Archive for January, 2009

Take Responsibility for Your Feelings

January 11, 2009

girl-in-grassBefore I received training in marriage and family therapy, I was extremely blaming and critical of my husband.  I truly believed everything that I felt was all his fault.

Through my schooling, I learned that I needed to take a look at what was being triggered in me when he did certain things. So if he went golfing and surfing for a few hours on the weekend, all I could see was how he was depriving me of attention and his time, and not how enjoyable and nourishing these activities were for him. And I certainly didn’t see that maybe I needed to get some outside activities of my own!

And since I was completely CERTAIN that he shouldn’t be depriving me of his time and attention like that, I felt very justified in saying such things as, “You never want to spend time with me,” or “You care about your hobbies more than me,” or “You are a huge jerk!”  I had no idea that this sort of blaming and attacking only triggered him to feel like a bad husband and made him shut down.  So when he got quiet or defensive or needed to get away from me, that just confirmed what I already thought I knew, which was that he just didn’t really care about me.

I finally realized that I needed to look at myself and why I immediately jumped to the conclusion that he didn’t care just because he had some hobbies that didn’t include me.  I was finally able to see that what was being triggered in me was a deep down, unconscious fear that I wasn’t really loved by my husband, and perhaps that I wasn’t loveable.  On a conscious level, I did not know that this was a fear that I had. If anyone asked me, I would have insisted that I felt just fine about my lovability, thank you very much. It’s hard to know what is lurking below the surface of our consciousness.

Every time he inadvertently triggered that fear in me, my anxiety went up, I became insecure about our relationship, and I literally went into flight or fight mode.  I saw his hobbies as a huge threat to our relationship, and hence to my ultimate survival, so my options were to fight it out or get the heck out of there. I chose to fight which led me to attack him and let him know in all sorts of ways exactly how he was failing me as a partner. This sent him into fight or flight also, but he usually chose to flee. And as I mentioned before, as he became distant, I took this as further confirmation that he didn’t love me, instead of looking at how my attack was affecting him.

Once I learned that I needed to take responsibility for how I was being triggered, I realized that it was also my job to get a hold of myself and let him in on my experience.  I found it EXTREMELY difficult to confide that I felt unlovable and that his extracurricular activities seemed to confirm that I was not cared about.  So I started off slowly.  I told him I learned in school that when I was angry and critical, even though he experienced me as scary and could only see my anger, I was probably actually feeling hurt.  Not wanting to be vulnerable, I found it much more protective to get angry than to expose hurt.  But since this was damaging my relationship, I decided that I had to be brave, and trust my husband to help me with my fears, and try to confide what was happening for me, instead of blaming. He was much better able to handle a sad wife, than a scary, threatening one!

I asked him to help me confide in him.  We made a deal that when I began to get angry, he would ask me if I had my feelings hurt in some way. When he remembered to do this, I saw that he was open to listening, which made me feel cared about.  This helped me with my responsibility to let him know how I had been triggered or to tell him about any other resentments I might be holding onto that I hadn’t yet confided.

With some practice, I became able to confide in him my insecurities and hurts, and he helped me deal with them by validating my fears and letting me know that I was loved and cared about.  We have become so good at this that we can usually skip the step of my anger, and go right into confiding.

Today, there is absolutely no blame or criticism in our relationship.  He rarely triggers me, even though he is still a golf and surfing fanatic.  And I rarely scare him anymore with my angry rants.  I really believed, as I think many women do, that he really didn’t care.  Because my husband seemed so stoic at times, and because he tended to shut down when attacked in a blaming and critical way, he seemed really unaffected by everything.  I didn’t realize how demoralized he was becoming by my criticism and how scary my anger was to him.

On his end, he chose not to confide in me about how my behavior was affecting him.  He took the avoiding route.  He pretended that everything was fine on his end when it wasn’t.  So I assumed he was happy with the relationship, and had no complaints.  Instead, he was too scared of me to let me in on his own struggles!  He essentially turned me into a stranger and his needs were unknown to me.  Therefore, they weren’t getting met and he was building up some resentment and I had no idea.  I thought I was perfect in the relationship!

