What we need is acknowledgement
Oftentimes couples wonder why things escalate the way they do, why they end up in the conflicts they do. And oftentimes it’s some version of a lack of acknowledgment of one or the other’s experience. Someone gets hurt, they try to tell their partner looking for acknowledgement, their partner gets defensive, explains their intent, the other person doesn’t feel acknowledged so they get bigger, angrier, louder in their effort to be heard which just leaves the other person getting more defensive which leads to less acknowledgement and so the escalating spiral goes.
So how do you stop it? What does acknowledgment look like?
Sometimes I like to use this metaphor and then I’ll put it in context with a pretend couple. If you are dancing together and you step on your partners foot, it hurts. Of course you didn’t mean it. Your partner says ow, that hurt. A common response is, well I didn’t mean to hurt you, you put your foot where it wasn’t supposed to be (blame, defensiveness), so then the other person protests more that it hurts. What your partner needs is for you to say, oh, I see that I hurt you. Can you show me where? What can I do to soothe it? It’s not always relevant that you didn’t mean it (well, it would be if you did mean it!) but we’ll assume that typically no hurt is intended. It still hurts. It doesn’t really matter if it happened because your partner misstepped, or you misstepped, your partner is hurt and you can soothe that hurt by acknowledging it exists and finding out what they need for comfort and care to ease the hurt. There is no need to assign blame to anyone. To take it a step further, that may be a foot that your partner has broken in the past, so stepping on it may hurt even more than if she/he had never broken it. When our partner has a bigger reaction than what seems warranted, it’s likely there is a past wound lurking there.
So let’s imagine Casi and Joel. (A completely made up couple). Casi and Joel are sitting together at the breakfast table having a casual chat. Mid conversation, Joel’s phone rings, and without saying anything, he answers it and leaves the room. Casi feels hurt. They both have a full day and this was their time to connect, she was enjoying her time with him and was left wondering, what could have been more important in this moment than us talking. So when Joel returns, she says, why would you just cut off our conversation like that? He responds that it was an important work call that he had to take. She then says, but it could have waited or he could have at least said something before answering the phone. (Casi is getting more upset as she talks, Joel getting more defensive.) He responds, but I did come right back, I’m here now. What is the problem here? It was a quick phone call!
You can see how this can start to spiral as Casi doesn’t feel understood and Joel feels attacked and defensive. But what is really going on? Let’s further imagine that Casi has some trauma in her past of being neglected. Ignored and not cared for by her caretakers growing up? Might this momentary infraction hurt and trigger her more in this moment than if she never experienced that? Of course.
Let’s imagine a different conversation where they both approach this in a different way. The same event occurs. And when Joel returns, Casi rather than going on the offensive, shares vulnerably the feelings that came up for her. Something like, I was really enjoying our time together before we go our separate ways. It makes me feel connected to you. When the phone rang and you answered it without saying anything, it left me feeling like this time isn’t as important to you and that hurts. And Joel’s reply might sound something like, I am so sorry, you are right, I wasn’t thinking about that in the moment, I just saw it was work and answered without thinking. I can see how it made you feel that way. I love this time together.
How do you imagine that both might feel after that conversation? Casi might let her guard down because Joel has heard and understood her feelings, and she’s more likely to accept what happened for him in that moment. That is a moment of repair, and reconnection.
If this is difficult for you to do in your own relationship, and these seemingly small moments turn into big spirals, we are here to help. Contact us today.
Wishing you Love and Happiness,
Dana Vince and the Healing Hearts Counseling Team.
The surprising benefits of not knowing your partner
There’s been a lot written about how this pandemic is affecting marriages and relationships. Through all of that, one thing has stood out to me more than anything else. I have to be honest. “I think one of the things that I’ve realized is that I don’t know Will at all.” Actor Jada Pinkett Smith said of her relationship with fellow actor Will Smith on her show ‘Red Table Talk.’ They were married in 1997, and here she is saying she doesn’t know her husband. That sounded incredibly painful to me. I know how much myself, the people I work with, and just people in general, want to be known deeply by an important other.
I thought I knew where the story was going, but what she said next was not what I expected.
“I feel like there’s a layer that you get to, life gets busy and you create these stories in your head, and
then you hold onto these stories and that is your idea of your partner; that’s not who your partner is,”
I don’t think she’s saying she doesn’t know anything about her partner. They have actually been open
about some of their marriage problems and the deep, difficult conversations they’ve had in order to
work through them. If she didn’t know him before then, surely she got to know him some during that
process. What I think she is saying, is that there is a way in which our learning about our partner is never
The “knowing” about your partner can create a sense of intimacy, but in many ways the “not knowing”
can be just as important for intimacy. The “not knowing” is about the attention, openness, and curiosity
that we can maintain toward our partner. Often when people reflect on early days with their partner,
they remember that sense of sharing and learning about each other that fueled their sense of
connection with their new love.
