Discernment Counseling

Discernment Counseling

Discernment Counseling

Discernment Counseling

Marriage Counseling For Couples On the Brink of Divorce

Discernment Counseling: Why the type of marriage counseling you’ve never heard of of is the only one that can save a marriage on the brink of divorce.

Sometimes marriage counseling fails. Why? Generally, it’s because one of the partners is no longer committed to the relationship or, more often, if they’re still committed in theory, they’re not committed enough to do the actual work required to repair the relationship. Inexperienced marriage counselors assume that when a couple seeks help, they want the relationship to work. Couples therapists who practice discernment counseling understand that is not always the case.

What I know from years of experience as a Denver marriage counselor and online couples therapist is that many couples come in to couples counseling with “mixed agendas.” This means that one person really wants the relationship to work, and the other person is feeling ambivalent. Many times these couples are on the brink of divorce. 

At these moments, it’s too late for marriage counseling. But even at this point, discernment counseling can still help save your relationship.

What is Discernment Counseling?

When couples get past a certain point, it’s too late for couples therapy or conventional marriage counseling. They may say they want marriage counseling, but on the inside, they are too angry or have lost their hope. Wise, experienced marriage counselors use a type of marriage counseling called “discernment counseling” to get clarity about what’s really going on before plunging ahead into misguided, conventional marriage counseling.

Through discernment counseling, a good couples counselor can help partners get clarity about their commitment and motivation for change. Once that is in place, then marriage counseling can be successful. Without the necessary prerequisite of discernment counseling, marriage counseling for couples on the brink of divorce can easily fail.

Unfortunately, discernment counseling is not widely used among marriage counselors. Many have never even heard about it. For example, here at Growing Self we work with only the highest caliber, most effective marriage counselors, and most of them have never had discernment counseling training before starting with us. (We get them up to speed fast, don’t worry).

How to Stop a Divorce When It’s Too Late For Marriage Counseling

If it feels like the fate of your relationship is hanging in the balance of marriage counseling, and divorce is on the table, discernment counseling is the one approach that can potentially turn the tide. Not conventional marriage counseling. In this episode of the podcast, I’m discussing what dynamics are at play in a relationship on the brink, why these dynamics make conventional marriage counseling for the purpose of relationship improvement a bad idea, and how you can use the principles of discernment counseling to see if there is still hope for your relationship.

You can listen to “Discernment Counseling” on Spotify, on the Apple Podcast App or scroll down to listen right here on GrowingSelf.com. If you’re more of a reader I’ve also included cliff notes for you in this post as well as the full transcript of this episode.

Learn about Discernment Counseling and why it can make or break a marriage on this episode of the podcast. (And please share this post if you have a friend or loved one who’s marriage may be failing. This information could make all the difference for them!)

All the best,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

 

Discernment Counseling: Episode Highlights

1. Different Relationships Require Different Types of Marriage Counseling: What’s the state of your marriage?

There are many reasons couples seek help from a Denver marriage counselor or an online relationship coach. But generally, there are three types of couples who seek Denver couples therapy, marriage counseling online, or relationship coaching depending on their orientation to getting help and the severity of their relationship problems. Which type are you?

Proactive couples: These couples are defined by the fact that they both love each other and have generosity and goodwill in the partnership, and a willingness to take positive action to benefit the relationship. They view marriage counseling or couples therapy as a positive, valuable experience and don’t hesitate to seek help as soon as they take notice of the initial signs that their relationship may be in trouble. These are strong, successful couples typically. Not that they don’t ever have problems. All couples have “issues.” Strong, happy couples just take proactive steps to resolve them. Marriage counseling works for them, and usually in just a few sessions.

Frustrated but committed and motivated couples: These are the “middle-of-the-road couples.” Many couples in this space have been struggling with unresolved issues for some time, and they experience a fair amount of stress in the relationship. They are fighting or having communication problems and tend to have the same unproductive arguments or ongoing relationship issues that aren’t improving. They have often been attempting to do everything they know how to do to create improvements, but have not sought effective professional support. Even though the’ve been putting off getting help and are feeling some frustration and resentment it’s not too far gone. They still have a fundamental love and respect for each other. Both individuals are still actively committed to the relationship’s success, and with the right support they can make real and lasting positive changes in their relationships. Marriage counseling works for these couples too, it just takes a little longer.

Mixed agenda couples: Mixed agenda couples develop over time, usually after many months, often years, of unresolved relationship problems. These couples tolerate relationship problems until they are no longer tolerable.The partnership has been in a downward spiral for a while, resulting from years of lost trust and respect. They are waiting on each other to change instead of exerting any genuine effort towards making the relationship work. They do not get help until one person is already halfway out the door, and divorce or a breakup is being seriously considered. Generally, when these couples arrive in marriage counseling one partner is frantic to stop a divorce and save their marriage. The other person may no longer be willing to participate in the relationship. At this point it is too late for marriage counseling. Couples in this place require discernment counseling before marriage counseling, relationship coaching or couples therapy has any hope of succeeding. If commitment, hope, and motivation are first restored through discernment counseling, then subsequent evidence-based marriage counseling may still be successful.

2. Why Relationships Fail 

Discernment counseling works when other types of marriage counseling or couples therapy fail, because it puts the predictable dynamics of a failing relationship at the front and center. Good Denver discernment counselors know that relationships don’t often explode; they spiral down for a long time first. One of the first signs that a relationship is failing is that a negative relationship cycle takes hold. The sooner you notice that this is happening, and take effective action to correct it, the better.

Negative relationship cycles get going in small ways first, and then grow larger without intervention. When communication is a struggle, relationships tend to become polarized and contentious. If left unattended, it will only get worse. This may begin once you stop doing the nice small things you used to do. Or it could also start when you become outright disrespectful towards your partner. In return, they will likely feel entitled to mistreat you too. When a negative system starts taking hold, people react to each other’s negative reactions. It can get pretty bad over time. 

Often, as this negative cycle continues unchecked, people can begin to feel entitled to treat each other quite badly. They can stop believing that better things are possible for their relationship. Worse, the pattern of negative experiences can make them lose trust in each other. At this point, people withdraw emotionally from a marriage. Interestingly, the person who spent years dismissing and minimizing the problems and was formerly resistant to marriage counseling is the one who’s often blindsided and anguished when their partner withdraws. Even though it may have felt sudden to them, the truth is that their partner had been quietly separating (emotionally) for quite some time.

 When this truth becomes known, couples enter a crisis. A marriage counselor is often called (sometimes a divorce lawyer too). These are make-or-break moments for a marriage, and most be handled with sensitivity and expertise.

3. The Importance Of Discernment Counseling

When these “on the brink of divorce”couples land in marriage counseling, one partner “is leaning in” and the other is “leaning out.” Under these circumstances routine marriage counseling and couples therapy will not be appropriate or helpful. Honestly, jumping right into marriage counseling in these moments can actually extinguish any hope for the relationship to be repaired. Instead, discernment counseling is necessary first.

The goal of discernment counseling is to help both partners get clarity about what is possible for the relationship — and what isn’t. From that point, they can either transition into evidence-based marriage counseling or couples therapy that helps them heal their bond… or separate in the healthiest way possible.

The primary goal of discernment counseling is not to improve or change the relationship. The purpose of discernment counseling is to ensure clarity about whether or not positive change is possible. Specifically, discernment counseling explores whether or not sufficient commitment and motivation exist for doing the work of couples therapy.

In most cases, couples find that there is still enough hope and commitment to try. In some cases, consciously “uncoupling” might be the best for both people involved. It can salvage a friendship or some aspects of the relationship, especially if they’re co-parenting. Discernment counseling can help start this healing process.  

4. Discernment Counseling Strategies For a Mixed Agenda Relationship

If either you or your partner are unsure about whether your relationship has a future here are some crucial things you need to know. 

  1. People who are “leaning out” fantasize about what their life will be when they’re out of the relationship. This may or may not be realistic. Through discernment counseling, the person leaning out can better understand and perceive the situation from a fresh perspective. It can also lead them to reflect on attachments and the implications without them.
  2. “Leaning out” partners are often emotionally beaten down after years of negative experiences with their partner in the past. They can often feel hopeless about things changing or improving. Discernment counseling can help them understand, more realistically, about what is possible and what is not. 
  3. “Leaning In” partners often feel incredibly anxious about the possibility of their relationship failing. Discernment counseling can help them regulate their emotions, and also gain accurate understanding of why their partner is half out the door. Then it becomes possible to work on changing the dynamic that led to this crisis.

How Discernment Counseling Works

First, a professional will establish if individual sessions would be best for your situation. Like all ethical and professional therapy sessions, confidentiality is crucial. Counselors will talk to the partner who’s leaning out of the relationship. They will check if there’s still some motivation that can be restored. This process needs to happen before deciding to “repair” the relationship. 

To the partner who’s not yet willing to let go of the relationship, the work may focus on making them understand their partner’s feelings more clearly. The session will focus on helping them manage their anxiety and getting them into a good place.  

Note: Discernment counseling sessions tend to be limited — generally 3-6 sessions max. If one partner is still highly ambivalent towards the relationship, and neither of you are ready to make decisions, that in itself is a decision. It allows couples to create a clearer vision of where they are, what they’re willing to tolerate, and what the next steps are for the relationship… one way or the other. 

I hope that this overview of discernment counseling helped you understand the unique relationship dynamics of a failing marriage, and to use this understanding to see the path forward for yours. If your marriage is on the brink of divorce I sincerely hope you first consider discernment counseling in order to determine whether it can be saved. If it can, you may find that this was a painful, but necessary moment of reckoning for your marriage that opens the door to an incredibly satisfying new chapter for both of you. And, even if discernment counseling leads you to the conclusion that it’s for the best that you separate,  you will be able to do so with the confidence that you really did do everything you possibly could have to make this work.

Wishing you all the very best on your journey of growth,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

P.S. More resources for you:

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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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Discernment Counseling: Podcast Transcript

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Discernment Counseling — The Podcast

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

That’s an interesting song by an interesting band to set the mood for an interesting topic. The band is Toxic Water with this song, We’ve Only Just Begun. And our topic today is about something that almost no one has ever heard of. But if your relationship is in trouble, it is the only kind of couples therapy that will actually save a relationship and stop a divorce. And that’s what we’re talking about today on the Love Happiness and Success podcast. If this is your first time catching the show, or welcome, I’m so glad you found us.

I’m Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I’m the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. And my background is as a licensed marriage and family therapist. I’m also a licensed psychologist, and I am a board-certified life coach. And I draw from all of those different modalities in order to provide hopefully helpful and actionable advice that will help you create love, happiness, and success in your life. And so today’s topic, as many areis drawn from listener questions. I have been hearing from a number of you lately, through commenting on the blog at growingself.com, through Facebook Dr. Lisa Bobby, or on Instagram at @drlisamariebobby.

Relationship Advice: “Can This Relationship Be Saved?”

And the question is if I were to paraphrase, because this has come in many, many shapes, sizes, and forms. But as some version of, “Let me tell you about all of the horrible things that have been happening in my relationship and how I’m feeling about that. And can my relationship be saved? My partner doesn’t want to go to couples counseling? Is there any hope? Or I don’t know if I want to keep doing this? Is there any hope for my relationship? Or should I just let it go?”

I’m also hearing questions like, “You know, my partner is stonewalling me, they have one foot out the door, is it too late to save our relationship?” And, so really hearing from many people whose relationships are in quite a bit of distress and really understandably feeling very upset and heartbroken and even desperate about what do I do to fix this? Can it be fixed?

And I wanted to create this podcast just for you. Because there are some really important things that you need to know about this particular moment. And what could possibly help you repair this relationship. But even I think more importantly, what to avoid, if your relationship feels like it’s on the brink because there are a lot of things that could make it worse right now, instead of better. And there’s really one thing that can make it better. And I don’t mean to be overly you know, inflammatory or scary. But I mean, this is borne out by a lot of experience.

When Couples Need Discernment Counseling

And so once again, on today’s show, given you the real deal. So first of all, we’ll just like to orient you to where we are and what we’re doing. There are generally three different situations that will bring a couple into couples counseling, marriage counseling, relationship coaching. There are certain couples who are proactive, you know, they are committed, they care about their relationship, they want it to be as good as it possibly can. Oftentimes, they’ve had experience with some kind of therapy or personal growth work in the past. They’re like, they understand the benefits of counseling or coaching and they want to do it together. And so they are like, very proactive, and they come in for marriage counseling at the first sign of trouble, you know.

They’re maybe not feeling as great about each other. They’re communicating, communication is starting to feel hard. It feels like it’s difficult to create agreements or get on the same page. And they’re like, “You know what, I love you so much. We need to get into couples counseling and just fix this.” And so they go and they talk to somebody like me or somebody else on my team here at growing self. And you know, they come in for about four to six sessions. They do what they need to do. They walk out with tools and things that resolve and they’re like, “Oh we are so much better now.” And they go on their way.

And you know, might come back in the future. Life’s paces made things feel harder again, like, you know, moving or having a baby, or something like that normal, unexpected. But they really like, believe in growth, they’re reading the books. They’re doing the things they’re talking to me. And these couples are incredibly advantaged and they keep their relationships healthy and strong. And so this is like, you know, a couple number one, and a lot of the education that I tried to do is to connect with couples in this stage, because when they do come in for couples counseling and support, they’re very easy to work with, they love each other, there’s a lot of generosity and good will. And it’s easy to make positive changes in a relationship that last. And it’s good. So that’s category number one.

Category number two, a certain percentage of couples will show up for couples counseling, marriage counseling, relationship coaching, when they’re actually fairly stressed and unhappy. They have been experiencing issues in their relationship, maybe they’re fighting, communication feels hard, they’re feeling frustrated, sometimes even resentful. But even though it hasnobody’s having a good time, there are still positive aspects of the relationship.

They’re still like, basic love and respect for each other. And they’re still motivated to like, work together, own their piece of the equations. “Yeah, I guess I do that.” And work on themselves for the benefit of their relationship. And there’s just a lot of commitment, you know. And so these are couples whoit takes longer to repair a relationship that has sustained trauma and damage through a series of regrettable incidents. But it’s not so far gone, that it’s impossible, feels impossible to do it. 

You know what I mean, there’s still an attachment, there’s still a desire to have a better relationship with each other. And so, you know, these are kind of like the middle-of-the-road couples, and a certain percentage of couples that come into couples counseling, I think fall into that kind of category.

Now, there is a third situation, which is really, really important for you to know, particularly if your relationship has not been in a good place for a while. There is a category of couple who will only initiate any kind of marriage counseling, couples therapy, relationship coaching, when one person is like halfway out the door. These are couples who have been kind of in a downward spiral for a while, often years. And over time, they have reallylike degraded the fabric of their relationship they have lost trust, they have lost respect. And you know, often times, as they say, the path to hell is paved with good intentions. These are couples who are like, oh, it’s not that bad, it’ll get better or you know if we just take a vacation or do XYZ things will change, or things will be better once we move, or once we do a thing or have a kid or whatever.

And so like they’re sort of waiting for something to change their relationship, as opposed to doing the work that’s required to change relationship. Or they’re very, very focused on that partner needing to change—maybe less involved in what they need to do to have a better relationship with each other. And so, you know, many reasons for thatcouples counseling is too expensive, there are those people. But what happens over time is that relationships tend to become more polarized, and more contentious.

If communication is already struggling, it continues to get worse because there are these negative cycles that will take over a relationship. For example, if you are annoyed with your partner, and you feel that they are being unreasonable or disrespectful, or they’re not doing what they need to do. Youand by you, I mean we all of us will feel you know, somewhat entitled to kind of be a jerk to them or not talk to them very nicely, or stop doing small nice things for them that really strengthen the relationship. And so when we kind of pull back into that emotional withholding space or not being quite as nice, they very predictably again perceiving us as being under reasonable and disrespectful and not very nice, which in turn leads them to feel entitled to not treat us quite as well. 

So as you can see, there’s this, there’s a systemic component to relationships that I’ve talked about before in previous podcasts, but it’s very powerful stuff. And when a negative system starts taking hold, people are reacting to each other’s negative reactions. And it can get pretty bad over time.

And so this third category of couple that I’m talking about, has had that going on in their relationship. And either they have not taken effective action to try to change it, which is like, “Okay, we have to go talk to somebody, it’s time to go talk to the marriage counselor.” Orand this makes me crazy, they have sought support from “couples therapist” who does not have specialized training and experience in couples and family therapy, which is like 95% of the people out there offering couples counseling. They are trained as general practitioner therapists, or they don’t even have that. They’re like some, you know, self-proclaimed relationship coach who has a slick website and has been married before. 

So it feels eminently qualified to shepherd other couples through their own relationship issues. And, as you can imagine, in neither of these situations, does the couple who you know, reaches out with a very sincere intention of getting help for their relationship, connect with someone who knows how to help them. And so they have, from their perspective, done couples counseling, you know. “We’ve done everything.” But they don’t know that the help they sought was not the right kind of help to mend their relationship. It was an evidence-based couples therapy, which really does make a difference.

 Is it too late for marriage counseling? 

So, that’s, I think, incredibly tragic. But anyway, so either they didn’t do anything, or they sought help, you know, with good intentions, but what wasn’t the right thing. And they have arrived in a space where one personsometimes both but usually, one is likeI don’t want to do this with you anymore. I have stopped believing that this relationship can get better. I don’t trust you anymore. Not sure if I like you. And I don’t even know if I want to try to make this better with you. Because I’ve had so many bad experiences that I think maybe I’m just done.

And often times, the person in this position of a failing relationship is the one who for sometimes years previously, has been the one agitating for change, saying, “Why don’t you talk to me? Why don’t you do these things with me? Why don’t we work together, you know, around parenting or responsibilities, or I really just want to feel more emotionally connected to you.” Like this person has been trying for a long time to have a better relationship, to create that connection. And over time, they’ve just had bad experience after bad experience. And they get to a point where they’re like, “I think I haveI’m losing hope that this can be better. What am I doing?”

You know, and so they move into this emotional space. And as soon as they do, the person who prior to that, had been like, “Oh, it’s not that big of a deal. No, I don’t feel like talking right now. No, marriage counseling is too expensive. No, I think actually, that’s your problem. That’s not my problem.” But as soon as their person is like, “I think I’m probably done with you.” That galvanizes this person who had been kind of, you know, minimizing and sort of like. Yeah, I don’t knowif they want to talk to you. All of a sudden, they’re like, “What do you mean? Let’s talk. How are you feeling? How are you feeling now? How are you feeling today? You told me how you’re feeling like 10 minutes ago, but what about now?” And they get all this you know, anxious energy into, “Oh my goodness, my partner is like, done with me.”

And it turns into this huge, like threatened attachment reaction. And they’re like, we are going to the best marriage counselor in Denver, today. I’m making an appointment ofspare no cost. I love you so much. And so they’re the ones calling my office being like, “Can I come?” And like, “What are you doing in like an hour? Can we come in an hour?” They’re like so eager to get started. And this is the context, unfortunately, of many, many people whocouples who show up for marriage counseling online, marriage counseling in person and Denver doesn’t matter.

But it’s like it’s gotten to this point where there is a desperate like Hail Mary kind of quality to it. And the person who formerly had been resistant to this whole idea is now the one often times who is super motivated to do this. And they show up for couples counseling. Now, here’s the thing that is really important, and that you must understand if you’re like, resonating with any of what I’m talking about, or even if you’re thinking of like somebody you know who has gotten divorced or gotten close to it, like you’re probably recognizing some of the dynamics that I’m describing in this.

And I would say, probably 30% of couples we see are those proactive couples that are like, we love each other, let’s communicate better. Middle 30% are couples who are stressed and frustrated, but committed and motivated. And that final 30% of couples who show up for couples counseling are in that desperate sort of space. Now, I am going to tell you a big secret. This is something that I didn’t learn about in a—extremely good Master’s program and couples and family therapy. I did not learn about this in a PhD program that, you know, wasn’t about couples and family therapy, but we did some of it.

And I would say, you know, after having worked with many couples therapists over the years, and we probably have 40 couples therapists running around here Growing Self, and they are excellent. I mean, we are super selective about who we work with, we make them demonstrate that they will be effective for our clients. And we require them to be eligible for licensure as marriage and family therapists and you know, all kinds of specialized training and experience. And even them, I would say, probably 90 to 95% of them have never heard of what I’m about to tell you, until they start working with us.

There is an assumption that alleven highly trained couples therapists makethat when a couple shows up for that first appointment in couples therapy, the core assumption is that this couple would like to work on the relationship. They would like to have a better relationship forwith each other. And they are both willing to, you know, do the hard work that it takes on both sides to make positive changes in service of this relationship. And in service of their love for one another. That is the basic assumption of any form of couples counselingthat people are going to sit down. And they’re going to talk about the problems and they’re going to talk about how they’re feeling. 

And then, you know, after we figure out what’s going on what needs to change, you know, in the marriage counselor be like, “Okay, now that I understand what’s going on, here are some things that you guys can try in order to have a different experience with each other, or here are some of the experiential things, I think, would begin to change the way that you guys feel about each other. Let’s do these together.”

So it’s like, the goal of couples therapy is positive change, right? And what they totally miss and what will make marriage counseling fail, even if there is like a little shred of a possibility that it could be helpful, even for the most, you know, damaged couplesI hate to use the word but it’s trueis discernment counseling. Which takes a core assumption that I have two people sitting on my couch either in the actual therapy office or in the virtual therapy office. But these two people are a mixed agenda couple. They have very different feelings about this relationship. They have different goals for the relationship. They may have differing levels of commitment about whether or not they want this relationship to continue.

And what discernment counseling does is to say to this couple: couples therapy for the purpose of improving this relationship is not appropriate right now because at least one of you isn’t committed enough or hasn’t resolved their ambivalence about whether or not this relationship is something that you want to work on. And until you two are in agreement about whether or not you’d like to work on this relationship together, we can’t do couples therapy. What I can do with you is discernment counseling. This is a totally different thing. And the goal of this process is not to necessarily improve your relationship. It is to help both of you get clarity about what you want to do, and whether or not you want to try. And this is a very different way of understanding the 30% of couples who come in where one person is like, “I don’t know about you.”

 The Importance of Discernment Counseling

What happens when couples, counselorseven very experienced onesdon’t have this idea in the forefront of their mind is that they jump into couples counseling with couples and they do the things that should work. If a couple is committed and motivated, that they will work if it’s in that kind of likemiddle space of stressed yet motivated couples. And it doesn’t work with those highly distressed like desperate couples, one person is willing to do anything. And the other person might say the right thing and couples counseling, because they don’t want to be a bad guy. You know, they’ll be like, “Yeah, mhmm.”

But what happens over time is that they’re not following through with the things that are being discussed in couples counseling. They’re not really engaging witha work. They’re not displaying, like empathy for their partner, or a willingness to take responsibility to keep their own side of the street clean. And it’s not because they’re bad people, it’s because they have had so many bad experiences in this relationship that they don’t knowreally like on a deep level if they want to do it anymore.

