Posts Tagged ‘communication skills’

Your Partner Can’t Read Your Mind

October 4, 2010

Through my work with couples, it has become apparent that many people need to give up the myth that their partner can read their mind and determine exactly what their needs are without them having to say a word. Apparently, many of us have a belief system that if our partner really loved us, they would know precisely what we need to feel loved and cared about, and they would always respond accordingly.  I’ve noticed that I get a lot of resistance when I suggest that one partner get rid of this idea. I’ve found over time that this belief is so ingrained in us and that we really believe this is what love is all about–a perfect partner who can respond perfectly to every want and need we have without us ever having to give them any direction.

One prominent couples therapist, Harville Hendricks, theorizes that this myth exists because when we were babies our parents had to determine our needs without our being able to verbally communicate our needs. Hendricks says that our brains remember this and continue to believe to this day that when someone loves us, they will “just know” how to take care of us. Another well-regarded couples therapist, Steve Stosny, suggests that this myth exists because in the beginning, when we were first falling in love, it was very easy for our partner to please us. Everything they did seemed so wonderful and perfect, and we grew to believe that they just knew how to make us happy. However, as we become more familiar with them, and the giddy “in love” feelings wear off, suddenly we feel disappointed, thinking that our partner changed and stopped doing such loving things. This leads to us feeling cheated and resentful.

Whatever the reason, it seems clear that the belief that our partners should be able to intuit our needs and wants exists, and that it is difficult to get couples to shift away from this idea. There may be two reasons for this. First, we would like to believe that love should be easy and we get nervous when it takes effort to maintain a great relationship. We begin to think we are with the wrong person because the relationship seems like “too much work”.

Secondly, it is much easier to expect our partner to “just know” what we need because then we don’t have to do any work! It completely lets us off the hook when it comes to a) figuring out what it is we want, need, and expect in our relationships and b) communicating this to our partner. But often, when I ask an individual what they need to feel loved and cared about, they look at me blankly.

“If you don’t know, then how can you expect your partner to know?” I ask them.

“Well he/she knew in the beginning” they say, which may support Stosny’s point.

Of course there is most likely some truth in the idea that our partners really do go out of their way more for us in the beginning and become less motivated over time to engage in behaviors that lead us to feel loved and cared about. However, whether we were easier to please in the beginning and everything our partner did just “seemed” perfect to us, or whether they really were behaving “perfectly,” and now they aren’t, this state obviously doesn’t last throughout the course of the relationship. At some point, one partner gets disappointed in the other and feels betrayed.

The problem, besides holding the belief that our partner should read our mind, is what we do with our disappointment. We may get angry and lash out, attacking our partner, “You never put in the effort anymore” or we may get quiet, shut down, and say “Everything’s fine,” even though our behavior shows our partner that everything is definitely not fine.  This is where it would be really great if our partner really could read our mind and know that we don’t mean to be critical or to shut down, but we just don’t know how to come out and say in a non-blaming way, “I feel disconnected from you” or “I miss how you used to _________________(scratch my back, take me to dinner, bring me flowers, call me just to say hi, etc).

What I tell the couples that I work with is that we all feel loved and cared about a little bit differently. What you need may be the complete opposite of what your partner needs. Your partner may need something that is the opposite of what your last partner needed. It’s your job to figure out what you want, need, and expect in your relationship and to let your partner know what those things are. And it’s also your job to be open to hearing from your partner what his/her needs are as well.

If we think back to Hendricks’ idea that our brains believe those who love us will know what we need due to how we were taken care of as a baby, it’s helpful to realize that our parents only had a few, somewhat generic choices when it came to figuring out what we needed, whether it was to be changed, or that we needed a nap, or that we wanted attention, or that we are sick and needed to go to the doctor. As you grew up, your needs and wants became more varied and much more personal to you. Your preferences are most likely different from those of your siblings, and ideally your parents got to know you and were able to respond to your needs in a more individualized way. But this wasn’t only your parents’ job anymore–it was also up to you to let your parents know what your ever-changing needs were so that they could respond more effectively. Or maybe you grew up with parents who were unconcerned with your needs and did little to meet them. That may be why it feels better to leave it up to your partner to figure out what you need, because you don’t really believe deep down that anyone wants to meet them. So why would you put them out there and risk being rejected? It’s far easier to put the responsibility for your own needs on your partner and then blame him/her when they aren’t met. It’s just not effective.

