Two Little Words: I'm sorry

Those two little words, “I’m sorry.” If done right, they can repair and reconnect a relationship. IF. One has to say it with ownership. The tone and sincerity followed by action and behavioral changes also must occur. I’ve heard a LOT of apologies over the years. Some good and some not so good. Recently, numerous people told me about the show “Revenge Body” staring Khloe Kardashian. I know, please bear with me! Naturally, I was reluctant to watch, however, my curiosity got the better of me and I saw an episode, or two, or possibly more…The show is about one or two people wanting to take ‘revenge’ out on a loved one, be it an ex, close friend, sibling, or parent by working out with a celebrity trainer, eating well, and dealing with emotions they have suppressed. They basically transform their look. (I’m skeptical that all is well in a matter of 12 weeks, but that’s for another blog) These revenge-seekers are trying to get their perpetrators to see how much their words and actions have hurt them and wounded their core. What I find most intriguing have been the apologies. Here are a few: “I’m sorry ‘if’ I hurt you.” “I’m sorry you feel that way.” “Why didn’t you say anything? (Never saying, “I’m Sorry.”) “I apologize ‘if’ what I did/said caused you pain.” “You know, we’ll do better. You’re beautiful. I knew you could do this.” “I’m sorry, but you hurt me too.”

            I’ll have to admit that these so-called apologies saddened me. Saying “If” or “But” are conditional words, dependent upon the other victim and what they have done. It would be equivalent to me being in a turning lane about to make a left and a distracted driver swerves into my turning lane and hits me and then blames me for being in the turning lane. “I’m sorry I hit you, but you shouldn’t have been there.” What?? Just like one shouldn’t say, “I love you but…” The words ‘if’ and/or ‘but’ discounts the person’s pain. They are not repairing and reconnecting words. They’re justification words, glossing over and claiming no ownership of one’s poor word choice, bad behavior, or unacceptable timing. When a spouse says, “Your name calling hurts my feelings”, acknowledge it. When she says, “It frightens me when you raise your voice in an argument”, own it. As he says, “I feel like I don’t matter when you give me the silent treatment”, address it. ‘Ifs’ and ‘but’s’ have a place, but not in an authentic apology where hearts need to start healing and relationships need to be mended.

            We’re constantly modeling for our kids too. They need to see us apologize to our partner and hear apologies from us. “I’m sorry I yelled at you. You don’t deserve to be spoken to like that.” Period. Leave “but you need to…or you should have done…” out of the apology. Explaining why behavior needs to change comes later. If you must, do the mantra, “I must be more emotionally mature than my 3-year-old” or however old your child(ren) are. We all have reasons to be angry, and some are very understandable! Repeating ourselves repeatedly, something gets broken, sleep deprivation, etc. Nevertheless, their behavior should not dictate how we own our poor behavior and apologize. They are kids. And we are the adults.

            What do you do when you find yourself stuck or unable to apologize for something you’ve done or said that has hurt someone else?

  1. Own your part. It might help to ask yourself, “If someone had done this to me or spoken to me like this, would it be hurtful?”

  2. Talk with the person whom you’ve hurt. Ask them to help you understand what they’re feeling or going through.

  3. Seek help. Having a therapist help you see different perspectives of a situation could enlighten you and not just in this situation, but in others as well.

I’m In a Relationship… So How Can I Feel So Alone?

“I try to connect with my partner, but he just shuts me down.  I have tried to share many times in the past the issues I have regarding my boss, but my partner just criticizes me for what I am not doing instead of listening to me.  Every time I talk to my wife, she just shames me for my decisions.  My partner is here, but I can’t talk to them.  I feel so alone.” 

Do any of the statements above sound similar to something you’ve experienced in your relationship?  Are you tired of trying to share your world with your partner and get shut down or shut out?  If so, you are in the right spot.  I hope my blog gives you a quick educational snippet of what emotional safety is and how, without it, relationships tend to suffer.

  1. What is Emotional Safety?
    Emotional safety refers to a state when an individual is able to be truly open and vulnerable in a relationship. When an individual feels emotionally safe, their social connections tend to thrive. When social connections are thriving, long-term relationships can be cultivated!

  2. How is Emotional Safety Disrupted in a Relationship?
    Threats to emotional safety in a relationship can come in all forms. From my experience, it is not the BIG arguments that cause couples to come into therapy. It is the SUBTLE threats that build and build over time that lead couples to question what has happened them. These subtle threats include: feeling attacked and then feeling the need to counterattack, shutting down, being judged, being criticized, and being shamed.\

  3. How Can Emotional Safety Be Rebuilt?
    Rebuilding emotional safety and reconnecting with your partner can be a daunting process. Here are just a few tips to rebuild emotional safety: effective communication, fair fighting, soft start up, acceptance, and love.

As research states, emotional safety is a key component of a long last relationship.  When a person’s mind and body feel safe, their connections and relationship tend to thrive.  If you and your partner are still feeling overwhelmed, please give me a call and I would love to help you rebuild the relationship you want and deserve!  

Communication would be at the top of the list when discussing ways to maintain a healthy relationship. While there are other equally important skills you and your partner should have, communication remains as the highest trait in helping a relationship stay solid. This fundamental piece can determine how in sync you and your partner really are. Since communication is such a key element, why is it then hard to talk about sex with your partner? The answer to why we still tend to cringe towards this subject may be understandable.

