Couples Communication Strategies For Stressful Times

Couples Communication Strategies For Stressful Times

Couples Communication Strategies For Stressful Times

Communication Skills For Couples Under Stress

As an experienced online marriage counselor and therapist who has been doing Denver marriage counseling for many years, I know that couples communication can feel challenging under the best of circumstances.

Couples Communication Can Be Challenging Anyway

Many couples struggle with effective couples communication that helps each person feel heard, cared for, and understood. Couples always come to the table with different communication styles, attachment styles, and ways of relating that can lead to misunderstandings, and hurt feelings. It’s hard to communicate with a withdrawn partner, and it’s also hard to connect with someone who is emotionally flooded.

All married couples and cohabitating couples face these issues, and need to intentionally learn how to practice positive communication strategies in order to achieve the kind of “love your relationship” experience they want to have.

Couples Communication is Harder When You’re Both Stressed

This is true for all couples under the best of circumstances. As we say around here, “Great relationships don’t just happen — they’re grown!” But as lives, relationships, jobs and families have been upended due to the mental and emotional reality of coronavirus quarantine… these are not the best of circumstances. 

Just the opposite. Couples all over the world are suddenly in a situation where they are together 24/7, and having to reconfigure everything including their daily routines, re-work boundaries, wrangle suddenly ever-present children needing to be homeschooled, re-organize their homes to accommodate seven cases of canned soup, cope with a sudden loss or significant drop in income, and, oh yeah, figure out how to stay physically safe from the invisible threat wafting through the air. (How to Manage Coronavirus Anxiety, right here.)

Others among us are coping with even harder things like a loved one who is on the front lines as a medical professional, first responder, or grocery store worker at risk of contracting coronavirus as they work to serve their communities. Still other families are now grappling with loved ones getting sick, becoming gravely ill, or losing their lives to coronavirus. 

I could feel my shoulders tense up as I just sat here typing the words, and — friends — this is now our shared experience. 

Don’t Let Coronavirus Ruin Your Relationship

Going back to my first point: Good communication can feel hard for couples anyway, but when you’re both grappling with enormous amounts of stress it can make positive communication even harder…. And at a time when you both need it the most. 

Communication can build your relationship up, or it can tear it apart. Today’s podcast is all about helping you turn towards each other right now, and it starts with the way you talk to each other.

Couples Communication That Connects

It’s exactly at times like these that you need to be able to turn towards your partner and feel that they care about you, are listening to you, and are an emotionally safe person for you. It’s vital that you feel like your partner understands you, and is responsive to you — showing you that they love you, in the ways that matter the most. The world may be crazy, but as long as you have the love and support of your number one person, it can all seem more manageable. 

Men and Women Handle Stress Differently

However, here’s the rub: Stress, predictably, makes it harder for any of us to be the compassionate, patient, unconditionally loving person our partner needs us to be. We all cope with stress in different ways. Sometimes it’s along gender lines with men and women handling stress differently, but these differences can lead to emotional mis-matches and a communication gap between couples. This can lead both partners to feel disconnected from each other at the time they need each other the most. 

Communication Tips For Couples Under Stress

To help you improve your communication during this stressful time, I asked my colleague, online marriage counselor and relationship coach Silas Hendrich, M.S., MFT-C to join me on the latest episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast to share his couples counseling communication tips, and some of the communication exercises for couples that he does with his clients. 

Actionable Relationship Advice

Silas was incredibly generous with his relationship advice and his perspective. He is uniquely situated to provide fantastic relationship advice for any couple having communication problems right now, because 1) he’s a man, with great insights into how to understand men and how they deal with stress and 2) Silas is trained in the evidence-based Gottman Method of marriage counseling, which emphasizes couples communication training and positive communication skills for couples.

