Making timeouts work for your relationship

By Clay Culp, Relationship Rx facilitator

Watch Clay discuss this topic on WTNX’s Fox 43 in the morning here.

The ones we love most are also the ones who can hurt us most. By being vulnerable, our partners entrust us with the responsibility to hold that vulnerability gently. While it can be easy to take a “gloves off” approach in a committed relationship, keeping the “gloves on” may be one of the healthiest things you can do for your relationship.

Insulting, mean-spirited comments often take more of a toll than we realize, especially when it comes from our partner. You can apologize and try to make it right after the fact, but your partner cannot un-hear the hurtful things you’ve said. Although repair is possible, overly harsh and intentionally hurtful remarks often lead to a decrease in emotional safety, and ultimately a lack of intimacy.

Prevention — stopping ourselves from saying these hurtful things to begin with — is often the best approach. Timeouts are an effective way to stop these behaviors in their tracks. Taking a timeout sometimes sounds like almost too simple of advice, but when done well, timeouts one of the most useful relationship tools. Here are four tips (adapted from PREP’s Within Our Reach curriculum) on making timeouts work for you.

1) Use “I” or “We” instead of “you” when asking for timeout: When you recognize the need for a timeout, be mindful of how you call for it. Telling your partner you need to take a timeout will likely come off as a parental and condescending. You will be much less likely to trigger defensiveness by saying “I” or “we” need to take a timeout. This also has the effect of helping you to join together around fixing the communication problem, rather than simply tearing each other down. Even if it really does seem to you that it’s your partner, more so than you, who needs to take a timeout, you’ll have better results this way. Besides, if you are getting to the point where your partner is upsetting you enough that you wish they would take a timeout, it’s likely that you could use one as well.

2) Plan a specific time to handle the issue: People sometimes wonder if taking a timeout is just another way of withdrawing or running away from problems, and it can certainly feel that way without some parameters. Taking a healthy timeout doesn’t mean storming away, never to talk about the issue again. Instead, try setting a specific time to deal with the issue in the future. We recommend at least 30 minutes (it takes at least that long to calm down), but not more than 24-hours if possible. This helps reduce the fear that the topic will be swept under the rug while at the same time reducing unnecessary tension due to uncertainty about when the topic will be brought back up.

3) Take steps to calm yourself down: Without an effective strategy to calm down, a timeout can become a time to stew and build up even more anger. This is not the time to focus on what you don’t like about your partner. While you’re not angry, take some time to decide on some healthy personal stress relieving strategies. You don’t need to decide for your partner how they will calm down or what they should be doing to make you more calm. Instead focus on what you can do in that moment to soothe your own feelings of anger.

4) Come back and communicate safely: The fact that you and your partner needed a timeout likely reflects that you’ve stumbled into some sensitive, possibly painful territory. Without a safe way to communicate around the issue, tempers are likely to flare up again. Safe communication could mean reminding yourself of ground-rules about things like yelling, name-calling, or angry touching. It might also mean using a structured communication strategy to share the floor, like the Speaker-Listener technique.


Common Communication Issues

By Audrey Kasting, Relationship Rx Facilitator

 

Communication is a big and important topic within romantic relationships.  There are a myriad of issues that can occur when dealing with how messages are being relayed between partners.  Below is a list of common communication issues and how to address them.

Withdrawal

    • While it may not happen in all relationships, there seems to be a common experience when one or both partners tend to leave a conversation early. Sometimes this means a person physically leaves the room, or the house.  Sometimes this means the individual mentally “checks-out,” and is no longer actively engaged in the discussion.  John Gottman, a leading couples’ researcher, has coined this as one of the top communication danger signs in romantic relationships.
    • If one or both of you finds yourself wanting to leave a conversation early because it is getting too heated, your instincts are actually correct! This means that the conversation is escalating and is no longer productive.  So follow this instinct, and also put certain measures in place to ensure it is done in a healthy way instead of just prematurely or hurtfully withdrawing. Call a time out and decide when to come back to the conversation later. While in the time out, cool off and think about how to do your part to make the discussion better, instead of just stewing.  The recommendation is to wait at least 30 to 45 minutes so your body can physically calm down and you can think more clearly.  Most importantly, make sure you return to the discussion!  Time-outs should not be used to avoid important topics with your partner.  To read more on time-outs, click here.