Even though different forms of media are filled with sexual content nowadays, society still tell us conversations with sexual content is a “no, no”. It keeps persisting that sex is taboo. Altogether, this can be confusing and send mixed messages on how to approach the topic. You could feel stuck on what to do. Furthermore, there are additional contributing factors influencing your perception of sex. This includes: upbringing, religious beliefs, gender stereotypes, and any other influential origins you believe formed your perception. When considering everything, staying away from talks regarding sex seems like the easiest solution. However, think of it this way: If you and your partner feel that open communication should be implemented throughout all aspects of your relationship…shouldn’t sex be included too? Talking over what’s currently going on in your sex life or what ways it may have changed is a discussion worth having. No matter what the sexual issue contains, an open and honest conversation should occur. It can feel uncomfortable at first, but bringing up sex may be a vulnerable conversation that needs to happen within your relationship starting now.

In order to keep your relationship successful, your sexual health and experiences have to be prioritized too. If you’re like most clients I talk to, your sex life is less than ideal. Likely you’ve simply avoided the topic, hoping it will get better. Unfortunately you’re not likely to see much improvement without actually discussing the issue. Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed about communicating your sexual concerns. Remember: As you progress through life’s ups and downs, your sexual desires can also fluctuate. Maybe what was a turn on isn’t one anymore, maybe you’re experiencing a sexual difficulty that once wasn’t there before or maybe you’re wanting to explore something different. Whatever the matter is, your partner should know what is going on. In a healthy relationship, each partner is willing and open to share their sexual issues. They understand the importance of addressing and having a healthy sex life. You and your partner’s connection will only strengthen from it.

If you’ve never been good at discussing sex with your partner, you may benefit from seeking professional help, whether individually or as a couple. As a therapist with training and experience helping couples communicate regarding their sexual relationship, I’m happy to help.

What Makes Love Last? (Part 2)

John Gottman and Nan Silver co-wrote the book “What Makes Love Last?” In Part 1 of this blog entry detailing said book, I discussed the five ways to betray a lover. This blog will deal with the other five ways. The sixth betrayal to your lover is withdrawing of sexual interest. Most couples, during some time in their relationship,  get stuck in a rut or allow distractions from life, work, kids, or stress to cause intimacy to take a pause. However, when there are deep rooted issues, a dwindling sex life cannot be easily started again. Do you cherish your partner? Do you compliment their body or when they dress up? Every person longs to be seen, connected and validated. Do you see your partner? Withdrawing from sexual intimacy is wounding unless it is addressed in an honest and loving way.

 Seven, disrespect. “Whatever your partner’s communication style, if he or she implies that you are inferior, you are being treated with disrespect. A loving relationship is not about one person having the upper hand—it’s about holding hands.” Subtle slights and name calling are not helpful and are damaging.

 Unfairness is number eight. There should be justice and equality in the relationship. If money is spent on his big TV, then money should also be spent on whatever an equal value of gym membership or item she wants. Who does most of the housework? Who handles the finances? How is child-raising viewed? Some issues may seem petty, but as Gottman and Silver address, and as I have seen as a clinician, big problems arise if an agreeable balance isn’t struck.  It’s important to keep the dialogue open about these and other ‘fairness’ issues.

 Nine is selfishness. At times, it is essential that one partner forfeit their needs to help their partner. Resentment will take hold if one partner is untrustworthy of providing for the family. Some examples Gottman gives are pitching a fit because the infant car seat won’t fit into a new sports car, resisting on cutting work hours, opening a college fund (he wants a motorboat), and availability for sex. Seeking help can help uncover triggers of needs and fears.

 Lastly, breaking promises. Having a joint savings account for an agreed upon decision like buying a house or going on vacation and one person begins spending that joint money. Religion can be another sore spot if both had a practicing faith throughout their marriage, and now one decides to change faith or not attend church at all. Addiction is another devastating betrayal.

So what do you do if you’ve found yourself in any of these ten betrayals? Gottman and Silver say to put your feelings into words. It may be that you may not be sure of what you’re feeling. Express that to your partner. Let them know, “Yes, something’s going on. I’m not sure what I’m feeling. When I work through it, I’d like to talk about it.” That allows the other partner to be with you as you work through the issue/feeling. Chances are when you’re uncomfortable with your feelings or what is happening in the relationship, so is the other partner. Secondly, ask open-ended questions. Instead of, “Did you have a good day at work?” ask “So, what was it like at work today?” Open-ended questions are engaging and allow your partner to share more intimate details with you as well as you getting to validate and hear your partner. Then, follow up with statements that deepen connection. Lastly, express compassion and empathy. Try to go into an issue not wanting to ‘fix’ anything, but a calming presence and reassurance.

I encourage you to find a therapist who will help you gain the tools needed to gain a deeper level of trust with your partner and greater understanding of what it means to listen, be heard, feel validated, be more connected, and express love to your partner and in turn, feel a greater love as well.

Work and Home Life Balance

The title may look a bit odd to you because the more common phrasing is "work/life balance." That's never felt right to me as it implies that life is what happens outside of work. However, most of us spend more of our waking hours at work than we do anywhere else. We do life at work and, whether we like to admit it or not, work also bleeds over into home life as well. I believe we should be trying to improve ourselves in all areas of life, including work. Problems arise when we 1) carry our work stress/habits into home life, 2) carry our home problems into work, or 3) try and be our “work selves” at home with our family.

