The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Music Credits: “Urgent Blowout” by Brandy
Emotional flooding is impacting communication in your relationships — whether or not you’re consciously aware of it. Have you ever wondered why you lose it sometimes, and say things you regret later? Or why you get to a certain point with people where you just cannot talk anymore, and shut down or withdraw? These are both examples of emotional flooding: Lashing out and shutting down are two sides of the same coin.
Anytime we tangle with someone, we become physiologically elevated. Whether or not you’re aware of it, your body is dumping stress hormones out into your bloodstream that increase your heart rate, narrow your perspective, and energize your body to effectively fight, flee, or freeze.
This biologically-based, completely normal reaction does strange things to your brain: It makes the “human” part stop working very well. Your compassionate, self-aware, rational, and well-spoken self gets hijacked by your entirely emotional mid-brain. That part of you gives no craps about consequences, is not particularly rational or articulate, and is here to win or die trying.
Emotional Flooding in Relationships
If you’re in a knife fight, that’s a good thing. But if it’s happening when you and your partner are trying to decide between pizza or burritos… that’s not going to bode well for your relationship. Unless! Unless you’re aware that emotional flooding is happening inside you (or your partner), and you know how to effectively manage it so that it doesn’t damage your relationship.
Everyone gets flooded emotionally, and that’s okay. The trick is to recognize when it’s happening and help everybody calm back down before things get nasty. How? That, my friend, is what we’re talking about on today’s episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.
With me is my dear friend and colleague, Lisa Jordan. Lisa is a therapist and a level two Gottman-certified marriage counselor at Growing Self. Listen to this episode to hear her insights about flooding psychology. She delves into what it means to be emotionally flooded and how it can impact relationships and discusses different manifestations of emotional flooding to help you see it coming. Her advice in keeping our emotions from overflowing will be helpful for every couple out there, and I hope you listen!
Listen to “Emotional Flooding” To…
Learn what emotional flooding is about.
Recognize when you're becoming emotionally flooded.
Find out the science behind being emotionally overwhelmed.
Understand the secret gift behind the “perpetual problems” in most relationships.
Discover ways of becoming emotionally healthy with your partner.
Realize the importance of self-compassion and emotional safety in a relationship.
Challenge yourself in creating a healthy space for yourself and your partner.
You can listen to this podcast episode on Spotify, on Apple Podcasts (don’t forget to subscribe!), or right here on the page. If you’re more of a reader, show notes and a full transcript are below. For more on the subject, be sure to check out this article about emotional flooding from Lisa!
Thanks for joining us today,
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Many do not realize that they areemotionally flooded. When people get involved in a conflict, each escalation contributes to a state of fight, flight, or freeze. Emotional flooding is a mix of the biology and chemistry happening in the brain when stress transitions into conflict. It is a physiological activation that occurs in a fight. It escalates rapidly, which disables you from thinking rationally and communicating with your partner.
Emotional flooding can make small things feel so big. We tend to say and do things haphazardly when in a state of overwhelm. Words can become like knives thrown to assert dominance in an argument. The sad thing about this is that we may not even remember why there was a conflict in the first place. We continue to fight since we feel threatened by our partner. However, as everything intensifies, we don't notice the rift that slowly develops in the relationship. Over time, being in constant emotional flood leads to irreparable damage to trust and emotional safety. Emotional flooding can cause relationships to seriously go downhill.
Draining The Emotional Flood
When two people in a conflict are both emotionally flooded, both lose the capacity to back down. The self-awareness to know when you are emotionally flooded will help you get on top of things and understand the situation. Recognizing emotional flooding can even help couples recover faster from the aftermath of the conflict. Additionally, having the heart toapologize is also key to keeping a long-standing, healthy relationship.
Taking breaks is essential for de-escalating emotions. Physical checks (e.g., heart pounding, shortness of breath, rising blood pressure) can help you to recognize if it's a good time to rest and drain the flood. Taking a break is not just time off. It's “bringing yourself back to a place of calm.”
Instead of being busy planning on your rebuttal, take the time to listen to your partner. Think first: “Is there anything that you can acknowledge for your partner that they have a legitimate point about?”
Spending your time listening, focusing, and being with them is a way to both stop and even prevent both of you from becoming emotionally overwhelmed.
Fight or Flight Response In Marriage
Our limbic system has been with us for millions of years. It has accompanied us as an adaptive tool responsible for the fight or flight response: We needed it to survive. But now, in modern times, we rarely have situations that require us to fight or flee. The brain, however, still makes use of our survival instincts. The rational part of the brain can still go offline, leaving us overwhelmed. The brain translates the things our partner says or does as something dangerous, which shuts down our rationality and leads to emotional flooding.
Impacts Of Emotional Flooding
In Lisa’s marriage counseling sessions, she’s had numerous couples share their experiences with her – with many of them having stories of emotional flooding. Many of the couples she's worked with had conflicts that lasted days. These continued to a point where they no longer communicated with each other. Lisa shares, “In my experience, when couples are escalated and they're having conflict, they may be yelling, [and] they may be saying hurtful things. They move away from each other. And both feel abandoned, but maybe for different reasons.”Couples find it difficult to finish arguments because there’s not enough safety for them to stay. However, it is vital in a relationship to address conflicts right away. These moments are when self-awareness is critical. We should assess if we are becoming overwhelmed and if we need to take a break. But we also need to be responsible enough to come back to an argument – all calm and collected. Leaving a conflict hanging can make your partner feel abandoned and invalidated.Continuously keeping conflicts unresolved may also make them think that their partner can't or won't meet their expectations and needs.
The Perpetual Problem
Even great relationships have problems and conflicts. It’s all about the attitude, trust, and commitment to the relationship that make it work. Younger couples may attach themselves to a fairytale version of what a relationship is. And experiencing it, with all its realities, can make them feel disappointed. They start losing confidence as conflicts arise, which can easily lead to being emotionally flooded.
However, disagreements will happen in a relationship — it's normal. Lisa even goes on to say that “69% of our disagreements are perpetual”. It can be lifestyle issues like one of you being a messy person while the other one is a neat person. Since things like this are hard to change, we’ll just have to be accepting.
Lisa advises, “If we know that the two-thirds of what we go through in life are the problems of just being in relation with other people, we might as well focus our attention on that 1/3 of problems that are actually solvable. Creating some space around the rest of the stuff, making it more workable, or negotiating how we want to deal with things.”
Build Up Your Relationship With Yourself
One of the most significant steps in having a healthy marriage is to have a healthy relationship with yourself. By being kind to yourself and developing that self-compassion, you can create a kind of emotional safety inside of you. When you feel emotionally safe by yourself, you become less reactive and more understanding. You become a person who can transmit emotional safety and compassion to your partner as well.
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[Intro Song: Urgent Blowout by Brandy]
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: Today, we're talking about a very important concept when it comes to relationships. But one that is not well understood by many people. That is emotional flooding and what it does to us. I tell you what, when I have worked with couples in counseling, who really get what emotional flooding is and the impact that can have on communication, so many things changed for them. This is a very important thing to understand, and that is what we're doing on today's episode of the podcast.
I am so pleased to be talking today with my colleague, Lisa Jordan. Lisa is a couple's counselor on our team, who has a lot of training in this area. She has a ton of expertise in helping couples identify different areas of communication that are problematic and improving them, and in particular, around emotional flooding. I'm so excited to talk with her about this today and to get her to share her great advice with you. Lisa, thank you.
Lisa Jordan: Oh, thank you so much for inviting me. It's a pleasure to be here.
How Hidden Emotional Flooding Is
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Well, I really wanted to talk with you about this. Because lately, I have been doing episodes on these. I almost think of them as like hidden rocks or obstacles. Have you ever had that experience like you're in a stream or something, and there's this stone that you don't see and that's the one that you slip on or that you bump your shin on? There are these things that happen in relationships that are kind of like that. There are these things that you don't see coming.
I think a lot of people don't understand in the moment what is happening and the major significance of these things. Recently, I recorded an episode around invalidation and how very easy it is to respond to your partner in a way that makes them feel really bad. You don't mean to, and it can really damage trust and emotional safety over time. I think that emotional flooding is really one of those. People just don't even know that it's there and it is ruining their relationship nonetheless.
Lisa Jordan: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. I do think that the emotional flooding, that whole term, and that idea, is something that people wouldn't initially think about. They just consider that they're in conflict. They don't necessarily understand how it's part of the dance that they're doing. Each person is doing something that pushes it further and further along until all of a sudden, it's something that it wasn't in the beginning.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Chairs are getting thrown out, people are screeching off in their cars very dramatically. I know. All kinds of different places.
What Emotional Flooding Is
Dr. Lisa: To orient our listeners, because emotional flooding, I think, it is such a weird and in some ways, clinical term, emotional flooding. Let's just start with the basics. What does emotional flooding mean? What is emotional flooding?
Lisa Jordan: When I talk about emotional flooding, what I mean is that when people are engaged in something that will eventually be conflictual, it starts at a point where the emotions are not particularly involved. With each escalation, blood pressure’s going up; the heart starts pounding. That escalated state where we move into that fight, flight, or freeze, creates something that's very different.
Whenever I'm working with a couple and they say, “We got to this place where some very mean things were said, and our feelings got hurt,” I know that we're talking about emotional flooding. Because when you're not in that state, you're not even in a position to be saying and doing the things that ultimately happen when you're elevated like that. Emotional flooding is when you think about the biology and the chemistry. It's where all that science comes in.
Most people have heard of fight, flight. Everyone is a little bit stressed right now. So I think we're all living from time to time in fight, flight, freeze. But that's where the emotional flooding comes from. If you never are able to discharge that excess stress, and then, you move into something that's conflict with your partner, it escalates very quickly so that you're no longer using the rational, more well-thought-out part of your brain and thinking about the things that you and I are always trying to teach in couples communication, which is to talk to each other with kindness and respect.
“Talk to me as though I love you, and you love me.” Those kinds of qualities have gone completely out the door. Emotional flooding is when that is gone and you don't even know who you are fighting with in that moment. It's not the same loving person that you knew when things were feeling calm.
The Importance of Self-Awareness When Being Flooded
Dr. Lisa: Oh, my God. Yeah. Can everybody relate to this? I can relate to this. I've had that experience. What you're describing is this physiological activation that happens to us in conflict. It's this fight or flight thing. Our rational, thinking brains just go out the window and we can say and do things that are shocking, even to us.
Lisa Jordan: Yes. I think everyone has been there. Everyone has gone there. I consider in my 30-year marriage that I have a nice, good relationship. We rarely go there. Of course, we've gone there. That's why I know what it feels like to be emotionally flooded, like sitting in that moment where you're just sure that your partner is doing something that's just making it worse and worse and worse.
If you could take away that, what's called the sympathetic nervous system, right, the one that's escalating. If you could calm that down, you would be able to let in some other possibilities, which is, “Maybe they're really not trying to do this. Maybe I'm actually not hearing this correctly. Maybe I'm not understanding well what's going on.” But when two people are emotionally flooded, neither one has the capacity to back down. That's why it's so important to become self-aware if you are emotionally flooded. Because if one or the other partner isn't getting on top of that, nobody's going to be the wise voice to bring you back down again.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, and it's so hard to do. Let's just get real for a second. We are both marriage counselors. We have both been married for a long time, overall, good relationships. Matt and I have done so much work over the years, and it's been very positive. But I will still, from time to time, have these moments where I just lose it. There's this other part of my brain like, “I'm a marriage counselor. I know all of these things.”