And so here is what happens in discernment counseling and why this is so important. So if ayou’re working with a couples counselor who understands and provides discernment counseling, and they get a sense that this is the dynamic happening in your relationship, the first thing that they will do is actually advise separate sessions that are balanced. So it might be one or two or three sessions with you alone. One, two, or three sessions with your partner alone. And it is not individual therapy, there are still boundaries around confidentiality.

So ethical couples, counselors do not keep secrets for two people who are coming to see them together and this would still apply. But in those separate sessions, the couple’s counselor would be talking to the partner who is leaning out of the relationship emotionally, to try to get a sense of why that is. And to do some work to see if there can be motivation resurrected to actually improve the relationship or not. Because that has got to be determined before any work to repair the relationship is going to be successful.

Leaning In: Desparate To Stop a Divorce

On the other side, there is a partner who’s like leaning in, and this is the person who’s like, “Please, please, please save my relationship.” There’s often a lot of work that needs to be done with this partner, to help them understand, first of all, why their partner probably feels the way that they do. And also a lot of coaching around, “Okay, I understand that you want this relationship to be saved. And here are somehere’s a long list of things not to do right now, so that you don’t make this worse. And here’s some things that you can do.” Often times, we’re talking about ways tolike manage anxiety, and kind of get yourself into a good place in these individual sessions.

But so, you know, the first goal is to really, almost like make a deal with a couple who has a mixed agenda to say, “Alright, I want to meet with each of you two or three times, not forever, two or three times and the goal of this is to either decide, ‘Yes, there’s enough here to move forward into couples counseling. We both are committed to trying this for a period of time, like really sincerely trying for a period of time.’ The other choice is to say, ‘No, actually, after talking all the way through those I do not want to try. and then we have our answer.’ And it turns into conversations about how to, as Gwyneth says, “Consciously uncouple in the way that is highest and best for all involved.”

And then there is a certain subset of couples who, you know, don’t want to do either. And they just like, well, we’re just going to stay In the sort of, you know, purgatory space, after this process is done probably 50% of couples who come in and they, in a desperatelike one leaning out one leaning in kind of space, do transition into couples counseling. Probably, you know, another percentage of those maybe 30 or 40%, the other partner is, is actually done. Like, done, done!

And that’s, you know, hard to hear, but in some ways good because having that clarity is worth a lot, you know, like, we can begin to grieve and take this apart and move on as opposed to remaining in purgatory with each other for another year, or three, which isn’t good for anybody. And then, a small subset of couples don’t do anything with it. Choose to stay in the purgatory, which is fine.

 

Leaning Out: Lost Hope

But the goal of discernment counseling is clarity. It is that clarity, and it is commitment. Right? And so, here are some things that are important to know about each other. If you and your partner are in this mixed-agenda-kind-of-situation where either you’re unsure if you want to work on this, or they aren’t. So people who are leaning out of a relationship will often times be fantasizing a little bit about what their life is going to be like, you know, if only they were out of the relationship. 

There’s kind of this “divorce as liberation” narrative, you know. That’s like freedom, you know, narrative like this marriage has held me back, tell me down. They may or may not have had an affair, they may be have a crush on someone else, or an emotional affair going on that they’re kind of idealizing this new person can be part of something that happens, or they’re kind of imagining this amazing future for themselves, like we know once they’re not married anymore.

And having these fantasies or these other attachments can really obscure their level of desire, or commitment, or motivation to work on the relationship. And so part of something that can happen in good discernment counseling is conversation without leaning out partner to do some reality testing around. Okay, well, “What would your life actually be like if you got divorced and kind of walk all the way through some of those scenarios?” Or, you know, maybe talk a little bit more if there is an emotional attachment to someone else and see how that may be confounding thisthe situation and try to raise awareness around. You know, the fact that they might perceive the situation differently if they didn’t have that emotional attachment to another person.

So that can be something that happens in discernment counseling with a leaning out partner. Another thing though, that can happen like there are someI would honestly say many people that have gotten to this place where they’re like, “I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.” It’s not because they’re fantasizing about how great their life would be if they weren’t married anymore. If they were divorced, they don’t want to get divorced. But it’s like, they feel so emotionally beaten down and that their experiences with their partner have been so negative, and just so yucky feeling, and it feels intolerable for them. You know, they’re like, “I can’t handle being spoken to this way anymore. I will not continue existing in a relationship without emotional intimacy. I don’t want to be in a sexless marriage.” You know, they’re feeling bad about what has been happening. And understandably, they’re like, I don’t want to do this anymore.

But they can also be so desperate for resolution. And they can have these unrealistic ideas that a change in a relationship needs to happen fast, and it can happen fast. And so if people in this space go into couples counseling, and you know, their relationship has been spiraling down for like seven years. And I have actually had people say to me, like, “We’ve met with you three times, and it’s not different yet.”

Well, let me just adjust your expectations because in a highly distressed relationship that has a lot of history, by session three, I’m still trying to figure out what’s going on in terms of the dynamic and what happened and the attachment injuries and all this stuff. And so people who have been really suffering in a relationship can be very impatient with couples counseling, even really good evidence-based couples counseling.

They’re like, “Well, you know, we’ve been having four or five sessions, and it’s just not different yet. So I think this isn’t going to work. And so I’m not going to try.” And, you know, they’re angry, and they’re resentful. And they don’t have a lot of patience for the growth process, sometimes understandably so. But discernment counseling, and those individual sessions can help people understand there’s a lot of history there and growth is a process. It took you guys seven years to get to this place. I need at least seven months to get you back out again, you know what I mean? And so there’s that kind of like psycho education piece that can happen. 

But you know, through that process, they can become open to it. Because of learning, I think, what would actually be required if this relationship is going to change. And so through that awareness process, they can become more committed to trying. And really, I think, in those individual sessions, learning more about what they will need to do in order to see if this relationship can be better, or not through couples counseling.

And, you know, there’s also people who really don’t want to get divorced. But they don’t know what else to do to resolve this, they have done everything they know how to do to improve this relationship. They have read the books, they have tried to talk to their partner. They have done all the things they have done the relationship advice, tips, and they’re like, “I’m out, I don’t know what else to do.” And, and I think that there’s also this process that can happen in those individual sessions of discernment counseling, where again, there’s like this insight that can be generated aroundhere is how relationships are actually healed. Here’s what damages relationships, this is what happened to you. 

This is what I see in this dynamic. This is why it feels so bad. And here’s what we will need to do in order to get out of this. Are you willing to try to give this one last chance with the information that I’ve provided with you around what this is really going to take? We’re going to have to talk about hard things. We’re going to have to make real changes. You are going to have to learn about yourself in a different way, and grow in a way that might feel uncomfortable and challenging. Are you interested in doing that with me? Those are some of the conversations that we have, you know, with partners who are really leaning out in discernment counseling.

And it’s also okay for that answer to be “no” for them to say, “You know what if you’d asked me this question three years ago, I would have said, “Yes.” I would have said, “Let’s do it, I will do the work. I will feel the feelings I will be challenged.” And that was three years ago. And let me tell you about what has happened since then. And, “I’m done. I don’t believe it anymore. And I don’t want to. I don’t want to.” And that’s okay, againand I hope I’m not scaring anybody by talking about thisso honestly, but I think it’s always better to go into these things with honesty and open eyes instead of spending weeks and months in marriage counseling that is destined for failure, because these conversations are not being had.

And it’s important. And that’s why discernment counseling matters so much. If your relationship is on the brink, in my experience. Inexperienced couples counselorsor even experienced couples counselorswho haven’t been exposed to the ideas that I’m sharing with you today, we’ll often make the mistake of kind of like, almost falling into that relational dynamic. So the partner of the person who is leaning out is often very anxious about the relationship and really wants it to get better and is sort of pursuing the partner emotionally. And believe it or not, couples counselors can fall into that too, where they are also sort of emotionally pursuing the disengaged partner, like trying to get them to connect and engage with a work. And it tends to make this dynamic more pronounced and kind of pushes the already ambivalent partner all the way out the door when maybe they were kind of teetering on the edge previously.

Now, it’s also important to know that the other side of this equation really matters. I mean, for practical purposes, the partner who is leaning out and deciding if they want to be in the relationship or not. You know, they’re kind of holding all the cards in terms of whether or not this is going to work. But there are things that the person who is the leaning-in spouse also needs to understand if they want to have a fighting chance of this relationship being improved. You know, first of all, there’s a reality around threatened attachment. 

Like you’ve heard me talk about attachment bonds on previous podcasts. We’ve talked about attachment styles, we’ve talked about anxiety in relationships. And we humans, when we are attached to someone who is pulling away from us, always experience this surge of anxious attachment anxiety, does not mean that you have an anxious attachment style. It means that you are a human being having a normal response to a threatened attachment.

And so there’s a lot of anxiety about the relationship, a lot of thinking about the relationship, lots of big emotions. Sometimes it’s fear, sometimes it’s sadness, sometimes it’s anger. Interestingly, because all of these things are coming out of theour limbic brain, which is like our emotional center, and it’s kind of our monkey mind. And so when we are in pain, when we are afraid, it can have all kinds of impacts on us. And it can make us behave, let’s say not like our usual selves. So, you know, it’s important for someone in this space to take care not to be really pursuing. Not to be insisting that your partner have super serious conversations that they don’t want to have about the status of things.

 

It’s important to be able to regulate your own emotions, to the degree that you are not engaging with your ambivalent partner in a manner that makes this worse. So pursuing them for sex, pursuing them to talk to you, needing reassurance from them, getting angry with them, berating them, calling family members, and telling them to talk to that your partner to talk some sense into them. Your work if you’re in this position and what you would do in discernment counseling is be talking about what you need to do individually in order to manage these feelings. And keep yourself in a good enough place so that you are bringing your best self forward and helping your partner who is already ambivalentexperience you as someone with whom there is a future.

They need to see you as being capable of changing and being a good partner for them. Because whether or not you agree with a statement, they don’t trust you anymore. Because of the experiences that they’ve had over the years. And they’re feeling done for a reasonmay not be a reason that you agree with, it may not be congruent with your perspective. But it needs to be understood from their perspective, it needs to be validated. And it requires a certain level of calmness and introspection and insight to say, “You know what, I could understand why you’re ambivalent, I shut you out for years. I remember four years ago, you were begging me to go to marriage counseling with you and I blew you off. And there was that time that I hurt your feelings. And it was right after our baby was born, and you were feeling so anxious and I went golfing instead. And I can understand looking back how even though it seemed like a small thing to me at the time, it was kind of a nail in the coffin wasn’t it like, and I’m not saying that you should be like chasing your partner around the house.” Like telling them these things while they’re trying to avoid you because they not might not be in a space to hear it but just know that this is the work ahead of you.

These are the kinds of bonding, rebuilding experiences that will begin to repair trust. And it is through an experiential process that involves a lot of empathy, and patience, and understanding and authenticity, and making space for other people to have their real feelings and being able to validate and accept those feelings as they are. It takes a lot of emotional strength to do that. And so, your work in discernment counseling will be figuring out what you need to do in order to be an emotionally safe partner under the circumstances because that’s the only possible path forward. And at the end of that it may be that your partner is so done that you don’t actually ever get the opportunity to show them that you can do that, that you can understand them and have empathy for them maybe in a way that you didn’t before.

But either way, you will have begun a very important growth process where you have the opportunity to reflect on what went wrong. And, you know, yes, there’s part of it, how did we do this wrong together. But it’s really, really powerful to be reflecting on knowing what I know now, what would I have done differently if I had a time machine. And that’s not to generate regret, it’s not to beat yourself up, it is to say, “Because now that I know better, I can do better in the future.” And I’m not saying that you should jump into another relationship, but it’s an opportunity to understand how you relate to others. And it sets you up to have more successful relationships in the future .

 Growth Opportunities Are Possible No Matter What

It could be with a partner, certainly, but even with your children, co workers, friends, you know, if you identify patterns, like, “You know, what, I was really critical to him for years and years. And I would get mad at him and I would be withholding and punishing, and you know what, now, he’s done with me. And let’s take a look at why do I do that? Where did I learn to do that? Do I do that to other people in my life? You know what, I kind of do that to my sister sometimes.” And so, you know, it can turn into a growth opportunity for you to have healthier and more satisfying relationships in the future, whether or not this marriage can be repaired.

Many times it can, many times it can. The process of discernment counseling has very specific goals. And the goals are to have clarityclarity that we both want to try to do this with sincere intentions, and give it our very best for a period of time. You know, it could even be three months. But during that period of three months, we are going to do everything we possibly can and dig deep and have the talks and do the things and see what happens when we both really apply ourselves. That is the first clarity decision point that can come from discernment counseling. And again, the majority of couplesso through discernment counseling, do come into that space where they’re like, “You know what let’s tryreally try for three months.”

And there is also a goal of clarity, which is clarity around: There’s nothing here to fix, even though I feel kind of guilty about saying this, even though I wish I did want to even though I you know, feel sad about what might happen to our family, it is actually me being honest and authentic to say, “No, I do not have it in me to try wholeheartedly to make this relationship better. And it’s not fair for you, for me to keep stringing you along, hoping that I can, you know, decide that I love you again because, you know, after going through the process of discernment counseling, I feel very resolved in themy truth, which is that it’s over for me.” 

So, you know it, clearly, we’ll say it out loud. And now let’s talk about what we as a couple want to do with that, you know, in order to start taking things apart in a way that feels healthy for both of us. So you know, hopefully on the other side of this, we can salvage some kind of relationship or friendship, particularly if we’re going to be co-parenting because that’s important. So that honesty is worth a lot. 

And you know, it is also positive for both people, positive for the person who is actually done to be done, and positive for the person who may really want the relationship to continue. But to have that unambiguous knowledge that it is actually overas much as it hurts to hear that, it really jumpstarts the healing process. Because and I say this for my work as a breakup recovery therapist, a breakup recovery coach, divorce therapist, the people that wind up hurting and just being in agony for such a long time after a divorce, or have such a hard time moving on after a breakup, are the ones who are in this purgatory space of “maybe”. 

Maybe it could still work out, maybe they still care about me if we could just talk, there’s still kind of really like the emotional attachment to their ex persists long after the relationship ends, which, again, sounds kind of crazy from a rational perspective. But from like a human attachment perspective, it is not crazy at all, it makes perfect sense. But even though it’s hard to hear for your partner to say, “I am not in this relationship with you anymore. And I’m not going to be. And here are the reasons why.” And to kind of like, almost have those closure experiences in the room with a mediator can reallylike make the lossyes, more acute for the person whose relationship is ending when they don’t want it to be. But again, jumpstarts, that healing process, because there is no bargaining, you know, you just move straight into grief. And there can be a gift in that compared to the alternative.

And then again, a very small subset of the couples, you know, because discernment counseling has to be limited, right? We can’t stay in this meeting with a discernment counselor for individual sessions in perpetuity. It’s going to meet with each of you three times, and we’re going to get clarity, or you guys are going to stop doing discernment counseling and we’re going to decide that neither of you are ready yet to fully process this or make decisions one way or the other. And so, you know, go back to your lives as it is. And just know that, in order for anything to change, we do need that clarity. And I am available to have that conversation with you again, when the time is right. But you know, we’re not going to take forever to do that. Sometimes, you know, if a discernment counselor meets with each of you for two, three sessions, and there’s still really a high degree of ambivalence in one partner, we have to stop discernment counseling.

And the recommendation could be, you need time and space to really get clear about what you want to do leaning out partner. And so I would recommend that you get involved in some individual, you know, sometimes therapy. But honestly, therapy in the most typical, real sense, it assumes that there’s something wrong with someone you know. Therapy, psychotherapy is for the treatment of mental illness, of psychiatric conditions, right? And so for somebody to be in this life space, where they’re ambivalent about a relationship, you know, to go to a therapist who wants to talk about how you’re depressed, and how you’re, whatever were traumatized by your father, when you were three.

Okay, fine, like go do that. But a more direct route to getting clear about how you feel, what your values are, what you want, why that makes sense, can actually be through evidence-based life coaching with someone who’s really more about helping you just get that clarity, right? Like, here’s what you want, here are your obstacles, what do you need to do to make that happen? Is that possible in this relationship? And you know, certainly to a degree talking about feelings and sorting through historical experiences in the relationship, but it tends to be much more positive. And just based on this assumption, that you are a strong, confident, capable person who is not making decisions out of a space of like deficit or psychopathology. But rather, that you are trying to figure out what is the best path for you, and your future, and that is congruent with yourself. 

And so in these cases, many times, life coaching can be a more positive approach, let’s say. One last thought to put in your hopper before I leave you for today. If you do work with a life coach to get clarity around this. So say, for example, you are the partner leaning out and after doing discernment counseling, you’re still in a space of “I don’t know what I want to do about my relationship.” It can be really, really helpful to seek out the services of a life coach who does have a background in couples and family therapy, or at least relationship coaching, because in individual work, it can be very, very easy to fall into a dynamic with a therapist or a coach, where you are talking about how terrible your partner is and how they hurt your feelings.

 Individual Therapists vs Marriage and Family Therapists

These are all the mean things they’ve done to me and you know, your very sympathetic therapist or coach will be like, “Oh my gosh, that’s terrible.” And if you have a ethical action oriented therapist or coach, particularly one that has a background in couples and family therapy, you will say, “Let me tell you about the meeting, my husband did to me.” And of course, they will be compassionate and kind to you. 

But sooner or later, they might also ask, “Why do you think your partner is reacting to you that way?” To help you get insight into your blind spots and your growth moments so that you don’t unintentionally kind of fall into this victim place where your narrative about your partner becomes increasingly monster as because you don’t have a therapist or coach who is either knowledgeable enough or ethical enough or active enough to challenge some of that.

And you know what, your partner could actually be a monster, and you need to get out of this relationshiplike stat! I have worked with people in toxic relationships, this is a thing.

And I would also say that out loud to a client describing that situation. But I believe that you deserve to have someone who cares about you enough and respect you enough to at least ask the questions to help you determine, you know, “Yeah, why is that happening? And do I play any role at all?” In the outcomes that I’m getting the answer again might be no. But you deserve to know if there are our blind spots or growth opportunities that you need to know about, if you’re going to have a positive relationship with anyone in the future. Either this person who you may or may not decide to end the relationship with, or another one because these things don’t go away.

Now, if you’re on the other side of this, and the recommendation at the end of discernment counseling is for you to seek individual work, if you’re the person who’s feeling really upset about the relationship ending, it can kind of depend on what’s going on. In my experience, it’s very, very normal for people to have feelings of anxiety and depression and sadness, and sometimes grief and loss. That, again, coaching strategies can be helpful in figuring out how to develop emotional regulation skills and self-care and kind of rebuilding positive things in your life, and shifting your thoughts into ones that feel happier and healthier for you and sort of looking towards your future.

All of that is in the realm of coaching. And, again, in my experience, if you’re on that upset sidethat you’re the person who doesn’t want the relationship to end, I would advise to work with somebody who does actually have a background and who is able to practice therapy with you. If it turns out that that’s what you really do need because people can feel so bad and particularly in the early days of a relationship ending, particularly if it’s an unwanted ending or traumatic ending, can really be experiencing a lot of big emotions, lots of anxiety, lots of despair. 

And it’s, I think, important to work with someone who’s able to help you on that level, if it turns out that that is what would be beneficial for you. So, again, not that you want to work with somebody who’s going to make it all about like, “Well, the only reason that you feel as badly as you do is because you have terribly low self-esteem from the way that your mother treated you.” Like that is probably not going to be helpful, but it will be helpful to say, “Okay, this is turning into depression.” And let’s talk about what you need to do in order to be well, because there’s a path forward. So let’s talk about that. That is what I would want for you.

Anyway, so I hope that this conversation about discernment counseling was helpful for you. And if you are in a relationship, or it’s like feeling on the brink, please look for someone who is knowledgeable in discernment counseling. Look for something with an MFT after their name, which means that they are credentialed as a marriage and family therapist, so they have a background in marriage and family therapy. Ask questions, make sure it is evidence-based marriage and family therapy. And when you are interviewing prospective couples, counselors, make sure they are familiar with discernment counseling.

People who are trained in individual therapy or even couples counselors who are not trained in discernment counseling won’t have insight into the dynamics that I have described to you so be an educated consumer. Of course, if you would like to do that work with Growing Self, you know where to find us. But otherwise, I hope that this conversation has prepared you to make informed choices, either for yourself or if this again is making you think of someone else in your life who is struggling in this situation. I sincerely hope that you forward this podcast on to them because it might make a big difference. Okay everybody, thank you for joining me today and I will be back in touch with you next week on another episode of the Love Happiness and Success podcast. 

 

 

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Functional vs Dysfunctional Family Roles: Ever wonder why you are the way you are, especially in terms of your patterns in relationships and habitual ways of relating to others?

As a long time Denver therapist and life coach I can assure you that we’re all a sum of many things: our innate temperament, our personalities, our thinking styles and our accumulated life experiences. But the dynamics of the family system that that you were a part of growing up can having a profound impact on you too, for better or for worse.

If you’re interested in personal growth, self development, and improving your relationships, at some point it is vital to ask: Who  was I in my family? What role did I play in that system? Who did my family want me to be? What did my family bring out in me? Most importantly: Who did my family need me to be?

Understanding the functional and potentially dysfunctional family roles that shaped you can give you insight into yourself, and a deep level of self understanding that leads to choice and empowerment.

Today’s episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast is taking a deep dive into understanding the power of family roles, how dysfunctional family roles can create long-term impacts on the adults we become, and how to use this awareness to grow into the person you want to be.

How to Overcome Dysfunctional Family Roles

Our families shape our way of thinking, feeling and behaving. Unless (or until) we do deliberate personal growth work in life coaching, evidence-based therapy in Denver (or online therapy), or couples counseling, we will subconsciously bring these ways of thinking feeling into adulthood. Some of the patterns and expectations we unknowingly carry with us are helpful to our adult relationships, and some are not.

If we want to create positive changes in our adult life and relationships, it’s important to understand how we were forged in the crucible of our family of origin.

I’ve seen time and time again, as a marriage counselor, therapist, and life coach, that as my clients do this work they become aware of themselves in an entirely new way. Most people come into contact with the fact that they are reflexively operating on a set of core beliefs, values, expectations and habits that they didn’t even know they had. Many of these “operating instructions” instilled by families of origin are positive and helpful. But some are not.

Let’s face it: We were all raised by fallible, imperfect humans who were almost certainly operating on the subconscious legacy from their own family of origin. It takes both hard work and support to become the clear-eyed, self-aware, mindful and compassionate parent and partner that intentionally cultivates healthy family dynamics. Most people never get the opportunity to do that type of personal growth work.

As a result, our parents didn’t know what they were doing either. If they came from (mostly) healthy, nurturing families, that’s (mostly) what they gave to us. If your parents grew up being forced to participate in dysfunctional family roles, unless they were privileged enough to do high-quality therapy, they probably subconsciously re-enacted those old ways of being in your family growing up.

On the bright side, the fact that you’re even reading this and learning about these subterranean psychological forces gives you awareness and power that your parents probably never had. You get to deliberately make changes in yourself that lead to your ability to create an entirely different outcome for your family.