I have made it my personal mission to help couples have more confiding conversations and less blaming and avoiding ones.  I know from personal experience that it’s difficult to look at ourselves and our stuff and to accept that it’s our job to take responsibility for our feelings. It’s easier to lash out with anger and blame or to shut down.  But if we don’t figure out how to do this, we will destroy our relationships.  The resentment builds until you feel like you don’t even like each other anymore.  Rarely do people understand that it’s not that they are with the wrong person or that they just woke up one day and realized they don’t like each other all of a sudden. More often, it’s that they have let so much resentment build up that they have become so contemptful of each other that having a loving, secure relationship is virtually impossible.

The best thing we can do is to not let resentment build.  As adults, we need to take responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, experience, needs, and fears and let our partners in on them by confiding them as they come up (not a week, or month or years later). If we try to blame our partner for them, we turn him/her into our enemy and make it less emotionally safe in the relationship.  If we try to avoid them, we become strangers to each other and have no intimacy.  The sense of being unknown by the person who is supposed to love you the most is very demoralizing.

When we don’t know what we are doing in relationships–and let’s face it–most of us don’t, we set ourselves up to be rewounded by our childhood stuff, instead of being healed, which ideally relationships can do.  When we don’t know that we are becoming angry or scared because our partner is brushing up against a raw spot from a past experience, we really believe they are to blame for our hurt feelings or our rage.  We need to understand that we all have raw spots from past relationships, we all have relational wounds and triggers, and if we don’t give our relationship the opportunity to help these wounds heal, we will set ourselves up to continually feel just like we did when we were 5, or 10, or 16, or 25 when we didn’t get everything that we needed in relationships. When that happens, we will feel as powerless as we did back then. We need to take our power back by taking responsibility for our authentic thoughts and feelings and needs.

So remember, it really IS difficult for most of us to say, “Hey, I feel hurt and lonely and unsure of how much I am loved in this relationship.”  That is confiding.  Your partner will likely be open to talking to you about this and helping you deal with it.  You will turn your partner into your ally in your struggle and increase the intimacy between the two of you.

It’s easier to say, “You don’t care about me, you only care about yourself and your hobbies” (or friends, work etc).  That is blaming and mindreading and jumping to conclusions. It’s likely your partner may feel attacked and become defensive.  Then you will not be heard or validated and you really will feel unloved and uncared about.

It’s even easier to say, “You are a real jerk!” (or worse).  This is a full on attack of your partner’s character and completely off the topic of their behavior (spending lots of time on hobbies).  In this case, your partner will most certainly feel attacked and will either fight back or shut down (again, this is basic fight or flight). An alternative is to strike a deal like I did with my husband, where your partner understands that you somehow got triggered and are feeling unloved or not important, and he/she can help soothe you.

So don’t take the easy way out.  Make your relationship more important than your resentment.  Make your relationship more important than your fear of your insecurities being exposed.  Take a risk, but ask your partner for their help.  If you let your partner know that when you get angry, you might actually be really sad underneath that, and he/she doesn’t know how to make it safe for you to risk exposing your deepest insecurities, you may want to see a marriage and family therapist who can help you both with this. It is difficult to do at first, but with some practice, your relationship will become the safe haven that it is meant to be and not a place of rewounding.

This article was written by Relationship Coach & Communication Consultant, Barbi Pecenco. Barbi specializes in individual and couples relationship counseling and coaching. For more information, see her website at www.sdcouplestherapy.com.

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Stop Fighting and Start Confiding

January 11, 2009

woman-hitting-boyfriend2One of my favorite couples therapists, Dan Wile taught me a simple way to help couples improve their communication and create more intimacy in their relationships. This is often a matter of just a few sentences.  At any time we can 1) CHOOSE to fight with our partner and turn them into an enemy or choose to 2) avoid them and turn them into a stranger or choose to 3) confide in them and create intimacy. The differences in these approaches are enormous.

