However, truth be told, I’ve also seen a dark side to this quest for self-and-relationship-improvement as well, which is never feeling satisfied with your partner, or your relationship. This type of “relationship perfectionism” can take many forms, including comparing your relationship to what you imagine other people’s relationships are like, having overly high expectations, over-focusing on your partner’s flaws, or overlooking their strengths. This makes it difficult to feel in love with your partner, or even content in a relationship — even a really good one!
Love and Appreciation
Love and appreciation are key to happy, healthy relationships. Getting hyper-focused on relationship problems will actually start to create relationship problems because it shifts the emotional environment away from acceptance and emotional safety, and towards criticism and contempt. When those communication issues are present, even the best relationships will start to feel harder than they need to.
All relationships, just like all people, are a mixed bag with wonderful parts, challenging parts, and “growth opportunities.” Learning how to appreciate your partner for who and what they are is often the biggest area of growth for couples in counseling — and the most fruitful.
Learning how to show appreciation can be the best thing that ever happened to your relationship. Also, paradoxically, showing appreciation (and feeling appreciated!) for your partner can be one of the fastest and most effective routes to creating positive change and growth in both of you.
When any of us feel understood and cherished for who we are, we flourish. The same is true for you and also for your partner. On today’s episode of the podcast, I’ll be talking more about how you can release negativity and embrace the type of mindset that will help you and your relationship, heal, grow, and thrive.
In This Podcast Episode: How To Appreciate Your Partner, Learn How To. . .
Realize the importance of love, respect, and acceptance when it comes to relationships
Learn how to appreciate your partner
Understand how people can change, especially in a supportive relationship
You can listen to this episode right here on GrowingSelf.com, or on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Don’t forget to subscribe while you’re there! If you prefer to read, I’ve also included episode highlights with links to all the resources and additional information I referenced throughout the podcast. Scroll further and you’ll find a full transcript too.
Thanks for joining me, and I hope that this episode helps you and your partner create the type of loving and emotionally supportive relationship you each need and deserve.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
How To Appreciate Your Partner
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Often, a partner who initiates marriage or couples counseling has this unspoken hope that they can change their other half in pleasing or gratifying ways. However, the secret to a good relationship isn't in trying to change your partner in a way that agrees with you.
Instead, “it is really about growing in your own capacity for love and appreciation and learning how to create an environment that nurtures growth that brings out the highest and best in both of you.”
Instead of zeroing in on the bad things, focus on the positives of your partner and your relationship. By shifting your view towards what's good and what you appreciate, you can improve your relationship and fall back in love with your spouse or partner.
But if you've decided that you are fully committed to your relationship and want to make it work, here's what you should be ready to give: acceptance, appreciation, and unconditional love.
When couples focus on understanding and appreciation, they foster goodwill and respect. All of a sudden, they stop being defensive. Only from this positive place can real change and improvement occur.
Stop Negative Relationship Patterns
In a relational dynamic filled with negativity, relationships tend to self-destruct from the pressure and toxicity.
You may think that this is because of personal differences and issues. Dr. Gottman, psychologist and relationships researcher, labels these as “perpetual problems.” Examples of these include:
Ways of being
These “perpetual problems” exist in every relationship, but here’s the punchline: it doesn't matter. What does matter more than anything else are negative feelings such as criticism and contempt.
Criticism may sound like the following phrases:
“Do that differently.”
“That's not right. I'm right and you're wrong.”
“Why don’t you do this?”
On the other hand, contempt is often expressed in the following words:
“You are ridiculous.”
“You are hopeless.”
Criticism and contempt create rocky relational dynamics and elicits a lot of negativity from the other person.
To stop this negative cycle, grasp your point of control, which is understanding: “What am I putting into this relational system and how can I think about this differently? How can I do this differently so that I am no longer part of the problem?”
Understanding Your Partner
We are living in our own experience, so we understand why we do the things we do. We might feel groggy because we didn’t get any sleep. Or cranky because we had too much coffee. However, We often don’t have the same information when it comes to other people, even our partners. That’s why, in a negative relationship system, we start to tell ourselves a story focused on our partner’s flaws.
To break out of this system, we have to understand our partner better. For this, we can look at outside factors and even internal reasons for why people are the way they are.
“In addition to all of us individuals having our strengths, we also do have growth opportunities, and so does every relationship.”
So, aside from your partner, you should also consider your relationship as a whole. To learn more about your relationship, check out the How Healthy is Your Relationship assessment and then take our Attachment Style quiz for insight into you and your partner’s attachment styles. This will help you and your partner better understand where you are each coming from so that you can grow together instead of apart.
So much unhappiness comes from subconscious expectations. They can be:
How love should be shown
Who should be in charge
What should be controlled
How people should communicate
How people should parent
In short, anything that has the word “should” can be a form of bias or unrealistic expectation.
“There is a wide range of acceptable behaviors, and there is no one ‘should'. There is no truth with a capital T.”
The gap between what you believe should be happening and what is happening creates bad feelings in many people. Doing shadow work and examining your inner narratives about this situation helps prevent this gap from widening.
Doing this work also allows us to pull ourselves back from feeling hurt or annoyed when we’re not getting all of our needs met. Instead, we can think about what it feels like on the other side: “What is it like to live with me?”
This question is a good starting point towards having a growth mindset. All relationships will eventually encounter junctures that either one or both partners don't know how to navigate.
By shifting into an appreciative and generous stance, we can create positive changes in our relationship. But remember: it has to start within ourselves. Only then can we bring that to the table of our relationship and do something great.
Did you enjoy the episode? If so, be sure to share it with the people you love. What were your favorite tips for appreciating your partner? Are there any challenges you’re facing that make it hard for you to understand or empathize with your partner? Tell us by commenting on this episode. Subscribe to us now to discover more episodes on living a life full of love, happiness, and success.
[Intro music: Anything And Everything by J Lind]
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby and you're listening to The Love, Happiness, and Success podcast. That is J Lind with the song Anything And Everything, as in, tell me everything about you and let me love you unconditionally for all of it. It's a beautiful song, it is a beautiful idea, and it's one that can be hard to put into practice, can't it? Today, we're talking about how to appreciate the partner you have because we all want an easy, fulfilling relationship that's full of light and love and fun.
Sometimes, in our quest to create the kind of relationship that we really want, it's easy to get focused on all the things about our partners that are not ideal. While it is true that we all need to work on ourselves and grow in service of our relationships and bring our vessels to the table, it is also true that the royal road to a truly delightful relationship is often less about getting people to change than it is about figuring out how to accept, appreciate, and even cherish our partners for who and what they actually are, as they are.
How do you find that balance between acceptance and unconditional love, and also growth and people being the best they can be? How do you feel genuinely loving towards your partner as they are, even if they are imperfect? This really is the holy grail of happy, healthy relationships. Creating exactly that is what we're talking about today on The Love, Happiness, and Success podcast so I'm so glad you're here joining me for what I hope is going to be a fantastic conversation.
If this is your first time listening to the show, hello. I'm so glad that you found me and found this. I am your host, Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I am a licensed marriage and family therapist. I'm a licensed psychologist and I'm also a board certified coach and I'm the founder and clinical director of Growing Self counseling and coaching. I think because of this weird cluster of experiences, I come to this conversation with a little bit different of a perspective of the family therapist, all about systems and understanding how people interact and create positive or helpful interactions with each other.
But also, as a psychologist, I'm always interested on how individuals are creating their own inner experiences, how people think, feel and behave. Then also, because of my coach training, for me, it's all about what you want to do with this information. Insight is not enough so on the show, we are always talking about topics that go deep. My goal is to help you achieve true understanding of what's going on underneath the surface. Also, then, talking about how we put these ideas into action and ideally, help you create more positive outcomes in your life as it relates to your love, happiness, and success so I'm glad you're here.
Also, just a side note, if you're a new listener or a regular listener, I am so interested in what you are thinking about or dealing with in your life or what you think would be interesting or helpful for you to be hearing about on this podcast. You can always get in touch with me directly: email@example.com with any questions or comments. You can track me down on Instagram: @drlisamariebobby to ask questions and jump in the pool of the conversation. You can also leave comments on the blog pages of posts or podcasts that I put out.
I always check those and answer those personally. Anyway, we will have a conversation about what is important to you because that's why I'm here. I really care about that and I do these podcasts to be genuinely helpful to you. Interestingly, I recorded a podcast not too long ago with Jennifer Sands about making meaning after tragedy.
In a conversation with her, I really kind of came into contact with something that I had known, but I think not fully appreciated: how much I get out of being here with you making these podcasts for you. It really brings me great pleasure and enjoyment to be of service to you so thank you for doing this with me and again, let me know how I can be of service to you because that's why I'm here and I'm listening so thank you.
Focusing On The Positive in Your Relationship
On that note, to be of service to you today, let's talk about our topic because I'll tell you what, I have been a marriage counselor for a long time, a relationship coach for a long time. One of the things that I see over and over again is how difficult relationships can feel when partners are very much focused on negative aspects of each other, of their relationship, and also the dramatic difference it can make in a relationship and the way people feel about each other.
When they are able to shift that focus into the things that they really genuinely like and appreciate about each other, it just feels so much easier and it could also be surprisingly easy to do depending on what your goal is. It can be extremely easy, even in marriage counseling, to spend a lot of time talking about problems and personality differences and early family of origin experiences that create these issues in both of you.
Again, while it's always helpful to have some context for who people are and why people are, it can also really obscure the fact that everybody has strengths and growth opportunities. Everyone has gifts and sometimes, really by shifting the focus and figuring out how we can enhance the good parts of a relationship, it doesn't matter where you come from or why you are the way you are. It's figuring out how to be the best and how to appreciate each other for who you both actually are and honor that and prize that.
It's just extraordinary when couples can learn how to do that. That's why I really wanted to share this with you. Let's face it, if your relationship has been feeling challenging lately, if you're like most people, you're probably thinking a lot about the issues, right? I have been there too. It's easy to feel irritated or resentful or wish your partner would do something differently, they could talk to you differently, the tone they're using, they could do things that would help you feel more connected or more in love with them.