But the first step is developing a genuine understanding of how the legacy of dysfunctional family roles may be operating in you. That’s what we’re talking about in today’s podcast!

Dysfunctional Family Roles: What they are, and how to transcend them.

Listen to today’s episode of the podcast to:

  • Learn how your role in your family of origin can affect your relationships in adulthood.
  • Know the impact of our early experiences in how we manage stress and anxiety.
  • Get insights and direction into how you can break the patterns of your dysfunctional family role (and cultivate the strengths of a healthy family dynamic).
  • Learn to recognize other people’s patterns and see them with compassion.
  • Discover how you can be independent and empowered in creating the relationships you want.
  • Know how you can build real and lasting changes in your family life and relationships.
  • Discover strategies to improve your family dynamics.

You can listen to “Dysfunctional Family Roles” on Spotify, on the Apple Podcast App, and anywhere else you listen to podcasts. Or, you can scroll down to the bottom of this page to listen right here on GrowingSelf.com.

If you’re more of a reader, I’ve provided some episode highlights (below) as well as a full transcript. Otherwise, thanks so much for listening, subscribing, and sharing this with anyone in your orbit who could benefit from hearing it.

Family Of Origin

How did your experiences in your family of origin shape you?

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Growing up, who did your family need you to be?
  • Are you the same or a different person when you are outside the family system?
  • How do you feel about yourself when you’re with your family and when you’re with others?
  • Do you change when you’re with other people and go back to your patterns when you’re with your family?

Considering the answers to these questions can begin the process of giving you some insight and self awareness around how the dynamics of your family of origin impacted you.

Psychodynamic Therapy, Attachment Theory & Family Systems

Tackling your deepest, most entrenched patterns often requires the support of a great therapist. There are many effective ways to accomplish this work, but it can be very helpful to work with a therapist who understands psychodynamic therapy, attachment theory, and family systems. In these evidence-based types of therapy, you will have the opportunity to explore your family roles, your patterns in relationships, and why you are the way you are. This type of therapy focuses on first raising self-awareness and insights. Then, once that is established, a good therapist will help you begin to actively experiment with new ways of being that help you overcome dysfunctional family roles, and begin practicing new ones. 

Family Roles Follow Us Everywhere

We think of our patterns in relationships as being exclusive to how we show up in our actual families. Not so. Your habitual ways of relating will also show up in your friendships and even your working relationships. Family systems dynamics appear whenever groups of people form, because people naturally assume different roles in relation to one another. When the roles are complementary, cooperative, and flexible, they make for a healthy relationship.

Healthy Family Roles vs Dysfunctional Family Roles

Dysfunctional family roles are characterized by inflexibility and that they serve to maintain homeostasis. (Meaning that when one person stops engaging in the dysfunctional family role other people in the family fall apart). In contrast, healthy family roles are flexible, supportive, and interdependent. The individuals in a family don’t “need” each other to be a certain way in order to be okay. A child can be imperfect or sad without a parent becoming overwhelmingly anxious or angry. One member can step into another’s role. In a healthy family, for example, both parents can be nurturing at times. Both parents can also be appropriately authoritative at times. 

In contrast, the roles in a dysfunctional family are rigid, fixed, and distinct. The members must stay in their roles in order to maintain the functioning of the others. When one steps out of their role, it disrupts the system, and places an enormous amount of pressure on individuals to resume their dysfunctional role. (Often at the expense of their own mental and emotional health and wellbeing). 

Understanding Dysfunctional Family Systems

There is not a cutoff line between a functional family and a dysfunctional family. It doesn’t have an on and off switch. Instead, it is a spectrum.

In some families, someone tends to over-function. This person makes up for the deficit of another who is not functioning fully. People in codependent relationships easily over-function in fulfilling their caretaker or enabler role.

There is also someone who plays the victim. They always blame their problems on others. This person is always having a hard time, usually because of mental health issues. The victim also often has a substance abuse problem because that’s how they cope with the unfairness of life.  

These are the other roles commonly found in a dysfunctional family. Listen to the full episode to learn more some of the most common dysfunctional family roles including:

  • The Problem Child (aka, “The Scapegoat”)
  • The Family Clown
  • The Lost Child
  • The Gold Star Kid

In extremely toxic family systems, the roles are more rigid. There isn’t enough space for everyone. The three primary roles you will see are:

  • The Abuser
  • The Protector
  • The Victim

When a person is in a healthy family, they get to inhabit many different roles — or better yet, just be themselves. They can be funny and nurturing and accomplished, and they can also be sad and in need of help and even lazy too. They can be their whole selves, and it’s all okay. In healthy families the roles that do emerge tend to be more task or responsibility based rather than serve an emotional purpose. (Think, one person usually takes out the trash or manages the finances). But again, there is flexibility. For example, even if a family member goes away for a while, the family can adjust and cooperate because they are an interdependent system.

Examples of Dysfunctional Family Roles

In this episode of the podcast I talk through a number of examples of disfunctional family roles in order to illustrate how they all work together.

A family composed of a victim-feeling mom, an enabling dad, a perfect daughter, a clown son, a silent child, and a problem child is a stable family system. However, just because it’s stable doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Being in a dysfunctional family system creates an artificial sense of stability. If any one of the family members decides to change for the better, the others would be forced to confront their problems, disrupting the system.

Self-awareness and recognition take an enormous amount of emotional health, emotional stability, and emotional regulation skills. Dysfunctional families can’t do that easily. Professional family therapy is often required.

The Path of Growth

This podcast was intended to provide information and awareness about the fact that dysfunctional family roles exist, and to help you think about to what degree they may have impacted your life. However, this podcast is in no way meant to resolve these patterns: It can’t. Growth and healing from dysfunctional family roles is a process — often a long term one. However, you can absolutely change and overcome the impact of dysfunctional family roles. Through the awareness and self reflection that you get from therapy, plus guidance around how to experiment with different ways of being, you can take action to change yourself. And when you change yourself, you will become a force of positive change in your family too.

Dysfunctional Family Roles —Resource List

If you think you’ve been impacted by dysfunctional family roles that are affecting they way you think, feel and behave as an adult, the most important thing you can do is get involved in effective therapy. Look for a highly qualified therapist with a background in psychodynamic therapy, attachment therapy, and / or family systems. If you’d like to do this life-changing work with one of the therapists at Growing Self, the first step in getting started is to schedule a free consultation session to discuss your hopes and goals and see if it’s a good fit to work together.

In addition to therapy, there are some self help activities that can support your work to overcome the effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family role:

I have shared valuable advice on coping with dysfunctional family roles. Which part of the episode was the most helpful? Feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment down below.

Back in touch soon, with more Love, Happiness and Success advice for you. 

xo, Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

 

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

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Dysfunctional Family Roles: Podcast Transcript

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Dysfunctional Family Roles —Podcast

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

[playing Stars by Ayla Nereo]

Isn’t that a great song? That’s Ayla Nereo—I hope I’m saying that right—Ayla Nereo and the song is called Stars. Such a nice song. We’ll listen to it together more at the end of our show today, but I thought it was a nice intro for our topic. Today, we’re talking about something I think incredibly, not just important, but also interesting. And I think it will be very relevant for you and the kinds of questions and concerns that you’ve been bringing to me lately. I’ve been hearing from a lot of you through Instagram, through Facebook, and certainly through the blog at growingself.com with questions about your relationships and how to improve them.

And we’re taking a deep, deep dive into this topic today. We’re going to be talking about family systems. Specifically, family systems and the way that our roles in our families of origin can shape us as adults and have a pretty big impact on the way that we feel in relationships. The kind of partners that we choose, the way we relate to others, the way we communicate, the way we manage stress and anxiety can all often be found in some of our earliest experiences.

And my hope is that by talking about these things today with you, you will be able to recognize and notice where some of those might come from inside of you. And also be able to more compassionately see this in perhaps your partner, or your mom, dad, brothers, sisters, family of origin, and also even in your friends, and extended circle to be able to gain awareness of who people are, why they are the way that they are so that you have some insight and also like direction for how you can begin to break some of these patterns, if you decide that they are actually not serving you well anymore. And really feel empowered to act more independently and create the kind of life and relationships you want. I know that this sounds like very big stuff, and it is. And I feel like we kind of need to go here because, again, I get so many questions from you guys about specific relationship kinds of questions lately.

And I think it’s very easy, and even tempting, for relationship coach types or family therapists to say, “Let me give you some strategies. Try this specific thing”. And the risk here is that while the specific strategies can be very helpful, they are often blown away like a little dandelion puff in a hurricane. And the hurricane, the much more powerful thing at the root of why these relationship experiences are happening, why you’re feeling the way you do, are in these family of origin issues. And so for me, to hand you this little dandelion puff and say, “Good luck with that,” it feels like not me being a good friend to you or truly of service to you. And so I really wanted to talk more about the issue of family systems to provide you with a little bit more meaningful and hopefully helpful guidance that will lead to your making real and lasting change in your life and in your relationships. Not just one more piece of dandelion fluff, three little tips to change your life kinds of things. There’s a time and place for that too. But I mean, we are keeping it real here on the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.

And if this is your first time tuning in and you’re wondering what in the hell you have just stumbled into, I am Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I’m the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. I’m licensed as a psychologist. I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist. I’m a board-certified life coach, and our practice at Growing Self, we say we specialize in love, happiness, and success. We do a lot of couples counseling, marriage counseling, but also, like, take a holistic approach to life. So we’re doing individual therapy, life coaching, also career coaching, and professional development coaching, because all of these different aspects of life are intrinsically related. You are a whole person. And to have any of these things: love, happiness, or success, it really involves paying attention to all of them and, really, particularly the stuff at the center that impacts the way you think, feel, and behave in all different aspects of your life.

And again, the family systems, ideas, we’re going to be talking about today are incredibly impactful. It goes into the way you feel about yourself, the way you take care of yourself, the way you manage your own emotions, the way that you communicate, also directly impacts the way that you relate to other people, the expectations that you have of your partners, the kind of partners you select, your responses to people, particularly in moments of stress. And it is absolutely incredibly salient to the way we relate to coworkers, or tasks, or the way we show up on the job, or the way we communicate in professional roles, or even the role that career or work serves in our lives are all directly rooted in some of our earliest life experiences.

So I’m excited to talk about this with you today. And as I’m recording this, we are going into the holiday season. And I think it can be very helpful to talk about family roles, and family dynamics, and family issues because much of the time around the holidays, we get to spend more time with extended family. Although, this particular year, as I’m sure you’re well aware, the year of the pandemic, this is different. You may or may not be spending the holidays with your family of origin, or you may be in a situation, like many of the therapy or coaching clients that I have here at Growing Self, that I hear people on my team consulting about are increasingly adults now bunking with their parents again, or siblings again or having your mother-in-law move in with you, just because of the pandemic situation and the realities that many families are facing. There is an increased incidence of multigenerational households. So you’re having the opportunity to splash around in family of origin. Dynamics may not be contained to just a challenging Thanksgiving dinner. It may be waiting for you at the breakfast table, eating cereal and calmly looking at you first thing in the morning when you get up and pad into the kitchen for your coffee. So lots of excitement, and let’s call it an opportunity for growth.

So diving in to the topic of understanding family roles and understanding, in particular, dysfunctional family roles compared to healthy family roles and family systems. Again, this is a huge, huge topic. And I feel a fiduciary obligation to give you a disclaimer, is that I’m going to be talking about a lot of things on this podcast today. And many, many books have been written on this subject. The subject is one that has been studied for decades by people who have devoted their entire careers to this. There are whole university programs that will train you for years on the different facets of this topic. And so we are going to be going deep, but please know this is a drop in the bucket of the complex and fascinating topic of family systems. And so I hope that this is one informational tool that you use along your path of growth. But do not think for a moment that this is all of it. There’s much, much more.

I’ll be throwing other resources out for you as we talk through things. And of course, there’s much, much more on various aspects of this topic on the blog at growingself.com. You’ll hear me referring to those through the podcast. But instead of boring you with a lot of specific links and titles, for all of them that I’ll be mentioning, if you just go to growingself.com, and go to the expert advice page, we have hundreds and hundreds of blog posts, articles written by experts, other podcasts, videos, all kinds of stuff, and there is a search bar on that page. And so if you hear me mention a resource over the course of this podcast or like, “I want to learn more about that,” that’s where you’ll find it. Just go to the blog at growingself.com, and type communication, or boundaries, or whatever it is into that search bar that I’ll be mentioning. And you will find the article in question as opposed to having to write everything down as I’m discussing, because who has time for that?

Okay, so jumping in. Let’s start with a question. When you think about your family, your family of origin, the people that you spent most of your time with growing up, and what that experience was like for you, most of the time, I would like for you to take just a second and consider who you were when you were in that situation? Who did your family kind of need you to be? And how does that maybe feel similar to or different who it feels like you really are when you are outside of that family system? Did you sort of feel one way about yourself when you were with your family? And then when you went to college, or moved out, or built your own life and your own family, did that change? And do you notice yourself kind of being drawn into those same types of patterns when you’re back around your family?I’ll just pause for a second to let you reflect on that.

Because our families shape us. We’re born with personalities. We’re born with basic ways of being. But then it is because of our role in the family that we were born into is where we really learn how to be in relation to others. We learn who we are. We internalize a kind of narrative about ourselves. We learn what to expect from other people. We kind of develop ideas about who other people want us to be. It’s where we develop our ideas about our worth as people. Like, “What do I need to be or do in order to be loved and respected and cared for by others?” 

And this is not conscious stuff. This is so subconscious. It is preverbal much of the time. But it’s also very real. And it matters because we take this with us into our adult lives, whether or not we want to, whether or not we’re even aware of it. And, we kind of need to know who we are, and where we came from, and what shaped us, and why we do the things we do in order to be empowered, to create positive changes if we want to—if we want to. And it is the case that many people, I would say most people—all people, really, I mean, even people who come from the most difficult and traumatic family backgrounds, it wasn’t— very rarely—is it ever like all bad. We get so many good and valuable things from our family experiences.

And so this is no way to bash families, because I would venture to say that when we reflect on the best parts of ourselves, many times—our values, the things that give us meaning and pride—there are so many wonderful things that we pick up along the way from our families of origin. And those are all to be embraced, and shared, cherished, and feel so grateful for. And it is also the case that we sometimes have developed ways of relating to others in our families of origin that made perfect sense. And were really even necessary at that time in our lives, but that when we get older, and get into adulthood, and create our own families, and own relationships, we can arrive at the conclusion that those old ways of being are no longer serving us or helping us achieve the goals that we have as adults. Or that we are now partnered with someone that our old family of origin way of being is not really compatible with, and that we need to make some changes in order to have a really healthy relationship and family. And so the process of being able to do that begins with awareness and beginning to reflect on “Who am I?” and “Where did that come from?” Now we’re going to be talking about this.

But I also want to just say out loud and very clearly that there is a certain breed of therapist, a certain type of therapy, that’s called psychodynamic therapy. It was born out of kind of the Freudian school of thought, the sort of original therapy. But psychodynamic therapy is all about exactly this. How did your earliest relationships shape you, and why are you the way that you are? It is very insight-oriented. And if you get involved in psychodynamic psychotherapy, you will spend many, many, many, many sessions talking about family roles, and relationships, and why you are the way you are, and this all makes sense. And this is the thing that I personally have like… kind of makes me crazy. Many, in my experience, psychodynamic therapists will analyze all of this, and be like, “Okay, your dad was cold and emotionally unavailable. And your mom was depressed. And so this is why you avoid conflict”. And you’re both like, “Okay, yeah”. And there’s this like triumphant, “Okay, so we figured it out”. And then the therapist is like feeling very pleased with themselves for having figured this out. And you’re like, “Oh, okay. That makes sense”. And then that’s where it stops.

It’s like that insight was the goal of the therapy. And many times if you have been involved in this kind of therapy, you may have had this experience. If you’re like, “Okay, well, all right. Well, now I know that. So now what? Like, what do I do with that?” And the therapist is like, “Well, you know, we need to process that.” What does that mean? Okay, and so I have a reaction to that. And my way of being as a therapist and a coach is much more practical. And it’s not to knock that self-awareness and that insight. We need to have that in order to be able to make conscious changes, and understand ourselves, and have compassion for ourselves. But there also needs to be more. And so, our way of being here at Growing Self is a more direct route like, yes, okay. We need to figure it out, make sense of it. But then we need to actively work to change it. And so you’ll— if this is— you’ve been in therapy before and what I’m describing to you today sounds a little bit different, that’s why.

It is because really my primary orientation is more of a coach. I am a licensed marriage and family therapist. I’m a licensed psychologist. That is part of my background. But I think a bigger part of my work and way of helping clients is through more of a coaching model, which is, “Okay, what do you want to do with that?” Like “What’s your goal?” So with that in mind, if this is something that you want to explore, the first step of gaining that foundational self-awareness—with the assistance of a therapist, or coach, or not— is to first notice, or even do some journaling around who do you become when you are around your family, and how is this functional in your early life

And figuring that out, like when I reflected on that and was well, well into my 20s before I even considered any of this as a possibility, realizing that when I was around my family, I kind of needed to hide certain parts of myself. I had to be fairly like rational and kind of stable. Family therapists are also made in the crucible of their family system. And that was very much my role as a child. And while that was helpful to stabilize my family, there were consequences to me later in life in terms of my own relationships and my ability, I think, to be as vulnerable or authentic as I wanted to be, and I think on a deep level, craved. But in my family, it wasn’t really okay for me to do that. So that was something that I had to do a lot of work around as I got older and wanted to have a good relationship with my husband. That’s been an area of growth for me. And this can look like so many different things. And I’d like to invite you to sort of reflect on how you feel, or what you find yourself doing or saying, or ways of being when you get around your family that are maybe a little bit different than who you really are or who you want to be.

And with that in mind, I also want to share that family systems are always present in the sense that people in families are really any group. You see it in coworker kinds of groups or working relationships too, is that people will always kind of naturally move into different roles. And that is very healthy, particularly when roles are cooperative. They are complementary, and also when they’re flexible, they can change as needed. And also, a virtue of a healthy family system or a healthy relational system is that people can grow and change without it creating disruption in the rest of the system.

So like, for example, and this is a very superficial example, but I’m sure you can relate to it in your own life, like in in my house, I do not take out the trash. I don’t know what day the trash comes. It always surprises me. My husband, he rolls our trash cans out to the curb on the correct day of the week. He knows what time they’re going to be there. It is just not something that I think about. It is his role in our home to think about that and to do that. Therefore, I just don’t. Now, there have been times when he’s gone out of town. And thankfully he’ll text me or something like, “Don’t forget to take out the trash, okay?” and I can go do that. I can be flexible in that role. Or God forbid, if he got sick or something like, I would do that. It’s completely fine, I could step in to that role.

And so there are practical kinds of functional roles in families that people just kind of have their little jobs, and so that everything comes along. But there are also emotional and relational roles in families. In healthy families, these roles tend to be cooperative, flexible, and like much less fixed. Like, in a healthy family, both parents can be nurturing at times. Both parents can also be appropriately authoritative at times. Sometimes mom makes breakfast. Sometimes the other mom makes breakfast, if that’s a same-sex couple, or sometimes dad makes breakfast. There’s this flexibility and a— what am I trying to say? People can make space for each other and behave like this healthy interdependence, as opposed to what happens in a dysfunctional family system with dysfunctional family roles. Those tend to be much more rigid, much more fixed, much more distinct, and functional in an emotional way that when people stop their roles or try to move out of those roles, the system becomes disrupted.

And so people stay in those roles, and they become increasingly rigid for like matters of emotional safety, and sometimes even literal safety or survival. They’re not flexible. And also, in a healthy family system, the roles are good for people. Everybody feels okay. And while nobody is perfect or needs to be perfect, there is a— people are able to be authentic. It’s healthy, it’s nurturing. Nobody’s being harmed by any of the family roles. Whereas in a dysfunctional family system, the roles that people inhabit are often not really healthy for them. They’re not the highest and best for them. And also, people feel locked into those, not consciously but subconsciously, because if they try to be different, it will be very disruptive to the system. And they might experience personal consequences, or the system might experience consequences.

And I know we’re talking about this very theoretically right now. So let me let me go into some more concrete examples so you can understand what I’m really talking about. So when we look at a dysfunctional family system with dysfunctional family roles, people from, oftentimes, early childhood, get kind of shuttled into various adaptive roles to support various parts of the system. And these roles, over time, tend to turn into like almost personality features or identities. And they have a almost global impact on the way that people relate to others, both inside their families and outside of their families. A lot has been written about different types of roles. There are many of them. But I’ll just go over some of the most common ones so that you can think about, “Hm, is this me? Was this happening in my family or not?”

In dysfunctional family roles, there is quite frequently a perfect person who gets the gold stars—who is amazing, who is responsible and conscientious, and does not need to be told to do their homework, and will clean their room, and pick up after themselves, and kind of often inhabit like a caretaking role as well. Like “Oh, somebody needs to make dinner. I’m going to go ahead and do that.” Caretaking for other children in the family and generally like not needing a whole lot. It’s this parentified child many times, but can also have a like achievement orientation. Like they can be stabilizing the family by virtue of being a gold medal winning figure skater at age 13 or gymnast. There are a lot of ways the perfect child can show up in a family.

In addition to having usually at least a perfect one, there is often a dysfunctional family role that is really more like actively a caretaker that is so caretaking, so over the top in terms of rushing around kind of over-functioning and doing things for other people that it can really be kind of an enabling role. That this person is really making up for the deficits of another, or kind of propping up another person that isn’t really functioning fully.

If you recall, I did a podcast a little while ago around codependent relationships and what those look like in marriages and in families. Oftentimes, people who have strong codependent tendencies and find themselves falling into those patterns in their own marriages were the caretaker or enabler in their family of origin. And so they’re very used to this like, “If I don’t wake my mom up for work or make my little brother breakfast, mom might not get to work, or my little brother might not eat the breakfast. And so I need to be very vigilant and kind of like motivating everybody to do what they’re supposed to be doing.” You often see that in families where there is a parent who is chemically dependent or has a substance abuse problem. Very, very common.

Additionally, dysfunctional family roles, there is usually at least one victim. The person who is having a really hard time, and who is being treated unfairly, and who isn’t feeling good, and who went to see the therapist. But that therapist didn’t give them good advice. “And I don’t think that I like them anyway. So I’m not going to go anymore.” Kind of can have on like some murder-y sorts of tones, but often this person can have mental health issues in a family, or always sort of have a problem that makes them not feel good. It’s usually the fault of someone else and that other people in the family need to sort of help them because they are not being treated fairly, and not feeling good, and have chronic migraines. “And I just don’t think I could deal with this today.” That’s sort of the victim-y kind of role. The victim person is, often in alcoholic or chemically-dependent families, the one with a substance problem because they need to have four glasses of wine at night to cope with the stress of their unfair life and the cruel world. And so they’re just going to drink the whole bottle. You know, it’s like that kind of mindset goes along with the victim mentality.

