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.

Let's Face It

Face/Off was a movie made in 1997 starring Nicolas Cage and John Travolta. I remember being both mesmerized and freaked out at how someone’s face (Nicolas Cage) could be transplanted onto someone else’s face (John Travolta) and vice versa, along with vocal training, to impersonate one another. They were able to pretend to be one another so well that even John Travolta’s movie wife thought it was him. I often wondered if I were married, would I be able to tell the difference between my husband and an imposter. Oh, the worries of a 19 year old!Fast forward 20 plus years and I have gained a lot of personal and professional experience when it comes to relationships and faces. There’s something so intimate about touching someone’s face. Many relationship experts including John Gottman, Sue Johnson, and Ester Perel, to name a few, talk about the significance of face holding. I love to watch reactions of my client couples when I ask them, “So, when’s the last time you held one another’s faces?”Holding your partner’s face slows this fast paced, crammed schedule, children needing, work-driven life down. It tells the other person, “Hey, I see you. I notice you. You matter.” It opens the door to reminiscing of last summer’s vacation when you got that freckle on your cheek or the partner expressing how smooth your skin is or the feeling pokey whisker missed while shaving. It’s looking deep into the dark or light iris of the eyes and smiling into the soul. Compliments seem to naturally ebb and flow when you’re gazing into one another’s eyes while holding each other’s cheeks. We need this connection. Our relationship craves this affection. When’s the last time you felt like you mattered to your partner? That you were seen past the phone, laptop, paper, or child(ren)?I chuckle now at my future spouse impersonation fear 20 years ago. No one could pull off being as quirky and loving as my husband. However, more significantly is that as our relationship has deepened, not perfectly, but intentional, this has been a regular check-in time routine for us. Even when we’re both spent and absolutely exhausted, five minutes of face-holding reminds us that we’re in this together and that we belong and matter.I encourage you to try this. See what happens. If you want to learn ways to be more intentional in your relationship, I encourage you to find a therapist who will help you improve your communication, help manage conflict more effectively, and strengthen your intimacy.

Being a Man in a 2019 Relationship

I can't speak for the rest of the men out there, but growing up I heard all kinds of phrases such as "be a man," "man up", and "act like a man." Typically this meant to be tough, act like things didn't hurt, don't cry, don't act like a girl, and don't show emotions. Fast forward to 2019 and the message is a bit different. In fact, in searching for "be a man quotes," I found such messages as finding the right one girl, owning your mistakes, kissing in public, showing a girl how much she means to him, accepting responsibility, and being authentic. I'm not breaking news when I say there's been a culture shift for men over the past couple of decades. The problem is, the messages are often conflicting and leave men paralyzed, afraid to make the wrong move. Instead they choose to stay on the sidelines and simply be inactive.Early on I was taught to always open the door for others, but especially women. I was told this was out of respect because of all that women do for us. Then in one of my graduate programs, I had several female colleagues say they were insulted when a man opened the door for them because it was a clear indication that they were too weak to open it for themselves. I have many husbands that come into my office saying they work countless hours to provide for their families, only to be told by those same families that they are an absent father. In the 1950s you could pour yourself into your work, come home for a nightcap, go to a few tee ball games, and be considered a pretty good father.So what's the right answer? If you're hoping to find it in this blog, your expectations of me might be a bit lofty. But there's one thing I do know, and it's that sitting on the sidelines is the wrong answer. If there's one thing I can't stress enough, it's to get involved in personal relationships. Just like your jobs suffer if you only spend a few minutes or hours a week working at them, so too do your relationships with your wife and kids. Imagine if you spent as much time at work as you spend quality time with your wife. Would you still be employed? Is it any wonder so many marriages are either unhappy or headed for divorce? Now I'm not saying anyone should expect for a man to spend 40+ hours a week with his wife, but chances are the ratio of work to quality marriage/family time is a little off in your life.Another question I often get is regarding how to spend quality time with your partner. My answer isn't very romantic, but it is practical and it does work. ASK! Often men feel they're supposed to just have all the answers and if they don't, women get mad that their partners ask. Certainly most women would love for you to know exactly what they'd like and when, but I'll tell you something I know for sure. They'd prefer you ask and act rather than just taking a shot from time to time. You'd be surprised at the answers you might get. Heck you may even like some of the suggestions yourself. More important than what you do is that you do. If you simply choose to get involved, get curious, and show an interest, I think you'll like the results.