I think that wanting a better relationship is fantastic. Also, let's just acknowledge the fact that you've been listening to this podcast or other relationship podcasts hoping to get some tips just says so much about your hope for yourself and for the relationship and that's wonderful. People can absolutely improve their process, I believe that 100%. A lot of times, when people begin in marriage counseling with me or couples therapy or relationship coaching, yes, there is that hope for improvement.
There is also often this kind of secret, unspoken hope that by getting involved in marriage counseling or couples therapy, often, and the person who initiates all this and makes the appointment, right? The secret unspoken hope is that this is going to help their partner change in pleasing and gratifying ways, right? I too, again, have been there, right? My husband and I went to marriage counseling. It was fantastic, a couple of years after we got married and that was my secret hope too, just like everybody else.
That “Oh, this is going to get him to change and understand me and think, feel, and behave in ways that are more gratifying to me, maybe even be more like me because I am right.” I wouldn't have said that out loud at that time but if I'm honest, that was sort of a secret hope. I think that we all are living in our own perspective all of the time, right? The things we feel, the things we think, the way we perceive situations, that is what makes sense to us.
That's easy. It is much more difficult to really look through the lens, the eyes, the perspective, the feelings, the thoughts, the history, the context of another human and understand how that makes sense and how that can be even strengths are positive, especially if it's something that we disagree with, or be different. This is hard for people coming into the process of couples counseling or marriage counseling and it was hard for me too when I did this and it's worthwhile.
I have now been, as of October, married for 25 years, would you believe? Even to this day, if somebody invited me to sit down and make a list of all of the things that were different about my husband, I certainly could do that. It would be extensive if I was motivated to do that, it might even be detailed. As I was putting together that list of things, I could probably, if I wanted to, let myself feel bad about some of them, right? Grieved, annoyed. We're all human, right?
There are always stuff that comes up that's a little bit annoying but the point is that I have learned over the years that just sitting around thinking about things that I'm unhappy with in my relationship, with my husband, are not helpful because I am committed to him and to this relationship and have found other ways of being that are just so much more productive. Not just in having a nice time day to day, but also in creating positive change and supporting growth in both of us because over time, we've both grown and changed so much.
I see that often in couples that I work with. People do grow and change and evolve and yet, are fundamentally still the same people. Some things, people can change, but things like personality, ways of thinking, core values, core beliefs, those are much more difficult to change. Sometimes they don't change at all and that's okay. My husband is a much different person than he was and so am I.
It's also true that the things that annoyed me about him and 1996 are still very much alive and well and that's all okay because the secret to a good relationship is not trying to get people to change or to be different so that they meet your needs in exactly the way that you want them to or that they are always agreeing with you or seeing things from your side of the table. It is really about growing in your own capacity for love and appreciation and learning how to create an environment that nurtures growth that brings out the highest and best in both of you.
Can People Change?
In addition to that, I will say that this work does also mean finding a balance between figuring out your boundaries, things that feel legitimately intolerable for you and that you will not stand for, and that you cannot continue in this relationship until these things change. That's a thing and that happens and that is also very valid. You might be in a relationship where really, legitimately unhealthy, unhelpful things are happening and unless that is different, you cannot continue in this partnership, 100% valid.
Get clear about what those are and find a way of talking about that productively with a goal of, as you may have learned from past podcasts that I've put out about having healthy boundaries, the goal here is not to say, “I demand that you do this differently.” It is to say, “Here's what I am going to do differently” or “This changes, and here's how long you have to show me that you can do that. If not, here's what you can expect from me essentially.” I will refer you back to the healthy boundaries podcast for more on that subject.
Again, that might be the case and some things for you to figure out in your relationship, but if you have done some of that work and decided fundamentally that you are committed to this person, that there is enough here for you that you would like to work on the relationship and invest in this relationship, and that you would like to have a more positive relationship with somebody that in your heart of hearts, you know, fundamentally, is a decent person. They have some rough edges, they have some sharp corners.
There are some things that they do that are challenging or annoying or even hurtful, maybe not hurtful with a capital H, but low grade hurtful. Maybe you'd like to feel more connected, you'd like to have more fun, you'd like to have more communication, or more emotional intimacy. Those are wonderful goals to have in a relationship and the path to creating those are very often paradoxical. They begin with, ready? Acceptance and appreciation and unconditional love. This is a tremendously important paradox and it's true in psychotherapy.
Back in the day, old school psychotherapists noticed that when people understood themselves and were in a positive relationship with a therapist who understood them, and also unconditionally had positive regard for them that they were not just understood but accepted for who and what they were when they experienced this relationship as being non-judgmental, as being affirming, validating, and appreciative for who they were, it became safe for them to say, “I would like to work on this aspect. I have made peace with these parts of myself and in doing so, I have become intrinsically motivated to continue growing in a direction that would help me feel more positive about myself and get better results in my life and feel better and have better relationships.”
This is a fundamental paradox of change and it's true for individuals and it is also true in relationships. I have seen it happen so many times. When couples stop fighting with each other and really focus on understanding each other and understanding each other's perspective and appreciating it, there comes this feeling of goodwill and a mutual appreciation and this respect, this unconditional positive regard that all of a sudden, people stop being defensive. Like, “No, this is why I'm right. You're wrong,” and it turns into, “Yeah, I could see how you would feel that way and yeah, I should work on that.”
It's just amazing. I think we're sort of conditioned to believe that we need to fight for our rights and that the way to get people to change or to promote growth is to be not aggressive about it, but very direct about it. While there's certainly a time and place for direct communication, people tend to respond better to all of us when we're in a positive relationship that feels good for them and that makes them feel like they want to be better partners for us. That's to say it very plainly but that's true.
Now, again, if you are in a really, fundamentally unhealthy relationship where that is never going to happen, you should know that so that you can make different plans for yourself. Again, I have more information about that but for everybody else, if it's a generally healthy partnership that deserves a little time and energy and growth work to make it be fantastic, there's a lot of opportunity. Here is why, here's why this is. We just look at this from an individualistic perspective of how people do change and grow is through that self-acceptance and self-compassion process, but there's also a lot of research in the field of couples counseling around what happens in a relational dynamic where there's a lot of negativity.
Stop Negative Relationship Patterns
I often refer back to the work of Dr. John Gottman, who has just done beautiful studies to explore relationships, healthy relationships that grow, and also relationships that ultimately fail. He has noticed, along with other researchers, that when negative relational cycles take hold and in particular, certain ways of being in a relationship take hold, it's just so toxic for both people and the relationship will self-destruct under that pressure.
Interestingly, this is also true in the context of the fact that all relationships, all relationships have a certain percentage of stuff that Dr. Gottman has labeled perpetual problems. These are personality differences, ways of being, habits, quirks, stuff that is never going to be different and is not ideal feeling for one or both partners. Those are perpetual problems. They exist in every relationship and here's the punchline, it doesn't matter. Does not matter that your relationship has perpetual problems.
It doesn't matter that you have angry fights, does not matter that you have bad habits, or don't communicate perfectly, or have annoying quirks, or even have significant differences in values, interests, ways of being, routines. There is all of this commonly present in the very best relationships and it does not matter. What does matter more than anything else are negative things happening such as criticism and contempt, compared with positive things that we're putting into a relationship: kindness, appreciation, gratitude.
When things like criticism and contempt are very high in a relationship, it creates so many difficult relational dynamics and it elicits a lot of negativity from the other person. Criticism would be like, “Do that differently. That's not right, you're doing it wrong. Why can't you x, y, z?” Contempt would be, “You are just ridiculous. You suck, you are hopeless.” Kind of a meta message is, “My way of being is so much better than your way of being and I think that you might even be a bad person.”
Criticism and contempt will tank our relationship and when those kinds of expressions or feelings are very much alive in a relationship, things start to get really bad. When you are critical and contemptuous in a relationship, i.e. when you are focusing a lot on the things about your partner that you wish were different, that will automatically create a negative response to you. Your partner will start responding to you negatively. They will begin behaving in unloving and unkind ways to you because they feel judged and criticized. I'm not saying that this is your fault.
Relationships or systems, meaning that people fall into these patterns where they are having reactions to each other's reactions. I'm sure that if you are feeling critical and contemptuous of your partner, it's because that you have had experiences with them where they're doing things where you're like, “Ah! Stop.” It doesn't feel good to you. The point of control any of us have in our relationship is not saying to somebody else, “You need to be different so that I can have a better reaction to you.”
It is understanding, “How am I reacting? What am I putting into this relational system and how can I think about this differently and do this differently so that I am no longer part of the problem? How can I be doing my best to keep my side of the street clean, to work on myself, and to be as positive and productive as I possibly can and the situation. Because if anything is going to change in this relationship, that's going to be why, is when I start taking responsibility for me.”
In a relationship where you're focusing on the problems, it is very, very easy to slip into criticism and contempt and frustration. That is not helpful and it isn't productive and it will make things worse. It will damage your relationship in the short term, but I'll tell you, that will also really begin to severely damage a relationship in the long term because here's what happens. When you have had experiences in your relationship over a long period of time that have been disappointing or hurtful or annoying or you're trying to tell your partner to change and they keep not changing, we are also all vulnerable to something called the fundamental attribution theory.
That is a big, fancy term for saying something that, I think, has a lot of common sense wisdom, which is this: when we understand why people do what they do, we can either look at the situation and the context and say, “Oh, okay. That's why they behaved that way. They had a bad day, they were having a reaction to something that I said that maybe rubbed them the wrong way.”
We can look at outside factors that help us understand why people behave or we can look for internal reasons why people are the way they are. “They are a negative person. They have character flaws, they are fundamentally unable to be loving and emotionally intelligent. They are broken in some way.” It's how we understand why people are the way that they are. Every single one of us humans walking on this planet is vulnerable to — when it comes to us and the way we behave — we have many situational reasons why we do what we do. “I'm tired, I didn't get enough sleep last night. I drank too much coffee so I was a little bit raa!”
We are living in our own experience, we understand why we do the things we do, we have reasons why and they're often true, but when it comes to understanding other humans, it is much harder to do that because we don't have all the information. We don't know that somebody drank three cups of coffee or didn't get enough sleep last night. We look at somebody who's being kind of aggro and we say, “Oh, that's a bad person right there” or “Wow, what's wrong with them?”
