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
I was interviewed today by Emily Heird of Knoxville Counseling Services regarding tips for couples navigating this difficult time. And we got an interesting visitor. 🙂
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. 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,
Agreement and validation are not the same thing. Partners often need validation, but what if we disagree? This is a common stuck place for couples. I want you to hear me, to validate my experience. But what if I disagree with you? Validation does not mean agreement.
Here is a fictitious example: Bob grew up in the home of a very poor family and they never knew where the next meal was going to come from. He experienced what it was like to go without food, sometimes for many days. The lack of food can be a very alarming experience for him. Becky normally did the grocery shopping and on a particularly busy week, she didn’t get a chance to go and the fridge was rather empty. Becky doesn’t understand why Bob is upset. To her, this is not a big deal. To him, it sets off alarm bells and feels like a big deal. They don’t need to agree. But if Becky tunes in, she can validate that it’s a big deal to Bob from his perspective without agreeing that it’s a big deal.
When we understand someone’s story, we can understand their fears, pain and reactions.
If we give each other enough safe space to process feelings and reactions to a situation, we can then understand and validate it, even if we see it differently.
Our wounds, life experiences, personality, history and beliefs together shape how we perceive the world. If I only look through my own window, how could I possibly understand the view from your window. Of course the view from my window looks different. This is why it’s important to take a moment to look through each other’s window, to see what the other sees. This makes us feel with, understood, it makes us feel closer, safer, and loved.
Wishing you love and happiness always,
When most people think of something that is a threat to their relationship, they may automatically think attractive members of the opposite sex or affairs. But that is not the only thing that can threaten a relationship.
When couples come in for counseling, often times issues may surround many different things like work, hobbies, friendships (both same sex and opposite sex) and it can be confusing why these things are an issue.
For example, a husband works 60 hours a week and then has an avid golf hobby that he engages in on Saturdays and Sunday and he’s gone for hours. Or maybe he likes to ride his motorcycle on Saturdays and is gone most of the day. His wife gets really upset at this and becomes critical or seemingly controlling of the time that he needs to decompress from his work week.
Or maybe it’s a wife who has a really close relationship with her mother and it bothers the husband that her mother is more of a confidant for her than he is. He may complain that she is on the phone with her mother for hours and it really bothers him. She struggles to comprehend this because it’s her mother and they are close and what could possibly be wrong with that.
Or maybe it’s one partners job, they are passionate about their work and dedicate a lot of time and energy toward it to the point the other partner feels resentful.
What is going on in these scenarios? How are these seemingly innocent things a threat to the relationship?
They are threats to connection and closeness, as well as to a partners feeling of being important, not a priority more than it is about the thing itself. When this is the case, the threat can be literally anything if it ends up leaving your partner feeling unimportant, ignored, second place, neglected or something that results in your partners needs for closeness and connection not being met. When we can understand that it is that music that’s playing underneath the conflict then we can address it in a different way.
It’s important to realize that the issue is coming up because you are important and special to your partner, and they want to feel important and special to you. It’s rarely because they want to control you or rob you of joy, although their reactive behavior can sometimes look like that.
So what do we do when this kind of conflict is happening in your relationship? It’s important to address it from a place of compassion and realize that it’s driven by hurt and fear and longing to be close, important and connected. Seek to understand why your partner isn’t feeling safely and securely connected to you. The answer does not lie in giving up other important aspects, activities or relationships in your life to appease your partner. For one it wouldn’t really work in helping your partner feel more secure, but it would also lead to resentment for giving up things that matter to you. So it’s important to get to the root and find a way to reassure your partner that they have a special number 1 place with you. And to work at balancing your time, attention and affection with them and other things that matter to you in your life. Often times there are other root issues that need to be addressed to get back into safe, secure connection with each other. That’s where marriage counseling can help.
If you find yourself stuck in these negative patterns with one another and aren’t sure how to break out of them, don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help from an Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist.
Wishing you love and happiness,