Can you even do couples counseling online?

Absolutely! Not only can couples counseling be done online, it can be very effective and has many benefits if you follow a few simple suggestions.

This is a time of uncertainty for all of us. A time like this can be very stressful for couples and families, especially with everyone staying close to home for long periods of time. It can put undue stress and strain on relationships. Given that it is safer for all of us to be at home, many private practice therapists are moving their counseling practice to teletherapy, or what I like to call virtual couples counseling.
Having a therapist to work with and support you during this time can help you manage relationship stress, and even draw closer and more connected at a time that can cause couples to be distant, conflict ridden, and disconnected.

Here are some tips for successful online couples therapy.
Be sure to have a secluded, private space to have your session. For some couples with kids, that might mean a bedroom closet or the car! Hey that’s okay, whatever works! You may also ask your therapist if they can offer you an appointment time that is early in the morning, or later in the evening when your kids are more likely to be asleep.

Be sure that you are sitting at least 2 feet from the computer screen so that your therapist can see both of you clearly. Ensure that you have a good internet connection, a good camera and microphone. Good working cameras and microphones can be purchased through Amazon for as little as $30.

Your therapist will have a secure HIPAA compliant platform to conduct the couples online therapy session. Most are very simple and easy to set up and use. It can be helpful to ask your couples therapist to do a quick 2 minute test virtual video call with you prior to your session time so you can feel comfortable and confident with how it works.

We are all figuring out how to get through this strange time together. Don’t let being safe at home keep you from seeking therapy for your relationship if you are struggling or in need.
Survival of any difficulty, pandemic or otherwise, is greater when we are connected to one another. We are stronger together.

Please feel free to reach out to us at Healing Hearts Counseling if you are in need of online couples counseling. You can reach us at 865-283-1777, our counselors are waiting by their computers to serve you!
Wishing you health and happiness always,
Dana

Relationships and learning to ski

Most couples come into therapy or relationship education expecting it to be like grade school, but a better metaphor might be ski school. No amount of talking about or studying skiing can make us appreciably better at skiing. We need to practice a different way of relating to a slippery, steep, downhill slope than any of our primal instincts would suggest that we should. I remember the first time I went skiing, and when I started to stumble, I immediately leaned back and of course ended up toppling over. What I slowly learned through practice was that when I felt that fear of losing stability and the panic response caused me to lean back, I instead needed to lean forward. I needed to lean towards the downhill that I was afraid of tumbling down and I needed to keep my skis in contact with the ground. I needed to be more assertive and turn into the snow not less assertive and turn away. The only way to move forward was to practice a new way of relating to my fears. They told me something like this in the training, but I needed to have practice and help to get better.

Relationships are much more like a craft than an academic discipline and require guided practice to excel at it. Much like skiing, we need to work against our natural emotional tendencies and we need to feel our way through it. Reading books on relationships can be helpful, but most of us need practice to be able to ski down the slope of our relationship. We need to practice a new way of relating to our fears that causes us to lean towards, not away from them. Couples need to practice sharing vulnerably instead of reacting according to our normal tendencies of anger or pulling away. If you and your partner find yourself slip-sliding all over the slope or you are an advanced skier looking to take your game to the next level, come join us, class is in session!

Violence in Relationships

Violence in relationships, this is a tricky topic to discuss on a blog. I want to be sure to first and foremost say, violence is never okay. But if we are going to stop relationship violence, we have to understand it.

There are 2 different types of relationship violence. The first is domestic terrorism. That is when one partner aims to control and manipulate the other more vulnerable partner. If you are in this situation, it is of utmost importance to get a safety plan in place. You can contact 800-356-6767 (TN) which is the Tennessee Domestic Violence helpline. This is not the type of violence I am addressing in this blog. Please contact the helpline if you need assistance in this area.

The second type of violence is the violence that occurs between intimate partners when they have a volatile cycle with each other where conflict erupts into verbal and/or physical lash outs. It can leave both partners feeling bewildered, confused, hurt, angry, helpless and afraid. It’s not uncommon, and there is something you can do about it. It doesn’t mean the relationship has to end, but you do need intervention.