He discussed:

  • How some people (often men) tend to internalize stress and withdraw
  • How some people (often women) tend to exernalize stress and need to talk
  • How this (predictibly!) creates a communication gap and emotional mis-match
  • How to stop the ensuing pursue / withdraw cycle and start connecting again
  • How couples can understand each other so they can be more compassionate with each other
  • Exercises that couples can do to improve communication
  • How to get on the same page and create agreements and understanding
  • Ways of communicating with your partner in tense moments so that you can grow closer as a couple, instead of creating conflict

 

Communicate To Connect

I was so grateful to Silas for sharing so much really useful information for how to improve your communication when you’re both stressed. Better communication between couples leads to emotional safety and a more secure emotional foundation for both of you, and for your families too. We’re all powerless to change our current harrowing circumstances, but having a safe harbor of support and comfort in your marriage can help you get through this — together. 

I sincerely hope that the excellent, actionable communication tips Silas shared are helpful to both of you right now.

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, LP, LMFT, BCC & Silas Hendrich, M.S., MFT-C

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Couples Communication Strategies For Stressful Times

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

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

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Real Help For Your Relationship

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

 

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

 

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

Relationship Advice: Love in The Time of Coronavirus — With Katie Couric

Relationship Advice: Love in The Time of Coronavirus — With Katie Couric

Relationship Advice: Love in The Time of Coronavirus — With Katie Couric

Relationship Help

Relationship Advice For Stressful Times: I’ve been a Denver marriage counseling therapist and online marriage counseling specialist for many years. I know for a fact that stress and anxiety takes a major toll on relationships. If you’ve noticed your relationship feeling more challenging since this whole coronavirus quarantine happened, it’s not just in your head. This is an incredibly stressful time, many people are anxious about coronavirus, and people in relationships cope with stress differently — and sometimes, not well.

These relationship issues can be exacerbated by non-stop togetherness, and being in each other’s space constantly. If you are you at home wondering, “How am I going to make it through this quarantine these next few weeks?” I get it! Throw in a stressed-out husband, wife or partner, working from home with no childcare (or no work!), homeschooling and being worried about finances… everyone is totally on edge. 

One of the greatest challenges that couples are going to experience over these next few weeks of COVID-19 quarantine is being around or with one another continuously …like all the time.

We all need our space, and space is what makes a lot of our relationships work. We go to work, we run errands, we check in with our friends, we divide and conquer the kids’ activities, etc. But now that your “normal” life is on hold – how are you managing your new way of living, especially with your partner?

And it’s not just our routines that have been upended in the United States. There has been an understandable surge in mental health issues like anxiety and depression, and people are cut off from their support systems and self-care routines. It can be hard to find a good therapist who specializes in online counseling or online therapy, and even harder to find affordable online mental health services that are evidence-based and genuinely effective. (Texting with a chat-bot is ridiculous, but can seem like the only alternative when traditional therapy is out of reach). 

As a marriage counselor, I know that this whole situation is a breeding ground for a relationship crisis. Research studies looking at the impact of coronavirus on relationships and marriages in China showed that as soon as the quarantine lifted there was a surge of married couples filing for divorce! 

Yes, it’s essential to survive coronavirus, but it’s also extremely important to get help for your relationship so that you don’t lose your marriage or your family in the aftermath. In order to get through coronavirus as a couple, it’s essential to be making every effort to nurture and protect your relationship right now. 

Relationship Advice To Save Your Marriage

The relationship crisis that coronavirus quarantine can cause caught the attention of legendary reporter and journalist Katie Couric. If you weren’t already aware, Katie is doing so much good in the world through her extremely helpful and informative Instagram Live events, IGTV page, Facebook, podcast, and her online newsletter. She’s putting out a ton of helpful information lately about “how to survive coronavirus life” and more, and if you’re not already following her, you should! 

I was so honored to have the opportunity to speak with Katie Couric on her Instagram Live today about how coronavirus is impacting relationships and marriages, and the things that couples can do (and avoid doing!) to get through this stressful time together.,

During her broadcast we discussed YOUR questions and how to cope with different situations you’re facing as a couple.