There's a little part of my brain that’s like, “Don't say that. Don't do that. You're doing it.” But even in those moments, even though I have all of this information, there's this other part of your mind that is just like, “Yes, I don't care and I'm mad right now. I'm going to tell you all about it. I'm going to be mean and say all these things.” It's like, you can't help yourself. Yeah, no, it really is.
Lisa Jordan: I think it's actually a good thing because when it happens, I recognize in myself how easy it is to go there if just a couple things aren't going well. We're all that close. Maybe you and I, maybe we recover a teeny bit faster just because we're recognizing it. I don't know. But we can go there just as much as anybody, and I think it's just about having those tools.
I will say that that optimism, that confidence that comes from long-term relationships is “Wow, we have been through this and we've weathered this, so this is very familiar. Then, we can laugh about it.” I think also having that really strong muscle to apologize. I can apologize a lot better now than I could when I was married for a year or two, and I was sure that I was right about everything. The longer I stay married, the less right I am about everything, which has been really healthy.
Dr. Lisa: I really love it.
Lisa Jordan: To be less certain about your rightness and things is tremendously healing in a relationship.
Changes in the Brain During Mental Flooding, When Your Mind is Overwhelmed
Dr. Lisa: I couldn't agree more. I think of it as healthy humility, and I can so relate. I agree. I think I'm much better than I used to be, too. I think that self-awareness that you're describing and understanding when you are starting to get elevated is hugely helpful. I do want to talk about those strategies because I don't want to leave people with this idea that this is going to happen no matter what. It really does get better. But it's so easy, so easy to fall into.
Going back to one of your points, because I think this is important to talk about more, is what actually changes in our brains and in our internal process. I remember once being at a training… Did I ever tell you that Matt and I, for a while, were foster parents? Did I ever tell you that? Yeah, we did it. We did it for a few years. It was an incredible experience. I remember being at this one training, which was so good, where the trainers were explaining these concepts.
I, having been to counseling school, had learned about it in a different way. But they talked about this in such an, I think, accessible way because they were trying to educate foster parents about what happens, particularly with traumatized children who can really have big responses. I know that this is audio, but right now, I am holding up my closed fist. If you can imagine my fingers are facing Lisa, and my thumb is closed in my hand.
What they talked about is that our lids get flipped. I just lifted up my fingers. What they were trying to illustrate is that there's actually this part of your brain, I believe, it is the amygdala. Fact check me on that. When we become in this super fight or flight space, the amygdala becomes where you're operating from, which is the seat of emotion.
This other part of your brain, the neocortex, which is usually the part of you that is in control, it is the part of us that thinks rationally. It is the part of us that processes language. It is the part of us that is the most human part of us in some ways. It has compassion for other people. That part goes offline. It's like you're totally operating from your lizard brain, basically in that moment, and wanna kill everybody.
Lisa Jordan: That's exactly right. Because we have those different parts, that whole limbic system that's there, the survival piece of us that for millions and millions of years has been there, when we had to flee from the saber-toothed tiger, we needed to have that fight/flight response, or we wouldn't survive. It's adaptive.
Now, in modern times, we rarely have situations where we have to flee. But our brains are still doing it. They're still going there. As you say, the prefrontal cortex, that part that is developed that is rational, it really goes offline, and we're left with overwhelm. When that flooding happens, our brains are searching for the danger. The danger, unfortunately, gets interpreted as being, sometimes, what my partner is saying, or doing, or not feeling safe in the relationship at that moment.
Gottman Flooding and Shutting Down When Overwhelmed
Lisa Jordan: I think one thing that I didn't mention about flooding is that it's not always looking like escalating conflict. We have people who dissociate, who become so shut down that they can't speak at all. That also is escalating for the partner who wants to fight more. It's not just that there's escalation and both people are name-calling and becoming hurt, it's that one person is starting to shut down, and the other partner is thinking, “You're doing that on purpose. You're abandoning me.” That is a very triggering thing as well.
You're right. It's chemistry. It's biology. We've got all this operating at the same time. Based on what one's reaction is, when you go out of that resilient zone, up above it, you may get panic attacks, or anxiety, or extreme anger. If you get bumped out, down the other way, for some people, that looks more like depression, or dissociation, or not really being able to engage at all in conversation. People are shut down in different ways.
Dr. Lisa: That's interesting. I think, if I'm remembering correctly, you would probably have a lot of insight into this because I know that you're a Gottman-certified couples counselor. For our listeners who may not be familiar with their work, the Gottmans have done just an enormous amount of research into relationships and healthy relationships versus the kinds of behaviors or ways of communicating in relationships that are known to create issues.
Can you speak a little bit… I believe that they did some research around the impact of emotional flooding in those relationships, and particularly, in the piece of shutting down that some people really, when they start to experience this internal flooding, just stop interacting. Can you talk more about that and what you've seen happen with that and your couples?
Lisa Jordan: Yeah, so it's not unusual that when a client, partner, and a couple is talking about what happens to them when there's a lot of conflict, is that they will say, “I get to the point where I can't talk anymore, and I go away. I don't come back for three, four days.” They're just not speaking to their partner for days. They don't know how to reconnect. They get lost in finding their way back.
I think what the Gottmans did so well and gave us all these tools to help couples with, is how to find your way back without using the strategy that you have because it's the only one you've got and using something else so that you don't have to suffer. Because the relationships are suffering so much from that kind of shutdown or moving away from each other.
In my experience, when couples are escalated, and they're having conflict, they may be yelling. They may be saying hurtful things. They move away from each other. Both feel abandoned but maybe for different reasons. One, because there's just not enough safety in the relationship to stay present. They have to check out. The other, because their partner walks out of the room and won't stay to, as they say, finish the argument. But worse, what does that mean to finish the argument?
The Gottmans talked about having a blood pressure cuff so that you could be tracking your own blood pressure if you became aware of the fact that though that was the way that you became overwhelmed, and we know if your heart rate is going up and your blood pressure is raising and your tone of voice, the volume of your voice is going up, is that you're getting overwhelmed.
That's for someone who moves in that direction, that kind of fight direction, is to be self-aware, and then, take responsibility for taking a break, or saying like, “Okay, I'm getting overwhelmed. I know this is when we get into some trouble. So I'm going to take an hour off and I will come back to you.” You don't get to just walk away, and then, it's all over. You have to come back at a certain time or else your partner still feels abandoned. But it's then their responsibility to go away and do self-care, self-soothing.
I know you're talking about tools and tips and what can we help people to do. That's specifically what they need to do is to each take care of themselves in whatever ways are appropriate to help them soothe themselves so that they can come back together when that prefrontal cortex and the cortex is online and functioning, and they're back in what we think of as more of their adult self, the self that loves the partner and wants to make amends and reconnect and create that safety again.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Just a quick aside, you've used the word safety a couple of times in this conversation. What I hear when you say that, we're talking about emotional safety right now and the kind of conflict that comes when people are upset with each other that we can all relate to. Physical safety is a different animal, so just wanted to make that super clear.
Because if you are actually literally unsafe in your relationship, I always advise to go over to a really great website. There's a resource. It's called thehotline.org. All one word, thehotline.org. It's completely free. You can connect with local resources, safe houses, domestic-violence counselors, even in your area. If somebody is actually in danger, please take care of yourself. Lisa and I are talking about that emotional safety, which is very common.
How to Diffuse Physiological Arousal in Emotional Flooding
Dr. Lisa: Just as you're talking, I think so many people can relate to this experience. I think it's so interesting to consider that some people, when emotional flooding happens, they become escalated. They get yell-y. They say mean things, and other people really withdraw into themselves. But what is fascinating is just what you brought up about the Gottmans actually making people wear blood pressure cuffs.
Because what it implies is that people don't actually recognize how physiologically elevated they are becoming without that data, like, “Oh, my blood pressure is 140 over 90 right now.” Is that what they're doing with that? That the people needed to see that? Because they didn't know it was happening? Tell me more about that.
Lisa Jordan: I think that's a reflection of how we're not as self-aware as we may hope we are.
Dr. Lisa: How dare you?
Lisa Jordan: It's just that we can get there. We can go there so quickly without self-awareness, and maybe this slows down the process enough that someone is really forced to be conscious of what's happening in their body. So many people are living in their cognitive self, the thinking brain so much of the time that the physiological piece that felt sense being back in your body. We know that for people who've had traumas that they leave their body very quickly, right? So they're out of there very fast.
I think that the idea of a blood pressure cuff is great. I think just the suggestion of it might be enough for people to check in with themselves. “Is my heart pounding? Is my breathing short? What am I feeling?” To just really check back in with your body. What's happening in your body right now? So that, ideally, people don't have to go out and buy the blood pressure cuff. But it's enough of a suggestion to sort of say, “Hey, we're, where are you at right now, physically?” Because that's gonna have a lot to do with what comes out of your mouth next.
Dr. Lisa: Totally. That is such a great suggestion. When I even reflect back on my evolution over the years, I think that that is the biggest difference compared to when I was probably in my 20s. There would be an external circumstance that would make me feel angry or upset, and then, I would react to it and not have that self-awareness in the middle. Now, as an older person, I think what I can do is say, “I am getting really elevated, and I'm probably not in a good place to have a productive conversation right now.”
I'm having that internal conversation with myself. I stop trusting the ideas that I'm having. I stop trusting that “Oh, I should say this” like there’s psychological distance. But not with a blood pressure cuff. Maybe I should be like, “What are you doing?” Can I throw the blood pressure cuff at him? If I get..? No, okay.
Lisa Jordan: Instead of the blood pressure cuff, what I think is like a half step in that direction is to start paying attention to what the internal narrative is. As you say, when we tell people to take a break, if you take a break, and you're planning your rebuttal, you're not actually doing any self-soothing. What are you doing? You’re trying to bring yourself back to a place of calm.
You are committing to your partner, “That's what I'm going to go off and do. I'm going to go watch something funny on YouTube, or I'm going to read a good book. But I am not going to plan my rebuttal for what I say to you.”
When you're used to having frequent or perpetual disagreements, and we all have them in marriage, you start to become a little bit more wise about not always defending your position because you know what the other person's position is, and you can kind of slow yourself down. I think for younger couples, as they are discovering that they have perpetual problems, they don't know that that's going to stick around.
They think that they can fight their way through it. Teally, it's to agree that these things are going to be there. We can create a much healthier relationship with those issues. We can do it in a way that's very self-aware. Hopefully, it makes these escalations kind of diminish. That gives people confidence that it won't always be so hard.
Dealing with Perpetual Problems
Dr. Lisa: Wow. Okay, so you're talking about something so profound right now. I want to make sure that our listeners because we sort of shifted into this other really important idea that's come out of Gottman research, which is the idea that all couples, the happiest, healthiest, strongest, most brilliant couples in the universe, have perpetual problems. You can talk about it better than I can. What is a perpetual problem?
Lisa Jordan: Those are just the things that we all have in relationships. We don't think of that as what's wrong with the relationship. It's that if you're in a relationship with another human being — the Gottmans are so good at this — 69% of our disagreements are perpetual. That just runs along the lines of, “Maybe I'm a very neat person, and my partner is very messy, and we're never going to be different people. So we're always going to have that on the back burner, whether or not that's entering into our issues. We can do things about that, accepting that that may be a perpetual piece of what we're dealing with.”
