Archive for the ‘communications tips’ Category

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.

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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.