During my time with Katie this morning, I answered questions around:

  1.  How to stay emotionally connected with each other when you’re both stressed.
  2.  How to improve communication, and avoid the communication mistakes that will damage your relationship.
  3.  How to negotiate childcare and other household duties in the “new reality.”
  4. How to deal with college-age kids suddenly under your roof again.
  5. What to do if your husband or wife refuses to social distance or engage in coronavirus prevention strategies at home.
  6.  Signs that mental health issues may be impacting your marriage.
  7. How to support your spouse through a job loss.
  8. How to find affordable online therapy, or effective alternatives to therapy  if you need it.

If you joined us this morning on Instagram, thank you! If you’re just now getting a chance to check it out – welcome. I hope that this conversation encourages you during what can feel like a challenging time in your life and relationship, and also helps you to move forward through some of the obstacles you may face over these quarantined days.

Enjoy this video and for more visit Katie’s Instagram at www.instagram.com/katiecouric!

Wishing you all the best, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

 

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

Let’s  Talk

Real Help For Your Relationship

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

 

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

 

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

Emotional Safety

Emotional Safety

Emotional Safety

The Most Important Part of a Healthy Relationship

EMOTIONAL SAFETY: Here’s some real-deal, bottom-line relationship advice from an experienced marriage counselor:  If you want to feel more connected, improve your communication, have more emotional and physical intimacy, and create a secure, satisfying relationship, there’s one irreplaceable ingredient that you must have for everything else to fall into place…. Emotional Safety.

Emotional safety is so important that it’s the foundational goal of one of the most widely researched, effective evidence-based forms of marriage counseling and couples therapy, called “Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy.” Here at Growing Self, most of the Denver marriage counselors, online couples therapists, and relationship coaches on our team use Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy to guide their work with couples… because it works.

The easiest way to understand the importance of emotional safety is to reflect on what happens between you and your partner when you don’t have it: If you’re feeling angry, hurt, frustrated or disrespected… you’re not going to behave well with your partner. Even if you know, intellectually, what you should do to show them love and respect… you don’t. And understandably! Until you feel emotionally safe, and learn how to help your partner feel emotionally safe with you, conflict and miscommunication is inevitable.

This is exactly the reason why many attempts at marriage counseling and couples therapy doesn’t work — is because the majority of couples counselors out there aren’t trained in evidence based forms of couples counseling like EFCT. Consequently they don’t know how to help their couples focus on their foundation of emotional safety first, before attempting to make bigger changes in their relationship. Without that, couples counseling doesn’t work. Couples try to make changes, and they don’t stick. Couples can’t make real and lasting change when they’re not focusing on what really matters: Emotional Safety.

How to Create Emotional Safety in Your Relationship

YOU deserve better. You deserve real relationship advice, that will help you improve your relationship, and that’s what you’re getting on this episode the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast. I’m putting on my marriage counselor hat, and I’m sharing the secrets behind how to create emotional safety in your relationship. We’ll be discussing:

  • What is emotional safety, and why it’s important
  • How to determine if your relationship is emotionally safe or not
  • How to begin increasing emotional safety in your relationship
  • The emotional intelligence skills that will help you increase emotional safety
  • Using the principles of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy to improve your relationship
  • The emotional-safety crushing behaviors to absolutely avoid
  • The most important things YOU can do to transform your relationship

This episode is my very special Valentine’s Day gift for YOU. I hope you listen, and that it helps you love your relationship.

xoxo, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

PS: One of the “conversation starting” tools I mentioned in this episode is my free “How Healthy is Your Relationship Quiz.” If you’d like to take this, alone or with your partner, you can get the link here. 

 

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How to Create Emotional Safety

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

Music Credits: The Days, “Make My Love Your Home”

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

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Feeling Invalidated By Your Partner?

Feeling Invalidated By Your Partner?

Feeling Invalidated By Your Partner?

