When You Love Your Opposite

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Most couples who come to see me don’t come in already having figured out how to relate to one another. Most people come to see me because they trigger each other and are unsure of how to navigate to a healthier place.

Working with couples has taught me that there are often two kinds of people in stressed relationships: outwardly emotional people and inwardly emotional people. Those who are outwardly emotional can be seen as intimidating or sensitive. The inward emotional folks are the shutdown, aloof bunch. Outward folks may have fears of abandonment and self-worth issues. Inward people may fear being smothered and struggle with vulnerability. Both people typically struggle with emotion regulation, trust, and healthy boundaries. Both people struggle with insecure attachment styles.

We call those outward folks’ attachment style Ambivalent or Preoccupied, aka “the jungle.” For inward folks, we call their attachment style Dismissive or Avoidant, aka “the desert.” In Wired for Love, Stan Tatkin explains these types as waves (outward/preoccupied) and islands (inward/avoidant). His book is great for a deeper dive into the topic.

When a preoccupied and an avoidant person come together, it can be a bit tricky. The preoccupied person may be too needy, reach out too often, and feel easily rejected or abandoned. Fearing being smothered, the avoidant person may pull back at the first sign of these behaviors to protect themselves, be dismissive of the other person’s feelings, or accuse them of being too sensitive. In turn, the preoccupied person reaches out harder. Then the avoidant retreats further. It’s a bit of a cycle. Too often people try to be heard/seen by getting louder or to show overwhelm with closing down. This cycle leaves both people feeling frustrated and confused.

Fun fact: when a preoccupied person gets overwhelmed their heart rate skyrockets. Inversely, an avoidant person’s heart rate plummets. Makes sense, right?

Lightbulb! Don’t have those attachment styles get together! … if only it were that easy. Preoccupied people are interested in avoidant people because it perpetuates their anxious beliefs about relationships and vice versa. Even when we try not to, we inevitably end up with someone who fills our unconscious expectations. Here’s a great video to illustrate:

“We may describe someone as not sexy or boring when in truth we mean, unlikely to make me suffer in the way I need to suffer in order to feel that love is real.”

Our attachment styles come from how we were parented. To add some fun to the mix, attachment styles can also vary from relationship to relationship and change over time. The good news in this is that attachment styles can be healed.

Once we know our attachment style and the style of our partner, we can work together to heal. The avoidant person works to notice when they get overwhelmed and chooses to lean into the relationship instead of pull away. The preoccupied person works to notice when they get overwhelmed and chooses to lean on themselves first instead of believing their needs can only be met by the other person.

As the video shows, we try to listen to our knee-jerk reaction to learn what is being triggered within us, and then work to respond as our adult self instead of reacting as our younger self. This takes time, patience, and commitment.

Ready to find your attachment style?

Reach out for help if you need it.

Take care out there,

D

Our Modern Blended Family – An Intro

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I am excited to announce my first book is being released on November 26th!

At the beginning of summer I was approached by a publisher asking me to write a book about blending families. I’ve always loved writing, and books have been a long-time dream of mine, so it was an honor to be a part of this project.

Our Modern Blended Family is a book based on personal and professional experience. In writing it, I sought to offer useful tips and techniques, understanding the challenges you’re facing, as well as encouraging positive ways of relating to your new family.

You can find my book on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Any visits to my book’s page help to promote my book on those websites, so if you have a minute and don’t mind checking it out, it would be greatly appreciated!

 

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

I, too, am living in the thick of blended family life. If I’m being honest, and I will be throughout this book, I’ll tell you we’ve made mistakes. Our road hasn’t been an easy one, and I don’t write before you as some mystical stepmom goddess who did everything perfectly. Trust me, I did not. Blending families is hard work.

But what are blended families? They come in all shapes and sizes. You’re a blended family because one or both of you have children from a previous relationship, and you have chosen to become a family. You may have once been married but are no longer because of divorce or loss, you may have never been married but still co-parent, or you may be a single parent bringing in new family members. Perhaps you’re just starting to come together as a blended family. Maybe you’ve been at this for a while and are still struggling or in need of a refresher. Wherever you stand today, you’re up for a tough job—though a worthwhile one.

Being a parent can be a difficult job all on its own. It comes with long nights, short days, and endless to-dos. It includes the worry, care, and time you put into your children. When you add blending a family into the mix, everything gets more complicated. You may have many questions. How will we come together? What
will happen to our relationship? How will we co-parent? What will our future bring?