#1) We can say something that will start a fight or we can get defensive. Either attacking our partner or defending ourselves from attack turns our partner into our enemy

#2) We can not say anything at all which leads us to avoid conflict, but it also turns our partner into someone who doesn’t know us very well and causes us to build resentment

#3) We can confide in our partner. We can tell them how we really feel (in a nonblaming way) and turn our partner into our confidante and support system

Here are a few examples of each of these 3 communication styles based on examples I have heard from couples I work with in private practice.

THE HOUSEKEEPING

If you want to turn your partner into an enemy you can scream “You are so lazy, you never help out around the house!” This will likely start a fight and your partner will likely either attack you back or become defensive. Or he/she may start cleaning the house, but he/she will build resentment along the way. This does not solve your problem.

If you want to turn your partner into a stranger you can just do all the housework yourself without mentioning that you would like some help (and build your own resentment).

Or you can take your partner into your confidence and say how you are really feeling such as, “I feel really taken advantage of when I get stuck doing all the housework.  What I’d like is for you to take out the trash and help me dry the dishes.”

JEALOUSY

You are at a party and it seems to you that your partner is spending a good amount of time talking to his new secretary and ignoring you. You can turn your partner into your enemy by saying, “How could you ignore me like that all night and spend all your time talking to that cow? You need to fire her immediately!”

You can turn your partner into a stranger by saying nothing and ignoring him on the ride home, and every time he asks what’s wrong you can say, “Oh nothing, I’m just tired.”

Or you can turn your partner into your ally by saying something like “I felt really jealous tonight watching you talk to your secretary for so long. I suppose I felt a bit abandoned. I would have liked it more if you could have spent more time introducing me to your co-workers and hung out with me more tonight.”

GUYS NIGHT OUT

If you want to turn your partner into your enemy you can say, “You never want to hang out with me, you just want to be with your friends all the time. Why don’t you marry them?”

If you want to turn your partner into a stranger, when he comes home from his guys’ night out you can say, “Hey, Dave Letterman’s on TV” or ignore him. Both are avoiding the issue.

Or if you want to take your partner into your confidence and open up an opportunity to possibly create intimacy you could say, “I probably should have said something earlier, but I feel like I haven’t had a lot of time with you lately, and I would have preferred if we could have hung out tonight. I guess I was hoping you would read my mind and just know that’s what I wanted, but I suppose that’s unrealistic. I miss you!”

In order to have the confiding conversation we have to a) be on good terms with our partner and trust that they will support us when we let down our guard and confide something that leaves us vulnerable b) we have to feel entitled to whatever it is we are feeling.  If we don’t feel entitled to have a hand with the cleaning around the house, or entitled to our momentary lapses of jealousy, then we will feel too ashamed to confide those feelings, and instead, we will usually choose the avoiding or attacking route.  Confiding can be a risk, and it’s often one that pays off.  There is no real risk in attacking or avoiding each other.

Confiding often helps create  intimacy with our partner. Our partner gets to see our softer side that we may often hide. When we are sad instead of angry, it’s easier for your partner to approach you and may make him/her able to reach out and soothe you. They probably don’t do that when you are lashing out at them.  Also, if you are taking responsibility for your own feelings and do not automatically blame your partner for how you feel, then your partner is less likely to have to defend themselves or attack you back.

But remember, if you want a great relationship with your partner you get to choose.  Are you going to start a fight, avoid the whole thing, or take your partner into your confidence?  Whatever you choose, you are also choosing the corresponding action—turning your partner into your friend/ally, a stranger, or an enemy.

The key to a great relationship is both partners trying to understand, respect and support each other.  It is not helping either of you or your relationship to attack each other, get defensive, or avoid each other.  To get intimacy with our partner, to be known by them, we need to tell them how we are feeling and what we think about things.  We did all this when we were falling in love, but somehow, along the way, we stop sharing our thoughts and feelings.

It’s easily for our partner to tune us out when we yell, blame, criticize or don’t speak up. When we feel threatened we automatically go into fight or flight, so your partner has to decide to either attack you back or flee the situation. When this happens, neither of you get your needs met and it erodes the safety that is necessary in relationships.

