Expectations

Communicating about Sex

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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. 

Trust the Process

Are we there yet??? How about now???  Has your child ever asked this question? Maybe you even asked it as a child…or as an adult.  This question takes on a whole new meaning for us Texans when we can drive 10 hours and still be in the same state! We certainly appreciate those little states where we can drive through them in 2 hours.I truly believe that road trips with our family are like the therapy process. The pace can certainly be parallel. When taking a trip, there are certain factors to consider. Someone might need to use the restroom. Stop. Someone might be hungry/thirsty/sick. Stop. The kids might need to run around and burn off some energy. Stop. Trip Advisor says there’s a fabulous place ahead to explore. Stop. What might be a 3-hour trip by yourself, can wind up being a 4 ½ -5-hour trip with the family.Therapy can, at times, appear like either one big pause button has been pushed on your life or like you are in an emotional, never-ending scavenger hunt. Working through emotions that have been buried, hidden, or forgotten takes time to process and find meaning in those unknown places. Sometimes you might need to stop and process what is being brought up in therapy. It takes time to decipher and discover those emotions that get manifested into behaviors—or to understand someone else’s behavior. Sometimes, you might need to try one approach and see if that works before proceeding onto the next step. The process can be daunting and at times, the question, “Are we there yet?” leaves you frustrated and exhausted. You might even question if therapy is doing any good. Trusting the process is necessary to move ahead. Patterns need to be seen and certain behaviors understood to gain self-knowledge and self-awareness. Learning new approaches in interacting with ourselves, our spouses, our children, and our co-workers takes time.  We are spoiled in our fast-food society of driving up to the window and receiving our food on demand. Or using an app to get our groceries or purchases delivered at the door. However, one of the places where the process cannot be rushed is in therapy. Life is a journey. And part of that journey is staying with the process. Regardless of the speed, stay the course. There’s an African Proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Is It Your Gut or Your Guilt?

Should I follow my heart or my gut?  My heart is telling me to do one thing and my gut is telling me another.Have you ever found yourself in a position like this… trying to make a decision and having a hard time figuring out what to listen to?  Go with my heart or go with my gut?Our heart guides us to the future that we want and sometimes what we very much hope for.  However, sometimes chasing after what we very much want or holding onto something we really hope for can blur the reality of what is really happening right in front of us.  Our heart, or better said hope, can drown out what our gut is really trying to tell us.  If we just don’t talk about that issue, he won’t leave me.  Even though I don’t have enough money, I can get this apartment and things will be okay.  Moreover, what I’ve noticed even more when it comes to making tough decisions… there is a third factor that comes into play.  That factor being GUILT.  I notice myself asking many clients is it your gut that’s driving you to make that decision or is it guilt?When we feel guilty, we make decisions out of obligation and we may even feel the need to make something right.  But when feel obligated, we have to be honest and ask ourselves:

  • Am I making this decision because it is something I really want?
  • Am I making this decision because I should?
  • Am I making this decision because she/he made me feel bad?
  • Am I making this decision solely out of fear of what someone else may think?

Making decisions can be hard enough and if you are feeling confusion about any or all of the above… is this my heart? My gut? Or my guilt?  Please give me a call and I can help navigate you through this time in your life.  We can get to the root of your behaviors and help you to make the best and healthiest decision for you.      

Expect Greatness

Several years ago, a little boy around 7 or 8 came to my door by himself. It was Halloween. He had no costume on and, more importantly, no bucket or bag! I opened the door and he timidly asked, “Trick or Treat?” I asked, “Friend, where is your bag??? You can’t trick or treat without a bag?! Hold on!” I quickly ran and brought back the biggest bag I could find and handed it to him. I then said, “When you go trick or treating, you have to expect greatness. Now, I want you to open your honkin’ bag and “Trick or Treat” as if all the candy in the world depended upon those three words.” He stood up tall and grinned from ear to ear and boldly said, “Trick or Treat!” while holding his bag open. My 2-piece candy rule went quickly out the window and I gave him 2-handfuls instead.When’s the last time you expected greatness? How long has it been since you were happy with yourself? In your job? In your relationship? How you parent? When is the last time you got excited to bake a pie or go for a swim? Life is hard, and situations can slam into us like a speeding car without brakes. Nevertheless, we need to find pockets where we expect greatness. Notice perfection is not mentioned. Expecting greatness is different than expecting to be perfect. Brené Brown says we should live life daring greatly. Sometimes all that can mean is just showing up. Being brave enough to get off the sidelines, step out and be vulnerable. Occasionally it means making the first move in a strained relationship. Saying “I’m sorry”, “I messed up”, or “Let’s try again.”Therapy is a great and safe place to learn new techniques in practicing bravery and vulnerability in your journey. You can express pain, fear, and hurt, while being heard, validated, and affirmed. Therapy can be the tool you use as you expect greatness in every area of your life. Brené Brown wrote, “The power of owning our stories, even the difficult ones, is that we get to write the ending.” I challenge you to own your story and expect greatness as you write and live your life.