Archive for the ‘verbal abuse’ Category

Shame on You

October 22, 2009

little kidsOne of the most damaging things we can do to our partner is to shame them. What does shaming sound like? It is most often a statement made with a tone that conveys disgust and gives our partner the message that they aren’t OK or are somehow bad/wrong. Here are some examples I’ve heard in my office or used on my husband (before I learned how bad shaming is for relationships):

“What is the matter with you?” or “What the hell were you thinking?”
“Be a real man” or “Man up” or “What kind of a man would ask me to pay rent?”
“You are disgusting!” or “You are a loser!”
“Joe Shmoe is a real family man.” (implying that your partner isn’t)
“You are just like your mother/father.” (if this isn’t a compliment and let’s face it, it usually isn’t!)
“You’re crazy!” or “You’re so emotional!” or “You’re so needy!” or better yet “You’re psycho!”

Shaming can also be conveyed nonverbally by eye-rolling, huffing and puffing, giving a nasty look, or being sarcastic.

It is very important that we feel emotionally safe in our relationships. We cannot possibly feel that way when our partner consistently sends us shaming messages that explicitly or implicitly imply that we are somehow not OK.

I wholeheartedly believe that relationships can be negativity free. I work with the couples who come to see me to have this kind of relationship. Negativity free means no blaming, no shaming, no criticism, and no feeling emotionally unsafe. Ever!

Most people don’t believe this is possible. My own therapist is skeptical when I tell her that my husband and I very rarely fight. Why we would waste our time fighting when we darn well know how to talk about what’s bothering us without blame and criticism, how to get our needs met, how to not build resentment, and how to allow the other person to truly be themselves? We wouldn’t!

These shaming behaviors are so ingrained, it’s difficult to stop them. We’ve heard since we were small that we are either good or bad, right or wrong. But there is a better way! In short, it’s best for your relationship if you confide your needs and feelings and stop diagnosing your partner, interpreting them, or blaming/shaming them.

So instead of, “What’s the matter with you? Why can’t you keep a job? How could I have married such a loser?” you can stop implying that there is anything “wrong” with your partner, take responsibility for how their behavior impacts you, and express what you really need, “When you told me you got laid off from your job, I felt really scared because I’m not sure that we can live on my salary alone. I need to know that you are going to go out and look for another job immediately or file for unemployment so that I’m assured we will have money coming in soon. Are you willing to do that?”

Your partner will appreciate you being on their side and simply sharing your needs and feelings without all the blame. At the same time you are also being clear about what you need to feel OK in the situation and you are asking for your partner’s help in meeting your need. He/she will likely be able to respond in a more satisfying way than if you continue to berate them.

What often happens when we blame or shame our partner, is that they now become so invested in defending themselves from our perceived attack that the real issue (how will we survive without your job?) gets lost. He/she will spend time blaming their boss for their job loss or ineffectively fighting back, which means that you won’t get the satisfaction of knowing if your partner is willing to meet your needs until you somehow finally resolve this argument in three days or never.

Here are some simple steps to determining how you feel/what you need:

Step1 –figure out what you are feeling in the situation (you may feel angry that your partner lost their job, but is that your MOST primary feeling? In this case, you likely feel scared about an uncertain future, so go with that. A scared partner is easier for most of us to deal with than an angry one)
Step 2 – figure out what your needs are in the situation (we need money to survive/I need to know you are willing to do what it takes to contribute positively to this situation)
Step 3 – figure out the strategy to get the needs met (unemployment/get a new job)
Step 4- Ask your partner if they are willing to help you get your need met (Are you willing to look for a new job immediately or file for unemployment or employ some other reasonable solution?)

Just for fun (on your own) you can think of your MOST judgmental thought about your partner “YOU ARE SO LAZY!” Now let this thought go and return to your feelings and needs.

This can be a difficult shift to make, but you can motivate yourself to respond in this new way by thinking about how much time and negative energy you will have to invest if you go the blaming/shaming route (“You are so lazy”) versus a more satisfying, less destructive route (“I am scared about our finances, please reassure me that you will do what it takes to contribute.”)

Your partner will NOT be able to respond to “You are so lazy” productively. They will get stuck in their shame and will want to avoid you, not work with you to make things better. Even if he/she does go out and get another job, there will be negative feelings of resentment between the two of you due to your partner feeling so disrespected by you, which damages the relationship in the long run. Your partner cannot give freely to you under the threat of coercion. It has nothing to do with whether they love you or not, or whether they are truly dependable or not. It has everything to do with human nature.

