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 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?

Communication, Intimacy, Relationships, Self Esteem, Therapy

Overcoming Insecurity and Self-Doubt

Doubting is a natural human response to any unfamiliar situation. But self-doubt is about ourselves. Self-doubt is a fear of being judged, or making a mistake. Feeling insecure or not as good as others can negatively effect your relationships, your work, and your ability to enjoy your life to the fullest.

Self-doubt has its roots in our past experiences and what we have learned from them.  Infants don’t come with thoughts like: “I am not good enough to do this.”

As we grew up, making decisions, we receive information from the environment and those around us. We go through many experiences and have contact with friends, family, fellow students or co-workers, etc. Everyone we interact with leaves us with some type of imprint. Some of that imprint is supportive and encouraging. Some of it isn’t.

In addition, some people seem to be more able to shrug negative experiences and interactions off. They are affected by them, but they remain intact and grounded in who they are and their sense of self-worth. Others find themselves deeply affected by difficult people and situations, and they may find their sense of self and confidence suffers as a result.

This can be the place where self-doubt and fear of making mistakes begins, from other people’s expectations of us and sometimes even their criticism of us when we’ve made mistakes.

The information that was not encouraging and supportive in our learning is the root of our self-doubt. Many of us, in part because of the external responses we have received throughout our lives, may feel self doubt or insecurity. This type of negative self-perception tends to feed upon itself. We begin to see the world in terms of experiences that solidify that perception that we are not good enough. You may feel it becomes more and more difficult to assert yourself, feel confident, or roll with the punches of everyday life without allowing them to tear down your sense of self.

A negative self-image can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, a self-doubting mindset can set us up to fail. Most of the time the core emotion underneath self-doubt is fear.

However, there are some steps we can take to minimize, or even eliminate, this negative cycle.

1. The first decision we make is to acknowledge our self-doubt and fear. In doing this we must call it what it is.

For example, when you feel afraid about an experience or decision, don’t label the feeling as nervousness or anxiety. It’s fear. Once you have acknowledged it, you can set about to find practical methods to deal with it.

2. Secondly, once we have labeled the fear and self-doubt we will want to examine it more closely.

“How much self-doubt and fear am I actually experiencing? On a scale from one to ten, with ten being the highest possible fear, how would I rate this feeling?”

How does feeling this fear benefit you? I know that probably sounds like an odd question, but when we have a personality tendency or a belief that limits you, typically those start as a coping mechanism of some sort. How do insecurity or self doubt serve you? Do they keep you from taking risk and possibly being hurt or embarrassed? Acknowledging both the pros and cons of any behavior that you want to change will help you succeed in making healthy changes.

3. The other side of examining thoughts that feed self-doubt is challenging those thoughts. As I have mentioned in several videos – thoughts are just thoughts. Feelings are just feelings. They are not necessarily facts. Giving thoughts and feelings the power of fact can rob you of any sense of self control or efficacy. You become a victim of your thoughts and feelings, which may have no basis in fact. Examining thoughts and feelings for truth can help you dismantle ways of reacting which have not been helpful for you.

4. Next, ask yourself how your life would change if you no longer felt held back by insecurity or self doubt? What would you feel? What would you be able to do? Now – give one of those things a try. Let’s say you’d like to go back to school, but you have convinced yourself that you are not smart enough or that you can’t see it through. Realizing that this is a fear is the first step. Next, challenging the assumption that you are going to fail shows you that while you can probably imagine that scenario, there may be little if any truth in it.  Now that you have dismantled this assumption a bit, decide on a step you can take toward change. Sign up for a class, for example. Give yourself a chance to succeed, and practice positive thoughts that you can and will make it.

These are some ideas to help you confront negative perceptions and fear and take some healthy steps to deal with the possible outcomes. I welcome your comments below.

Family Ties, Intimacy, Medical Issues, Mental Health, Relationships, Saying Goodbye, Therapy, Toolkit

Holding it Together When Everything is Falling Apart

Real life includes stress. Sometimes that stress can feel like your entire world is caving in. Divorce, illness or death, job loss, financial problems, heartbreak – these are some examples of circumstances that can make you feel completely overwhelmed and at a loss for how to cope. You may question whether or not you can even make it through.