Blended families travel different roads than other families. Sure, this road will have bumps, sharp curves, and sometimes drastic changes in altitude. But you know what? All of these expe- riences make you stronger. I’m here to say that having a happy blended family is possible. I’m here to say you can do this. You can laugh with your children, nourish your partnership, navigate tricky waters, and come out the other side with love and ease. Some of our most beautiful and satisfying experiences in life come as the result of a little extra elbow grease.

 

I look forward to sharing more with you soon! If you want more, Amazon and Barnes and Noble are taking pre-orders now. 🙂

Take care out there,

D

Fears and Frustrations in Couples Counseling

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When I tell people that I really love doing couples, premarital, and marriage counseling, I typically receive one of two responses:

“Wow, good for you! I can’t imagine doing that.”

or

“That’s tough. I went through/knew of someone who got divorced after marriage counseling.”

 

I get it. There is something about working within the most important relationships in our lives that gets people a little on edge. Sure, there are other important relationships, like with our children and our friends. But none with stakes quite as high as our partners. Our partners are in our everyday lives. As important as children are to us, they eventually grow up and live on their own. Our partners, on the other hand, we’re with day in and day out until one of us dies. There’s a reason we call them our significant other. If they weren’t so significant, we’d just call them our other. Or, that person over there. Let’s face it, how we relate to them matters.

It can be scary to not only recognize that such a significant portion of your life is struggling, but that it also needs more help than you can do alone. Reaching out for individual therapy can be vulnerable, so reaching out for two people, doubly so. There are a lot of fears and frustrations people have, and I’d like to share a few things to help you both know my approach, but also to relieve some of the pressure in case you need a little boost to reach out to someone for help.

I’ve gathered these fears and frustrations from people I’ve spoken to over the years.

Three common fears about the outcome of couples therapy:

  1. We’ll get divorced/split up. This must be the number one fear, from my experience. There is truth to it, too, which I think really lights people up. There is a risk of separation or divorce when you come to marriage counseling. Just like there is if you don’t. I think what made couples counseling get such a tough reputation is that people often wait until they are ready to divorce to reach out for help. At this point, the odds of a breakup are high. It’s not impossible, as I’ve seen couples come back from the brink. That happens, though, because they choose for it to. When a relationship is truly over in the heart of one or both partners, there is little a therapist can do to change that. We aren’t in the business of changing hearts. We’re here to help you align your life and mind with your heart and values.
  2. Nothing will change. Also high up there, the fear that once therapy completes, they’ll return to the status quo. This is also possible and is a fear for a reason. Humans are creatures of habit, and they’ll eventually revert to what feels natural if they aren’t putting in constant effort toward new behavior for at least two years. You read that right, folks. It takes at least two years of constant effort to create a new, more connected, more positive status quo. So no, a few months of therapy will not undo fifteen years of discord in a relationship. But a few months of therapy combined with constant effort, openness, and willingness… that can change things.
  3. Everything will change. Isn’t that the trick, though? We want change so badly, but then we often end up deeply fearing the actual process or experience. What if everything changes and I no longer recognize my partner? What if they no longer love me, or I no longer love them? What if our new normal isn’t the normal I thought I signed up for? Can’t they just go back to who they were when we met? Well, can you? You are an imperfect human trying to create a life with another imperfect human. Change can be scary, unknown, and sometimes a little painful. But if you’re really committed- if you really want to spend your days with your partner, then you’ll love whoever they are today and you’ll make efforts to adjust your sails together as you each grow. They’ll need to do the same. I can’t promise you can go back to how it was when you fell in love – in fact, I can near-promise it won’t. If you’re really in this for life, together, I do believe you can create a new relationship, despite the fear.

Three common frustrations, sometimes born out of fear and unfortunately others, out of an experience, about the couples counselor or process:

  1. The counselor will take sides. They’ll believe everything my partner is saying, I’ll be the bad guy, and “couples counseling” will really be just about trying to fix me. Sometimes people actually want a therapist to take sides, but in that case, they want the side taken to be theirs, not that of their partner. Nobody wants to be the “wrong one.” And frankly, I don’t believe relationships can ever be just one person’s problem. Even if one person has done the primary betrayal, the other person has participated in the relationship getting to the place it was. It may not always be 50-50, but it is typically pretty close. The approach I take is to not be on either party’s side but on the side of the relationship. Sometimes that means I’m a little harsher on Person A for a session or two, but then it typically switches and the heat is on for Person B. It’s not about who is right. The moment that is the focus, the relationship suffers. It’s more important to be on the lookout for what is best for the relationship as a whole. Find a therapist who will fight for your relationship, you can search for them on the website Marriage Friendly Therapists.
  2. It will be one way in the office, and another way at home. I often hear this, that one person will misrepresent themselves or their partner in therapy. Maybe at therapy, they’re understanding, open, and honest, but at home, they’re closed emotionally and dig in their heels. This happens sometimes- that’s okay. Try and remember that therapy is a practice ground, with the hope that eventually what is practiced will come home with you. Unfortunately, yes, that means both people have to be conscientious about bringing the good home. If you find yourself stuck, find words that are both kind and honest to share in counseling that you’re seeing a pattern. Not only is that good practice for you, but also that way your counselor can help you break down barriers and come up with solutions.
  3. It’ll just be a waste of time. Some couples express this as their frustration. They go to therapy, argue it out, then go home angrier than they came. Nothing gets accomplished, nothing changes. This certainly can happen, and sometimes hashing out an argument can help clarify the pattern you’re stuck in and encourage you to listen differently. Let’s talk about a few things that will keep your therapy focused:
    1. Spend some time in advance thinking about what you think the problem is. Hint: it’s not your partner. If you think it is, okay. Also, come up with what is your responsibility. Do so before each session, with the goal of looking for patterns between you that need mending. This way once you’re in the room, you can express a few hopes you have for that day.
    2. Seek out skills to use at home. Marriage counseling is a combination of processing hurts and increasing skills to change patterns, like improving communication, friendship, and fair fighting. Most of the skills I recommend come from Mindfulness and The Gottman Institute. It may be worth looking around at the different modalities therapists use, and finding someone who aligns closely with what you think would work best for you. There are so many books out there- ask for some recommendations that will support your work and read through them as a team effort with your partner.
    3. Plan on doing homework every. single. day. One hour once per week in therapy will not undo the many hours of interactions between. You must take what you learn in counseling home and put it to practice, then come back and discuss what worked and what didn’t so your counselor can make adjustments to the plan. Remember that you’ll need to put some effort forth every day for the next several years as a start, then for the rest of time, thereafter. This is a commitment to the health and happiness of you, your partner, your relationship, and anyone else involved (like kids, furr babies, etc). It will be tough, but it can also be worth it.

 

Relationships require that you each take care of yourselves, one another, and the relationship itself. You can do this. Reach out for help when you need it (preferably, long before you contemplate divorce!).

D

Balance Darkness with Light

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Can you believe it? You’re halfway there! We’re starting this week having spent the last month working on our diet, exercise, meditation ritual, and sh*it owning process on our path to moving through depression. What’s next in store for you? You betcha. It’s time to unplug.

I’ll admit, this is a little bizarre timing with the whole Facebook scandal thing. Or perhaps it’ll just be that little bit extra motivation. Let’s talk about, though, why you don’t need a scandal to unplug.

My guess is that you’ve heard that use of electronics can increase your risks of depression and anxiety. It’s even more dangerous for teenagers and young adults.

There’s no shortage of people out there asking us to unplug more often. There’s also plenty of cartoons depicting just what it does to us. Like this from the NY Times about how phone use is impairing intimate relationships:

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You can take a handy quiz they have set up to check how your relationship with your phone is. Believe you me, the irony of you reading about less electronic use on my blog is not lost on me.

I could spend a lot of time explaining to you the ways in which overuse of electronics is harmful to you. And you probably know most of them already. Here’s a personal example.

I recently decided to give the whole Instagram thing a try. I know, I’m behind. Let’s blame it on me being old. But let me share with you what I’ve found.

It’s starts off innocent enough. You just want to connect with people and share fun stories. Then likes come through, follows, comments. So you check out their pages, like some things, maybe search through hashtags. Suddenly you’ve lost a half an hour, maybe more, to doing nothing but scrolling through endless pictures. But posting is fun, especially since it gets your creative juices flowing with both photography and writing. Soon life becomes little moments wanting their pictures taken. Then more likes, comments, follows. More searches. More time lost. So you try not to use the app, but find yourself still picking up your phone more than you need to. Or thinking of the next time you’ll have a few minutes to peek through, promising yourself you won’t spend more than five minutes…

After a week of using Instagram, I noticed several things. For starters, my sleep sucked. I had a difficult time falling asleep every night that I checked it. My attention waned, as my ability to stay present in the moment was snatched away by wondering. My work suffered, as little moments that could have been spent well were wasted away. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I couldn’t keep it up. I remember the struggle when Myspace came out. Then Facebook. It sucks you in.

Oh man, and streaming services? Forget it.

