Wednesday, March 17, 2010

6 Signs you're in a healthy relationship

Not long ago, I published an article about six qualities to admire in others, and the response was extraordinary. I prefaced the article by saying that the six I mentioned were by far not an exhaustive list, but included those traits that seemed especially hard to find. In reading all of the comments, however, I was inspired to write a follow-up list that covers some of the other qualities that I, as well as others, believe to be important when looking for friendships and relationships with others.

Our relationships are vital to our mental well-being. However, toxic relationships can really do a number on our happiness and outlook on life. As a result, it is important to look for individuals who possess qualities that allow for healthy relationships. Although, once again, not an exhaustive list, the qualities listed below are those that should be at the very heart of a healthy relationship. And, just as you would expect your friend, family member or loved one to display these qualities, it is just as important to reciprocate.

Loyalty: Whether it's in friendships or in family, loyalty is truly important to maintain a healthy relationship. All of us are guilty, at one time or another, of making mistakes, having ups and downs, and even displaying some behavior that we may not always be proud of. When we find friends or loved ones who can forgive us and stand by us…even during our worst moments…we should be especially grateful. That said, loyalty should never be taken for granted and we should always be deeply appreciative when it comes our way.

Respect: I once knew an individual who was very opinionated about political topics. She would talk down to people who disagreed with her and would be very disrespectful. Not only did she make people feel stomped on, but she left many disinterested in friendship. Treating others with kindness and the respect they deserve is important in gaining the respect that WE desire. It never feels good to be taken for granted, judged or used and it doesn’t feel good to be talked down to or treated rudely or inappropriately. There will be times that we may not always have full agreement with our friends or loved ones, but respecting them along the way is a must.

Unconditionally There: There is nothing worse than having someone always resurface in your life when they are in need, are looking for something or need a favor. In a culture of “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours,” it is somewhat rare to find those “who just scratch your back,” period. Finding individuals who want you in their lives just because…and not because they want something in return is refreshing and worth holding on to. Those who are generous of heart are to be treasured!

Trustworthy: I once worked with a woman who, within my first week on the job, felt the need to tell me all of the intimate details of the various extra-marital affairs that had occurred with the management of the firm. She was supposedly friends with these people and I have no doubt, was told this information in the most strictest of confidences. How she felt it was appropriate to divulge this information to a new-hire like me, I still have no idea. But, it was her nature to gossip about everyone and everything. If you share something in confidence, you should be able to trust that the information will remain that way.

A Genuine Sounding Board: Taking a genuine interest in what others have to say and really listening to someone is important in developing solid relationships. Letting go of the “me, me, me” and focusing on the other person not only makes the other person feel valued and appreciated, but they feel that they can really talk to someone who cares. Those who take the time to really listen to our thoughts and feelings, and then help us work through difficult times and situations, share our lives at a much deeper level than those who don’t. These are individuals worth hanging on to.

Dependability: I had a friend who frequently would RSVP to small gatherings and then would never show. They never explained…never brought it up…and never apologized. Although this example is somewhat trivial, it still makes the point. Obviously there are times when things come up that prevent individuals from following through on what they promise, but if a friend, co-worker or family member perpetually drops the ball, they may be sending you a message. If a friend says they are going to do something or be somewhere, you should be able to count on them. And, in reciprocation, they you.

What traits do you look for in a friend or partner? Are your relationships healthy?


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Repairing Your Relationship – A 7 Step Process

From many studies of successfully married couples, we know that in order to repair your relationship, there are three essential changes to be made:
1. We must increase your positive emotions overall
2. We must decrease the negative emotions you have during disagreements
3. We must increase the positive emotions and repair efforts made during a disagreement

In order to achieve these essential changes, there are seven steps, each with their own goals and tasks, that must be successfully achieved. These goals and tasks are summarized below:

Step 1 - Reconnection
Getting to know each other again
Devoting time to the relationship
Friendship building activities
Increasing positivity
Healing begins

Step 2 - Shared Fondness and Admiration
Expressing appreciation
Increasing gratitude and positive communication
Praising your partner for doing well
Encouraging relationship enhancing thoughts
Expressing fondness and admiration in everyday life

Step 3 - Deepening the Connection
Building an emotional bank account
Working as a team
Turning towards each other, as opposed to turning away
Allowing your partner to influence you

Step 4 - Positive Sentiment Override
Managing and reducing stress
Challenging distress maintaining thoughts
Negotiating power
Starting rituals of connection
Processing failed bids for connection

Step 5 - Conflict Management
Differentiating solvable problems from perpetual problems
Catching the 4 Horsemen
Softening the start-up
Structured listening; communicating without blame
Learning to repair and soothe
Accepting influence
Compromising and understanding triggers
Dialoguing peacefully about perpetual problems

Step 6 - Creating Shared Meaning
Establishing connection rituals
Establishing goals and plans
Sharing dreams, ideas, values
Honoring each other

Step 7 - Relapse Prevention
Thanksgiving and appreciation
Spending Time together (magic five 30-minute segments)
Emotional Communication
Using solid repair strategies
Markers of divorce are all reduced

Rules for relationship repair: We must increase the positive before working on the negative.