Yelling “You’re lazy,” or “You want your secretary!” or “You care more about the guys than me” is going to push your partner away, when want you really want is your partner to respect, understand and support you. But he/she probably can’t do that due to the approach you chose which is not respecting them, supporting them or understanding them.

The good news in all of this is that you get to choose! So start practicing confiding in your partner and see how your relationship becomes a more safe and intimate place.

If you find this difficult to do on your own, don’t hesitate to seek couples counseling to help you have more of these confiding conversations and less attacking or avoidant ones.

This article was written by Relationship Coach & Communication Consultant, Barbi Pecenco. Barbi specializes in individual and couples relationship counseling and coaching. For more information, see her website at www.sdcouplestherapy.com.

Improving Your Communication With Your Partner

January 11, 2009

couplebeachThe first thing you can do to improve the communication in your relationship is to take responsibility for your feelings and let your partner know what’s going on for you. If you feel your partner isn’t doing their fair share of housework for example, you will be better off 1) acknowledging that YOU have the problem 2) realizing that maybe not everyone feels the same way you do about housework and 3) taking responsibility for the way the lack of help around the house makes YOU feel.

This will sound like, “I’m looking around the house and it’s really messy. It’s making me feel very anxious. We agreed to split up the tasks and I really need your help keeping things clean.”

Taking responsiblity and using I-statements may help your partner be more open to your complaints than they would if you just blurted out, “You are such a slob! You never help out around the house.” When you do that, you are simply blaming (“You are a slob”) which will trigger your partner’s defensiveness.

As soon as your partner gets defensive, he/she can no longer hear you. The complaint will get lost and you will most likely not get what you need, which is your partner’s validation that your request is legitimate. Your partner will likely dig his/her heels in more and still not do what you ask. Now you are in a fight instead of collaborating with each other and working torward some kind of negotiation.

The second thing you can do to improve your relationship is to ask for your partner’s help in understanding their point of view. So when he/she is behaving in ways that are frustrating for you, instead of shouting out, “You are such a jerk!” try saying something like, “Help me understand why you haven’t been helping out around the house.”

Your partner’s defensiveness will likely not be triggered and they may feel more open to explaining whatever is happening for them that is preventing them from behaving in a more acceptable way. This communicates respect for you partner and focuses more on the real issue (“I feel taken advantage/not important/all alone in this relationship when I get stuck with all of the housework) behind certain topics (cleaning the house).

This article was written by Barbi Pecenco Kolski, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. Barbi specializes in individual and couples relationship counseling in San Diego, CA. For more information, see her website at www.sdcouplestherapy.com.

How to Take an Uncompromising Stand

January 11, 2009

girl-with-boxing-glovesIn the therapy room, I often hear my clients talk about putting up with treatment by their partners that clearly should not be tolerated. This is any behavior in which their partner is disrespectful towards them.

I tell my clients that one of the major reasons their partner treats them poorly is because they allow it. I then take them through the steps of standing up for themselves (see earlier blog called How to Stand Up for Yourself). If your partner is being disrespectful towards you, then it makes no sense for you to respond reasonably back. Emotional intelligence suggests that people who remain reasonable when their partner treats them poorly will continue to get treated poorly in the future unless they take a firm stand.

I find that both men and women have trouble standing up for themselves in their relationships. They often believe that’s what they are doing when they become critical or tell their partner how wrong their behavior is, but this is a misguided tactic. If your partner feels criticized by you, or they feel “bad” or “wrong” it won’t help them listen to you and respect you more. It will probably lead to a bigger fight and more disrespect.

If you truly believe that you have properly stood up for yourself without criticism and contempt and your partner is still behaving unreasonably, than simply standing up for yourself may not be enough. If your partner’s behavior toward you continues to be blatantly disrespectful, it may be time to take an uncompromising stand.

