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

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

You don’t have to fix it, you just have to be there

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.

Marital conflict: assigning blame

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,

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.

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.
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A story of healing from infidelity

In continuing my work to share stories of couples who sit on my couch, it is my goal to provide hope and encouragment out there to those who are struggling in their marriage.

Infidelity is one of the most painful and difficult challenges for a couple to work through because it pulls the floor of safety and security right out from under you. But the marriage can be restored. In fact, it can be better than before. It's been said that time heals all wounds. When it comes to infidelity, time is certainly a factor, but it's not the only one. There is work to be done in that time to restore trust, emotional safety and connection to the relationship. Time alone won't solve those problems.

This story is about a young couple I'll call Tom and Suzanne (fictitious names, of course). Suzanne had lost her father at a young age which left her feeling abandoned. She grew up never having felt "good enough". When she married Tom, she had a lot of insecurities and needed a lot of approval. Because of this she avoided conflict like the plague. She was afraid if Tom got upset with her, he would abandon her. He would see the qualities that she saw in herself and he would not want to be with her any longer. Because of this fear, she manipulated herself to please him, never really being authentic. As some years past, she felt a loss of her sense of self.

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A marriage counseling success story

 

This is the first in a series I am starting. The series is going to involve couples stories. Some of them will be success stories, and some of them not. But each of them will give you a glimpse into what other couples struggle with. I think you'll find that you are not alone in your own struggles. I hope that from reading these stories, you find insight into your own marriage and how to make improvements. These stories come from my experiences in counseling couples. In my 4 years of practice, I have treated over four hundred couples. To protect the confidentiality of those involved, names are not used. I will also leave out certain details or edit parts of the story so that the couple cannot be identified and confidentiality is maintained.

Remember to like my facebook page, follow me on Twitter or Linkedin, or subscribe to my rss feed so that you can keep up with the series.
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