 

Premature Problem-solving

    • Though solving a problem may seem like the logical thing to do when an issue arises, it is not always necessary.  When a couple is faced with an issue that does not necessarily have a resolution, they may find themselves “spinning their wheels,” and feeling as though they aren’t getting anywhere. It may be something that a couple consistently disagrees on, and fights about it seem to just keep coming up. Additionally, if partners do not truly understand one another’s perspectives, they may actually be trying to solve different problems.
    • Focus on understanding one another’s perspective rather than trying to “fix” or “solve.” If you each go into the conversation with the goal of respecting one another’s differences and opinions on an issue, and not necessarily finding a resolution, there will be much less pressure. You may also be pleasantly surprised in finding it might not be something that is solvable, and realizing that is okay.  And if it is “solvable,” you and your partner are much more likely to find a better solution if you spend time understanding one another first.

 

The Price of Being Right

    • Oftentimes in an argument or heated discussion, it is easy for partners to become escalated or upset and become defensive rather than patient and receptive to one another. Then instead of participating in active listening, one or both partners are thinking about what they will say next, and planning his or her next “come-back.” In these instances, messages are lost and miscommunications are common.  According to Gottman and other researchers, too much defensiveness can also be a danger sign in your relationship.
    • Again, focus on understanding one another’s perspective!  Additionally, be very conscious about how you approach your partner with an issue.  Being too inflexible and always thinking you are right is not only disrespectful to your partner, but does not invite them to really hear your point of view.  Make sure if you have an issue with your partner, that you are bringing to their attention something they did or said that upset you, rather than criticizing them as a person.  To read more on complaints vs. criticisms, click here.

 

 Lack of Planning

    • Many of us do not think to have conversations with our partner about how we should communicate in stressful times. Then when we unknowingly step on one another’s toes, and it is even harder to navigate the discussion to try and smooth it over.  Perhaps the partner who is upset leaks sarcastic comments; perhaps he or she avoids the other, or gives the cold shoulder. The partner receiving these messages may meet this with impatience, annoyance, or hurt, and it then becomes worse.
    • Individually we all have our different ways of dealing with upset feelings. Some of us need more time to process them before talking about it with the person we’re frustrated with. Some of us want to address it and get it resolved right away. The trick here is to take preventative measures with your partner (as best you can) and have conversations about what this might look like between the two of you. Knowing what one another needs when you are upset is good information to have before it happens. Avoid holding onto something indefinitely, and also find what your formula is as a couple to respect both preferences.

 

 


Complaints vs. Criticisms

By Audrey Kasting, Relationship Rx Facilitator

 

People often look at me wide-eyed when I tell them that it is actually healthy to complain in relationships.  I reassure them it is, and also strongly emphasize that it is healthy when done in the appropriate way, and when criticisms are being avoided.  Complaining has a negative connotation – but at its core, it is letting our partner know that we are bothered by something.  It is much better to communicate about what we think is not going as well so we can manage and maintain.  Otherwise, small issues have the potential to snowball into bigger problems.

The difference between criticisms and complaints is a very important one.  It can mean the difference between a toxic vs. a healthy and helpful communication tool.

 

Criticisms

Criticisms are messages we give our partners that negatively attack their character, or their personal beliefs, values, or opinions.  More simply, they are “put-downs.”  Name-calling is also a form of criticism.  Anything that makes your partner feel as though they are harshly disrespected could be considered a criticism.

According to John Gottman, a couples researcher, criticism is a danger sign in relationships.  This means that when there is too much criticism present in the environment of a relationship between two people, the overall health and strength of their bond is being significantly weakened.  Criticisms also hurt our individual senses of identify and self-esteem.  They are damaging both to our emotional safety in relationships, and our own personal well-being.

 

Complaints

Complaints are messages we give our partners telling them that we are bothered or upset, or that we believe something is not going as well in our relationship.  Complaints are not attacks, they are bits of information being shared.  Complaints focus on specific behaviors or incidents, rather than broad, negative statements about your partner him or herself.  The best kind of complaints also communicate to our partner how we are being affected.  For example, “When you played a game on your phone instead of talk to me during dinner, I felt annoyed and sad,” is letting the other person know it’s an important issue not because that partner is an intrinsically “bad person,” for playing on the phone; rather, it’s important because the other partner felt disappointed.  Instead of pointing fingers and making it an individual issue, it is now a couple issue to navigate as a team.