Fortunately, and unfortunately, falling in love involves risk. The risk involved may yield high rewards, or the risk may mean we lose it all. Being in love is risky because we can’t guarantee that our partner will always love us or that we won’t somehow be hurt or betrayed. We will all do better in our relationships when we finally understand that we chose to take that gamble to love our partner and when we are able to take more responsibility for how the relationship is going, and not sit around passively waiting for our partner to “just know”.

Additionally, couples often love their partner in the way they themselves would feel loved and are surprised when their partner doesn’t necessarily feel loved from their actions. This is when I will typically refer clients to read books by Gary Chapman, author of “The 5 Love Languages.” Chapman identified the fact that some people feel more loved through spending quality time with their partner, while others primarily feel loved through physical touch, while still others prefer lots of verbal affirmation. His books help people figure out their style and guides them in being able to let their partner know what sort of things will improve their loving behaviors without them having to rely on the myth of mind reading.

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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The Five Levels of Attack

June 9, 2010

A fight often begins because one partner is critical of the other and sends a disapproving message that comes across to the other as an attack.

This article focuses on the different forms of attack that are damaging to relationships. Couples therapist and author Dan Wile describes five levels of attack in his book “After the Fight” that I find to be very useful in my work with couples.

Often people aren’t sure exactly what happens in their communication that leads to an escalation. Fortunately, Wile’s levels make it very clear why this takes place and why it’s so difficult to resolve issues.

A Level 1 Attack – Being Critical of Behavior

Here you are saying that there is something wrong with what your partner does. An example of this is, “You never express your feelings” or “You drink too much” or “The way you act when you’re with your friends drives me nuts.”

When our partner criticizes our behavior, we don’t like it much. Sometimes we may recognize some truth in the criticism, but we often get defensive anyway, due to the way it’s presented: in the form of an attack. It’s often second nature to get defensive when we feel attacked. It’s the rare person who can say, “You’re right, I do act like a jerk when I get around my friends. I’m sorry.” It might be nice if your partner could do this, but it would also be nice for your partner if you could change your critical approach.

You would be better off taking responsibility for your feelings and to stop being critical. Don’t just blame, give your partner information that they can use and tell them what you want. This might sound like, “When you get around your friends, you often ignore me. I feel really disrespected. I’d like to feel more included no matter who you are hanging out with.”

A Level 2 Attack – Being Critical of Your Partner’s Feelings

We do this when we tell our partner how they should or shouldn’t feel or noticing how they feel and implying there is something wrong with it or with them. This can sound like, “You get so upset about every little thing” or “You’re so angry all the time” or “Stop crying” or “Don’t get so mad” or “You’re such an angry person.”

We understandably get upset when our feelings our criticized. We feel how we feel and our feelings are there for a reason. When someone tells us how we should or shouldn’t feel, it can be frustrating and invalidating. A better option would be for you to notice your partner’s feelings, and instead of implying there is something wrong with them, instead ask why they feel how they feel and just be curious about those feelings and give your partner the space to feel them. Often when our feelings are acknowledged, they transform. When we are told we are bad for having them, we feel even worse.

A Level 3 Attack – Being Critical of Who Your Partner Is/Name Calling

This can sound like, “You’re a jerk” or “You’re a ditz” or “You’re a bitch” or “You are so immature.”

Statements like these go beyond the other attacks because instead of saying something is wrong with your partner’s behavior or feelings, now you are saying there is something wrong with your partner that goes straight to who they are–their character.

The person on the receiving end of an attack like this will most likely get very upset. Such disapproving messages from the person who is supposed to love and support us the most feel really terrible.

Ideally, our relationships are free of name-calling and similar Level 3 attacks. Otherwise, we cannot feel emotionally safe with our partner and intimacy will likely suffer.

A Level 4 Attack – Making Interpretations

This is when you tell your partner that they aren’t mad at you, they are really mad at their parent because of their childhood. Or that they aren’t really mad at you, they are mad at their boss. Or any other number of explanations you come up with to not have to take a look at your contribution to the problem and how your partner’s feelings may be perfectly valid.

While it may be true that your partner did have a bad childhood or a bad day at work, it doesn’t mean that something you are doing isn’t really triggering your partner in the here and now. Even if your partner is carrying around emotional baggage (aren’t we all?), it’s not your place to make interpretations or act as their therapist and psychoanalyze them. Leave that to the professionals. Instead, try to find what’s valid in your partner’s behavior and look at how you are likely contributing to how your partner is feeling and possibly even provoking them.