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

How to Stop Invalidating Your Partner in Three Easy Steps

Hi there. Are you reading this article because your partner just forwarded it to you, as a way of saying they have been feeling invalidated by you and would like that to change? First of all, sorry, but second of all… never fear. I’m the couples therapist in your corner. This one is going to boomerang nicely, and wind up working out in your favor. Promise.

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

How do I know this is happening to you, too? First of all, I’ve been a marriage counselor for a long time. It is extremely rare to find a couple where one person has *actually* been exclusively responsible for all the hurt feelings. (Except in the tiny percentage of couples counseling cases that I could count on one hand where the hurt-inducing partner has been a diagnosable sociopath. But I will save that tale for another day).

Secondly, I’ve also been married for a long time to someone I adore and would never want to hurt on purpose. And I’m a marriage counselor!  I should know better! And To. This. day. I still do things that accidentally invalidate my husband and make him feel bad.

But I’m working on it, and it’s better than it used to be. You can do the same. Here’s how:

Step One: Understanding “Invalidation”

First of all, let’s talk a little about what “invalidation”  means. When you invalidate someone, you basically make them feel like you a) don’t understand them or their feelings or b) if you do understand, you don’t care.

In order to improve invalidation you need to be self-aware of when it’s happening, and what you’re doing to cause it. Invalidation comes in many flavors, and can happen in both subtle and dramatic ways. Let’s review.

Types of Invalidating Behaviors

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

Example of Inattentive Invalidation in Action:

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

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

_________________________________

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

Example of Belligerent Invalidation in Action:

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

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

_________________________________

Controlling invalidators:  These types of invalidators are extremely confident that their way of doing things is right and just, and will either intervene or undo things that their partner does in efforts to correct, (i.e. “help”) them. This happens in many situations including parenting, housekeeping, social situations, and more. (If I’m not careful, I actually have a tendency towards this one too).

Example of Controlling Invalidation in Action:

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

You: “Be back before dinner.”

_________________________________

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

Example of Judgmental Invalidation in Action:

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

You: “Pfft. NO. I have to spend the weekend finishing my Fortnite challenges. Wanna watch? No? Okay see you later.”

_________________________________

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

Example of Emotional Invalidation in Action:

Them: “Crying”

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

You some more: “….That’s not what I meant. We can try again next month. You’re overreacting.”

_________________________________

Fixit Invalidators: Lastly, there is the “Fixit” Invalidator, who would prefer to leap over messy feelings entirely and go straight to helpful solutions.

Example of Fixit invalidation in Action:

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

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

_________________________________

There are so, so many ways to invalidate someone. Not sure what kind of invalidator you might be? Ask your partner. I’m sure they’d be happy to tell you.

Step Two: Understand The Importance of Validation

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

So: What is “validation?” To validate someone means that you help them feel understood, accepted, and cared for by you. Like you really get how they see things, and that you support them in their perspective.

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

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

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

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

Step Three: Intentionally Practice Validating Behaviors

The real problem with changing your (our) tendency to be accidentally invalidating is that it can be really hard to wrap your (our) brains around the fact that we really are hurting the people we love without meaning to. In none of the examples of “types of invalidators” was I describing anyone who was trying to be hurtful. They were just failing to understand their partner’s perspective or needs or feelings, and prioritizing their own instead. 

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

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

Here’s what that looks like at my house:

My husband is telling me something but I’m not really connecting with what he is saying. He’s talking about his day at work, and how he’s not feeling great. And now he’s going on and on about this guy he works with who’s super annoying, and incompetent, and how he’s thinking about taking the day off tomorrow, and…

….I’ve zoned out, and am now following the spark of ideas that whatever he just said to me has just ignited into being, through the chambers of my own mind.  Day off… Netflix…. Nature documentary…. Camera lenses…. Majestic landscape photos…. I want to go somewhere beautiful… Catherine said good things about Quebec…. He’s still talking but I’m now having an entirely internal experience. I know he’s still there, but it’s the muffled, “Wa-wa-wa” like the adult in the old Charlie Brown cartoons.