Also, have a little bit of a sense of humor around it. It's not that it works 100%. But that if we know that 2/3 of what we go through in life are the problems of just being in relation with other people, we might as well focus our attention on that 1/3 of problems that are actually solvable and create some space around the rest of the stuff and make it more workable or negotiate for how we want to deal with things.
I tend to be very focused on the financial piece and making sure our bills are paid. All of those things that I've learned throughout the years that if I'm better at it, and I don't mind it, why don't I just do that, right? It has created such peace of mind in my household. That's what I recommend to other people is if there's something that you're good at, and you don't mind doing it, go ahead and take it because you don't have to make everything 50/50 out of this sense of obligation that we're demonstrating that everything is split down the middle.
Accepting Reality and Your Partner
Dr. Lisa: Going to war, trying to make your partner be like you and be good at doing bills and things. This is so funny. I did a podcast episode recently that spoke about this. I think the title was How to Appreciate The Partner That You Have. It was on this topic of how do we just accept the humanity of our partners for who and what they are and learn how to appreciate it, as opposed to being angry with them for not being different.
This is so significant. Because if 69% of all the conflict that couples have is due to these unsolvable problems, just knowing that, helps you put down the battleax and look at it differently. I just was so struck by what you said when you were like, “So many young couples think they can fight their way through that.” Would you say more about what you see happening with people who just haven't understood what's going on in the way that you see just by virtue of your wisdom and perspective?
Lisa Jordan: Yeah, I think that we all are products of our environment, our early environment. We only know what we witnessed, what we learned. Maybe we got a few extra bits and pieces from extended family members or our best friends, hanging out in their households. But by and large, we're limited by what we've seen. We tend to employ the practices for good or otherwise of our parents and what was modeled for us. If those resources aren't really good, or if they left something to be desired, we're still operating that way.
I find that with younger couples or couples, it's not an age thing, maybe couples who have been married a shorter period of time, there's kind of that honeymoon period. Then, there's a real disappointment. There's a real drop-off in that expectation that we fall in love, and we live happily ever after. We love a good fairy tale in this country. That's just not fair to people because that's not what real life looks like.
Great relationships have problems and conflict. It has so much more to do with attitude and trust in the commitment that we have in relationships. I think that early, young couples or couples who have not been together as long may start to lose some of their confidence as they see some of the conflict escalating around things that feel like they are problems that have to be solved. It can be really a relief and very freeing to understand that all couples have disagreements and problems.
It's more about the process of working through and partnering and deciding how you want to navigate, than the content itself. If you can accept that it's always going to be there, and you have a greater sense of optimism about how you navigate things, that can be really uplifting and very positive for couples who are becoming a little bit hopeless or even questioning, “Is this the right person? Did I marry the wrong person?”
Dr. Lisa: That's what messes people up is this idea that like, “Oh, if I were with a different person, or if I was in the right ‘relationship,’ this wouldn't be happening.” I love what you're saying, Lisa. This is just so positive. I don't even think of them as problems anymore. I think of them as differences. Potentially complementary strengths, even, when I'm feeling very generous, but yeah, it's just they're these differences. This isn't a bug. It's a feature. How do we move into acceptance and finding workarounds so that we can enjoy the positive parts of each other?
The Myth About Fight or Flight in a Relationship
Dr. Lisa: I could totally see how this ties back into what you were saying about that emotional flooding. Because before you've done that work, I think, you can interpret those differences as attacks, or being disrespected, or something very negative connotations. Is that part of what you see that makes people go into that space of elevation, that physiological flooding that is associated with danger? Is that what this is?
Lisa Jordan: Yeah, I think that that's right. That's maybe the unspoken belief that we have to fight our way through this. I can't back down, or I can't deescalate, or I'm actually not going to get my needs met, or I'm not going to have my voice heard. The way through it is, and again, this ties back to whatever you might have seen in your household growing up, is if you saw parents who fought.
As a young child, you believe that your parents are perfect, and they're showing you perfect examples of love and what love looks like. That must be what we do to work through our differences. I think what we're there to do is to help people see, as you say, that there's a totally different way of approaching it and perceiving it. I love the idea that you described about differences because that absolutely is such a healthy way to embody what it means to be in a partnership is let's look for the positives.
These are the very things that you fell in love with. Because these things that we sometimes get annoyed with and find ourselves in couples coaching and counseling to talk about are the very things that attracted people in the first place. Most people become aware of that when they start talking about, “Oh, yeah, really. I really love that about them.” There's no hard and fast rule about something being a problem as much as how is it playing out in our relationship and what do we want to do with this?
Dr. Lisa: I think that's a real goal that we can all work towards in our relationships. What you're describing is like that golden place that I think really healthy long-term couples do finally arrive into, or there's a space of understanding and acceptance and even appreciation for those differences. Even though our ‘perpetual conflict’ maybe is still there, it's no longer a problem because it's just who they are. I'm not going to take that personally.
There's this real shift into this more unconditional love space. But that takes time and effort to create. Along the way, emotional flooding can be a real problem for many couples, when they're going into that big emotional reaction where they're feeling disrespected, or hurt, or frustrated, or rejected even by their partners. So it's really important to have a toolset to be able to cope with those moments while you're still working on these bigger relational goals, I guess I should say.
Self-Soothing After Self-Awareness
Dr. Lisa: I know that we have talked about a couple of tools that you recommend, when you're working with couples in counseling, and one, I think the first one that I heard was self-awareness, with or without the blood pressure cuff, but to be able to say, “Okay, I am starting to get elevated now,” or to say, “I feel like I'm so upset that I can't participate in this conversation, and I'm withdrawing now.” Have that self-awareness.
I also heard you start to talk about self-soothing would be the next step. Once you have that self-awareness, now it is time to self-soothe. You also brought up something I thought that was so insightful, which is that many times in a conflict or after the conflict, even if we're taking a break, we are, even if we're like doing self-care behaviors, like taking a shower or going on a walk or petting your cat or whatever, we are still ruminating about what I said, what they said, and how I was right, and how they were wrong, and here's what I'm gonna say to them.
I think that's… Because anybody, you can always take a shower, right? Do you have any insight for what to do with that cognitive component to help people really step away from…? Because that's what emotional flooding is about, is the story, right? What do you do with couples that go there?
Lisa Jordan: You're right. The piece that continues on where the flooding that perpetuates there is when we carry it forward with our own ruminating. You could take that and be far removed from the argument or the conflict and still be perseverating and really bringing that back over and over and over again, and even working yourself up and becoming more fixed in your position. Doing things to challenge that, this is very popular right now.
But mindfulness and meditation, can't be understated how powerful this can be. Because it's available. Mindfulness, in particular, using your five senses, getting out of your head, out of your thoughts and into your body, is an instantaneous and immediate way to just at least disconnect the circuit that's ramping you up. “What do I see in front of me? What do I hear? What do I smell, taste, touch?” All of that is neutral, right?
If I'm looking out the window, or I'm in the shower, and I feel this nice, warm water flowing, and I can get into this sense of what that feels like in my body, I am literally putting a break on that stress, all that cortisol, that hormone that makes us feel so bad, and putting some space in there so that you can calm down, and you will, because we're built to do that. We're built to calm back down again if we only can get out of our own way and allow ourselves to do that. I think that that's something that you can do. That's that self-care outside of a disagreement.
How to Avoid Being Overwhelmed by Emotions
Lisa Jordan: But while you're with your partner, if you notice in the beginning that you're becoming engaged, it's to really use this reflective listening that we teach couples. Because if I'm fully occupied with listening to you, I'm not busy defending or planning my next thought. What I'm doing is devoting myself 100%, empathically, to understanding how you feel and what your position is.
That doesn't mean that I agree with you. But if I'm spending all of my attention and time and focus to really hear you, I'm not escalating an argument. I am being with you. We want people to be able to do that long before they're becoming emotionally flooded. Because if they're there, you're not going to get emotionally flooded. It's kind of a prevention routine as well.
Dr. Lisa: That's beautiful. I think that's really the beauty of what you do, Lisa, that couples counseling and relationship coaching. Because you are, I think, having experiences with couples with you, because you, your presence, you're just like this warm, comforting person. I think that that can really be the benefit of doing couples work is that you are, at first, keeping people emotionally safe with each other so that they can practice doing that.
Like, “Okay, I'm just gonna listen to you right now.” Because when they're at home in their living room, it goes immediately into that rebuttal mode. It turns into a fight. But you're slowing it down, and helping people listen, and being able to practice doing that so that it is possible to do that before that emotional flooding place happens because it's so hard to have empathy for other people when you get to that rage-y place.
Lisa Jordan: Absolutely. It's the last place we are once we're in that heightened state. You can’t access it then. Then, it's all about self-soothing and doing things, splashing cold water on your face, or taking a warm shower. Actually, temperature changes tend to pull people out of that.
Dr. Lisa: Interesting, temperature changes.
Lisa Jordan: Bumping yourself back into that zone where you're not escalated, or where you're not dissociating, or highly anxious, or rageful is about doing something physically to bump you back in. We know like singing, dancing, gargling, there's all these things that have to do with the vagus nerve. That vagus nerve is what's connected to that fight, flight, freeze. Doing things to jostle your way back out, physiologically, can help be a reset.
Dr. Lisa: That's amazing. That is such a good tip just to almost shift. Although it's so funny. As you're talking, I'm imagining in my mind, like, have you ever seen the videos of the Scandinavians jumping into the frozen water? Then, going into the sauna? I'm like, maybe that's what…
Lisa Jordan: I don't think I'd survive that one. But that sounds like a really good one for those hardy types.
Dr. Lisa: My heart would stop. But yeah, though, for other people. For other people.
Understanding Those Who Shut Down When Overwhelmed
Dr. Lisa: Now, would you say that this works best for people who go into that elevated place? Because there's also people that are shutting down. I don't know about you, but I've seen that be just as problematic is that when people go into that withdrawal? Because they think especially when their partner doesn't realize that they are actually emotionally flooding? Because from the outside, they just look like they're sitting in a chair? Like they don't… Have you seen that?
Lisa Jordan: Yes. Exactly. That can create a lot of conflict in couples. Because as you said, it looks to the outside as though it could be gaslighting, that term that we sometimes use, that “This person, my partner, is doing this to me on purpose. They're just shutting down, and they're ignoring me. They're not going to talk to me. They're not going to listen.” What we know is that people can get into that frame of mind where they no longer have words.
They really are so overwhelmed that they cannot respond anymore. Being able to understand that that is emotional flooding as well. It just looks very different from the kind of emotional flooding that might cause someone to be rageful, or yelling, or crying. That is a very real thing. People can become so emotionally shut down or dissociate because this could be very frightening for them or just extremely uncomfortable. That's where they go, when things get emotionally flooded, is that they go offline and in that direction.
Dr. Lisa: Go offline. Wow, I think I've heard it said that that can be more common for men than women. Has that been your experience? Or have you seen it differently?
Lisa Jordan: I think it is more common for men because we do live in a culture that tends to give women a much fuller range of emotional language and expression. We kind of welcome them. We don't give men the same permission or freedom to become really good at expressing themselves verbally or emotionally. I think they can get backed into a corner, feeling like they have nowhere to go, and the words leave them. Then, the partners who are observing that will feel abandoned. So yes, I do think that happens for men a lot.