So how do things get to this point? A very common cycle in couples is what is called pursue/withdraw. Both partners feel disconnected from the other, and their reactions to feelings of disconnect pull the other into the negative pattern. Think of an infinity loop. There is no beginning and no end and it can be triggered at anytime.

In this cycle, the pursuer is looking to get a reaction from their withdrawn partner. They often feel alone, unloved, indivisible, that they don’t matter, or are unimportant. When they are feeling this way, they often engage in behaviors in an attempt to resolve these hurts. They can become provoking (any response is better than no response), critical (why don’t you help me more?! You are always on your phone! You care more about work than you do about your family!), blaming (I get so angry because you don’t listen to me!), demanding (Why can’t you be more affectionate with me?! I need you to listen to me!). This often comes across as attacking to their partner’s character and behaviors. But underneath the attacks is the despairing pain of isolation and loneliness calling to be heard and soothed.

The withdrawing partner is typically trying to calm the waters by avoiding conflict. They can also feel paralyzed because they feel anything they say or do will be the wrong thing, so they do nothing. They appear stoic and uncaring to their partner, cold and distant, but behind the wall they are feeling inadequate (no matter what I do or how hard I try, it’s never good enough), feelings of failure (I can’t seem to get it right, I can’t make my partner happy). When everything they do seems to make it worse, they withdraw farther and farther. They withhold thoughts and emotions and have a lot of inner turmoil even though on the outside it may appear they don’t care.

So the more the pursuer criticizes and attacks, the more the withdrawer feels unsafe and withdraws. The more the withdrawer withdraws, the more unsafe the pursuer feels and keeps going seeking a response. For the pursuer, if they didn’t pursue, the fear is they will end up more isolated and alone. The withdrawer fears if they don’t withdraw, things will escalate and get worse. Both in their own way are trying to protect the connection in the relationship while also trying to protect themselves from further hurt and despair. It’s a vicious painful cycle and both partners are caught.

When this pattern gets very rigid and continues to worsen, it can lead to violence. The pursuer feels so ignored and invisible their protest gets more out of control and they may say and do things desperate for a reaction. The withdrawer may feel so backed into a corner, they lash out to get their pursuing partner to give them space and distance.

In this pattern there is no perpetrator. Both partners are victims to this painful cycle of disconnection. But both are impacting each other with their reactions and inviting the other (unintentionally) into this dance.

There is a way out. It takes slowing it down, making it safe for each other to risk and be vulnerable to be able to share the deeply hidden emotions that drive this cycle to find the comfort and support that is needed from each other. This is not easy, it takes time, and often needs the help of a professional to help you see where you are stuck and how you can exit this painful pattern.

If this pattern sounds like your relationship, or maybe it’s not quite to that point yet, we are here to help. There is a way to pull out of this pattern and work toward co-creating a loving, caring, safe place with one another. It takes courage and a willingness to risk and be vulnerable.

Wishing you love and happiness and Happy New Year!

Dana

Helping your relationship survive football season

Clay on the news talking football and relationships

Nothing brings people together quite like a football Saturday in Knoxville. But, if you
and your partner have significantly different levels of interest in football, the season can
instead lead to feelings of distance and tension. The tension can be ratcheted up even
higher when if it’s a particularly frustrating season. So, if the Vols slow start has you
down, make sure it doesn’t bring your relationship down too.

Football fans:
Pay attention: Attention is one of the most basic forms of love. It makes sense then,
your partner might feel neglected when you shift a significant portion of your attention
to football. The way you tune in physically and emotionally to a game, is often the very
attention your partner craves. If your partner starts thinking “Gosh, I wish I was as
interesting as a football game,” that can go beyond annoying to actually being hurtful.
Football and your relationship might seem like separate issues from your perspective,
but if attention is not being paid to your partner at other times, game time can become a
Big Orange representation of that disconnect. There’s nothing wrong with watching the
game and rooting for your team. Just remember not to let your love of the game get in
the way of the love for your partner.

