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
These are hard times for all of us! Many of us are sheltered in and feeling the strain. It is likely that you are spending a lot of time with your spouse right now, but just because 2 people are in the same house, or even the same room, does not necessarily mean they are feeling connected.
So how can you stay connected to one another during this difficult time?
Here are some in home “date” ideas to keep your relationship thriving during this time of being sheltered in.
After the kids are asleep, have a candle light dinner together. If the weather is nice, have it on the front or back porch for added romance (and for even more added romance, take time to dress up).
Start a new show together.
Soak in a hot bath together (candles are good here too!).
Take time to check out of electronics. Turn the phones, TVs and computers off.
Do a home workout together.
Do yoga for couples.
Go for a walk. Or a run.
Play a card game, board game or maybe some heads up using the app on your phone.
Share what you are grateful for.
Have an afternoon picnic in the yard.
Paint together using art instructional videos online (a sort of painting with a twist, with an extra twist!)
Do your own book club for 2. Pick a book to read and then share your thoughts and reactions with one another.
This can be a time to explore sexuality. There are online resources for tantric sex or Kama sutra. Explore with one another.
Finish an at home project together that you just haven’t had time to complete.
Turn some music on and dance together, slow or fast, whatever you’re in the mood for. You can even make some videos for the rest of us on facebook!
Write random love notes to each other.
Cook a nice meal or try a new recipe together.
Hold each other and share what you are feeling in all of this. Let your partner know you are there, they are not alone. Find ways to comfort and reassure each other as you go through this.
This can be a time of deep intimate connection with your partner, keep turning toward one another and finding ways to stay engaged and connected. We all need more of that right now.
And if you are struggling, we are here. We are offering therapy online to couples. It may seem strange at first, but we have had great success counseling couples through telehealth and research shows that it is a very effective means of therapy. And our couples are finding in some ways they like it better! So please don’t hesitate to reach out if you need support. You can reach us at 865-283-1777.
Wishing you love and happiness always,
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,
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.
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.
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.
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
Today marks the 12th birthday of my counseling practice, LinkedIn let me know, otherwise it would have passed right by me. It’s caused me to reflect on the past 12 years.
I remember when I decided to start my counseling practice. I was newly licensed, my firstborn son was 9 months old, and it felt like time. I knew for a long time it was what I wanted, but I had no idea what I was doing. I asked my mentor a lot of questions, and he guided me along the way. I put lots of ideas on paper of how to get started and I jumped right in. I’m like that, I don’t look too long before I dive. I decide and then I go and I figure it out along the way. I knew I wanted to work with couples, but on my journey toward licensure, without private practice, there was not much opportunity to gain experience with couples, so I had to learn as I went with only my education as my guide. Phew, that was scary!
I remember asking Gary Dudell, my professor and mentor who has now passed and is dearly missed, what is the key to being successful? His answer was, Just show up. Be there. Keep your word. I realize now the wisdom of his words. I show up, I’m present, every day, not just in my practice, but in my life, the best that I can. And it really does make a huge difference. People don’t expect people to show up, really show up. Meaning to be fully emotionally present. So when someone does, and hears them, and sees them, amazing things happen. I mean, really amazing things.
I am so grateful for every single couple that has passed through my doors. What they have taught me, what they have given me, is way more then I could ever put into words. They have taught me such big things about life, love, pain, grief, healing, bravery, strength, and resiliency in ways that at times takes my breath away. I have seen what love can endure, and how love can persevere when we are willing to be brave, to show up, to be vulnerable, to walk through wounds and shame toward growth and healing. It has been more than humbling to be witness to, and it has grown me in ways I could never quantify.
Something I think about often, and it would be hard to put into words, is that every couple I encounter helps me help the couples that follow them. Because I learn from each and every one. And it makes me better to help the next. There is such a tapestry of interwoven connectedness that cannot be seen, but as the one who links these amazing people to one another, I can sort of see it and feel it, but it’s still more vast than even I can grasp. 12 years. 12 years of that. Of connecting couples not just to each other, but to the others who are struggling beside them, and they don’t even know it. It’s such a beautiful thing to be part of.
People often ask, how do you do this work? How do you sit and listen to people’s problems all day long? I admit, sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes the intense pain levels me. Especially when someone else’s pain touches my own raw pain of whatever is going on in my life at that time. But I’m not listening to “other people’s problems”, I’m in it with them. I’m journeying along side of them. They are not a burden, they are a gift. And it’s so enriching and rewarding and humbling the ways in which I am entrusted with the deeply intimate lives and stories of others. It’s a window that many don’t get to look through. And what I see is that we are more alike than we are different. We all want to be loved. We all want to be seen and accepted. We all want to know that we matter to those important others in our lives, to be known, understood and felt. We all want to know that our important others will show up for and with us. We all want to know we are irreplaceable to a special few.
My work has held a mirror up to my own humanness and it’s made me understand myself on such a deeper level in my own everyday struggles of life and love. For that I am so grateful. Because we all struggle. And at one time or another, we all need a helping hand. For someone to see us. For someone to wholly show up for us. So here’s to the next 12 years. I am going to keep showing up. I am going to continue to be present for and with the people who embark on this journey with me. I am ever thankful for getting to do this work. It grows me every single day. And the courage I see humbles and amazes me every single day.
Wishing you love and happiness always,