Dr. Lisa: I'm just thinking of that really classic, pursue-withdraw cycle that we talk about a lot in the context of Emotionally Focused Therapy. What often happens systemically in those moments is that if one person is withdrawing and becoming less responsive, then the other person goes into attack mode. I can just see how this would make that so much worse for somebody who's feeling overwhelmed to begin with. That's impossible at that point.
Lisa Jordan: Yeah, there's such misunderstanding taking place, and there's really nowhere to go. That's when a lot of those hurt feelings get developed. But when you hear couples talking about that, that's typically where they've gone, which is it's gone really deep, emotionally, and we need to do a little repair work around what has happened.
Dr. Lisa: Oh, my goodness. I'm so glad that we're talking about this, Lisa. Because I could just imagine somebody hopefully hearing this and maybe understanding in a new way, what is going on for their partner in those moments, is to develop that empathy of “Oh, he's not ignoring me. He's like, so overwhelmed, he can't talk, and I need to stop.”
Lisa Jordan: That's the first lesson I think that we teach is, “Hey, if you're going there, and you're getting that place, turn to your partner and say, ‘I'm getting overwhelmed. I really need a break. I promise I will come back.’” Right? Because that's the only risk is that you'll go away and never bring up the issue again, and it's forgotten. To say, “I need an hour to just really calm myself down. I will come back, and we're going to discuss this some more.” We want people to develop those resources, that skill to do that before they're completely overwhelmed and always shut down. To ask for what they need.
Strategies for Dealing with Emotional Flooding
Dr. Lisa: That's wonderful advice. I know that we've been talking for a while, and you're just such a joy to talk to, I could literally talk to you all day, and I wanna be respectful of your time. What are some other strategies or ideas that you have found to be important when working with your couples over the years that you might share with our listeners, so they have additional takeaways?
Lisa Jordan: I think what tends to work really well, in my experience with couples, is to see if there is a little bit of a window that we can open for questioning one's own absolute beliefs. Right? If you can, even when couples are very polarized in their beliefs about something, if you can allow yourself to think about the situation that you're in and believe for a moment that it might not be true, the way you're seeing it, that it might not be 100% accurate, that gives you this potential for softening around something that may feel completely intractable. Right?
To work with someone around the belief that “Maybe, I'm not 100% right.” Even if you're 98% right, what's that 2% look like? Is there anything that you can acknowledge for your partner that they have a legitimate point about that immediately makes the partner feel at least heard? They have a foot in the door for negotiating. Then, to kind of take that the next step further, which is, how does it feel to think that maybe there's some rightness on both sides? Right?
I think when couples are really entrenched, it's to work to try to create a little bit more gray area. To lessen the black and white viewing of what a problem is like and what the situation is, just to enable people to question their own beliefs. Because I think it's the things that we don't question or the things that we are not aware of that are the biggest problems in relationships. Being able to tolerate the thought that “My subjective view is not necessarily the whole truth,” gives us somewhere to go.
Dr. Lisa: It makes perfect sense. It's hard. It's hard to do this. But to be able to almost question some of your core beliefs, and maybe don't believe everything that you think, and open the door for empathy, and trying to understand someone else's perspective, that's really that heart of being able to validate the other person's point of view, and just calming everybody back down and creating safety where listening and understanding can happen again. Because it's like the opposite of emotional flooding.
Lisa Jordan: Even having that kind of ability to have that relationship with yourself, right? I also work with individuals, and people are so hard on themselves. If you can sit with the things that you do, from that vantage point of, “Why am I doing this,” there's probably a good reason why you're doing the things you're doing. Instead of just completely tearing yourself apart and beating yourself up for what your habits are, what you've done in the past, is to sort of look at that and say, how has that been a help?
How has that been adaptive? How did that help you survive? How did that help you stay in this relationship? You may choose not to engage in that anymore. But there's something about that that helped you to get by, and so helping people to just feel more comfortable in themselves for showing up and bringing up whatever is coming up, I think that's part of the job that we do is to help people accept themselves and appreciate all the parts for being there for a reason.
Dr. Lisa: That's so beautiful that by working on yourself, and developing that self-compassion, and creating emotional safety inside of yourself, that you can become less emotionally reactive and more emotionally safe and compassionate with your partner too.
What a beautiful idea for us to glide to a halt on today. I love it. This has been just such a great conversation. Thank you so much for just sharing not just your perspective, but your story and also so many good strategies. I hope that some of our listeners were taking notes because there's some actionable stuff I didn't know about, like changing your temperature. I mean, that's just for singing, gargling. I’m gonna try that.
Lisa Jordan: Yeah, give it a try. Well, thank you. This has been so wonderful.
Dr. Lisa: Oh, it's been a pleasure. Thank you so much for being here.
To my listeners, if you would like to learn more about Lisa or her practice and also read some of the wonderful articles that you have on our blog at growingself.com. You have so much wisdom to share, and thank you again for coming on today's show. But there's more Lisa for everyone at growingself.com if people come and read more. A wonderful idea. So thank you.
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Hi there. Are you reading this “advice from a marriage counselor” article because your partner just forwarded it to you, as a way of attempting to communicate that you invalidate feelings or they feel emotional invalidation and that they would like this to change? First of all, sorry, but second of all… never fear. I'm the couples therapist in your corner. This one is going to boomerang nicely and wind up working out in your favor. Promise.
I'm going to let you in on a little secret that your partner — possibly not having read this article themselves before impulsively texting it to you on the headline alone — might not know yet: we all invalidate our partners accidentally. I'll bet you probably feel invalidated by them from time to time too. Am I right? Yes? Welcome to relationships.
How do I know that you're feeling emotionally invalidated sometimes too? First of all, I've been a marriage counselor and relationship coach for a long time. It is extremely rare to find a couple where one person has *actually* been exclusively responsible for all the hurt feelings and conflict. (Except in the tiny percentage of couples counseling cases that I could count on one hand where the hurt-inducing partner has actually been a diagnosable sociopath and/or narcissist. But I will save that tale for another day.)
Secondly, I've also been married for a long time to someone I adore and would never want to hurt on purpose. And I'm a marriage counselor! I should know better! And To. This. Day. I still do things that accidentally invalidate my husband and make him feel bad. More than once I have had to apologize for making him feel like I don't care, despite the fact that I love him very much.
But I'm working on it and it's better than it used to be. You can do the same. On today's episode, I'm talking all about emotional invalidation and what to do when you're feeling invalidated to make it stop. Listen below or scroll down for show notes and a full transcript of today's episode.
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
First of all, let's talk a little about what “invalidation” means. When you invalidate someone, you basically make them feel like you (a) don't understand them or their feelings or (b) if you do understand, you don't care. The impact of this original invalidation will then generally make your partner swing one of two ways, towards either hostility or withdrawal and emotional shut down. Neither of those are good.
In order to not invalidate feelings anymore you need to be self-aware of when it's happening, and what you're doing to cause it. This is the hard part, because almost nobody is intentionally trying to make their partner feel diminished or unimportant when it happens. If you call an invalidating person on it in the moment, they usually get really defensive and start sputtering about how “that's not what I meant” and protesting that their intentions were good.
Again, except in the case of narcissists (see link above) this is true. Emotional invalidation is generally unintentional. So, no need to beat yourself up if you've been unintentionally hurting someone you love. But you do need to take responsibility for how our actions impact others. We all do.
So let's get familiar with what invalidation actually looks like so that you can become more self aware. Emotional invalidation comes in many flavors, and can happen in both subtle and dramatic ways.
Types of Emotional Invalidation
Now, take a deep breath and non-defensively read through the following descriptions of “emotional invalidators” and see if you can spot yourself.
See if you can spot the invalidating behaviors your partner uses. (They are in there, I'm sure).
But again, the hard part is recognizing your own. Bonus points if you can think of other ways you might be invalidating sometimes that I haven't put down here. The possibilities are limitless!
But here are some of the “usual suspects.”
Inattentive Invalidators: These types of invalidators don't pay attention when their partner is talking about something important. (C'est moi! I totally do this.)
Example of Inattentive Invalidation in Action:
Them: “I had a really hard day at work today. I think I might be getting sick.”
You (And by “you” I mean “me”): “I was just thinking that it would be fun to go to Canada this summer. Or Newfoundland. Newfoundland! What do you think?” [Picks up phone to start checking flight prices.]
Belligerent Invalidators: Their M.O. is to rebuttal rather than listen, and put their energy into making their own case instead of seeing things from their partner's perspective.
Example of Belligerent Invalidation in Action:
Them: “I feel like you were rude to my friend.”
You: “Your friend is an annoying idiot who drinks too much and if you want to avoid these problems you should stop inviting him over.”
Controlling invalidators: These types of invalidators are extremely confident that their way of doing things is right and just, and will either intervene or undo things that their partner does in efforts to correct, (i.e. “help”) them. This happens in many situations including parenting, housekeeping, social situations, and more.
Example of Controlling Invalidation in Action:
Them: “No, Timmy, you can't go out to play because you have to take a shower and clean your room.”
You: “You need exercise, Timmy. Be back before dinner.”
Judgmental Invalidators: These types of invalidators minimize the importance of things that they do not personally feel are interesting or important to them, in a way that creates disconnection in their relationships.
Example of Judgmental Invalidation in Action:
Them: “What should we do this weekend? So many fun things! Do you want to go to the farmer's market / prepper expo / rv show / rodeo?”
You: “Pfft. NO. That is so boring, why would anyone want to do that? Personally, I'm busy anyway. I have to spend the weekend finishing my Fortnite challenges. Wanna watch? No? Okay see you later.”
Emotional Invalidators: Then of course there is the stereotypical, garden-variety Emotional Invalidator, who feels entitled to “disagree” with other people's feelings, or argue that other's feelings are not reasonable, or to talk them out of their feelings.
Example of Emotional Invalidation in Action:
You: “You shouldn't be sad. At least we have one healthy child already….”
You some more: “….That's not what I meant. We can try again next month. The doctor said that this could happen for the first time….”
If this conversation sounds even remotely familiar… I'm glad we're here right now!
Fixit Invalidators: Then, there is the “Fixit” Invalidator, who would prefer to leap over messy feelings entirely and go straight to helpful solutions — having zero idea they are making things infinitely worse by doing so.
Example of Fixit invalidation in Action:
Them: “I am heartbroken about my argument with my sister. I feel really bad about what happened.”
You: “She's just a drama queen. Forget about it. You should make plans with some of your other friends. I'll see if Jenny and Phil want to come over on Friday.”
Does this sound like something you might say?
Owner of the Truth Invalidators: Lastly, there are the reflexive “that's not what happened” invalidators who pride themselves on being rational and who sincerely believe that their subjective experience is the yardstick of all others. If it didn't happen to them, it is not a thing. A kissing-cousin of codependency, this type of invalidator will often follow up their original invalidation by explaining to you how you, actually, are the one with the problem.
Example of a Truth Owner in Action:
Them: “I am feeling really invalidated by you right now.”
You: “I am not invalidating you. You were just telling me that your day was hard and you're feeling overwhelmed, and I know for a fact that you shouldn't be feeling that way because it wasn't that bad. You just need to get more organized. You're overreacting.”
Good times, right? Yes, there are so, so many ways to invalidate someone. This is just a small sample of the many ways, shapes, and forms emotional invalidation shows up in relationships. There are many more. Not sure what kind of invalidator you might be? Ask your partner. I'm sure they'd be happy to tell you.
Next, now that we've “cultivated self awareness,” as we say in the shrink-biz, we're going to talk about how to stop doing that, and start helping your partner feel validated instead.
Step Two: Understand The Importance of Validation
While the first step in learning how to stop accidentally invalidating your partner is to figure out what kinds of emotional invalidation you are prone to, the second step is to learn what it means to be validating and why it's so important.
What is “Validation” Anyway?
So, what is “validation?” To validate someone means that you help them feel understood, accepted, and cared for by you. It requires empathy. Empathy happens when you really get how others see things, and that you support them in their perspective — even if you do not share their perspective.
This is super important in relationships because validation is a cornerstone of emotional safety. And emotional safety — feeling like you are accepted and valued for who you are, like your thoughts, feelings, and preferences are important to your partner, and that your relationship is loving and supportive — is the foundation of a happy, healthy relationship.
Just consider how wonderful it feels to hear these words, “I can understand why you would feel that way.” No matter what's going on, when you hear that it feels like you're accepted by the person you're with and that it's okay for you to feel the way you feel. That right there is the strong foundation from which you can then find your own way forward. (And in your own time).
Also, if we were to dissect pretty much any basic argument that a couple can have, 98% of the time, arguments start with one person feeling invalidated by the other. When anyone feels invalidated the natural response is to then escalate their efforts to be understood. Which can sound like yelling. Then if the invalidator doubles down on defending their invalidating behaviors in response, it can get pretty ugly pretty quick.
So if you work towards being more validating, you will not just stop pretty much any argument in its tracks but your partner will feel emotionally safe and accepted by you, and you will have a much stronger, happier relationship. Win, win, win.
Step Three: Validate Feelings Intentionally, Through Practice
The real problem with changing your (our) tendency to be accidentally invalidating is that it can be really hard to wrap your (our) brains around the fact that we really are hurting the people we love without meaning to.
In none of the examples of “types of invalidators” was I describing anyone who was tryingto be hurtful. They were just failing to understand their partner's perspective or needs or feelings, and prioritizing their own instead.
Human beings are generally self-focused, unless they put purposeful effort into being other-focused. Sad but true.
The good news is that it's not hard to be more other-focused if you decide that it's important enough to make it a priority. It just takes intention and practice, and a genuine desire to want your partner to feel more cared for by you.
Here's what my perspective of me being invalidating (and then trying to practice validation) looks like at my house:
My husband is telling me something but I'm not really connecting with what he is saying. He's talking about his day at work, and how he's not feeling great. And now he's going on and on about this guy he works with who's super annoying, and incompetent, and how he's thinking about taking the day off tomorrow to go take photos and how he might drive out towards the mountains, and now he's talking about this new video game that he started playing with our son, and how there are these avatars that build sawmills and jump over sharks and there are dances (or something) and …
….I've now officially zoned out, and am now following the spark of ideas that whatever he just said to me has just ignited into being, through the chambers of my own mind. Day off… Mountains…. Nature documentary…. Camera lenses…. Majestic landscape photos…. I want to go somewhere beautiful… Catherine said good things about Quebec…. He's still talking but I'm now having an entirely internal experience. I know he's still there, but it's the muffled, “Wa-wa-wa” like the adult in the old Charlie Brown cartoons. I am now entirely absorbed by my own thoughts rather than what he is saying, but not on purpose.
Sometimes he can tell when I'm not there anymore, but most of the time neither of us realize what is happening until I say something apparently out of the blue, like “I was just thinking that it would be fun to go to Canada this summer. Or Newfoundland. What do you think?” [Picks up phone to start researching flight prices]. Then I look up from my phone to see his shoulders slump a little and this look cross his face like, “Do you even care about what I'm saying?” Only then do I realize that what he was talking about felt important to him, and I made him feel bad. He's annoyed. He should be.
Because in that moment, my lack of attention left him feeling invalidated in our conversation. He was left feeling like he wasn't important or interesting enough for me to pay attention to, or worse, like I just hijacked the conversation to talk about whatever I was thinking of instead of what he was bringing up. Which I totally did.
But like you, I didn't mean to hurt his feelings. It just happened because I wasn't making him a priority at that moment, but indulging my own self-absorbed thoughts instead of really deliberately tracking what he was saying to me. (If you, too, have a tendency towards adult ADHD, I'm sure you can relate.)
In contrast, when I remind myself of my intention to be a good friend to him, to help him feel cared for and validated by me, it's a totally different experience. I will myself to focus on what he is saying. I look in his eyes. When I feel my mind starting to slide towards something other than what he is talking about, I bring it back to him by very deliberately reflecting something I heard him say. I think about how he might be feeling and ask about that. Or I ask open-ended questions to help him say more about what is going on for him, but also as a strategy to keep myself engaged. In short, I am using communication skills and empathy to help him feel validated.
I try really hard to stay present, and stay on topic. Sometimes I am more successful than others, but I know he sees me trying. We know each other well enough now and we can even laugh about it, as we do when I glaze and he just stops talking and makes a face at me. Humor helps. So does managing your expectations that your partner can or should be perfectly perfect at validating your feelings all of the time.
But truthfully, if you want to stop making someone else feel invalidated it requires a certain level of courage and humility. It's hard to think about, “What's it like to live with me” and really allow yourself to understand, deeply, what you do and how it makes your partner feel. I think that embracing personal responsibility without being defensive is one of the hardest things to do in a marriage, and helping other people move into this receptive, honestly reflective space is often the hardest thing for me to do as a marriage counselor. That's why I wanted to model this for you.
How to Validate Someone's Feelings
Every flavor of invalidation has an antidote that's a little different. Just as there are infinite ways to invalidate feelings, there are many strategies for how to validate someone's feelings too. I could go into great detail about what the antidote for each involves, but then this would be an actual self-help book rather than a blog post. But, briefly, here are some pointers:
Inattentive invalidators need to stay present and use mindfulness skills to focus and not drift away.
I hope that this discussion of how you may be accidentally invalidating your partner was helpful to you, and gives you clarity about how to shift the emotional climate of your relationship just by making your partner's feelings and perspective as important to you as your own. Not easy to do. It requires emotional strength, the ability to be honest with yourself, and the willingness to grow in service of your relationship. But it is so worth it.
Now, please send this post and episode back to your partner so they can think about what THEY need to be working on in order to help you feel more heard, valued, and understood by them.
The music in this episode is “Dive” by Beach House from their album “7”. You can support them and their work by visiting their website or on Bandcamp. Each portion of the music used in this episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act. Please refer to copyright.gov for more information.
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[Intro music: “Dive” by Beach House, from their album “7”]
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: Hey friends. Today, on the show, we're going to be talking about something that we need to talk about. It is a silent killer of many relationships. You may be experiencing this on your own. It's feeling invalidated. Either you might be listening to this because you are feeling routinely invalidated by your partner, which is hard, or perhaps you are listening to this because your partner is telling you that you are making them feel invalidated.
This is a really significant issue and one that we need to address together. So that's going to be the focus of our time together today, is talking about what invalidation is, why it happens, and most importantly, what you can do to either feel heard and understood by your partner in your relationship or potentially do a better job of helping your partner feel validated and respected by you.
If this is your first time listening to the podcast, I'm so glad you found us. I am Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I am your host. I am also the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching. I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. I'm a licensed psychologist. I am a board-certified coach. But what I love doing more than anything else is helping people improve their relationships. I am very married. I've been married for a long time. I've also just worked as a counselor and a coach for so many years.
Just one of, I think, my main takeaways from all of this life experience is that truly, our wellness, our happiness, our health comes from the quality of our relationships largely. That's why so often on this podcast, I want to talk about things that can help you improve your relationships. Because when our relationships feel strong and successful, everything just feels so much easier in our lives. We feel better emotionally. We have more fun. We have a nicer time. We have a strong foundation from which to launch off and do amazing things. So I am a relationship person.
That's what we're talking about today is in the love quadrant: what you can do to increase the emotional safety in your relationship. I think that that's one of the things that happens when invalidation is present in a relationship is that it really erodes the emotional safety between you and your partner. And ugly things can start happening in a relationship when people aren't feeling safe, and respected, and heard, and understood. That's what happens when invalidation is a frequent issue in a relationship.
What Is Validation?
To just dive into our topic today, first of all, allow me to just take a couple of minutes to orient you to validation, what it means, why it's important, to set the stage. When I am talking about either validation or invalidation, to validate someone, it means that you're helping them feel understood by you, that you get whatever they're sharing, you are accepting what they are telling you about how they feel. In that space, also, helping them feel cared for by you, that they're not just saying something and dropping a stone into a well.
There's this response. You get them. You understand how they see things. You can see the situation through their eyes. Also, there's the sense that their perspective is supported by you. I also want to say that in a truly healthy, vibrant relationship, there is always some diversity of thought. We're not partnered with clones of ourselves, right? People can have different perspectives, different opinions. But there's this sense of fundamental respect for each other's perspectives, even if it is different from yours. It's like this: “Yeah, you know when I look at it that way, I can see why that makes sense.”
Just think about it. When somebody says that to you, “I can understand why you would feel that way.” I've had friends in my life just naturally say things like that to me in conversation, and it's the relational equivalent of somebody just walking up to you and just folding a warm, soft blanket around your shoulders. “Yes, that makes sense. You make sense. Your feelings make sense. I can see why you feel that way. I would feel that way too if I were in that situation.” It's just like this, “Ah, thank you so much for saying that.” It's just such a nice experience to have.
I think that we all crave that from our partners from time to time. Again, that's a cornerstone of emotional safety. Now, if the phrase emotional safety is a new one for you, I would encourage you to scroll back through my podcast archive. I have done a podcast episode on emotional safety, specifically, where I talked a lot about that concept and how important it is in healthy relationships, and would encourage you to check out that episode if you'd like to explore more about all the different elements of emotional safety. Keep in mind that to be able to validate someone's feelings is an incredibly important part of that.
When we're creating emotionally safe relationships, and when we are validating people that we love, it is, again, it's like this experience that people are having with us, that we accept them, that we value them, we respect them for who they are. We think that their thoughts, and feelings, and preferences are important. They're important to us, right? In that context, over communicating that regularly, through the way we're communicating and the way that we're interacting with our loved ones, it just creates this very loving and supportive relationship. That's a foundational component.
How Does Emotional Invalidation Happen?
I have to tell you, as a marriage counselor, 95% of the time, when a new couple drops into the practice, and they’re, “We'd like to work on our relationship.” “Okay, great. What's going on?” 95% of the time, it is some variation of communication. “We're not communicating as well as we'd like to. Communication feels hard.” When you dig into that, like, “Okay, what about communication is feeling hard right now,” invariably, one, often both partners are not feeling validated. It's not that the words coming out of each other's mouths are not terribly problematic in and of themselves.
It's that they're not getting a validating response from their partner. The problem with communication is that they are not feeling like their partner hears them or understands them. They're feeling like their partner is misinterpreting their intentions. They say something well-intentioned, well-meaning, their partner takes it the wrong way. Here's something that they are trying to say that is interpreted very negatively, that is responded to in an angry way. Or they're feeling like their partner just doesn't have empathy for their perspective, or slaps whatever they're trying to share out of their hands, or making them feel uncared for, or that their feelings or perspectives aren't important in that moment.