You will also commonly find a problem child in a dysfunctional family role. There’s at least one kid in a dysfunctional family who is acting out, and being bad, and doing poorly in school, and is clearly the problem. And if only this child could get it together, all this stress would be reduced in the family. And so this is the kid who gets taken for therapy appointments to fix this kid. And the rest of the family is like, “What? We’re fine. It’s the kid that’s the problem.” And that this can often be like a rebellious sort of angry child. And this could look like all different things.

There is very frequently and in certainly larger families where there is space for all of these roles to be inhabited. You will generally see a clown show up. The clown is the sort of irrelevant, irreverent, possibly hyperactive, usually entertaining and witty, good talker, can sometimes even be anti-social but gets away with it because they’re funny. But it’s kind of this “look at me” kind of distracting force in a dysfunctional family. Often starts using alcohol or other substances as teenagers or young adults, but usually have a good time. And you can often also find a silent child—a lost child—in a really dysfunctional family.

And all of these roles make a lot of sense when you think about the way they work together, and variations of these roles can be found in lots of families. And also, just let me add that there is not a cut off line between a healthy, functional family and a dysfunctional family. It’s not like an on/off switch. There is a spectrum. And in healthy, functional, happy families, you will also see people going into various family roles and sort of emotionally occupying these kinds of spaces, but in a very gentle way that aren’t extreme.

They are also flexible. Yes, there’s probably always going to be one kid that’s a little bit of the gold star kid. But sometimes, that kid can goof off and eat all the Cheez-Its and not always have to be perfect, right? Or another kid can be the family clown and sort of the fun one but is also okay for them to have a sad day and tell their family about it. And that’s all right. Like there’s a flexibility to it. And in many families and in a parental dyad, one person notices when, “Somebody needs to buy stamps,” or “Has that bill been paid?” There’s that one person who’s kind of the nerd, and the other person who’s like, “I think we should go on a hike this weekend. You know, we’ll clean the garage later”. So there’s always this stuff, but it’s gentle.

The person who’s like, “Let’s go on a hike,” could also say, “We are out of so many things. I’m just going to go ahead to the grocery store. You guys make a list. Let me know what you want.” Like, they can also be in that kind of functional role. And maybe the person who’s a little bit more of the taskmaster can also say, “I am going to get a massage. You people fix yourself lunch. I’ll see you later.” Like it’s not rigid. There’s space for people to be all kinds of different ways, even if primarily, they are usually the one that buys the stamps. It’s healthy. It’s flexible.

And so on the spectrum of healthy families on one side and more dysfunctional families on the other, at the lower ends of dysfunction., if we get into more extremes of dysfunction, is when you’ll see a lot of rigidity around these roles. And they will be very extreme, that people are very much fully inhabiting these roles. And in really, really bad toxic family situations, there isn’t even enough space for all of these different roles. You see three primary roles, and I’m talking about families in which there is abuse, very serious substance abuse problems. The roles are an abuser or an oppressor, a protector, and a victim, and that’s about it. And people stay in those roles, and it is incredibly toxic and unhealthy for everybody involved.

And so we’re not talking about that end of the spectrum. That if you’ve come from a family where that was happening, that is, you require specialized treatment, often in the form of trauma-focused therapy to recover from some of that stuff. And so, if you would like to learn more about that very far end of the pathology spectrum, you could Google—it’s called the victim triangle based on Karpman’s work, which was in the 60s, I believe. So anyway, just that is not on the blog at growingself.com, okay? You want to Google that elsewhere because that’s trauma. Trauma-focused work really requires a specialized kind of therapy that we don’t really do at a Growing Self. But I wanted to mention that because if you have lived through that life experience, you probably should get that type of therapy. And I hope that provides you with some guidance about what to do with that.

But there is also quite a continuum of dysfunctional on one side and healthy on the other. There is a lot of space in the middle that, honestly, most families are kind of in, where not everybody is perfect, not everybody is fully actualized. Maybe mom and dad do have some issues, and you see some of these family roles popping up, but it’s kind of like matters of degree. And the reason why these roles start to happen and perpetuate is because families are systems, like work groups are also systems. But families, because they spend so much time together, form these systems that maintain themselves because people react to each other’s reactions. You’ve heard me talk about— if you’ve listened to the show before, you’ve heard me talk a lot about this dynamic when it comes to couples. And so like, husband and wife having reactions to each other’s reactions that then elicit more reactions, that kind of keep that cycle going. And it happens between two people. But it also happens within a family in a way that it all sort of sticks together and works together.

So, for example, imagine a family of five, or seven, or however many, sitting around the dinner table, and the family clown falls out of his chair because mom and dad start to get into a tense conversation. Nobody else notices. But the clown immediately falls out of his chair and starts flopping around like a halibut on the floor. Everybody would be like, “What? What are you doing? Get back on your chair!” Right? And mom and dad are getting irritated with each other because mom is kind of drunk at dinner. So Dad is getting irritated. At the moment of the clown falling out of the chair, the perfect child will say, “Oh mom, I’m going to the national championship for fencing. I think, you know, and I’m also getting nominated to be the captain of the fencing team at school,” which in her mentioning that immediately soothes mom’s kind of underlying anxiety.

Mom, the victim— she doesn’t have to think, “Oh, maybe I’m drinking too much, and my family is suffering as a result.” Because she’s like, “Look at this perfect child. I’m such a good mom. My child would not be this perfect if I wasn’t such a good mom. I’m going to have another glass of chardonnay to celebrate this, as a matter of fact.” And so it like maintains the system. Now, mom also is probably drinking too much because dad is working nonstop. He’s working ten, twelve hours a day. He’s always preoccupied. He’s kind of working himself to death and doesn’t really have anything else to say when he gets home because he’s exhausted, because dad is totally worried about making enough money to pay for the fencing lessons, paying all the bills, making sure that all the stuff happens, and that we can continue paying for this nice house in the suburbs to pacify mom, and her desire to be like good enough, and maintain her social status. And he is not getting any of his emotional needs met because he doesn’t trust mom, who’s a little bit erratic and doesn’t believe that she’s even competent to pay the bills if he did hand that over to her and let her be responsible for it. So he’s kind of in that enabler, caretaker role in the family.

And then, there’s the kid who is upstairs in her room as the family is eating dinner, refusing to come down because she is smoking pot out the window, and cutting her arm with a razor blade, and making melodramatic videos on TikTok, “Goodbye, cruel world,” to get fifty people being like, “Are you okay?” And the mom and dad are both very preoccupied because we have got to get her into therapy like right away, possibly residential treatment. And as soon as we do, that will be so much less stress because dad won’t have to work so much because the kid will be on the other side of therapy. And how are we going to pay for residential treatment, which is like twenty thousand dollars? And so it’s like all perpetuating, all perpetuating this.

And the kid with a problem has everybody’s attention because she’s clearly not okay and wait, there is— we have another kid right? Where? What is his name again? Oh, the one who’s in the closet reading books with a flashlight? I think he’s on, like, book 17 of some 27-volume sci-fi series that he’s read for the fourth time. Who doesn’t talk to people or plays video games for like 11 hours a day. Like, that’s the kid that hides because there’s no space for him to get any of his needs met.

And so when you— this is kind of stereotypical example. But if we look at this system with all the different parts, the sort of victim-y feeling mom, an enabling dad, a perfect daughter, clown son, another kid who’s clearly having issues, and the silent child, like this is an incredibly stable family system. All of these people are in roles that support the roles of the other person. And it’s very, very balanced. If any one person in the system started to change, or become more emotionally healthy, or self-actualized, it would be incredibly disruptive for the rest of the system because everybody else would be confronted by their patterns, by their difficult feelings. And it would be emotionally uncomfortable. And while we think of these family systems, I mean, none of these roles are good for anybody that I’m talking about. But they’re familiar.

They’re sort of safe. They’re sort of known. Like, imagine if we start at the beginning and the clown kid, instead of falling out of his chair is like, “Mom, you’re drunk. Dad, you’re being mean to mom. What is going on?” That kid would get punished and maybe sent to his room, and maybe start turning into the problem child because parents cannot cope with that kind of confrontation because of their own unresolved pathology. They’re like, “I’m going to make that kid the problem.” Right? As opposed to saying, “You know what? You’re right. I am drinking too much.” Or dad saying, “I am totally emotionally unavailable and so focused on overfunctioning for your underfunctioning mother that I don’t even know what’s going on around here half the time.”

So, I mean, that kind of self-awareness and recognition takes an enormous amount of emotional health and emotional stability, emotional regulation skills. And in dysfunctional families, people can’t do that. So everybody has to stay in their roles in order to kind of just get through it. And so, again, these things can exist on a spectrum, but that’s why they become so inflexible is because as soon as somebody starts to change, it requires other people in the system to change. And what you can always expect in a family system is that if you try to change and have a healthy relationship with appropriate boundaries and a level of authenticity that would be considered healthy, if you bring those things back to a dysfunctional family system like, “Mom, I want to have a more authentic relationship with you. And I think that we need to have authentic conversations about how we’re both feeling,” and you and your mom have been in dysfunctional family roles for a long, long time, your mom is going to be, “Why are you being so mean to me? You are so selfish. You always make everything about you. Don’t you care what I’m going through?” And will essentially beat you back into that old position where you’re like, “Oh, okay. Mom. I got a promotion at work. Did I tell you about that?” She’s like, “Oh, really? Tell me more about that,” because that makes her feel good. That’s what she wants from you. And so it’s like through our interactions, these roles all get reinforced.

So going back to the original question that I posed to you, who does your family want you to be? And who did you have to be in your family in order to maintain the system? What did you get in trouble for? What did you get attention for? What did you get positive attention for? What did you get negative attention for? In our little story about the problem child up in the room, cutting her arm with a razor blade, and crying, and on TikTok, she’s getting a lot of negative attention that is very functional for her. She’s feeling loved, and cared for, and taken to therapy appointments, and all kinds of things. And people reaching out to her on social media telling her that there’s so much to live for. That is negative attention, but it is attention, and it really works.

So it’s like, “How is this functional? How is this working?” are always the questions to be asking. And also know that systems are always balanced. One thing that you will see very green and inexperienced therapist is looking at a family or a couple and seeing, “This is the person with the problem. And this is like the good, nice, functional person.” That is never true. People are always balanced. And you see it over and over again, even in a couple where like one person has the problem, they are “problem.”

And you see this like in recovery. So there was one partner who was abusing substances. They get into recovery, they do their treatment. They do the work. They get into this healthy place, and you will often see the codependent spouse who had been the one who was overfunctioning and so upset with their partner for not getting it together, like, as soon as they do get it together, the partner who had been over functioning, oftentimes, is all of a sudden like getting depressed, and withdrawing emotionally, and starting to wonder if they even want to be in this relationship anymore after all that they’ve lived through. Because now they are in the situation with a healthy, emotionally available partner who would like to have a authentic, emotionally intimate, sexually intimate relationship with them. And this partner, who was the overfunctioning, codependent one, had, in actuality, been very protected from any kind of vulnerability, or any kind of challenge to be working on their own stuff because they got to be the perfect one in the relationship when their partner was an alcoholic.

And now, all of a sudden their partner is saying, “Well, you know, how can we do this better? Here’s what I need from you.” And that can be incredibly uncomfortable. That as difficult as that dysfunctional role was, in many ways, it felt safer and more comfortable for them than having to risk trusting someone or being vulnerable with someone who might actually be able to be emotionally available and responsive to them. Intimacy is very scary, and particularly, people who are coming out of dysfunctional families are very wary of authentic emotional intimacy. So don’t ever think that it’s— there’s actually a good one and a bad one in a family.

You see this a lot like with the perfect children. The straight A valedictorian squash champion who finally goes off, gets into the Ivy League school, and goes off to college, and sort of immediately falls apart, and has to be hospitalized for anorexia, and suicidal ideation because they’re eating like one crouton every day because they can’t cope with all the pressure, and these sort of self-imposed things. And they’re very, very fragile in actuality. Particularly when they’re confronted with, like, “What do you want to do? What makes you happy? Do you really want to keep being the international squash champion or would you rather do something else?” Totally blows them apart when they have been in these very rigid family roles.

So there’s a lot here. And if you’re just sitting here trying to take this all in, I want to say, I know, I know that this is a lot, and these are very, very different ideas. These are family systems ideas. And there is so much that’s been researched on this through the 50s, 60s, this whole family therapy movement in the 1970s. I mean, this is big, big stuff. And I feel like in our day and age when people want little quick, digestible nuggets of “tell me what to do,” or “tell me what to say,” or “give me a strategy for fixing this relationship thing,” again, it’s so tempting to say, “Okay. Try this. You unload the dishwasher Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. He does it Tuesday, Thursday,” and whatever those kinds of superficial fixes are totally ignoring the whole foundation that a relationship is built on. And so when you go into these family systems ideas, you begin to see how they interact, how they impact people, and maybe even how they have been impacting you, whether you have been conscious of it or not.

And so this podcast is in no way intended to serve as the work itself. Right? I mean, to really be digging into this, and specifically what it looked like in your family and in your family currently, you know, it involves a lot of deep digging. Family therapists will do things called genograms, which is like an assessment of family roles. Different kinds of assessments, a lot of like structured interviewing to sort of flush out like, “Okay, who are you? And tell me about your brother,” and all these different things. We could do enactments, like recreating certain situations. But also, even, I think, through really solid cognitive behavioral therapy or cognitive behavioral coaching, we’re still going into, “What are some of the core beliefs that you have internalized without being aware of it?”

You may have heard a podcast that I released a while ago about the shadow side. We’re getting into, “What do you believe without knowing that you believe it? How do you automatically feel without fully being aware of why?” Oftentimes, our clues to our family of origin roles can be found when we feel dark feelings, when we feel guilty about things that we probably shouldn’t feel guilty about. But if you find yourself feeling guilty anyway, there’s a good chance it’s related to a dysfunctional family role. Or if you’re feeling angry, or victimized, or if you’re feeling a lot of shame about something that happened, or anger towards another person—resentment. These are oftentimes clues, not always, but it’s like— a good family therapist would be like, “Sounds like you feel guilty a lot and in situations that not everybody does feel guilty. And so let’s pull on that string together and see if we can figure out why this makes sense that you would feel guilty when you know somebody else has a problem. Take me into this feeling. And how does this make you want to behave?” I mean, like these kinds of questions can begin to get into it.

And so, again, this kind of work is very much a process that’s beyond the scope of this podcast. But it’s also really important. And if you have been one of the many people that has reached out to me lately with a specific relationship question, “Dr. Lisa, what do I do in this situation?” Believe it or not, me talking about these things is an attempt to meet your need in a more meaningful and authentic way than providing you with sort of a superficial fluffy strategy that probably won’t work, or at least not long-term. Like it might work for a little bit, but it won’t create real and lasting change because the origin of the dynamic that is happening in your relationship or with your family member is worthy of deeper exploration. And whether or not you are aware of it, you are participating in this dynamic, and it is contributing to the result that you’re getting.

And so, me telling you to say “please,” and “thank you,” or use I statements is not helping you understand what your role is, related to the current relational dynamic, or where it came from, and what is keeping that alive inside of you in terms of the core beliefs, in terms of your negative emotions, in terms of what you feel like you need to do in order to be worthy of love, and respect, or care, or consideration. And without that kind of awareness, you can’t really take meaningful action because this isn’t strategy; this is a growth process. I talked about my work that, again, I did not even know this was a thing until I was well into adulthood. And realizing that when I get stressed out, or when I’m feeling vulnerable, I tend to withdraw emotionally from my husband. And that was creating problems in our relationship.

And so I was like, “Okay. How do I make my relationship better?” And had to confront, like, why do I do that? And let me think about why that made sense as a functional part of my family of origin, and that that allowed me to be able to really change it. But even now, I still have to be aware of that when I’m getting stressed out or when I’m feeling threatened, and I feel myself kind of withdrawing. I have to very actively say, “No, I’m not going to do that. I’m okay. Say what you’re feeling. Be authentic, trust this person. It’s okay. You can talk about it.” And I kind of have to move myself into that space of who I want to be, which is hard won through a lot of effort and through not, I think, just the therapy strategies around realizing why but the coaching strategies around “How do I manage my anxiety in such a way that I’m able to stay in the ring with people, and be authentic, and communicate appropriately, and say what I want to say, and what I need to say?” I mean, those are our very real and deliberate relational skills that we need to learn.

So again, closing questions, “How do you react when you get stressed? How do you try to cope with anxiety or fear when you’re feeling vulnerable or insecure in a relationship?” You see it in a lot of ways. People who feel unlovable and are worried that they’re not good enough for that caretaking role, or even a perfectionistic role, you’ll see them in relationships when they’re dating, like with promiscuous sex, like kind of using sexuality as a way of gaining love or attention. Caretaking, over-giving to people, not having healthy boundaries with people, not being able to say no to people, coping by sort of gentle self-harming behaviors. Even like eating all the banana bread, or drinking too much, or sort of anaesthetizing themselves with various substances or activities.

And so, when you think about this and what you do when you’re stressed, and who you feel like you have to be around your family, and contrast that with, you know, who do you get to be when you feel healthy, and safe, and emotionally accepted? Those are the clues. Those are the clues, and while they’re not the whole answer, they’re the breadcrumbs on the trail that can guide us to the ultimate truth. And, I’ll also share, I am a huge advocate for self-help. I believe that you can read books, and you can listen to podcasts, and you could do online classes, and get so much benefit from those. Journaling is helpful. It’s all good. And I don’t think that the answer to growth is always in private therapy or coaching.

But when it comes to tackling these kinds of things that we’ve been talking about today, we all have blind spots because these patterns and ways of relating are so ingrained. They’re so baked into us that we literally have no idea that we’re doing anything until we are in a relationship with someone who is either getting upset with us for being the way that we know how to be. And we’re like, “What? What’s wrong with you?” Or when we are in a relationship with someone like a therapist or a really good coach who can see what we’re doing, maybe we start engaging in those kinds of behaviors with a therapist or coach, which is a thing it’s called transference. Somebody shows up to my office with a loaf of banana bread, I am going to want to talk about why that just happened, and why they thought that that would be something that I wanted or needed from them. And like going into those relational kinds of patterns and doors.

So it’s being in a helping relationship with someone who can shine a light on those blind spots and help us understand our own patterns and ways of relating because when those things are lifted up into the light, we can see all of it. We can see the good things, and the things that we’re so grateful for, and the things that we love, and cherish about our families and about ourselves. And we can also see the old patterns that maybe we needed to do in our families but are no longer serving us well as adults. And then we can make intentional choices to do things a little bit differently so that we can get better results in our most important relationships.

So thank you so much for listening to these ideas with me today. And I hope that they helped you. Again, listening to me talk about this stuff is not the work. This is me standing here with you, pointing my finger in the direction of the road that you will need to walk down to achieve this growth process. But I hope that just by virtue of listening to this podcast, you are more aware that the road is there, and that there is an invitation for you to walk down it and do that work if you feel that it would be helpful on your journey of growth and personal development.

If you have follow up questions for me or would like for me to expound on another topic that would support you on your journey of growth, don’t hesitate to get in touch. You can leave a comment for me on the blog at growingself.com. You can get in touch through facebook.com/drlisabobby or track me down on Instagram, @drlisamariebobby. And last of all, thank you so much, all of you who have left positive reviews for the podcast, either on iTunes or Apple Podcasts, or Spotify.

This is a labor of love for me. It is intended to help others. That’s why we don’t do advertising. I’m not doing affiliate programs or pushing weird things on you guys. It’s really intended to be genuinely helpful. And your reviewing it or sharing it with others is the payment. You are paying it forward and putting this information in front of other people who need to hear it. When you leave a review or share it on social media, you are giving one of our fellow travelers the opportunity to stumble upon it. So thank you in advance for your generosity. In doing so, you just might change a life in the process. Thank you.

Okay, that’s it. I’ll be back in touch next time with another episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast. Bye-bye.

[playing Stars by Ayla Nereo]

 

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Trust Issues In Your Relationship? Here’s What to Do…

HOW TO DEAL WITH TRUST ISSUES: If you’ve ever felt insecure in a relationship or found it difficult to trust your partner, and thought to yourself, “I think I have trust issues…” today’s episode of the podcast is for you.

Listen: I know from years of experience as a Denver therapist, marriage counselor and relationship coach that being wary of others after being hurt is normal and healthy — at least to a degree.

In my opinion, having “trust issues” can be a good thing. It takes a long time to get to know people, and not all people are trustworthy. Part of having healthy boundaries is practicing discernment: figuring out who is emotionally safe for you (and who isn’t) and then acting accordingly.

If you’ve been burned in the past, it’s normal to feel twinges of anxiety as you become increasingly vulnerable with a new person. You’re still getting to know them and figuring out whether or not they’re trustworthy. Let’s not label healthy apprehension as problematic “trust issues” that need to be eradicated. It’s your emotional guidance system’s way of being protective of you, and telling you to slow down and take your time to get to know people.

How to Deal With Trust Issues

Particularly if you’ve been hurt in past relationships, it’s absolutely normal to have “trust issues” that need to be worked on in your new relationship.

But here’s the thing to know: There is a difference between healthy caution and strong boundaries, and persistently feeling anxious about your relationship even after your partner is showing you they are trustworthy and emotionally safe.

If you are in a relationship with someone who is (generally, if not perfectly) kind, emotionally safe, and consistent, and you’re still watching their every move, feeling like an over-caffeinated feral cat ready to run for your life at the slightest twitch… you might have trust issues.

What are trust issues? Having trust issues means that the source of your mistrust and feelings of insecurity are not due to what’s happening in the relationship, but are stemming from unresolved wounds you experienced in past relationships. If you have been hurt in the past (particularly if you’ve survived a toxic relationship) and never really worked through it, you could be with the most honest and trustworthy person in the world and still struggle to trust them fully. Because your feelings of mistrust have nothing to do with them, specifically. You’d carry armloads of anxiety with you into every relationship.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “Yep, that’s me.” [Raising hand] “Right here. I have trust issues.” I’d like you to know that it’s really important that you work on trust issues and not blow them off or live with them for too long.

The reason is that if you have unresolved trust issues in a relationship that run rampant, they can wind up harming your relationships. Even sabotaging them. And as your unresolved trust issues implode your relationships, one after another, it will only create more hurtful experiences and increasingly entrenched “trust issues” for you to work through down the road.

If you’ve become aware that you might have trust issues, especially trust issues in relationships, it’s important to take action to resolve them.

How to Get Over Trust Issues

That’s why  on this episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast, we’re talking all about how to overcome trust issues. I’ll be answering questions like,

“What are trust issues?”

“What causes trust issues?

“Why do I have trust issues?”

And most importantly: “How to get over trust issues?”

I will share with you the signs of trust issues. You will also learn how a lack of trust can hurt you, your partner, and your relationship. As a licensed psychologist and relationship coach, I will discuss how you can start overcoming trust issues and start feeling more secure in your most important relationships.

Tune in to the full interview to learn how you can let go of your trust issues to:

  • Learn how to overcome trust issues that create problems for your relationship.
  • Find out the causes of trust issues.
  • Learn how to manage feelings of anxiety in relationships
  • Understand how and why you should take responsibility for your emotions and response.
  • Know the effects of trust issues on your relationship and partner.