When we have been living in a negative relational system with our partner for a while, we can begin to attribute a lot of this dispositional causality, meaning we start to tell ourselves a story about our partner that is focused on their character flaws, their personality flaws, these sweeping things about them that are negative and hurtful or unhealthy and that are never going to be different. That is why relationships end, is when people have been telling themselves that story about their partner to the point where they have come to believe it.
I have much more information on that topic in yet another podcast that I did, which is how to stop a divorce and save your marriage. If any of this is feeling familiar to you, you should probably check out that podcast as well. This is super important to know because, again, when we have high standards and high hopes for a relationship and want it to be great to the point that we are focusing a lot on negativity, the biggest risk to your relationship is making those mistakes around perceiving your partner in such a way that kind of allows you to feel almost entitled to be critical and contemptuous of them.
That it goes on long enough that it really begins to change your belief about who they are as people, how they are irredeemably unhealthy or too different from you, or “We're just not compatible.” Where do you go after that? There's no growth possible if you have convinced yourself that is the reason that you're having problems in your relationship. The answer is to become self-aware that this is a thing that we all do and we're all vulnerable to it. I also am vulnerable to this and everyone is. I'm not saying that with any criticism but it's just a fact.
How do we become self-aware of our own tendency to think in these ways and then very intentionally and deliberately find different ways of thinking and feeling and behaving that will be much, much healthier for you and for your relationship and will actually promote the growth and positive change that you want? Because people can change and that's a question that I get a lot, “Can people change?” I have people ask me this who are in long-term relationships. “Can people change?”
Sometimes, I also do dating coaching and people will meet somebody and start a new relationship and already be thinking, “Okay, is this who this person is? Can this be different? The short answer is yes and no. Again, many things about our personalities are hard-wired. I actually am going to be going in-depth into this in another upcoming podcast on compatibility and personality variables that often trip up many couples, honestly because these are things that are kind of baked in and that can't be different and that's okay.
We'll talk about why that is, but it's also true that even though we all have fundamental ways of being, we all have life experiences that shape us, cultures that shape us. Every family of origin has a unique culture that shapes us. We will always see the world and other people through those lenses. We also have fundamental attachment styles that are very difficult to change. We can become very self-aware and intentional and over great many years, change attachment styles that were formed in very early childhood but that's okay.
You can have a good relationship anyway even if you have an attachment style that's a little off-center as many people are. There are also other things like ways of thinking, core beliefs, even if somebody is kind of ADD, that is never going to be different and again, doesn't matter. Being different is not the goal. It's figuring out how to be self-aware and to use tools and skills and strategies to be a fantastic partner anyway, and also to embrace this new idea, which is all ways of being come with gifts.
They are strengths. There is light and dark in all things and it's very easy to get real fixated on problems and to completely lose sight of the gifts and opportunities and really positive things that people are bringing to the table, not in spite of their challenges or differences, but because of them. It's coming into a relationship with this kind of perspective that can really change everything. I will say, in addition to all of us individuals having our strengths, we also do have growth opportunities and so does every relationship. One easy way just to get a snapshot as to what some of those strength and growth opportunities are for your relationship is just to do a simple relationship assessment.
I have put one together on our website. There are many others, of course, but if you'd like to take my How Healthy Is Your Relationship Quiz, it's at growingself.com/relationship-quiz. It's about 22 questions, it's fairly high level. We have much more in depth relationship assessments we use for our clients, but I'll give you a snapshot on a number of different domains that are really important for most couples around what are strengths for you.
I bet even if your relationship has been feeling difficult lately, it's unusual for somebody to take that assessment and not have any strengths or positive aspects about your relationship or about your partnership. If you've been feeling kind of “Ughh” about things lately, that might be a good place to start. It also offers, I think, a more structured roadmap around like, “Okay, here are things that we can work on” as opposed to just falling into bad feelings about each other because that tends to not be productive. In addition to embracing this idea of strengths, growth opportunities, and gifts, and all things, it is also really important to have an appreciative relationship that is founded on positivity to also become self-aware about your, and when I say your, I mean our, expectations about what should be happening in a relationship.
I cannot even tell you, as a marriage counselor, how much unhappiness, and even mayhem, stemmed from people going into relationships with unexplored, and often subconscious, expectations about what relationships should be, what love is, how love should be shown, who should be in charge of what, how people should communicate, how people should parent. I don't know if you're noticing a pattern in what I'm saying here, that “should” word is the apparent part of this because we all have our biases about what should be happening that are very much coming from our life experiences, our cultural norms, what we learned in our families of origin or from other people.
There actually are many different ways of being that are all just fine. There is a wide range of acceptable behaviors and there is no one “should.” There is no truth with a capital T. There are, if you imagine, kind of a bell curve at the extreme ends of that bell curve. There are sets of behaviors that are actually not helpful for anyone. There is abusive behavior, there is neglectful behavior. We don't want to go into those corners, but there's a wide range of behaviors in the middle of that that are actually okay.
Getting very stuck on things being the way that you were taught they should be is just a recipe for unhappiness. One of the easiest ways to shift into appreciation and positivity is to get clear on what you were taught and what subconscious things might be bubbling around in your brain about what should be happening. Because that is often the cause of a lot of unhappiness and bad feeling, is like when there is a gap between what we believe should be happening and then what is actually happening in a relationship with ourselves, with friends, at work.
This is not just unique to relationships, but the bigger that gap between what you believe should be happening and what is actually happening is what creates bad feelings for a lot of people. Sometimes, when we have feelings of distress or dissatisfaction, that's a signal to us. Like, “Okay, maybe I do need to make some changes here.” A lot of times, the easier way is like, “Okay, what am I telling myself about what should be happening? What is my own inner narrative about the situation?”
When we can tap into that, that's really very, very powerful. I've additionally done some podcasts around getting in touch with your shadow self or how to understand subconscious thoughts. There are a lot of applications for those things in many areas of our life that if you're interested, you can just look back in the podcast feed for those episodes, as well. I'm going to put links to all these stuff in the show notes for this episode too so it'll be all in one place for you.
When it comes to our subconscious beliefs about what our relationships should be, there are a lot. Think about just for a second what your ultimate relationship dream fantasy if your relationship was as good as it could possibly be. Most people, it's some combination of being with a person who really knows you, gets you, understands you inside and out, and loves you for exactly who and what you are, who does not judge you, or criticize you, but understands your point of view, who has compassion for your pain and for the things that you've lived through in your life, and who knows that you are doing the very best that you can do like every single day, you are trying really hard.
Your ideal partner is somebody who you can be vulnerable with, who is emotionally safe for you, who loves you unconditionally, and who knows and has compassion for everything about you, even things in your past that you might feel bad about or even ashamed of like it's okay. Also, in addition to that acceptance, somebody who inspires you to be your best and who lifts you up, who encourages you, someone who you can learn from, grow with, build a beautiful future with together.
There's that but also you'll have somebody who doesn't expect you to be perfect. They accept your imperfections and instead, I think, focus on your growth, your wins, the best part of you. You are working so hard and trying so hard, are doing such a good job and you are better today than you were six months ago. Really seeing the impact of how hard you try, and if we wanted to get real granular, this ideal person also has a great relationship with their parents and with your parents, but who is also really good at setting boundaries. They are super patient, they don't ever yell at the kids.
They're great with money, but they're not controlling. They're just good with money. They're fun. They like to do the things that you like to do. They make you laugh, they're easy to talk to. They're fun to have sex with. They smell good. They are hard workers but not workaholics. They are great parents. They're conscientious. They're successful in their careers. They're responsible, but they also like to have a good time. They're interested in you. They're interesting, they're educated, they have lots of friends, they're socially savvy but they really want to hang out with you. They're hot.
They do things around the house without being asked. You don't have to bug them about it, and basically, they're psychic. They know what you're thinking, what you're feeling, what you're needing, what you're wanting without you ever having to say it. They shower you with love and attention, they make you dinner, they buy you presents, and feeling their love and appreciation of you no matter what.
Okay, so as I'm saying all these things out loud, I just made this little list, but I have heard all of these things from couples that I work with, even me in my own life. If any one of these are feeling a little bit out with my husband, it's very easy to say something about that. When we think about this all as a whole, dump it all out, all of the expectations, all of the hopes and ideas that we have about what a relationship could be, I think it becomes easier to see that, “Oh, nobody can actually be all of this.” I think here is a moment of humility like, “I am not all of those things. I can't do all of that consistently every single day perfectly for my husband.
I try to do most of those things sometimes but not all the time and yet that hope, that true need that we have inside of all of us is that hope to be unconditionally loved and accepted for who we are, even if we don't always say the right thing, or do the right thing, or even know what to do, that we make mistakes but that we're seen for the best parts of ourselves and not the worst parts of ourselves, right? I think just keeping that idea in mind, the things that we want from others, “How do we be that?”
That's the real work that is available to any of us in a relationship and very consciously pulling ourselves back from getting hurt or irritated or annoyed when we're not getting all our needs met and thinking about “What's it like to live with me? Who am I?” I think, from that place, that growth mindset, that commitment to acceptance and unconditional love and positive regard can also be nicely combined with this growth mindset and this idea that we all have a responsibility to grow and learn and be the best that we can be.
In every single relationship, there's going to be a lot of that happening throughout a long term relationship because we don't all learn how to be perfect parents or manage finances perfectly or talk about sex. Who gets taught how to have those conversations? Communication skills are not overtly taught unless you go to Montessori School for your whole life, emotional intelligence. These are things that people go to coaching to learn how to do because you don't get taught them otherwise.
In any relationship, we should, I'm going to use the word “should,” we should all expect that at some point, we are all going to run into points where like, “Oh, I don't know how to do that” or “My partner doesn't yet know how to do that,” but shifting into that growth mindset, this basic idea. “These things can be learned. People learn how to do this, we can learn too and let's figure out how to learn it together.” This will always ebb and flow over time. Case in point, my husband and I now have a 13 year old. We had figured out how to parent a younger child. Now we're like, “Oh, we're doing this.” I think we're both running into walls and have different perspectives and different ways of being.
