Posts Tagged ‘relationship counseling’

You Might Be Dealing With A Trust Issue and Not Even Know It

August 23, 2013

Many couples don’t even realize that a breach of trust is something they are struggling with, because when they think of the word trust, they only consider whether or not their partner has lied or has been unfaithful.  Those are obvious breaches of trust.  However, even without those blatant behaviors present in a relationship, you may still sense that something is wrong.  You just can’t seem to put your finger on what the problem is.  I recently came across an excellent list in John Gottman’s new book, “What Makes Love Last,” which helps clarify for many people what it is they are struggling with, and why it really is a trust issue.

Gottman basically defines betrayal as the opposite of trust, and calls this list, “10 Other Ways to Betray Your Lover” (besides cheating).  I often read these out loud for couples when they come to see me and explain that if any of the things on this list are happening in their relationship they will likely feel betrayed on a consistent basis. These behaviors MUST STOP if a couple is going to feel emotionally safe with one another. One couple I recently counseled were experiencing all 10 betrayals!  After they heard the items on the list, it instantly made sense to them why their relationship was so distressed.

Many of the following items are also covered in depth throughout my eBook, “What You Are Really Arguing About,” but I never considered them betrayals per se.  I categorize behavior like these as a partner’s reliability/dependability.  Betrayal is a strong word, and many people might not like the thought that they are betraying their partner.  But if you really think about it, being undependable or unreliable will cause a trust issue in relationships, so the word betrayal fits these 10 items, which include:

1)    You aren’t fully committed –When one person isn’t committed, it’s almost impossible for the relationship to feel good.  If you have the sense that your partner is only with you until someone “better” comes along, or if one person is constantly threatening the relationship by saying things like “I can’t take this!” or “It’s over,” it’s really difficult to trust that person.  Another common scenario is when one person wants to take the relationship to the “next level” such as marriage or living together, and the other is completely fine with the status quo.  Not being on the same page about the level of commitment in the relationship is painful and will definitely cause trust issues for the couple.

2)    A non-sexual affair—Emotional affairs are tricky because many people believe they really aren’t cheating unless they have been sexual with someone.  But I tell people to think about it like this: If your partner was a fly on the wall and could see you interacting with your “friend” and you know they wouldn’t like what they were seeing and hearing, you are likely engaged in an emotional affair.  It can be really exhausting for the person who feels betrayed to have any influence with their partner because they can’t “prove” anything is really going on.  “It’s just my friend!” you argue.  If your partner feels uncomfortable with your relationship with someone else, be honest with yourself about whether you would do and say the same things if your partner really was a fly on that wall.  If you know that you would act differently, then you probably are on a slippery slope that with enough time and opportunity, can easily lead to infidelity.

3)    Lying—Your words and behavior have to match if you want people to trust you.  You can say anything in the world.  But if what you do is in opposition to what you are saying, people are going to be confused and mistrusting.  If you say that you were at work and it turns out you were really at a bar, your partner has every right to feel betrayed.  If you say that you want your relationship to improve, but you don’t do one thing to try to improve it, your partner will not trust you.  Do what you say you are going to do and the trust will improve.  However, if you are attempting to repair damaged trust, your words and behavior must be consistent over time.  It may take months or years to repair things once there has been a breach of trust.  Be as honest as you can.  Trust needs to be the foundation of your relationship and nothing damages trust quite like lying.

4)    Coalitions against your partner—This simply means that you are participating in a relationship that is at your partner’s expense.  A common one is with your mother (or sibling or friend).  Meaning that you tell your mom too much about your relationship and/or you team up with your parent against your partner.  Your partner will surely feel betrayed by this and these behaviors will damage your relationship.  It’s extremely invasive when two people team up against another. If there are issues in your relationship, seek a therapist who is not on either one of your sides, but is on the relationship’s side.