This article was written by Relationship & Communication Coach, 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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Know Your Relationship Sensitivities and Own Them

August 26, 2009

It’s important to know what triggers you in your relationships to feel intense negative emotions, whether it’s scared, sad, angry, frustrated, or ashamed. Often, it is the same theme that keeps coming up in various relationships over time. The trigger is based on a wound that could have happened in your childhood, but it may have also been created in relationships with your exes, your brothers or sisters, or even something that happened in your social circle (or lack of) while you were growing up.

Common sensitivities include:

Fear of abandonment
Fear of relying on and trusting others
Feeling unlovable
Not being accepted
Feeling suffocated
Feeling taken advantage of
Feeling inadequate/worthless
Feeling abused/mistreated
Feeling ashamed of yourself or your partner
Feeling left out/not important/like you don’t fit in

For example, let’s say that your mother left your family when you were young. One day she was there, and one day she wasn’t. And that you didn’t receive any reasonable explanation for why she had left, and maybe you didn’t receive comfort around it either. This is an incident that would be wounding and could change the way you view yourself, others, and relationships. Without being able to address this incident, to process it and to heal from it, this is a wound you will likely still be carrying with you today. You may continue to struggle with a belief that you could be left again by someone important to you. In turn, your sensitivities would be a fear of abandonment and a fear of trusting people close to you.

Whether or not you consciously understand that you are carrying this relationship sensitivity, your brain remembers the original wound as if it happened yesterday. And it is extremely easy for important others to trigger that wound and unleash extremely negative emotions from you.

Clients often come to therapy unaware of their sensitivities and triggers. They really believe that their partner is simply behaving in any number of horrible ways that logically get them upset. They believe anyone would react the same way that they do. However, most of what triggers us is our perception of what’s going on, and our perceptions have a lot more to do with what we believe is happening in our subjective reality, based on our unique experiences and wounds, than what is happening in a completely objective reality.
That is why people often get so much out of therapy – because there is an objective third party to help make sense of some of these issues that are too difficult to sort through when you are in the midst of it.
Our sensitivities make relationships difficult to navigate our way through. Not to mention that your partner has a set of their own experiences and beliefs about relationships, which create their own subjective reality about what’s going on, and often their sensitivities trigger yours and you both just go around and around and around.

For example, if you have abandonment issues, you may have chosen someone who feels easily suffocated in relationships and needs a lot of space. But their needing a night off from you triggers your fear of abandonment and your brain experiences this as just like what happened when your mom left. So you react. Your reaction, which is likely going to be a mix of scared, sad, and mad, may seem over the top to your partner, but makes a lot of sense in the context of your history. Someone with a different history may not be triggered by this at all, so it’s up to you to know what your triggers are, how they affect your relationship and take ownership of them.

If you don’t understand that these two incidents are a similar (abandonment) theme, then you will not be able to take responsibility for your sensitivity and you will put all the blame on your partner. Your partner will likely feel confused, scared, and even angry at your behavior and will need more distance from you, which will be even more agonizing for you.

The way out of this is to make your sensitivities conscious and accept them as a part of you. This will make situations less overwhelming when they happen, which they inevitably will. Our partners aren’t perfect, and will likely trigger us many, many times over the course of a relationship. When you take responsibility for your triggers, you can talk about them in a different way with your partner. When they understand why you react the way you do, they may feel more empathetic to your experiences and be able to be a healing presence for you, instead of a re-wounding experience.

Tell your partner what your sensitivities are, how they developed, and when they get triggered the most. A quick exercise for identifying your trigger(s), and your typical moves after you’ve been triggered is to think about the last 3-5 arguments you had with your partner and fill in the following:

When ___________________________________(identify the situations that trigger your negative emotions with as little blame as possible, i.e., When I felt like you didn’t think my opinion mattered, When you didn’t want to sleep over, When you were talking to that girl in the bar, When you don’t seem to be listening to me, When you leave during our fights) I feel insecure about our relationship.

This situation reminds me of _______________________________(identify the first time you remember this sensitivity forming, i.e., When my mom left when I was five and no one told me what was going on, When my brothers left me out and didn’t want to play with me, When my dad drank and got abusive, When my friends all turned on me and I was all alone, When my ex cheated on me, When I realized my sister was the star of the family and I was a nobody).