 

Tricks to Complaining in a Healthy Way

Avoid the words “always,” and “never.”  Even if it is something your partner does (or does not do) often, it is unfair to use these broad statements.  It also quickly breeds defensiveness in your partner, and is a slippery slope towards criticism.

Use “I” Statements.  If you make sure to speak from your perspective, you will (1) avoid criticizing your partner, and (2) soften your approach and elicit more patience from your partner to listen.  Imagine if your partner were to say: “You are such a slob, you never help me get anything done.”  This would not only be hurtful, but a natural response for most of us will be defending why the chore wasn’t done, or a counter-attack (“Well you forget to do things too!”).  A game of tennis with the blame ball could be quick to follow.  Now imagine if your partner were to say: “I felt really frustrated when the laundry wasn’t put away yesterday.”  A calmer response is now much more likely.

*Note: If jumping to emotions, or saying “I felt…” is too uncomfortable, try to describe your experience of it as best you can without pointing fingers. (Ex: “My to-do list seemed endless yesterday, and I had so much to do.  That’s why I snapped when the laundry wasn’t put away.”).

Expect a little defensiveness. When someone tells us that we’ve done or said something annoying, upsetting, or bothersome, we all feel a little defensiveness.  For the person complaining, this is why it is important to approach it softly.  For the person receiving, being receptive will help to create discussion and improve your intimacy as a couple.  Being too defensive or avoidant will only make it harder for your partner to approach you softly next time, and make it more difficult for you to smooth things over.

Choose your battles.  I know I said complaining is healthy in a relationship; however, this is not a green light to complain about every tiny thing your partner does that bugs you.  There needs to be a balance.  Sometimes we need to understand that our partner may have done or said something because they were stressed or overwhelmed, for example.  Or perhaps there are days when things don’t run as smoothly due to time constraints and crazy schedules, not because it was “someone’s fault.”  Everyone has their small quirks and habits that end up bugging one another as well.  If there are small but understandable things that come up, it may be okay to let them slide.  But if you think that if you don’t say something it will cause you to start harboring resentment, then is a good idea to discuss it with your partner.

Sprinkle positives often.  Research tells us that it takes 20 positives to equal out one negative in relationships, and that repair work is essential.  A relationship will be much stronger and healthier if you and your partner thoughtfully add positives into your emotional savings account, and often.  No matter how appropriately each person is complaining, if there are no positives sprinkled in elsewhere, it will make it much more dismal and difficult to hear complaints.  A focus on compliments and encouragements is also key in this area.


The power of hidden strengths

By Clay Culp, Relationship Rx facilitator

Click here for a video of Clay discussing this topic on Fox 43 WTNZ’s morning show during Relationship Week.

As relationship check-up facilitators, couples often come to us understandably concerned, worried, and wanting to fix things. First, we ask what’s brought them in and we listen. But then we ask about what brought them together in the first place — and the strengths that have continued to help keep them together. Only after that do we begin to address the problems. Part of our aim is to move strengths from something couples take for granted to something they can celebrate, and actively cultivate. Strengths are not just an afterthought or a perk. They’re the very glue that keeps relationships together. Unfortunately, sometimes our strengths can be hard to recognize.

Like relationship check-up creator Dr. James Cordova says, we are often much better at being problem detectors than gratitude detectors. It’s a natural self-preservation mechanism. Strengths have a way of eluding our attention and hiding, often in plain sight.

Maybe you’re raising a family with your partner, while trying to balance work and other responsibilities. It’s stressful, but you and your partner just seem to be on the same page when it comes to childcare. Rather than work against each other, you’re able to work as a team to take care of the needs of the family together.

Or perhaps you and your partner find that when it comes to paying the bills and managing money, you nearly always see eye-to-eye. This is often reflective of a shared sense of values and priorities that bodes well for relational stability.

Other couples find that they’re naturally good at staying in touch with one another. Whether it’s a text message, a written note, a phone call, or a daily chat before bed, research suggests staying in touch with one another’s day-to-day lives is key to maintaining intimacy.

Not every couple will have those particular strengths, and that’s okay. But look closely enough and you’ll likely find your own hidden relationship strengths –things that might seem to come naturally, but without which your relationship would drastically suffer.

Try these tips to help uncover and celebrate your strengths, both the obvious and hidden.