Work is stressful whether it’s a 70-80 hour week, a flexible schedule working from home, or a stay at home parent. It’s understandable that you would share that with your partner. The goal here is to not take it out on them. Relationships are, in part, about helping each other carry burdens. I encourage partners to include their partners in all aspects of their life, but remember they are your ally, not a punching bag. Asking them about their day and helping shoulder their struggles is just as important as them helping you.

Likewise, issues in your personal life can’t help but affect how you behave and perform at work. If the home life is less than ideal, you can’t just turn that off when you head to the job site. However, this is what close friends and colleagues are for. Choose people who are supporters of not just you, but of your relationship, and do life with them. Ironically most of us do this one much better than the first issue as we all know we need to perform well at our job or soon we might not have one. Just think if we viewed our relationships with the same level of importance and urgency!

Finally, we all have our work persona that we carry into the office. Whether that’s the boss, managing people, taking orders, being direct, etc, what works in the workplace rarely works at home.* Your partner needs a flexible, caring, empathetic partner, not a task-oriented, directive-driven workhorse. Be attentive to how your partner’s needs may vary from your own and be mindful of how the behaviors that may make you an effective professional may not make you the most lovable partner.

I say all this not because I’m great at it, but because I too struggle with these very things. The important thing is recognizing where you struggle and getting help. Whether it’s your partner, a close friend, a family member, or a therapist, find someone that can help hold you accountable to being better!

What Makes Love Last? (Part I)

“Are we going to make it?” And “Is this the worse you’ve ever seen?” are two frequent questions I get from my clients. When emotions are at a 10 and it feels like there’s no way out of the fight or crisis, it can feel like you’re drowning, and you’ve got only one big push to get that last breath before sinking down to the bottom. It’s scary. It’s exhausting. It feels very hopeless and isolating. Arguments can happen anywhere there is more than one person in the room. Two personalities, two opinions, and at least two ways of seeing something can correlate to miscommunication, which can lead to disagreements. Problems shift, however, when we stop seeing our partner as on the same team and begin to see them as ‘the other’ or ‘the enemy’. Reminding ourselves that ‘We’re in this together’ and to continue to fight the issue, and not the person, is vital to keeping this a fair fight.  

            Dr. John Gottman and Nan Silver wrote in, “What Makes Love Last? How To Build Trust And Avoid Betrayal” that *relationship killers are founded on two building blocks: deception (not revealing your true needs to avoid unpleasant conflict) and a yearning for emotional connection that seems unavailable from the partner. Trust is reestablished only when these areas are addressed and validated in one another. Gottman and Silver list 10 ways to betray a Lover. We’ll address five of them in this blog.

  1. One is having a shallow or conditional commitment. When couples ignore or avoid discussing deep issues, a shallow commitment is left. Intentionally talk about goals and dreams. It’s just as important as talking about the budget or the weekly and monthly calendar. Talking about our goals and dreams helps partners to feel like a team and seen as not just business partners running a household, but two committed people wanting a stronger bond and connection.

  2. Two, a nonsexual affair. If by what you’re doing, saying, texting, messaging, emailing or interacting/confiding in with another person would cause your partner to be uncomfortable, probably not a good idea. Be careful when you want to rekindle a past relationship on social media. In my experience, I have yet to hear someone in my office tell me that life was better because they chatted with an ex on social media or became ‘friends’. Innocent friendships are out in the open, encouraged, and have respected boundaries.  If you are turning outward to fill a void in the relationship, it’s time to turn inward and talk to your partner about your needs. Sometimes when you feel off in the relationship, so does the other partner.

  3. Lying is the third betrayal. Lies that are uttered to maintain the peace are a breach of trust.

  4. Forming a coalition against the partner is the fourth. When we turn to our family members and friends to gain approval or to alleviate our anxiety versus turning towards our partner, we do our relationship a huge disservice. Reparation can only happen when we keep our marital conflict in the marriage or in a confidential setting with a trusted therapist.

  5. Fifth is absenteeism or coldism. A committed relationship requires being there for each other both through life-changing traumas and everyday stresses. It also means sharing in the joys and good times as well. Remind your partner what a great wife or husband, mother or father, worker or person they are. “Atta girls”, and “Atta boys” don’t just apply to children. We, as adults, need affirming words and love pats too!

 

*Physical and emotional abuse is the worst kind of betrayal and is not in this list or being addressed in this blog.

Why Is It So Hard for Me to Say No?

Do you find it difficult to say no to friends, co-workers, etc. if they ask for help?  Do you tend to value other people’s happiness at the cost of yours?  Do you notice yourself getting worn out because you devote so much time to others and little time to yourself?  If you answered a yes to any of these questions, maybe the term people pleaser or yes man apply to you?

People pleasing behaviors can stem from different core issues, including low self-worth, the insatiable desire to be accepted and liked, and a history of unhealthy interpersonal relationships. 

Over time, people pleasing behaviors can lead to short and long-term problems.  It puts major stress on you mentally and emotionally, which can lead to physical health issues include changes in diet and sleep routine.

