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.
There’s a scene in an old episode of Grey’s Anatomy. I was unsuccessful in locating it so I could post it here, so I’ll have to just tell you about it. It was years ago that I saw it, but I never forgot it because it was quite impactful to me.
A mother was talking to the doctor shortly after her son had major surgery. She was suffering because her son was in such intense pain. The doctor said to her something along the lines of, “just remember, it’s a healing pain, not a dying pain.” Ooof! I found that to be a pretty profound statement.
Therapy is like this. Sometimes people avoid coming to therapy because they don’t want to drudge up painful stuff. If you are in a long term intimate relationship, odds are you have caused each other pain. If you are a human being that was a part of a family during your growing years, odds are that they also caused you some pain. These pains vary in degrees from person to person, but we all have them. If we suppress or avoid this pain, it becomes a dying pain. It cuts us off from parts of ourself. It puts walls between us and our loved ones leaving us isolated and alone. We act it out in ways we may not even be aware of.
When we decide to face that pain, turn toward it, allow ourselves to feel it, process it, understand it, and share it, we create space for it to heal. This hurts. It’s not easy to do. We have to feel it to heal it. But the pain you feel during that process, it’s a healing pain, not a dying pain. It is not meant for us to suffer alone. When we can share with a safe other, we can heal. If you would like to know more about us, go to www.marriagecounselingknoxville.com/team
It takes courage to reach for help and support. You are strong enough.
Wishing you love and happiness always,
Social media and technology come up again and again in therapy sessions with couples as a source of distress, disconnection and concern. It comes up in a variety of ways. Here is a list of the most common complaints we hear from partners:
My partner’s face is always in his/her phone.
I don’t know if my partner is just playing a game or doing something important, so I don’t know if I can/should interrupt or not. I might start talking, and find my partner isn’t even paying attention to me.
I was doing something important on my phone, and my partner just starts talking without realizing I am in the middle of something, and that’s frustrating.
Friends or contact with people on social media that feel threatening to the bond of the relationship.
Answering texts or phone calls during time that is otherwise expected to be sacred to the couple.
Addictive habits around scrolling on social media during time together.
You can probably add your own complaints to this list.
In a world where we are all starving for more connection, we are looking for it in the wrong places. Social media and technology connect us in ways that we have never been connected before. We have friends on Facebook and instagram that we’ve never even met in person because we may have similar interests or ideas. But yet, it disconnects us more than ever because it takes us away from being present in the world around us and engaging with our important others who are right in front of us.
So what can we do about this? Here are some suggestions from unplugging from the digital world, and plugging in to your loved ones and being more present and accessible.
Put time limits on your phone around certain activities. For example; your phone can alert you when you’ve been on Facebook for more than an hour. Or when you’ve been playing candy crush for 2 hours.
Set some boundaries around when it’s time to put phones and internet away. Maybe it’s during dinner time, or maybe after 6pm. Or even just for an hour to engage with your family talking about your day and being with each other.
Check in with each other when you see your partner on their phone. Ask what they are doing and is it okay to interrupt so that you may share or have a conversation.
If you see your partner spending a lot of time in the digital world, rather than accuse or attack, let them know you miss them and would like to be more engaged and request to make a plan for that.
Be intentional about spending quality time with each other, and make that a time that phones are on silent and put away. If you don’t want to silence a possible important call from your child, or that doctor’s office you are waiting to hear from, put it on do not disturb and then set the exception to the numbers you will allow to ring through.
Be open and transparent about who you are interacting with digitally. Have conversations around expected boundaries to protect your relationship and each other. This is going to be different for everyone. Some couples are okay with their partner communicating with an ex on Facebook, some are not. Know and talk about how you and your partner feel about these things to avoid hurts down the road. You matter to and impact one another. Be thoughtful about how your communications with others might impact your partner. Also be reflective about why you might be engaging in certain communications. What need isn’t being met. Address it rather than avoid and seek it elsewhere.
These are just a few issues and suggestions about protecting your connection with one another by being thoughtful and intentional about digital and social media use. I invite you to come up with your own ways of being present with and connecting with those around you in your real life. Your partner and your family need that from you.
If you need help repairing your intimate connection with your partner, contact us today. We are here to help.
Wishing you love and happiness always,
As we settle into 2021, we have a great opportunity to pause and reflect on what we have experienced in the final months of last year. We started 2020 with certain hopes, plans, and expectations, many of which were altered or wiped out due to COVID-19. This has caused immense amounts of stress, especially for families.
Putting together a memory book is a great option to slow down and reflect on the past year. The good, the bad, the stressful, the funny can all be remembered. Options for a memory book can include a scrapbook, a storybook, or if you’re really ambitious, you could get creative with something like a comic book to tell the story of the year. Whatever form you choose, this activity facilitates reflection where all the voices and perspectives of your family can be heard and valued. Being heard and feeling connected to loved ones relieves stress and promotes resilience for future stressors. During an activity like this, it’s important to intentionally listen to and reflect what your child shares, being careful to catch any reactions or responses that might dismiss or deny your child’s experience.
Below are questions you can ask your kids to help generate ideas and conversation about what you’d like to include in a memory book:
- What do you want to remember about the past year?
- How would you describe the past year? You can use a color, an animal, a kind of weather or a feeling to describe it. Consider having everyone (adults included!) try to draw a picture that portrays what this year has felt like
- What was disappointing about the past year? Were there times you felt sad? Scared?
- What are you thankful for in the past year? What were things that were fun and brought you joy?
- How would you explain this past year to other kids if they hadn’t lived through it, and they were asking you what it was like?
Whether you use paper, markers, and tape on hand to throw a book together, or want to go all out with crafting supplies, use reflection time to compile pictures, drawings, and memories from everyone in your family. If each voice has a lot to be heard, consider compiling a memory book per person that all comes together as a series.
This book is a great read for any age, combining evidenced based research with helpful applications for how to engage children across developmental stages.
This book was written by a woman who specializes in helping children process distressing experiences. It’s specifically related to COVID-19 and is available online as a free PDF.
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
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,
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,
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!
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, 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!