The most important thing you must keep in mind is that you are acting for yourself as opposed to acting against your partner. You are looking inside and deciding what behavior you can tolerate and what you can’t. We all need to have a firm bottom line in our relationships. For some it’s that the house work is split 50/50 or that they are consulted equally in major decisions. Others will tolerate all sorts of demeaning behavior, but if their partner were to ever hit them or cheat on them, they know their partner would have crossed a boundary and they would have to leave. While there is no one bottom line that’s right for everyone, we need to have some. If we have none, chaos is sure to ensue!

Here are the steps to Taking an Uncompromising Stand:

1)Tell your partner to STOP! Let your partner know that their behavior is not OK with you.

2)Withdraw participation from your partner (Remember that you are doing so in order to not be taken advantage of and NOT to try to get your partner to change or to punish him/her). Through pulling away you are letting your partner know that business as usual will not continue.

3)Decide how much you will withdraw and for how long. It may simply mean that you don’t hang out with your partner on Friday night as usual. Or it may mean that you actually need to separate altogether from your partner.

4)Consult a therapist to help walk you through these steps. This is difficult to do without the support of a professional.

The point is that you need to focus on what you need in the situation and what YOU will or won’t tolerate. Again, it’s about acting FOR you, not against your partner.

If you are dealing with a domestic violence situation, these guidelines likely do not make sense for you. Please seek out counseling and/or call the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.

This idea is influenced from the writing of well-known psychologist Harriet Lerner and is reiterated in the book Emotional Intelligence in Couples Therapy.

This article was written by Relationship Coach & Communication Consultant, Barbi Pecenco. Barbi specializes in individual and couples relationship counseling and coaching. For more information, see her website at www.sdcouplestherapy.com.

How to Stand Up For Yourself

January 11, 2009

girl-punching2Standing up for yourself is an important relationship skill. But often what we think is standing up for ourselves is actually being critical of our partner and trying to convince them that they are “wrong”. This approach usually doesn’t work because your partner is so busy defending themselves that your message is lost.

Giving others the benefit of the doubt when they seem to be doing something “wrong” is typically a better reaction than blaming, shaming, judging or criticizing. It’s important that we say, “Hmmm, I wonder what my partner was thinking when he promised to take out the trash and didn’t for the third day in a row” as opposed to “How lazy is he? I’m going to really lay into him this time!”

Instead of attempting to prove your partner wrong (or lazy) in an attempt to stand up for yourself, the alternative is to ask your partner to consider your needs and work with you to negotiate something that is best for the relationship. However, if asking your partner to meet you halfway doesn’t work then it’s time to insist on it. Emotional intelligence suggests that if we accept bad behavior from our partner, we will continue to get more of the same. So if your partner is treating you unfairly, it doesn’t benefit you or the relationship to let it continue.

This can be easier said than done! If you are reasonable when your loved one behaves unreasonably you inadvertently teach them that their behavior is acceptable to you.

There is often no absolute “right” or “wrong” when it comes to behavior. In your reality, which is made up of your belief systems, your relationships, and your past and present experiences, you are completely “right.” But in your partner’s reality he or she is also “right”. It’s often best to forget right and wrong and instead make a commitment to meet in the middle with understanding and compassion for both realities.

If your partner bullies you to get their own way and you give in, you may avoid conflict in the short-term but you will build resentment and your relationship will suffer in the long term. When you can stand up for yourself you never have to build resentment because you know you can require your partner to consider your feelings when you need to.

Here are 7 steps for standing up for yourself:

1. When your partner behaves unreasonably, first try giving them the benefit of the doubt. Instead of telling yourself your partner is a jerk, try assuming that there is a good explanation. Then maintain a curious stance, asking your partner to help you understand what lead them to behave that way. If you keep an open mind and listen for how your partner’s behavior makes sense (at least in their reality) you may come to a new understanding of your partner. Besides, how can you expect your partner to see your side if you do not do the same?

2. If you approach your partner with a nonjudgmental attitude and they become attacking, defensive, or otherwise unreasonable, keep calm and continue to approach your partner with curiosity instead of disdain, letting them know that you are trying to work with them. They likely will not see right away that you are doing something new and may try to draw you into your old pattern.