What I take the situation with you to mean about ME is _________________(What do you tell yourself your partner’s behavior means about you? i.e., That I will never be cared about, That I am not lovable, That you just want to get away from me, That I am worthless, That I’m always going to be taken advantage of).

What I take the situation with you to mean about YOU is_____________________(What do you tell yourself your partner’s behavior means about them? i.e., You are not trustworthy, You are a failure, You will leave me, I can’t rely on you, You are irresponsible, You don’t care).

What I take the situation with you to mean about our RELATIONSHIP is____________________ (What do you tell yourself your partner’s behavior means about the bond that you share? i.e., This relationship isn’t going to work, This relationship is too scary…too unsafe…too unstable…too hurtful, This relationship will never meet my needs).

The move I make when I feel negative emotions about these situations is________________________(identify what you usually do when you are upset, i.e., I lash out at you, I shut down and pretend I have no emotion at all, I get quiet and give you the silent treatment, I get critical of you and shame you).

The feeling that I show you is__________________(keep it simple, i.e., mad, sad, bad/shame, scared, frustrated, numb).

But underneath that, what I’m really feeling is ____________________(Try to identify the very first feeling that comes up. Often when we feel scared, sad or ashamed, we display anger or numbness. Think about what happens FIRST. Did your feelings get hurt? If so, you were sad. Did you believe that your partner didn’t care? Then you probably felt sad or scared. Did your partner give you the message that you were a bad person? Then you may have felt ashamed. Did your partner betray you somehow? Then you probably felt angry, hurt and/or scared).

I gave you the message that ______________________________(What message do you send your partner when you have a negative emotion? i.e., Do you pretend you don’t care? Do you only show anger when you are really hurting? Do you say you want to be alone when you really don’t? Do you act like you hate your partner?)

What I really want from you is_______________________(Figure out for yourself what you are really wanting at those times and tell your partner, i.e., For you to stay and talk to me, For you to hold me and comfort me, To get some time to cool off).

Once you complete this exercise you should have a good understanding about what your specific sensitivities are, how you behave when you are triggered, and what you really need during those times. Share with your partner any information that you think could be helpful to them in understanding your behaviors and emotions.

One important thing to look out for is whether your partner genuinely can and wants to be a healing presence for you. That means that you chose a good partner who wants to be a healing presence for you and simply needs your help identifying what your triggers are so they can be more sensitive to them. That doesn’t mean that you put all the work on your partner. It is your job to manage your triggers, but it is your partner’s job to help you with your job.

There is a chance however, that you chose someone who only has the ability to rewound you. An unfortunate relationship paradox is that we often generate a lot of chemistry with people who constantly trigger our core sensitivities. For example, if you have issues with abandonment, then it is a possibility that you are most attracted to people who really don’t have the capacity to have a secure, loving relationship. You may constantly feel insecure in the relationship because your partner seems to have one foot out the door at all times. Often we take this personally and try to get our partner to change and love us better, when it means a lot more about them, their own wounds, and their inability to be loving in any relationship.

Try to differentiate between a generally loving partner who just needs some education about responding to you when you are upset and is motivated to work with you on creating an emotionally safe relationship, and a partner who may be abusive or otherwise further damaging. Can you tell the difference between a partner who really has one foot out the door and one who it just feels like they do because that is the issue you are always struggling with?

If you have difficulty in knowing for sure whether you are attracted to people who are hurtful and can’t change or whether you are simply with someone who needs skills about how to be in a relationship with you, try couples counseling. Don’t forget that you have sensitivities but so does your partner, and yours are most likely triggering theirs, and it can be extremely difficult to get out of that negative cycle on your own. A good couples counselor can help!

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.

The Impact of Resentment On Relationships

July 10, 2009

This article was published by Good Therapy.  You can read it by clicking http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/marriage-resentment/couple

Emotional Safety: What it is and Why it’s Important

March 25, 2009

couples-looking-at-eachotherMy major task as a couples therapist is to help establish emotional safety in the relationships of my clients. A brilliant couples therapist named Don Catherall, creator of the Emotional Safety Model, helped me see that emotional safety has to do with three things. First is the belief that your partner accepts you and trusts you and that you accept and trust your partner (I am OK and my partner is OK). The more accepted and valued by your partner you feel, the more you are in the safe zone emotionally because your sense of self is intact. However, if you feel that your partner believes something negative about you, your sense of self may suffer and you will feel emotionally unsafe. The same goes for your partner. If you think something negative about him or her, their self-esteem will likely suffer as well and they will feel emotionally unsafe with you.