I am completed over-committed… I have no energy left to give.”

If you can relate to any of the concerns above and want to work away from people pleasing or saying yes to everything and everyone, here are a few tips:

  • Remember it is okay to say no!

  • Healthy boundaries are important.

  • Consider the value in saying yes versus the value in saying no.

  • Check in with your health and take care of yourself.

  • We all have a choice in what we do and don’t do.

  • You can be more helpful if you’re a healthier version of you.

If you are experiencing any of these concerns and have noticed it’s been a struggle to manage your commitments, please give me a call and I would love to help you establish some healthy boundaries and increase your confidence to take control back in your life. 


Grief Is Part Of Love

One of the greatest privileges about being a marriage and family therapist is getting to work with an array of people, backgrounds, genders, and various populations. While some issues may be similar, no two clients are the same. Pain is pain. When someone comes to therapy to work through their pain and grief, tears freely fall regardless of their socioeconomic status or zip code. We all hurt and we all need help.All grief is valid. My grief will look different from your grief, but “we all deserve to be heard in our grief, no matter what that grief may be.” Problems arise when we begin talking ourselves into believing that our pain is not as important as someone else’s. “Grief is as individual as love.” Sometimes, however, society can cause us to feel bad for feeling bad. Many people are uncomfortable with sadness and grief. They want happiness and smiles. So, instead of feeling held and comforted, we can feel shamed and guilt in our pain.Numerous times, clients want me to ‘fix’ them by removing their pain and grief. If only there was a magic wand to wave it all away! However, the only way to work through pain is to walk in it.  “Words of comfort that try to erase pain are not a comfort. When you try to take someone’s pain away from them, you don’t make it better…To feel truly comforted by someone, you need to feel heard in your pain. It seems counterintuitive, but true comfort in grief is in acknowledging the pain, not in trying to make it go away.” There is nothing wrong with feeling grief nor does sadness mean something is broken that needs mending. It is a healthy response to love and loss. “It means something important to you has been lost, and you have to identify what it is.”If you or someone you know is suffering and dealing with grief, let me encourage you to:

  1. Find a trusted friend who allows you to sit in your grief without feeling like you need to be fixed. Do you feel more love and kindness to yourself after seeing this friend, or stressed, unheard and worse in your pain after the visit?

  2. Find a therapist who will work with you on reducing the suffering. There is a difference between pain and suffering. The goal is to reduce the suffering.

  3. Check in with yourself. Note how you feel during different times of the day and under what circumstances. Note when you feel the tiniest bit more peace of being or calm.

  4. Remember your grief is not a test of love; it’s an experiment in love. It’s an experimental faith, experimental relationship with yourself, with this life, with grief, with pain, with love, with suffering—it’s all an experiment. It’s not a test. You can’t fail. You haven’t failed!

 Adapted from “It’s OK That You’re NOT OK; Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand.” by Megan Devine.

Avoiding Assumptions

In my 15 years of seeing individuals and couples in therapy, I've heard just about every version of argument there is. Whether it's a blowup that started with the laundry not being folded or a walk out due to a direct insult, I've heard it all. I've found there's a common theme in all of these miscommunications: assuming. Once we get comfortable with someone and have been with them long enough, we naturally tend to figure out some of their patterns of thinking, behavior, and communication. Although this can be helpful in meeting their needs and being more efficient, assuming can also be devastating to relationships. What if you're wrong and you didn't stop to check? Then you might be responding to or arguing with a point that the other person never even imagined.It's also important to remember that we all come into relationships and arguments pre-loaded with our own baggage and insecurities. This means you're not just making assumptions based on your observations of your partner, but you're also seeing everything through your own biased filter. Ever heard the phrase "you see what you want to see"? Basically if you're convinced there's a way your partner (or perhaps people in general) talk or behave toward you, then ironically this is what you're likely to experience, whether it's objectively occurring or not. For example, if you believe that no one could ever truly love you because you yourself don't believe you're truly worthy of being loved, then you'll consciously or subconsciously always be looking for signs that those around you do not in fact love you. Even if you see 10 signs of love for every 1 wrong, you'll focus on the wrongdoing and dismiss the love. See how this could be dangerous in combination with our natural tendency to assume?Luckily I've had 15 years and plenty of training on how to thwart these negative patterns! I have four quick (but not easy) steps to avoid falling into the assumption trap:1) Check assumptions - The moment you find yourself assuming your partner is saying something hurtful toward or negative about you, ask before attacking! It also helps if you do this in a curious way (What did you mean when you said X?) versus defensive (So you're saying that I'm an idiot?). What if they had a perfectly harmless thought and just expressed it poorly? Good thing you checked!2) Lead with feelings - This is by far the hardest step because it requires the toughest thing to do in this world - being vulnerable. Leading with how their comment made you feel is far "weaker" position than lashing out and hurting them back. However, I struggle to think of a time when attacking back has ever led to positive resolution. Instead use a feeling to describe your reaction to their comment. If your partner truly cares about you, sharing how you're hurt is far more likely to get a loving response.3) Address hurt feelings - If your partner has done step 2 and expressed hurt feelings the last thing you want to do is argue feelings with facts. The temptation is to try and convince them why they shouldn't feel hurt and why you're not a bad person/partner, but all that does is serve to invalidate their reactive feeling. Instead accept that this is how they feel and address that feeling.4) Meta-communicate - This is a fancy term for communicating about communicating (Did I just blow your mind?). In other words, talk about where the miscommunication occurred and how. Discuss how you could have gotten the same point across without hurting the other person's feelings. If the communication went poorly, talk about how you can better handle a similar miscommunication in the future without it leading to a fight.There are many other communication skills, but these 4 will have you well on your way to avoiding assumptions. For more help fine-tuning your relationship communication, please reach out to a couples therapist near you. They are an invaluable resource and are there to help strengthen your relationship both in quality and longevity.