5)    You aren’t there in a crisis—Gottman calls this “emotional absenteeism.”  This often occurs in couples where one of them has a lack of empathy and compassion.  I see this with couples that have experienced big things like medical illnesses, miscarriages, or the death of loved ones, as well as “smaller” things like job stress or a fight with a good friend. We need to feel like we can go to our partner during times of upheaval for understanding and support.  Sometimes our partner does care, but they just don’t know how to show it or don’t know the right things to say.  But there are also people out there who really just lack empathy and cannot comfort or support you.  Instead they basically send you the message that there is something wrong with you for how you are feeling. When you feel like your partner just isn’t there for you in these times of stress or crisis, you will not only feel invalidated and alone, but you will also feel betrayed.

6)    Withdrawal of sexual interest—Many long-term couples are in “sexless relationships” meaning that they have sex 12 times per year or less.  Some couples are just fine with this. But if one partner is not ok with the frequency or quality of their sex life, and these issues are not being addressed, they will definitely feel betrayed and resentful.  Some people don’t seem to understand that they are basically sending their partner the message: “Don’t you dare be unfaithful…but don’t look to me for sex either!”

7)    Disrespect—Gottman studied “contempt” (i.e. disrespect) in couples and found it to be THE number one relationship killer.  He became famous for being able to predict which couples would divorce with over 90% certainty just by seeing them interact for 5 minutes.  The way he was able to make these predictions was based on whether or not contempt was present.  Contempt can include name-calling, acting superior to your partner, subtle (and not so subtle) slights, eye rolling, or any other way that you convey disgust.  It can also be knowing exactly what you could say that would completely crush your partner, and then going right ahead and saying that thing anyway.  Often people call that “hitting below the belt.”  This is considered emotional and verbal abuse and should not be tolerated in a relationship.  Couples need to learn how to communicate without this corrosive element in their dialogues.  (It goes without saying that if physical abuse is present in your relationship, you will not feel safe and cannot trust your partner.  Please seek help ASAP if your partner is emotionally or physically abusive. These dynamics rarely change on their own).  You likely not only feel betrayed, but also frightened. These feelings are the opposite of the emotional safety necessary to engage in an intimate relationship.

8)    Unfairness—Unequal housework and child-care usually come up in this category. When couples navigate through these issues in a way that they both find fair, they will feel much more trusting and loving than those who do not feel that the arrangement is fair. In Gottman’s book, “And Baby Makes Three” he advises men to do as much as they can to contribute to the house and kids, especially if they want their wives to feel sexual.  Women do not seem to be able to relax and enjoy sex after a long day of tending to the house and children (and often her own job!)  Gottman tells men that doing their fair share around the house is a form of foreplay.

9)    Selfishness—You can’t truly trust someone who you believe does not hold you or the relationship as a priority.  When you consistently see your partner meeting their own needs at your expense (i.e. playing golf all weekend while you stay home with the kids…every weekend) you will feel betrayed.

10) Broken promises—This can encompass any behavior from promising you will be home by 8pm and not showing up until 10, to promising you will have more children and then getting a vasectomy, to becoming a problem drinker, gambler, substance abuser, and/or sex addict.  Often the person breaking agreements promises to change, and then doesn’t change, so the betrayal deepens and deepens.  One person is usually doing some behavior that is a “deal breaker” for their partner, but dealing with “deal breaking” behavior in a marriage is tough, especially when you feel you cannot influence your partner to really change.  This can easily became a “crazy making” situation where it’s just a big circle: partner A engages in a certain behavior, partner B freaks out, partner A feels ashamed and promises to change, things are ok for a while, and then the cycle starts all over.

If any of the above behaviors are going on in your relationship, you will likely find it difficult to trust, and therefore, you feel betrayed by your partner on some level.  You may not have thought about it that way before, but this list should validate your concerns about trust.  If your partner does not agree that any of these behaviors are a problem for your relationship, you will likely benefit from some form of relationship counseling or coaching in order to help you resolve these issues.  If your partner won’t get help, try individual counseling to help you navigate through these betrayals on your own and learn to set effective boundaries.

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.

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.

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

March 25, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.