Category Archives: Relationships and Communication

Tendency for Codependency?

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT and Marsea Marcus, LMFT

Do you often focus on the needs of others but ignore your own?

Do you find yourself preoccupied by how your loved ones are doing?

Do you have difficulty expressing your feelings and needs in your relationships?

Do you feel compelled to jump in and try to fix others when they’re struggling?

Do you regularly sacrifice your own self-care for the sake of others?

Do you offer support to others without even checking in with your own needs?

All of the above questions are indicators of codependency. Codependency is when somebody consistently focuses on the feelings and needs of others, at the expense of their own. This behavioral pattern hurts not only the codependent, but it also hinders the other person’s growth.

Codependency is sometimes referred to as a relationship addiction. But unlike addictions to substances like alcohol, drugs or cigarettes, where recovery involves complete abstinence, when someone struggles with codependency, the path to wellness is not as clear-cut. You can’t simply stop “the symptoms” of loving, supporting and helping the people you care about. And even if you could, that does not necessarily constitute health either.

It’s healthy and appropriate to help others at times, to feel concerned about our loved ones, or to offer support to the people we care about. It’s only when these things are taken to extremes that they can be harmful rather than helpful.

A codependent person has an extreme need to take care of others and to focus on other people, while ignoring their own needs, problems and desires. In a codependent relationship, one person loses their own identity and orbits around another person. Often, that other person is an addict of some kind, but not always.

The poblem for the recipient of codependent behavior is that they become used to having their problems attended to by someone else. They can stay stuck in a lifestyle that may be ruining their lives or even killing them and, partly as a result of the codependents in their lives, they don’t have the motivation to do anything about their problems; they can leave that to others.

It is important to note that, on the positive side, most codependents are very caring people with very big hearts. Codependency can even look and seem saintly. After all, many codependent people would do almost anything for their friends, children or spouses, including putting their own life on hold. They are loyal! But they tend to be overly loyal, not knowing when (or how) to stop. They over-care, feel overly responsible for others, and are overly focused on the needs of others.

In healthy relationships, each person factors their own needs into their decision-making process, it’s not all about the other person. (Especially when that other person is an addict and not making good decisions for themselves.) In healthy relationships there is a balance between giving and receiving, talking and listening.

Often, a person caught in the grips of codependency feels that their own needs are unimportant. Even though they may look like the “healthier” person of the two, they have their own issues that cause them to think other people are more important than they are, that their own feelings don’t matter, and that they are responsible for saving people. Their desperate need for approval trumps all other needs. When somebody consistently diminishes their own feelings and needs and looks to others for approval and identity, this results in an unhealthy dynamic (for both people). Codependency really isn’t good for anyone, despite the accolades that a codependent person might receive for being so “good” or “helpful.”

Healing from codependency involves subtle and deep self-inquiry. For example, it might feel healthy and appropriate to give your adult child some money in one instance, but at another time, your gut is telling you it’s not a good idea, that they have not been making wise choices with money lately, and that giving them money may only help to perpetuate their bad choices. Healing requires thinking these things through instead of simply reacting to impulses to help.

There are certainly times when doing something for someone else feels like the right thing to do and there are times when that very same offer could be codependent. To know which is which, a person has to be able to tap into their internal wisdom. If someone is unable to do this, it’s important they seek help (i.e. therapy or a trusted friend) to look at the underlying issues that caused them to separate from their internal wisdom in the first place.

For example, if our early caregivers were unhealthy or had a lot of unmet needs themselves, we may have ended up taking on the role of caregiver, rather than the adult being the caregiver, as nature intended it. When this happens, we often lose our connection to our own developmental needs and develop an overactive attunement to our caregiver, and then others. This can cause an internal disconnection from our innate wisdom. Also, some children are naturally wired to be highly empathetic. They tend to over-care about approval, leading them to focus on making other people happy, and under-care about their own feelings and needs. These kids need their caretakers to be in charge and not let them caretake their caretakers.