Depression and Connection, Part 2

In the last blog I wrote about depression, I promised more information on the relationship between connection and depression. Some of my clients have described depression as being like a black hole, or like a heavy and suffocating blanket. Others have described feeling as if the world is muffled or distant. Many go through their day with a smile on their face that they wear for the benefit of others; you may have seen that commercial for depression medication where the woman holds up a smiley face mask but behind the mask, she is clearly unhappy and disengaged. The imagery of these descriptions conveys a sort of darkness and loneliness. People who are depressed often feel alone. And they often do an amazing job of posing as a happy person. They struggle to believe that others could or would want to understand the depth of their pain, or that anyone would want to be around them if they knew the truth. Often, people with depression may feel they are “too much” and do not want to burden loved ones. As a result,  they turn inward and isolate, pushing away those that care the most. Putting on a smiling face and isolating oneself for the benefit of others is a huge problem in dealing with depression because it doesn’t work. Just to emphasize … isolation and pretending do not work!!! Those strategies don’t work because they serve only to deepen the depression. Isolation’s counterpart, connection, is what is needed. Often when one thinks of the word connection, the image of an in interpersonal relationship comes to mind. Connection to people is absolutely a main component of one’s well-being. Healthy, nurturing, and reciprocal relationships with others, such partners, friends, and family members have been shown to improve people’s quality of life and health. Good relationships make the ups and downs of life bearable because we have others with which to share both the joys and sorrows of life. Humans are not meant to walk alone. We thrive and accomplish more when we are in meaningful relationships.There are other kinds of connections that are important as well, such as doing meaningful work. Do you remember a time when you were so excited about a book you read, or inspired by someone’s story? Or that time when you knew what you wanted to do and couldn’t wait to get started? Or when you found yourself in a place that moved you so much, that you knew you needed more of that in you life? That is connection! It is connection to people, and it is also connection to that which helps you to know your place in the world and allows you to contribute something meaningful, something that gives you a sense of purpose and contributes to your broader understanding of life. Earlier, I said that pretending to be okay and distancing oneself from others only exacerbates depression. It reinforces ideas of being alone and unwanted. The reality is we need to be with others, especially when we feel at our lowest and most vulnerable. The support we receive from others, personally and professionally, is essential to recovering from depression. There are people who want to help. It may not be the first person you ask, or even the second and third, but there is someone in your life who will say, “yes, I want to be there for you”. So, no matter how murky the depression waters seem, or how deep the black hole seems to be, ask for help. Do the opposite of what you feel in those moments. Go to where the people are.  

Inside The World Of Infertility (Part II)

Like death or any hard topic, it may be difficult to talk with someone who is going through a miscarriage, stillbirth, or infertility. We tend to go blank when we can’t ‘fix’ a problem. Here are some ways to be helpful and not so helpful during this painful grief and loss for someone.What would be helpful to say or do:

  1. Listen
  2. Say, “I’ve been praying or thinking about you.”
  3. “Hi.”
  4. “You’re not alone.”
  5. “I’m here.”
  6. “Here is my favorite meal.” Make sure it is in a dish or foil pan so they will not have to keep up with washing/returning the dish/bowl.

What would NOT be helpful to say or do:

  1. “There’s always adoption”.
  2. “You still have time”.
  3. “You’re still young”.
  4. “It will happen”.
  5. “You can always try again.” Or “Are you going to try for another?”
  6. “You’d be such a good mom/dad”.
  7. “Let’s pass all of our estrogen and eggs to ________.”
  8. One up the person’s grief story.
  9. “I remember when we couldn’t get pregnant and they couldn’t figure it out. It would have been better for them to have said we were infertile.” (All the while they have children or even if they do not, see #8).
  10. “I was reading about women’s eggs greatly reducing at 40.”
  11. “Everything happens for a reason.”
  12. “If it’s meant to be.”
  13. “At least you have 1. Be grateful for that!”

Believe it or not, I heard every one of these phrases, and occasionally, still do. Before spending time with someone who has lost a baby, had a miscarriage, is going through IVF, or is struggling with infertility, become educated. Ask yourself, "Is what I’m about to say helpful and sensitive to the other person?" This is an issue that cannot be 'fixed' or 'changed.'If you would like to discover ways to talk to a family member or friend about their grief and loss around infertility, miscarriage, or stillbirth, reach out for help. Having an experienced professional help bring direction to your emotions as you express to your friend or family member that you are with them through this part of their journey would empower you to strengthen your bond with them. Also, processing through your own guilt, grief, and shame will help you to become stronger more well balanced individual.