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

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

But like you, I didn’t mean to hurt his feelings. It just happened because I wasn’t making him a priority in that moment, but indulging my own self-absorption.

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

I try really hard to stay present, and stay on topic. Sometimes I am more successful than others, but I know he sees me trying. We know each other well enough now and we can even laugh about it, as we do when I glaze and he just stops talking and makes a face at me. Humor helps.

Every flavor of invalidation has a validating antidote that’s a little different. I could go into great detail about what the antidote for each involves, but then this would be an actual self-help book rather than a blog post. But, briefly:

  • Inattentive invalidators need to stay present and use mindfulness skills to focus.
  • Belligerent invalidators need to find compromises that honor their partner’s feelings, too.
  • We controlling invalidators need to manage our anxiety, and trust in the competence of others.
  • Judgmental invalidators need to work on acceptance and generosity.
  • Emotional invalidators need to work on empathy and emotional intelligence skills.
  • Fixit Invalidators must make peace with the fact that feelings are valuable, even dark ones.

I hope that this discussion of how you may be accidentally invalidating your partner was helpful to you, and gives you clarity about how to shift the emotional climate of your relationship just by making your partner’s feelings and perspective as important to you as your own .

Now, please send this post back to your partner.

All the best,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Let’s Talk!

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Relationship Advice: How to Stop “Fixing” and Start Listening

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

Strengthen Your Relationship, With Every Conversation

We all hate to see our partners in pain or discomfort. I know this as a marriage counselor and couples therapist, but it is certainly true for me personally too. When my husband tells me he’s unhappy with something, my mind immediately starts race towards the “fix” that will solve the problem, and make him feel better.

While my type-A solution-focused attitude certainly has led to some important, positive changes in the way we conduct day-to-day aspects of our partnership (like, we now have a Roomba!) it can also get in the way of emotional connection. He doesn’t want me to solve his problems. He wants me to listen, and care, and empathize — exactly what I want when I’m struggling with something.

When I express displeasure / annoyance / sadness about something, and he immediately goes to, “Well let’s just not do that,” or “Forget I brought it up,” it feels like a door gets slammed shut in my face. I want to talk things through. I want to hear how he feels, too. Most of all, I want to feel like I’m not alone in whatever is feeling real for me in that moment. When I just get to talk about how I’m feeling, and have that be heard, most of the time no “action” is even required — I just feel better.

Connection is key. Solutions don’t even matter that much, when you’re feeling validated.

Men often get a bad rap for being problem solvers in relationships, although plenty of women do the same. Let’s face it: When our partners have a problem (especially if they have a problem with us, right?) it’s anxiety-provoking. It feels like an unpleasant conflict that we need to resolve, or shut down, or get away from. Or fix — and as quickly as possible.

However, what I know now, both as a marriage counselor and someone who’s been very happily married for over twenty years: You have to lean into the feelings, even if they stress you out at first.

When you can manage your own anxiety and avoid scrambling to get away / shut down / fix-fix-fix whatever they’re bringing up, you can then connect emotionally with your partner. More importantly, they won’t have to fight to feel heard by you. Consequently, you will come out the other side of this conversation with a stronger relationship.

Paradoxically, when you indulge those good intentions of “helping them feel better” it will either create a fight (trust me) or it will lead them to leave the interaction with you feeling unheard, not understood, or like you don’t care. Why? Because in your helpful rush to solve their problems, you shut down their feelings and got in the way of what they really wanted and needed from you: Being heard.

Here are a few tips to help you avoid jumping the gun and going into “fixit mode.”

Know your job: When your partner is feeling something real, your only jobs — your only jobs — are to help them talk about their feelings, listen to them, help them understand that you understand, and hold the door open for them to talk all the way through. Anything else is not what they need. (Unless they specifically ask for something else.)  But unless you literally hear the words, “What do you think?” or “What would you do?” come out of their mouths, you’re the doorman: The one who keeps the space open for them to share. Not the fixer.

