Listen in as our therapist, Dr. Clay Culp, discusses how to identify the strengths in your relationship and the importance of doing so. Clay is an emotionally focused couples therapist with Healing Hearts Counseling and also conducts relationship wellness assessments, visit https://relationshipcheckuptn.com.
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
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!
In your relationship when your partner is in pain, your first instinct may be to try and fix it. None of us want the person we love and care about to be in pain. The problem is, often times our attempts to fix it make it worse. We may explain, hey, I didn’t mean it that way, here’s my perspective. In which case, your partner is likely to not feel heard, or is likely to feel dismissed. We may get defensive, because sometimes when our partner hurts because of something we said or did, we want to correct the record and defend our good name and get them to see that they have it all wrong. Hey, I’m the good guy here, not the bad guy! And if you just saw that, we’d be okay. Again, this typically leaves a partner feeling unheard, dismissed and alone in their pain.
What your partner is looking for is not for you to fix it. In fact, they will often hear that you are trying to fix them. That their feelings are wrong and they shouldn’t feel that way. What your partner wants and needs, in many cases, is just for you to hear and understand their perspective, their hurt and they also want permission to feel what they feel, not to be made to feel it’s wrong, or silly, or stupid. They want to know their pain makes sense to someone, that they are seen and heard and understood. Once that occurs, then you can ask for what they need. And usually, it’s some type of reassurance that he/she matters to you, that their feelings matter and are important to you. That you’ll be there to listen and give your care and support and a moment that it was missed.
Simply being there, being present is often enough. It’s not about performance or having all the answers. It’s about being present, engaged, hearing, seeing. I like to tell people when your partner is sharing, leave your window for a moment, and walk over to your partners window to see what the picture look like from their point of view. Look through the lens of their story, their experiences, their personality, to see out their window the way they see it, then they will feel heard, and held and comforted and seen. You don’t have to have the answer, what your partner needs, is you.
Shame. It’s a very powerful force. We all have it. But it’s hard to talk about. It’s a dark, difficult, lurking emotion. But the less we are aware of it, and the less we talk about it, the more power it has over us.
It’s easy to see when shame is triggered when you know what to look for. Here are the common responses to this trigger. Blame/projection. When someone is saying something negative about us, and somewhere inside of us we are either afraid this is true about us, or deep inside we believe it’s true, our self protective defense kicks in and we point the finger at the other person, We project our fears/beliefs back onto them and tell them they are the problem. Note: we often are not aware we are doing this. Another typical reaction is to get defensive. This is similar to the first in that it is touching on something we fear or believe is true about us so we protect ourselves by defending ourselves. We tell the other person how wrong they are. The last typical common response is that we shut down and numb out. We don’t want to feel these feelings and it’s overwhelming. Shame often makes us hide. We don’t want others to see what we fear is the truth of who we are in that shame place. All of these responses are detrimental to ourselves and our relationships. They push those close to us away. Which then reinforces feelings of shame that we are unlovable or not good enough.
No one can really make us feel something we don’t already feel.
If I know I’m intelligent and I feel secure in my competency as a person and someone tells me I’m dumb, I may not like it, but I’m not going to have a big reaction to it because I know this isn’t true. But let’s say I had a parent that put me down as a child, I struggled with school and was belittled for it. There’s a tender spot around my intelligence that includes feelings of shame. I feel not smart enough, not competent enough, and then someone tells me I’m dumb. Boy am I going to have a big emotional reaction to that that may include lashing out and blaming the other person, defending myself and telling them how wrong they are, or turning inward and shutting down. If we don’t understand where our tender spots are, our shame places, we often react while never really understanding why we react the ways that we do, and those reactions become damaging to ourselves and to our relationships.
This scenario quite often plays out in our intimate relationships. Our partner has the ability to hone right in on our most tender spots because they are the ones that matter the most to us, and they know us the best. This is the person we care the most about what they think, they are close enough to really hit those raw spots, and because they mean the most, they get the biggest reaction when those shame spots are triggered.