Guardrails: Healthy Relationship Boundaries

Years ago I watched a video series called Guardrails by renown pastor and author, Andy Stanley. The idea was simple: set up guardrails, or boundaries, for your relationship so that you're not ever even close to the edge of being unfaithful to your partner. The execution, however, is not so simple. My primary specialization is infidelity, so you can imagine how many individuals and couples step foot in my office with poor guardrails or ones that are demolished to the point they're unrecognizable.I think most people would agree that you need some healthy boundaries between yourself and members of the opposite sex once you're in a committed, exclusive relationship. The problem is, many tend to see just how close to the cliff they can get before hitting a guardrail. I always use the guardrails on the roads for comparison. If you had a road near a steep cliff, do you want the guardrails as close to the cliff as possible, or set back a ways to where you could hit the guardrails without being in any danger of going over? Vice President Mike Pence seems to be the poster child for guardrails these days, good and bad. Many see his boundaries as too rigid and ridiculous, such as not ever dining alone with a woman who isn't his wife. Although I don't personally ascribe to the same set of guardrails, I do applaud him for putting his marriage before professional and social obligations. I'll tell you this much: I bet his wife doesn't question his dedication to her and their marriage.Do I think everyone reading this blog needs to commit to never dining with a person of the opposite sex? No, certainly not. Do I think most of us could do a better job of agreeing on an explicit set of guardrails with our spouse and holding ourselves accountable? The infidelity numbers in this country and in my office say "absolutely." I'm certainly not going to tell anyone what their specific boundaries should be, but I will always advise that you and your partner agree to your boundaries so that everything is easily interpreted and applied by both parties. This is especially important if either of you have experienced a breach of trust in your past. Here are some potential guardrails for you to discuss with your partner:

  • Is it okay to be linked on social media to our exes?
  • Is it okay to talk/text/message an ex or any member of the opposite sex?
  • How little and how much are we expected to share with our partner when we do interact with the opposite sex?
  • Are we comfortable dining alone with members of the opposite sex? For work? Personally? What's the protocol?
  • Is it okay to flirt with others? How do you define flirt? How far is too far?
  • Are we willing to communicate with each other if either of us feels a legitimate romantic interest in someone else is starting to form?

I know that last one seems like a trap, and I can't promise you it's going to go well if you tell your partner you're starting to develop even the slightest inkling of feelings for someone else. But I challenge you to find a way you can have an affair if you and your partner are sharing that level of detail with each other when an interest starts to develop. Although much of my work is in helping people recover from affairs, I also spend a lot of time helping people "affair-proof" their relationship. I can't tell you where your line should be, but the firmer and further back those guardrails, the less likely you are to fall over the edge.

Inside The World Of Infertility (Part I)

April 21st begins Infertility Awareness Week. For some of us, 1 in 8 to be exact, this reminder is more than a week long. It’s a daily, monthly, yearly, and lifetime struggle of awareness that our bodies aren’t doing what we need it to do. Few things are more heartbreaking and devastating to a family’s dream than getting a call from the doctor telling you that you and your spouse are unable to have a baby without IVF (In Vitro Fertilization). It’s a deep pain that hits the core and while, over time we manage, the wound never goes away. There are constant reminders, insensitive comments, and endless personal questions that come with infertility. Not to mention the financial investment, the physical and emotional pain, and the stress of timing the injections, blood work, pills, and implantation to the minute. It literally is a direct science!I remember the phone call like it was yesterday. My husband and I were celebrating our one-year anniversary in Dakota Beach. We had been gifted with a condo and were thoroughly enjoying the nice breeze and view of the ocean from our room when my doctor called me.  He said, “Melissa, your tests came back along with your husband’s. I hate these phone calls. I’m sorry to say that you won’t be able to conceive without the help of IVF. And even with IVF, the numbers don’t look good.” Instantly I stopped thinking and breathing. My mind was going a million miles a minute and shut down all at the same time. I apologized and asked him to repeat what he just said. He simplified and said, “These test results are showing us why you’re not getting pregnant.” He then gave me a name of an IVF specialist and encouraged me to call right away.Infertility does not discriminate. It happens to anyone regardless of race, gender, sexuality, religion, and SES. It even happens to therapists! Infertility can’t be wished away. It’s a grief and a pain like no other. And although everyone who struggles with infertility has their own story, feelings, and emotions surrounding events that only happen to them, there’s a special bond between those who share an IVF and/or infertility story.So, what do you do if you or a loved one has just learned you have infertility or continue to struggle with your empty womb or the waiting?

  • Listen to your physician. If they are not supportive and empathetic, find one who is. You need a good compassionate doctor who will walk with you in this journey.
  • Be kind to yourself. Take time to grieve. You have suffered a traumatic loss. Surround yourself with nonjudgmental and non-fixer people. You need to be able to express your feelings and be validated—not judged or fixed. Infertility is not a problem that can be solved. Some people believe that if IVF works and you get pregnant and have a baby—poof, you’re fixed! All is well. This is not the case. Yes, it is a happy and amazing miracle. But there are so many emotions,feelings, and hidden pains that need addressing.
  • Remember you are NOT broken. Just because there’s a part that may be labelled ‘dysfunctional’ does not mean you or your personhood is.
  • Find a therapist who will help you with coping skills to alleviate your suffering. Not take away the pain, but help in lessening it, help you in your grief, work through unmet expectations, and help manage anxiety if you are going through the IVF process. Don’t suffer in silence. Reach out for help.