You may remember a book that was popular back in the 70’s called I’m OK – You’re OK. Think of the codependent version as: I’m OK – If You’re OK. But, in all seriousness, when someone struggles with codependency, it can be very painful business. The constant efforts to fix someone are stressful and, combined with a lack of self-care, can lead to many emotional and physical problems, as well as impede the other person’s growth.

Signs of Codependency

It can be difficult to distinguish healthy caring behaviors from codependent behaviors. In some situations, like when raising a child or helping an elderly person, putting someone else’s needs above one’s own might be necessary and appropriate. Children and some elderly people actually are dependent in a way that another adult should not be.

Here are some signs to look out for:

Consitently putting others’ needs first, at the expense of your own.

Neglecting to check in with your own feelings and needs. 

Doing things out of obligation rather than true desire. 

Not being able to separate out your own needs from what you think are the needs of others. 

Regularly compromising, minimizing or ignoring your own needs. 

Frequent ruminating or obsessing about other people’s feelings, life situations and needs. 

 Having difficulty saying no, setting limits, or making requests on your own behalf. 

Feeling like you don’t have a choice if someone asks you to do something for them.

Neglecting your own self-care because you’re too busy taking care of others. 

Feeling guilty if you say no to someone. 

Having difficulty tolerating someone else’s response if your desires or preferences differ from theirs. 

Having a hard time tolerating glitches or rough spots in your relationships and always needing things to be okay in order for you to feel okay. 

Holding in or denying your true feelings, thoughts and needs because you’re too afraid to voice them.

Feeling resentful because you do too much for others and don’t realize you have choices. 

Jumping at other peoples’ needs without even factoring in your own. 

Thinking it’s your job to help someone when they are struggling.

A Codependent Friendship:

Let’s meet Callie and her friend Lisa. Lisa asks Callie if she can drive her to the airport. Immediately in Callie’s body, she gets a clear sense of “no.” She has been working overtime, while sick with a cold. Her laundry is piled up. The day of Lisa’s flight will be the first day Callie will have time to rest and catch up on her life. This just isn’t going to work for her. But barely tuning into her inner voice about this, Callie immediately thinks about how much Lisa has been struggling lately. She lost her car in a bad accident (yes, she was drunk, but still, she’s really inconvenienced now without a car). And Lisa has been trying really hard to get sober, but everything has seemed to go against her. This ride is one thing Callie can do to make life a little easier for her friend. Callie thinks, “If I don’t do this, Lisa might end up drinking. I can still find time to rest and do my laundry. How can I not help my friend out? I’m lucky to have a car and the time to help her. I feel like I have to give her this ride.”

We all have an inner voice that tells us when something is a no, a yes or a maybe. Someone who struggles with codependency is often not in touch with that knowing, or they are but they ignore it.

So, Callie gets a negative feeling inside that tells her the airport ride does not work for her. The codependent response she chose was to say “yes” anyway. One result will probably be that Callie feels even more exhausted, stressed and, on top of that, resentful.

The healthy response might be for Callie to kindly tell Lisa that she is unable to give her a ride and trust that honoring her gut will be best for both of them, even if it’s difficult. Callie might even realize that she wouldn’t want someone doing a favor for her when it really didn’t work for them, and that Lisa deserves authenticity from her friend.

Again, this does not mean that healthy friends never sacrifice, flex, or go out of their way for each other. It means they regularly tune-in to their inner guidance, their internal GPS, if you will. And that’s where they get their answers. They feel that they have a choice about whether to say “yes” or “no” to the requests of others. They can weigh out the pros and cons honestly and make decisions that respect both the other person and themselves. They can sacrifice their own needs at times, but they can also say “no”, negotiate other options and voice their own feelings, thoughts and needs.

Tips for Healing Codependency:

Take time to think about what you are feeling and needing and how you can best take care of yourself each day.

Remind yourself that you have choices. Practice saying “No”, even if it’s really hard.

 Remember that you are not responsible for another adult’s feelings or life.

Practice pausing before you say “yes” to any request someone makes of you. Tell the requestor you have to think about what they’re asking and get back to them.

Ask yourself what you might do in the situation if you did not feel obligated or afraid.

Tune into your own needs before you jump in to offer support.

