How To Improve Your Relationship Communication Posts

Defensiveness in Relationships

John Gottman’s research found that defensiveness was one of 4 important ways that relationships break down. If you are the person in the relationship that is defensive, it is so important that you take care of this in yourself so that the relationship is not damaged. Often when one person in the relationship brings up something negative, (more…)

Spice Up Your Relationship

I love September. Maybe it is a leftover from having kids going back to school but it seems to me it is like New Years. A time of opportunity and change. I get re-enthused about my blogging and want to start some new courses for the fall and develop new programs to help you. One of the coming programs is an on line course based on John Gottman’s research and his book called ‘Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work’ that I am currently putting together. More to come on that. This morning it was foggy for the first time, a sure sign of fall where I live. It adds a bit of mystery to the morning world and I was thinking how fun that was. Variety is important to us as humans and keeps our brain healthy. I wondered what newness, mystery or opportunity you can facilitate in your relationship and your life for this season? Sit down together and pull out the calendar. Without this step it is not likely to happen. Brainstorm some possibities that you might like to do together this fall. Perhaps you can go away for the weekend or join a class together. You are really only limited by your brainstorming so go for it! Use the momentum of the natural change in the season to spice up your relationship and tune up the connection between you! Do something different and add some health and mystery to your relationship. Mark it in the calendar! Go forth and be wonderful!

Peace as a Choice for Your Relationship

I agree with Michelle Weiner-Davis (author of “Divorce Busting” and many other relationship books) that telling everything in a relationship in the name of honesty does not work well. Sometimes choosing to keep the peace or to let something go is a good idea. This is related to John Gottman’s research which says that there needs to be a 5 to 1 ratio of positive interactions to negative in a healthy relationship. If your mindset (particularly in these dark months of winter) is more negative, making the choice to keep back some of that negativity is a good thing. We tend to focus on the negative when our lives are out of balance. For instance, the brain processes positive and negative differently. Positive things are processed through the hippocampus while negative things are processed through the amygdala. When we are sleep deprived (an astounding number of North American’s are sleep deprived) the hippocampus is directly affected. Therefore, the brain recalls more of the negative in our lives. So there are lots of reasons including the dark winter months that have us accessing the negative in our relationships.

When I am suggesting that you don’t share everything that you are thinking, I don’t mean that you will stop sharing your thoughts or yourself with each other but that you will keep things in balance. I am also not saying that you will perseverate on the negative and just keep simmering quietly about the issue. This really defeats the whole purpose. You might consider focussing on the positive in your relationship because where you focus WILL get amplified. You might consider turning your eyes on yourself, instead of your partner and look at the kind of partner you aspire to be. This may be helpful in “letting go” of the issue. A relationship is a living thing and needs to experience happiness. It is a journey and you will have other opportunities to make the same complaint. Balance is the key.

So where might you find some difficulties with doing this? For some couples who have challenges with emotional management skills, this idea is difficult to carry out. When they feel emotion, they also feel compelled to share the reasons for the intensity of their emotions. I have experienced some couples, who despite the consequences and repeated promises to manage their emotions before dumping them into the couple relationship, continue to do so, to the point the relationship breaks down permanently. If you find yourself in this category, and you have been consistently acting this out in your relationship, find a way that works for you to manage your emotions. If you consider that you have tried and tried to manage your emotions, consulting with a therapist to work through a change is a good idea.

Another helpful strategy is becoming aware of your vulnerabilities from the past that tend to make the present more intense. For instance, if your early childhood included circumstances where you were not listened to, this can spill into your relationship today. So when your partner is not fully focussed on you, you may experience today’s challenge with your partner in light of your early experience as well and feel more intensely negative then if you did not have that early experience. Being able to understand your vulnerabilities and being able to self soothe will be helpful when you are aiming to have some peace in your relationship. There will certainly be other opportunities to share your wish for your partner to change in this regard. Balance would mean that you will consider waiting for another opportunity, not that you will bury it and simmer. For those of you that regularly avoid confrontation, knowing your vulnerabilities will mean that you will balance by promising yourself a specific day that you will bring up your thoughts and desires regarding the relationship, negative or positive. When that day comes, you will follow through.