Connection and Depression, Part 1

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter and hormone that is involved in the functioning of multiple organ systems in the body. Commonly, it is known as the happy chemical. There is a strong correlation between low levels of serotonin and depression. This is a simple enough explanation and if that is in fact the case, then medication should do the trick. And indeed, medication can help ease the most severe symptoms of depression such as fatigue, decreased concentration and focus, sadness, feeling as if one is in a fog, and general apathy. Notice that I used the word “ease” when explaining how anti-depressant medication can address symptoms of depression. I use this word because anti-depressants are not a cure-all and because depression is a complicated condition. We know that serotonin is implicated in depression, but it is a chicken or the egg argument. Does depression happen because of an insufficient amount of serotonin, or is the production of serotonin impacted by depression?This is an important question because it tells us that managing depression requires a multi-modal approach. Think about it. If you are someone reading this blog right now that has suffered from depression, whether it is infrequent or chronic, what things made it bearable? Was it the great feeling you got from exercise? Or a lovely lunch with a dear friend? A successful presentation at work? Or being selected for a prized opportunity at school? And maybe it was as simple as a walk or eating your favorite ice cream. These events create pleasure,contentment, or a sense of accomplishment which in turn boosts our mood. And those momentary feelings are just that, momentary, when you have depression. Why is that? There are a couple of explanations. One being that people who are depressed are often extrinsically motivated. One who is extrinsically motivated seeks affirmation and approval from the outside world. Success and happiness are determined by the approval of others whether that is in the form of  praise, admiration, or the number of followers/likes/retweets on social media. On the other hand, a person who is intrinsically motivated experiences satisfaction with knowing they have done a good job or are a good person without lots of validation from the outside world.By itself, there is nothing wrong with being extrinsically motivated. Nor is it necessarily sufficient to only be intrinsically motivated. The reality is we need both. We need to know our worth without excessive amounts of validation, and yet it sure is nice when someone notices when we have done a good job. In my opinion, it all comes down to connection. Real, meaningful, life giving connection to others and to a life with purpose. People are healthiest when they know they matter and that what they do matters. People are healthiest when they enjoy relationships where they can be themselves in all of their multifaceted and complex wonderfulness. Do you have people in your life that help you to know you matter and are you engaged in activities or work that give you a sense of purpose? If the answer is no, and you are feeling depressed or anxious, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate and seek new experiences and relationships. Psychotherapy is a great place to begin that exploration and uncover what might be holding you back. More to come on the relationship between connection, depression, and anxiety.

March Awareness Month

If you google March Awareness Month/Week, you will discover a plethora of things to be aware of! It’s Red Cross Month, Ovarian and Prostate Cancer Awareness Month, and Brain Injury Awareness Month to name a few. But then if you scroll down, you will find a division of Awareness Weeks of March. Did you know that there was an actual National Sleep Awareness Week in March?! Anyone with babies and children are quite aware of our sleep, or lack thereof, awareness. There’s MS week, Down Syndrome Awareness Week. Here’s the one that caught my attention. In the U.K., they have a Tick Bite Prevention Week.Sunday, March 24th, starts the TBP week, and I guarantee you that I will be remembering that a country has claimed an entire national week to prevent tick bites. As silly as a Tick Bite Prevention Awareness Week sounds, if it allows families and pets to play outside with more awareness and precautions against tick bites preventing Lyme’s Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, or other horrible and debilitating disease caused by a tick, then bring on the awareness!There’s a difference in being aware and being anxious. If I have forgotten to buckle my seat belt, my car dings at me. There’s no need to panic. I just put on my seat belt. If I notice myself feeling more frustrated than usual, I do a self-check to see what’s going on internally. Sometimes it’s due to being tired, needing to work out, needing to have a conversation I’ve been putting off with my spouse.According to the Google Dictionary, “Awareness is the knowledge or perception of a situation or fact.” What personal and relational awareness do you have? What keeps you in check with your mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being? What signs do you have that keep you aware? When you start having more negative thoughts about yourself or your relationship, does that cause you to pause and question where those thoughts are coming from? When was the last time you checked in with your family, had a family meeting time, and/or had a meal together without any electronics? When was the last time you self-cared, self-reflected, or had a date night?My hope would be that you are doing a weekly or bimonthly awareness of your relationship and yourself to avoid any chance of a relationship or self break down. If you find yourself needing help to work through the awareness you discover, know there is someone to walk with you and help you in your discovery journey. Being more intentional and aware in your living will create more peaceful and joyful spaces.

Is Work Affecting My Mental Health?

Aside from home, work is typically a place that us working adults spend a lot of our time.  Because we spend so much time at work, the quality of our environment can play a major role in our well-being and mental health.Working in a toxic or unhealthy work environment can cause dissatisfaction day to day, which can carry over into your personal life.  Possible signs of a toxic work environment to look out for: a toxic boss, toxic colleagues, a noticeable increase in your personal stress, inconsistencies in staff expectations, and employees constantly quitting and being fired.Having to deal with any of these stressors (and those not listed) over time can induce symptoms of depression, anxiety, fatigue, and burnout.  Additionally, if these mental health symptoms persist long enough, it could cause someone to second guess their work performance and affect their self-esteem.If you feel like you may work in a toxic work environment, consider the following questions:

  • Do you wake up and dread going to work?
  • Are you constantly being overworked without any acknowledgement?
  • Are you worried about the politics of upper management?
  • Do you leave the office and ruminate about everything that needs to be done, could be done, should have been done?
  • Due to work stress, has there been any recent changes to your diet, sleep, or mood?