Out with the Old and in with the New [Year]

Is it just me, or does it feel as if the years continue getting shorter and shorter?January was derived from Janus who is the Roman god of gates and doorways. Janus was said to have 2 faces—one looking forward and the other backward. It is very appropriate for the New Year. Hopefully we have looked back into 2018 and have seen our growth as well as our short-comings. What are you most proud of in 2018? What did you accomplish? What made your heart smile? How did you meet goals and exceed expectations? How would you rate your relationships with your partner, child(ren), or other family members? What about yourself? How was your self-care? In looking forward into 2019, what do you need to do to live, enjoy life, and meet your goals?Is there someone you need to forgive? Remember forgiveness is about you, not the other person and it has nothing to do with forgetting. Are there regrets you need to acknowledge and then release? It’s hard to take a long journey with unneeded baggage. How are you able to receive all the possibilities and blessings of this new year with arms already full?Let this be the year of rekindled friendships, stronger relationships, improved parenting, and prioritized self-care. You are worth having all of these things! Where do you start?

  1. Reach out to a therapist who can help you work on goals, work through past pain and grief, and dust off the tools in your toolbox to strengthen your relationships.
  2. Take time daily to breathe, mediate, walk/run, and play.
  3. Keep those date nights!
  4. Prioritize family time without any electronics.
  5. Phone a friend and write that note.

Waiting Well

What do you do in the waiting period? The in between time? Some have defined the hyphen on a gravestone between the birth year and the death year as the person’s living years. What would you want people to say about the hyphen on your tombstone? Waiting comes in all forms. From waiting to file taxes, to waiting in the drive-thru line, to waiting for the doctor to return your call. We’re in a season when some of us are waiting for Christmas to get here while others are counting down to the minute when it is over.Waiting for Christmas is kind of easy because we know December 25th is coming. As well as waiting for the holidays and festivities to be over.  We know that, too, is ending. Some other waiting times can bring excitement. The joy of an engagement which (hopefully) leads to marriage. The anticipation of pregnancy which (hopefully) leads to a healthy baby.Nevertheless, what happens to your wait when you hear the bad news from the doctor? When you learn there has been unfaithfulness by your partner? When you begin feeling uneasy in your job? When life in and of itself is more ambiguous than certain? The hardest thing about waiting in these times is the not knowing what is going to happen in the in between and not knowing when or if it’s going to end. Or, at least end in the way you are wanting. You can work on yourself in the waiting. Instead of busying yourself, or losing yourself in social media, discover and explore inner peace.If you find your heart heavier than you’d like this holiday season, let me encourage you to take a first step BEFORE New Year’s. Before tomorrow. Start living and stop putting your life on hold until the resolutions begin. Anne Lamott writes, “You can’t buy, achieve, or date serenity. Peace of mind is an inside job, unrelated to fame, fortune, or whether your partner loves you.” GULP!

  1. If your relationship needs a tune-up or you feel like your communication could be improved, reach out to a therapist to help you in strengthening your communication skills and helping you find balance in prioritizing your relationship.
  2. If you want to work on your self-care, choose today to go for a walk or limit your cookie intake to 2.
  3. Make this week a new tradition or have a family game night or have a date night. Reconnect with your family. Designate an electronics free zone or time where everyone looks at one another’s faces and not the tops of their heads.
  4. If you’ve been ‘meaning to’ get back into attending church/synagogue/mosque, find a place to worship and feed your soul.

End this year better than it started in intentionally living, loving hard (including yourself), and being present. Why not begin focusing on changing the inside? “The courage to change the things we can means the stuff inside the snow globe, not where it sits on the mantel.”“Almost Everything: Notes On Hope” by Anne Lamott

Can I survive the holidays? (and please everyone)