Validate: Embrace the power of validation. Even if you see things differently, or would handle a situation differently, simply acknowledging that someone has the right to their feelings is enormously helpful. I can’t tell you how powerful a simple, “I can understand why you would feel that way” is to hear. Confirmation, validation, and acceptance are vastly more effective in helping someone sort through a difficult situation than actual, specific advice. 

Listening: When I talk about listening, I don’t mean just “hearing.” I mean a special kind of reflective listening, which is a learned skill. Whether or not you are hearing what someone is saying doesn’t matter. What matters is if they know that you are hearing and understanding the feelings they are trying to communicate. If your number one is telling you about the super-hard day they had, listen for the feelings underneath. If you can reflect back, “That sounds really exhausting” as opposed to “You should talk to your boss about rearranging your work schedule” they may fall into your arms weeping with relief of knowing that you really and truly get them.  Just be prepared for them to get super-excited when you do this. Seriously, if you do a really good job here, they might cry.

Open-ended questions: You’re the doorman, right? How do you hold the door open in a conversation? By asking open ended questions: Questions that do not have an agenda or a specific informational answer, but are rather an invitation to say more. “How did you feel about that?” or  “Then what happened?” or “What do you make of this?” are all solid choices.

Empathize: People are different, and have different ways of thinking, feeling, behaving. We have different values and priorities. However, in order to really connect with someone, you need to understand how they are feeling by connecting to your own emotional experience. When your partner is going through a moment, scroll through your own life experiences to see if you can relate.**

Then use that awareness as an opportunity for an even deeper kind of reflection: Tentative guessing about how they feel. When your partner is telling you about their super hard day, and you reflect on how you’ve felt when your day at work has been a non-stop crap-show, you’ll be able to come back with something that rings true for them, like “I can imagine that you must be feeling really disappointed in your leadership right now.” This, again, will increase their sense of being heard and understood by you, and will help them feel connected and supported by you. More weeping with joy may ensue.

** Warning: It can be tempting and very easy to totally hijack a conversation via empathy, if you’re not careful. When you say, “I totally know how you feel. One time at band camp…” and then spend the next five minutes telling YOUR story, you’ve just turned the tables and made their moment your moment. Trust in your relationship: If you do a good job listening and holding the door open until they are all the way through, you will likely have a very appreciative partner eager to do the same for you. [Unless you are partnered with a legit narcissist. Check back for a post on this topic soon.]

Breathe: Sometimes, when you are listening to someone talk about their feelings, especially if their feelings are big, intense, dark, or worst yet — about you, it can be hard to not get emotionally reactive. When YOU start having feelings come up, or feel the need to rebuttal / correct / problem solve, you’ve just stepped out of the ring of connection. You’ve abandoned your post as the doorman. Trust in your relationship.

Breathe, be in the present, listen to the sound of their voice, look in their face, listen, reflect, ask your open ended questions, and be patient. Let them talk all the way through. It may take a whole HOUR. That is okay. Be patient, breathe, and you’ll arrive at connection eventually. Promise. (I can also promise that if you indulge any of your impulses to do otherwise you’ll very likely wind up in a fight.)

Couple’s Strategy: Ask your partner to alert you to what she is needing. It’s not fair for anyone to expect their partner to always know exactly what they need, particularly when it comes to emotional support. SO many things changed at my house, when my husband and I figured out that if one of us literally said, “I need to talk through something with you, no action is required. Please just listen?” we could immediately drop into “patient, non-reactive listening mode” rather than “oh-crap-they’re-upset-what-are-we-going-to-do” mode.

This is a strategy we also routinely teach our couples in marriage counseling here at Growing Self. Ask for what you need, and give your partner a heads up so they can do a great job at supporting you in the way you need to be supported at that moment. Because truthfully, in different situations you might need different things, right? If you’re like most people, sometimes you need a warm shoulder to cry on, sometimes you need a good listener, sometimes you need a hug, and sometimes… just sometimes… you might even want some advice.

With love,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

 

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