If you are experiencing any of these concerns and mental health changes due to an unhealthy work environment, please give me a call and I would love to help you get back to where you want to be in terms of your work and personal life satisfaction.

Fighting Fairly

If you are a sibling, have had a good friend, or ever been in junior high, you know all about insults. You know when someone insults you, you insult them right back. And not just any insult. An insult against all insults. You try to one-up their insult. Then they try to respond with an even greater insult. Until someone throws a mom under the bus with, “Your mom!”The perpetual hamster wheel. It’s all fun in games until someone gets hurt. When we get older, it becomes your wife shutting down or your husband leaving. Insult wars start with words and actions that spiral out of control until homes are wrecked, marriages become irreparable, and lives are left devalued.Long before the above scenario occurs, little offenses might be taking place. Maybe it’s laundry not being put up or a spoon not placed in the dishwasher. These are such little things. However, as we know, those tiny little snowflakes can cause quite a disastrous avalanche. It’s not about socks and spoons. It’s about feeling respected and our time being valued. When we don’t voice what our needs are and push our feelings down by telling ourselves it may be easier to just ‘clean it up ourselves’, the real issue goes unheard and unaddressed.Tension and conflict are not the issue in the relationship. It’s how we deal with the conflict and treat one another during those tense times that leads to hurt and devaluing one another. Fighting fairly means we are able to have concern for our partner’s feelings as well as having awareness of our own behavior. It’s saying, “We’re on the same team.” “I love you.” “There’s something I’d like to talk about.” Choosing not to participate in criticism (“You never…”), contempt, defensiveness (“It’s not me, it’s you”), and avoidance can lead to repair and change.In order to be intentional in handling conflict, we need to cultivate: curiosity, compassion, and (self-) control. Providing empathy to our partner’s feelings in a respectful manner, without the harsh tones, can do wonders. Ask yourself, “Where is my ownership in this fight?”  It might be a good idea to take a break and come back to discuss the situation. Reiterate to your partner that you want to discuss the issue, but you need some time to think about your words and process before the discussion. This will ensure that the ‘problem’ isn’t being avoided and that you are working to come to a resolution.If you have found yourself in the perpetual hamster wheel, reach out for help. We are trained to help you to get off the endless cycle of unresolved conflict and provide the tools needed to help you fight fairly. Create the space needed in your relationship to have conflict without the pain attached to it. Adapted by: Dr. John Gottman’s “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and Dr. Daphne de Marneffe “Put Up a Healthy Fight”.

Do Kids Kill Marriages?

In my experience as a marriage and family therapist, few things rock a relationship like having a child together. All of a sudden, you're no longer free to do as you please, when you please, and how you please. For many couples, one or both parents start to prioritize the children over the marriage. This can lead to the marriage becoming an afterthought and spouses feeling marginalized. Therefore, do kids kill marriages? Absolutely not, but parents often do. But they don't have to!I firmly believe, and plenty of research supports this position, that the best gift you can give a child is a healthy parental relationship. Children from intact homes, especially those containing healthy marriages, benefit financially, educationally, emotionally, and relationally. However, many first-time parents are often [understandably] so worried and focused on the child's well-being that their romantic relationship suffers. For lots of couples, this is a short term issue and the relationship bounces back by taking on a new but healthy form. However, for many parents the problem lingers and creates a rift for the couple over many years.Many couples will argue that the child depends on them for survival, so they have to make the child priority #1. I wholeheartedly agree. If you are neglecting your child's primary needs in order to focus on your relationship, then you are doing it wrong. I would never suggest you make plans for your marriage that would neglect your children. However, I would adamantly suggest you find ways to continue to make your marriage a priority and, at times, the priority. If your child is sick, hungry, tired, dirty, etc, you take the time and energy to make sure they are cared for and healthy, right? I'm only suggesting that you do the same for your relationship.As a father of twins, I can appreciate the lack of time and energy parents have when babies first arrive in the home. Therefore I'm not suggesting you go on date nights every night or have long walks on the beach every weekend. I'm suggesting you both figure out ways to make sure you are continuing to invest in the person with whom you chose to procreate. This can be as simple as eating dinner together each night, finding time to ask about each other's day at the end of the day, and asking for help watching the child so you two can spend some quality time together, even if just around the house or neighborhood. Grand gestures are nice, but they pale in comparison to small, consistent gestures on a daily basis. Dads ask Mom how you can be of help. Moms ask Dad how he's adjusting to fatherhood. Most importantly, be patient with each other as you figure out this process!Finally, don't be afraid to ask for help! Whether you've recently had a child, you're expecting, or you are years into this process, don't hesitate to reach out. Our team is well versed in walking couples through creating and maintaining a healthy relationship through life's challenges, including parenthood. There are plenty of excellent resources out there. You are not alone unless you choose to be. Children can be such a blessing for any couple and household, it just takes intentionality and help from others.