Many people come to my office and want to immediately work on their problems. This is great and this is indeed a goal, but as you will see from the chart above, it is not the first goal. Why not? Solving the problems and managing the conflict is an emotionally draining process. In order to successfully manage conflict, you must have enough positive emotion built up that you can work through the conflict and still have a bit of positivity left over. For this reason, we cannot start therapy by focusing on solving problems. Rather, we must start by building up some positive feelings and some positive regard. Think of your emotions like a bank account: positivity adds money to your account; negativity drains it. Managing conflict is a very, very expensive process. In order to afford conflict, you need to have a couple of weeks with a positive cash flow and some savings before you can spend it on conflict.

Constant fighting is not as worrisome as numbness.

If you and your partner are fighting all the time, this is not as worrisome as you may think. It is not fun and it certainly does not feel good, but fighting is a form of communication. While you are fighting, you are still trying to communicate. Much more worrisome is when people give up on fighting, stop trying to communicate at all, shut down and go numb.

Relationships deteriorate and improve by a known process.

There is a relationship deterioration cycle and it goes like this:

1. Partners fight constantly without any resolution; both people feel upset and flooded with negative emotion.

2. Both partners feel they have “severe” problems.

3. One or both partners try to work out their problems alone.

4. One or both partners start leading parallel lives, where there is little or no connection or overlap between these lives.

5. Loneliness sets in.

6. Partners become emotionally numb, there is no fondness or admiration left. Many choose to divorce.

Just as relationships deteriorate by a know process, they are repaired through a known process. This process is the seven step process in the chart. A study by the California Divorce Mediation Project showed that 80% of divorcing couples cited “growing apart, losing a sense of closeness, not feeling loved or appreciated” as the reason for divorce. Only 40% cited severe and intense fighting. This and many other studies shows us that our focus must be on increasing positive emotion first, then we can deal with negative emotions and conflict.

Look out for the four horsemen!

John Gottman, a leading marriage researcher, has identified 4 behaviors to be on the look-out for in any relationship. These behaviors, known as the four horsemen, erode the foundation of your marriage:

1.Criticism - speaking negatively about your partner’s character or personality.

2.Contempt – sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, hostile humor.

3.Stonewalling – turning away from your partner, tuning them out, ignoring your partner.

4.Defensiveness – defending yourself by blaming your partner.

You don’t necessarily need to solve all of your problems, you need to find a way to talk about them.

Not every problem is going to be solvable. The good news is that you don’t need to solve every problem in order to have a successful relationship. What seems to be most important is whether or not a couple can establish a dialogue about their perpetual problems. They may come to some acceptance of the problem and they can communicate about it with affection and amusement.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Behaviors that keep us close and those that push us away

Wondering which of your behaviors keep your relationship close? Or which ones push partners apart? Many researchers have asked these very questions of different couples and these are a few of their responses:

Behaviors that create closeness:
Discussing; not arguing
Spending time together
Acting in ways that show care, concern, and interest

Behaviors that create distance and discomfort in a relationship:
Rewarding to control (where you give someone a reward to try to shape/change their behavior in a somewhat manipulative or controlling way)
Iolating (Keeping your partner away from important things, activities, or people in his/her life)

In looking at this list, what do you think? What would you add to this list? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

New Rules for Relationships - Emotional Bank Account

Ask for what you need to replenish your emotional bank account. Then ask your partner, what you can do to help them feel better.

I have been thinking about the idea of "emotional bank accounts" lately. This term refers to the idea that we can do or experience things that add money (i.e., positive emotion) to our emotional bank account, we can also experience things that strain or drain money from our account. For example, when your partner hugs and soothes you, this adds money to your account, your emotional bank balance goes up. When your partner criticizes you, your emotional bank balance goes down.
This idea has led me to a new rule for relationships: Ask for what you need to replenish your emotional bank account. Then ask your partner, what you can do to help them feel better.

We get what we ask for, so if you can think of something that will nourish you, build you up, or make you feel better, why not ask your partner for this? I think most of us would like to hear from our partners and spouses about what we can do to make them feel better.