The second thing you need is good self-esteem (I am OK). If you feel that you are lovable and adequate, your self-esteem will generally be pretty high and you will feel entitled to receiving love and care in your relationship. If you don’t feel good about yourself you will be wondering how your partner could possibly care about you. Both you and the relationship will feel insecure, which will lead to you feeling emotionally unsafe a majority of the time, which contributes to a lot of arguments and/or a lack of intimacy.

The third thing you need for emotional safety is a secure relationship with trust and commitment (we are OK). That means that there are no threats to how loved and cared about you feel by your partner. This includes anything that could affect your relationship security such as feeling that your partner is not making enough of an effort to nurture the relationship, or more obviously the threat of an affair, or one person threatening to leave the relationship.

Most things couples fight about have emotional safety as the underlying concern. But they don’t know that is what it’s about. So they get stuck on topics such as the bills, the housework, the kids and so on. If my husband seems to be putting a lot more effort into work and hobbies than into our relationship, and I experience our relationship as insecure, I will do different things depending on how I generally feel about him, myself, and the relationship. Here are a few examples of how I can respond to feeling emotionally unsafe in this scenario…

1) If I feel that I am worthy of his time and attention (I am OK) and feel pretty sure that he cares (we are OK), then I will let him know I’m concerned about our connection and would like more time together. So even if I feel the relationship is insecure right now, I’m still feeling generally OK about myself (I am lovable and adequate) and OK about him too (I trust him, and I can give him the benefit of the doubt). Now I am able to talk to him about the lack of effort I sense in a way that he can likely hear me and respond well.

2) If I feel (unconsciously) that I am somehow not worthy of his time and attention (I am not OK) OR that he really may not care about me all that much (we aren’t OK), I will be feeling really emotionally unsafe. I won’t feel entitled to ask for the connection to be repaired (I am unlovable, I am not entitled to love and care), and I won’t likely be able to give him the benefit of the doubt either (He is not someone I can trust). When I approach him it will probably sound blaming and critical. And he’s not going to be able to figure out that I really don’t want to fight, I just want him to be more engaged with me. He won’t hear my implicit message, “I’m lonely! Let’s spend more quality time together!” and he won’t know that I am sad and feeling unsafe about the disconnection. He’s going to hear, “You are a bad husband! You are failing me!” and what will usually happen is that his self-esteem will take a hit, he will feel a sense of shame, and now he must defend himself from feeling bad, at the expense of repairing the relationship.  We will likely jump right into a negative cycle of me pursuing for closeness in a way that feels like an attack on him and him distancing to protect himself.

However, this is not foolproof. It’s not necessarily as simple as how I approach him or how nicely I tell him I don’t feel important to him. Whether my husband can really respond in a way that puts the relationship back on solid ground depends a lot of how he feels about himself, me, and the relationship. If he feels he is still OK even though I seem unhappy, and he doesn’t start thinking he’s a bad husband, then he might tune in and ask how he can make it better.  But, another very likely response is that my being unhappy in general triggers his shame and he suddenly feels he isn’t OK. Instead of him being able to stay with his shame and still be able to hear me, he may withdraw from the conversation because he’s feeling unsafe or he may counterattack and let me know just how much I too am not measuring up in the relationship! So we may still jump into the negative cycle if my husband is sensitive to anything that may trigger his shame. This could be because he had extremely critical parents or perhaps when he was a child and he needed something, his parents shamed him for it or he has just been exposed to many repeated experiences in which he felt bad or defective. Now when another person has needs, he gets angry and thinks they are weak. He obviously won’t be able to respond well if that’s been his experience with relationship needs. Either way, I can say as sweet as pie that I am not feeling cared about and he may still get defensive or cut off connection all together. Either way intimacy in the relationship will suffer.

3) If many instances like the one above keep happening without repair, I may feel like the situation is hopeless and stop reaching out at all. I will try to distract myself from the unsafety in the relationship by throwing myself into hobbies of my own, or focusing on my friends, or by responding to that flirty guy at work because he’s giving me the attention I’m craving.