Trying to figure out what's a middle path and how can we kind of grow in our new approach to parenting a 13 year old, which is a total different ballgame and in a way that honors and respects both of our perspectives, but it's also the best interests of our child. Trying to figure out how to learn how to do this together really intentionally because it's very, very easy for especially parents to get into passionate conversations about how parenting should be happening, right?
There are so many parts of a relationship where it's easy to do that. Money, who does what, priorities, time management, so many things, figuring out “How do we grow here and resist falling into negativity around it.” I think the principles that do hold true for good parenting also hold true for positive relationships and marriages and that we have warmth, unconditional love, unconditional positive regard and support and kindness and appreciation and generosity and high standards. This basic idea that people really should be trying and striving and growing and learning in the service of a loving relationship, that's good parenting and it's also good relationship skills for everyone. Applying those ideas to your marriage is what tends to work.
Okay, I could go on, but I feel like this is probably enough information for one episode. I do hope that this conversation about learning how to appreciate the partner you have has helped you appreciate the importance of doing this — how it can lead to so many damaging and destructive things in a relationship while ironically, we think that we're trying to make it better, it's actually making it worse. How by shifting into this appreciative, positive, generous stance, we can actually begin to create really positive and powerful changes in our relationships, but it has to start with ourselves and then we can bring that to the table of our relationship and do something great with it.
This podcast is going to be at growingself.com/appreciate-your-partner. growingself.com/appreciate-your-partner. There, I will include links to all of the past podcasts that I've referenced. You'll find a link to the relationship quiz that I mentioned. I will also link to some other articles about how to support appreciation, love, respect, healthy communication, and also some resources to the things that might be growth areas in your relationship.
How to manage finances as a couple, how to talk about differences in sexual desire, communication skills, emotional intelligence, we all have stuff to learn and learning and growing is a solvable problem. In that spirit, I will let you digest all of this and I will be back in touch with you next week with another episode of The Love, Happiness, and Success podcast. Until then.
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.
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.
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.
Real Help, To Move You Forward
Everyone experiences challenges, but only some people recognize these moments as opportunities for growth and positive change.
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There is a time and place for healthy anger, and getting stuck in anger can keep you anchored to a painful past. Learn how to release anger and reclaim yourself, on this episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.
The online dating world can be a jungle. Online therapist and dating coach Jessica Small, M.A., LMFT shares her top tips for online dating. From creating your profile, avoiding red flags and disappointment, to setting yourself up for success!
Persistent feelings of insecurity can tank a relationship. Learn how to strengthen your sense of trust and the emotional security of your partnership, on this edition of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.
There's more to intimacy than sex. Looking to reconnect, strengthen, or build a better bond with your partner? Online Marriage Counselor and Relationship Coach, Tomauro Veasley discusses the 4 types of intimacy that are imperative to a lasting, healthy relationship.
Getting back together with your ex means weighing the good and bad of your previous relationship together. Utah Couples Therapist and Online Breakup Recovery Coach, Kensington Osmond shares how to navigate the stages of getting back together.
Are you unknowingly making serious relationship mistakes that are damaging the health of your partnership? Learn the most important things to avoid (and what to do instead!) in order to have a fantastic relationship on this episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.
How do you forgive yourself when you've hurt someone? How do you gain self awareness, master your emotions, and break destructive old patterns? Mindful self compassion can help you make peace with the past, and move forward. Here's how…
Unhealthy Relationships: All couples go through a rocky period in their relationship. They may grow distant from each other and encounter problems that seem to be impossible to overcome. It is agonizing to decide whether or not to save a relationship because we never know the possibilities. How will we know when our relationship is worth saving?
In this episode, marriage and family therapist Brittany S., will touch on healthy versus unhealthy relationships. We talk about what a normal distressed relationship looks like and how to deal with it. You will also discover the different markers of an unhealthy relationship. Knowing the difference between the two will help make the big decision whether to save your relationship or knowing when it’s time to let go.
Tune in to the podcast to learn more about the role of attunement, responsiveness, and vulnerability in cultivating an ideal, healthy, and loving relationship!
In This Episode: Unhealthy Relationships
Find out what a distressed healthy relationship is versus an unhealthy one.
Understand the pursue-withdraw cycle in distressed relationships.
Recognize the general markers of an unhealthy relationship.
Know where to start and what steps to undertake in couples counseling.
Identify when growth is and is not possible in a relationship.
Understand the importance of having aligned expectations for the future.
Know the importance of attunement as the fundamental heart of every relationship.
“Is My Relationship Healthy?”
Brittany shares with us today that a “good” relationship ultimately depends on what you think of yourself and your experience within the relationship itself. She suggests asking three main questions when identifying the health of your relationship:
What is the overall quality of the relationship?
Do I feel good about myself in the relationship?
Do I feel like the relationship benefits and serves me well?
How We See Ourselves
How we see ourselves is affected by the people who surround us. Usually, when you begin feeling like you need to change yourself, you are not enough, or you need to be better for your partner to treat you well, is a sign that the relationship may be unhealthy.
When we start to believe we are unworthy of love, connection, and belonging, the foundation of the relationship begins to fall away (if there even was one to start with).
Because of this pessimistic view, we begin to feel more angry, aggressive, and hostile towards ourselves. Brittany shares that most of her clients that are struggling with this dynamic will internalize feeling unworthy, “I have done something that makes me inherently unlovable or unworthy of having this healthy relationship or healing.”
Fixing the Negative Subconscious Belief
The issue here is that people who find themselves in an unhealthy relationship begin to believe they are the sole problem. To address this, we need to be aware of what stories we are telling ourselves. Fixing the negative subconscious belief requires challenging these stories. To do this, challenge these stories by:
Identifying if there is evidence that there is some truth to the story; and
Cracking the narrative and expressing it
When working with couples, Brittany shares that partners often blame each other for their unhappiness or unwillingness to show up for their partner how their partner may need. Partner responses can tell so much about the health of the relationship.
If our partner is willing to comfort us and offer help, it provides some reassurance that we are in a healthy situation. But if the partner lacks comfort and responsiveness, it is a sign to take a deeper look into the relationship.
What does this mean? It means that by challenging the stories that we tell ourselves (I’m unworthy of love…) and getting to the root of why we feel these ways, we can better understand whether or not it is something we can work on and grow through, or if it’s a sign that this relationship really isn’t good for us after all.
Is a Distressed Relationship Normal?
According to Brittany, “When people are in distressed relationships, it impacts each other. Both people are impacted in such a way that they both stop being the best version of themselves.” A distressing situation creates reactions in each person that can be hurtful and support the negative pursue-withdraw cycle.
The pursue-withdraw cycle is characterized by:
One partner who is demanding, critical, and demands reassurance, comfort, or engagement from the other; and
The other partner feeling overwhelmed by these demands and, in turn, withdrawing
The more one partner shuts down, the more the other demands and becomes more aggressive, thus feeding the cycle. The cycle is normal in distressed relationships but requires a path of healing.
Brittany relays that this cycle propagates because “there's usually a need for comfort or safety or connection or a vulnerable attachment—a need that isn't being met, and we're just scared to ask for it in that way.”
The General Markers of an Unhealthy Relationship
It is important to assess early on in counseling if the relationship is in a distressing situation or more problematic. Some questions to ask yourself if you find you are in an unhealthy relationship are:
Is there essential responsiveness?
Can somebody take accountability and responsibility for their actions in the relationship?
Can they identify their part in the distress?
Is there a desire to control or to have power over our partner?
Are there elements of shaming and severe criticism present in the relationship?
Is there manipulation happening?
Is one partner trying to isolate the other?
Is one partner threatening the other?
Is verbal abuse happening?
According to Brittany, it's common to blame each other. However, partners should step back and realize their part in the problem. If one partner is insistent on blaming the other and claiming no-fault, then it becomes unhealthy.
Brittany recommends seeking individual therapy from a trained professional in domestic violence cases, a professional who has the background to help you keep safe. She also advises seeking domestic violence support.
Starting the Process of Healing
When starting the process of healing, Brittany refers to this time between her couples as a dance. Brittany begins by asking her clients to map out their dance and identify their part in the relationship. It is critical to be aware of:
What is happening to your body
What emotions you are feeling; and
Is there any judgment happening
Partners should become intimate with their dance and tell each other about it. The more open and willing to connect with your partner at this time, the higher likelihood of healing taking place.
It is essential to identify emotions, bodily sensations, and the stories we tell ourselves. By learning how to communicate better with your partner, you can begin to break the pursue-withdraw cycle. If you find that your partnership needs help better communicating, Brittany suggests seeking the help of a relationship specialist.
Brittany says that when there is growth possible in the relationship, a healthy couple will be able to engage in their dance, self-reflective, and talk about their emotions.
Is Growth Possible?
Healing is a process; being aware of each other's roles and emotions takes time. It may be more challenging for some people to express themselves due to their previous experiences.
However, having a hard time at first does not mean that the relationship is horrible or will not survive. Brittany emphasizes that her role as a couple's counselor is to help people grow and go through the transformational process. It's normal to have a hard time because the process takes vulnerability.
However, if you cannot establish vulnerability and safety, consider individual counseling to heal from childhood trauma or past relationships.
“Couples can do this work together because I really do believe that we heal best in trusted relationships with others,” Brittany says. If the wounds run too deep that you cannot show up in your relationship, that is a sign to work on yourself.
Keys to a Healthy Relationship: Can This Relationship Be Saved?
If you have been working on fixing your relationship and have been in counseling for months, but nothing has changed, then you can use that valuable information to decide whether the relationship can be saved.
Responsiveness is an essential factor in the survivorship of a relationship. We have to express what we need and see how someone responds to that.
Healing requires vulnerability and baseline safety. If your partner disagrees, you may consider the possibility that they are not suited for you.
“It's okay to mess up and make mistakes, but there has to be a motivation to work on things, grow, and stay in it together,” says Brittany.
Pushing for the Future
It's part of our culture to encounter difficulties in being present and focusing on what's happening now. We often look forward, believing that the future will be better.
However, it’s important to look at your situation and relationship in the present. We must focus on:
What the relationship feels like now
What is and what isn't serving us
What needs work; and
Our willingness to put in that work towards the future we are desiring
Make sure that you and your partner have the same desires and expectations for the future. Evaluate and reflect if a compromise on healthy relationship expectations is needed.