When you think about asking your partner for what you need, what comes up for you?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Affair Recovery: 10 Things You Need to Know

Actively look for the good; find something to appreciate about the other one.

To speed up the healing of your relationship, actively look for the good. By this, I mean look for the good things in your life, the good ways you feel, the good behaviors of your spouse. Comment on these things and express some joy and gratitude. Too often when we are feeling badly, we only focus on the negative aspects of our relationships and our lives. Force yourself out of this pattern and into the practice of catching the other one in the act of doing something good. Also, wrap up each day by expressing some appreciation for the other one. I frequently ask my couples to start doing the Appreciation Exercise daily. The Appreciation Exercise is simply the act of telling your spouse, “Thank you for _____________________, I really appreciated that because __________________________.” Each member of the couple should do this daily.

Affair Recovery: 10 Things You Need to Know

Create shared meaning, goals, things to look forward to.

Once your relationship has stabilized a bit, it is important to reintroduce shared meaning. Shared meaning is a fancy way of saying things in common, shared experience, things to look forward to, or common goals. By establishing shared meaning and common goals, you reconnect to your spouse, you act as part of a team, and you reassure the other one by showing that they are important enough for you to make future life plans with. So as you are healing, start talking about where you’d like to be in 1, 5, 10 years; talk about what you’d like to do personally and professionally in the near future, make pans for a family trip, create a family project. Closeness breeds closeness, so get as close as you can to your spouse by intertwining your lives as much as possible.

Affair Recovery: 10 Things You Need to Know

Listen for emotional language; Follow the emotions.

The most important thing to talk about, and listen for, is emotional language. Emotional language sounds like “I felt so scared…,” where scared and fearful is the emotion. It can also sound like, “When I heard about that, I was so angry…,” where the emotional word was angry, letting you know your partner is hurt and angry. Try to really listen for these emotional clues. When you hear an emotional word, make a note of it and follow the emotion. Reassure your partner and ask for more detail by saying, “I heard you say you were so angry, I am so sorry you felt that way, can you help me understand why?” As you follow the emotions, your goal is to acknowledge the emotion, express some sympathy, ask for clarification, and then give true and genuine reassurance to your partner.

Affair Recovery: 10 Things You Need to Know

Talk daily about each other’s day; talk weekly about your relationship.

As I mentioned above, relationship talks are usually quite stressful for both partners. As such, I like to start couples with the idea that everyday is for everyday talk; relationship talk is something you should only do once a week. This is a goal, not a rule…so if you need to talk more, go ahead. But in my experience, most couples have better, more productive talks when they think about how they’re feeling each week and that choose which items to share in their State of the Union talk. Every day, you need to carve out time to talk to your partner about their day, their thoughts, their feelings, their fears. Again, anything and everything can be talked about, except the relationship.

Affair Recovery: 10 Things You Need to Know

Manage your anxiety and talk about the relationship once a week.

It has been said that one of the best things for partners in distress to do is to learn how to manage their own anxiety. Simply put: discussing your relationship day in and day out is a sure-fire way to bring more stress into the relationship. Most men have a very hard time recovering from relationship discussions, so having a daily chat about your union will keep men in an uncomfortable place. The goal is for each of you to feel safe, comfortable, and secure, so we need to create an environment that fosters these feelings. I recommend couples do two things: (1) manage their own individual anxiety by writing in a journal, taking a yoga class, and/or doing something that reduces stress, like going for a walk, and (2) have a “state of the union” talk once per week. In this talk, which should be during a low-stress time, such as a weekend afternoon, I’d like the two of you to sit down in a comfortable place and talk about how you’ve been feeling about the relationship. Each person should be allotted 20-30 minutes to talk about what they’ve been feeling, with the other one listening, making eye contact, taking notes, and focusing on giving the other spouse support and reassurance. Remember that your goal is to soothe your spouse, not put on your best defense. Don’t worry about defending yourself, just listen and try to connect with the emotions that your partner is sharing.

Affair Recovery: 10 Things You Need to Know

Drill down on your emotions.

I’ve met many couples that come through counseling after an affair having a stronger marriage than they did before. The reason for this is that they took the time to really drill down on their emotions and look for the reasons and unmet needs that prompted them to turn away from their spouse and find someone else. If you’re recovering from an affair, it’s key that you take some time to think about the following key questions and find a gentle way to share this information with your spouse:

  • How were you feeling in the marriage before the affair?
  • What do you think your relationship was missing?
  • What did you get out of having an affair?
  • What made it difficult to turn towards your spouse and talk about what you were missing?
  • What do you really want and need from your partner in order to feel comfortable, safe, and loved?

Affair Recovery: 10 Things You Need to Know

Your old relationship doesn’t live there any more.