1) Give yourself permission: You do not have to make your relationship “perfect” before you start celebrating your strengths. It can be tempting to think everyone else’s relationship is all roses, after all, one need only look at the many perfectly curated Instagram and Facebook feeds for images of seeming relational bliss. The reality is, no relationship is perfect. All relationships have “natural flaws in the fabric” and even couples struggling through difficult patches usually have significant strengths. Partners may also fear that acknowledging strengths means letting their partner “off the hook” for concerns. This is a trap.  Expressing gratitude and appreciation is much more likely to benefit the relationship and reinforce healthy behavior than it is to cause any harm.

2) Remember your story: Take a trip down memory lane with your partner and discuss what it was like when you first met or first became romantically involved. What do you remember about that time? What attracted you to your partner and drew you in? Try to soak in the details and the richness of the experience, putting aside for the moment all the challenges you’ve faced since then. Our tendency in relationships can be to begin to view our partner through a more negative lens overtime. Remembering what you saw first can help re-calibrate your view of your partner. This is often a favorite part of the check-up.

3) Share a list of strengths with your partner: Both you and your partner write down a list of 3-5 things you see as relationship strengths. Think of those core things that help define the health of your relationship, like being good friends, showing affection, offering support, or communicating wants and needs well. Compare and discuss both lists with your partner. What makes them so important. How do they help keep your relationship strong and healthy? People rarely have this conversation, but it can be a great way to increase feelings of warmth and intimacy.

4) Practice gratitude regularly: It can be tempting to wait only for special occasions like Valentine’s Day, birthdays, and anniversaries to tell your partner how much you appreciate them and your relationship, but research indicates a regular practice of gratitude is good for your relationship and even your own physical health. Don’t keep these feelings to yourself all year. Share them whenever you can. Those enduring strengths you wrote down? Take note when you see them in action specifically and share them with your partner. If you have trouble verbalizing feelings, try writing them down in a “love notebook.”

 

 


Cactus & Fern Pattern

By Audrey Kasting, Relationship Rx Facilitator

 

A common pattern that causes tension and conflict in relationships involves a difference in the level of desired intimacy, physical affection, or sexual activity. When tension arises in this area, the person desiring more is often left feeling annoyed, unloved, deprived, and it may even cause his or her self-esteem to take a hit; the person desiring a lower amount of intimacy usually feels annoyed as well, and perhaps guilty for not being able to meet the needs of the other. This can be tricky terrain to navigate, and may even be uncomfortable or awkward for some to talk about. The heightened anxiety surrounding discussions about sex could even cause a couple to avoid talking about the topic altogether. As this area is left unaddressed, partners may begin to build up resentment and disdain, and working towards any resolve on the issue will be incredibly difficult.

The Pattern

In general, the pattern can be thought of like this: the individual desiring more intimacy feels deprived and saddened when the couple goes for long periods without this closeness, and he or she feels more anxious to initiate or ask for it in the future.   The more the individual desiring less intimacy gets asked, the harder they want to pull away.  Ironically, this person may also not want to initiate in the future because they do not want to give their partner false hope. In other words, perhaps this individual desired snuggling on the couch one night, but not sex, and their partner mistook the intimacy as an initiation of something more. They also may not want their partner to think that sex or snuggling one night means they will suddenly want to do those things every night. Many times, this cycle can end up in a stalemate: nobody initiating, nobody talking about it, and nobody is happy.

Like many patterns, this is one where understanding your partner’s point of view may be helpful in and of itself. As you come to learn about and appreciate your partner’s different perspective, you may find yourself feeling less intensely annoyed or deprived, and better able to meet one another in the middle (to read more about patterns in general and what to do when you find yourself stuck in one, click here). It is arguable that the individual desiring more intimacy has a more physical contact love language (to read more on love languages, click here). Regardless, this difference usually ends up in a cyclical pattern.

The Fern

The individual in the couple who wants and needs more intimacy, or physical or sexual contact, can be thought of as a fern. I am no expert on plants, but generally speaking I think it’s safe to agree that ferns are plants needing more moisture than others. While they may not need a watering every day, ferns thrive in environments where they get a more constant form of water source. They would be happy with a full-on rain shower every now and then, and some dew or mistings in between. Ferns will not die right away without this water, but they will not be as vibrant or healthy.

These individuals, like ferns, need more consistent physical contact and affection in order to feel happy, loved, and fulfilled. It is not that they need sex frequently per-se, but they at least need something in between, like hugs, kisses, hand-holds, and snuggles. Of course, after going for a long time without any water, the fern’s most probable and natural inclination is to want a full rain shower, or full-on sexual contact or intercourse. This is where the other partner often gets worried of giving them false hope. But with little mists and contacts in between, the fern won’t always desire a rainstorm in order to feel pleased.