Ready to start? You can listen to this “How to Deal With Trust Issues” podcast on Spotify, on the Apple Podcast App, or scroll down to the bottom of this page to listen to it on GrowingSelf.com. (Or anywhere else you like to listen to podcasts.) While you’re listening to this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast!

If you’re more of a reader than a listener, keep reading to learn more about about “how to deal with trust issues” and get an overview of what I’m discussing in today’s show…

What Are Trust Issues?

You might think that that people have “trust issues” related to a partner who has betrayed them in the past. This a reasonable assumption: many people wouldn’t trust someone after they’ve been betrayed and their trust has been damaged. 

However, having “trust issues” in a relationship where trust has been broken is not an “issue.” It’s a normal, healthy response to be suspicious of someone who may not be trustworthy. (As evidenced by past experiences.) Repairing trust in a relationship is an entirely different thing than having “trust issues” that you carry around with you. 

Please check out “Sorry’s just not good enough: How to repair trust,” and “Repairing Trust After Infidelity” for more on this topic.

There’s a distinction between broken trust and the trust issues I’m going to talk about today. In this episode, I will talk about feeling mistrustful or not feeling safe in a relationship even if nothing terrible has happened.

Learning how to deal with trust issues and insecurities in a relationship in which nothing bad has happened is challenging. Having these types of trust issues are also really common.

Signs of Trust Issues

These are the signs you should watch out for to recognize whether or not you have some trust issues to work on:

  • You’ve been hurt or betrayed by people in the past.
  • You doubt your partner despite the absence of betrayal.
  • You often question if your partner is trustworthy or is telling the truth.
  • You are extra-vigilant for any signs of lying, cheating, and concealing.
  • You perpetually feel anxiety or insecurity about your relationship.

People With Trust Issues…

Someone with trust issues will often have feelings of anxiety, worry or doubt about their relationship.  This can result in big feelings, and attempts to get more information from your partner (which can wind up feeling to them like they’re being accused of something they didn’t do).  For example, a mistrustful person might ask for additional evidence regarding their partner’s whereabouts or what they were doing… but have a hard time believing what ever their partner says.

If their partner can explain their whereabouts, or provide reassurance, that additional information might temporarily soothe the anxiety or insecurity, but it’s a trap — it doesn’t resolve the underlying cause of trust issues. Even if, in the moment, the explanation or reassurance helps, its only a matter of time before you start to worry again. 

It’s exhausting.

Unfortunately, the constant cycle of worry – requests for information / reassurance – temporary soothing – more worry is exhausting for your partner too. If you have trust issues it feels like you’re always asking for reassurance that you’re emotionally safe. But your partner may feel like nothing is ever enough, and that they are not emotionally safe with you. It turns into a negative pursue / withdrawal relationship cycle that just keeps spiraling down.

Trust Issues in a Relationship

Trust issues — if not dealt with and worked through — will eventually damage a relationship. Someone with trust issues will be worried most, if not all, of the time, which will place a great deal of pressure and strain on the relationship. This negatively impacts communication and emotional safety for both partners.

If you’re in a relationship with someone who has trust issues you may feel like: 

Over time, if your partner has unresolved trust issues you may begin to view them as being excessively needy or demanding. The problem is that without lots of reassurance, the mistrustful person might think that you don’t love them, or that you’re doing something behind their back, or that you are angry with them.

If you are in a relationship with someone who is always thinking bad things about you, you aren’t going to feel loved, respected, or trusted. The relationship will stop feeling emotionally safe for you as a result.

Over time, you will feel yourself withdrawing emotionally — a self-fulfilling prophecy of your anxious partner’s worst nightmare come true!

How to Fix Trust Issues

Trust issues will not heal or go away on their own. You need to actively address them. The first step is to recognize that unresolved trust issues are damaging your relationship. Therapy for trust issues is particularly useful if you become aware of longstanding patterns of feeling anxious or insecure in your relationships.

If you decide to pursue therapy to resolve trust issues, you should be sure that your therapist knows how to handle this type of relationship problem. Ask your prospective therapist these questions:

  • Why do you think people have trust issues?
  • What is your process for helping someone overcome trust issues?

Your therapist should provide you with a coherent answer and explain it in ways that make sense to you. In particular, a therapist with a background in attachment theory, emotionally focused couples therapy and / or cognitive behavioral therapy can help.

Relational Trauma + Attachment Styles

Sometimes people develop trust issues after having had bad experiences in past relationships. It can be helpful to understand these past experiences as a “little t trauma” that needs to be resolved and healed.

Other times, particularly if trust issues are longstanding, you may discover over the course of therapy that the cause has more to do with your attachment style than with one specific “relationship trauma.”

What are attachment styles?

Attachment styles are the ways we relate to others that we developed through our early life experiences.

Most people are generally secure in their attachments to others. They trust people until given a reason not to do so. However, people who’s earliest relationships were not always safe or consistent can develop “protective” attachment styles.

  1. Avoidant Attachment Style — You can become overly critical of others or actively reject other people. Avoidant people don’t trust anyone enough to get close to them and think they don’t need anyone.
  2. Anxious Attachment Style  — People with an anxious attachment style feel insecure and doubtful of their romantic partners and may need extra reassurance. They might also unconsciously anticipate rejection. This anticipation isn’t something they consciously do.

Even people who are generally or were formerly secure in their relationships can exhibit qualities of the above attachment styles after having experienced a relationship trauma, which is wholly natural and valid. Particularly after ending a toxic relationship, you may need to heal and recover to feel safe in your relationships again going forward.

“Why Do I Have Trust Issues?”

If you’re reading this and beating yourself up because you may have trust issues, it’s time to stop. Having self-compassion and understanding that there is a reason you feel the way you do is the first step of healing.

Being compassionate with yourself cultivates healthy self awareness, and this is vital. Without awareness of your trust issues, you may find yourself becoming hyper-vigilant and suspicious of your partner. Instead, the work ahead of you is learning how to provide yourself with soothing and reassurance to manage your anxiety in relationships.

Healing Trust Issues

To heal trust issues, you need an understanding of what’s going on inside your head, self-awareness, and compassion for yourself. People with trust issues have experienced relational trauma, and it would help both partners if they understood that these feelings are real and normal. However, their feelings are not related to the current relationship.

If you have trust issues, you need to learn how to manage your anxiety and respond to your triggers effectively. Having individual therapy or relationship counseling can be helpful. Be kind to yourself, your partner, and your relationship by taking responsibility for your feelings.

Tips to Overcome Trust Issues

Here are a few resources that can support your work to overcome trust issues.

  • Go through a process of evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy with someone who understands relational trauma and attachment styles.
  • Take online courses, such as our Happiness Class. It will not explicitly resolve your trust issues, but it will set your expectations. 

By undergoing therapy, you can reprocess your relational trauma, learn how to handle your anxiety, and know your triggers. These things will lead to a healthier relationship and set you on the path to healing.

Just remember, that this type of healing can be quite slow. It’s important to be committed to the process of therapy. Especially if you’ve had trust issues for a long time (or trust issues that stem from early life experiences) this is not going to go away overnight.

But you can learn to understand them, manage them, and cultivate safety and security in your most important relationships.

Wishing you all the very best on your journey of growth and healing…

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

 

 

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

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How to Deal With Trust Issues: Podcast Transcript

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Access Episode Transcript

How to Deal With Trust Issues — The Podcast

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

Could there even be a more perfect song to set the tone for a conversation about trust issues? I don’t think so. What we’re listening to right now is a band called Monk Turner + Fascinoma with a song “Trust (Is Just A Word)” from their album Emergency Songs. I don’t know about emergency songs, but they’re all fantastic songs, so you should check out Monk Turner + Fascinoma if you want to learn more about what they’re up to. 

But in the meantime, we are here today to talk about trust issues and how to deal with trust issues and insecurities, particularly when it comes to relationships. And the reason why we’re talking about this today is because I get this question a lot. And if you are one who’s reached out to me through Instagram or Facebook or on the blog at growingself.com with questions like, “how do I trust again after I’ve been hurt in the past?” or one of the many, you know, variations of that question. I want you to know that I have been listening and collecting your questions and this show is for you. Today we’re going to be talking about why people have trust issues and things that you can do to overcome the trust issues so that your relationship is no longer stressed, strained, or damaged by trust issues because that can happen. And we’ll talk about why.

Now, if you have a question for me, or would also like to pose a topic for an upcoming podcast, I hope you get in touch with me. You can always track me down on Instagram at @drlisamariebobby, Facebook at Dr. Lisa Bobby, or of course jump into the fray. You can cruise over to growingself.com and join the vibrant community of commenters and questioners and discussers. That is often found at the bottom of blog posts that you’re interested in. So enough about that. Let’s jump in to today’s topic.

Today, we are talking about trust issues. And I want to make a very careful and deliberate distinction. People often have trouble trusting their partners after they have experienced a damage in trust. So in past podcasts, I’ve talked a lot about how to repair trust in a relationship after betrayal has occurred. I’ve talked about how to restore trust after an affair as a separate topic. And those situations are different than what we’re talking about today. We’re not talking about that. Because there’s a difference in having trust issues in a relationship after an actual betrayal or breaking of trust, like an affair like financial infidelity, like someone had a substance use disorder and there was all kinds of broken trust and lies and betrayals that happened, you know, over the course of their disease. And so, when couples are setting about to repair trust that has been broken in the context of a relationship, it requires a very special process to do that. And also, I don’t see that kind of mistrust as necessarily being problematic.

In fact, I view that as being a normal, expected, and actually quite healthy response to not fully trust someone who has demonstrated that they are not trustworthy unless and until you go through that process of repair and healing that takes time and effort on both sides, and is a very special special kind of work. So if you are listening to this podcast hopeful that that is what I’m going to be talking about, I would actually refer you back to those previous podcasts I’ve done. You can scroll back through the podcast feed of the Love, Happiness, and Success podcast to find them. Or you can also go to the blog at growingself.com and onlet’s see what are we calling itin the main nav there’s like an expert advice tab. Click on that and then you’ll see a search bar in addition to like the most recent articles and podcasts, not just for myself, but from other experts on our team. But in the search bar, you could just type the word ‘trust’ and you will see all kinds of articles as well as links to those past podcasts about how to repair trust after betrayal. And I hope you do check those out because that’s a hard path and people doing that often require a lot of support. But hopefully the information you find there will give you a head start.

Trust Issues: Not the Same Thing as Broken Trust

So, that is not what we’re talking about today. Today, what we are talking about are trust issues that happen when you don’t feel safe in a relationship where nothing bad has happened. It means not feeling safe or secure with your partner, even if, as far as you know, you are actually emotionally safe with them. So when you have more broad trust issues that you’re carrying around with you, you could be in a relationship with the most honest, trustworthy, committed person in the world and in a relationship where nothing bad or weird has ever happened and still think, “I don’t know about you,” or “I’m not totally sure that I can believe this,” or “ what if something is actually happening that I just don’t know about yet?” 

So when we have trust issues that are our trust issues that we’re bringing in places with us, those are the kinds of things that can be happening on the inside, even in a great relationship. And to kind of go into this just a little bit deeper, here are some signs of trust issues just to kind of help you reflect on whether or not you resonate with any of these experiences. So generally speaking, people with trust issues, in the absence of a betrayal in that particular relationship, will often worry about whether or not their partner is being trustworthy, whether they’re being told the truth, whether there’s something going on behind the scenes that will sooner or later come out and hurt them. And so because they sort of have this kind of, you know, running fear in the back of their mind that something could happen or something is happening, I just don’t know yet. They’re oftentimes very, very vigilant for any signs that their partner might be lying or cheating or concealing things. So they’re like looking for signs that they’re not quite safe. 

Signs of Trust Issues

And also, another sign of trust issuespeople with trust issues aresince they’re always kind of like simmering in this broth of ambient anxiety or feelings of insecurity about their relationshipbecause of that sort of inner emotional state, they often have a lot of just like general insecurity. So if they don’t have a great deal of overt reassurance and signs that they are loved and cherished, they will start to feel scared that they’re not that important, that they’re not loved, and that means that sooner or later they will be rejected or hurt. So it’s not just a vigilance for like, signs of lying or cheating, it’s also thisin the absence of really like being lavished with love and attention and affection, they fear that they aren’t loved. So like neutral things can lead them to feel a lot of anxiety and to be kind of reactive, even when nothing is happening. 

So it’s as you can imagine a really hard situation for both people, you know, someone with trust issues is really feeling worried a lot of the time. And because this anxiety makes them feel so reactive in relationships, it can create a lot of stress and strain and pressure on the relationship and, you know, lead to damaging the relationship over time. So it’s super important to be aware of any trust issues that we are carrying around. And also really learn how to overcome trust issues because if you don’t, the trust issues themselves will begin to create problems in a relationship, and then you’ll really have something to worry about. So we need to understand trust issues. 

And so, you know, what I often see in my work as a, you know—in Growing Self I do marriage counseling, couples counseling, relationship coaching, also dating coaching, but additionally, like individual therapy, life coaching, and I have had trust issue conversations in the context of all of these different situations. But particularly in couples work, if one person in a relationship has trust issues, and they are, you know, doing that hyper vigilant thing where they’re like looking for signs that the other person is hiding things or lying or not being completely honest, or if they are really like needing these over-the-top-expressions of love and adoration, and without that they feel worried that they’re not loved.

What that does, and I say this with love and respect, but understandably, because people feel upset and anxious, they can become sometimes really demanding of their partners, for their partners to do certain things or say certain things or “treat them a certain way so that they feel less anxious,” or if they’re not, you know, talking about it, they can just go into this really like sad place and really feel bad and jump to a lot of negative conclusions about the relationship when they’re not getting what they feel they need to manage their anxiety. And then they start to withdraw from the relationship assuming that a breakup is right around the corner. 

Trust Issues in a Relationship

And so as you can imagine, either of these things becomes really exhausting for the partner of someone with trust issues. It leads to that partner feeling like they’re always walking on eggshells, or feeling like their partner is always upset with them, or finding them lacking, or not loving them the right way, or that their partner doesn’t respect them enough to trust them, that their partner doesn’t think well enough of them to trust them, or doubts their character. And that feels really bad, you know, to the person who is in a relationship with someone who has trust issues. And again, this kind of dynamic can really damage a relationship and, you know, paradoxically create the situation that the person with the trust issues is most worried about, which is that over time, their partner will begin to view them as being unreasonably needy or demanding, and will in fact withdraw from the relationship or start to feel ambivalent about the relationship, which of course, as you can imagine, sends someone who has trust issues anyway through the roof with anxiety because they can see that their partner is maybe concealing things or withdrawing or feeling a little bit more ambivalent.

I’m not saying this to be scary, I’m saying this to be real and to help create an understanding of why it is so important to be taking responsibility for trust issues that we are carrying around with us. And to do something about it, we can’t just like, you know, hope it gets better. This is not one of these things that just kind of gets better over time. We really need to be like working on it intentionally in order to make a change. And the other thing that I routinely see as a marriage counselor or relationship coach is that people with trust issues, they often as we discussed, feel sort of suspicious of their partner, and have a tendency to jump to negative conclusions about their partner’s motivations or things their partner is doing or how their partner feels.

And because it’s sort of fear-fueled, they feel that those things are true because they feel afraid. And what that fear does is it leads to this kind of heightened emotionality where people with trust issues will also often become quite like accusatory, attacking, you know, like kind of ambushing their partner with like, “what about this thing?” And really, you know, like demanding answers, demanding information, demanding explanations, and because their fears are not really reality based, it turns into this thing where nothing their partner says or does will quell this anxiety, or at least not for long, like even if they say, “Yes, I was with Tim. Here is a text fromhere’s a screenshot of my text with Tim.” Or you know, whatever it is that the person is wanting more information about like, it might soothe anxiety in that moment, but because that anxiety is kind of bubbling around inside of them all the time, it’s kind of like that whack-a-mole thing. Like, it’ll come up in a different situation where they will again be potentially accusatory or attacking or suspicious. 

And, you know, if you’re in a relationship with someone who is routinely accusing you of various nefarious things, various nefarious, I can’t believe I just said those two words next to each other, but I did. You were here. Anyway, but nefarious things. You know, if you’re in a relationship with someone who is accusing you ofkind of all the time of bad things being partnered with someone who has unresolved trust issues. So, you know, over time, what happens in couples is that there’s this emerging sense of, you know, it will lead to a relational dynamic where you actually do start hiding or concealing things from your partner because you feel like it will upset them. So whatever it is, so it’s better that they don’t know.

And also, if you are in a relationship with someone who has major trust issues, and is always thinking bad things about you, you aren’t going to feel loved or respected, or trusted, or that they hold you in high esteem. And the relationship will stop feeling emotionally safe for you as a result. And so again, you do see that withdrawal, and ambivalence start to happen because of being partnered with someone who has unresolved trust issues. So, you know, over time, what happens in couples is that there’s this emerging sense of, you know, one partnerthe partner with a trust issuesreally believes that if only their spouse or their partner would do things differently, or say things differently, or finally provide them with all the information that they need to feel safe, their anxiety would go away, which is not true.

But there’s, you know, frantic efforts to try to get those things from, you know, an increasingly tired partner. And the person who is partnered with someone with trust issues will begin over time to feel that their partner with the anxiety is just this, like, black hole of insecurity and anxiety, and no matter what they say or do, it’s never going to be enough to touch that inner anxiety. So they stop trying, you know, and then of course, the relationship dynamic intensifies, with the already anxious person even becoming more anxious, and the already kind of detached person who’s kind of backing up a little bit will start doing that more explicitly. 

So that is a real risk to any relationship you are in. If you are a person who has your little suitcases packed full of trust issues that you’re bringing around from one relationship to the next, and if any of what I just shared resonates with you and sounds familiar, it sounds like these trust issues really are impacting your relationship or your relationships, if there’s a string of them that have that have, you know, experienced this kind of dynamic. And so it’s time to work on them. And I just want to say too that knowledge is power. And I could sort of understand why me being so just like, transparent and honest about like, you know, “Okay, here’s the deal,” could feel worrisome and, you know, might make you think, “Oh, geez,” but I would like to just reconceptualize the feeling as motivation for change. You know, anytime people grow and change and do things differently, it is because they are motivated by not wanting to have, you know, the experience that they have been having. Not wanting to feel anxious anymore, not wanting their relationship to be damaged by trust issues. That is fabulous. And we need to be motivated in order to grow. So I’m okay if you’re not feeling great about thinking about trust issues in this way because that is the energy that is going to mobilize you and lead to healing and wellness, if you do something productive with it. So we have to be real. 

I will also say that therapy for trust issues is very effective provided that you are doing evidence-based therapy with someone who really understands kind of the underpinnings of trust issues and why they happen. I’m going to outline some of this for you so that you can be an educated consumer. But you know, also if you do decide to pursue therapy for trust issues to improve this, as you are interviewing prospective therapists to find the right person, I would encourage you to be asking questions around, you know, “why do you think people have trust issues? What is your process for helping someone overcome trust issues?” And if whatever therapists you are talking to cannot provide you with a coherent answer that makes sense to you, they might not really know how to help you in an organized kind of effective way. So just stick that one in your back pocket.

But to provide you with more information, so you know more about what kinds of questions to ask, and so you can kind of organize what’s happening inside of you, you know, for the purpose of changing it. It’s important to understand what causes trust issues in the first place. But very briefly and simply, trust issues in relationships are created by relational trauma of some kind. So when I work with clients and in therapy, or in some cases coaching, but it’s really more of a therapy thing—when I work with clients in therapy who are seeking to get over trust issues, I find it really helpful to conceptualize their experience as a kind of subclinical PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder, and to set up our conversation here is a very quick and dirty PTSD lesson so you can understand what I mean by this. 

Very briefly: whenever we humans live through something that is highly traumatic, we subjectively experience terror. So like this hugely physiological fear response, you’ve heard of the fight, flight, freeze response. That’s what I’m talking about. And it is evolutionarily adaptive, and our brains basically save us by changing our physiology in the moments when we’re going through something that’s super traumatic. You know, our heart races, our breathing shallows, our circulatory system changes, our digestive system changes, our immune system changes, and it’s all response of, you know, our body’s way of like, saving your life in that terrifying, dangerous moment. And when we are put in this physiological space, it changes the way our brains work. 

And here’s the punchline, it changes the way that our brains encode the memories of the traumatic events. When you have experienced a trauma you will not remember it as a normal memory, you know, like, birthday party, junior high dance, like, high school graduation, it is not that kind of memory. It is a traumatic memory. It lives in a totally different part of your brain than normal memories do. And it sort of like lives there and hangs out. And whenever someone who has been traumatized is exposed to anything that is similar to that past like life threatening experience, this huge traumatic stress response will be triggered, and they will essentially re-experience the terror and the horror and the paralysis of the original traumatic experience. And so, then what happens is that people who have this like intrusive flooding, terror, re-experiencing thing start working really hard to avoid that triggering and not re-experiencing because it’s horrible. 

So the classic example would be, you know, the combat vet who comes back from Iraq or something, and you know, almost died and had people around him die and will hear a car backfire down the street and like disassociate into this like state where they’re completely flooded and like, you know, having big flashbacks, and so that happens periodically to this vet, so that vet, you know, quite understandably develop a very serious substance use disorder in efforts to anesthetize themselves and protect themselves from having that experience, which you know, isserves them well in one respect, but of course, it creates serious consequences and another. A sexual assault survivor, same thing you know, in a sexually intimate situation he or she can re-experience all this kind of flooding intrusive thoughts, feelings of terror, have nightmares about it, which leads them to avoid, you know, situations of sexual intimacy or develop substance use disorders that are kind of compensatory. So that’s my little PTSD mini lesson. 

And I also just want to say very, very explicitly, I, while I am a licensed psychologist, I am a licensed marriage and family therapist, I do not specialize or treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and no one in our practice here at Growing Self specializes in this particular disorder. So if you have lived through a, you know, life endangering experience, or you know, saw someone else being victimized violently, and if you listen to my little description, and you know, think, “Yeah, I might actually have that post traumatic stress disorder.” You require specialized trauma-focused therapy with someone who has significant training and experience and specialization in those disorders. That is not what I do.

There are people out there who do that type of work, it’s wonderful work. So I just wanted to mention that because if you’ve lived through that, and you’re experiencing symptoms of like, ‘capital T’ trauma, post traumatic stress disorder, you can absolutely heal, and you deserve to have effective treatment. So look for evidence-based forms of trauma informed cognitive behavioral therapy. There is experiential reprocessing kinds of therapies that work. There’s some evidence to support a type of work called EMDR. And so I would look for those. So that was my little public service announcement to just, you know, educate you around things and what you might look for if you want to seek treatment for that, or if you know, somebody who does require treatment for that sort of thing. But again, that is not what I do. And that is not what this podcast is about. 