Excessive electronic use, whether through phones, computers, TV, tablet, or what-have-you, is hurting your mental health. Recent research has also shown that social media is especially damaging and increases the risk of suicide in teens who use it more than 5 hours per day. Think about what it does to our kids’ brains to spend all day every day on tablets at school. It’s how we teach them now. Here are some other ways electronic use is disruptive:

  • Incomplete and often unrealistic expectations. Many people post more about the things that make it appear as though they have a great life, family, body, etc.
  • Avoidance of feelings. It can be terrifying to open up and let feelings have space, and infinitely easier to quiet them with a quick distraction.
  • Internet is the perfect marketing scheme. It only shows you what it thinks you want to see. So if you’re depressed, you’re probably going to get more suggestions on the topic or relate to others online who are also in a dark place. Like parents get a lot of parenting links in their ads and “sponsored posts.” Or if you click on political support things for this person, you’re going to see more positive things about them and more negative about their competition.
    • You can’t get out of depression by feeding it more depression. You need to balance your exposure to the darkness with things that bring you light.
  • It eats time. Time that you might feel you don’t have in order to eat right, exercise, meditate, spend time with friends, keep up a clean house, etc. If you have time to check your social media, play games, or scroll through something, binge watch something, then you have time to take care of yourself.
  • Dangers of anonymity. Cyber bullying is real, and it’s not just for teens. Just read any lengthy comment feed.
  • Getting overstimulated. It’s important that the brain has both excited times and relaxed times. Electronics are like little strobe lights. You need downtime too.

I hear a lot of “good” reasons for people to be on electronics.

For example, it’s how I keep in touch with people! It doesn’t have to be. Did you know that your brain does not experience the interactions via snapchat, instagram, facebook, etc as social interaction? Face to face, real social interaction and emotional intimacy is vital to your ability to thrive.

Oh, it helps me relax or blow off steam! Actually, it helps distract you. Which is not the same thing as coping. Distraction can be a useful skill, but it cannot be your only skill.

Remember last week’s assignment of letting go of excuses.

So why don’t we stop? It’s called addiction. Addiction, simplified, is compulsive use despite harmful consequences. The way I describe addiction is simple: it starts with using something to avoid having to feel, be alone with ourselves (or our thoughts), or like reasons. It’s an escape. Of course, in some cases it becomes its own beast.

Does that sound like something you might do? Like perhaps taking a “break” from one electronic device by using another?

I get it. Electronic, and especially phone, overuse is pervasive. I dare say it’s the most common form of addiction, and it’s not just in our country.

What are we to do?

Well, let’s be honest. Computers, including those mobile and miniature ones we keep in our pockets, aren’t going anywhere for now. When it comes to helping our mental health, it’s important that we’re using them responsibly. Here’s a place to start.

Danielle’s 10 Do’s and Don’ts:

  1. Pay attention for how much time you’re on your phone, including using various applications. A tech way of doing this is through apps like Moment.
  2. Don’t spend your time with others on your devices unless absolutely necessary. Hint: it’s hardly ever necessary.
    • Here’s a fun game: Phone Stack. Whoever picks up their phone first pays the bill.
  3. Do look for opportunities to enjoy life around you. If you’re waiting for something, engage people around you in conversation. If you’re outside, take a deep breath.
    • You can also do the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise. 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you feel, 2 things you smell, and 1 thing you taste. You can switch the senses up to match where you are.
  4. If you use an app too much, delete the app and access it through your internet browser. Or turn off notifications. Or limit yourself to a certain number of minutes on that app each day. Or make it so you have to enter your password each time you want to use it.
  5. Stop electronic use at least an hour before bedtime. Do something neurologically soothing in order to help transition yourself into sleep.
    • Examples of activities: Stretching, shower/bath, reading, journaling, coloring, meditating, etc.
  6. Carve out time for quiet reflection. This can be praying, meditating, a bath, or a walk outside. Make time to not only be with yourself, but allow space for your feelings. If need be, turn on music instead of TV.
  7. Make commitments and stick to them. Like no phones at dinner or only checking a social media app once per day.
  8. Read real books. Like the ones you check out from the library, where you physically turn each page to read it. They even smell good.
  9. If you must distract, do it with quality, light promoting content. Like The School of Life, Happify, or Calm.
  10. Pay attention to what you’re pumping into your psyche. Is it positive? Violent? Dramatic? Loving? Competitive? Twisted? What do different shows and media do to your psyche? Ever watch tattoo shows and want a new tattoo? Or cooking shows and get on a cooking kick? Hint: Media affects you.

You can do this. Less time in virtual, more time in reality. Your mood, relationships, brain chemistry, social life, and spirit will thank you.

What’s one way you can find balance today?

See you next week for our talk about sleep? You’ll already be a step ahead if you quit with the bedtime electronics.