The Cactus

The individual in the couple who needs less intimacy or physical or sexual contact in order to feel satisfied can be thought of as a cactus. It is not that cacti do not need water – like all plants, it is necessary to lead a healthy life. But cacti are built to go for longer periods of time without it, and can still thrive in this environment. It would take an extraordinary amount of time without any rain for a cactus to begin feeling unhappy or unhealthy.

Individuals who are more like cacti do not require smaller, more regular mistings in order to feel fulfilled. They can feel happy for a lot longer with a single physical or sexual encounter with their partner, just as a cactus holds a water reservoir to stay hydrated.  Most likely, the cactus is still deriving a sense of love and belonging through other affections, such as verbal affirmations or time spent together.  It may also mean that it is not as natural for this individual to initiate sex or physical touches as often, and it may not occur to them as often to sprinkle in this type of affection. It does not necessarily come from a place of unhappiness, of not loving their partner, or trying to neglect their partner.

 

Any couple with this very naturally occurring difference will have to find their unique balance of mistings and rain showers. Some waterings may need to be planned, and others may happen more spontaneously. For each couple there will be a special blend for each person to feel happy and satisfied. So reflect on where you may fall in this pattern and in these descriptions. Then, communicate to your partner what you may want or need in order to feel more satisfied and loved, while at the same time respecting and being patient with the fact that this may require your partner to go out of his or her comfort zone or do something that does not come as naturally.


Let’s Get Physical

By Kristina Coop Gordon, PhD

When people talk about getting physical in close relationships, it seems like the focus is often on sex, such as how often you have it and how good it is.  This kind of closeness in relationships is certainly important and couples do need to make time for it.

However, one very important part of relationships that gets overlooked is non-sexual physical affection – things like hugs, kisses, caresses, massages, back-scratching, holding hands, and general cuddling. Non-sexual is a bit of a misnomer as all of this can lead to sex, of course.  And sometimes this can be a problem if these acts get too tied to sex and not seen as valuable activities on their own.

First, it should be no surprise that lots of physical affection is associated with greater relationship satisfaction. Happier couples tend to cuddle more – but, also, the more couples cuddle, kiss, and hug, the happier they become.

Furthermore, more physical affection in a relationship helps couples bounce back from conflicts better. It doesn’t lead to less conflict, but it helps couples resolve conflicts better. One of the theories behind this finding is that the connection created by physical affection leads to a level of goodwill that motivates couples to accommodate each other more in their disagreements.

And, in retrospective interviews with couples who have been together over twenty years, physical affection was one of the most commonly cited qualities that helped them stay together.

But the positive effects of physical affection go beyond relationship satisfaction: More physical affection on one day leads to more positive moods and lowered stress levels the next day. You get this finding both by people’s self- report and also in actual measurements of stress hormone levels. And partners, PAY ATTENTION: less stress and better moods led to more cuddling and more actual sex the next day.

More affectionate interactions also are associated with lower resting heart rate and better cardiovascular functioning.  In sum, physical affection actually makes you psychologically and physically healthier.  The most surprising result along these lines is that there is some evidence that it might even reduce people’s allergic responses!

Ask yourself, when was the last time you hugged your partner? Scratched or massaged their back? When did you last really kiss him or her – kiss in a way that you are really present rather than an absent-minded goodbye peck? How often do you cuddle on the couch? When you do these things, do you do them without thinking about it leading to more intimate activity, or are you able to enjoy it and relax in the moment? Some couple therapists suggest that a great exercise for couples looking to increase their satisfaction is to try a four minute hug – which gives couples time to relax into each other and the physiological connections to fully engage.

Why not try it out tonight?


5 Relationship tips for 2015

By Clay Culp, Relationship Rx facilitator

Click here to see Clay discuss these tips on Mornings with Fox 43.

Photo credit: David Oliver (Flickr)

Photo credit: David Oliver

New Year’s resolutions are often focused on personal growth and achievement. They can can also be a great time to recommit to maintaining the health of your relationship. Here’s five variations on common New Year’s resolutions that can help not just you but also your relationship.