What are the benefits of “keeping the peace”? There are so many. Crowding out the negative leaves room for joy and playfulness. Connection and bonding together becomes so much easier when there is peace between you. Making positive memories becomes easier. Meeting each others needs becomes easier. Your attachment feels more secure. And all of these benefits translate into wonderful biological benefits as well. It is worth it to grow into this behaviour. Go forth and be wonderful in your relationship today!




Learning to Make a Complaint

Although communication is not everything in a relationship, it certainly has an impact. One of the reasons that I wrote the ‘Pithy Little Rule Book to Satisfying Marital Conversations’ is because of the habits people have in their couple conversation that stops their connection repeatedly. And they are often simple things. One thing I notice that is not in the book is when one member of the couple, when noticing their own challenge immediately says, “we both do that”. Their mate, of course, not sharing that exact perspective, wants to correct them and immediately they are in a cross town bus conversation going nowhere. “I do that” rather then “we both do that” or “you do that too” takes responsibility for yourself. It really is up to you to make your own changes and not to try to neutralize the issue by trying to share the responsibility (even if it is true from your experience!).

Another challenge is when couples have created a culture of sarcasm between them. Some people even convince themselves they are being witty but it is another way of not taking responsibility for what you really mean and for the change you would like to see. Although it may begin in fun, it eventually creates a culture where as a couple you become the “Bickerson’s”. Criticism, even contempt is hidden (or barely hidden) inside your sarcastic remark. When you become the Bickerson’s, it is very difficult to keep up the five positive transactions to every one negative transaction that is necessary for a healthy relationship (John Gottman’s research).

Some people will tell me that they tell their partner everything and that when they have a thought, they just let it out (they call this having an honest relationship). Although they may feel relief when this occurs, this method does not take into account the other. It does not take into account your responsibility for the health and climate of your relationship or whether your partner is able to hear you just now. Letting your thoughts out ‘willy nilly’ does not get you listened to. When the timing is right and you have taken responsibility in creating a positive climate between you, phrasing your thoughts into a complaint works well. Try these suggestions for better communication. Go forth and be wonderful!

Making a complaint is a healthier way to manage and take responsibility for what you want to say. Most often criticism or contempt begins with “You”. When you are being honest and responsible for what you want in your relationship, your sentence will begin with I. I would like it if… (then give your suggestion), I don’t like it when… (could we do that differently?) or I wish that… (give your wish). The presentation of your complaint needs to take into consideration timing, tone of voice, your mindset and your partners vulnerabilities.

Hope as a Choice in Relationships

It is great to reflect on the goodness of the Christmas season in the midst of its challenges. For many people in the world, this Sunday is the first in the celebration of the season and a candle is lit for the hope it represents. We know from research that hope is paramount to living well and flourishing in our lives. I love this quote from Albert Einstein. This is such a perfect quote for couple relationships where we sometimes want to get stuck in reliving the past. Einstein said, ‘Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow’.

From hope research (hope research has a lot in common with resilience research as well) we know:
Hope is about future mindedness.
Hope is about optimism.
Hope trusts in God or a higher power. The Bible is, of course, filled with quotes about hope that psychology also finds to be true. Here is one, ‘you would be secure because there is hope’ Job 11:18. Tons more here – just put in the word hope in the search button
Hope wants to find paths and solutions to your challenges.
Hope doesn’t allow hopelessness from short-term thinking to move into discouragement about your relationship and feelings of giving up. Hope takes the long view – looks at relationships as a journey.
Hope helps you to keep moving towards your goals and your life purpose, individually and as a couple, even when facing setbacks (like a recent argument).
If you are discouraged about your relationship right now and are thinking of all the ‘can’t’s’ in your life, hope would have you change that into ‘how’. Not thoughts like, we can’t seem to get it together, but how can I do something positive this day to make a change in my relationship? How can I be a better partner? Even if life is sending you garbage, as it sometimes does, you can be creative and find a way to be wonderful. I love this video as an example of that. Can you imagine the thinking outside of the box, the perserverance, and the hope that it took to make this orchestra happen? Take the time to view it.
I HOPE you are encouraged by this. Go forth and be wonderful in your relationship today!

Sent from my iPad

Hierarchy of Relationship Needs

Hierarchy of Relationship Needs:

Recently I have been challenged to write down exactly what I do in couple’s therapy and in relationship coaching. It is a daunting task. When you have been counselling couples for more than 20 years, it seems more like an intuitive art. I am continually being educated every year with new research and I am a voracious reader. This adds to the complexity of what I actually do! I decided to use the model of Maslow’s hierarchy of need and make a hierarchy of committed relationship building skills (or needs – haven’t decided on a name yet) . The theory of Maslow’s hierarchy is that you must have the bottom of the hierarchy fulfilled before moving up the hierarchy. The bottom of the hierarchy is about survival needs such as food and shelter and moves up the hierarchy to the top which is self actualization. It is a useful concept and helped me to put down on paper what I actually do intuitively.

Let me give you an example that might help you in your own relationship. When a couple comes to see me, they are often in high conflict and may even be separated (research shows that couples often come to counselling 3 years too late!). They want help with the conflict but they have walls of self protection that are so high there is not a hope they can work together until they go back down the hierarchy. The bottom of the hierarchy is about creating a secure friendship, one that supports trust and a mutual attachment. Often I am sending the couple away with homework that begins this process by simple non threatening acts that speak the other person’s love language every day until we see each other again. The hope that there may be a possibility of feeling other feelings besides a numbness or anger helps to set the stage for the next level in the hierarchy. This first level includes all that we know about friendship in marriage from research, including, creating a culture of appreciation, creating a space in your mind for knowing your partner and staying up to date on their changing feelings, dreams, expectations, beliefs and perceptions about their world, choosing a positive mindset about your partner, creating emotional safety and of course, creating fun and romance together. Some couples dismiss this layer of the hierarchy and let time pressure and other pressing needs take over their lives (so easy to do) to the detriment of their relationship. One of the lines that I hear often when enquiring what this week’s date night might be in a couple who is just barely hanging on to their relationship is, ‘I haven’t really thought about it’. It is not just chance that the research talks about this first level as the foundation of relationships that actually work.

You might be much higher on the hierarchy then this first level, in fact, you may be at the top, where you are creating a legacy as a couple, deciding what you will give back from your life together. You still need to come back to this level when you notice distance occurring in your relationship or you are going through a difficult time. As in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, many today find themselves in financial difficulty, worried about their survival needs. In the same way, you may come back to this place over and over as life challenges you in your couple relationship in a variety of ways. In other words, when you are having difficulty in your relationship, go here first and make some changes at this foundational level. Go forth and be wonderful in your relationship today!

An Opportunity:
I am creating a course called, “Creating Exquisite Moments of Connection in Your Relationship” and need a small group of couples to do a smaller version of the course. This will be no cost and will require you to be available for 4 calls and time to do some activities with your partner. Please connect with me to see if your needs and the study are compatible.



Five Ways to Manage Defensiveness in Your Couple Relationship

My blog for this week is about defensiveness. Recently, I have seen the challenges that people have when defensiveness is their strategy when in relationship difficulties. As you may know, it is one of the coping mechanisms that John Gottman has shown through research, that leads to the destruction of relationships. One may wonder why people continue in that vain when it clearly does not work for them in their couple communication. Remember that it is a coping mechanism when you are feeling threatened by something. If you resonate with this strategy as one of your favourites, you have probably been practicing this way of coping for some time. You can also probably see how it has become an automatic response that really needs work in order to manage the impulse. If this is one way that you or your partner recognize as a way you respond, it might be time for some change in this…  When you are defensive, you feel an intensity in the conversation that has you blaming the other or using other nonworking strategies such as shutting down or moving out of the relationship in some way. Your vision of what is going on immediately narrows.The communication becomes difficult or ends. This never ending negative cycle provides a great motivator to learn something new. So what are some ways for you to manage your defenses?

  1.  One of the first skills that is necessary is to check your belief system. What do you believe about relationships? When there are challenges between you and your partner, is it more likely that you both have a part in the challenge or that it is likely one person only. Sometimes when we are not in a conflict, we can clearly  see that certainly when 2 people are in an intimate relationship, there is a shared responsibility. We also find it much easier when we witness others who are in conflict and we can clearly see a shared responsibility in some way. Notice I am not looking at proportionate responsibility. Going there will not alleviate your suffering from the conflict nor head you towards healing of the conflict. Another cognitive adjustment you may need is to look at your willingness to let go of your self protectiveness in your relationship. When you have looked at or adjusted your belief system, you will want to firmly embrace that belief for your conflict management.
  2. Another skill to cultivate is the awareness of your body and emotional internal states. When you are defensive, you are often feeling a fight or flight response in your body. Your heart may begin to race and you can feel your emotions heighten.
  3. When you recognize your heightened internal state, then you need to use the skills of self soothing, such as breathing techniques and self talk that is soothing. Move to a positive mindset where you are thinking thoughts that are positive -‘ we can get through this’. Oh -and remember to keep your mouth closed at this point – possibly the most difficult thing for some to accomplish!
  4. This next part is important for the movement towards resolution of the conflict in your relationship.Your partner  has made a complaint, you have become aware of your immediate desire to become defensive, and you have used the self soothing skills to manage the impulse. You are doing great. Remembering your belief about relationships, you then immediately take responsibility for whatever part you can in what your partner’s complaint is regarding your relationship. This requires listening on your part and while you are self soothing you may have missed the meaning of the message your partner is sending you.  You may ask your partner for more clarification which gives you a bit more time to hear and to let go of your self protectiveness and find what you can to accept responsibility for.
  5. As you are learning this skill, use a repair attempt when you automatically respond with defensiveness instead of using your beginning self control skills. You can say something like, ‘I’m sorry. I wish I had said…’ and let your partner know you are able and willing to accept some responsibility for what happens between you.

Cheering you on in your management of your defensiveness! Go forth and be wonderful!

‘I count him braver who overcomes his desires then him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is over self.’ Aristotle

*Remember there is still room for you in the upcoming workshop to develop your marriage skills. See for more information.


Hints for Sexual Success in Longterm Relationships

It has been my experience that challenges in the sexual relationship of couples ebbs and flows over the life of the marriage. It can be connected to hormones, but most often is connected to the other intimacies in the relationship as well as the stage that the individuals and the marriage is in. I have been a therapist for a long enough time that I have seen the husband in the couple come in with complaints about his wife and her non interest in their sexual relationship and then 20 years later I have his wife in my office making complaints about his lack of interest in their sexual relationship. Remember that the goal of making love is to feel more connected with each other, to have fun and to be valued by each other. If you have been stuck here for a long time, it is likely that you will need some professional counselling. If you are experiencing one of those stuck periods in your sexual relationship that has otherwise been a good relationship, these hints might work for you.

1. Check out the other intimacies in your relationship such as your emotional intimacy. Check in with each other – are you understanding your partner? Do they feel understood by you? do you feel understood by them? Do they feel well loved by you and you by your partner? And what about the relationship intimacy. Are you keeping up with the friendship in your relationship? Does your partner know you? Do you spend quality time together developing your interests together? These intimacies are related to sexual intimacy and often an improvement in these intimacies will make a positive change in your sexual intimacy.

2. Check in with yourself. Have you been taking care of your part in the sexual relationship? For instance, women make love in their minds first. So do you take the time to begin the day with an end of the day lovemaking? During the day are you are thinking about what you love about your partner and do you prepare yourself with whatever scents, candles or whatever makes you ready to make love in the evening? Initiation towards making love is often a wish for it to be a shared thing between couples. Both males and females need to do their part.

3. Have a conversation with your partner where you talk about your sex life. How is the quantity of lovemaking in your partnership? How is the quality of your lovemaking? What might make it better for both of you? Most often, couples don’t actually have precise conversations about their sexual relationship. They tend to skirt around the issue. It is a vulnerable part of your relationship so you will want to be gentle in how you speak to your partner. For instance, rather then criticism where you would say, “you never touch me”, you would say, “when you kissed me the other day that made me feel especially connected to you and I would love it if you would do more of that”. You will want to let your partner know exactly how you feel during lovemaking and what could improve things for both of you, using more of this and perhaps less of that in your conversation.

Some common complaints that might be part of your conversation are: not enough foreplay. Women often need more foreplay in order to switch off from other roles and demands in the day. Sometimes there are complaints about starting the same way every time. Try a little variety, in your beginnings. Be a little more playful. Use your voice during lovemaking. As in other times in the relationship, your partner cannot read your mind. What kind of touch do you need at this time? If your body is not cooperating in lovemaking at any given time, you can still use the opportunity to focus on physically loving your partner. Talk about these challenges that others have and maybe you have too. Do something about the complaints and challenges today. A great book to read, even if you have been together for a long time is called, Intimacy & Desire: Awaken the Passion in Your Relationship by David Schnarch (May 1 2011) or the book I am more familiar with called, Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch (Mar 24 2009). Remember too, that according to research, the best sex happens in long term committed relationships. Go forth and be wonderful in this!

3 Ways to Combat The Dangers of Technology to Relationships

Let’s face it. Technology has crept up on us rapidly and changed the face of our relationships with each other in just a few short years. Of course, it has its positives and I would not want to do without my computer, ipad and iphone. However, it is not just kids who have challenges in balancing technology, adults too have their challenges with technology, particularly in the area of relationships.

You may notice that you are increasingly unwilling to let a text sit without responding to it no matter what is happening in your family. There is certainly research evidence building that social media involvement builds discontent. Certainly, when couples each spend what used to be time together and now becomes time away on their computer device, distance is created, even without intention. When texting with your partner, especially if you try to discuss a pressing issue, the danger of miscommunication is an everyday difficulty. The building of couple resilience, attachment and connection takes time daily and it is difficult enough to come by that time without the insistent call of technology. So what are some things you might do about this that will help you to build fences around your relationship in regards to the influence of internet technology.

  1.  Set aside a time for yourself and assess your own life and the balance of technology. Ask yourself questions about time and how you are spending it. Does the amount of tech time align with your values? If you spent less time on the internet, what would you want to do with that time? What do you need to change personally?
  2.  Sit down together as a couple and hear each other regarding where you think the boundaries need to be around technology and the current irritations you feel around each other’s use of technology. Each couple relationship will have different needs in this regard. Come to this table discussion with an open mind and heart, willing to come together, taking both of your needs into account. Get agreement on what changes you want to institute and then support one another in that.
  3. Assess what has  been lost by your use of technology. For example, have you lost touch with a good friend who does not text or a family member, such as a great grandmother who does not text? What about your children? I often see mom’s texting while walking their child, where in other times there would be lots of communication with the child on a walk. These are just a couple of examples of loss that creeps up on us. When you become aware of this, you may want to commit some of your tech time to other forms of communication that leads to a re-connection of these losses that you may still value.

Some things that other couples have tried and found helpful are to have no tech times such as meal times together. Also having a place in the house where everyone drops their devices when it is a family or couple time or time for shutting down for the day can be an important habit.

The rapidity of change in technology makes it important for you, your relationship and your family  to  do this reassessment every 3 months or so in order to live your life according to your personal values and meaning. Go forth and be wonderful in this!




Anger Management Strategies in Relationships

Clients certainly find that anger not well handled, shoots big holes in their relationship. And even though some have managed to live with the consequences of the way that their partner expresses their anger, it can become one of those final straws in mid life where one in the couple dyad are tired of a life that is like walking on eggshells, where only one voice can be heard and where fear is a daily norm. I am not talking about physical violence in anger which is certainly obvious to both partners, but I am talking about emotional attacks in the midst of an angry outburst.

Each partner has a family culture that handled anger in one way or another. Therefore, partners will often have some pretty strong shoulds around the way anger needs to be handled in their partnership. It ought to be stated here that there is nothing wrong with being angry, it is the way it is expressed that can become problematic. In fact, fighting in marriage is not correlated to divorce. It is the way that a couple fights that leads to divorce (John Gottman’s research). If you are the person who has the most difficulty with emotional management in the relationship, it is important to take responsibility for it and to get some help and accountability for changing this important element in your presentation in your relationship. While you are finding some good help, here is a positive beginning for better communication during the hard times.

  1. When you first feel your anger rising, let your partner know you need a break and will return in 20 minutes, 1/2 hour – whatever works for you. Make sure you do return and YOU initiate the discussion again. If this is late at night, you will want to choose a better time tomorrow. Collaborate with your partner on this.
  2. Then during the break, take the time to self soothe. You cannot manage your emotions well when your biology is not relaxed. You need to take action such as breathing deeply, going for a run, going for a walk or whatever works for you.
  3. You also need to self soothe by managing your self talk. This is not the time to amass new arguments to bring to the table when you return. You need to assure yourself that you will be okay, that you love your partner, that you will get through this. Remember that when your emotions are high, you are not likely to be thinking clearly and most likely are entertaining lots of thought distortions, such as mind reading, black and white thinking etc. You are most likely to consider that your anger is your partner’s fault instead of the truth, that it is up to you and you alone to manage your emotions.

Remember that emotional management takes skills and that is so hopeful – even if this has been a part of your relationship forever. Skills can be learned. It takes commitment, accountability and some good help. Go forth and be wonderful in this area of your life!