Watch out for spillover: A football game may only last a few hours, but its impact
can go far beyond that. Emotional spillover can be a major problem, especially after a
tough loss. If football is taking up a lot of your time, the importance of protecting
your other time becomes even more important. This means finding ways to calm
yourself down and hit the reset button so you can be present with your partner.
Remember, over-doing it with tailgating and alcohol will only make this harder. Add
excess alcohol to the emotions of a football game, and you can quickly have a
relationship disaster on your hands. Alcohol lowers reduces our capacity for self-control,
making hurtful statements and even physical violence more likely. Make it your
responsibility not to let your negative emotions contaminate otherwise quality time.

Non-football fans:
Accept your partner: The struggle to change someone is often even more exhausting
than the issue itself. Trying to convince your partner that football doesn’t or shouldn’t
matter will not work. The result of your efforts will likely be increased anger and
resentment. Instead, try accepting their fandom as one of many things that make your
partner who they are, not a problem that needs to be fixed. You may believe that if you
offer any acceptance, you won’t get what you want. It may seem counter-intuitive, but
adding a dose of acceptance can loosen the grip of frustrating emotions that keep you
and your partner stuck, allowing new solutions to arise.
Communicate the real issue:

Your partners focus on football could be upsetting for
a variety of reasons, like lack of quality time or even increased spending.Regardless,                                                                  the key is communicating in a direct and constructive manner. Instead of blaming football
itself or attacking your partner, explain specifically how you are feeling and being
affected by what’s happening. The challenge is to move past your initial reactive emotion
and tune into the deeper meaning behind it, which if often about your sense of
connection to your partner. One thing that can help is to remember to complain rather
than criticize. There is a huge difference between saying; “Will you quit staring at the
TV? All you care about is football!”; (criticism) and “I’m feeling disappointed that you’ve
spent most of the day watching football and we didn’t get a chance to connect. Can we
spend some time together?” (complaint).  Criticisms paint your partner with a broad
brush and feel more like an attack on who they are as a person, whereas complaints
focus narrowly and explain how you feel, rather than a negative assumption about your
partners intention or character. At their core, both approaches are bids for attention and
care, but criticisms are likely to be seen as an attack and cause your partner to pull
become defensive. Complaints aren’t always easy to hear either, but they are much more
likely to bring your partner closer. And that’s exactly what you really want.

For both:
Celebrate your differences: If you and your partner were exactly the same, things
would get boring really quickly. Your difference around this issue can be an exciting
opportunity to get to know each other better. Discover what excites the other and makes
them tick. If you don’t like football that much, be curious and try to learn what your
partner likes about it so much. If your partner doesn’t like football, find out what
they do like and do it with them. Getting into one another’s world through both activity
and conversation helps strengthen your bond and keep things interesting. Think back to
when you and your partner first met. I would venture to guess that much of what fueled
your sense of connection was an intense desire to know and be known by your partner.
Even if you’ve been together for a long time, I can assure you that if you tap into that
sense of curiosity there’s more to discover.

Written by Dr. Clay Culp, Emotionally Focused Therapist at Healing Hearts Counseling

Affairs aren’t the only threats to a relationship

When most people think of something that is a threat to their relationship, they may automatically think  attractive members of the opposite sex or affairs. But that is not the only thing that can threaten a relationship.

When couples come in for counseling, often times issues may surround many different things like work, hobbies, friendships (both same sex and opposite sex) and it can be confusing why these things are an issue.

For example, a husband works 60 hours a week and then has an avid golf hobby that he engages in on Saturdays and Sunday and he’s gone for hours. Or maybe he likes to ride his motorcycle on Saturdays and is gone most of the day. His wife gets really upset at this and becomes critical or seemingly controlling of the time that he needs to decompress from his work week.

Or maybe it’s a wife who has a really close relationship with her mother and it bothers the husband that her mother is more of a confidant for her than he is. He may complain that she is on the phone with her mother for hours and it really bothers him. She struggles to comprehend this because it’s her mother and they are close and what could possibly be wrong with that.

Or maybe it’s one partners job, they are passionate about their work and dedicate a lot of time and energy toward it to the point the other partner feels resentful.

What is going on in these scenarios? How are these seemingly innocent things a threat to the relationship?

