Posts Tagged ‘couples therapy’

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.

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.

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.