1.  Learn your partner’s love language: Learning something new, like a language, is one of the most common New Year’s resolutions, and with good reason. It can help keep your mind sharp, increase your self-confidence, and provide a much needed source of fun. This year try learning to communicate love to one another more effectively. Loving your partner and our partner recognizing it are two very different things. Even the most heartfelt efforts at showing how much you love your partner can miss the mark if it isn’t done in a way our partner understands. Gary Chapman’s book The Five Love Languages discusses five ways of showing love: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. We all have our preferences when it comes to showing, and being shown, love. With or without the help of a book like Chapman’s, beginning to think more deeply about different ways of showing love and affection is a worthy resolution for 2015. Given the importance of communication in relationships, discovering your partner’s love language might be the most valuable thing you learn all year.

2.  Go on a digital diet: One of the keys to increasing intimacy is simple, uninterrupted, unhurried quality time spent together. It sounds so easy, yet many couples struggle to make it happen. It’s no wonder given our tendency to stay glued to our smart phones, laptops, tablets, and now even smart watches. So, go on a “digital diet.” Commit, along with your partner, to limit your tech use by setting aside a certain time each week that you’ll spend together without your devices.

3. Plan a vacation with your partner: When Dr. James Cordova, creator of the Relationship Check-up, followed-up with couples one year after their initial check-up and asked them about the highlight of their past year, the most common response by far was “vacation.” Planning a vacation together let’s you explore one another’s wants, interests, and desires and gives you something to look forward to in the New Year. And remember, stress at work inevitably bleeds over into our home life. Americans today are working more than ever before, and leaving untold hours of vacation time unused. Don’t let yourself be one of them in 2015.

4. Start with a clean slate: Take stock of any lingering resentment you may be holding against your partner and ask yourself whether it’s worth holding on to. There’s nothing magical about the clock striking midnight on New Year’s that will make forgiveness any easier, but you can still choose to have a more forgiving attitude in 2015. Choose to forgive by practicing acceptance of your partner “warts and all” and recognizing the positive repair efforts of your partner. Perhaps most importantly, remind yourself that while our natural tendency when hurt may be to put our guard up, choosing to put up a wall does offer a certain kind of protection but it also blocks us from being intimate with our partner.

5. Manage your financial feelings: Money is one of the most common things partners argue about. Although dollars and cents can seem very concrete, human emotions make money anything but simple and logcial. Some of us cherish the ability to do something special for ourselves or loved ones with our hard-earned dollars. Without it, a feeling of deprivation sets in. Others are savers, who just don’t feel secure without an especially strong safety net. A tighter budget may be in order this year, but without recognizing the emotional component of our finances, couples are likely to find themselves stuck in the same money management pattern in 2015.


The Relationship Check-up: When quiet men speak

By Clay Culp, Relationship Rx facilitator

Edited by Shane Bierma

It’s not uncommon for a female in a different sex partnership to preface the first session of a check-up by explaining that her partner is “not much of a talker” and probably won’t say much during the session. Almost as if to say, “I’ve been trying to get him to talk for forever, so if you think you’re getting anything out of him in one session, good luck!” Sometimes this prediction holds true. But more often than you might expect, I find it’s just the opposite.  The experience often leaves partners saying things like, “That’s the most he’s talked in years! “Get a “quiet guy” talking, and he often continues talking. Given the right time, setting and space, even quiet men speak.

Of course, it’s not just men who can be quiet, but there’s something about quiet men, that seem to be a bit harder to reach. The reasons for staying quiet are varied –patterns like demand/withdrawal as well as individual personality traits play a role — but with men, I often find that cultural attitudes about what it means to “be a man” play a major role in keeping them from expressing themselves. It can seem like sitting down and talking about feelings or relationships  simply isn’t what men do, at least not “real” men. Combined with other factors, this societal standard can be a tough hurdle to overcome.

So, what is it about the check-up that allows for people who’ve previously been closed off to open up? Here are three simple things about couples counseling, but more specifically the relationship check-up, that pave the way for open and safe dialogue.  So if you’re the partner of a quiet person, or a silent-type yourself, pay attention.

1) A safe space to talk: In a couple’s session, it’s common for one partner (often the male partner, but not exclusively) to feel more apprehensive about coming in than the other. At a gut level, the session can seem like a sort of relationship health ambush, with both therapist and lover ready to pounce and tell you everything you’re doing wrong and how you need to change. After a while, people usually come to see that our aim as relationship consultants is not to take sides but rather to help create a safe space for both individuals to communicate. Rather than assign blame, we work to develop mutual understanding, and even compassion and empathy between partners. In the case of the check-up, it doesn’t hurt that this safe space can even be created in the couples own home, reducing some of the apprehension of walking into the unknown of a therapist’s office.