3. If, despite your best efforts to give the benefit of the doubt, your partner continues to be unresponsive, critical, or disrespectful, it’s time to ask your partner to consider your feelings. Tell him or her that you aren’t necessarily looking to get your way completely, but that you are asking to find some middle ground that takes into account your feelings as well as your partner’s own.

4. If at this point your partner still refuses to listen or is critical of you, it’s time to insist on being heard. Get angry if you need to. Let your partner know that their behavior is not OK with you and that you need to work together to come up with solutions that work for you both. Don’t be willing to accept anything less.

5. If you are still not getting an acceptable response, refuse to engage any further. It can be pointless to keep at this if you aren’t getting anywhere. If your partner is behaving disrespectfully and you stay and try to reason with them, you are teaching them it’s OK to treat you poorly. Rebuff your partner for now.

6. Take a time out and go cool off. Do something that soothes you such as listening to music, petting the dog, or walking around the block. Do NOT sit there and ruminate about what a jerk your partner is or get on the phone with a friend to tell them what a jerk your partner is. This will only build resentment. Tell yourself that it makes sense that your partner will not easily let go of what they want, just as you won’t, and try not to make a huge deal about it.

7. Return when you are ready and ask to try again. Know that you can repeat the steps from the beginning, continuing to stand up for yourself as necessary, so there is no need to panic, or attack or shame your partner into seeing things your way.

If you are dealing with a domestic violence situation, these guidelines likely do not make sense for you. Please seek out counseling and/or call the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.

If domestic violence is not an issue and you find these tips difficult to do, contact a marriage and family therapist in your area to help you with this important relationship skill.

This idea is influenced from the writing of well-known psychologist Harriet Lerner and is reiterated in the book Emotional Intelligence in Couples Therapy.

This article was written by Relationship Coach & Communication Consultant, Barbi Pecenco. Barbi specializes in individual and couples relationship counseling and coaching. For more information, see her website at www.sdcouplestherapy.com.

One Simple Thing You Can Do to Improve Your Relationship

January 11, 2009

couple-on-beachAs a therapist, I am often asking clients what things mean to them. For example, when a client describes an event that happened, it’s important to ask what that meant to them, because people assign various meanings to the same exact events in their lives.

Nowhere is this more clear than in couples counseling. One recent example that comes to mind is a client who told me that his wife became furious when he asked her if the chicken they had at home was boneless or not. To him it was a simple question with very little meaning attached.

To his wife, it was a much different story. “He KNOWS I only keep boneless chicken in the house. That’s why I got so angry,” she said as if that explained everything. He protested that this wasn’t a dumb question and said that there was a good possibility that there could be other chicken in the house besides boneless chicken.”

This argument started to take off again in my office, but I finally interrupted and told them this was so NOT about the chicken. They were stumped. What else could it possibly be about then?

I asked the wife what it meant to her that her husband asked her about the chicken. She was confused about the question so I asked her again. (It’s sometimes hard for us to look deeper when it can so easily seem like it really is about chicken).

Once she looked inside and asked herself what this all meant, she came up with it. “It’s like he doesn’t even know me if he could ask a question like that. I only eat boneless chicken.” Once the client comes up with the meaning, it’s important for me to keep them there and help them explore their meanings and to help the other partner hear them too. It turns out the “He doesn’t know me,” meaning was a common theme behind most of their fights along with similar themes such as, “He only thinks of himself,” and “I’m not important to him.”

Once the husband understood the meaning his wife was ascribing to some of his seemingly mundane questions or actions, he was instantly able to empathize with her. He was not able to do that earlier, when all he saw coming from her was anger over what he thought was an innocent question about chicken.

If they had a better connection, he could get away with asking questions like these. But because the couple is already distressed, his wife is less tolerant of any hint of one of those themes coming up.

When we don’t stop to ask our partner what our question, comment, or behavior means to them, then what we see on the surface (usually anger or withdrawl) becomes the focus of the argument and not what’s going on emotionally for each other underneath it all. We lose an opportunity to really get to know each other when we don’t understand our partner’s meaning.