Attunement: The Heart of a Relationship
Attunement is the process of being present with our partner. Attunement is the goal; it is the entire heart of every relationship. It involves engaging in emotional responsiveness and vulnerability.
If you feel disconnected, think about how you can find your way back to each other and if both of you are willing to take part in that process. It's critical to have that responsiveness, reciprocity, and respect in a relationship.
“You won't have attunement in a distressed relationship, but you can intentionally create it if both people are engaged in that process.”, says Brittany.
Brittany has shared invaluable advice on dealing with a distressed relationship and differentiating it from an unhealthy one. What did you connect and relate with the most? Feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment down below.
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The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.
That is The Black Pine with a song The Morning After She Left. When I listened to that song, I think about someone who has belatedly realized that maybe they made some mistakes in a relationship that it is now too late to repair. And that kind of regret is what can happen when people, over time, realize that the relationship that they've been in, or the series of relationships that they've been in, have not always been the healthiest or best for them. I think sometimes their partners feel that regret more than they do.
What we see our clients here at Growing Self describe is this feeling often of newfound liberation, when they decide to stop engaging in relationships that are not good for them, and begin, instead, prioritizing their own health and happiness and well-being. And it's such a joy to be part of.
It's an important topic, and one that I wanted to talk about on today's show because we see a ton of people here at Growing Self. A lot of relational work, we do couples counseling, relationship coaching, but we also help a lot of individual clients who are trying to get clear about their relationships and about themselves. Sometimes they're coming for help fixing a relationship, maybe with a partner who doesn't want to come to couples counseling. So they feel like they have to do it on their own. But sometimes it's from people who aren't quite sure if they're in a relationship, that they should spend a lot of time and energy on fixing. Somebody who's been in a relationship, that for five years, they're not married. It's kind of a mixed bag relationship. There are things that they're not really happy with, and the relationship is stalled. It's not moving forward, and they're coming to us for help around. “How hard should I try to make it work with this person?” And when do I just say, “You know what? I need to let this go, and move on, and find a better situation for myself?” That is a tough situation to be in, but one that I think is worth exploring and so that's what we're doing today on this episode of the podcast is talking about what a healthy relationship is, what a healthy foundation looks like. What is a sign that there's growth and opportunity possible, and what is a sign that there might not be growth and opportunity possible?
To help me with those, I have invited my dear colleague. My colleague, Brittany Stewart, is a marriage and family therapist on our team here at Growing Self. She has a lot of experience working with people around this issue, both individuals and couples. Thank you, Brittany, so much for being here with me today.
Brittany Stewart: Oh, of course. Thank you so much for having me, Lisa. I'm really looking forward to having this conversation with you.
Dr. Lisa: Oh. Well, me too. It's one—I mean, I see you in our consultation groups and in our meetings. This is a topic that is clearly just such a passion for you. And that I see and I've always admired about you because it's not just enough for you to help people, like improve their relationships. You're always sort of listening to “How healthy is this relationship?” “Is this relationship good for both people in the relationship?” because those things really matter a lot. Sometimes, even if we can teach people how to communicate and do the skills, if there's not a healthy relationship structure underneath, we need to have that on our radar.
To jump into this topic, I mean, can you just talk a little bit about what are some of the things that you first notice or listen for? If you're working with—and we could take it one at a time but like a couple or an individual that might make you think, “Is this really a good situation fundamentally?” And we're not talking about capital A abuse. That is a different animal. But just like that sort of what's going on here?
Characteristics of a Healthy Relationship
Brittany: Yeah, that's a great question. I think the first thing that I'm always looking at is, “What is someone's experience of themselves and their partner in a relationship?” Like, what is the overall quality? Do they feel good about themselves in the relationship? Do they feel like the relationship benefits them, and serves them, and functions while in their life? Do they give their partner the benefit of the doubt? Right?
When I start to hear that partners believe that their partner is ill-intentioned, or malicious, or doesn't have their best interests at heart, I can really hear that there's just been a lot of erosion in the relationship. That really affects how we see ourselves too. If we're not trusting our partner to be—to have our best intentions at heart, or to really hold us in their hearts in a positive and meaningful way, then that completely impacts how we see ourselves and how we function in the world.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Well, how we see ourselves—let's talk a little bit more about that. I heard you say that when someone believes that their partner is almost out to get them, or is hostile towards them, or is doing things maliciously, how does that begin to change the way someone feels about themselves?
Brittany: I think that can change a few different things about how we might see ourselves. Right? One might be that we start to believe that we're less worthy of experiencing love, and connection, and belonging. Even though, my hope is always that people know that's just inherent, and that doesn't change even with the status of our relationships or the quality of them. But it does impact that belief around ourselves.
I think the other way it shows up is we might start to experience more anger, or we might start to be more hostile ourselves, or defensive, or aggressive. I think that it kind of forces us to take a look at how we're showing up in the world, and then feel really difficult, and murky to show up with those kinds of behaviors and emotions, and not know what to do with them.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, yeah. Oh, my goodness. The shame of regret that comes when somebody in an unhealthy relationship begins to—themselves show signs of that, like anger, or hostility, or shows up in weird ways. And then they think, “Oh my God, what am I doing? I'm not being a good partner. I'm not being a good mom,” or whatever it is that they internalize that.
But then I've also heard you say, at the same time, they can be internalizing these messages from their partner that—I mean, I think what we both hear a lot is, “If you were better and if I loved you more, then I wouldn't treat you this way.” But it plays into that self-doubt, that “I'm not good enough,” that “The reason my partner is saying these things to me or not giving me the love that I need is because I'm not quite good enough. And if I were better, they would be behaving differently. They would be better to me, if I worked on myself.” Is that the trick that people get sucked into?
Brittany: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I think I see that a lot, especially, I mean, I would say I see it with people of all genders. Right? That they have this belief over time, whether it's through failed relationships, or chronic on again-off again, or just a long term relationship that has a lot of wounds in it that have never been healed. They really internalize this thought of like, “I have done something that makes me inherently unlovable or unworthy of having this healthy relationship or, have this healing.” And it's really difficult to sit in that. And my hope, again, is always that people know that's not true.
Dr. Lisa: Well, I'm glad that we're talking about this, though, because I think that what we're just putting our finger on right here is the—almost like subconscious core belief of people who come—will come in for help with their relationships is like, “Can this be fixed? Should I work on that?” Sometimes I think the place where we need to go to is what they're telling themselves about the relationship. If for example, they believe that their partner could be much different with a different person who was better than them, and if they just worked on themselves and became the person that their partner wants, then they could be loved. To talk about how, what if that isn't actually what is happening? What if this is how the person you're partnered with would show up, whether or not they were with a different person or a better version of you? That can be a big step sometimes, because I think that people really believe that they're the problem.
First of all, let's just say for everybody within the sound of our voice, this is a process. There is not anything that Brittany or I am going to say. There is no piece of advice or wisdom that is going to help you jump over that mountain. But Brittany, when you're working with a client who is stuck in that place, where they've gotten tricked into believing bad things about themselves, where do you even begin? If somebody's listening to this right now who probably needs to do some of that work, where would they start?
Brittany: Yeah. Well, I think that's a complicated question because I would approach it differently, right, if I'm just working with one person or been working with a couple. But I think the first step for any change is always just being really aware of what stories were even telling ourselves. And I love Brené Brown’s work. In her Netflix series, or in her Netflix special, when she says “The story I'm telling myself is…” Right. And so I always encourage clients to identify, “What is that story that we're telling ourselves?”
Dr. Lisa: Yeah.
Brittany: And just to name it, and so if I'm sitting with an individual, can they just get really clear on what is that story they're telling themselves? Or if I'm working with a couple, can they just share with each other in a really disarming way? Like, “This is the story in my head.” Right? It may not be true, but it feels very real. And can they just get it out there and name it so that we can work with it? Then of course, it's really identifying like, “Can we challenge that?” “Is there really evidence that this… that the story you're telling yourself is true?” “Is it based in any sort of fact or reality, or is it just some emotion that's coming up, and we're trying to make sense of it, and the story is the best way that we're doing that?”
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Yeah. I get it. Just kind of cracking into that narrative and bringing it out into the open, and then just sort of looking at it together. Yeah.
Brittany: Yeah, and then I think, if I'm working with a couple, what can be really powerful about this, right, is we often don't share the story that's in our head in a disarming way. Usually, we're sharing it in a blaming way with our partner. We can tell so much about the health of a relationship and the ability of our partner to really be in it with us when we share that story just based on their response. Right?
So if we share this awful story or this painful story we're telling ourselves, and our partner is able to move toward us and comfort us, and say, “Oh, my gosh. That's the story in your head? Let me help you with that. Right. That's not how I see it. That's not what I'm feeling.” That can be really powerful. Right? To help offer that reassurance. Or if there is that lack of comfort and responsiveness. And maybe that story gets reinforced, then that's a—I would say—that's a sign. Right? Or something else to look at deeper. Maybe that story is based in some truth about the relationship. Yeah.
Dr. Lisa: No, that's a great way of looking at this. So on that note too, so you—like all of the marriage counselors on the team here at Growing Self—practice evidence-based forms of couples counseling, and one of the things that the approaches that you've really focused on is one called emotionally-focused couples therapy that takes a closer look at the attachment needs of two people in a relationship. What we know from research into emotionally-focused therapy is that when people are in distressed relationships, it impacts—and because relationships are a system—I mean, people impact each other. Right? But what we see is that both people are impacted in such a way that they both stop—how do I say this?—being the best version of themselves. I mean, being in a distressed relationship creates reactions in each person that can be hurtful, and can sort of support that negative cycle.
I think it's important to talk about that because we expect that in a distressed relationship. Just because that's happening doesn't necessarily mean that it is a fundamentally unhealthy relationship. It's just that we need to do that work of healing. So let's just even start there. I mean, when you're working with a couple who has not been in a great place for a year or three—I mean, for a lot of couples, it takes a while to show up in our office. But what would you expect to see that would be normal?
