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
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. 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!
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
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,
Welcoming new writer, Hannah Rose! She has provided a guest post for our site. Wishing you love and happiness always! ~Dana
No relationship is without its challenges. Conflict is inevitable to growth as a couple, because how else are you supposed to learn and be better? However, it’s important to approach heated situations with a clear head before things escalate to an unnecessarily foul dispute that could put your entire relationship on the line. It might be hard to believe, but conflict can be a good thing — but only if you are able to manage it well.
When navigating these tough terrains, know when to draw the line. Bickering is normal, but Bustle cautions that it can also be indicative of underlying toxic issues in your relationship. That said, couples should be able to address all these and ideally, emerge stronger together.
Here are some ways to help keep your relationship out of a war zone when under the pressure of a difficult conversation.
Face the problem head-on
First things first: resist the urge to sweep your problems under a metaphorical rug. They will only come back as dust bunnies with a vengeance. If there is something about your relationship that keeps bothering you and you know there’s potential for it to grow bigger, don’t hide it. Be open about the problem with your partner. Love Bondings states that this openness is crucial in establishing trust. And when you both know how the other thinks and feels about certain issues, there is more honesty and freedom — thus making your relationship easier to maintain.
When you’re lost in the heat of the moment, it can be tempting to raise your voice and unleash all hell. However, people are more susceptible to saying things they don’t mean when they let anger get the best of them. The Independent warns against throwing out statements like “You are too emotional” and “I hate you.” These are huge red flags that will be difficult for your partner to forgive and forget later on. If you feel yourself starting to take things a little more personally than you should be, hit pause and take a breather. This can range from just 15 minutes to three days — whatever time you need. Your partner will appreciate this more than your quick, dagger-shaped words.
Another important point to remember is to never invalidate your partner’s feelings. You never get to decide where and when you hurt someone. You might not have intended to do so, but trying to make excuses and lessening the blame on you will only make your partner feel bad for having feelings they can’t control. Listen to what they have to say. Take the time to ask questions so you can understand them better, and show them that you genuinely do.
Pick your battles
Fights are highly emotional, and it’s likely you’ll try to grasp at whatever defenses you can, no matter if they’re even related to the topic. Make sure you stay on the same page always — never adding other unnecessary ingredients to the mix. Be as objective as you can and know that you can be wrong. Some simple topics like arguing over your partner’s choice of clothing can actually be pettier than you think, so don’t bother trying to be right for the sake of being right. According to Pretty Me, dress codes remain a topic of question in many workplaces and beyond. This is for you to gauge if you want to let it bleed over to your relationship. But remember that you are their partner, not parent. This goes for other issues, like trying to police how often your partner goes out with their friends.
“Sorry” is the key word
A previous post on Marriage Counseling Knoxville puts a spotlight on the dangers of the blame game, but this is nothing that can’t be combatted by a genuine apology. When apologizing, there should be no “ifs” and “buts” or putting the burden on your partner. Phrases like “I’m sorry you felt that way” are a big no-no because it lessens your own accountability. Instead, simply starting with “I’m sorry for…” or “I feel really bad about…” immediately expresses your own regret over the situation.
Post solely for the use of MarriageCounselingKnoxville.com
By: Hannah Rose
So many couples find themselves immersed in the blame/shame game. It’s a tit for tat back and forth of who’s fault it is that we are stuck, that we are fighting, disconnected, unhappy, distressed. It’s because you (finger pointing) never listen to me. It’s because you are always critical of me. Then when the finger is pointing at us, we then get defensive, dismissive and point back. And boy is it a stuck painful place to be for two people who love each other, who both just want to feel loved, understood and accepted. We don’t realize that is what is under this type of fight. The questions beneath are: do you really love me? Am I good enough for you? Do you see me? Can you understand and accept me? We are pleading for this. And in doing so, we don’t realize that in trying to get seen and heard, we are attacking our partner and not hearing and seeing them. It’s a vicious cycle.
How does a couple pull out of this? It feels so hopeless and defeating when it happens. And it feels so impossible and painful. But there is a way out. First we have to tune into those underlying questions and listen to the softer, vulnerable voice that asks those questions, not the loud and angry, or cold and distant voice that is protecting the self from the perceived threat of our attacking partner.
The other really difficult part is recognizing where our partner is coming from. That they also have those questions. That they too are caught in this vicious cycle and are getting hurt in it too and being reactive. We can embrace and express our own experience of hurt and pain while still recognizing that our partner is not reacting and being hurtful on purpose, but just like us they are reacting to the vicious cycle and their own pain. We can stop blaming and shaming each other for this and recognize we are both hurting human beings who want to be heard, understood and accepted. There is no bad guy in this. We are both trying to be heard. We are both asking these vital, painful, vulnerable questions. We can both step back from this together, stop pointing the finger and go to the softer more vulnerable place and share what is happening there. That makes it a lot easier for our partner to come close and listen, and offer comfort.
What that looks like, instead of saying, you are never there for me, say…when we get caught in this, I end up feeling so alone and I don’t know how to get you to hear me, and that feels scary. Instead of saying, you are always angry, negative and critical, say…I worry I won’t be good enough for you, that I can’t make you happy, and I end up not knowing what to do to make it better, and that gets scary.
We can then talk about what we need from each other. Be willing to express as well as listen to one another’s longings for connection, acceptance, and understanding.
If you need help with this, our counselors are here to offer assistance.
Wishing you love and happiness always,
One of the things that happens when couples get into distress, when one partner feels attacked, they get defensive. When this defensiveness occurs, you may end up dismissing the experience your partner is trying to share with you.
I understand that if your partner comes at you in an aggressive way (i.e. angry or blaming) it can be hard to hear the message of hurt behind the attack. Keep in mind, the height of the anger is equal to the depth of the hurt. Typically when a partner is acting out with anger, they are protesting disconnection and expressing deep hurt. If you respond by defending yourself by saying something along the lines of “that’s not true…I didn’t do that…that wasn’t what I intended…you are blowing this way out of proportion”, you end up dismissing your partner’s experience, which is very real and true for them.
The best way to disarm and diffuse the conflict, is turn toward and tune into your partner. Help slow them down by getting curious about what they are feeling and why. Really listen as they talk to what meaning they are giving the situation and why it hurts. Then your partner doesn’t have to fight so hard to be heard. The more you understand, the more comfort and reassurance you can offer. Then your parter will likely soften, and you’ll have room and space to also talk about what you are feeling and experiencing. When you understand someone’s story, you can often understand their reactions, so tuning in and listening can bring closeness, rather than both of you going off into the separate corners of painful disconnection.
Thank you for reading.
Wishing you love and happiness,
P.S. For more marriage enrichment, visit www.holdmetightknoxville.com and learn about our upcoming weekend workshops for couples.
Couples can get stuck in some very vicious cycles and negative patterns with one another that rob them of their intimacy and connection with one another. Here is a story of a couple who got caught in a common pattern and how they were able to pull out of it together and reclaim their relationship. Read More
Often times couples find themselves so emotionally exhausted from the issues that plague their relationship, they look for a way out and make the decision to file for divorce. Many times the couple is made up of two people who still love each other, but they just don’t know how to get along with each other. They don’t necessarily want out of the marriage, but they want out of the pain and frustration and think divorce must be the answer.
For this particular couple, they were in very damaging cycle in their relationship and did not know how to break out of it. They had already begun the divorce process at the time they came in for counseling.
In the first session, they were unable to be productive because they were so caught up blaming each other that they could not see their own part in the cycle. They decided to separate. During their separation, they continued individual counseling.