The next time your partner is mad at you or withdrawing from you or engaging in some other behavior that doesn’t make sense to you, ask a variation of the following:

“What did it mean to you that I…asked about the chicken?”
“What happened for you when I told you…(add yours here)?”
“Help me understand what it means to you that I…(add yours here).”

This article was written by Relationship Coach & Communication Consultant, Barbi Pecenco. Barbi specializes in individual and couples relationship counseling and coaching. For more information, see her website at www.sdcouplestherapy.com.

Why We Can’t Just Give In

January 11, 2009

couple4We have a couple of choices in our relationships when it comes to things we disagree with our partner about. We can:

1) Ignore what we want and give in to please our partner
2) Stand up for what we want and ask/insist that our partner meet us halfway

3) Consider what we want, consider what our partner wants, and then decide to go along with what our partner wants

If we choose option #1, we risk disappointing ourselves, feeling taken advantage of, and building up resentment against our partner. In the long run, this option creates a gap in the relationship, which may inevitably kill the partnership. Our partner may not even know that we aren’t happy with what we are doing, especially if we haven’t tried option #2 which is to ask our partner to meet us in the middle and negotiate something we can both feel good about.

I recently counseled a couple who was in this situation. They spent nearly every (non-working) waking moment together. The boyfriend thought this was a good arrangement. She wanted more space just to be by herself and get some quality alone time. However, she mostly gave in to his desire to spend time together and was in turn getting resentful as hell. And her boyfriend had no idea! She hadn’t spoken up and let him know what she needed. He was very surprised to hear how important it was to her to be by herself at times. Her giving in on this was poisoning the relationship and her boyfriend didn’t even have the opportunity to make any changes because she didn’t make her needs clear.

When we choose option #2 we feel entitled to what we want and feel secure that we will be heard. We have no problem speaking up for what we think and what we want. Or we feel the fear and do it anyway, because we know it’s important to our well-being and also to the relationship. If our partner tries to make a unilateral decision that doesn’t include us, we let him/her know that is unacceptable and we insist on our point of view being considered. This is a true partnership. We are never going to agree on every decision and our wants and needs are likely to be different from our partner’s. But this doesn’t mean our relationship can’t work. We just need to be willing and able to negotiate something that both people can live with.

If we don’t feel strongly about the decision, then maybe we don’t make a huge deal about it that this year we wanted a ski vacation instead of a beach one. But if we really wanted the ski vacation, then it won’t work to remain silent and give in on it or even to speak up, be discounted, and inevitably give in anyway out of defeat. We just really aren’t going to enjoy that vacation and even worse, again, we will likely become resentful of our partner. We need to speak up and ask our partner to meet us in the middle about where the yearly vacation will be or any other issue that we feel strongly about.

Couples often believe that they fall out of love. They don’t realize that they let so much resentment build up from giving in and not feeling heard, that they decide, seemingly out of nowhere, months or years later that they just can’t stand their partner anymore. And again, their partner may not even realize that the beach vacation wasn’t a compromise because the other wasn’t clear about what he/she wanted. I saw this with a couple I work with. The husband really believed he had compromised with his wife on a number of issues. To his surprise, she just hadn’t said anything about what she thought because she wanted so much to please him and because she hated conflict. But instead of this being protective of the relationship, as the wife had intended, it actually began to destroy their marriage, again due to all the resentment she had built up against him and how disappointed she was in herself that she wouldn’t stand up for herself.

Option #3 is another form of negotiation that’s a little different than simply standing up for yourself. Back to the ski vs. beach vacation–if there are once-in-a-lifetime waves forming in Costa Rica this year and your partner just HAS to go there for vacation, then even though you REALLY wanted the ski vacation, you may still go ahead and agree to take the surf vacation. In this case, you aren’t giving in and getting resentful. Instead you are weighing your needs, and also your partner’s, and deciding that you can do the beach vacation WITHOUT getting resentful. You are making an investment in the relationship by doing what your partner wants. And you really are OK with the decision. And perhaps you make a deal that next year will be the ski vacation, which really helps you to be OK with surfing.

