Intimacy, Marriage Counseling, Premarital, Relationships, San Diego Counseling, Solutions

Relationship Killers

San Diego Couples Therapy

Today we’re going to talk about four habits that can weaken your relationship and even tear it apart. These are taken from the work of Dr. John Gottman, a man with over 40 years of research into what makes relationships succeed or fail. I was fortunate enough to train with Dr. Gottman and his wife Dr. Julie Gottman, and as a Marriage and Family Therapist, their work is groundbreaking. They call these four relationships habits “The Four Horsemen.” I call them relationship killers. So let’s talk about what they are and how to interact with your partner in a more productive way.

The first habit is Criticism. Criticism sounds like “you always” or “you never.” It makes a negative statement about the other person’s character in a way that makes them feel personally under attack. Let’s say your spouse is responsible for managing some of the bills, and he forgets to pay the cable company. You get a collections call, and you are upset. Criticism would say something like “Why are you always forgetting to pay this bill?? I can’t trust you with the simplest thing. Honestly, I think you would forget your own head if it weren’t attached to your body!” Ouch. Chances are, your partner’s reaction to this is not going to be good. They may be defensive, angry, guilty, or feel verbally put down. You have a valid complaint, because bills have to be paid on time. But instead of sharing your concern without blame or personal attack, you have come at your partner with guns blazing. A way to handle the situation in a healthier way might be to say something like, “I got a collection call today from the cable company. The bill wasn’t paid as we agreed. Can we talk about how to handle this better? It makes me feel really uncomfortable when bills aren’t paid on time.” You express your complaint, which is a valid one, but without Criticism.

The second habit is Defensiveness, which can sometimes be the other side of Criticism, or it can be part of your interaction all on its own. Defensiveness sounds like “It’s not my fault the bill was late! The bank didn’t post my transfer on time. It’s their fault!” Defensiveness is making excuses, to protect yourself from a perceived attack. It’s meeting a complaint with a cross-complaint. “You didn’t pay the cable bill” is met with “Yeah, well YOU forgot to take out the garbage again!” Defensiveness gets you nowhere. An alternative to defensiveness is to take a deep breath and listen to what your partner is saying. If they are not saying it perfectly, try to listen for the meaning behind their words. Ask for clarification, and really listen with the goal of understanding where they are coming from. If you own part of the problem, take responsibility for your role in it and then work together to move on to solutions.

Third, we have one of the most insidious relationship killers, and that’s Contempt. Contempt is ugly and it hurts. Sometimes it’s used to hurt on purpose. Contempt is a form of attack – it’s attacking your partner’s sense of self with insults, superiority, eye-rolling, name-calling, sneering, mockery, and humor that is used in a hostile way. In Dr. John Gottman’s research over four decades, he found contempt to be the #1 predictor of divorce. Contempt shows that you feel disgust for your partner, and it can be poisonous enough to not only destroy your relationship, but studies are showing that it can have a detrimental effect on your physical health as well. Contempt usually comes from longstanding resentments against a partner. Working together to set ground rules for communication and arguments, and beginning to build an environment of respect and appreciation can help resolve contempt.

Finally, we have Stonewalling. One partner shuts down. They withdraw, tune out, suddenly become “busy,” change the subject, turn on the Silent Treatment, or they leave the room. Stonewalling generally comes from feeling what we call “Flooded.” The person who is stonewalling is actually feeling completely overwhelmed, and they withdraw as the only available option to self-soothe. When your partner is stonewalling, you may feel rejected, ignored, or as if your partner doesn’t care enough to continue to work through an argument. So, here is the way to handle stonewalling. The partner who shuts down has to learn to recognize the signs of stonewalling, such as an increase in heart rate, and know that it’s okay to say “I am feeling flooded right now. Can we take a break, and return to this in an hour?” Then use that time to calm down, to walk, to find a healthy distraction. Chances are if both partners can approach stonewalling in this way, they will come back to the interaction feeling more calm and clearheaded.

So, the next time you find yourself in a difficult conversation with your partner, notice which of these relationship killers are present, and work together on how you can resolve them for good. It might take a lot of practice to learn to consistently use new relationship tools, but it is worth it. If you find yourself stuck in old patterns, reach out to a qualified couples therapist in your area to work with you both and help restore your healthy connection.

 

 

Anxiety, Communication, Family Ties, Intimacy, Marriage Counseling, Mental Health, Relationships, San Diego Counseling, San Diego Therapist, Solutions, Stress, Support, Therapy

When Your Partner Has a Mental Illness

Mental illness can happen to anyone. Conditions like bipolar disorder, depression, or severe anxiety don’t discriminate. What can you do if it is your partner or spouse who is mentally ill? How can you support them and still keep yourself together?