However, I wanted to talk about the “big T” trauma, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder response because it’s relevant. There is also “little T” trauma. There are difficult, unpleasant life experiences that we live through that also leave a stain on us emotionally and psychologically unless and until we deliberately resolve them. And I believe that relational trauma falls into this category and can have a similar impact on people as full blown PTSD, but not nearly to the degree of PTSD. But in some ways it is sort of similar. So going through a terrible breakup, or being in a relationship with someone who betrayed you, or cheated on you, or abandoned you can create this relational trauma. I think that “little T” relational trauma is super common and this is something that I often work with, and that we often see here with our clients at Growing Self. People who have sustained “little t” relational trauma, and that trauma shows up aswait for ittrust issues in relationships. They have lived through something hard and scary. And they went through this experience, and now, when they are in slightly similar relational situations, they are experiencing this similar type of triggering, and flooding, and anxiety that needs to be soothed and resolved. And so it can lead to, you know, hypervigilance, safety seeking, which in the context of relationships is always, you know, demanding information or evidence. But you know, it’s related. 

Now, another really important thing for us to be considering is to also, and again, this is so far beyond the scope of a podcast, but in my efforts to be like fully just real and transparent and honest with you, I also want to fully inform you, and so to talk about this other aspect of trust issues I think is important. When I am meeting with someone who shows up or a couple where I can see that trust issues are impacting relationship negatively, a big part of my process is to do a really careful assessment to understand like why this makes sense. And also just sort of get a sense of where this is coming from. 

Now, you may have also heard me talk on past podcasts about something called attachment styles. So brieflyattachment styles are very general ways of relating to others that we developed often through our early life experiences, either in our family of origin or in, you know, childhood or preteen kind of social or romantic experiences can also impact attachment styles. And most people are generally secure, meaning that they tend to think well of themselves and others, and generally trust people unless they have a reason not to. And, I will also just say that even someone with a very secure attachment, who comes from a perfectly lovely family with good enough parents, and nothing bad ever happened to them, they can also become anxious in relationships or even avoidant in relationships, depending on what’s going on in the relationship itself. So there’s no, you know, even securely attached people can exhibit some of the other stuff that I’m going to talk about. 

But for people who had, you know, significant relational trauma early in life, like, you know, really inconsistent parenting, or parents they couldn’t totally trust, parents who weren’t emotionally safe, maybe not physically abusive, verbally, or emotionally abusive, or parents who are rejecting, or maybe addicted to substances that, you know, impaired them—having these kinds of early life experiences can lead someone to have an anxious attachment style, where they anticipate rejection, they anticipate not being able to trust people, and it’s not like a conscious thing, it’s sort of just like a baked in feeling that they can’t trust people. And people with an anxious attachment style often need a lot of reassurance and feel insecure and doubtful of their romantic partners. So it can look like somebody having trust issues can actually be an anxious attachment style, which needs to be handled differently in therapy.

So that’s why it’s important to think aboutor, you know, another attachment style that is also relatively common is if people have had experiences with, you know, caregivers early on that weren’t safe, that they felt like they needed to protect themselves from or were failed by over and over again, they may develop an avoidant attachment style where they become kind of super critical and rejecting of other people, and they don’t really trust anyone enough to get close to them. Sort of this, “I don’t need you, I don’t need anybody,” kind of emotional space, which can also really impact relationships. 

Again, totally beyond the scope of this one particular podcast, but an important variable to consider. I would, if you’d like more on this subject, would refer you back to the blog at growingself.com. You can go to that search bar on the blog page, type in the word ‘attachment’ and you will see past podcasts I’ve done specifically on the subject of attachment styles, as well as a number of articles that I have had colleagues write on the site of growingself.com. There are also marriage and family therapists just to provide insight into attachment styles and how they can impact you and what to do to manage them. If you are not securebut again, healthy, securely attached people will become or appear avoidant or anxious in certain relational situations, certainly in conflictual relationships. And in relational dynamics, like the ones I was talking about at the beginning of this episode, you know, a perfectly secure person who is in a relationship with a very anxious person who has a lot of trust issues, or even an anxious attachment style, will over time become increasingly avoidant in efforts to protect themselves. Also, you can take a perfectly secure person and put them in a relationship with someone who is really critical and avoidant and rejecting and they will very predictably become anxious in response. So these things are fluid and dependent on what’s happening in the relationship too. So it’s never that simple. Never that simple in my field, is it?

Anyway, so it is important to think about where these trust issues are coming from. And also, I always like to kind of come at this with the primary orientation of, and how does this make sense. You know, again, even if you weren’t, you know, in a family where you developed compensatory attachment styles to survive, but have simply lived through difficult life experiences, have had relational trauma with past romantic partners, somebody who hurt you, or betrayed you. I mean, if you were in a relationship with someone who cheated on you, or turned out to be a sociopath, it is totally normal that you would feel anxious and afraid the next time you’re in a relationship with a new person, even if he or she has done absolutely nothing wrong because you’ve lived through something that was really, really scary and very real.

And so that fear, and that ‘little T’ trauma response is absolutely valid. It is normal, it is expected, and it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person, or that you’ve done anything wrong because you’re having that experience. It’s just like your body’s emotional guidance system saying this happened, and that you need a process of healing and recovery in order to feel safe in your relationships again. But I think it’s important to keep these things in mind because, again, unless you have a lot of self-awareness and can like, say, “Oh, I am getting triggered right now. This is a trauma trigger.” It can be easy to, like, point to things that are happening or not happening in your relationship as being the source of your anxiety as opposed to having that self-aware understanding of, “Oh, this is my trauma trigger that’s happening right now.” And without that self-awareness, it’s really easy to go into that space of vigilance and suspiciousness and being attacking, or really needing like a ton of reassurance in order to feel safe, and over time, that will hurt your relationship. 

So, again, I hope that that just provides a foundation of understanding. And again, if you are in a relationship where patently bad things have happened, and your trust has been brokenif you’re in a relationship or your partner had an affair, or there’s financial infidelity, substance use, it requires a different healing process. But, if you have, or are, you know, over the course of our conversation recognizing that you are having trust issues that are related to traumas of relational traumas in past relationshipsthat is something that you will need to take responsibility for and do something about in order to overcome them. And the reason again why this is important and is hard is because when we are experiencing a really intense, emotional experience to saylet’s see how many times I can use the word experience in one sentence. When we’re having a really intense emotional experience, particularly if it’s a fearful or anxious emotion, we will feel scared, and we will look around, we will scan our environment for things that support that fear, and you will always find them. If you are feeling anxious and scared, you will always find them. 

I mean, think about it. You know, I have worked with people who had trust issues and had relational anxiety and it could be literally something like, “He didn’t put the cereal box away. I wonder why he didn’t put the cereal box away. He must have been distracted. Why was he distracted? Was he texting with someone? Is that why he didn’t put the cereal away? Was he messaging someone on Facebook? Maybe it was just thinking about her? Who was he messaging? Who would he message? That pretty girl he went to high school with? The oneI saw her she liked the photo that he posted about our vacation. Oh my god, what if she’s been sending him her vacation photos? And I bet there’s pictures of her in a bikini and she’s probably liking them.” And then this, you know, the person with anxiety, is showing us full lot of anxiety and can easily spend like the next three hours ruminating and feeling so anxious and like coming up with all these different scenarios in their head. And then their boyfriend or husband or whatever walks in the door four hours later, and it’s like, “Were you going to tell me about Kimberly?” You know, and this person’s like, “What is going what did I just walk into?”

But there are just these very well developed ideas that have bloomed inside of her head about all these things that could be happening that were you know, triggered by a cereal box not getting put away. And then it turns into, you know, this back and forth like, “Who’s Kimberly? I don’t know a Kimberly.” And then the person with anxiety is like, “Don’t lie. Kimberly is the woman that you went to Facebook or went to high school with that you’re Facebook friends with. You’ve been messaging with her,” and like, “No, I haven’t.” And then you could say, “I saw her like your vacation photo, you’re totally lying to me right now.” 

I mean, you know, some people are like nodding their heads in recognition of arguments that may have happened at their house. And I know it seems kind of funny when you talk about it sort of out of context like this, but this is the sort of thing that trust issues and relationships can easily turn into if you’re not really conscious of the impact of fear on you, and how it makes you think, and how it makes you feel, and what it makes you do. And that is honestly the first step. Because, you know, what we’re talking about this people are always like, “Okay, well, how do I get over trust issues? What do I do to overcome my trust issues?” And what’s important to know is that while the first key step in healing trust issues is understanding what’s going on inside of them, and having that self-awareness, and also having compassion for themselves because, you know, the people with trust issues have experienced relational trauma, it’s helpful to understand that their their feelings are very real, they’re happening for a reason. But those feelings are not in alignment with their current life experience. They are out of proportion to what is happening in objective reality. And that right there is really, really hard. 

How to Fix Trust Issues

I will spend weeks with a client, months with a client, on that one thing, you know, “Is this out of proportion to my experience? Or is something actually scary happening right now that I should be worried about?” People with trust issues have a very difficult time differentiating whether or not they’re safe in relationships because even if there’s no evidence that they’re not safe, it is so easy for their traumatized minds to say, “Well, but, what about this?” or, “Maybe I just don’t know yet.” And also the fact that they feel unsafe, even if there’s nothing bad happening, and this is really difficult to unwind if someone has been in a relationship where there was relational trauma in the past, and that there were periods in that relationship that felt very safe for them. So like, you know, somebody say, “I never suspected anything with my ex-boyfriend, either. He was so wonderful and so loving and communicative and affectionate. And then one day he drained my bank account and vanished. But before that he was perfect, too.” So then when they’re in a relationship with someone who is perfectly nice, that in itself can feel like a trauma trigger because their abusive, horrible ex was also very nice sometimes, too. 

And so this is why it’s really, really important to get into good therapy for trust issues, evidence-based therapy for trust issues, like CBT can help you figure out what part of your fears and worries are coming from inside of you that are related to relational trauma. What is that “little T” relational trauma response doing, and differentiating that from what is a valid concern about something happening in your relationship that you should be talking about with your partner. People who have been traumatized in relationships have a lot of trouble figuring that out, and that is a core skill that must be achieved is figuring out how to like manage anxiety and stay in a good place, and figure out what is actually a problem vs. what is my trauma response? And also, how do I manage my feelings of anxiety independently of whether or not my partner is doing something or saying something the way that I imagined would make me feel better? Because that’s a really important piece of this puzzle too. So that clarity is super vital. And so individual therapy for trust issues is definitely important. 

And I will also say that it can also be super helpful to do couples counseling or relationship coaching if you have trust issues, and it is not a couples therapy to try to make your partner say or do all the things so that you don’t feel anxious anymore because no one else can change the way you feel on the inside except for you. And so if you are, if you’re like, “But what if he did this, I might feel better.” You possibly temporarily you would feel better, but really, that’s like you have to take responsibility for the anxiety first. And so if you are currently attempting to manage your anxiety by controlling your partner’s behaviors, I would encourage you to listen to a podcast that I recently did about codependence and relationships. And you can find out more on that topic again, on the blog at growingself.com. Type ‘codependence’ into the search bar and you’ll see articles to help understand why, what I’m talking about there. 

But, sowhile you should manage your expectations that couples therapy isn’t going to get your partner to change so that you don’t feel anxious anymore, what it can do is help both you and your partner understand together what happens for you on the inside when you feel scared, and why that makes sense based on your life experiences. And by talking about this openly with your partner in a safe space, your partner can begin to have more empathy for what you’re going through because it really is hard, and it is very, very real. But they can have more empathy for you in these moments. And they can also stop taking your anxiety personally and like as a statement that you’re upset with them, you know, and that can help them stay emotionally closer to you instead of withdrawing. And also good couples therapy can help you two figure out ways of turning towards each other in these moments. And so I would recommend what—and being able to turn towards each other and connect and really like feel loved and supported and connected in these moments when you’re feeling scared can be enormously soothing. You know, there’s a real benefit to secure attachment with someone who loves you. And to beto feel scared and be able to say to someone, “I feel really scared right now,” and have them be appropriately responsive to you, give you a hug, tell you they love you can be enormously soothing, you know, so that could be really, really helpful.

And so to find a good marriage counselor to help you with that, I would recommend looking for a marriage counselor or a couple therapist, again, who understands relational trauma, and who practices either The Gottman Method of marriage counseling or emotionally-focused couples therapy, those are both evidence-based forms of couples counseling that can be really effective for this kind of thing. So that can help your relationship. And also a side benefit is by talking about these things openly in couples therapy, your partner will also I think feel encouraged to be understanding what’s happening and also see you be taking responsibility for the anxious responses that you’re having in certain situations, and see the work that you’re doing to change that, you know, particularly if you’re working with a therapist who’s encouraging you to take responsibility for those moments, to manage your anxiety, and to provide you with accountability for doing that. And also working with you to develop solid cognitive and behavioral strategies for managing that anxiety. That can be really helpful and healing for your relationship too. 

So, you know, what those specific cognitive behavioral therapy strategies are is obviously, again, beyond the scope of any podcast. It is not a here’s, you know, three quick tips to totally overcome all of the historical trust issues that you have for a reason, like there’s nothing I’m going to say in this podcast, you’re like, “Oh, I feel better now.” But to go through a process of evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy with someone who understands relational trauma will help you understand what’s happening inside of yourself, and help you develop both cognitive and behavioral strategies for soothing yourself and manage your anxiety in those moments. So that not just you know, you feel better, but also that you are more in control of what you’re doing in your relationship so that you’re not, you know, inadvertently behaving in ways that are damaging to your relationship as a result of your anxiety. So, you know, again, I would recommend looking for a therapist who does evidence-based therapy, who understands relational trauma. 

Other resources for youthere are online CBT courses which if you don’t feel quite up for, you know, therapy with a person, which honestly, in this situation, I would really encourage because when you’ve been traumatized in a relationship, and when you’re carrying around these kinds of trust issues, it can be really difficult to kind of gain that self-awareness that you need. And also like the feedback, you know, the perspective to figure out when you’re safe and when you’re not safe, and sort of make sense of the past experiences vs. make sense of the present experiences, so certainly online CBT courses, like, you know, the happiness class that we have here at growingself.com can provide a foundation of some of those specific CBT skills. They’re not going to be specific to resolving trust issues, and that type of work—again, just to set your expectations—it’s a process I mean, you know, progress is usually measured in months, sometimes longer when you’re doing therapy for trust issue because there’s a lot of kind of unwinding, and figuring out what happened, and reprocessing of trauma, learning how to manage anxiety, learning what your triggers are, learning how to appropriately kind of turn towards your partner in those moments, and also to have like a sounding board for, you know, to have somebody who knows you and cares about you. So you can come into our sessions and say, “My husband didn’t put this cereal away. Do you think he’s having an affair with Kimberly?” And your therapist will be like, “Let’s break that down a little bit,” as opposed to, you know, these automatic assumptions and associations that can very easily happen when you have trust issues. 

So, you know, to have somebody just to bounce things off or, you know, to be able to say, “Yeah, you know, he’s been coming home really late a lot and he isn’t returning my calls. And I went past his work and he said he was going to be at work and he wasn’t there. And then he told me that he, you know, had a flat tire on the way home.” And you know, for therapists to be like, “Yeah, that actually sounds like something that we should probably figure out. I’m glad we’re talking about this.” You know, so just figuring out like whenthat we need to listen to anxiety vs. when it is an artifact of old relational trauma. 

Anyway, there’s a lot of information here in this podcast. As always, I hope I didn’t overwhelm you. But I also hope that me kind of just being super honest with you, and going into depth about all the different things to think about when it comes to resolving trust issues helps you, you know, understand the cause of trust issues, what you can do to overcome trust issues, and also provides you with that motivation and kind of direction for your next steps. You know, if this is the thing for you, and you want to change it, with the goal being to create a situation where you feel more secure and confident in your relationships because you deserve that. And also, so that you can create really healthy and enduring relationships with people who, you know, deserve to be loved and respected by you, too. So I hope this helps and I will be back in touch with you soon for another episode of the Love, Happiness, and Success Podcast. Bye-bye.

 

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How to Have Difficult Conversations

How to Have Difficult Conversations

How to Have Difficult Conversations

How to Have Difficult Conversations

The hardest conversations to have are the most critical conversations for a relationship…

“People almost never change without first feeling understood.”

― Douglas Stone

HOW TO HAVE DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS: “I don’t want to talk about it right now.” “It’s not going to change anything.” “It will just start a fight.” “I’m just going to keep my mouth shut and my head down.” “I don’t want to hurt their feelings.”  We have all, myself included, used these kinds of mental excuses to avoid having difficult conversations. We all have “trigger topic” conversations we’d rather avoid — from opening up to your partner about sex, to having different opinions on politics, having an issue with someone’s parenting styles, or gently pointing out subconscious bias in gender roles or racist stereotypes. These tough conversations are hard to have.

While there is something to be said for knowing when to mind your own business and respect the healthy boundaries of others, it’s also true that if you’re avoiding having conversations about things that are really, really important to you it will eventually damage your relationship — whether or not you address it directly.

Having unresolved, unspoken differences that feel vast, and “un-discussable” will lead to disconnection. But the sad irony is that it’s often people’s hope to protect their relationship that leads them to avoid difficult but necessary conversations in the first place. 

Crucial Conversations Training

Crucial conversations are essential. But once you embrace that new idea, “Yes, we do actually really need to talk about this,” then what? Unless you’ve already gone through communication skills training, relationship coaching, or emotional intelligence coaching, you might not know how to have a difficult conversation productively. That lack of skills and know-how is one of the biggest reasons why most people tend to tiptoe around difficult conversations, OR — on the flip side — engage too aggressively around triggering topics, both of which can damage a relationship.  

Now, more than ever, I believe that we all need to learn and intentionally practice compassionate communication skills that can help us understand each other and build bridges to the center of shared meaning. In this episode of the podcast, I’m shining a light on what it really takes to courageously engage in difficult (and necessary, and respectful, and healing) conversations with the people you care the most about.

Having Difficult Conversations

I hope that this episode leaves you with some actionable ideas for how to increase your confidence in high-stakes conversations, and provides you with strategies for increasing your emotional intelligence and communication skills in the process. You can use these strategies with your partner, kids, friends, family, coworkers, neighbors, and more. I hope you do! 

In this episode:

  • Discover how refusing to have difficult conversations damages relationships.
  • Learn essential skills in having constructive and productive conversations. 
  • Gain a deeper awareness of your own feelings and motivations.    
  • Identify relationships where it’s worth having these conversations and those that require clearer boundaries. 
  • Embrace the discomfort of having difficult conversations.
  • Avoid common pitfalls and knee-jerk reactions in difficult conversations. 
  • Learn to listen with compassion, respect, and empathy. 
  • Find out how to reciprocate openness and willingness to exchange ideas. 

Listen right now to “How to Have Difficult Conversations” on Spotify, or on the Podcast App, or by scrolling down to podcast player on the bottom of the page. If you’re more of a reader, you can skim through the show notes and / or find a full transcript at the bottom. 

Thanks for taking the time to listen to this episode and triple-thanks if you’re one of the courageously kind, heart-centered people in the world committed to having respectful, difficult conversations that heal. The world needs you!

“How to Have Difficult Conversations” Episode Highlights:

How People Usually Respond to Tough Conversations:

When faced with a difficult conversation, most people respond in two ways.

  1. The first type demands understanding from the other party, stating their beliefs but refusing to hear the other person. As a result, it becomes a one-way discussion that usually ends up in a fight.  
  2. On the other hand, some people avoid having the conversation at all. This may come from their fear of conflict or not being able to handle the situation once it blows up.

Either way, we risk damaging the relationship when we fail to approach difficult conversations healthily. 

Courage and Emotional Intelligence

These two skills are useful in having difficult conversations and achieving the best outcome. 

  1. Courage — If the other person is avoiding the topic, you have to take the initiative and broach the subject. We have to be brave and be the ones who bring difficult things out into the light with the people we love so that we can have relationships that are based on authenticity, respect, vulnerability, compassion and connection.
  2. Emotional Intelligence — If you can understand your feelings and underlying motivations, you can have more productive conversations instead of full-blown confrontations. Having high emotional intelligence means you can step back from an emotionally charged situation and assess the steps you need to take. 

Ask yourself these questions to build and strengthen your emotional intelligence:

  • How am I feeling?
  • What are the thoughts behind these feelings? 
  • What do I need to do right now to shift my thoughts back into a constructive and compassionate mindset? 
  • What do I need to do to bring myself back down emotionally so that I am in a place where I can speak respectfully?
  • What are my intentions for this conversation? 
  • How would I like this conversation to end? 
  • Who do I need to be right now to make that happen?

That said, you don’t have to have difficult conversations with everyone. Identify key people in your life and let the rest go. When a relationship becomes toxic or abusive, set clear boundaries. Having difficult conversations is an investment in the people you want to have a future with. Thus, you need to focus on people worth doing this hard emotional work. 

Creating Connections Through Difficult Conversations

Once you’ve identified the people who are worth the emotional investment, the next step is to embrace the discomfort that comes with these conversations. Disrupting the status quo is the only way for you to grow as a person and for the relationship to evolve.

We grow through difficult moments. When the alternative of staying the same is ultimately less comfortable than the discomfort of growth, the only choice is to change. We can do hard things when we’re motivated to do so.

The goal of having difficult conversations is not to have the same conclusion. Rather, it’s about appreciating the other’s point of view, going beyond your motivations, and trying to understand why they think the way they do. We need a sense of mutual understanding to look at a situation through the lens, beliefs, experiences, values, and expectations of another. 

Keeping Your Emotions in Check

Before you start a difficult conversation, you need to understand how your brain processes emotions.

When we are overwhelmed, a part of our brain tends to shut down to protect itself. This part, where empathy is housed, becomes inaccessible during emotionally charged situations and confrontations. 

Thus, you need to develop social and emotional awareness to bring yourself back into a better headspace and continue difficult conversations. At the same time, you have to be aware if the person you’re talking to is emotionally flooded as well. When you notice that either or both of you are at your limits, take a break to calm down. 

The Difficult Conversation “Pre-Game Checklist” 

Before engaging in a difficult conversation, mentally prepare yourself through clarifying your thoughts and intentions. You can try talking out loud or journaling so that you enter into the conversation without too much negative energy. 

Here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • How do I feel about the situation? Why do I think that way?
  • Why is this important to me? 
  • How is the situation impacting me? 
  • What would I like to communicate? 
  • What is my desired outcome? What would I do if that doesn’t happen? 
  • Do I want something to change or just to feel understood?

The Importance of Empathy in Difficult Conversations

After you’ve gone through your “difficult conversation pre-game checklist,” the next step is to move past your internal narrative and run a mile in the other person’s shoes.

Here are some key points to help you in empathizing with others:

  • What are the core values of this person?
  • Where are they coming from?
  • What do they need to hear from me so that they feel respected and understood, even if we have some differences? 
  • What do I need to say for them to understand that they are valuable to me?

It’s not about achieving your desired outcome but looking at the situation from their perspective and understanding why it makes sense. When you really listen to another person with compassion, respect, and empathy, they do make sense.

What to Avoid in Difficult Conversations

These are some habits you should avoid when you’re in a difficult conversation. 