Then, as Jada said, we get busy and caught up in our lives. We stop paying attention in the same way.
We think we “know.” In fact, the “knowing” part can get in the way because so much of what we think
we know about our partner is really a rigid story we’re telling ourselves, not the dynamic, fluid, and
sometimes messy truth. So, we engage with the story of our partner we tell ourselves, not our partner.
That’s not to say you have to try to recreate the dynamic of getting to know your partner that you went
through when you first met. Of course, you probably really do know quite a lot about your partner if
you’ve been with them a long time. But the truth is, we can never really know someone else completely.
Heck, just knowing ourselves can be pretty difficult. It also doesn’t mean you will always like what you discover. But hopefully, it’ll be real. And it’s so much easier and more intimate to deal with real.
What we can do is embrace the spirit of not knowing. We can lean into the possibility that we’ll discover
something new and unexpected with our partner. That possibility is the very doorway to intimacy, a
chance to know and be known, again and again.
Contributed by Dr. Clay Culp, Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist at Healing Hearts Counseling
Dating ideas for you and your partner while you are sheltered in
These are hard times for all of us! Many of us are sheltered in and feeling the strain. It is likely that you are spending a lot of time with your spouse right now, but just because 2 people are in the same house, or even the same room, does not necessarily mean they are feeling connected. So how can you stay connected to one another during this difficult time?
Here are some in home “date” ideas to keep your relationship thriving during this time of being sheltered in
After the kids are asleep, if the weather is nice, have it on the front or back porch for added romance (and for even more added romance, take time to dress up).
Start a new show together.
Soak in a hot bath together (candles are good here too!).
Take time to check out of electronics. Turn the phones, TVs and computers off.
Do a home workout together.
Do yoga for couples.
Go for a walk. Or a run.
Play a card game, board game or maybe some heads up using the app on your phone.
Share what you are grateful for.
Have an afternoon picnic in the yard.
Paint together using art instructional videos online (a sort of painting with a twist, with an extra twist!)
Do your own book club for 2. Pick a book to read and then share your thoughts and reactions with one another.
This can be a time to explore sexuality. There are online resources for tantric sex or Kama sutra. Explore with one another.
Finish an at home project together that you just haven’t had time to complete.
Turn some music on and dance together, slow or fast, whatever you’re in the mood for. You can even make some videos for the rest of us on facebook!
Write random love notes to each other.
Cook a nice meal or try a new recipe together.
Hold each other and share what you are feeling in all of this. Let your partner know you are there, they are not alone. Find ways to comfort and reassure each other as you go through this.
This can be a time of deep intimate connection with your partner, keep turning toward one another and finding ways to stay engaged and connected. We all need more of that right now.
And if you are struggling, we are here. We are offering therapy online to couples. So please don’t hesitate to reach out if you need support. You can reach us at 865-283-1777.
Wishing you love and happiness always,
Can you 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 marriage 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,
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!
Remembering love’s everyday gifts
Valentine’s Day often conjures up images of grand gestures and big gifts as people try their hardest to show their love to one another. While these are often beautiful and meaningful themselves, it can also be helpful to remember the small, everyday gifts we’re capable of providing to our partner. These are the things that help keep you connected on a daily basis, through the ups and downs, and it can be helpful to think of those to stay more connected to your partner.
One reason we can all have trouble with this, is we can lose sight of just how much of an impact we have on our partner, especially as time goes by in our relationship. Partners actually become exquisitely attuned to one another. Just a look or a touch from one another can be incredibly soothing and comforting. Research shows us that we are not wired to go through life alone, and it can often be the small things that signal to your partner that you are emotionally accessible and responsive. If we truly knew how much some of the little things meant, we would probably do them more. You do have the power to impact your partner and help them feel loved and cherished, and you can choose to embrace it and harness it.
If you’d like to try, here’s some things to consider. It is important to let your partner guide you toward how they feel most loved, comforted, or soothed. Talk to them about the small acts of love and kindness that matter most to them, and be willing to share your own. The answers might surprise you! Loving your partner how they like to be loved, rather than based on our own preference, makes the impact even greater. If you or your partner are unsure where to start, here are a few small ways you can show your partner love, no matter the day, based on things I often hear couples talk about in therapy. Get creative and see how you can take these ideas and make them your own, or use them as a jumping off point to find your own ideas.
1. Honoring reunions and goodbyes – Make it a point to slow down and take a moment with one another when you leave each other for the day and when you return. As we leave, we carry that sense of love with us through the day, and it makes us stronger. When we get home and are acknowledged by our partner, it reminds us how much we matter, that we’re not just one of the many other people and things in the word, but instead that we fill a special role in our partner’s world.