We aren’t critical because we are bad people. We do it because it feels safer to blame than to let ourselves be vulnerable and talk about our emotional needs (and also because talking like this was probably never modeled for us). And we don’t get defensive because we are bad people. But we hear our partner’s criticisms as an attack on our person and we will do whatever we can to not feel the sense of inadequacy and shame our partner triggers in us. And it’s not only words we need to worry about. We send messages about how we feel about our loved ones through our tone of voice, body language, rolling our eyes etc.

Hopefully I will never get to scenario number 3, because I will realize that I am a good person, my husband is a good person, and that we have a pretty good relationship that is worth saving. So I will find a good couples counselor and work on getting out of this negative pattern. This will likely consist of both of us addressing any self-esteem issues we may be bringing into the relationship, and identifying any triggers or sensitivities that we have. Often these sensitivities come from childhood so if we can explore what we are carrying from the past then we can help our partner really understand and empathize with us. Without understanding some of our partner’s behaviors and responses, it’s extremely easy for him to see me as a nag and it’s very easy for me to think he just doesn’t care.

It’s our job to identify and manage our own triggers, but it’s our partners job to help us with that job. But we can’t help each other if we don’t know what we are really fighting about. It’s also our job to work on our self-esteem, but our partner can also help us with that job. Even if we come into the relationship with a shaky sense of self, our relationship has the opportunity to become a safe and healing place where we feel loved and cared about and completely whole, perhaps for the first time. Unfortunately, many couples get into a negative cycle which can last for years, which damages the relationship and fills it with resentment. This sort of relationship is an unsafe place for the majority of the time.

If this is happening to you in your relationship, and you can’t get out of the negative cycle on your own, a good couples counselor can help you make your relationship a safe and secure place.

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 Self Soothe

February 5, 2009

girl-looking-out-window2After a fight with our partner, it’s nice when we can come back together and process the argument, take responsibility for our parts, comfort each other and move on. Often, however, that is not what happens. Instead, couples fight, go their separate ways, and rile themselves up about how wrong their partner is. And when they finally do come back together they usually 1) apologize without really understanding what happened or 2) don’t apologize or process the fight and just try to move on, all the while holding onto resentment.

When you and your partner fight without resolution and you don’t have the chance to comfort each other due to the anger and resentment keeping you apart, the best thing you can do for yourself is to self-soothe. Self-soothing consists of giving yourself care and comfort that calms you down and helps you regulate your emotions. It doesn’t help you or your relationship to go to your own corner and dwell on what a jerk your partner can be. It’s better to remind yourself that both you and your partner are good people and that everyone has conflict.

Here are some more suggestions for self-soothing:

1) Take responsibility for your part. Did you attack your partner? Did you get defensive? Did you name call? Think about the piece that you contributed to the argument. This will give you more of a sense of control. Don’t keep thinking about your partner’s piece or what he/she did wrong. Focus on yourself only.

2) Take care of yourself physically. Be sure to take slow, deep breaths. Often when we are upset, we breath very shallowly, almost holding our breath. This increases anxiety. Take even and slow breaths for several minutes.

3) Do what makes you feel a little bit better. Fighting with loved ones is stressful. I realize that it’s not realistic to expect you to feel good while fighting with your partner. But there is always something you can do to feel a little better. This something is different for everyone. For some it’s listening to music, or even playing music like the guitar or piano. For others it’s going for a walk or jog. Some of my clients say that praying is comforting to them. Also, it’s been proven that petting an animal is soothing, so if you have a pet, cuddle up! Yoga or meditation may help you calm down. Additionally, talking to a close friend or family member can be soothing. Just be sure to reach out to those who will be of comfort to you and not someone who will make you feel worse. Lastly, don’t resort to abusing drugs or alcohol, as that will most likely rile you up or numb you out, instead of actually soothing you.

4) When you come back with your partner, talk about your part and how you contributed to the conflict. Without anger or criticism, your partner will likely be more responsive. Be willing to apologize for your piece and be forgiving of both your behaviors and your partner. Nobody is perfect.

5) Ask your partner for what you need. Focus more on what you want from him/her and not what you don’t want. We all respond better to positives (“Please put your phone down and talk to me,”) than negatives (“I hate when you text while we are out to dinner.”)

If your partner really IS being a “jerk”, see my blogs about how to stand up for yourself or how to take an uncompromising stand. Also, you can still use some of these self soothing techniques if you are recovering from a break up or even if you do not have a partner at all, but just need help managing your own emotions.

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 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.