That is very much about a validation issue. Because validation, really, at its core, is around having empathy for the other person. Being able to accurately understand their feelings, understand their intentions, and then reflecting back to that person: “Yeah, I can understand that. I'm not sure that I see it exactly the same way. But when I look through it, at the situation through your lens, I can understand that. Also, I understand that this is important to you. And I understand that you are actually feeling this way.”
I think the other big meta message within that is “I love you, and this, whatever this is, is important to you. You care a lot about this. This is making you feel a certain way. Because you are important to me, I care about it too because I care about you.” Again, it's just this whole experience of being cherished when we're talking about validation and how impactful it is. So many arguments, again, start this way. If we were to dissect pretty much any basic argument that a couple can have, almost all of the time, these arguments begin with one person feeling invalidated by the other.
When that happens, when anyone feels invalidated, the natural response to this is to escalate your efforts to be understood, which often sounds like yelling, am I right? If you say, “Yeah, I feel this way,” and the response you get from your partner's like, “That's wrong.” Right? “That didn't happen, or no, it's not that big of a deal.” That, I think, makes all of us say, “No, you don't understand. No, this is true. This is happening.” All of a sudden, we're really fighting to be understood, aren't we? We are not fighting to win. We are not fighting to control. We are fighting to be heard and to feel like we're cared about, to feel like we're important.
So the other thing that happens, so one person feels invalidated, and then they escalate, “No, I really need you to understand this.” Then, what also happens is that the invalidator, the person who originally came out with a less than ideal response, will double down on defending their position and will defend their invalidating behaviors. “No, that's not what I said. That's not what I meant. Why are you making such a big deal out of this? This always happens when we talk about your mom or your job,” or whatever it is, right?
How Fighting to be Heard is Invalidation
When this starts to happen, one person is like, “No, I really need you to understand how I'm feeling right now.” The other person is like, “That's dumb.” It can get extremely ugly, so fast. I think everybody within the sound of my voice right now has had this experience at one point or another in their relationship. I know that I certainly have. Truth be told, if we're all going to move towards healthy humility here, I think that our partners have probably felt this way with us from time to time.
I think that when we are fighting to be heard, we are experiencing invalidation. We're not getting the response that we want. We are really looking for comfort, or connection, or reassurance, and when that isn't what we're getting, right? It feels bad. I think it is very, very easy to miss the moments that we are accidentally and unintentionally making other people feel that way with us. Because I have to tell you, it is so easy to do. When I sit with a couple in marriage counseling, or couples therapy, or whatever it is, and unpack all of this at the core, I do not find narcissists. I do not find sociopaths. I do not find people who are irredeemable and incapable of having healthy relationships.
What I find are people who are simply unaware of the impact that they are having on others just because they're in a different place, or they're not fully understanding how important that particular moment is. It's just all these missed opportunities to connect. I have been so guilty of that in my own life. I think that chances are, if we are going to be humble and with healthy humility here together, you could probably reflect on some moments in your own life when you have unintentionally done the same.
The reason why I want to talk about this part for a second is because one of the easiest ways to just melt away all that defensiveness, and restore emotional safety, and increase love and validation all around, is when we can be humble and reflect on our own process because it helps us be more emotionally safe. It helps us be more validating and responsive to our partners, and I think it also helps us handle the moments when we are feeling invalidated by someone else.
It helps us handle those moments so much more effectively because we can shift away from that automatic response of, “You just totally invalidated me. I'm going to be mad at you.” “No, that's not what I said. I'm going to start fighting to be heard.” We can shift out of that and into a much more helpful and respectful way of getting our emotional needs met in that moment when we are able to stay soft, and empathetic, and emotionally generous with our partners, and make an effective repair attempt, which is, “You know, let me try that again. I feel like maybe you didn't fully understand what I was trying to communicate to you in this moment and how important it is for me right now just to feel heard by you, and respected by you, and understood by you. So I'm going to have a redo.”
Particularly, if you and your partner have had the opportunity to work on some of this stuff together in couples counseling, or relationship coaching, like it's not the first time they've had this conversation with you, it immediately orients them back to, “Oh, this is one of those moments when you're not looking for me to do anything. You are not attacking me. You are not presenting me with a problem that I need to solve. I don't have to be defensive right now. This is one of these moments when you're just trying to connect with me emotionally. I can do that. So thank you for giving me another go at this so that I can be a better partner for you right now. Because I love you, and you're important to me, and that is what I want to do. Okay? Okay, so let's do this again.”
Then, you can literally have a redo with your partner, where there is a different outcome. That outcome is one where you feel loved, and cared for, and respected, and supportive, and have had the opportunity to share your feelings about something that's on your mind, and not have it turned into an argument. It turns into a conversation where you just get to share and be heard. Maybe that is 100% the goal. That's fantastic. No other action is required. We do not have to change anything. We do not have to fix anything. You got to say it. It was received, and we're done. That's fantastic.
Other times, I think another component of validation can be attached to, “I'm feeling this way, and I would like to find a solution to this problem because I'm feeling bothered by the situation. I'd like to have a productive conversation with you where we could maybe just talk about different ways of handling this because I don't like feeling the way that I'm feeling right now. So I'm just hoping that we can sort through this.” When there is validation happening on both sides, it isn't just you saying, “I have a problem, and we need to fix that because I'm not okay, right now.”
It turns into, “Let me tell you about how I'm experiencing this situation and help me feel like you understand what I'm saying. Now tell me how you are feeling in this situation and what you see is the ideal outcome or different options here.” Because when you are being intentionally validating, and respectful, and supportive, you start asking your partner questions like that. “I'm not the only one in this relationship. You might have a totally different perspective here. Tell me more about how you see this, or how you've been feeling in these situations. How are you experiencing me when this stuff happens?”
Because in that space of emotional safety, when you are able to validate your partner and help them feel really understood and cared for by you, they will tell you how they're feeling because they trust you. You're not going to freak out when they tell you how they're actually feeling. But if there isn't that trust in your relationship, they won't tell you. The trust has been broken to the point that people do not feel safe enough to share how they are really feeling with each other.
Overcoming Emotional Invalidation
We think of trust many times as something that is broken through betrayal. There's an affair or there's some catastrophic lying going on in a relationship, and that can certainly damage trust. But there are many more subtle kinds of betrayals of trust that I think people don't fully recognize or understand the significance of because they're subtle, and a betrayal of trust that happens all the time.
Unintentionally, nobody's doing this on purpose. But when someone tells you how they really feel, or what they need, or what their hopes are, or what is upsetting them even, and when that is invalidated, or dismissed, or rejected, or reacted to with hostility or contempt, it is a betrayal of trust. The message that people receive is, “I don't care about how you feel. I disrespect your experience right now. I reject this.” What happens is, they're like, “Okay, cool, noted. I am never doing that again. The next time you ask me how I'm feeling, I don't think I want to enter into that ring of emotional intimacy with you because I don't trust you enough to tell you how I really feel right now.”
This is hard. This is, I think, a place where I find with many couples, I often need to stay for a fairly significant period of time in couples counseling or in relationship coaching, because people really do not understand the impact that they are having on each other. Again, and I say this as someone who has done exactly the same thing, we all get so focused on our own perspective, our own needs, and whether or not they are being met in a relationship, and whether or not we are feeling validated, or getting the response that we want.
We get very hyper-focused on what is happening in that regard and really miss the systemic nature of relationships, which is, “When I'm feeling that way, what do I do? How do I approach my partner? How do I engage with them?” Because especially people who perceive themselves as really fighting for their relationships, fighting to have greater emotional intimacy or greater connection, have no idea how scary or emotionally unsafe or even threatening they themselves are being in these moments when they feel like they're seeking emotional intimacy.
I'm going to do a whole other podcast on that topic, that concept, specifically, around emotional intimacy and what to do when we're feeling lonely and disconnected in a relationship. So more on that topic to come soon. Just that one takeaway from today would be to ask yourself: Are you validating your partner? Are they feeling invalidated by you in those moments? Or has trust been broken in the past that accidentally trained them to hide from you, and to not communicate with you, and to not tell you how they're really, really feeling even though you want them to, but something has happened, where they feel like they can't?
That's a really, really common thing that happens in relationships. It is frequently due to that primary issue of people feeling invalidated or rejected by each other in these potentially tender moments of connection.
What Does Emotional Invalidation Look Like in Action?
With that in mind, I would really like to turn this conversation to talking a little bit about understanding what invalidation looks like in action so that we ourselves can be more conscious of the times that we're doing it and then, also have a little bit more empathy or understanding for the times when our partners may be doing that to us without fully realizing it. Because empathy is so key.
To begin, when invalidation is happening, what we are communicating, what is happening is that people feel like we don't understand them. We are misinterpreting them. We are taking what they are saying, and then running it through our own filter of meaning, and coming up with something different than what they were trying to communicate to us that they don't feel understood. Or that if we do understand what they're saying conceptually, we don't care about their feelings. Not that we don't care, but that we are rejecting it, and it can be very, very subtle, you guys.
It could be like, “I'm sure they didn't mean that when they said X, Y, Z. You're probably just overreacting.” Those kinds of things, which might be true. I don't know. But the truth of what is happening or not happening is so insignificant that the truth of what's happening is that your partner is actually trying to tell you how they are feeling, emotionally, in this present moment. You have just been offered the gift of trust and emotional intimacy. What are you going to do with that?
Are you going to make them feel like you don't understand, or they're stupid, or their feelings are ridiculous or not important, or they're being overreactive, or they're just not thinking about this the right way? Because that doesn't feel good. We all know how that feels, right? It is not good. Or are they going to be leaving whatever interaction they just had with you feeling like, “I love them so much because they love me.” Just feeling loved. In order to improve this experience, we need to be self-aware of when it's happening and what we are potentially doing to cause it.
Types of Invalidating Behaviors
There are different flavors of invalidation. We all have our unique styles, I think. When I am being invalidating to my husband, I'm usually doing it in one of a couple of ways. So let me just run through these types of invalidating behaviors. See if you can see yourself in any of these and maybe if some of these are true for your partner.
One, and I think this is probably the most common, and this is the one that I am so guilty of, is an inattentive invalidator. These types of invalidators, they're just not paying attention when their partner is talking about something important. Oh my gosh, I can so easily do this, because I don't know what you're like. Me, I'm just kind of usually zooming along at 900 miles an hour. I am a habitual multitasker. I know it's not good to do that. But I am doing the dishes while I'm on the phone with somebody, and I'm thinking about five things that are happening.
Sometimes in these moments, this is when my husband wants to tell me about something. What happens is, they will say, “Oh, I had such a day. I'm not feeling good. I think I might be getting sick.” Then, you might say — by you I mean me — you’d be like, “You know what, I was just thinking that we should go on a trip to Canada.” Or, “Oh did I tell you that Julie called. She was thinking that we might go camping this… Would you want to do that?” So, I am now picking up my phone and researching campsites or travel reservations.
My husband just said something totally unrelated to that. He was trying to tell me something about how he felt. It triggered an idea in my mind, or I wasn't really paying attention to the impact of what he was trying to say. Because there can be emotional connotations to certain things that people say. They're very easy to miss unless we're really paying attention. So he, in that moment, felt like I was totally disconnected from what he was trying to communicate, which I was. It's just because I wasn't fully present.