Getting through the holidays can be notorious for being stressful for a variety of reasons.  Pressures to host, to get gifts, and see friends and family.  As a host, there are so many details and things to consider including: what you need to prepare for a holiday event (i.e. food and catering, house preparation, etc.), compiling the list of the people you need to invite, and then ultimately trying to set a time and date that works best for everyone.On the other hand, there are times you have multiple holiday engagements to which you are invited and you’re wondering how you’re supposed to juggle it all.  If you are invited to multiple engagements, you’re probably thinking “I don’t want to hurt their feelings if I can’t stay the whole time because I have another event I was invited to.  I just want to make everyone happy.”  Trying to take into consideration everyone’s feelings is hard and compounds the stress of the holidays, as most of us want to make sure everyone gets included and no one’s feelings get hurt in the process.I’ve had people tell me in the past that they had three events to attend in one day – like one at 2, one at 5, and one at 8 – or multiple events for an entire weekend.  I try to imagine their days hopping from event to event thinking how are you hanging in there?  People tell me they hate having to rush out from the event trying not to hurt the host’s feelings, but know they are hurting the next host’s feelings if they do not make it to their event.For couples, the same issue is compounded right?  I’ve heard couples complain about the difficulty in trying to please both sides of the family.  I totally get it!  Well the good news that I tell all my clients is that any holiday is ONLY twenty-four hours.  You WILL survive the day!  Just remember:

  • You cannot please everyone and that is okay.
  • It’s just one day and there is always time to celebrate with your loved ones.
  • Remind yourself what IS important.
  • Communicate and plan ahead of time!

If you are having difficulty or struggling navigating through the holidays, please give me a call!

Trauma and the Media

Often times when we think of trauma, we think of horrific events that happen to a person or to a group of people. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administrations (SAMHSA) define trauma as "an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual's functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being." Things like a natural disaster, war, rape, or a horrific accident. These types of incidents are what I like to call “Big Trauma”. Their impact is shocking and life changing in many cases. And then there are “Little Traumas” that are no less significant than larger scale events and these can include loss of a relationship or job, a medical illness, loss or change in identity, acts of prejudice, and other types of events that require adjustment or transition.“Little traumas” can also compound pre-existing trauma resulting in secondary trauma. Media is a major contributor to secondary trauma because of the prolific generation of information and images of tragic events happening across the world. For example, sexual assault survivors exposed to hundreds of stories and images of sexual assault become stressed as it may activate their own memories of previous assaults, sending them on a roller coaster of emotion and pain. Others exposed to these stories may have an epiphany of sorts - that something happened to them in the past they now have a name for or are just discovering how deeply a previous assault has affected them and their relationships.Interpersonal violence and tragic events of any kind lead to deep and lasting wounds. It changes a person and it changes the way a person processes the world.  For many, the world is no longer a safe place. It is very likely that you know someone who is a survivor of sexual violence. In fact, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime and it is highly likely they will be assaulted or harassed by someone they know (NSVRC). Sixty-one percent of men and 51% of women have experienced at least one traumatic event in their life time (SAMHSA). The odds that you know someone who has gone through something traumatic in their lives is even greater.We can improve healing by helping survivors feel heard, understood, and believed. If you have been personally affected by trauma, healing is possible, whether the event happened recently or many years ago. Reach out for help. If you think you are experiencing secondary trauma due to media coverage, it is okay to pull away and engage less with social media and TV.  If you have a loved one or a friend who is struggling with trauma, support them. Be sure to listen attentively - listen to the feelings your friend or relative is trying to convey. Offer encouragement for the person to seek counseling and to get well. Extend your emotional support, patience and understanding.Whether you have experienced a “Big Trauma” or “Little Trauma,” all trauma has lasting effects and we are here for you.

Navigating the Holidays as a Couple

If your families are anything like mine, your holidays are full of characters. That's not to say every family is made up of a bunch of degenerates, but the more people that get together at one time, the higher the risk of discomfort. Every person is different and has their own quirks and idiosyncrasies, but in most social situations, you choose which people you want to be around. You don't choose family! Even when you consider in-laws: while most people say you marry the whole family, I've never heard of anyone actually saying "I do" to Aunt Edna and Pop-Pop. They get thrown in as a bonus after the fact.What does this mean? It means you may soon find yourself in a situation where you are spending a significant amount of time in the company of people you find challenging at best, or repulsive at worst. I often experience couples in my office debating how to handle family members whether it's family dynamics, specific individuals, or what limits and boundaries are appropriate. The problem is, everyone's opinions differ on how they prefer to handle family. Here are a few tips and ideas I recommend:

  • Remember, your relationship is the primary family unit. If you are placing the opinions of your parent/sibling/cousin/grandma over the opinions or feelings of your partner, you are doing it wrong. As I feel should be the case in life in general, your attitude should be "me and my partner vs. X" and not "me vs. my partner" or "me and my family vs. my partner." You are on the same team!
  • Your partner is not used to your brand of crazy. Every family is a little nutty. The difference is, you've had decades to get used to your family's weirdness and might even think it's normal (it's not)! Be ready for your partner to not understand or be comfortable with everything and everyone at your family's gatherings. Be sensitive to this instead of defensive toward them.
  • Take breaks! If you're with family for more than a day or two, be sure and carve out time for you and/or your partner to have some alone time. Family can be exhausting simply due to the numbers and the conversation (and awkwardness) at times, so a little time away can do a lot of good.
  • If it's your family, be sure to stick close to your partner until he/she says they are comfortable being left alone with your family. Putting your partner on an island with strangers who might ask uncomfortable questions may be a bit much at first.
  • Recap your experience together each night. Consider it a status report of sorts. Go over the things you each found weird, what you thought was funny, and what was difficult for you. Try and process this without getting defensive, but instead validate your partner's experience.
  • Don't forget the positives! It's easy and oftentimes lazy to simply say "family is difficult." Be sure and spend time sharing the good with each other. Even if there are only a handful, try and look for the good moments in the day. Instead of looking at the crazy aunt as overbearing, look at her as quirky and a good source of entertainment. After all, isn't the primary reason we get into relationships so that we can now comment and laugh at other people with someone?!

Surviving Family Conflict During the Holidays

Fall and winter bring with them not only cooler weather and sweaters, but also a season of celebration. Across the nation, families are celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Boxing Day, St. Lucia Day, Three Kings Day, Fiesta of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and many more. These holidays and days of remembrance bring families together - for better or worse.As Dr. Hunter pointed out in her recent blog, the holidays do not always bring joy and happiness for those experiencing grief due to loss of a relationship or the death of a loved one. In addition to grief, people may dread the holidays because of conflict between family members, differing political views, or struggling to meet the expectations and demands of multiple family members.If family conflict is on the horizon for you this holiday season, there are things that you can do to make things less stressful and more enjoyable:First and foremost, Be Prepared for Some Conflict. If you usually have conflict when you get together with your family, it's a good idea to be prepared for it. I am not suggesting that you put on some armor and practice stinging comebacks in anticipation of a battle, but I am suggesting be realistic about your expectations. If your mother always criticizes your appearance or your aunt makes inappropriate comments, don't expect them to change their habits; just have a sense of humor about it and remind yourself of what you love about them. If that doesn’t work and you must respond, try the following things:

  • Respond with empathy. Try to remember that critical people often are trying to communicate something else, albeit ineffectively. Listen for what they are really saying.
  • Use “I” statements. Conflict makes people defend themselves and to go on the attack. Instead, use “I” statements (“I feel frustrated when…” instead of “You keep ruining everything,” as an example) so that the other person can understand your point of view instead of feeling attacked.
  • Look for compromise. If your family expects you to be at every holiday celebration and your partner’s family also wants you to be a part of their festivities, take turns. Or host one holiday celebration at your home so everyone can come.
  • Take a time out. If tempers flare and conversations get heated, take a break. Or if things just feel overwhelming, it’s okay to find a quiet spot to get away. If you are a parent of young children, you probably already know the “I am going to the bathroom, be back in a minute” trick to get a few moments of peace. Going for a walk is also a great way to escape for a few moments.
  • Don’t give up. Unless it is time to give up on the relationship, don’t give up on communicating.
  • Own what is yours. If there is anything in your own behavior that contributes to the conflict, own it and make an effort to monitor or control it.

Another option is to just say no to it all. If seeing family causes you great amounts of stress each year, it’s okay to say no sometimes. Celebrating with just your partner or kids can be a wonderful alternative to seeing people who make you feel consistently stressed. You may also choose to surround yourself with people who do make you feel good, such as friends. Either way, it’s also a wonderful opportunity to create your own traditions.This time of year is filled with holiday spirit and hope for a peaceful time. If you are struggling in any way, ask for help. You might even benefit from a few sessions with a therapist. Couples and family therapy may also be helpful for managing altercations and teach skills to resolve future conflict.