They are threats to connection and closeness, as well as to a partners feeling of being important, not a priority more than it is about the thing itself. When this is the case, the threat can be literally anything if it ends up leaving your partner feeling unimportant, ignored, second place, neglected or something that results in your partners needs for closeness and connection not being met. When we can understand that it is that music that’s playing underneath the conflict then we can address it in a different way.

It’s important to realize that the issue is coming up because you are important and special to your partner, and they want to feel important and special to you. It’s rarely because they want to control you or rob you of joy, although their reactive behavior can sometimes look like that.

So what do we do when this kind of conflict is happening in your relationship? It’s important to address it from a place of compassion and realize that it’s driven by hurt and fear and longing to be close, important and connected. Seek to understand why your partner isn’t feeling safely and securely connected to you. The answer does not lie in giving up other important aspects, activities or relationships in your life to appease your partner. For one it wouldn’t really work in helping your partner feel more secure, but it would also lead to resentment for giving up things that matter to you. So it’s important to get to the root and find a way to reassure your partner that they have a special number 1 place with you. And to work at balancing your time, attention and affection with them and other things that matter to you in your life. Often times there are other root issues that need to be addressed to get back into safe, secure connection with each other. That’s where marriage counseling can help.

If you find yourself stuck in these negative patterns with one another and aren’t sure how to break out of them, don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help from an Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist.

Wishing you love and happiness,

Dana

 

Understanding shame

Shame. It’s a very powerful force. We all have it. But it’s hard to talk about. It’s a dark, difficult, lurking emotion. But the less we are aware of it, and the less we talk about it, the more power it has over us.

It’s easy to see when shame is triggered when you know what to look for.  Here are the common responses to this trigger. Blame/projection. When someone is saying something negative about us, and somewhere inside of us we are either afraid this is true about us, or deep inside we believe it’s true, our self protective defense kicks in and we point the finger at the other person, We project our fears/beliefs back onto them and tell them they are the problem. Note: we often are not aware we are doing this. Another typical reaction is to get defensive. This is similar to the first in that it is touching on something we fear or believe is true about us so we protect ourselves by defending ourselves. We tell the other person how wrong they are.  The last typical common response is that we shut down and numb out.  We don’t want to feel these feelings and it’s overwhelming. Shame often makes us hide. We don’t want others to see what we fear is the truth of who we are in that shame place.  All of these responses are detrimental to ourselves and our relationships. They push those close to us away. Which then reinforces feelings of shame that we are unlovable or not good enough.

No one can really make us feel something we don’t already feel.

If I know I’m intelligent and I feel secure in my competency as a person and someone tells me I’m dumb, I may not like it, but I’m not going to have a big reaction to it because I know this isn’t true. But let’s say I had a parent that put me down as a child, I struggled with school and was belittled for it. There’s a tender spot around my intelligence that includes feelings of shame. I feel not smart enough, not competent enough, and then someone tells me I’m dumb. Boy am I going to have a big emotional reaction to that that may include lashing out and blaming the other person, defending myself and telling them how wrong they are, or turning inward and shutting down. If we don’t understand where our tender spots are, our shame places, we often react while never really understanding why we react the ways that we do, and those reactions become damaging to ourselves and to our relationships.

This scenario quite often plays out in our intimate relationships. Our partner has the ability to hone right in on our most tender spots because they are the ones that matter the most to us, and they know us the best. This is the person we care the most about what they think, they are close enough to really hit those raw spots, and because they mean the most, they get the biggest reaction when those shame spots are triggered.

So let me illustrate a relationship example where both people are triggered by shame and how it leads to disconnect. Please note, all names and content are fictional, but it’s so common and universal, it’s not unusual to see yourself in it. I’m using some extreme examples of childhood wounds, but they don’t have to be this significant for us to have feelings of shame. Remember, we all have shame to varying degrees.

Joe had a very critical father grown up. If he got a B, his father would reprimand him and question why he never got an A. So Joe would try to perform and perform to get his father’s approval, and never felt good enough. His deepest shame fear was that he was a failure and would never be good enough. Sara was abandoned by her mother when she was very young, so she has deep feelings of shame that she is not lovable and everyone will leave. Joe and Sara are in a long term loving relationship.