I was kind of thinking about something, and he said something, and I had a random thought in my head and just sort of impulsively acted on it. I'm nowhere near where he is in terms of what he's trying to communicate or what he is needing for me in that moment. It’s not intentional. It’s not like I'm trying to harm him in those moments. I'm not mad at him. It's just really a simple lack of attention. I, in order to be a better partner, need to slow down sometimes. Also, one of the things that I have found over the years, and I see this routinely with the couples that I work with too, is to be able to set some boundaries or guidelines around these conversations.
When I can tell that he is trying to communicate about something that might be more important, and I am not in a headspace where I can do that. I have a crisis situation at work that I'm thinking about or needing to deal with and that maybe he doesn't know about that, right? So he's trying to talk to me all of a sudden, and I have learned to say, “I want to hear all about this. Can you give me 15 minutes? I need to take care of this. I need to X, Y, Z or whatever.” Then, 15 minutes later, I am like, “Tell me more,” blink, blink, and I’m looking in his eyes asking appropriate questions. I'm all there.
But I need to communicate to him when I can't be present. Because if he doesn't know that, he's going to try to communicate with me and not have a good experience. I think we've learned a lot about each other over the years. He's like, “I would like to talk to you about something important. Is now a good time? Or when can we talk about this?” That conversation right there has been a game-changer, I think, in our relationship. But for so many couples that I work with, particularly, in relationship coaching, people come in, and they have been feeling so badly with each other, and it's just felt so hard.
When we unpack it and when we dial down into it, sometimes, you guys, the answer is as easy as that. “Tell me what is going on in the moments that you're trying to communicate, and it's not going well, or it's feeling frustrating. Literally, where are you?” It could be, sometimes, people are telling me, “It was during dinner, and our three-year-old was having a meltdown, and X, Y, Z.” They start talking about all of these different circumstances. When we're able to identify the practices that people are using, the boundaries that they're setting around their communication, and how they are communicating their needs in those moments to each other, it's so much easier.
It was actually not this big, horrible, catastrophic thing. We don't have to spend nine months in therapy talking about, “Yes, your mother was an alcoholic, and all of these big things about why you can't communicate.” No, it's actually learning how to say, “Is this a good time to talk?” to your partner. Not always. Sometimes, there are old things, and it goes deeper. But, you'd be amazed at the impact of making these small procedural changes can make on the way that everything unfolds. So I just wanted to share that. If inattentive invalidation is a thing at your house, just try it. Let me know what happens.
Now, there are other kinds of invalidating behaviors that we should talk about. Another common one is a belligerent invalidator. The MO of a belligerent invalidator is to rebut rather than listen and put their energy into making their own case, instead of seeing things from their partner’s perspective.
Example, somebody, either you or your partner, is talking about, “I didn't feel good about that situation. That person was being rude, or that felt uncomfortable.” A belligerent invalidator will basically tell you why you're wrong for feeling that way. Or say, “Yeah, well, this is what was actually going on.”
What's happening in those moments, and again, it's not on purpose. It's not intentional. But it's like they are replacing your perspective or whatever you just shared with their own perspective. They are not trying to be hostile or belligerent. But it really feels that way. Because it was like you just put something out there, and then, they just steamrolled over it with their concept of reality.
This, again, is super common. I think it is very easy to identify people or situations when we have felt that way. Less easy to identify when we ourselves are accidentally doing that. Somebody shares something, and it's very easy to say, “Oh, no, that's not what happened. Let me tell you what really happened.” Sometimes, when you do that to people, they'll fight back and it'll turn into an argument, which in some ways is great. It's healthier in some ways, and it’s like, “ No, I need you to listen to me right now.”
Other times, you will do that to someone. You'll say, “No, no, no. That's not what happened. Let me tell you what actually happened.” People will just take it, and you will have made them feel really bad, and uncared for, and disrespected. They just kind of go inwards. You just steamrolled right over them and broke their trust in you. You're not emotionally safe. But they're like, “Okay.” We'll exit that. You might not ever know what just happened. You'll feel fine because you were just telling them what you thought. What's the harm? You're just calling it like you see it right? You’ll never know that that was actually a real wound.
That's another thing about relationships. We've all heard that saying, “Death by a thousand cuts.” These micro-moments? Those are cuts, and if you're with someone who isn't real assertive in telling you how you're making them feel, you can just keep cutting, and cutting, and cutting, and they'll just eventually be done with you, and you will not have known why. That is a terrible thing to consider, and it is a reality of relationships. So, belligerent invalidation. Please keep that one on your radar.
The next time somebody tells you something, particularly, if it has anything to do with how they felt, or perceived something, or reacted to something, is just to keep in mind, they are telling you how they feel right now. Their truth is how they feel. Your job as a partner, or a friend, is to help them feel understood by you, not corrected by you. Nobody's asking you for that. So, again, I'm being direct. I am being your friend right now. Because the alternative when you're doing that to people and not fully aware of it can be really bad for relationships, and it's very easy to do.
Another very common kind of invalidating behavior are the controlling invalidators. These types of invalidators are often extremely confident, which is a good thing in many situations. But they are very confident that their way of doing things is right and just, and will either intervene or undo things that their partner does in efforts to correct it.
Now, I have also been guilty of this in my relationship. Again, I think it's more due to impulsivity than ill will, right? When someone is invalidating in a controlling way, they often feel like they're helping. They are stepping in. They're going to manage something. They're going to prevent a possible problem that they foresee in the future and that maybe their partner doesn't. But this happens in so many situations, including parenting, housekeeping, social situations around finances.
One example would be, one partner saying, “No little Timmy, you can't go out to play because you have to take a shower and clean your room.” The other partner is, “Oh, yeah, Jim's mom called and wants you to play. Just be back before dinner.” So it's this really subtle and common kind of invalidation that happens when one person's preferences or things that they are trying to create or do are, again, just undone by someone else.
This can happen in very small ways, too, around someone's preferences for how you do things. I think, for many couples, teamwork can feel hard. One aspect of every successful relationship is just being able to work together as a team, right? Like the most banal things. Who does laundry? Who folds the laundry? Does laundry get put away in the drawer? Or does it stay in the laundry basket even if it's clean? Who gets the mail? Who opens the mail? How often does this happen? Who pays the bills?
These little procedural things, even around cleaning, cleaning the house, or making the bed, or cooking a meal that people who have a tendency towards this controlling kind of invalidation, they wind up taking over for a lot of different things because they have stronger opinions about the way that things should be done. The message that is sent to their partner is, “You're not doing it right. Your way of doing things is wrong, and I am taking this away from you.”
The experience on the other side, again, can be very subtle. People may or may not be talking about this, but it leads to a lot of withdrawal in relationships. It's like this: “Okay, I tried. It wasn't good enough. Fine. You do it.” It is this sense of being, sometimes micromanaged, but just disrespected. “My preferences, my ways of doing things, my feelings in the situation are not important to you.” It's like, “This is your show. This isn't my show.”
It comes through these small interactions and through these very subtle and seemingly insignificant, controlling kinds of invalidating behaviors that many of us are not aware of. Because, again, our intentions are not bad. We're not trying to make our partners feel micromanaged or disrespected. It's that we maybe have done this before, maybe we have our preferences; we already have a system. “No, the bread goes here,” that kind of thing. But again, what it leads to, particularly, if it's a pattern in the relationship is the other person withdrawing and just feeling like there's not space for them.
I do not want to genderify this because these patterns can exist for both men and women and in same-sex relationships, certainly. But usually, controlling invalidators, in my experience, tend to be women. Not always, but many, many times. So just check in with yourself. “Am I doing this?” See if you can notice it in yourself. Again, notice, too, that when this is happening, you're not trying to be disrespectful. You're not trying to be damaging. You are not trying to communicate contempt. But that's how it can still be received.
Again, I'm not saying these things to make you feel bad. When we shine the light on ourselves and understand how easy it is to accidentally make other people feel this way, we can become much more gentle and compassionate when we are experiencing invalidation from others. We can see the other person not as this invalidating enemy who is trying to hurt me emotionally. It's, “Oh, they don't understand what's happening right now.” Because I, sometimes, don't understand the small things that I do make other people feel a certain way.
When we can move into that space of compassion and collaborative understanding. It's so much easier to talk about that authentically and have grace for the other person to say, “Let's have a redo. This is one of the things that we've been working on. We've been talking to Lisa about this or whatever.” It softens it. It makes it much more likely to have your needs met when you can have empathy for the noble intentions of your partner, noble intentions much of the time.
One other thing, a couple other kinds of invalidating behaviors, there is also such a thing as a judgmental invalidator. These kinds of validators, again, in my experience, they are truly trying to be helpful. But what they do in action is that they are minimizing the importance of things that they don't personally feel are interesting, or important, or significant that their other person sees. They do so in a way that creates disconnection in their relationships.
An example of judgmental invalidation would be somebody saying, “What should we do this weekend? There are so many fun things. Do you want to go to the farmers market? Do you want to go to the RV show, rodeo, anything? It could literally be brunch with my friends.” The judgmental invalidator would say, “No, that's boring. I want to spend this time playing video games with my friend. Or I am not even remotely interested in brunch or your friends. Why would I want to do that?”
Again, they probably feel like they're being authentic, right? They're telling you how they really feel. Also, a judgmental invalidator can also communicate this way about emotionally laden things. “That's, again, the wrong way of looking at it.” Or “Why would you think that?” What they're doing is, they're so entrenched in their little perspective of the world, their own little fiefdom of reality, that it is very difficult for them to look over the wall and understand that other people have other interests.
They have other cognitive filters. They have other expectations of relationshipse. They are interpreting the world differently. They have different motivations. They have different tastes. They're just, again, so stuck in their own one worldview. It's like they're just looking down at their feet. This is the way things are. To have that acknowledgment of the diversity of all humans, they struggle with that. But again, they're not doing it out of maliciousness. They are simply being authentic.
They’re like, “Why would I do that? I've never gone to a rodeo. I don't really get it. No, I don't want to do that.” Again, what happens is that it sends this message of what you are interested in doing, what you like, what you might want to try, “First of all, I don't understand that, and I will not participate in that with you. That isn't important to me, so I won't do it.”
Again, it can be very subtle. But I tell you what, I have seen so many relationships break apart on those rocks, I can't even tell you. Because what happens is that the person on the other side feels like if they want to maintain a connection with this individual, they have to enter their world. They have to be into what they are into. They need to hang out with their friends. They need to participate in their interests because their partner is not coming over the line onto their side of things.
Now, just to state this very plainly, and clearly, it is also true that in vibrant, healthy relationships, partners have different interests. It is 100%, okay, to have hobbies, or sports, or activities that you are into that your partner is not into. You don't have to be doing all the same things together all of the time. I think, in some ways, to have that kind of diversity in a relationship is quite healthy because you have this sort of interdependence. You can have your separate lives and separate friend groups.
I think that makes for a more interesting relationship, right? You can go do something fun with your friends, and your partner can go through a different thing. Then, you can come back together and have an interesting conversation because you have stories to tell and things to share. It's great, right? So that's how people grow and evolve. All of those things are healthy.
But I think when there is this, almost absolute refusal to enter into someone's worldview ever, what is experienced is a lot of judgment. Because, again, I think people are not intended to come across this way. But the meta-message is that “Well, that's dumb. Why would you want to do that? Ew, no, that's boring.” For whatever it is. That feels really bad. It feels really bad to be partnered with someone who is judgmental of who you are and what you're into.