  • Refrain from the fundamental attribution error. It’s when you ascribe a person’s bad choices to character defects instead of considering the unique set of circumstances that led them to that choice. 
  • Avoid going into conversations seeking only to persuade someone or change their perspective. 
  • Keep away from judgmental and self-righteous lines like, “If you only knew what I knew . . .”
  • Be aware of micro-habits like eye-rolling or scoffing.   
  • Don’t go into a space of judgment and blame. Avoid interrupting and take the time to ask open-ended questions, listen, and understand. 

If you refrain from these lines of thinking and habits, the other person will feel heard and respected. Since they feel emotionally safe in your presence, you can have more productive conversations, and they will be just as likely to extend the same grace to listen to your side.   

Remember: If you are in a healthy relationship with someone who loves you and cares about you as much as you love and care about them, it turns into an openness and willingness to exchange ideas. And if you have done a really good job of listening and understanding, that will be reciprocated

More Resources

I sincerely hope that this discussion about how to have difficult conversations has provided you with not just an understanding of why tough conversations are so critical to have, but also some concrete pointers about how to have those hard conversations go well.

To continue learning and growing in this area, here are a few more resources for you:

  • We have so many articles and podcasts featuring expert advice both from myself and my amazing colleagues on the subjects of communication skills, empathy, emotional intelligence and more. Use the search bar below to enter the term you’d like to learn more about to view and access them. Here are a few of my favorites: 

I hoped this episode provided a roadmap for having difficult conversations that strengthen connection and understanding in your most important relationships. 

Wishing you and yours all the very best in these perilous times…

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

P.S. Speaking of difficult conversations, I’d love to hear from YOU. Which part of the episode was the most helpful? (Least helpful?) If you try any of these ideas I’d love to hear how they went. Feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment down below.

Listen & Subscribe to the Podcast

How to Have Difficult Conversations

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

How to Handle Difficult Conversations

We all have conversations we’d rather avoid — from opening up to your partner about sex to having different opinions on politics or parenting styles. The reality is, most people tend to tiptoe around difficult conversations or engage too aggressively, both of which can damage a relationship.  

In this episode, I identify what it takes to engage in difficult conversations and explain how to look inward and recognize the other person. I also emphasize that the goal of difficult conversations is not to come to the same conclusion but to reach a place of mutual understanding and respect despite your opposing views. 

Tune in to the full interview to learn how you can engage in difficult conversations effectively and compassionately.

In This Episode, You Will . . .

  • Discover how refusing to have difficult conversations damages relationships.
  • Learn essential skills in having constructive and productive conversations. 
  • Gain a deeper awareness of your own feelings and motivations.    
  • Identify relationships where it’s worth having these conversations and those that require clearer boundaries. 
  • Embrace the discomfort of having difficult conversations.
  • Avoid common pitfalls and knee-jerk reactions in difficult conversations. 
  • Learn to listen with compassion, respect, and empathy. 
  • Find out how to reciprocate openness and willingness to exchange ideas. 

Episode Highlights

How People Usually Respond

When faced with a difficult conversation, most people respond in two ways.

  1. The first type demands understanding from the other party, stating their beliefs but refusing to hear the other person. As a result, it becomes a one-way discussion that usually ends up in a fight.  
  2. On the other hand, some people avoid having the conversation at all. This may come from their fear of conflict or not being able to handle the situation once it blows up.

Either way, we risk damaging the relationship when we fail to approach difficult conversations healthily. 

Courage and Emotional Intelligence

These two skills are useful in having difficult conversations and achieving the best outcome. 

  1. Courage — If the other person is avoiding the topic, you have to take the initiative and broach the subject. We have to be brave and be the ones who bring difficult things out into the light with the people we love so that we can have relationships that are based on authenticity, respect, vulnerability, and compassion and connection.
  2. Emotional Intelligence — If you can understand your feelings and underlying motivations, you can have more productive conversations instead of full-blown confrontations. Having high emotional intelligence means you can step back from an emotionally charged situation and assess the steps you need to take. 

Ask yourself these questions to build and strengthen your emotional intelligence:

  • How am I feeling?
  • What are the thoughts behind these feelings? 
  • What do I need to do right now to shift my thoughts back into a constructive and compassionate mindset? 
  • What do I need to do to bring myself back down emotionally so that I am in a place where I can speak respectfully?
  • What are my intentions for this conversation? 
  • How would I like this conversation to end? 
  • Who do I need to be right now to make that happen?

That said, you don’t have to have difficult conversations with everyone. Identify key people in your life and let the rest go. When a relationship becomes toxic or abusive, set clear boundaries. Having difficult conversations is an investment in the people you want to have a future with. Thus, you need to focus on people worth doing this hard emotional work. 

Creating Connections Through Difficult Conversations

Once you’ve identified the people who are worth the emotional investment, the next step is to embrace the discomfort that comes with these conversations. Disrupting the status quo is the only way for you to grow as a person and for the relationship to evolve.

We grow through difficult moments. When the alternative of staying the same is ultimately less comfortable than the discomfort of growth, the only choice is to change. We can do hard things when we’re motivated to do so.

The goal of having difficult conversations is not to have the same conclusion. Rather, it’s about appreciating the other’s point of view, going beyond your motivations, and trying to understand why they think the way they do. We need a sense of mutual understanding to look at a situation through the lens, beliefs, experiences, values, and expectations of another. 

Keeping Your Emotions in Check

Before you start a difficult conversation, you need to understand how your brain processes emotions.

When we are overwhelmed, a part of our brain tends to shut down to protect itself. This part, where empathy is housed, becomes inaccessible during emotionally charged situations and confrontations. 

Thus, you need to develop social and emotional awareness to bring yourself back into a better headspace and continue difficult conversations. At the same time, you have to be aware if the person you’re talking to is emotionally flooded as well. When you notice that either or both of you are at your limits, take a break to calm down. 

The Pregame Checklist 

Before engaging in a difficult conversation, mentally prepare yourself through clarifying your thoughts and intentions. You can try talking out loud or journaling so that you enter into the conversation without too much negative energy. 

Here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • How do I feel about the situation? Why do I think that way?
  • Why is this important to me? 
  • How is the situation impacting me? 
  • What would I like to communicate? 
  • What is my desired outcome? What would I do if that doesn’t happen? 
  • Do I want something to change or just to feel understood?

The Importance of Empathy 

After you’ve gone through your pregame checklist, the next step is to move past your internal narrative and run a mile in the other person’s shoes.

Here are some key points to help you in empathizing with others:

  • What are the core values of this person?
  • Where are they coming from?
  • What do they need to hear from me so that they feel respected and understood, even if we have some differences? 
  • What do I need to say for them to understand that they are valuable to me?

It’s not about achieving your desired outcome but looking at the situation from their perspective and understanding why it makes sense. When you really listen to another person with compassion, respect, and empathy, they do make sense.

What to Avoid in Difficult Conversations

These are some habits you should avoid when you’re in a difficult conversation. 

  • Refrain from the fundamental attribution error. It’s when you ascribe a person’s bad choices to character defects instead of considering the unique set of circumstances that led them to that choice. 
  • Avoid going into conversations seeking only to persuade someone or change their perspective. 
  • Keep away from judgmental and self-righteous lines like, “If you only knew what I knew . . .”
  • Be aware of micro-habits like eye-rolling or scoffing.   
  • Don’t go into a space of judgment and blame. Avoid interrupting and take the time to ask open-ended questions, listen, and understand. 

If you refrain from these lines of thinking and habits, the other person will feel heard and respected. Since they feel emotionally safe in your presence, you can have more productive conversations, and they will be just as likely to extend the same grace to listen to your side.   

If you are in a healthy relationship with someone who loves you and cares about you as much as you love and care about them, it turns into an openness and willingness to exchange ideas. And if you have done a really good job of listening and understanding, that will be reciprocated

Resources

I hoped this episode provided a roadmap for having difficult conversations that strengthen connection and understanding in your most important relationships. Which part of the episode was the most helpful? Feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment down below.

Did you like this interview? Subscribe to our podcast to discover how to live a life full of love, success, and happiness!

 

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

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How to Have Difficult Conversations: Podcast Transcript

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Access Episode Transcript

 

How to Have Difficult Conversations

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

[playing Plastic and Glass by Keshco]

Dr. Lisa: The band is Keshco with a song that Plastic and Glass—I thought a nice mood setter for our topic today. Today, we are talking about how to tackle difficult conversations in such a way that they go as well as possible.

It is important for us to talk about this topic because there are a lot of difficult conversations to be had lately. Particularly as we are heading into the holiday season in the midst of a contentious political season and with so many stressors and strains and angst and very real issues that people are facing. There is tough stuff to talk about with friends, with family, with partners, with siblings, with ourselves. And how you handle a tough conversation has a lot to do with the results you get.

So today we are going to be talking about why conversations feel so hard sometimes and strategies that you can use to face those moments not just courageously, but also with confidence and a sense of competence. And understanding some basic do’s and don’ts that will allow you to talk about important things we don’t want to hide, but do so in a way that helps you create the ideal outcome, which I think for many of us is to strengthen your relationships, increase connection and understanding and have it be a positive thing for all involved, as opposed to an unproductive conflict, because I think we’ve had enough of that in our lives. Right? So that’s what we’re doing today.

And if today is your first time listening to the show, I’m so glad that you are here. I am Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I am the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. My background is as a licensed marriage and family therapist. Also, I’m a licensed psychologist, and I am a board-certified life coach. And I am here with you every week to talk about different facets of the life experience and offer you ideas and strategies and support that help you create the love, happiness, and success that you deserve in all the parts of your life.

And so today’s topic, we are going to be talking about a number, a number of things. We’re going to be, certainly, a lot of relational issues when it comes to difficult conversations, but also I think a lot of intrapersonal issues. You know. I mean, we have to get ourselves in the right kind of headspace, an emotional space, in order to handle these moments effectively. And also, I’m going to put on my life coach hat and offer up some specific strategies as well. So hopefully you leave our time together today with a plan.

Difficult Conversations: Why They’re So Important

So, jumping right in. Why do some conversations feel so hard? Think about the conversations in your life that you would maybe rather not have. Right? Think about what those are. Having conversations with your partner about some aspect of your sex life that you would like to have be different. Considering a necessary conversation with an employer or an employee around, “I don’t like what is happening here and we need to figure out a way to handle this differently together in order for this relationship to continue.” Right?

Many times, there’s, you know, married couples or partner couples, particularly with children. There are so many crucial conversations to have around parenting—“You can’t talk to me or the children that way, this is not going to work.” Or, I mean, my goodness, people who have very well-developed and sometimes even aggressive opinions about politics, social justice, issues around racism, and how to handle those moments in a constructive way.

It is very easy, when we’re faced with these kinds of moments, to fall into a way of communicating that can be very almost ultimatum-y. “This is what I want. This is what has to happen. And you’re going to hear what I have to say right now, whether you like it or not.” And that often doesn’t end well. That is a quick path to a fight, in all honesty. And there’s a way to handle this constructively that creates not just communication, not just collaboration, but, really, authentic connection. And that’s what we’re doing on this show today.

I am going to be loading you up with all kinds of resources today. So, either grab a pencil and notebook or open up a note app. Or you can also, if you haven’t already, bookmark the blog at growingself.com, because a lot of the resources that I’m going to be giving you is kind of follow ups. So here’s where you go to learn more, are already on the blog there. In addition to these podcasts that I make for you, I have so many people, therapists and coaches on my team with me at Growing Self who are always cranking out articles and advice and tips on our blog at growingself.com. And there’s so much around how to be a better listener, tips to communicate more effectively, how to manage your emotions when you’re starting to feel angry or stressed out. So, so much there. I just wanted to mention that as the go-to resource so that I don’t have to say it 150 times over the course of this podcast. 

But now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, when we think generally about what are the things that feel particularly difficult to talk about constructively, the things that we might even want to avoid or fear talking about, those are often the things that feel the most important. Those are the things that really need to be attended to, or resolved, or at least addressed. Because without that honest and courageous reckoning, our relationships will be fractured, and distance will grow. And unfortunately, that will happen whether or not we talk about it.

Avoidance Leads To Disconnection in Relationships

Many people avoid having difficult conversations because they are afraid of conflict. They don’t want to get into a fight. They don’t want to have an ugly interaction with someone that turns into a throwdown and wisely so—that is not ever helpful. And they don’t know how to handle the situation so that it won’t turn into a yucky feeling fight. So, they try to protect their relationships by not talking about hard things.

But the other side of this is that when you don’t talk about hard things that are bothering you, it will increase feelings of resentment, emotional distance. There becomes this feeling of separation and disconnection in your relationships—the relationships that you’re trying to protect by not talking about things. So, either way, there is a risk to your relationship, either through unproductive conflict or through avoidance.

It happens all the time. I can’t tell you how many clients I speak with, especially lately, who have perhaps a family member with a very vocal social media presence that is kind of diametrically opposed to their own political views. And say this family member is putting out lots of information that is incredibly triggering to say my client. And they feel like they can’t talk about it because it will create this conflict. It will turn into a bad conflictual moment. So, they don’t, and instead, they avoid their family member. They make up reasons to not go down for a visit. They mute them on social media so they don’t have to see what they’re saying, which actually, just between me and you, may be a helpful strategy in this day and age. But they feel like they can’t talk about who they are and what’s important to them and kind of know and be known.

And so there’s this distance and avoidance and it will atrophy relationships in a very real way, especially for couples, too. If there’s issues going on in your relationship that you’re not talking about because you want to avoid the conflict. Those will breed resentment and this feeling of hopelessness and helplessness and, “Well, it’ll never be different.” And all of these kind of narratives around, “Well, that’s just the way they are.” That is incredibly destructive to a relationship.

So, I just mentioned all of these because when it comes to difficult conversations, the number one thing that we need, first of all, is courage. We have to be courageous and brave and be the ones that bring difficult things out into the light with the people that we love so that we can have healthier, more connected relationships—relationships that are based on authenticity and respect and vulnerability and compassion and connection. And it’s hard to do. It’s hard to do.

One of the reasons I have found that people often avoid confrontation. Well, first of all, what I mentioned is having, like, assumptions that it will turn into a conflict. They doubt their own competence to handle the conflict. They, and sometimes rightly so, believe that it’ll just disintegrate into an argument because they don’t know what to do to make it not be an argument.

So, let me talk about that for a second. There are ways of communicating with other people that will very predictably lead to an argument. For example, when you communicate with another person in such a way that is perceived as attacking or critical. The other person, just like the sun rises in the east, they will become defensive with you and they will start coming up with all the reasons why you’re wrong. It is very, very, very difficult for anyone to stay in the ring and have a constructive conversation when they feel attacked. And so, one of the things that’s really important to think about in these moments is how you are bringing up topics and how you might be perceived by others.

And so as so often the case in so many of our conversations here on the Love, Happiness and Success podcast, one of the most important skills that you can cultivate to have constructive conversations is the skill of self-awareness, particularly as it relates to emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence means understanding, first of all, how you are feeling and what is going on inside of you that is leading you to feel that particular way.

So, for example, if you are high in emotional intelligence, you have more constructive conversations because you will be self-aware of the fact that, “Ooh. I’m feeling kind of angry right now.” And “I’m feeling a little bit upset. I am feeling morally justified in telling this person exactly what I think about them for all of these different reasons.” And you will be able to have that kind of meta awareness around, “Oh, my heart is starting to pound. I can feel even a little shaky. I am having all of these thoughts about why I’m right and why they’re wrong. And I know that I need to get myself into a better place before I attempt to have a productive conversation. Because if I go into it the way I’m feeling right now, the way that I’m thinking right now, it is not going to end well.”

And so, the core skills of emotional intelligence are being able to recognize: how am I feeling? What are the thoughts that are creating those feelings inside of me? And what do I need to do right now to shift my thoughts back into a constructive, compassionate sort of mindset? And what do I need to do to bring myself back down emotionally so that I am in a place where I can speak, not just speak respectfully, but also really genuinely maintain my ability to have compassion and empathy for the human that I am attempting to connect with right now, who is important to me? And coming back to, “What are my intentions for this conversation? How would I like it to end? And who do I need to be right now in order to make that happen?”

All of those are very deliberate things that people who are good at difficult conversations do very deliberately to keep themselves calm and kind of soft and centered and emotionally safe, even, to have constructive, connecting conflict—constructive conflict, believe it or not, is the thing. 

And I would also like to add that this is hard. It takes a lot of work on yourself in order to be able to get into this place and learn how to do these things. And you don’t have to do this with everyone. You might decide that there are some relationships in your life that are actually easier for you or even healthier for you to set boundaries around and go ahead and let that distance grow. As opposed to wading into this kind of emotional space with someone who is not going to reciprocate with you.

I wanted to bring that up because we’re talking about having difficult conversations with people and in relational contexts that are important enough and that you care enough about to do this kind of hard work, and those are the relationships that you want to invest in. That’s your family, your spouse, your child, a colleague or an employee or a boss who you really want to have a future with. These kinds of conversations, this kind of emotional work is an investment in your future—an investment in the future, in the well-being of others.

Healthy Relationships Are Mutually Respectful

And I just would like to say that it is important to use discernment in your life and in your relationships to kind of assess where do you need to invest and work harder to understand, to be compassionate and connect. And where is it actually, not just appropriate, but important to set very real and firm boundaries with people and protect yourself.

So, for example, if you are with someone who is being overtly racist to you or others or who is using abusive language or treating you badly, you can go ahead and leave. You do not have to tell them why. You can just be done saying no. “No,” is a complete sentence. You don’t have to explain yourself, and you don’t have to do anything to make that person feel better about it. It’s your responsibility as a healthy person to protect yourself from toxic people, abusive situations, and to do what you can to protect other people who need protection from toxic, damaging, and abusive situations.

And so, I just want to say that out loud, because sometimes I will write things in the blog about how to be a better listener or how to have more empathic communication or situations like this, how to have difficult and important conversations. And we’ll get a comment on the blog about “Well, what about a narcissist who does these horrible things to me.” And it’s like no, that is a person who you need to set very firm, clear limits with. That is not a situation that is likely to be mended no matter what you do. And to be able to develop kind of the judgment to know the difference.

If you would like resources on boundaries, how to set boundaries, how to have healthy boundaries and still have friends, how to set boundaries with family members, how to avoid unhealthy guilt when you’ve set appropriate boundaries, again, I would refer you back to the blog at growingself.com for podcasts and articles on all of those topics.

But this, this is how do we create connection through difficult conversations. So, we want to be courageous, but not indiscriminately courageous and putting ourselves into bad, bad situations. One of the things that I have found when it comes to these moments, when a relationship is worth investing in, it’s important to me and I know that I have to be brave and talk about something hard, I have found a thought that helps me, and it might help you, too. So, I’ll mention it. The idea that this is how we grow. We grow through difficult moments. We grow when we are challenged to grow. We grow when the other alternative of staying the same is ultimately less comfortable than the discomfort of growth. We grow, we change, we do hard things when we’re motivated to do so. And so I just want to offer that as an idea to you, that embracing the discomfort of these moments and breathing through it and reminding yourself that this is what growth and connection feels like is being authentic, being vulnerable, feeling hard feelings and doing the right thing anyway. This is the path of growth.

And also, I think sometimes reminding myself, if I want to have a high-quality relationship with this person, this is what I need to do. We have to talk because I know that if I don’t talk, I will withdraw. That’s something that I need to remind myself of personally. And I see a lot of my clients struggling with that. The tendency to avoid and withdraw can be pretty significant and to just be very explicitly reminding yourself, “No, this is important, I have to do this. If we don’t talk, we will become distant.” Those are ideas that can help you find the courage to do it.

Another idea I’d like to share that is really helpful for many of my clients, both individual clients and also a lot of the couples counseling clients that we work with, is that the goal of any of these conversations is not necessarily agreement. We do not have to agree with each other about the solution or the perspective or what is the truth with a capital T. What we do need is a sense of mutual understanding, to be able to say, “When I look at the situation through your lens, through your belief system, through your set of life experiences, through your values, through your expectations, I can understand why you would feel the way that you do. That makes sense to me.” And for you to feel the same. That even if someone doesn’t come to the same conclusions that you do about the same situation, that you feel that your perspective is understood and respected as being valid because it is. That ultimately is the goal. 

If we want to take that a step further and get bonus points, we could even move in to a space of appreciation that it’s not just “Yes, I can see why you would feel that way.” It is “You know what? I appreciate the values and the perspectives that lead you to feel that way. Thank you for sharing those with me.” Appreciation is even more, I think, affirming and conducive to emotional safety and constructive conversations.

And then, in addition to these ideas that can sort of help you grapple with conceptually what needs to happen in these moments of difficult conversations, a lot of my clients, either life coaching clients, relationship coaching clients, therapy clients, often find that it is much easier for them to have difficult conversations and be appropriately assertive when they’ve gotten really good at managing their emotions and going back to the emotional intelligence skills that we talked about in the beginning.

And so being able to have strategies in place to help you manage your emotions, understand what kinds of thinking or behaviors lead you to feel anxious or angry, and having a little toolbox of skills and strategies in place to help you feel calm is half the battle. If you can stay calm in a difficult conversation, chances are very good that it will be a productive one. Resources for you in that, I mean aside— you’re always welcome to do individual counseling or coaching. But if you have found that those are, let’s say, growth opportunities for you, I would refer you to the Happiness Class on growingself.com, which is essentially an online cognitive behavioral skills training course that teaches you what are the kinds of thoughts that will make you feel angry, sad, or anxious. How do you shift those into more productive ways of thinking? What do you do with big feelings so that you don’t always have to be reactive or withdraw in these moments? 

So, to kind of boost up your skill set for being able to do that, because it’s really, really important when anyone gets flooded—you, me, everyone we know—gets emotionally flooded and begins experiencing intense feelings of anger, pain, fear, anxiety, what happens is that their brains, our brains, change in the way that they function, like literally. When you are flooded emotionally, you go into a fight or flight space that is very much prioritizing your personal protection. And what it looks like is that people will withdraw and not be able to talk anymore, or they go into attack mode.

Interestingly, the way that your brain changes in these moments is that the most highly evolved and most human parts of our brains—the newest parts of our brain structure, the neocortex—the part where we’re able to have empathy for others, the part where our language skills are housed, the part that allows us to take a big picture perspective or do any kind of if-this-then map kind of advanced planning, our executive functioning skills. All of that in very literal ways, shuts down and becomes inaccessible to you. And so, it’s incredibly important to be able to regulate your emotions during difficult conversations so that your brain doesn’t turn off and you turn into some sort of like crazed defensive or hostile, like lizard brain activated person. Because that sounds crazy, but that is actually what happens.

Beware of Emotional Flooding

You see it all the time in couples counseling. A partner will say something that is clearly very triggering for their spouse, and that spouse will not— it’s like they just freeze. They can’t even continue in the conversation. In addition to managing your own feelings in these moments so that you don’t become flooded, it is incredibly important to develop the social and emotional awareness skills to notice when the person that you’re talking to is becoming flooded because they won’t be able to have a constructive conversation with you if they kind of go past a point of no return.