Take care out there,

D

5 Steps Toward a Healthier Fight

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One of the most rewarding parts of being in a committed relationship is that feeling of being seen, understood, and loved anyway. It’s a feeling we all ache for, and it is what leads us into arguments with others. Wanting to be understood is what fuels disconnection, whether in a relationship or in a country. The stronger we cling to the desire to be understood, the more we begin to believe that our side is the right side. This, in turn, fuels us to push understanding into the minds and hearts of others. Round and round we go, down a spiral of unhappiness.

I often say to my clients, “would you rather be right, or happy?” Being right means another is wrong, and in relationships you can’t have one person always be wrong. If one person is wrong, the relationship suffers. Often, in order to find happiness in our relationships, we have to have a willingness to be neither right nor wrong, but to find an answer somewhere in between.

Perhaps part of the issue is that we confuse love and attachment. Love says, “I want you to be happy.” Attachment says, “I need you to make me happy.” Similarly, in arguments Love says, “I want to understand you.” Attachment says, “I want you to understand me.”

What is this attachment? Attachment is wanting something we cannot have. When we feel attached to someone being a certain way or to winning an argument, we are wanting something inherently impossible. Nobody will stay just as they are, and no argument can be won without losing something. Attachment breeds suffering, whereas love ignites openness. When we’re open, we can experience happiness.

I know, easier said than done. In the heat of an argument we become angry and lose sight of the end goal. What is your end goal in a fight? Is it to win and be right? If you’re just dating, perhaps your end goal is to figure out if this is going to work. If you’re married, you’ll benefit if your end goal is, “how do I make this relationship stronger?”

In order to fight well, it’s important to keep the intention for understanding the other person and wishing happiness for them. Keep in mind, there is a difference between intention and action. The goal is to hold the intention, but not necessarily to do anything and everything to make them happy. Your job isn’t to make your partner happy, only they can do that. Your job is to wish happiness for them, so that you interact with them from a place of openness, understanding, kindness, and truth.

It can be scary to try to understand your partner in a fight. Sometimes we worry, “then who will be trying to understand me?” Relationships take faith, and if you are willing to model what you wish to receive, they’re more likely to reciprocate.

So how do you fight fair? Here are 5 ways to have healthier fights:

  1. Be honest. So often we skirt around the issue, do little jabs, use sarcasm, or just stew in our feelings. I see a lot of red cheeks in my office when I ask the question, “have you talked to them about how you feel?” An obvious solution, yet why don’t we use it more often? Being honest doesn’t mean you say what anger wants you to say. Being honest means saying what’s underneath the anger. Instead of “You never even ask how my day is anymore. All you care about is yourself.” try “I’m worried I don’t matter to you like I used to. I’m scared we’re losing what made us so great. I miss us.”
  2. Seek understanding instead of being understood. We so often think we’re listening, when really we’re planning our comeback, correcting mistakes in their stories, or wondering what we’ll eat for our next meal. When we listen to understand the experience of others, we use our critical mind to not only pay attention, but understand the emotional needs under what they’re saying. If you get distracted, pull yourself back to the conversation with a few deep breaths. It’s okay if you need to ask someone to repeat, so you can understand.
  3. Speak from love instead of attachment. You can learn to decipher between the two through somatic awareness. When we’re acting from love, we feel calm, warm, open. When we’re acting from attachment, we feel tense, closed, and anxious. If you’re getting stuck in attachment, imagine the other person as a small infant, and the warm, loving feelings that come with holding babies. Conversely, you can imagine the pain you would feel if you lost them (the pain comes from love). If this were the last conversation, how would you want it to go?
  4. Take accountability to resist defensiveness. It is incredibly tempting to shift blame away. Owning our mistakes leaves us feeling vulnerable, which we mistakenly believe equates to weakness. When you understand your impact on others and take accountability for how you affect them, you are standing squarely in strength. It doesn’t mean you lost the fight (remember, we’re not trying to win the fight!). Instead of, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” try this: “I realize when I said that, it hurt your feelings. That was unfair of me, and I’m sorry.”
  5. Keep your end goal in sight. If your only goal is to win this battle, you might just end up losing the war. Relationships can feel like war sometimes, when we’re stuck between struggling to feel understood and frightened at the idea of losing the other person. Take some deep breaths. Look at your partner with fresh eyes. Eyes that give them the benefit of the doubt. Remind yourself what you hope to come of this argument. A stronger relationship? Deeper connection? How do you ask for what you need? Using healthy argument rule #1, be honest and ask. Try, “it would mean a lot to me if we could take a few minutes each evening to see how one another’s day was. Could we try 10 minutes once we get home?”

Lean in to the beauty, the delicateness, and the strength of your relationships. Don’t be afraid to be wrong, vulnerable, or honest. That’s where the good stuff happens.

Good luck out there,

D