I think that the lesson we can take here is that even if you are not into the things that your partner is into, it is okay to help support their interests by talking to them about it or doing things with them sometimes. You don't have to spend every weekend of your life doing the thing. But, what we want to communicate is that “Your interests are important to you. Therefore, they are important to me.”
Listen, you guys, I have a 13-year-old who is super into video games right now. Candy Crush stresses me out. That's all I can take, right? Not only am I not interested in playing video games, I do not really care that much. But my 13-year-old is super interested in this. So, I will be a video-game spectator. I will watch him play. He's telling me about all these different missiles, and guns, and squads, and things, and whatever. He is so excited.
To connect with him, I am not being judgmental and rejecting of the things that are important to him because it would be so easy for me to do that. Because inside my head sometimes I'm like, “Why would you want to, anyway?” But in those moments, my role is to like, “Tell me more. What do you like about this game? Or tell me about what happened when X, Y, Z. Or who's your favorite character? Or what do you like about? Tell me about the plotline.”
Asking questions being engaged, because the alternative is to subtly communicate judgment, and rejection, and invalidation in a way that can create a lot of disconnection in a relationship and sends a message, “You're not important to me. What you're into is dumb. I think you're dumb. I don't care about this.” It feels like “I don't care about you.” We don't want to do that for the people that we love. Again, easy to do. Easy to do.
Now, there are a couple of other kinds of invalidators that I'm going to talk about really briefly. One of the most important, and this, oftentimes, I think, is a very obvious one is the emotional invalidator. How many times have we encountered these people in our lives? This is the stereotypical garden-variety emotional invalidator who disagrees with other people's feelings, or argues that other people's feelings are not reasonable, or tries to talk them out of their feelings.
For example, if you have ever been crying for some random reason, and your partner wanders in and says, “You shouldn't be sad about that.” Or “It wasn't that big of a deal.” Or doesn't even acknowledge the fact that you are in the grips of a big emotion, or tries to cheer you up. Again, these responses to emotion often come from — this is hard to even say out loud, but it's so true — they are honestly well-intentioned.
Somebody thinks that they're trying to make you feel better. “Look on the bright side. Or at least, X, Y, Z.” Or, “You know? Forget about that. Let's go do something fun. Let me distract you from your feelings.” Oftentimes, people are trying to help you because they perceive emotions as being problematic, dark emotions as being something negative that need to be avoided. They themselves are often not that great in noticing how they feel or being able to stay engaged with their own negative emotions, which is a core component of emotional intelligence. It's hard to do.
Again, not to genderify, but many men, as we've talked about on this podcast previously, are not socialized to have a really deep relationship with their own feelings. So many little boys to this day get yelled at for crying or punished for having “negative,” I prefer to call them, dark emotions. There's a lot of negative connotations around those. Emotional invalidators often will see someone in the grips of a negative emotion and be like, “Oh, no, I have to get them out of there because that's not good,” not recognizing that it is so positive and so important for all of us to really be in those fully present spaces sometimes.
Like, “I am having an authentic experience right now. I am feeling really, really sad about this situation.” Or “My feelings were hurt.” Or “I just feel really bad about this situation that happened at work. I don't know what to do.” Or “I'm feeling so overwhelmed” Or… Whatever it is, in order for us to grow and to be genuinely healthy, we need to go into those spaces, and stay there, and process our feelings, and take wisdom from those feelings.
The best thing that any of us can do when our partner is in that space is to say, “Tell me more about what's going on.” Open-ended questions. “When did you start feeling this way? What were the triggers? What happens to you in these moments?” Or to say nothing at all, just to sit there with somebody and allow them the luxury of having their feelings validated in your presence. Because just to simply be present with someone when they're not okay is such a gift. It's so emotionally intimate. We don't show everyone in the world that side of us.
But in our most intimate relationships, we are extending this treasure of, “This is how I really feel. This is who I really am. This is what is true for me.” To simply have that be acknowledged, and accepted, and not argued with, and not to have someone try to change it or do something about it, is the greatest gift that we can ever give. That really is how to connect with someone. Anything else leads them to feel like, “They don't care about how I'm feeling. My feelings are not important to them. My feelings are making them uncomfortable. So I need to fix myself back up again because they can't handle it.”
Do you want somebody to feel that way with you? I don't. So just to be aware of that in those moments. Even just a hug, or “I hear you,” or “Yeah, that is a really hard situation. That is legitimately so hard. I'm so sorry that that is happening. I know that there is nothing that I can do, and I'm just so grateful that you're sharing these feelings with me right now. Because I appreciate that we have that kind of relationship where you let me into this.” Just even saying simple things like that can be just the most amazing thing you could possibly do.
A close cousin of this emotional invalidation, somebody who's very uncomfortable with dark emotions, is the other well-intentioned person that is a Mr. Fix It or Ms. Fix It in those moments of, somebody is struggling with something hard and what they're trying to do, honestly and legitimately, is saying, “I love you so much. I'm going to solve this problem. Let's fix it because I don't want you to feel bad about this. Let's fix it.” So it is, “I'll pick the kids up tomorrow.” Or “Let me. It's okay. Here's what we should do instead,” and jumping right into solutions.”
Hey, I am all about solutions. Yes, all couples need to solve actual problems together. There are so many moments of opportunity for productive, collaborative problem solving that do actually make changes in the way you do things, where you talk to each other, the way you handle things, related to parenting, or finances, or boundaries. So much stuff. There is a time and place to actually focus on making specific changes.
What often happens to the detriment of relationships is when people jump into that problem-solving space at the expense of the emotional-connection space. Again, it is so well-intentioned, but I can't even tell you how many couples I've worked with in couples therapy or relationship coaching, where we had to stay awhile on helping people understand how those efforts are actually received on an emotional level by their partner.
Because when someone says, “I'm just feeling so overwhelmed by the situation, right now. I'm feeling so frustrated.” And somebody is like, “Okay, well, let's just do this. And then, it'll never happen again,” they don't experience that as being helpful. The message it sends is, “I don't want to hear about it. We need to just fix this immediately, stop talking about this. I don't want to know how you're feeling about it. I am going to shut the door of emotion. We'll fix this, so we can never talk about it again.” It's kind of how it's experienced.
Again, noble intentions, problem-solving is good. But without the space of being able to connect and really talk about the feelings and help your partner feel genuinely validated in that moment, it does the opposite of what is often intended, which is to fix something. What it actually does is create emotional disconnection in the relationship. It turns into, “Well, she doesn't want to hear about it, or she's just going to tell me to do this thing differently. So, whatever.” It creates withdrawal. It makes people feel uncared for and they're not truly known by their partner, which over time leads to serious disconnection in a relationship.
Again, we'll talk more about that emotional intimacy in upcoming podcast episodes. But be aware if this is something that you tend to do in relationships is that rushing in to fix or trying to talk people out of their feelings. I will bet you a cookie that subjectively, you feel in those moments like you're trying to be helpful. You're trying to make them feel better. You're trying to look for solutions, all positive things. But there is a whole other dimension of relationships.
We must make space for the authentic emotional experience of our partners, and help them feel understood, and respected, and affirmed, and validated by us. Because even if we're fixing things, and trying to keep things positive, our relationships, over time, become really hollowed out when that emotional connection, emotional safety, emotional trust, emotional intimacy is eroded. That is what happens when people are invalidating each other.
The Arc of Change is Experiential
Lastly, just want to share that these patterns are often entrenched in relationships. They can be difficult for all of us to see when we are doing them because our intentions are often good in those moments. I would just like to float the idea that your partner probably experiences those moments similarly. They struggle to understand how their responses may be impacting you. So, certainly, would invite you to get them to listen to this podcast if that would be helpful, just to raise some awareness.
Also, these things are hard. I spend, easily, several sessions with couples, helping them gain self-awareness about these interactions, in these small moments that invalidation is happening in order to help them recognize them and do something different instead. So I always feel bad in some ways. I love making these podcasts for you. I hope that you find the information in them to be helpful. But I also just want to say out loud that the process of creating change in these areas is not just about getting information, listening to a podcast, and being like, “Okay, cool, I'm gonna do this instead.”
The actual arc of change is experiential. It occurs over time. So I just want to say that because I always worry that people will hear one of these podcasts and then assume that they should be able to do all of this stuff now that they've heard this, or even worse, that their partner listens to this podcast and should be able to do this stuff differently because of having benefited from this information. Personal growth does not work that way. Personal growth is never an event. It is a process that starts with maybe information. But then, it has to turn into self-awareness and recognition. That is very experiential in nature.
I just wanted to offer that so that you are gentle with yourself if this is a growth opportunity for you. Also, so that you are gentle with your partner. I hope that if you take nothing else away from our discussion today, please do take away this idea that if you are feeling invalidated in your relationship, as is so common, to take away that the fact that when people are engaging in behaviors that are experienced as invalidating, they are not intending to hurt you. There is a huge lack of awareness around the impact of these behaviors.
To be gentle and compassionate with your partner, and shift into a more effective stance of “Let's work on this. Let me help you understand what's happening in these moments. Let's try this again. Here's what I'm looking for you. I'm looking for emotional intimacy right now. I'd love to feel more of this with you. When these things happen, I don't feel emotionally connected to you. I'd like that to change.”
Having those kinds of conversations are just so much more helpful in the long run than having it just turn into a fight or being really critical with your partner because they maybe don't have the self-awareness or the skills yet to help you feel validated in those moments. Because we all engage in invalidating behaviors, sometimes, it's so easy to do, and I hope that we can all have grace with each other and help each other grow and evolve. That is my intention for us today.
I hope that you took something away from this podcast. Hey, if you did, as a favor to me and your fellow travelers on this journey of growth, if you could, trot over to wherever you're listening to this podcast, and leave a review. That helps this podcast reach more people. As you probably know, we don't do any advertising. This is not a mercenary thing.
This is me trying to help people who are probably never going to be my clients but to take hopefully valuable little bits of information away that will help them have more happy, and loving, and stable, honestly, relationships, and marriages, and families, and homes that can improve their lives, also the lives of their children, for kids to grow up in a home where there is an emotionally safe relationship happening with them, and their parents. To witness that in their partners, that is what lasts for generations.
So help other people find this show. Review it. Share it on social media, this episode and others. I would really appreciate it not just for myself, but for everybody that can benefit from hearing this message, too. So thank you again for being here today. I will be back in touch next week with another episode of the Love, Happiness, and Success Podcast. Bye-bye.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
Working with an expert therapist or life coach can help you understand yourself more deeply, get a fresh perspective, grow as a person, and become empowered to create positive change in yourself, your relationships and your life.
Start your journey of growth today by scheduling a free consultation.
When you improve emotional intelligence, everything in your life feels easier: Your relationships, career, emotional wellbeing, and more. Learn strategies to increase your emotional intelligence, in this episode of the podcast.
Love is love, and transcends identity. At the same time, gay and lesbian relationships face unique challenges and stressors. On this episode of the podcast, LGBTQ+ affirming couples therapist Kensington Osmond shares compassionate strategies that promote growth and healing for gay and lesbian individuals and couples.
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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.
Did you like this interview? Subscribe to us now to discover how to live a life full of love, success, and happiness!
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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.
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