Brittany: Oh, yeah. So usually, right? EFT, or emotionally-focused couples therapy talks about—we get into this dance with our partner, and every one of us has a dance in our relationship. It's totally normal, and it's part of being in an attachment relationship. So what I might see that is really normal, I would say the most common thing I see is what we call like the pursuer-distancer or the pursuer-withdrawer. This looks like when partners are in distress, and one partner might like protest, as Sue Johnson calls it.And they might start to demand, or criticize, or try to get any sort of engagement from their partner. Right? They're just seeking some sort of reassurance or comfort, but it comes out in a way that might be kind of critical or…
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Angry.
Brittany: …and distressing to their partner. When that happens, their partner then gets overwhelmed, and kind of withdraws, or shuts down. It kind of reinforces the cycle over and over again. The more one person shuts down, the bigger one person gets. The more the other partner shuts down, and so on, and so forth. I would say that's the most common thing I see and it's really, really normal or common. I guess, I would say, it's really, really common.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah.
Brittany: There's a lot we can do with that, because really what we know underneath, right? When there's basic safety there, right? This isn't an abusive relationship. Again, this is a healthy relationship overall, is that we normalize that distress, and we try to identify what's really happening underneath that. Right? There's usually some core attachment need for comfort, or safety, or connection, or anything like that. Just really vulnerable attachment need that isn't being met, and we're just scared to ask for it in that way.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Relationships
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, yeah. I'm so glad that you said all that. I think it's important to put that out there because I think that's part of what can get confusing for people who are like, “Is this a bad relationship? Is this an unhealthy relationship?” Because if you're in a distressed relationship with someone who is engaging with you in a way that makes you sort of feel like withdrawing, and avoiding conversations. The perception from that position is that you're living with somebody who's critical, and judgmental, and never quite happy with you, and always complaining about something, and who wants you to be something that you're not. I mean, that is the inner experience. Right? On the other side of it, the person is experiencing their partner's being withdrawn or avoided. “They never talk to me. They shut me out. They ignore me.” It doesn't matter. They just don't like…
Brittany: They don't care.
Dr. Lisa: They’re emotionally checked out. They don't care. Right. When somebody comes into our office and is like, “This is what's happening at home. They don't care, they're checked out, they'd make me feel like watching ESPN is more important than our marriage.” That's how it feels. We also need to talk about the fact that this is normal in a distressed relationship, and that this—because this is happening doesn't mean that you're in a bad relationship necessarily. But it does require a path of healing, where you can start in a safe place talking about the things that are important. Kind of get reconnected. And I also just want to say, again, that is not a like, “Do these two easy things, and it'll be all better.” This is a process that requires…
Dr. Lisa: …probably months of, “How do we find this?” So there's setting everybody's expectations. Okay, so there's that. That is normal and expected distressed relationship. How would you say that is different from somebody who is in a relationship, that may feel in some ways similarly, but is actually not a healthy relationship? Do you think that there are sort of like markers that we can look at, or think about that would indicate what is this? Or does it really require that assessment process? Do you have to start doing the work to try to fix it, and then see what happens? How do you begin to sort that out?
Brittany: Yeah. I mean, sometimes, I think that we assess very early on so it can kind of become apparent very quickly. If there is just this common distress happening, and we can work with that. Or if it's actually that there's something unhealthy, or problematic, or unsafe happening in the relationship. I think general markers. right? Like the thing I'm always looking for is, “Is there like basic responsiveness?” “Can somebody take accountability and responsibility for their actions in the relationship?” “Can they identify their part and the distress?” And if not, right? I think, again, it's common to experience where we get caught in blaming each other. But usually, we're able to eventually step back and say, “Oh, I can see that I do have a part in this.” If we're just really inherent, or really set on blaming our partner and absolving ourselves of any part of the distress, I think that that's problematic.
Then looking for things like, is there a desire to control or to have power over our partner? Is there—are there elements of shaming, and just really deep criticism present in the relationship? Is there manipulation happening? Is there—is one partner trying to isolate their partner? Are they threatening their partner? Is there verbal abuse happening? Those are some markers that I think are indicative of there being a bigger problem in a relationship, beyond just common distress.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, I get that. Just to say out loud, what you're also talking about are markers that we would associate with domestic violence, or intimate partner violence like the power, and control, the isolation, manipulation. Just to say very, very clearly, it is never appropriate for an ethical couples counselor to attempt any kind of couples counseling in the presence of actual domestic violence or intimate partner violence. It is just a no-go situation. We would not do that because it's not safe ever. That's not what we're talking about here.
In those situations Brittany, if somebody was listening to this and being like, “Oh, no. It's actually violent.” Just for the record, what should they do?
Brittany: Oh, absolutely. I would always recommend they both go seek individual therapy, right? Is there something that can be done to help both partners, or at least a safety plan, or do something that really will establish safety for both partners, especially the victims.
Dr. Lisa: There's a wonderful national resource, it's called thehotline.org. Day and night, you can call or chat with one of their representatives, who can help you either on the spot if it's an emergency or also provide you access to all kinds of resources through community mental health agencies, like safe houses, that kind of thing. So if you're really in trouble, go thehotline.org. Brittany's recommendation is to get involved in individual therapy, ideally with someone who has that background to help you get safe. So that is not what we're talking about.
But Brittany, so what we're talking about is sort of the—if there's a spectrum of basic safety in a relationship, and it's starting to get to this link, I don't know, sort of area. As a couples counselor, if you've determined that it's okay to continue working with a couple, it's not that bad that you are going to pull the plug… what are some of the things that you would want to be talking about with that couple? The things that you're seeing the patterns? Again, it's not a process. It's not information all necessarily. It's a process. But where would you hope to take that process and what would you expect to come from it?
Brittany: Yeah. I always start by helping couples what we call like mapping their dance. Right? So they're each identifying what moves are they both making in the dance? Are they doing different dances with each other? How are they showing up? And will actually map it out and say, “This is what I'm doing.” And part of the things that they're becoming more aware of—are some of the things they're becoming more aware of—are what's happening in their body. Right? Because we know that emotion shows up in our bodies first.
So usually, even if it's subconscious, or even if we're not really aware of it, there's probably some somatic sensation happening in our body that were triggered by, that's telling us that distress is happening, or there's a loss of connection happening. It kind of sets the stance in motion. So I'm asking each partner to identify, “What's happening in your body?” “Can you just check in and notice what's happening?” “What emotions are coming up for you?” Can they name, right? Are they experiencing anger? Are they having… experiencing sadness? Is there judgment happening? What are they thinking right now? What emotions are coming up?
Then I ask them to name a story they're telling themselves, and this includes the story about themselves, about their partners, about their relationship. Right? So these might be the like, “I'm not worthy. They don't love me. Our relationship is broken.” Whatever story they're telling themselves, and they name it, and then identify what do they do with that. Right?
Because usually those three things: the emotions, and the sensations in our body, and the stories we're telling ourselves become too much. And so then we kind of.. we react. How we all handle that distress is going to be different. That's when we might protest, and become critical, or it might become too much, and we might completely shut down and say, “I'm going to go ahead and move into self preservation and shut down.” So it's really important that the couples just become really intimate with what is their dance? Can they map it? Can they tell each other about it? Can they do this together—most importantly, versus… it's me versus you. It's—this is our dance, and we're going to talk about it, and figure it out together. And so the first step is really just naming it, getting really familiar with this.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. So that's what you—what sounds like the place where you would always star. And I think what I'm hearing is that with a couple where there was growth possible, they would be able to engage in that, and be self-reflective, and talk about, “Yeah. This is how I feel. And when you do this, I do that.” And kind of that awareness. How would you contrast that with a couple, maybe that you started working with where you started to think, “Yeah, I don't know if how much growth is possible here.” How would it be different?
Brittany: Yeah. I mean, I always try to give it a little bit of time, right? Because this attachment work can be really deep. And sometimes it's harder for people, depending on experiences they've already had in their life. If they never have experienced a secure attachment, it might take them a little bit of time. We might have to map it over and over and over again, and give them kind of homework to “go and just see what you notice.” If they can't really identify, so that's one thing that might come up.
Dr. Lisa: Thank you for saying that. Yeah. Because that's really important. Because just if that—if it's not easy to do at first, doesn't mean that it's a horrible relationship that needs to end. It means that there is a therapeutic component involved. And that's why we're here is to help people grow, and go through that transformational process.
Dr. Lisa: And so at the beginning, it's normal that it's not easy to do that. Okay. Thank you. Yeah.
Brittany: Oh, yeah. Yeah, this is—it takes vulnerability. This process is really vulnerable. And we have to ease into that. But if beyond that, right? If we're not ever able to kind of establish that safety to feel vulnerable, and to do this work, then there might come a point, right? Where I might suggest that someone does some individual work around some emotional intelligence, or if they maybe have some attachment stuff to heal from their childhoods, or past relationships, or whatever it might be that's coming up for them.
I do—I hope as always, that couples can do this work together because I really do believe that we heal best, and trust that relationships with others. And sometimes we need some individual work just to support us, and identifying what's happening for us, before we share it with our partner, or therapists in the couple setting.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, to work on yourself. If the wounds run so deep, that you're really not able to show up in a healthy way in your relationship, that's a sign that you need to work on yourself a little bit. I would imagine that for someone who will be very unlikely to be able to have a healthy relationship, they would reject that idea, and they would not want to do individual work. So that would be a sign. I would think that it's probably not going to work out, at least in a healthy way for you.
Brittany: Yeah, right. Absolutely. I think that at that point, it's up to everyone to decide, “Is this something that I'm willing to kind of wade out, and hope that my partner changed their mind?” Or yeah, changes their mind? Or, “Do I really have to kind of accept that they're not in a place to do this growth work right now?”
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Completely.
Brittany: “Maybe that's not going to serve either of us or this relationship?”
Is My Relationship Healthy?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Well, this is really clarifying because I think a lot of people that are stuck in this conundrum, are in a place where they're trying to figure out, “Is this relationship healthy?” “Can this relationship be saved?” “How much do I want to invest in this relationship?” before having had the opportunity to do the kind of work that you're talking about Brittany?” So they're attempting to make these major life decisions without having the information that they need because after four months of working with Brittany, and there's no movement, and Brittany is recommending that your partner go to individual therapy, and they're refusing— that is good information upon which you could make a life decision. But before you've done that, it's like you don't even know what's possible or not and that is what feels so paralyzing.