Some people, it’s pretty obvious when they become flooded. Their little faces get red. They might even start like shaking. But interestingly, men often become flooded and you would never know to look at them. They just kind of shut down. If you put a pulse monitor on their finger in that moment, it would be going at like 110 beats a minute. But to just look at them sitting in a chair, nothing has changed. You can’t tell the internal experience that they’re having. And that that is certainly true for many women as well. But being aware of when people are getting flooded and noticing that and having a plan in place to attend to it and help bring everybody back down is another incredibly important concrete skill to have in your toolbox when you are wading into difficult conversations. And being able to say, “You know what, I think we’re both getting tense. Let’s take a break. I’m glad that we started talking about this. I hope to continue the conversation with you. But I think, yeah, let’s go get a lemonade. Come on. Let’s go get ice cream.” Or something like that. Just kind of like shift away and let everybody calm back down again.

For more on that subject, the growingself.com blog has a fabulous article written by one of my colleagues, another family therapist named Lisa Jordan, who has written an article on emotional flooding and has even more strategies for what to do in those moments when you become flooded or when your conversation partner becomes flooded.

So, there is a lot of pre-work to do to prepare yourself to have a difficult conversation. The pre-work involves the emotional intelligence skills we’ve been talking about and being able to regulate yourself, keep your thoughts in a good place, have the most noble intentions in the forefront of your mind, and also have a lot of empathy for the person that you’re talking with and an awareness for them. But also, I think when a conversation is really important, it’s always a good idea to do a little bit of almost pregame pre-work around, “Okay. How do I feel about the situation? Why do I feel the way that I do about the situation? Why is this important for me? How is the situation impacting me?” and get really clear around what’s going on inside of you and what it is that you would like to communicate to the person that you would like to communicate to.

It sounds so silly, but thinking through this stuff in advance will help you be able to not just communicate your truth effectively, but take some of the emotional energy out of it so that when you say, “I’m feeling really hurt and disappointed that we haven’t had sex in three months, and I miss you, and I would like to be with you.” If you’ve kind of written through what’s going on with you, why it’s important, what you want, when you say that out loud, it will be often like just a more gentle kind of way that is more understandable to the person that you’re speaking with. If you wade into a difficult conversation without getting clarity around that in advance, it is very likely that the energy and intensity that goes along with saying those kinds of things for the first time will be perceived by the other person as critical, blaming, or even hostile or attacking.

That is one of the reasons why talking about what you want to talk about in advance with a coach or a therapist can be so helpful. And that is not the only way. You can also certainly do journaling and get this clarity on your own. But if you’ve said it a time or two to someone, then you can go into the real conversation just from a space of calmness. And since the intensity is already less, it sets you up to be in a position to be a much more receptive listener, I think, because that’s hugely important.

So, doing some pre-work around, what do I feel? Why is that? What do I want? And getting really clear, too, around what is my desired outcome when we are done talking about this, what would I like to have be different? Would I like something to change? Would I like to feel understood? Would I like to have more understanding of this other person? Would I like just to feel more connected and like we’re not tiptoeing around each other or not talking about the elephant in the room? Is that my goal? It’s all okay. But to get clear about that ahead of time.

Now, you think that’s hard? Let’s talk about what’s really hard because the other critical piece of having an effective, constructive, difficult conversation means moving past what’s going on with you and how you’re feeling and what you would like to talk about, and what is your desired outcome, and setting that aside. And before you even get to that conversation, doing some very serious work around, what do they feel? This person that I want to talk to about these things that are bothering me, what’s probably bothering them? Why do they feel the way that they feel? What are their core values? Where is this coming from? What kind of relationship do they want to have with me? What did they need to be hearing from me in order to feel respected and understood and validated and valued and that they’re important to me? And what do I need to be doing, and not just saying, in order to show them that I care about them and that I love them and appreciate them, even if we have some differences.

And that, my friends, is hard work, it really is. It requires a lot of not just compassion and good intentions but also really accurate empathy to be thinking about how someone else probably feels and their thought process and in a way that allows you to make sense of it. This, I think, is particularly important in this day and age when there’s so much polarization around political kinds of things. It’s also very, very easy for couples to get incredibly polarized around who’s right, who’s wrong, what should we be doing. And it’s difficult to get on to the other person’s side of the table, and that is also a crucial skill and well worth your time doing some soul searching around in advance.

In my therapy and coaching sessions lately with clients, there’s been a lot of discussion around either both with couples who have different perspectives and belief systems or individuals around how do I maintain a relationship with someone who has a very, very, very different belief system than I do and one that I might even find morally offensive and just absolutely wrong? That feels like an affront to what I believe people should be. How do I stay connected to this person? And I would invite you to go into a compassionate, empathetic stance that allows you to understand the noble intentions and the highest and best of the belief systems that create the outcomes that you see, even if those outcomes are in practice, sometimes really damaging, damaging to others.

So, for example, and I do not want this to turn into a political conversation at all, but I just wanted to provide you with a model just for ideas to think about. A stereotypical Republican say, kind of belief system at the highest and best says something like, “I am a hardworking, responsible person who I have tried really hard to make good choices and I have a pretty good life because of it. I believe there’s a right way to live. And if people take the hard and narrow path, they usually have good outcomes. And that I believe in my belief system and I think other people should too. And I think that when I look around and see other people having bad outcomes, it’s often because of their own doing. And I shouldn’t have to pay for it or have government swipe half my paycheck in order to support the bad behavior and poor choices of others. I think they can do better. And I think I have the right to defend myself against people who want to take advantage of me. And if I work hard and make good choices, I should be rewarded. And I have all these other belief systems that place value around life and family.” All these other things that when you go into it, noble intentions, noble intentions. And to be thinking about how does this make sense from this person’s perspective?

And on the other side, the same person on the other side of the couch, who maybe has a more progressive orientation would say, “I believe that human beings have inherent worth and that there are many different perspectives and ways of being that are all worthy of respect and appreciation. I don’t think any of us have a monopoly on the way, you know, ‘the way things should be’ or who is valuable in our society and who isn’t, because there is a bias and a hierarchy of value that is often based on race or socioeconomic status. There’s an unequal playing field. And the people with enormous privilege have a much easier time and often take credit for things that are handed to them. They think it’s about their character and their hard work, when they’re actually standing on a platform already.” Progressive people would say, “I think it’s the responsibility of an ethical community to provide support and assistance to those less fortunate in order to help build a large and fairer body of productive and valued members of our community. And that when we invest in people and things like education and health care, mental health and social services and firemen and police and roads and schools, everyone is lifted up. And that I’m willing to participate in that and help create that.”

So that’s one little example. And me just kind of like shifting from one side of that argument to the other. But in doing so, the hope is simply to share what the internal working narrative of people is often who are on different sides of this divide. And how when you look at the same situation from each point of view, it does make sense, even if you don’t agree with a belief system or the outcomes or the values. When you really listen to another person with compassion and respect and empathy, they do make sense, they always make sense. And I personally believe that we all could benefit from having intentional conversations with the goal of understanding those perspectives and seeing the good and the humanity in everyone, as opposed to reinforcing our ideas about why I’m right and you’re wrong.

Same thing for relationships. And as a couple’s counselor, I can assure you that when I am working with a couple and each person on opposite sides of the couch is feeling victimized and mistreated and hurt and uncared for by their partner, when you walk into their perspective, you can understand why. You can absolutely understand why and that none of us has a monopoly on the truth. And that it’s very, very easy for us as individuals to get caught up into our perspective and our way of seeing things. And there’s a very well-documented bias in social psychology where when we see other people doing “bad things” or making “bad choices,” or experiencing difficulty, we view it as because of character flaws, bad choices. It’s very easy to judge others.

When we make mistakes and have consequences or negative outcomes, the tendency is to say, “Well, but I was tired.” “Well, yes, but here’s the situation that led me to react that way.” We have all kinds of reasons why we do the things that we do because of the context of what was going on, the circumstances that made us feel that way, all of the reasons why we did what we did. And I think it would be to everyone’s benefit in this day and age to bestow the same grace to others that other people who are saying things or doing things that you disagree with have reasons and have a context and have feelings that make those actions or ideas make a lot of sense to them. And our role in difficult conversations is to learn what those are. Not have the focus on necessarily being understood, but putting the emphasis on understanding.

I know this sounds paradoxical because often the thing that motivates us to have difficult conversations in the first place is the hope that we could be understood, that we could change somebody’s perspective, that we could have a different outcome for the benefit of ourselves. And while that is certainly valid and generally the motivation that leads us to have courage and wade into these conversations, I would like to offer you a perspective that is much more likely to help the situation end well and lead to all of those desired outcomes. And that is putting your attention and effort on understanding the perspective and feelings of another person. Asking open ended questions where you invite them to talk more about their perspective, without being ready to be like, “Okay, well, thank you, because that’s why this is wrong.” And arguing with them or blaming someone else for the way that you feel or this one conversational strategy I often see, which is taking the sort of pedantic tone, which is that “If they knew what I knew, then they would change the way that they believe and, you know, all this stuff would stop. They would finally see the light.”

But again, like coming into that with a sort of judgmental and self-righteous idea, which is “My way of seeing things is better than yours and so, you should be more like me.” And this is true for everyone. It is true for progressives who really want to talk about diversity and inclusion, unless you’re an evangelical Christian, because that is not okay, right? And on the other side of this, for people to be absolutely resistant to any ideas about social justice issues or race or culture and the very real impact on people because of that and how they, by virtue of their own privilege, are participating in those things, whether or not they know it consciously, shutting all that down. It’s when we get very, very polarized and like, “No, I will not tolerate this point of view. I will not let in what you’re saying.” That is when conversations just go down the tubes.

And so, to be very, again, self-aware of how when you were having a difficult conversation and feel yourself going into that sort of space of judgment or blame or criticism or “let me rebuttal your idea,” would encourage you to move into a space of listening and understanding, open ended questions that are really focused on helping the other person feel heard and respected and cared for by you so that they feel emotionally safe with you and are able to talk about who they are, what they believe, the things that are important to them, and finally be moving into a place of what kind of relationship they would like to have with you.

Practice Emotional Safety Skills

And also in that space of compassion and emotional safety that you create, it creates an environment where if you are in a healthy relationship with someone who loves you and cares about you as much as you love and care about them, it turns into this openness and willingness to exchange ideas. That if you have done a really good job of listening and understanding that in a healthy relationship, that will be reciprocated. To be able to say, “Thank you so much for telling me how you feel when I see it from your point of view, I understand why that makes sense. Is it okay if I share with you how I have been viewing this and what my values are and why this sometimes feels distressing for me when these things are happening, particularly in the context of our relationship, which I care very much about, by the way.” It’s hard to have someone be like, and rare, I will say, to have someone say like, “No, uh-huh. Nope. I have just told you how I feel and what’s important to me, but I will not actually be reciprocating that.” That is very, very rare.

And if it actually is happening in your relationship, I would invite you to consider how mutually respectful and healthy that relationship actually is because relationships should not be one way. And if you are going into interactions with people with very not just sincere intentions, but strategies and skills like the ones we’ve been talking about today, you have the right to be respected and to also be heard, not necessarily agreed with, but understood. There needs to be reciprocity there.

So, there are so many other little micro-skills that I’d love to give you. And it’s beyond the scope of this podcast. But go back to the blog at growingself.com and look— communication strategies and you’ll find all kinds of podcasts, articles, little things that you might not even notice there. Like, are you making little faces when other people are talking? Are you rolling your eyes without even realizing it?

You would be amazed at how many times in a couple’s counseling sessions, I have to say to one partner, “What are you doing with the faces? Come on, let’s stop that.” And really, they’re not even aware that they’re doing it, but making little faces or the eye rolls their partners being like, “Never mind, I’m done. They’re not listening to me. Why even bother?”

So, it’s these little micro-moments. And again, it requires so much self-awareness to stay in a good place, stay open, stay receptive, not make the faces. You know what I’m talking about. Certainly, things like interrupting, jumping to conclusions, rushing to defense. I mean, there’s so much. There’s so much. If you are in a relationship that is very important to you and you are trying really hard to have constructive, productive conversations, and it is just not going well over and over again, that would be an indication. It’s probably time to get some professional help so you can be sitting with a relationship coach who’s saying to either of you, like, “Stop with the faces, what’s going on?” And help with some of the core beliefs or jumping to conclusions or helping around, like listening skills, developing empathy for each other. If that’s feeling super-duper hard to do on your own, always okay to reach out for help.

And also be generous with other people who may not have had the benefit of listening to this podcast or doing the kind of personal growth work that you are so clearly invested in. Just the fact that you’re listening to this right now and thinking about how to have difficult conversations with courage and competence just says so much about you and realizing that I think when you grow in this area, it becomes really obvious when you see other people struggling in these moments. You can see them becoming flooded. You can see them becoming defensive or shutting down or feeling blamed, not knowing how to calm themselves down or switch back into more noble or empathetic thoughts. So these skills are hard one, but yay to you for doing them. I know there’s so much more that we could talk about on this topic and maybe I will record another podcast along these lines again in the future.

But if you have been someone who has recently emailed me or gotten in touch through Facebook or on the blog at growingself.com or Instagram with a question about how do I handle talking to my elderly white aunt about her sort of internalized racism? How do I have a very difficult conversation with my boss or my best friend about something that is really bothering me and feels like it could tank our relationship? Or how do I broach a very important subject with my partner who I love very much, but about a situation that feels kind of unsustainable for me in our relationship?

I just want you to know that I have heard your questions and considered them very carefully. And I hope that the information that I shared with you today has provided a roadmap for how you can have the kind of conversation that you want and have it go well and lead to increased connection and understanding in some of your most important relationships.

And to thank you so much for listening today, if you have questions for me or anything that I can help you with, you are welcome to get in touch with me on the blog at growingself.com. You can also track me down on Facebook, facebook.com/drlisabobby, Instagram, @drlisamariebobby.

I would love to hear from you so that I can make a podcast for you. That’s all for today. And I’ll be back in touch next week with another episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast.

[playing Plastic and Glass by Keshco]

 

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Stages Of Getting Back Together With Your Ex

Stages Of Getting Back Together With Your Ex

Stages Of Getting Back Together With Your Ex

Is This Relationship For You?

When you and an ex have broken up, it’s completely normal to find yourself wondering whether you’ve made a mistake! When someone who used to be a large part of your daily life suddenly isn’t, it makes sense that you will experience sadness and miss the wonderful parts of your former relationship. However, sadness and missing your ex doesn’t necessarily mean you should get back together. Couples break up for a reason, and the sadness of missing a former partner can sometimes impact our ability to see and remember those reasons clearly.

As an online breakup recovery coach and Utah couples counselor – I want to explore with you questions that I find are helpful for my clients when figuring out whether “working it out” with an ex and getting back together is the best thing for them, or whether it’s time to move on. 

Why Did The Relationship End?

This question is important, layered, and may actually be different from the “official” reason for why you broke up! For example, if one of you was unfaithful in the relationship, that may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. While there is no excuse for betraying your partner when you’ve both committed to a monogamous relationship, these types of events typically don’t happen in isolation. What else was happening in the relationship that contributed to its downfall?

When working through the stage of “should we get back together” it’s important to view your relationship as a whole. It’s very easy to push aside the negative or uncomfortable memories and focus on the good and warm memories that are most likely drawing you back to your ex in the first place (or making it incredibly difficult to get over them). With every relationship though, there are good and bad times and habits. To truly care for yourself and your ex, you must weigh the good and the bad before moving forward in your decision to get back together. 

What’s Different This Time Around?

The things that caused the end of your relationship, have they changed? If not, are the things that caused the end of your relationship resolvable or acceptable? Think about the different factors that contributed to the end of your relationship. For example, if you struggled with communicating openly about your emotions, have you since worked on your ability to do this? If not, are you willing to? 

Depending on the nature of the things that ended your relationship, some may be more changeable than others. For example, behavioral changes like improving communication, learning patience, or even learning to be less messy can be changed and learned. 

However, character qualities and core values are often less changeable, meaning that you need to consider whether acceptance is a viable option. For example, if you and your ex support different political parties, is this something you will both be able to accept?

While compromise is a necessary ingredient to any successful relationship, sometimes the change required to meet that compromise is just not doable and that’s okay. Being honest with yourself and with your ex is the only way to move towards a happier, healthier future – whether it’s with your ex or not.

What Level Of Responsibility Are You Willing To Accept?

Okay, so you broke up for a reason and you’ve contemplated the good and the bad of your relationship. You’ve come to a personal understanding of what it means to compromise in your relationship, and you’re ready to give this a go, again. However, forgiving your ex for the wrong or pain they’ve caused you will not set your heart free – it will not lay the foundation for a better and brighter future together. You must be willing to accept responsibility for the part that you played in the relationship’s past. 

Do you each recognize your own part in the problems of your relationship? Think back to the last time you and your ex communicated about the end of your relationship. What did they attribute it to? Are you both capable of taking responsibility for your part in the problems that led to the problems you experienced?

If you both just “move past” the relationship as it was, hoping to enter into a new and shiny place together – you’ll find that a lot of what wasn’t working before is still not going to work for either of you. Accepting responsibility for your own part of the problems (and your partner doing the same) will help to strengthen your bond and trust in one another. Without that acceptance, your relationship problems are ultimately doomed to repeat themselves.

"I have tried counseling for about a decade with various counselors and have never been able to connect or grow with them. [My Growing Self Coach] has connected with me genuinely and helped me grow more in two meetings then several counselors have done in a decade.”

— Coaching Client

Why Do You Want To Get Back Together With Your Ex?

There are many different reasons why you might want to get back together with your ex, and it is important to honestly examine all of them so you can decide whether getting back together would be healthy for you. 

Some of the best reasons to consider getting back together include believing that you have both grown in ways that would make you good partners for each other and believing that you could have a healthy relationship if you both put the work in. 

There are also less healthy reasons to consider getting back together. While it is normal to experience some of these, on their own, they may not be good enough justification for pursuing someone as your life partner. 

Some of these reasons include: feeling lonely, missing the good parts of your relationship, feeling afraid that you may not find someone else, and missing the familiarity of your old relationship. If you find that you are primarily experiencing this second set of reasons for wanting to get back together, it may be a sign that personal growth work with a therapist or coach would be helpful for you.

Remember, these moments of honesty with yourself will lead you to a happier and healthier future.

Does Your Ex Want To Get Back Together With You?

This may be an obvious question, but it’s an important one to consider! Ultimately, we all deserve to be with someone who wants to be with us. If your ex has moved on and is not interested in exploring reunification, you owe it to yourself to do the same.

If you and your ex have decided that you both want to give things another shot, as tempting as it can be to jump right back in where things left off, it’s often a good idea to start off slow. As eager as you might be to start posting pictures together again or jump right back into your sexual relationship, try to treat the early stages of getting back together as a provisional period of exploration when you can learn how you have each changed during your time apart, figure out what you both want and need from the relationship, and test out whether you’re each willing and able to make necessary changes.

Depending on how long it’s been since your relationship ended, there may be more or less for you and your former partner to catch up on during this exploration phase. Here are some helpful questions to discuss with your ex as you explore what getting back together might look like for you:

  • What are some of the insights you’ve had about why our relationship didn’t work out before? What do you think were some of my and some of your contributions to the problem?
  • What are some of the important experiences you’ve had and lessons you’ve learned since we were last together?
  • What would you want to be different in our relationship this time around?
  • How do you think we could make sure those things would be different?

Discussing these questions with your ex can help you each figure out whether you’re looking for the same things as well as how successful giving your relationship another go is likely to be. For example, if your ex has a hard time taking responsibility for their contribution to what went wrong in your relationship or if the things they have learned about what they value in a relationship seem fundamentally different from what you are looking for, these may be signs that giving things another go won’t be as successful. 

However, if they are able to engage in an insightful conversation about some of these questions and express a willingness to take concrete steps such as participating in relationship counseling or coaching, these may be signs that your relationship can be more successful this time around.

Red Flags That Getting Back Together With Your Ex Is NOT A Good Idea

As you move through the provisional exploration phase of getting back together with your ex, here are some additional warning signs that the relationship may not be headed for success:

  • When it comes to making things better, it’s all talk and no walk. It’s always easier to talk about the things that need to change in order for the relationship to improve than to actually do them. If you realize that the promise of getting back together was so alluring to either you or your ex that one or both of you committed to making more changes than you were ready to (like committing to doing couples counseling but then complaining about going), it’s a sign that you may need to re-evaluate getting back together.
  • You realize that the fantasy of being back together is better than the reality. Often when we have a break-up, we conveniently forget all of the bad stuff about our former relationship and instead fantasize about how wonderful it would be to get back together. If you find that, once you are back together, the fantasy was better than reality, you may need to re-visit questions about what is solvable and what you are willing to accept.
  • You or your partner keep bringing up past mistakes. Relationships end for a reason, and it’s likely that you and your ex hurt each other’s feelings in the past. If you find that you or your partner keeps bringing up mistakes from when you were together previously, it’s likely that those past mistakes haven’t been completely forgiven. Re-evaluate whether you have each fully apologized to each other for past hurts and whether you believe that full forgiveness will be possible in your situation.

Signs That Getting Back Together With Your Ex IS A Good Idea

On the opposite side, here are some additional “green lights,” or signs that your relationship is on the right track and is changing for the better:

  • You and your partner have been able to identify specific goals to improve your relationship and are actively working towards achieving them. For example, if one problem you experienced in your prior relationship was feeling as though you were never on the same page, one new habit you might be developing together is eating together at mealtimes without any distractions such as phones or the TV.
  • For the issues that you know you would like to improve but are having a hard time handling on your own, you have found a relationship therapist or coach and are actively working with them. Having a hard time making changes on your own doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed–we all need an outside professional opinion sometimes. As a relationship therapist, I often have couples come to me who have the right intentions but need a little help gaining insight and finding personalized strategies and action plans that work for them.
  • You are both actively working towards your own personal growth. The healthiest relationships are ones where both partners are actively working towards personal growth in order to become better partners rather than casting the responsibility for change and improvement on one person. 

Getting Back Together With Your Ex: Moving Forward In The Relationship

Once you both feel confident that your relationship is heading in a healthy new direction, the provisional exploration phase is over. Communicate openly and regularly with your partner about when you each feel ready to shift from “trying things out” to “making it official.” You don’t need to wait until the relationship is perfect, but should wait until you each understand and agree on what went wrong the first time around, what each of your contributions to the problems was, what you want to be different this time, and are taking concrete steps individually and as a couple to make those changes.

Making the decision about whether to get back together with an ex can be difficult, but through open self-reflection and honest conversation, you have the power to make a decision that will be healthy for you. Also, remember that it can be very worthwhile to ask for help from a professional. Whether you are deciding whether to get back together with your ex and want to bounce your ideas and feelings off of someone or you and your ex have decided to give it another go and want help creating an action plan for change, don’t be afraid to seek out help.

Warmly,
Kensington

Dr. Rachel Merlin, DMFT, LMFT, M.S.Ed.

With compassionate understanding and unique insights, Kensington Osmond, M.S., LAMFT, MFTC helps you improve the most meaningful parts of your life, from your emotional well-being to your relationships.

 

 

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Everyone experiences challenges, but only some people recognize these moments as opportunities for growth and positive change.

 

 

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