Often times if Joe is not being particularly attentive to Sara because he is just distracted by a bad day at work, and he also forgets to take out the garbage. Sara’s shame is triggered, she fears she is not lovable and he doesn’t really care about her. So she launches into a critical attack telling him he never remembers to take out the garbage and all the household chores are up to her. She gets angry at him and tells him he doesn’t pull his weight and she’s tired of it. Sara doesn’t realize her shame is triggered, she is just reacting. Her reaction then triggers Joe’s shame. He starts to feel like a failure as a husband, that no matter what he does, no matter how hard he tries, he’s never going to get it right with her, he’s never going to make her happy. His reaction is then defensiveness. He tells her how she is wrong, that he does a lot around the house and she’s being ridiculous, thereby triggering her shame even more. If only they could see what’s going on. Their reactions are pushing each other away. But the shame they feel is real, it’s not their fault they have these feelings, and if only they could share that with each other.

So what do we do about this? We have to get in touch with it, acknowledge it, understand it, and have empathy for it so we can lessen it’s hold on us. Tune into those tender spots in yourself. Where do you recognize you have big reactions like this? What tends to trigger it? How do we react when it’s triggered? Having this information gives us the power to change our response so we can then love ourselves better and love those closest to us better.  It takes tremendous courage to take a look at ourselves and acknowledge something so vulnerable as shame. But remember, it is part of being human. But if we can look at it and understand it with compassion, we can begin to heal it. We can begin to challenge these beliefs about ourselves that just aren’t true. Because the truth really is that we are all lovable, we are all enough, simply because we exist.

To learn more about Shame and it’s impact, Brene Brown has many amazing TED talks and books that delve deeply into this topic. Some of her books include: Daring Greatly, The Gifts of Imperfection, Rising Strong and others. And if you need support, counseling can help.

Wishing you love and happiness always,

Dana

Helping couples heal

We just completed another Hold Me Tight workshop. It has been an amazing journey to lead and present these workshops. I am in awe of the courage couples have to come to these couples weekends and give what they do in an effort to grow and save their marriage.

With each Hold Me Tight workshop, the tension, discomfort and skepticism when the group comes in is palpable. And I sit with this anxious anticipation of holding this information knowing the impact it is going to have and wanting to package it up and hand it over immediately, but I have to sit back and allow it to unfold at the necessary pace. It’s a process. And it’s amazing to observe.

I know the information is sound, it’s scientific, it resonates with everyone who learns it, there isn’t anyone who doesn’t get it when they are presented with it, whether in the workshop, or in my counseling office. But it still doesn’t cease to amaze me when I watch it work. And in such a short time, over the course of 2 days. I want everyone to have it. I want every couple to come and do this.

The first day is rough. I won’t sugar coat it. It’s the digging in and digging deep. It’s entering into the dark and painful places to draw into awareness what is happening, to identify the raw parts and make sense of them. To gain clarity on the stuck places and why they are happening. It’s raw and it’s real. And then the second day is when the healing comes. It’s identifying, ok, we know now what goes wrong….how do we fix it? And that’s where the magic happens. Just as the tension and skepticism is palpable on day one, the closeness and comfort and love and hope  is equally palpable on day 2. You can see and feel the transformation in the air amongst the couples in the room. And it is such a wonderful thing to be part of. Every couple that comes through my office inspires me. I learn and I grow and I am in awe. And I am grateful.

I love that I get to do this work. I am honored by the couples who put their trust in me to guide them toward healing and bonding and reconciliation. And I continue to be inspired by the courage it takes to look inside and do this hard but wholly worthwhile work.

Jodi Clarke (my presenting partner) and I both leave these workshops feeling jubilated and proclaiming we want to do them every weekend! They are so powerful and meaningful and satisfying. I hope you’ll join us. Our next workshop is August 26th and 27th. You can get more information at www.holdmetightknoxville.com.

Wishing you love and happiness always,

Dana

The EFT process of getting unstuck from the cycle

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is a science based theoretical model of therapy for couples established by Sue Johnson. It is proven to work to help over 70% of couples who complete the EFT model of therapy. It is a map and strategy for understanding love relationships and where they go wrong.