2) A safe time to talk: As simple as it sounds, just making time for an attentive, unhurried conversation can be a game-changer. For some people, the check-up serves as a self-imposed, scheduled discussion time. Even couples that have been together for years sometimes realize they haven’t made time to talk, really talk, in what feels like ages. Given the opportunity to turn your attention back toward one another, you might be surprised by what you hear.. Don’t wait for the perfect time to talk to happen on it’s own. Be intentional about talking ( and listening) to your partner.

3) A time to be heard: Finally, the need to be heard and understood is universal, even for the most reserved among us. The facilitator can serve as an emotional translator, helping to convey your own words and emotions in ways your partner can more easily take in. For example, sometimes quiet people feel wrongly labeled as unkind or even uncaring, when the truth is much more complicated. As individuals begin to feel more understood by the facilitator and one another, words begin to flow more freely.  A small taste of understanding — that sense that someone “gets it”– can be just what’s needed to grease the wheels of communication.


Avoiding Holiday Stress

By Kristina Coop Gordon, PhD

Part of the reason this time of year can be so hard on families is that people spend so much energy running around trying to make things perfect that they run out of energy to actually enjoy their family. We get so depleted that we have little self-control left to keep ourselves from becoming crabby and cranky with the people we love most.

1) “No” is your friend.  One of my clients carries a notecard with this word on it with her at all times to remind herself of this.

  •  Say no to unwanted parties and events, even if you feel obligated to go.
  • If you do go, feel free to take the “Kroger clamshell” to the potluck. Who cares? And if they do, so what?
  • Say no to taking on unwanted tasks, like planning the neighborhood or office holiday party
  • Say no to unnecessary “keeping up with the Joneses”
  • If you are afraid of missing out if you say no to something you would like to do, compensate by planning something special with that person or a similar event for after the holiday season

2) Know ahead of time what you want to say yes to

  • What are your priorities for season? What family traditions are most important? Schedule them in first.
  • Do you want time for peace & contemplation? Schedule it.
  • Remember everything you say yes to makes it difficult for you to say yes to something else.  The more cookie exchanges and holiday ornaments swaps that you do, the less time you have for snuggling on the couch and watching Christmas specials with your kids. Choose wisely.


Gratitude

By Kristina Coop Gordon, Ph.D.

GRATITUDE is good for us.  There is a lot of accumulating evidence that people who consistently practice gratitude are physically healthier. In fact, their immune systems are stronger, they have fewer aches and pains, and they have lower blood pressure. But it’s not just good for us, it’s good for our relationships.

When we’ve been in a relationship for a while, people tend to have a “negativity bias.” We stop noticing the positive aspects and tend to focus more on the negative – like the dirty dishes your partner left in the sink, the time she was inattentive and short on the phone, or the time he forgot to pick up the thing you asked him to get at the grocery store. We are so wired as humans to be more likely to notice and remember the bad things that we have to make extra efforts to notice and attend to the good.  And we also might have to make extra efforts to share the good with our partners for them to hear it.

Taking time out to notice and focus on the good things that our partners bring to our lives helps to make us less focused on ourselves and on everyday annoyances and more appreciative of what they contribute to our well-being.  It also helps us to tolerate annoyances with more compassion.

Also, research by Dr. Amie Gordon at UC-Berkeley has shown that as we become more appreciative, we are more likely to recommit ourselves to doing good things for our relationships in turn. Furthermore, as our own good behaviors increase, our partners respond in turn by engaging in more kind behaviors towards us. It’s a virtuous cycle, instead of a vicious one.

Gratitude is not always an automatic response. But it can be strengthened through practice, like a muscle. Some tips to strengthen our gratitude response are:

1) keep a gratitude journal – list 5 things you are grateful for about your spouse each week

2) practice counting your relationship blessings daily
3) create a concrete reminder – drop a penny or a button or a pebble in a jar whenever you find yourself appreciating something your partner does

4) write appreciative sticky notes when you catch your partner doing something good & leave them

5) gratitude notebook – a couple I worked with wrote something good in a notebook and passed it back and forth, taking turns expressing appreciation & also funny stories and jokes.

(1-3 are adapted from Dr. Robert Emmons, psychology professor at UC-Davis –  http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_gratitude_is_good)