggest takeaway from this conversation is just the impact of relational trauma, and that it's something we should all really be aware of —both in ourselves and our partners. In addition to — we're working on ourselves in productive ways of really working to create healing relationships with our partners. 

Also, I think having expectations that we deserve to be in healing relationships too because you know none of us come through this life unscathed and unscarred. Every single one of us is carrying wounds of one kind or another. To be real, compassionate, and intentionally cultivating that healing space in between you and the people that you love. So, thank you. 

Thank you so much for joining me today, Paige. This was a wonderful conversation. I appreciate your time and just all the wisdom that you share with our listeners today.
Paige: Thank you.

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. 


Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Parenting Teens

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

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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.


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.