A Level 5 Attack – Criticizing Your Partner’s Intentions

This is when you decide YOU know why your partner is doing or saying a certain thing better than they do. For example, you may say, “You are saying this because you want us to fight–you enjoy it.” You try to tell your partner what their own reality is, and you ignore them when they tell you that your interpretation is off or unfair. At the same time, you are also sending the message that their intentions are bad. It can be very frustrating when we try to express ourselves and someone tells us that they know our real intentions better than we do. And even worse, that there is something really wrong with those intentions.

If you do feel that your partner truly has a blind spot when it comes to their emotional baggage and that they are acting out their stuff with you, then you might want to try saying something like, “I’m really confused. I’m wondering if you are feeling this way because it reminds you of something from your past. Perhaps due to the rejection you felt when your dad left?” This is more tentative and sounds like you are curious about your partner’s experience as opposed to outright telling your partner YOU know how they feel and why. Remember that you may be neglecting how your behavior triggers your partner. In that case, see my blog called, “Know Your Relationship Sensitivities and Own Them”.

Additionally, make sure you are not setting your partner up to be rewounded in a similar way than they may have experienced in their past. If your partner has trust issues due to being cheated on, don’t be secretive with your phone or email and don’t cheat! If your partner grew up feeling abandoned, don’t threaten the relationship whenever you get frustrated.

Aim to be a healing presence in your partner’s life, not someone who is going to hurt them the same way they have already been hurt. We all have sensitivities based on our emotional wounds from the past. It’s healing to have a partner who tries to work with us on those and to be sensitive to those raw spots. It’s rewounding to have someone who is constantly treating us in the same damaging way.

If your communication with your partner includes any of these attacks, you most likely have arguments that escalate and don’t get resolved. Your partner is probably defensive all the time and you may not even realize how provocative your attacks have been. Read my article, “Stop Fighting and Start Confiding.”

If you and your partner can’t find your way out of these negative patterns on your own, find a good marriage and family therapist in your area who can help.

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.

You “Shouldn’t” Do This in Your Relationship

February 18, 2010

Whenever we tell someone what they should or should not do, we might as well expect the other person to get defensive and feel resentful. Think about the last time someone told you what you should do. You probably didn’t take it too well either.  We heard all about what we should or shouldn’t have been doing as kids by our parents. The last thing we want is to hear that as adults from our partners.

Some examples of “shoulding” I’ve heard from clients recently include:

“She should let me go out with my friends more often without freaking out about it.”

“He should do more around the house.”

“She shouldn’t get so angry and threaten to break up with me all the time.”

I don’t think that most of us realize how provocative it is when we “should” others. When we are in that state of mind, we really believe that our way is the “right” way and that any reasonable person would see it the same way.  This gives us the idea that it’s OK to tell others what they should or shouldn’t do.  Then we are often surprised when the receiver doesn’t take our statement too well, and now we have a new problem–a fight!

The truth is that even if we are “right” about what someone should do, nine times out of ten, the person who is on the receiving end of the “should” is not going to respond with, “Oh, thank you so much for enlightening me, you are right!”

Instead, they will dig in their heels and fight you on the topic way more so than they may have if things had been phrased a little bit differently.

In an ideal world, the person we are talking to is able to hear the upset and insecurity we are experiencing under the should statement and understands that when we tell others what they should have done, we really mean what we WISH they had done, because it would have made our lives a little bit better.

We would then sound more like this:

“I wish you would do more around the house, such as loading the dishwasher and taking out the trash (be specific).  It would really make life a lot better for me if those things happened more often. What do you think about doing those chores?” (ask what they are willing to do or not do as opposed to telling them what to do).

“I wish that you were more open to me hanging out with my friends. I don’t like having to fight with you about it every time it comes up. Being with my friends is important to me and I would really appreciate the freedom to see them more often without us arguing about it.  I want us to be able to understand each other better and get on the same page about this. What scares you about my outside relationships?” (ask for their point of view and try to understand)

“I wish we didn’t have these awful arguments where we get so upset with each other that you threaten our relationship. It’s scary to me when that happens.  I feel like I’m constantly walking on eggshells, about to lose the relationship with the smallest misstep. Help me understand how things get to such a bad place with us.”

You may have noticed that these phrases also enlist the other person’s point of view instead of simply telling them what we want or don’t want. All of us need to feel heard and understood, and none of us do very well with feelings of coercion from our loved ones.  That makes it important to send the message that you want to know where your partner is coming from, but to also be assertive about your own needs and wishes.

Maintaining a curious stance (Why does it upset you so much when I want to hang out with my friends?) will generally work better than the “should” statement (I should be able to hang out with my friends).