Brittany: Yeah, yeah. I think, something that I see with—even people in the dating-coaching world, right? Who are seeking relationships, and also individuals, and people in relationships, is they're just hoping that they can read the mind of whoever they're dating, or their partner, and just know what's going to be possible, or if it's going to be a functional, healthy relationship. Really, I think that responsiveness is just so important. We have to be able to express what we're needing, what we're wanting, what our core needs are, and see how someone responds to that. Which really does require that vulnerability and baseline safety to do that. But how does somebody respond to us, right? When we say that we really want this type of relationship, we want a secure attachment, we want to be able to express emotions, how does somebody respond to that? And if it's—they're pushing back on it, or that's not what they believe in a relationship, then maybe that partner is not suited for us. Or are they interested in doing that, and they want to do that work, and are we willing to allow space for that growth to happen?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, yeah. Well—and that's, that's a wonderful way, and certainly for people who are maybe single and in that dating coaching realm, because we often work with a lot of individual clients who are interested in creating healthy relationships. I think what I have certainly experienced are, oftentimes, people who have become aware that their last several relationships haven't really been great for them. So they come to us for help with, “Okay, what do I need to do differently this time to connect from the get go with somebody who will be a better fit for me? How am I showing up in relationships?” So that's an important area of growth work.
What I'm hearing you say is that one of the keys to that is, as you're developing a new relationship with someone, just to be really observant. “How is this person responding to me over and over and over again?” And from that, begin to figure out, “Okay, can they respond to me?” But it's so hard, though, because at the same time, if your core narrative is, “But if I were more lovable, they would be nicer to me,” or whatever it was. And if they're saying, “Well, if you were just not X, Y, Z, then I wouldn't be so snappy with you.” It can be so hard as an individual to figure this out and sort it out. It’s complicated.
Brittany: Complicated. Yeah. It really is. Which is why I think responsiveness also includes like, “This is hard for me. I don't know what to do with this. But I want to be in this with you.”
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Right.
Brittany: “I want us to figure it out together.” It's okay not to have the answers. It's okay to mess up and make mistakes and not get it right. We're all not going to get it right sometimes in our relationships. But where's that motivation to work on things, and to grow, and to stay in it together?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. And yeah, so you're saying that in a healthy relationship, you should be hearing some version of that from a partner who has the capacity to be responsive to you?
Dr. Lisa: Could grow with you?
Being Present in Relationships
Dr. Lisa: Okay. So now one last aspect of this I want to run past you. I think another trap that people can fall into, particularly women, although I see this happen with men too. When they've been in a relationship, and maybe for the last couple of years, it's a long distance relationship. Or maybe they've been dating, but they're not living together and one person is, “I really—I want to live with you. I don't want to be long distance anymore. I want to get married.” In their mind, there is the sometimes subconscious core belief that goes, “Because if we weren't long distance, this experience would be different. Or when we get married, this experience will be different than it is right now.”
That is what they're sort of holding—so they're really pushing for this future thing. But that—what they may be missing is like warning signs of an unhealthy relationship that they have interpreted, as well, “When we get married, this won't happen anymore.” Have you noticed that? And could you speak to that?
Brittany: Yeah. I mean, I think I noticed that in both unhealthy relationships and also just relationships that might be healthy but are having some distress.
Dr. Lisa: Okay.
Brittany: I think it's just part of our culture that it's really hard for us to be present and focus on what's happening now. Right? And so we, of course, we create this idea in our head that the future will be better, and there's like that hope which is positive, and the future might be better. The only thing that changes with time is what we do with it. So it's really important that we focus on what does the relationship feel like now? What's serving us? What isn't serving us? What needs work, and are we willing to put in that work so that we can have that ideal future we're thinking of?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah.
Brittany: Or we're thinking, it won’t be present in the future, or this dynamic will be different in the future. What are we both going to do now…
Dr. Lisa: Right.
Brittany: …to help that be a reality? Or is there something actually happening now that is really unhealthy, and i just need to be really aware of it, and name it?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah.
Brittany: And maybe walk away from something that isn't serving me anymore.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. To differentiate, “Will it actually be better once we're married or whatever?” Or “Is this the way this—is this actually the relationship?” And Brittany, what you're saying again is there needs to be effort on both sides to—okay, “How do you imagine it would be once we are married or whatever, and how close to that can we get before this?” Because that's kind of the sign that it would actually be different once you are married, or once you were living in the same town, or whatever, in terms of the emotional responsiveness and the empathy. Is that it?
Brittany: Absolutely. Do you both have the same expectations? Right?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah.
Brittany: What I am—and this is part of like naming that story again—is what I'm naming, “Is that true for you as well?” Right? Or “Do we have the same expectations, the same hope for our future?” “Are we both hoping that this dynamic is different in the future?” Or “Is this maybe uncomfortable, or painful, or difficult for me, and to you it feels fine?”
Dr. Lisa: Yeah.
Brittany: If so, that's a conversation that we need to talk about and see. Are there some—is there a compromise that needs to happen? Is there something that actually does need to be addressed and healed? Or is this something that's going to cause a really big rupture, and maybe the relationship is not going to work long-term?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. What a great point because if this feels intolerable to me and it's perfectly fine for you—how close—how can we close that gap at all? If the answer is no, or there's not willingness on one side to have it be different, that's important information that is worth listening to.
Brittany: Yeah. Absolutely.
Dr. Lisa: Wow. What a great conversation about such an important topic. I know we need to wrap things up here in a second. But do you have anything else to add on that question around healthy relationships versus unhealthy relationships, and how to tell the difference?
Brittany: Yeah. I think, really, what it comes down to—I tell every couple of this that I work with, “My hope is that you can walk away with what we call attunement, and know how to practice attunement.” Attunement is really just like a process of being present with our partners. It's where we engage in that emotional response—responsiveness, where we can turn to our partner, we feel like we can be vulnerable. Even if something is difficult, or painful, or uncomfortable, we really trust that our partner is going to be in it with us.
So I encourage partners, “If you're feeling disconnected, or you're feeling like you're not in attunement, that's okay. But how can you find your way back to each other and do you both take part in that process?” I think it's just so, so critical to have that responsiveness and reciprocity in relationships.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. I love that, especially with the idea that you were talking about earlier, That in a distressed relationship you won't have that attunement because of that pursue-withdraw cycle. Yet it is something that can be intentionally created if both people are engaged in that process. so that that's the goal, though, is that attunement. That's really the fundamental heart of every relationship is that emotional connection, emotional intimacy, feeling of emotional safety. That’s the goal, and that's what is present in healthy relationships and what feels you know fundamentally not possible, even with work in relationships that aren't healthy. Is that a good way to summarize it?
Brittany: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.
Dr. Lisa: Well, Brittany, thank you again so much for your time and meeting with me today. This was wonderful. Thank you.
Brittany: Oh, of course. Thanks so much for having me, Lisa.
Dr. Lisa: You can learn more about Brittany and her work as a marriage counselor, a couples therapist, an online relationship coach at growingself.com. While you're there, you can also take our free, “How Healthy Is Your Relationship?” online quiz. You can take it yourself, you can share it with your partner, and then you can compare results. It's an easy kind of lowkey way to get a snapshot of your relationship with its opportunities for growth, as well as its strength. So you can check all that out and more at growingself.com and I will be back in touch next week with another episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast.
In long-term relationships, keeping the romance alive isn’t always an easy task. Everyday life can get in the way of doing small romantic gestures for our partner that we enjoyed at the beginning of the relationship.
This relationship dynamic can hinder romance and connection. The good news though? It doesn’t have to be this way. Long-term relationship dynamics open opportunities to rediscover each other, rekindle your connection, and keep your romance alive.
As an online marriage counselor and relationship coach, I want to share with you some of the same tips I share with my couples clients who too are struggle keeping the romance alive. This way you can get started on rekindling romance in your relationship today!
9 Ways to Practice Keeping the Romance Alive in Long-term Relationships
Communicate Your Needs and Listen to Your Partner
It’s true that communication is one of the most important factors to any relationship when it comes to keeping the romance alive, it’s also one of the most difficult things for couples to do effectively. This is especially true if your relationship is going through something completely new – new challenges, new hurdles, new arguments, new annoyances!
Communicating effectively takes practice and it is important that during times when we worry about so much, we also pay attention to our needs and communicate these with our partner.
Acknowledge your frustrations, tell them what would help you feel more at ease, more loved, more connected. When your partner shares their needs, make sure you put your phone down and pay attention. This will help your partner feel heard, understood, and will also help you get on the same page with them and come up with solutions together.
It’s not uncommon or unexpected to get comfortable in your relationship. Some personal habits you might have upheld in the early dating stages of your relationship may not feel as important now – and that’s okay! However, for my couples that are struggling to rekindle their romance flame, I recommend that they try dressing up once or twice a week, even if you’re just having dinner at home.
Do your hair, put on makeup, perfume, cologne, or whatever it is that makes you feel nice. Do this for yourself (as when you look great you feel better) and do this for your partner so they can see you as your most confident and attractive self as well.
[If you are struggling with self-worth and low self-esteem, you're not alone. With everything this world throws at us, it's not a surprise that we struggle so often to realize how truly valuable and wonderful we are. If these factors are hindering you from keeping the romance alive, I encourage you to read this reminder: You Are Worthy of Love and Respect and know that you deserve love and respect! For more on building self-esteem and confidence, check out: How to Increase Self Confidence (Part 1)]
Compliment Each Other Regularly
Genuine compliments can make us feel so special. Make sure you practice gratitude and appreciation of each other every day. Focusing on qualities that you love and appreciate in one another primes your brain to notice the positives and not only the negative or frustrating things in each other.
If you can, create an “appreciation jar,” where you each write a compliment or appreciation about your partner every day.
[Have you heard of micro-dates? These are fantastic ways to connect with your partner regularly throughout your day, read more about micro-dates here: The Micro-Date Revolution]
Turn Off The Screens (Activity Ideas Below)
Make sure you have screen-free time. This includes TV, computers, tablets and phones. Try an activity (ideas below) during this, and focus on each other.