Mental illness can have an overwhelming effect on a marriage or committed relationship. Whether or not the relationship can survive depends a great deal on how you deal with your partner’s mental illness. This video will provide you with some ideas for ways to cope.

1. Educate yourself about the illness. Learn everything you can about what your partner is experiencing, along with treatments, triggers, and prognosis. Knowledge is power, at a time when you may be feeling completely helpless. Learning about the illness will help you know what to expect and enable you to be a member of your partner’s treatment team. I will put some resources in the downbar to help you get started.

2. Realize that you cannot fix your mentally ill partner’s mental illness. You did not cause the illness, and you can’t make it go away. Your partner is the only person who  can make the decision to follow treatment. Encourage and support your partner’s efforts, but it’s important to accept that he or she must make and follow through with their own decisions.

3. Avoid blaming your spouse or partner. Just as you wouldn’t express hostility or anger if your partner were struggling with a physical illness, people with mental illnesses don’t choose to be that way. Symptoms of mental illness can appear to be laziness, avoidance, or lack of consistency. It’s hard not to take those symptoms personally.

4. Feelings of frustration, sadness, and even anger are normal for you to experience. This may not be anything like the relationship you had hoped to have. Your mental health is important right now also. Finding a way to express your feelings safely, like to a trusted friend or a counselor, can help you validate and process what you are going through.

5. While taking care of your mental health, it’s important to take care of yourself physically, as well. First, be sure you are sleeping, eating, seeing friends, and participating in your own activities as much as you can. Second, there are some mental illnesses which can cause the person to act out in verbally or even physically abusive ways when they are in the midst of a crisis. Keep yourself and your children safe from harm, above all.

6. Reach out to others who understand. There are groups for partners of people diagnosed with mental illness, both in person and on the internet. Sometimes just speaking with someone who has been there and understands what you are going through can be an enormous help.  Don’t let stigma or shame prevent you from seeking the support you need.

Mental illness can be very difficult for couples and families to deal with. Remember that in most cases there is effective treatment available, and support for you as well. In every committed relationship, couples face hurdles and this is a big one. At the same time, there is always hope that symptoms can be managed and the two of you can face this hurdle successfully, together. Not all couples are able to weather the storm of mental illness – it can tear families apart. But it’s always worth a try, and you may find yourselves with a stronger bond when you make it to the other side.

Communication, Family of Origin, Family Ties, Marriage Counseling, Mental Health, Parenting, Relationships, San Diego Counseling, San Diego Therapist, Saying Goodbye, Solutions, Therapy

Parental Alienation Syndrome

PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME

When a couple with children makes the decision to end their relationship, the effect on their children can be profound.  How the parents manage this major life change can determine the difference between a positive outcome for the children, or years of prolonged struggle.

Parental Alienation Syndrome refers to an active campaign to turn a child against the other parent. I have heard it termed brainwashing – it is damaging to everyone involved. In my work with families, I have rarely seen behavior this extreme. But I have seen families struggle with negative feelings between the parents spilling over onto the children – even without meaning to.

In cases of divorce or breakup, there can be animosity between the ex-partners. Even when they start out committed to remaining friends or ensuring that the children are untouched by the breakdown of their relationship, this is not always easy to accomplish. Ideally, when a relationship ends, the children’s interests are put first. When the parents move on, even remarry, it is possible for this new, expanded family system to be a thriving and healthy environment for the children. I have seen it in my practice in working with families.  It takes effort and commitment on everyone’s part, and sadly, it doesn’t always work out this way, especially in the first years following a breakup.

Issues like custody, visitation, and child support can become very heated. The ages and maturity of the kids plays an important part, as well as the type of home each parent can offer. By home, I don’t mean luxury or extravagance, I mean that the child knows that he or she has a welcome spot in each parent’s home, and in their life, and that they are cherished, understood, and cared for. They need to know they matter, and that they can trust their parent to still be a parent.

Children were probably witnesses to the breakdown of the parents’ relationship, and they may have developed a sense of who was at fault. As parents, it is not our role to trash talk the other parent, or attempt to turn the child against them. What we can do is try our best to separate marital issues from parenting. If a “good guy/bad guy” scenario exists for the child,  both parents have to first become aware of their behavior, their words, and even their body language. Notice if there are any ways they are contributing to parental alienation. Even if your partner was a lousy wife or husband, they may still be a great parent to the kids, and again, this is what matters most.