So let me illustrate a relationship example where both people are triggered by shame and how it leads to disconnect. Please note, all names and content are fictional, but it’s so common and universal, it’s not unusual to see yourself in it. I’m using some extreme examples of childhood wounds, but they don’t have to be this significant for us to have feelings of shame. Remember, we all have shame to varying degrees.
Joe had a very critical father grown up. If he got a B, his father would reprimand him and question why he never got an A. So Joe would try to perform and perform to get his father’s approval, and never felt good enough. His deepest shame fear was that he was a failure and would never be good enough. Sara was abandoned by her mother when she was very young, so she has deep feelings of shame that she is not lovable and everyone will leave. Joe and Sara are in a long term loving relationship.
Often times if Joe is not being particularly attentive to Sara because he is just distracted by a bad day at work, and he also forgets to take out the garbage. Sara’s shame is triggered, she fears she is not lovable and he doesn’t really care about her. So she launches into a critical attack telling him he never remembers to take out the garbage and all the household chores are up to her. She gets angry at him and tells him he doesn’t pull his weight and she’s tired of it. Sara doesn’t realize her shame is triggered, she is just reacting. Her reaction then triggers Joe’s shame. He starts to feel like a failure as a husband, that no matter what he does, no matter how hard he tries, he’s never going to get it right with her, he’s never going to make her happy. His reaction is then defensiveness. He tells her how she is wrong, that he does a lot around the house and she’s being ridiculous, thereby triggering her shame even more. If only they could see what’s going on. Their reactions are pushing each other away. But the shame they feel is real, it’s not their fault they have these feelings, and if only they could share that with each other.
So what do we do about this? We have to get in touch with it, acknowledge it, understand it, and have empathy for it so we can lessen it’s hold on us. Tune into those tender spots in yourself. Where do you recognize you have big reactions like this? What tends to trigger it? How do we react when it’s triggered? Having this information gives us the power to change our response so we can then love ourselves better and love those closest to us better. It takes tremendous courage to take a look at ourselves and acknowledge something so vulnerable as shame. But remember, it is part of being human. But if we can look at it and understand it with compassion, we can begin to heal it. We can begin to challenge these beliefs about ourselves that just aren’t true. Because the truth really is that we are all lovable, we are all enough, simply because we exist.
To learn more about Shame and it’s impact, Brene Brown has many amazing TED talks and books that delve deeply into this topic. Some of her books include: Daring Greatly, The Gifts of Imperfection, Rising Strong and others. And if you need support, counseling can help.
Wishing you love and happiness always,
Today marks the 12th birthday of my counseling practice, LinkedIn let me know, otherwise it would have passed right by me. It’s caused me to reflect on the past 12 years.
I remember when I decided to start my counseling practice. I was newly licensed, my firstborn son was 9 months old, and it felt like time. I knew for a long time it was what I wanted, but I had no idea what I was doing. I asked my mentor a lot of questions, and he guided me along the way. I put lots of ideas on paper of how to get started and I jumped right in. I’m like that, I don’t look too long before I dive. I decide and then I go and I figure it out along the way. I knew I wanted to work with couples, but on my journey toward licensure, without private practice, there was not much opportunity to gain experience with couples, so I had to learn as I went with only my education as my guide. Phew, that was scary!
I remember asking Gary Dudell, my professor and mentor who has now passed and is dearly missed, what is the key to being successful? His answer was, Just show up. Be there. Keep your word. I realize now the wisdom of his words. I show up, I’m present, every day, not just in my practice, but in my life, the best that I can. And it really does make a huge difference. People don’t expect people to show up, really show up. Meaning to be fully emotionally present. So when someone does, and hears them, and sees them, amazing things happen. I mean, really amazing things.
I am so grateful for every single couple that has passed through my doors. What they have taught me, what they have given me, is way more then I could ever put into words. They have taught me such big things about life, love, pain, grief, healing, bravery, strength, and resiliency in ways that at times takes my breath away. I have seen what love can endure, and how love can persevere when we are willing to be brave, to show up, to be vulnerable, to walk through wounds and shame toward growth and healing. It has been more than humbling to be witness to, and it has grown me in ways I could never quantify.