Here are some tips to hold onto your sanity during overwhelming circumstances:

  • Go ahead and cry. When things are falling apart, you may be feeling pain on every level. If you are sad or scared or worried and feel like crying, go ahead.
  • Call in your support system. Are there friends or family you can talk to and confide in? There is no shame in seeking emotional support when you need it. If you don’t have a support system to lean on, take advantage of community resources like support groups, or make an appointment with a counselor to assist you through this time.
  • Care for your body and spirit with special attention and gentleness in this time of stress. Eat healthy, stay hydrated. Get enough sleep. Start or end every day with a short time of silence: Get up a half hour earlier to make time for it, if you have to. Take a walk, meditate, listen to music, or just rest quietly as you gather your thoughts.  Allow yourself to be aware of thoughts, fears, anger that come up. Notice each passing thought or feeling – then do your best to release them and center yourself.
  • It may feel like a lot in your life is out of control. Take a minute to consider what might be still in your control. If you have lost your job, for example, you can spruce up your resume and set a goal of making contact with ten potential employers a week. If your home is in foreclosure, work with your mortgage company and explore your options for housing. If your relationship has broken apart, reach out to others and redefine who you are. It’s important to allow yourself time to grieve, regroup, and heal. It’s also important to take steps forward – even baby steps.
  • Remember who you are. When your life falls apart, it can feel like you have lost yourself. We each have core strengths that define who we are and how we embrace life. What are your gifts, talents, skills and unique ways of being? How has your tenacity, creativity, sense of humor, resourcefulness supported you over the years? Remember, all of those qualities are still there. You are still you.

As you move toward healing, you will probably find that you can give thanks, also, for the life lessons that come with times of struggle. Sometimes life lessons come at great cost, but you can come out of this situation on the other side, intact and healthy.

Video of this blog here:

More on Tammy’s work here:

Communication, Family Ties, Intimacy, Parenting, Relationships, Toolkit

Reboot Your Relationship (part I of the Reboot Your Life series)

I am starting off my series called Reboot Your Life with a blog post and video about Rebooting Your Relationship.

First, what is a REBOOT? Well, with a computer, you know how things can start to run slow and get bogged down? Shutting it down then allowing it to start fresh can help it run better. So applying the idea of a fresh start to your life, your work, and your relationships is designed to help you feel happier, energized, and more content with the life you are living.

This series will address how you can apply the Reboot philosophy to every part of your life – relationships, health, work, and brain. We’re not going to give you a list of what NOT to do. You probably know that. We’re going to focus on the positive things you CAN do to make each part of your life better.

So first, let’s talk about relationships.  This is assuming you have a significant other, but if you don’t, the concepts still apply. Friendships and family relationships need TLC, too, so no matter what your circumstances, you’ll find some helpful advice. So if I mention “partner” and you don’t have one, that’s okay. Think about what interpersonal relationship in your life these tips might improve!


Your relationship is not going to run on automatic. Scratch that – it may run, but it won’t thrive. So first and foremost, decide – “This person is worth my best effort. I am going to give this a try for thirty days and see what happens.” Then go for it! If you want to reboot your relationship, you’ve got to be ready to commit to consistent, simple, small changes.


If you have the same kind of life most of us have, you work, have kids, take care of the pets and the laundry and the car, and on and on. You go until your head hits the pillow at night. Your relationship gets pushed aside again and again. A relationship is like a plant – you have to water it to see it grow and flower. That means making time for one another. At least once a week, I want you to plan…something. It can be fancy but sometimes the times that make the best connection are spent taking a walk, sharing a cup of coffee, or giving each other a backrub. All that matters is that it is the two of you, that talk of babysitters and work and bills goes out the window for an hour, and that you focus on one another.  Take turns planning what you will do together. If you have to literally schedule this time in your calendar, do it.


I have noticed that it is sort of second nature to be polite to acquaintances and strangers, but we sometimes let common courtesy go when it comes to the people closest to us. I’m all for being comfortable with one another, but saying Please and Thank you, bringing your partner a snack when you make one for yourself, or just being thoughtful– these things make closeness and intimacy feel good. Don’t only save your best for others in your life – share the very best self you can be with your partner.


Listening is an art, and anyone can learn good listening skills. It feels good to be listened to! Try this. The next time you and your partner have a conversation, turn toward them. Make eye contact. Nod, and use your facial expression and body language to show that you are open and connected with what they are saying. Instead of offering advice, ask questions or paraphrase to make sure you get what they were telling you. This is all called active listening, and it not only increases intimacy and good will between people, it works with friends, co-workers, kids, and just about anyone you’d like to communicate with. Give it a consistent try, once a day, about any topic at all. It doesn’t have to be something heavy.


Finally, make time for fun in your lives together. Make each other laugh, put a silly note in her lunchbag, write I love you in the steam on the bathroom mirror after your shower.  Sometimes couples don’t have the same idea of what fun means. For example, sometimes I see couples where one loves to tease. And tease. And the other feels put off by that. So find out your mutual idea of fun – go searching for it if you need to. It will be worth it.

Rebooting your relationship means making room for new ideas and behaviors designed to make you closer, happier, and more intimate. Give it a try! Thank you for visiting my blog, and please add your own Relationship Reboot ideas below!

Link to the video on YouTube: