Posts Tagged ‘Relationship Advice’

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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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.

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

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.

Stop Fighting and Start Confiding

January 11, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

THE HOUSEKEEPING

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

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

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

JEALOUSY

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

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

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

GUYS NIGHT OUT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Improving Your Communication With Your Partner

January 11, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Take an Uncompromising Stand

January 11, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the steps to Taking an Uncompromising Stand:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Stand Up For Yourself

January 11, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are 7 steps for standing up for yourself:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Simple Thing You Can Do to Improve Your Relationship

January 11, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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