Something I think about often, and it would be hard to put into words, is that every couple I encounter helps me help the couples that follow them. Because I learn from each and every one. And it makes me better to help the next. There is such a tapestry of interwoven connectedness that cannot be seen, but as the one who links these amazing people to one another, I can sort of see it and feel it, but it’s still more vast than even I can grasp. 12 years. 12 years of that. Of connecting couples not just to each other, but to the others who are struggling beside them, and they don’t even know it. It’s such a beautiful thing to be part of.
People often ask, how do you do this work? How do you sit and listen to people’s problems all day long? I admit, sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes the intense pain levels me. Especially when someone else’s pain touches my own raw pain of whatever is going on in my life at that time. But I’m not listening to “other people’s problems”, I’m in it with them. I’m journeying along side of them. They are not a burden, they are a gift. And it’s so enriching and rewarding and humbling the ways in which I am entrusted with the deeply intimate lives and stories of others. It’s a window that many don’t get to look through. And what I see is that we are more alike than we are different. We all want to be loved. We all want to be seen and accepted. We all want to know that we matter to those important others in our lives, to be known, understood and felt. We all want to know that our important others will show up for and with us. We all want to know we are irreplaceable to a special few.
My work has held a mirror up to my own humanness and it’s made me understand myself on such a deeper level in my own everyday struggles of life and love. For that I am so grateful. Because we all struggle. And at one time or another, we all need a helping hand. For someone to see us. For someone to wholly show up for us. So here’s to the next 12 years. I am going to keep showing up. I am going to continue to be present for and with the people who embark on this journey with me. I am ever thankful for getting to do this work. It grows me every single day. And the courage I see humbles and amazes me every single day.
Wishing you love and happiness always,
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,
We just completed another Hold Me Tight workshop. It has been an amazing journey to lead and present these workshops. I am in awe of the courage couples have to come to these couples weekends and give what they do in an effort to grow and save their marriage.
With each Hold Me Tight workshop, the tension, discomfort and skepticism when the group comes in is palpable. And I sit with this anxious anticipation of holding this information knowing the impact it is going to have and wanting to package it up and hand it over immediately, but I have to sit back and allow it to unfold at the necessary pace. It’s a process. And it’s amazing to observe.
I know the information is sound, it’s scientific, it resonates with everyone who learns it, there isn’t anyone who doesn’t get it when they are presented with it, whether in the workshop, or in my counseling office. But it still doesn’t cease to amaze me when I watch it work. And in such a short time, over the course of 2 days. I want everyone to have it. I want every couple to come and do this.
The first day is rough. I won’t sugar coat it. It’s the digging in and digging deep. It’s entering into the dark and painful places to draw into awareness what is happening, to identify the raw parts and make sense of them. To gain clarity on the stuck places and why they are happening. It’s raw and it’s real. And then the second day is when the healing comes. It’s identifying, ok, we know now what goes wrong….how do we fix it? And that’s where the magic happens. Just as the tension and skepticism is palpable on day one, the closeness and comfort and love and hope is equally palpable on day 2. You can see and feel the transformation in the air amongst the couples in the room. And it is such a wonderful thing to be part of. Every couple that comes through my office inspires me. I learn and I grow and I am in awe. And I am grateful.
I love that I get to do this work. I am honored by the couples who put their trust in me to guide them toward healing and bonding and reconciliation. And I continue to be inspired by the courage it takes to look inside and do this hard but wholly worthwhile work.
Jodi Clarke (my presenting partner) and I both leave these workshops feeling jubilated and proclaiming we want to do them every weekend! They are so powerful and meaningful and satisfying. I hope you’ll join us. Our next workshop is August 26th and 27th. You can get more information at www.holdmetightknoxville.com.