So, what if a parent is not such a great mom or dad to the kids? When is it parental alienation and when is the child’s reluctance to be with a parent justified? In his extensive work on Parental Alienation, Dr. Richard Gardner states that if “true parental abuse and / or neglect is present” and the child’s animosity is justified, Parental Alienation Syndrome would not be an appropriate explanation for the children’s feelings. In other words, if the child has feelings of animosity toward a parent who is abusive or neglectful, those feelings may be justified.  Even then there is hope for repairing the parent-child relationship, if the parent who lacks parenting skills or has emotional issues is committed to getting help. If not, again, the child’s welfare is what matters.

Divorced parents need to understand that loving both parents is important whenever possible, even if they have ceased to love their ex-spouse or ex-partner. When one parent repeatedly belittles the other parent, or consistently brings the child into discussions of their faults or the reasons for the relationship breakdown, this can be called Parental Alienation Syndrome. Even if the faults are true, this is not appropriate for our children. Any behavior which is intended to disrupt the relationship between child and parent may be considered alienation. As I mentioned earlier, if there is neglect or abuse, this is an entirely different issue – if the child is frightened, unsafe, ignored, or subjected to harmful behavior, then custody and visitation may need to be adjusted for the child’s well-being. Being a parent is a privilege, and we owe our children our very best parenting regardless of how we feel about our ex-partner.

I hope this very brief overview of Parental Alienation gives you an idea of what it is, and what it isn’t. If this is an issue in your life, I encourage you to explore parental alienation and reach out for support for yourself and your children, if needed.

Video on Parental Alienation Syndrome is here: http://youtu.be/aGkJ5l0Z82s

Communication, Family Ties, Intimacy, Marriage Counseling, Mental Health, Relationships, San Diego Counseling, San Diego Therapist, Solutions, Stress, Support, Therapy, Toolkit

How to Repair Damaged Trust

There are a number of ways trust can be damaged in a relationship. The first thing that comes to mind might be infidelity, but there are a number of ways partners can betray one another. Abusing drugs or alcohol, gambling or overspending money, lying about how you spend your time, not being reliable or consistent, or not keeping your word…all of those things can affect your partner’s ability to feel comfortable trusting you. The good news is, in many cases broken trust can be repaired. It does take absolute commitment on the part of both partners, especially the one who has betrayed the other. In this article, I will give you a few tips on ways you can rebuild trust in your relationship, even if it has been damaged.

Number one – APOLOGIZE: It is vital that you be able to sincerely and wholeheartedly apologize to your partner. Your apology should contain no excuses or defenses, nor should it be an attempt to minimize the issue. If your actions have resulted in damage to your relationship, accept full responsibility for your part in that. Anything less will make it harder to rebuild. Express your regret for your actions, and your commitment to whatever it takes not to repeat them.

The second tip is TRANSPARENCY. Regaining trust and helping your partner through grief and anger requires perhaps more openness than you have ever show, and a whole set of new rules. It might mean sharing computer passwords, cutting off contact with toxic friends or someone with whom you have had an affair, call or text a couple of times a day, be open about bank and credit card statements, and show up where you say you will be, on time. You and your partner can discuss what kind of transparency is needed, depending on your circumstances. The key to transparency is your willingness to be this open, for the greater good of your relationship.

Third, be willing to COMMUNICATE. Your partner may need to know what exactly happened, and why, as part of his or her efforts to accept it, trust that it won’t happen again, and eventually move on. I don’t mean spending every waking moment discussing the event that damaged the trust between you. But I do mean a commitment to honesty and an understanding of your partner’s confusion and need to make sense of things. These kind of discussions can be delicate, maybe even feeling like you are walking through a mine field.

You may benefit from the help of a couples therapist to help mediate such a discussion, and help you open up the lines of communication about difficult topics, so that they can be discussed in a productive way.

Finally, BE PATIENT: When trying to earn back your partner’s trust, the most common pitfall is not being patient enough. It will take time, maybe more time than you expect, for your partner to move past a major lie or an infidelity. You can’t control how long this will take, and there may be times when you want to say “Get over it and trust me again.” Please don’t. Stay consistent and reliable, and this more than anything will help your relationship heal. Keep following through, show your partner how you have changed and that you are in it for the long term.

On rough days, ask your partner what you can do to help. Express your own needs, as well – it takes both parties commitment to heal and move forward to a healthier place.

With time, patience, and consistent action you will likely walk away with a stronger relationship than you could have imagined. If needed, again, reach out to a trained couples therapist to offer a safe place to explore difficult emotions.

Thank you for visiting, and I welcome your comments below – has your relationship been affected by trust issues? How did you recover?