If you are able to give your partner the benefit of the doubt and tell yourself that if they are upset, there is most likely a legitimate point in there somewhere, your response will be more effective. You probably can’t hear the part of their argument that is valid, because their point was presented in an angry and self-righteous way that immediately triggers you not to listen. When we feel attacked, we get defensive or we counterattack.  When we feel coerced, we resist.  That’s human nature.

However, if you are able to put aside the fact that your partner seems to be making a demand on you with their “should” and understand that there is likely something reasonable going on for them, perhaps you will be able to  resist getting defensive, ignore the blame, and hear them out. Then, you may come to an agreement on the topic that both of you can feel OK about.

What many people do is to form a new problem on top of the original problem (housework, going out with friends, etc.) This new problem is the emotional distress, fear and anger that comes from not being in agreement, and this problem almost ensures that we will no longer be able to focus effectively on the original issue at hand.

People go around and around because they are each waiting to hear that they are right, and the other person refuses to say it. I think that we want to be right because we believe hearing it will be so validating. But the real satisfaction after a fight is the closeness that can come from feeling heard, and understood and told that we are making some sense. When both people can talk about their deepest desires for themselves and for their relationship, intimacy develops. That can’t happen when two people are at odds. Being “right” at that point is the booby prize at best.

When we don’t need to be right and when we don’t impose our “shoulds” on another person, then we are in a whole new place. Our relationships feel more mutual, collaborative and intimate.

The best we can do in our relationships is to ask for what we would like, but without the demand. We can let others know how important things are to us without telling them what they should or shouldn’t do and without needing to be right. When you put yourself on a higher moral plane than your loved one by thinking you know what they should or shouldn’t be doing, you are practically asking to be ignored or to be fought with.

If you are the one sending the should statement, try to revise your communication to include what you would like to see happen, while also keeping your partner’s wishes in mind as well. When we are acting assertively, we remember that while our needs and wants are important, so are our partner’s. There is most likely a middle ground that can be reached if we don’t add in that emotional pain from fighting and demanding that things go our way. You can choose to approach your partner with the spirit of collaboration, instead of telling them what to do or talking about how wrong they are.

If you are on the receiving end of the should statement, do your best to understand that you partner is trying to tell you something important. Make the choice to listen and validate their concerns (even if you can only validate 2% of what they are saying). Try not to counterattack with a “should” of your own (“You should want to be with me and not your friends”), or get defensive (“Well, you are no fun to be around so of course I want to be with my friends instead”).

John Gottman, a prominent couples therapist and researcher says that it’s not so much what happens during a fight that is such a big deal, but it’s about whether we can come back later and talk about what happened in a more effective way. Most people let things drop and never really resolve their issues because it seems too hard.

I would say it’s not that difficult, but we are scared to do it because we believe that we have to admit we were wrong and we really don’t want to do that. I think what we really need to do is reach out and let others know that we care and that they may have a valid point, we just couldn’t hear it under the criticism of the “should.” Maybe we don’t help out around the house enough, or maybe we do go out with our friends too much. That can be extremely painful to admit. It’s not about the other person being right, or about our being wrong, it’s about taking responsibility for our actions, and balancing your own needs with the needs of the relationship.

In Nonviolent Communication we talk about hearing the pain underneath others’ blame. A should statement is blaming and that is why it’s so provocative. But underneath the blame, it’s guaranteed that your partner is feeling some distress and probably doesn’t think they will be effective if they confide their vulnerable feelings to you. Try to help them make their point by listening and staying respectful. It’s not about sacrificing yourself or keeping your own wants and needs repressed. It’s about sending the message that you care and that you are willing to work with your partner so that both of your needs get met.

In the moment, you may not care to follow any of this advice. I can understand that because I’m telling you what you SHOULD not do, and you probably don’t like that. You might think that I’m telling you that I am right with my advice and you are wrong with your “shoulding”.

I’m not trying to be right, I’m just trying to help you have happier relationships. And I really don’t want to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do, I just want you to be aware of the painful consequences of doing that to others. There is a better way that will get you more of what you want and need in your life.

In your next argument, you might still throw that “should” out there and refuse to modify it. Or if you hear a should from someone you care about, you may get angry and respond ineffectively and kick off a huge argument. That’s OK. It can feel very satisfying to do so. I know from personal experience. Couples therapists make a lot of the same communication errors as everyone else because we are all human.

However, when you have calmed down, go back and try again. Reassure your partner that their needs are important to you and you want to work with them so that both of you are happy.  You can even infuse some humor into the situation by saying, “I shouldn’t have shoulded you.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.