Wishing you love and happiness always,
Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is a science based theoretical model of therapy for couples established by Sue Johnson. It is proven to work to help over 70% of couples who complete the EFT model of therapy. It is a map and strategy for understanding love relationships and where they go wrong.
If you are thinking of attending therapy with an EFT counselor, here’s a simple adaptation of a quote by Portia Nelson, written by Katty Coffron, PhD, on the process of EFT.
We walked down the sidewalk and fell into a deep hole. We couldn’t get out and we couldn’t figure out why. I thought it must be either your fault or my fault. We never quite got out of the hole; we just somehow moved on.
We walked down the sidewalk and fell into the same deep hole. We couldn’t understand. I still thought it must be either your fault, or my fault . It was a real struggle and we realized we needed help to get out. We didn’t just move on.
We started EFT therapy. We walked down the sidewalk and fell into the same deep hole again. This time we started to understand- it wasn’t my fault and it wasn’t your fault. It was the cycle’s fault. It was a struggle to get out, but we did get out.
We continued EFT therapy. We walked down the sidewalk and fell into the same deep hole again. This time we knew- it wasn’t my fault or your fault- we were both caught by the cycle. We knew we were both hurting. We reached for each other, and we got out.
We continued EFT therapy. We walked down the sidewalk and saw the hole. We reached for each other and we walked around it. We didn’t fall into the hole.
We finished EFT therapy. We reached for each other and we chose another sidewalk.
In your relationship, you may have experienced your own black hole. There is a way out. It’s not uncommon for couples to fall into these holes and get stuck, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
It takes a lot of courage to reach out for help. Many people, especially those who have had bad experiences with standard marriage counseling in the past, may think there is no help for them. But there is. We now have science and a map to understand love relationships, how to see the holes we fall into, and learn how through creating emotional safety with one another, we can learn to better understand and communicate our hurts and needs so that we can reach for each other and find each other in a way that creates the closeness and connection we all long for.
Thank you for reading.
Wishing you love and happiness,
As I write this, I have been a marriage counselor in private practice for 12 years now. In 2010 I was introduced to the theoretical model of couples therapy called Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT). I was immediately hooked. At that time I had been working with couples for 5 years. EFT addressed everything I had been experiencing with the couples I was working with. It just made sense.
Learning about the attachment model of therapy, that we are wired for connection, and the reactions we have when we feel a disconnect or distance from our intimate partner made sense of and normalized what I had been seeing in my office every day and in my own life. EFT creates a research based map for how to help couples repair and strengthen their bond.
Since attending that training, I went on to become fully certified in the model of EFT, and then went on to become an EFT supervisor to help other therapists learn this very effective approach to helping couples. I have become so passionate about helping couples through this model and in the 7 years I have been utilizing EFT with my couples, I have seen powerful and effective transformations over and over again.
I continue to want to grow this work. So I decided to team up with my colleague and friend, Jodi Clark, to begin doing Sue Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Therapy workshops for couples. It’s a 2 day intensive workshop to help couples identify and pull out of the negative patterns they are stuck in and learn how to create intimacy and bonding on a deeper level. I attended a workshop myself as an assistant before starting our own here in Knoxville. I had expected it was going to be amazing, but even still it blew my expectations away. I witnessed 10 couples transform over the course of the 2 days. It was an amazing experience and I grew even deeper in my passion to bring these workshops to Knoxville to help our community. To heal and strengthen marriages.
This workshop is different than counseling. It’s condensed into 2 days and is more educational than therapy. You are guided through 7 intimate conversations that you will do in private just the two of you. You will have access to trained EFT therapists to come and assist you if needed.
I feel so strongly that every couple, not just struggling couples, do this workshop. Our first workshop was a great success. Leading couples through these seven conversations and watching the impact it had was immensely satisfying. I hope to get the word out to do more and more of these weekends. It is a way to reach a large group of people in a short amount of time to provide true hope and healing for struggling couples.
If you would like more information, please feel free to contact me anytime at 865-283-1777 or go to the website www.holdmetightknoxville.com
Thank you for reading.
Wishing you love and happiness,