The surprising benefits of not knowing your partner

There’s been a lot written about how this pandemic is affecting marriages and relationships. Through all of that, one thing has stood out to me more than anything else. I have to be honest. “I think one of the things that I’ve realized is that I don’t know Will at all.” Actor Jada Pinkett Smith said of her relationship with fellow actor Will Smith on her show ‘Red Table Talk.’ They were married in 1997, and here she is saying she doesn’t know her husband. That sounded incredibly painful to me. I know how much myself, the people I work with, and just people in general, want to be known deeply by an important other.

I thought I knew where the story was going, but what she said next was not what I expected.
“I feel like there’s a layer that you get to, life gets busy and you create these stories in your head, and
then you hold onto these stories and that is your idea of your partner; that’s not who your partner is,”
she said.

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
really “over.”

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

Remembering love’s everyday gifts

Valentine’s Day often conjures up images of grand gestures and big gifts as people try their hardest to show their love to one another. While these are often beautiful and meaningful themselves, it can also be helpful to remember the small, everyday gifts we’re capable of providing to our partner. These are the things that help keep you connected on a daily basis, through the ups and downs, and it can be helpful to think of those to stay more connected to your partner.

One reason we can all have trouble with this, is we can lose sight of just how much of an impact we have on our partner, especially as time goes by in our relationship. Partners actually become exquisitely attuned to one another. Just a look or a touch from one another can be incredibly soothing and comforting. Research shows us that we are not wired to go through life alone, and it can often be the small things that signal to your partner that you are emotionally accessible and responsive. If we truly knew how much some of the little things meant, we would probably do them more.  You do have the power to impact your partner and help them feel loved and cherished, and you can choose to embrace it and harness it.

If you’d like to try, here’s some things to consider. It is important to let your partner guide you toward how they feel most loved, comforted, or soothed. Talk to them about the small acts of love and kindness that matter most to them, and be willing to share your own. The answers might surprise you! Loving your partner how they like to be loved, rather than based on our own preference, makes the impact even greater.  If you or your partner are unsure where to start, here are a few small ways you can show your partner love, no matter the day, based on things I often hear couples talk about in therapy. Get creative and see how you can take these ideas and make them your own, or use them as a jumping off point to find your own ideas.

1. Honoring reunions and goodbyes – Make it a point to slow down and take a moment with one another when you leave each other for the day and when you return. As we leave, we carry that sense of love with us through the day, and it makes us stronger. When we get home and are acknowledged by our partner, it reminds us how much we matter, that we’re not just one of the many other people and things in the word, but instead that we fill a special role in our partner’s world.

2. Non-sexual touch – This kind of touch, which can be as small as gently touching your partner’s shoulder as you walk by, can signal to your partner your appreciation and care for them as a person. This is a way of touching that doesn’t ask anything in return but simply provide a moment of emotional contact. What happens in the bedroom can also be an incredibly important expression of love and affection, but these other opportunities for touch can be just as important a way of communicating care and tenderness.

3. Listening well – In trainings, we therapists are sometimes asked to listen to one another and refrain from asking any questions or providing any feedback. Our job is simply to listen and reflect back what we’re hearing. I am always still struck by how it feels be to heard in that way – without an agenda or judgement. Just to understand. Of course we are not always going to be in that sort of mode. That’s not real life. But we can try to take key moments to listen with our whole hearts. Remember, you don’t necessarily have to fix your partner’s problems. Just having someone genuinely listen can be a powerful antidote to the stresses of life.

4. Providing recognition – Your partner may actually already be doing a number of “small things” intended to show love, care, or support that go unnoticed. For many people, it means the world for their partner to acknowledge their efforts. Without it, people can feel like their contribution doesn’t really matter or that whatever they do will never be enough. This doesn’t mean anything nice your partner does has to be met with groveling gratitude. A few words, expressed intentionally and lovingly often suffices. A little acknowledgement can go a long way!

 

Wishing you love and happiness on this Valetine’s Day,

Clay Culp, Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist at Healing Hearts Counseling

Violence in Relationships

Violence in relationships, this is a tricky topic to discuss on a blog. I want to be sure to first and foremost say, violence is never okay. But if we are going to stop relationship violence, we have to understand it.

There are 2 different types of relationship violence. The first is domestic terrorism. That is when one partner aims to control and manipulate the other more vulnerable partner. If you are in this situation, it is of utmost importance to get a safety plan in place. You can contact 800-356-6767 (TN) which is the Tennessee Domestic Violence helpline. This is not the type of violence I am addressing in this blog. 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!

Dana

How to understand anger

Anger is often seen as a bad emotion, something we shouldn’t feel or express. It has a bad rap, and understandably so. It can often scare us, push people we care about away from us, it can scare those we love, it can leave us feeling shame that we get to that point. And at times we may even feel bewildered by our own intense reactivity. Where is it coming from? Why is it there? Why does it at times feel out of control? There may also be fears if we let ourselves express it, it can and will lead to irrevocable actions.

But let’s explore what’s really happening when we are angry.

Anger can be empowering. It’s how we stand up for ourselves when we feel wronged in some way.

Anger can be a call to be heard. When we feel small, or unseen, anger becomes a protest that says, “Hear me! See me!”.

Sometimes anger can be a release of many other emotions that have been suppressed  for too long. The proverbial pot boiling over.

Anger can be shame coming to life. A moment when we feel judged or seen as bad, or feel bad about ourselves and it’s being called out.  Our anger is a defense to guard against our own fears of who we really are.

Anger can be a protest against disconnection. A call to a loved other to respond when it seems they are distant or don’t care. It can be a fight for the relationship, a call for change toward more love and closeness.

As we look at and understand the meaning behind the anger, we can see that it has a deeper, important purpose. It is driving us toward something if we can tune in and listen to what it’s trying to say. What need isn’t being met that anger is calling for?

If we can understand the need, what is behind the anger, we can start to calm it and direct it in a more effective way toward getting those needs met. Or maybe there is a deep wound that needs tending to and healing.

If you are finding that anger is hurting you and your relationships, counseling can help process and make sense of what is underneath.

We are here to help.

Wishing you love and happiness always,

Dana

Affairs aren’t the only threats to a relationship

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,

Dana

 

Helping couples heal

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,

Dana

The damage of dismissing

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,

Dana

P.S. For more marriage enrichment, visit www.holdmetightknoxville.com and learn about our upcoming weekend workshops for couples.

The EFT process of getting unstuck from the cycle

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.

Chapter 1
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.

Chapter 2
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.

Chapter 3
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.

Chapter 4
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.

Chapter 5
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.

Chapter 6
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,

Dana

The Dance


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

On the brink of divorce, how they recovered

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.
Read More