Many people will ask me, “Can’t we just forgive and forget?” Others ask me, “How do we get back to the way things were?” Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is that it’s not possible. It’s not possible to just forgive and forget, emotions don’t work like that and they don’t turn on a dime. Real healing takes the slow build-up of trust and the experience, over a long period of time, that you are again a safe, secure, and comfortable person for your spouse to lean on. As for getting back to the way things were, we need to remember that your affair happened because of they way things were, so we don’t really want to get back to that place. Rather, we need to closely look at what was missing from the relationship before that caused you (or your partner) to go outside the relationship for comfort and support from someone else.

Affair Recovery: 10 Things You Need to Know

Expect the road to be bumpy.

The road to recovery is not easy or fast or particularly comfortable. Real recovery is slow and sometimes stumbles. There can even be spots where things seem to get worse. The overall trend should be positive. Before I mentioned that there are several stages each one of you will go through on your path to healing. In my experience, it takes 1-2 months per stage, so this puts you on track for recovering from an affair within 6-12 months.

Affair Recovery: 10 Things You Need to Know

You can’t get better while anyone else is involved in your relationship.

In order to start getting recovering from an affair, you need to do two things: (1) lay all of your cards on the table, and (2) stop all communication with the “affair partner.” Once an affair is discovered, both of you will feel hurt, upset, and somewhat numb. The worst thing that could happen at this point would be for any other bombs to be dropped on the relationship. It is for this reason that I suggest absolutely no contact with the affair partner. There may be some cases where this is impossible, but to the greatest extent possible, eliminate any and all contact with the affair partner. You also need to be open and honest about what happened in the affair and what led up to the affair. These items should be discussed with great care and sensitivity. Many people ask me, “Kathy, can’t we just skip over those details? Won’t those details just hurt her more?” The answer is no. I have found that people’s own imaginations of what might have happened during an affair to be far more hurtful than hearing what really happened.

Affair Recovery: 10 Things You Need to Know

One of you will go through a grieving process; the other will go through a withdrawal process.

When innocent spouses learn their partner has had an affair, they usually feel sickened and shocked. After the shock has worn off, anger and profound hurt set in. The process of grieving has been broken down into five steps: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. If you have just learned that your spouse has had an affair, it’s likely that you will go through all six of these stages. You will need additional emotional support during this time, so it is important to find a close friend, of the same sex, to whom you can talk to about your feelings. If you have just ended an affair, it is likely that you will go through a parallel process where you experience “withdrawal” symptoms. Much like one who has just stopped drinking or stopped doing any pleasurable activity, you may experience anxiety, cravings and discomfort. This is normal and to be expected. Many people find it advantageous to talk to their MD about taking some medication to help them cope with these withdrawal symptoms. You will need additional emotional support during this time, so it is important to find a close friend, of the same sex, to whom you can talk to about your feelings. For both of you: It will take time for you to heal from an affair – 6 months is often the minimum.

Affair Recovery: 10 Things You Need to Know

Trust must be gradually and slowly rebuilt.

Once an affair is disclosed or discovered, the innocent spouse typically finds it very difficult to trust their spouse at all. The affair has likely rocked the innocent spouse to the core; many find themselves wondering if they can trust anything they thoughts they knew about their partner. So it would be unreasonable for an offending spouse to expect to be fully trusted; innocent spouses need time to grieve and time to learn that they can trust you again. Trust is earned and after an affair, the best way for trust to be rebuilt is to keep no secrets and make your life an open book. I have found that couples who recover from affairs the fastest are (1) open to allowing their spouse to have total access to their lives and communication devices, and (2) open to discussing and explaining communication anomalies. As such, I believe that offending spouses should allow their spouses to monitor their phone calls, their emails, their mail…at least for a while. All of us have a desire for privacy, but if you’ve had an affair, you need to let go of your privacy needs for a while in order to allow your spouse to come to know that you have truly ended your affair.

Affair Recovery: 10 Things You Need to Know

An affair does not mean your partner does not love you or that your relationship is over.

Affairs usually happen because one of the partners has some unmet emotional need. A need arises, the partner will typically mention it to their spouse repeatedly, the need continues to go unmet, and the partner decides it is best to look outside the relationship for someone to meet the need instead of asking the spouse. What is interesting is that the “affair partner” usually only meets one or two emotional needs, while the spouse continues to meet the rest of them. So it’s as if the “offending spouse” only gets 10% of what they need from the affair, far less than the 90% that is met by the “innocent spouse”, yet deprivation of that 10% is so important that it drives the spouse to find someone to help him/her meet those needs. We need to understand what the 10% is and make sure it is addressed in the marriage.