The point is that we can’t give in when we truly believe in something or really want something. The risk is too great, in that we may actually kill the relationship long term when we don’t require ourselves to speak up or require our partner to hear us. Don’t be fooled that avoiding conflict by giving in is good for your relationship. It’s just the opposite, unless you can look inside and really be OK with the decision you make. Be clear with yourself about whether you are giving in and getting resentful or investing in the relationship without resentment.

This article was written by Relationship Coach & Communication Consultant, Barbi Pecenco. Barbi specializes in individual and couples relationship counseling and coaching. For more information, see her website at www.sdcouplestherapy.com.

How Guilty Do You Feel?

January 11, 2009

girl-looking-out-windowPeople often come into therapy talking about what bad people they are and go on to describe the “horrible” things they have done. Their language is often extremely pathologizing and they feel they deserve to beat themselves up. They are filled with shame, believing that their behavior shows what a bad person they are.

A good therapist will listen in a nonjudgmental way and help the person to see that a person is not their behavior. We are so much more than our behavior. I also like to explain to clients the difference between “healthy guilt”, “neurotic guilt” and “shame”. When we experience healthy guilt, we are essentially saying, “Ok, I messed up. I violated a value that I have that says….blacking out, cheating on my boyfriend, lying to my parents, you fill in the blank…is wrong. I am not happy with this behavior, so I need to take some steps to self-correct.”

When we feel healthy guilt, we recognize our behavior is hurtful to ourselves and others and we have the self-esteem to take the steps to change our behavior and get back to what we value. However, when we feel shame for our behavior, we get stuck in believing ourselves to be bad people. We can’t even take steps to correct our behavior because we feel way too horrible about ourselves.

Shame is a symptom of self-hate and hating ourselves never helps us. Feeling healthy guilt, on the other hand, is a normal, healthy response. There is another form of guilt that is not as debilitating as shame, but not good for us. This is “neurotic guilt”. This form of guilt can be easily confused with the more productive kind of healthy guilt, because we really feel that we failed or violated one of our values and that we deserve to feel guilty. But this usually consists more of risking someone being unhappy with us.

For example, if my husband wants to me go out with him on a Friday night when I am completely drained from my week at work, and I say no, but sit home the whole night feeling guilty about it, that is neurotic guilt. I don’t feel entitled to say no in order to take care of myself, and am very uncomfortable risking his disapproval. This is a symptom of being a people-pleaser, where we put others’ wants and needs above our own and when we actually try to stand up for ourselves or take care of ourselves, our neurotic guilt kicks in.

I advise people to treat themselves gently, to take good care of themselves, and to stop beating themselves up for their behavior. Once we stop hating themselves, or wallowing in neurotic guilt, we can begin to see what caused us to behave in a way that we are disappointed in. Treating ourselves the way we would treat our best friend can help us get some perspective in this situation. We would never use the pathologizing language with our friends that we do with ourselves. We would not judge our friends as harshly as we do ourselves. We usually believe our friends to be “good” people who make mistakes. Why can’t we see ourselves in such a forgiving light?

If you are stuck in self-hate or people-pleasing instead of self-care and are finding it difficult to change behaviors that you feel are hurting you, consider therapy to help you get beyond self-hate or neuroticism and to nurture yourself. A good therapist can teach you to recognize the difference between shame, neurotic guilt, and healthy guilt and help you make better sense of your behaviors.

This article was written by Relationship Coach & Communication Consultant, Barbi Pecenco. Barbi specializes in individual and couples relationship counseling and coaching. For more information, see her website at www.sdcouplestherapy.com.

Hello world!

January 11, 2009

final2I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, along with Relationship Coach & Communication Consultant.  I specialize in individual and couples relationship and communication coaching.

 

I help my clients communicate wisely and well, reduce conflict and misunderstandings, have compassion for themselves and their partner, and figure out what they really want and need in life, along with how to get it.

 

For more information, see my website at http://www.coachbarbi.com or www.sdcouplestherapy.com