2. Non-sexual touch – This kind of touch, which can be as small as gently touching your partner’s shoulder as you walk by, can signal to your partner your appreciation and care for them as a person. This is a way of touching that doesn’t ask anything in return but simply provide a moment of emotional contact. What happens in the bedroom can also be an incredibly important expression of love and affection, but these other opportunities for touch can be just as important a way of communicating care and tenderness,
3. Listening well – In trainings, we therapists are sometimes asked to listen to one another and refrain from asking any questions or providing any feedback. Our job is simply to listen and reflect back what we’re hearing. I am always still struck by how it feels be to heard in that way – without an agenda or judgement. Just to understand. Of course we are not always going to be in that sort of mode. That’s not real life. But we can try to take key moments to listen with our whole hearts. Remember, you don’t necessarily have to fix your partner’s problems. Just having someone genuinely listen can be a powerful antidote to the stresses of life.
4. Providing recognition – Your partner may actually already be doing a number of “small things” intended to show love, care, or support that go unnoticed. For many people, it means the world for their partner to acknowledge their efforts. Without it, people can feel like their contribution doesn’t really matter or that whatever they do will never be enough. This doesn’t mean anything nice your partner does has to be met with groveling gratitude. A few words, expressed intentionally and lovingly often suffices. A little acknowledgement can go a long way!
Wishing you love and happiness on this Valetine’s Day,
Clay Culp, Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist at Healing Hearts Counseling
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.
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, please don’t hesitate to contact us. 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!
It’s not about the goldfish! And other seemingly petty things when you are arguing
Whatever it is you are arguing about (the list can be long) how to load the dishwasher right, if the goldfish can go in with the sandwich, how much we should spend on the home improvement, how we should discipline our child, you didn’t take out the trash!, why we don’t have a budget? Sound familiar? I am sure you can add your own items to this list.
But when it gets heated and it seems like you are fighting over these petty, or sometimes important things (like the kids), but you are bewildered as to why it sends you spiraling, understand that it’s not actually about those things.
Those topics are certainly problems to be solved and need our attention, but when it starts to spiral, it’s no longer about those things. It is now your relationship that is hinging on the problem. It becomes a signal of love lost and we react.
Look beneath the surface and you’ll find some form of:
I feel alone in this. The burden is all on my shoulders and I can’t seem to count on you to help. I don’t have a partner.
I have no voice, no say, I don’t feel equal to you or heard in this. My opinion doesn’t matter.
I can’t get it right, no matter what I do, you see me as incapable, incompetent.
I can’t win. No matter how hard I try, or how hard I work, you only ever see the worst in me.
It’s usually these experiences that underly the fights. When we can tune into and become aware of these feelings and share them vulnerably with one another, we can find our way toward connection, and only then can we pull out of these spirals and get back to solving problems effectively.
It isn’t uncommon for couples to get stuck in these negative patterns and struggle to find their way out. If this sounds like your relationship, our counselors are here to help. Contact us.
Wishing you love and happiness always,
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.
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.
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.
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
How to understand anger
Anger is often seen as a bad emotion, something we shouldn’t feel or express. It has a bad rap, and understandably so. It can often scare us, push people we care about away from us, it can scare those we love, it can leave us feeling shame that we get to that point. And at times we may even feel bewildered by our own intense reactivity. Where is it coming from? Why is it there? Why does it at times feel out of control? There may also be fears if we let ourselves express it, it can and will lead to irrevocable actions.
But let’s explore what’s really happening when we are angry.
Anger can be empowering. It’s how we stand up for ourselves when we feel wronged in some way.
Anger can be a call to be heard. When we feel small, or unseen, anger becomes a protest that says, “Hear me! See me!”.
Sometimes anger can be a release of many other emotions that have been suppressed for too long. The proverbial pot boiling over.
Anger can be shame coming to life. A moment when we feel judged or seen as bad, or feel bad about ourselves and it’s being called out. Our anger is a defense to guard against our own fears of who we really are.
Anger can be a protest against disconnection. A call to a loved other to respond when it seems they are distant or don’t care. It can be a fight for the relationship, a call for change toward more love and closeness.
As we look at and understand the meaning behind the anger, we can see that it has a deeper, important purpose. It is driving us toward something if we can tune in and listen to what it’s trying to say. What need isn’t being met that anger is calling for?
If we can understand the need, what is behind the anger, we can start to calm it and direct it in a more effective way toward getting those needs met. Or maybe there is a deep wound that needs tending to and healing.
If you are finding that anger is hurting you and your relationships, counseling can help process and make sense of what is underneath.
We are here to help.
Wishing you love and happiness always,