It may feel a little awkward at first, but the more time you spend away from the screen and together in interactive and engaging activities, the easier and more enjoyable it will become. You’ll get to where you both look forward to those screen-free activities together.
Plan out some daily routines, chores, activities and who is doing what. Having a plan, even when you feel you don’t need one because you are just at home, can be very helpful in avoiding building frustrations.
Your routine can include planning out the necessary chores, creating a menu for the week, and identifying the activities you’d like to do and when you will do them.
It’s important to have a plan when you want to accomplish something, and your relationship is no different. If you set yourself (and your relationship) up for success, you’re both more likely to follow through with your commitments.
Build A Team Environment
WE ARE IN THIS TOGETHER. Doing some of the activities outlined below, such as starting and completing a challenge together, can be an easy and stress-free way to create a sense of team spirit.
Building a team environment in your relationship will help you feel more connected and ready to tackle the challenges that you are facing (whether they be internal or external to your relationship).
Create Space for “Me Time”
This may sound like a contradiction to my point before, but it is a lot easier to participate in the ‘team,’ when we feel like we can be our own selves as well.
Try and take some time apart each day. If you’re not able to leave the home, spend some time in different rooms of your house. This may even be just taking a long bath with some relaxing music while your partner is in the living room reading a book.
By creating space for “me time” you’re actually encouraging a healthy self-care routine with yourself and for your partner.
Continue Making An Effort (And Seek Help When Needed)
Complacency is the enemy of romance. Once we stop making an effort for each other, it is inevitable that romance and the spark you once had will fade. Effort doesn’t have to be difficult. As long as you try to do right by your partner, and implement some of the strategies outlined here, your partner will definitely appreciate all that you are trying to do.
If you find that you’re struggling to make an effort, reach out for support. Whether that’s discussing it with your partner, asking for friendly advice from a friend or family member, or reaching out to a therapist or coach – there’s help out there for you when you need it (and we all do from time to time).
Physical affection and sexuality can be difficult in times of stress. Try to ensure that it doesn’t take the backseat completely. In long-term relationships, we can get busy with “life” and forget to connect with our partner on a more intimate level, which is a major factor in keeping the romance alive.
“In most long-term relationships, sooner or later there will be a time when the sexual dynamic is not as ambient as it once was. Even in a happy and otherwise fulfilling relationship, sexuality can take a hit due to several reasons, including stress, major life events, hormonal changes, physiological concerns, etc..
However, when things in the bedroom become a little more dull, repetitive or almost absent, there are quite a few ways to ‘spice things up.’”
Try something new together – Novelty is a great way to build romance and connection. Any of the ideas below would work, but coming up with something together can be a fun activity as well.
Play games – Board games, card games, or brain teasers try out a few and see what the two of you enjoy the most. You can even make a game night out of it and invite some friends over.
Double Dates – There are fun new ways to have double dates these days. Whether you’re meeting up in person or over virtual video – you can meet up for outdoor activities, dinner, or even host a virtual cooking or game night!
Exercise together – You can set this as a challenge and encourage each other to follow through with completing the challenge. For example, complete 100 squats every day. Break it up to 50 in the morning and 50 in the evening or break it up even more to 25 at one time. You can also exchange it to sit ups or push ups, or any activity that doesn’t require much space or equipment.
This is an especially good activity for those looking to build intimacy in your relationship. Taking care of yourself physically can lead to a healthier sex life!
Have a picnic – Outdoor and indoor picnics are both great ways to connect with your partner. Lay down a blanket at your favorite outdoor area or venue, or in the living room, put on some music, and bring out some picnic foods you can find at home. This could be cheese and crackers, cold meats, olives, dips, fruits, drinks, chocolates, or anything you can source and have some fun with.
Not wanting to put the work into building a picnic? Search for a charcuterie business near you that will provide the picnic (and maybe even set up and clean up!) so that you can spend the time focusing on each other and not on what side dish you’d like to bring!
Try a food sensory activity – You could do this during the picnic, or at a different time. Place small and easily manageable pieces of different food items in your partner's mouth while they are blindfolded, and they have to guess what the food item is. This could even be a good activity for building intimacy together!
Cook something together – If neither of you are good cooks, here is the opportunity to learn how to create some nice meals. If one of you is usually responsible for cooking, the other should give it a go with your assistance. Find some recipes together that you’d like to try and complete the whole process together, from prep to eating your lovely meal.
Walk down memory lane – Look at old pictures of the two of you. Remember those times, the fun memories, and what you liked about each other back then. Maybe even spend a moment on appreciating how far you’ve come since then, and all that you have accomplished together.
Eye gazing activity – Sounds simplistic and silly, but this is a powerful activity that stimulates the bonding hormones in your brains and helps with feeling connected. It can feel like the world’s problems melt away and it is just you two that matter.
While sitting, face each other, make sure you are touching in some way (holding hands) and try looking into each other’s eyes for 5 minutes, without speaking or looking away. Once the giggling subsides, you’ll start really appreciating the connection this activity is creating.
Meditate together – There are a number of free meditation apps and channels on YouTube that will guide you through how and what to do. It is such a nice way to relax and connect at the same time.
Try spending a small amount of time together at first and building up as you feel comfortable. Even just 10 minutes together can spark a renewed spirit among your relationship.
Bedtime routine – Go to bed each day with the intention of letting the day’s stressors and irritations behind. Say a few kind words to each other and go to bed with a kiss and a cuddle when you have the chance.
If you find that your relationship is struggling and it seems difficult to rekindle the romance, online marriage counselling can be helpful in identifying where things started shifting and how to get back into a happier place.
What To Do When You're Married With a Crush On Someone Else…
So, you are married but you have a crush on someone else. Hey, it happens. Married people, even happily married people, are also human and as such, are vulnerable to developing crushes on attractive others. A crush, aka, “Romantic Infatuation” can happen with anyone who you spend time with and who has attractive or, interestingly, anxiety-producing qualities.
What does is mean if you are married and have a crush on someone else?
Having a crush on someone else when you're married doesn't mean that you're a bad person. It also is not a reflection of your marriage. Believe it or not, having a crush may not mean anything at all. In fact, people in happy, healthy, committed relationships can still develop fluttery feelings for attractive others. Crush-y feelings don't need to mean anything about your marriage or your spouse, or about the person you have a crush on.
Feelings just happen sometimes.
We have crushes because we're living, feeling human beings who are designed to fall in love. Particularly in long-term relationships where the zing of early-stage romantic love has faded into a steady, warm attachment, the part of us that longs for exciting, romantic love may be tickled awake by the presence of an interesting new other.
However, smart, self-aware people in good, committed relationships need to not followthose feelings but rather handle them maturely and with wisdom.
The Smart Way to Handle Having a Crush When You're Married
While developing a crush is not unusual, it is extremely important to be very self-aware about what is happening and redirect your energy back into your primary relationship as quickly as possible. (If you want to stay married, anyway.)
Developing an infatuation can actually be a positive thing for a relationship, particularly if you are self-aware enough to realize that your feelings for someone else might be informing you about what you'd like to be different about your primary relationship.
Then you can build on the existing strengths of your relationship to add “crush ingredients” back in, like spending time together, novelty, emotional intimacy, flirtation and fun. Your relationship will be the stronger for it.
Crushes, when not handled well, can also be an on-ramp to an affair. Consider that very few people intend to start an affair. Most affairs begin with people having fluttery, crush-y feelings for someone who is not their spouse… convincing themselves of all the reasons why it's okay… (We're just friends! But my husband never talks to me like this!) … and then leaning into the feelings of excitement and attraction rather than intentionally extinguishing them. Those feelings, those rationalizations, are the siren song that lures your marriage onto the rocks of ruin.
Developing a crush or romantic feelings for another can be extremely dangerous for the stability of your family and your relationship. While it's not unusual to develop a mild crush when you're married, if unchecked, your innocent-seeing crush could bloom into an emotional or even sexual affair.
While everyone can have a crush bloom, it's very important to know how to handle yourself and your relationship when crushes happen in order to protect yourself, your relationship, and your integrity.
Protect Your Marriage From an Affair
Here at Growing Self, we are strong believers in the old saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” That is never more so than with relationships. It's much easier to educate yourself and learn how to handle common situations successfully, and in such a way that they strengthen your relationship rather than harm it.
Knowing how to handle yourself if you start to develop a crush on someone when you're married to another is one of the most important ways of protecting your relationship from an affair. Even though couples can and do recover from infidelity, infidelity is terribly traumatic and difficult to repair. Affairs destroy marriages and destroy lives, and at the end of the day tend to result in disappointing relationships with the affair partner.
Take it from a marriage counselor (and, ahem, author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to an Ex Love”) who's seen the destruction that affairs create: Don't do it. The key? Catching those normal, crush-y feelings early and learning how to use them to re-energize your marriage, while simultaneously learning how to extinguish the crush.
Listen To This Episode to Learn What To Do (And Not Do) When You Are Married And Have a Crush
Today on the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast I'm talking all about how to handle yourself and your relationship when you have a crush on someone else. We'll be discussing:
The mechanics of a crush; how and why crushes develop
The difference between a crush and a platonic friendship
Why happy, committed married people can have crushes on others
How crushes can turn into something more serious
How to use self-awareness, integrity, and honesty to protect your marriage
How to use your crush experience in order to add energy and intimacy into your relationship
Warning signs that your crush is developing into something else
Why extramarital affairs are always a bad idea, and rarely end well
How to stop having a crush on someone else
How to avoid embarrassment and professional ruin if you have a crush on a coworker
How to protect your relationship and stay true to your values even when you're having feelings for another.
All this and more on today's episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.
P.P.S. Another very low-key way to begin a productive conversation about how you're both feeling in your relationship is to take our free online “How Healthy is Your Relationship Quiz” together and discuss the results. Having these types of emotionally intimate conversations with your partner can jump start the process of growing back together again, if you're open to it!
Real Help For Your Relationship
Lots of couples go through challenging times, but the ones who turn "rough-patches" into "growth moments" can come out the other side stronger and happier than ever before.
Working with an expert couples counselor can help you create understanding, empathy and open communication that felt impossible before.
Start your journey of growth together by scheduling a free consultation.
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