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

Can you even do couples counseling online?

Absolutely! Not only can couples counseling be done online, it can be very effective and has many benefits if you follow a few simple suggestions.

This is a time of uncertainty for all of us. A time like this can be very stressful for couples and families, especially with everyone staying close to home for long periods of time. It can put undue stress and strain on relationships. Given that it is safer for all of us to be at home, many private practice therapists are moving their counseling practice to teletherapy, or what I like to call virtual couples counseling.
Having a therapist to work with and support you during this time can help you manage relationship stress, and even draw closer and more connected at a time that can cause couples to be distant, conflict ridden, and disconnected.

Here are some tips for successful online couples therapy.
Be sure to have a secluded, private space to have your session. For some couples with kids, that might mean a bedroom closet or the car! Hey that’s okay, whatever works! You may also ask your therapist if they can offer you an appointment time that is early in the morning, or later in the evening when your kids are more likely to be asleep.

Be sure that you are sitting at least 2 feet from the computer screen so that your therapist can see both of you clearly. Ensure that you have a good internet connection, a good camera and microphone. Good working cameras and microphones can be purchased through Amazon for as little as $30.

Your therapist will have a secure HIPAA compliant platform to conduct the couples online therapy session. Most are very simple and easy to set up and use. It can be helpful to ask your couples therapist to do a quick 2 minute test virtual video call with you prior to your session time so you can feel comfortable and confident with how it works.

We are all figuring out how to get through this strange time together. Don’t let being safe at home keep you from seeking therapy for your relationship if you are struggling or in need.
Survival of any difficulty, pandemic or otherwise, is greater when we are connected to one another. We are stronger together.

Please feel free to reach out to us at Healing Hearts Counseling if you are in need of online couples counseling. You can reach us at 865-283-1777, our counselors are waiting by their computers to serve you!
Wishing you health and happiness always,
Dana

Relationships and learning to ski

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!

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

 

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.

How to navigate difficult conversations with your partner

Welcoming new writer, Hannah Rose! She has provided a guest post for our site. Wishing you love and happiness always! ~Dana

No relationship is without its challenges. Conflict is inevitable to growth as a couple, because how else are you supposed to learn and be better? However, it’s important to approach heated situations with a clear head before things escalate to an unnecessarily foul dispute that could put your entire relationship on the line. It might be hard to believe, but conflict can be a good thing — but only if you are able to manage it well.

When navigating these tough terrains, know when to draw the line. Bickering is normal, but Bustle cautions that it can also be indicative of underlying toxic issues in your relationship. That said, couples should be able to address all these and ideally, emerge stronger together.

Here are some ways to help keep your relationship out of a war zone when under the pressure of a difficult conversation.

Face the problem head-on

First things first: resist the urge to sweep your problems under a metaphorical rug. They will only come back as dust bunnies with a vengeance. If there is something about your relationship that keeps bothering you and you know there’s potential for it to grow bigger, don’t hide it. Be open about the problem with your partner. Love Bondings states that this openness is crucial in establishing trust. And when you both know how the other thinks and feels about certain issues, there is more honesty and freedom — thus making your relationship easier to maintain.

Stay calm

When you’re lost in the heat of the moment, it can be tempting to raise your voice and unleash all hell. However, people are more susceptible to saying things they don’t mean when they let anger get the best of them. The Independent warns against throwing out statements like “You are too emotional” and “I hate you.” These are huge red flags that will be difficult for your partner to forgive and forget later on. If you feel yourself starting to take things a little more personally than you should be, hit pause and take a breather. This can range from just 15 minutes to three days — whatever time you need. Your partner will appreciate this more than your quick, dagger-shaped words.

Listen

Another important point to remember is to never invalidate your partner’s feelings. You never get to decide where and when you hurt someone. You might not have intended to do so, but trying to make excuses and lessening the blame on you will only make your partner feel bad for having feelings they can’t control. Listen to what they have to say. Take the time to ask questions so you can understand them better, and show them that you genuinely do.

Pick your battles

Fights are highly emotional, and it’s likely you’ll try to grasp at whatever defenses you can, no matter if they’re even related to the topic. Make sure you stay on the same page always — never adding other unnecessary ingredients to the mix. Be as objective as you can and know that you can be wrong. Some simple topics like arguing over your partner’s choice of clothing can actually be pettier than you think, so don’t bother trying to be right for the sake of being right. According to Pretty Me, dress codes remain a topic of question in many workplaces and beyond. This is for you to gauge if you want to let it bleed over to your relationship. But remember that you are their partner, not parent. This goes for other issues, like trying to police how often your partner goes out with their friends.

“Sorry” is the key word

A previous post on Marriage Counseling Knoxville puts a spotlight on the dangers of the blame game, but this is nothing that can’t be combatted by a genuine apology. When apologizing, there should be no “ifs” and “buts” or putting the burden on your partner. Phrases like “I’m sorry you felt that way” are a big no-no because it lessens your own accountability. Instead, simply starting with “I’m sorry for…” or “I feel really bad about…” immediately expresses your own regret over the situation.

Post solely for the use of MarriageCounselingKnoxville.com

By: Hannah Rose