If you are thinking of attending therapy with an EFT counselor, here’s a simple adaptation of a quote by Portia Nelson, written by Katty Coffron, PhD, on the process of EFT.

Chapter 1
We walked down the sidewalk and fell into a deep hole. We couldn’t get out and we couldn’t figure out why. I thought it must be either your fault or my fault. We never quite got out of the hole; we just somehow moved on.

Chapter 2
We walked down the sidewalk and fell into the same deep hole. We couldn’t understand. I still thought it must be either your fault, or my fault . It was a real struggle and we realized we needed help to get out. We didn’t just move on.

Chapter 3
We started EFT therapy. We walked down the sidewalk and fell into the same deep hole again. This time we started to understand- it wasn’t my fault and it wasn’t your fault. It was the cycle’s fault. It was a struggle to get out, but we did get out.

Chapter 4
We continued EFT therapy. We walked down the sidewalk and fell into the same deep hole again. This time we knew- it wasn’t my fault or your fault- we were both caught by the cycle. We knew we were both hurting. We reached for each other, and we got out.

Chapter 5
We continued EFT therapy. We walked down the sidewalk and saw the hole. We reached for each other and we walked around it. We didn’t fall into the hole.

Chapter 6
We finished EFT therapy. We reached for each other and we chose another sidewalk.

In your relationship, you may have experienced your own black hole. There is a way out. It’s not uncommon for couples to fall into these holes and get stuck, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

It takes a lot of courage to reach out for help. Many people, especially those who have had bad experiences with standard marriage counseling in the past, may think there is no help for them. But there is. We now have science and a map to understand love relationships, how to see the holes we fall into, and learn how through creating emotional safety with one another, we can learn to better understand and communicate our hurts and needs so that we can reach for each other and find each other in a way that creates the closeness and connection we all long for.

Thank you for reading.

Wishing you love and happiness,

Dana

Hold Me Tight, a weekend workshop for couples

As I write this, I have been a marriage counselor in private practice for 12 years now. In 2010 I was introduced to the theoretical model of couples therapy called Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT). I was immediately hooked. At that time I had been working with couples for 5 years. EFT addressed everything I had been experiencing with the couples I was working with. It just made sense.

Learning about the attachment model of therapy, that we are wired for connection, and the reactions we have when we feel a disconnect or distance from our intimate partner made sense of and normalized what I had been seeing in my office every day and in my own life. EFT creates a research based map for how to help couples repair and strengthen their bond.

Since attending that training, I went on to become fully certified in the model of EFT, and then went on to become an EFT supervisor to help other therapists learn this very effective approach to helping couples. I have become so passionate about helping couples through this model and in the 7 years I have been utilizing EFT with my couples, I have seen powerful and effective transformations over and over again.

I continue to want to grow this work. So I decided to team up with my colleague and friend, Jodi Clark, to begin doing Sue Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Therapy workshops for couples. It’s a 2 day intensive workshop to help couples identify and pull out of the negative patterns they are stuck in and learn how to create intimacy and bonding on a deeper level. I attended a workshop myself as an assistant before starting our own here in Knoxville. I had expected it was going to be amazing, but even still it blew my expectations away. I witnessed 10 couples transform over the course of the 2 days. It was an amazing experience and I grew even deeper in my passion to bring these workshops to Knoxville to help our community. To heal and strengthen marriages.

This workshop is different than counseling. It’s condensed into 2 days and is more educational than therapy. You are guided through 7 intimate conversations that you will do in private just the two of you. You will have access to trained EFT therapists to come and assist you if needed.

I feel so strongly that every couple, not just struggling couples, do this workshop. Our first workshop was a great success. Leading couples through these seven conversations and watching the impact it had was immensely satisfying. I hope to get the word out to do more and more of these weekends. It is a way to reach a large group of people in a short amount of time to provide true hope and healing for struggling couples.

If you would like more information, please feel free to contact me anytime at 865-283-1777 or go to the website www.holdmetightknoxville.com

Thank you for reading.

Wishing you love and happiness,

Dana