Begin expressing your preferences on smaller things, like restaurant or movie choices. This will help you prepare for the bigger things like relationship needs and limit setting.

Take time each day to inquire within. Make it a regular practice to drop down from your mind (where codependent decisions and beliefs are born), into your heart (where you will discover your truth). Spiritual activities like meditation, prayer or quiet contemplation, journaling or connecting with nature can help you do this.

Start asking yourself what you truly love to do. Aside from the family and friends you care about, what other interests do you have? What did you used to be passionate about but gave up?Practice allowing others to experience their hardships and figure out their own solutions, rather than jumping in to save them.

Learn to tolerate someone else having feelings (other than happy)!

If you think a friend is codependent with you, encourage them to take care of themselves, hear them when they express doubt about doing something, respect their answer when they say, “No”, insist they make some choices (like which movie or restaurant to go to) and make space for them to talk about themselves.

Tell yourself (until you believe it) that your feelings, needs and preferences matter too. 

Make it a habit to treat yourself as kindly and importantly as you treat everyone else!

If this list seems challenging to impossible for you, consider getting professional help from a therapist who specializes in codependency. Also, check out some books, blogs or podcasts on the topic.

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9 Ways To Upgrade Your Relationship

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

It seems like it should be the most natural thing in the world to treat your partner with kindness, consideration and respect. After all, this is the person you’ve chosen to share your life, heart and in most cases, bed with. Yet for many people in committed relationships, the respect, kindness and admiration that were present at first tend to fade over time.

As a family therapist, I frequently hear about this unfortunate dynamic from both perspectives. Some people tell me they’re aware of how poorly they treat their partners at times. They even express surprise at how often they find themselves speaking to their partners in ways they would never think of doing with their bosses, coworkers or friends. Others tell me about how their partners treat them, and how they wish it were kinder and more like the early days of dating.

Most people treat their partners with the utmost respect and kindness in the dating and courting stages. After all, the relationship would not have likely progressed if that weren’t the case. So, why do so many people start out presenting the best version of themselves and then over time, begin to treat their beloved partners with disrespect or disregard—and sometimes even disdain?

In some cases, it’s simply because many of us have not been taught to treat our significant others with deep and daily respect. It’s what I call passing the dysfunctional baton. We basically learn how to be in relationships from the role models we witnessed as children. By the time we reach young adulthood, we pretty much have a master’s degree in relationships and, whether we like it or not, our parents were our professors. And depending on how our parents were taught by our grandparents, this may or may not be good news. I’m in no way casting blame here. Our parents and grandparents received their relationship education from their caregivers too. So, we all get what we get, and what we get depends on circumstances beyond our control. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find tutors or new teachers, and it doesn’t mean we can’t learn and improve if our original role models were less than ideal.

An additional source of relationship role-modeling comes from the unhealthy messages we absorb in the media. Most movies and TV shows depict couples who are in conflict, from bickering to arguing to outright fighting. A client once asked if I could recommend a movie whose characters exhibited healthy, loving, respectful communication. I couldn’t, and the likely reason is that it probably wouldn’t sell. Drama sells. So even if your parents or early caregivers were loving, kind and friendly to each other, and even if they worked through rough spots with respect, you still may have gotten a good dose of unhealthy communication lessons from the media.

Another factor that can contribute to how we treat our partners is simply our inborn temperament. I call it our “breed.” We all have various moods, but you can usually see early on that some of us are naturally more light-hearted, and some of us are more serious. Others are a bit rougher around the edges. And on top of that, we have our life circumstances, which can enhance our natural breed or sometimes change it. We all have issues, but either we work on them or they work on us.

Author Eckhart Tolle talks about people having a “pain-body,” which he defines as an accumulation of old emotional pain. Some people have a significantly depressed pain-body and live with a lot of sadness. Others have an angry pain-body and walk around mad at the world. Some people’s pain-body shows itself through a lot of anxiety. Pain-bodies like these can definitely factor into how people treat their partners if they don’t work on healing their wounds from the past. And some people, either through life circumstances, or perhaps self-improvement, seem to have a light pain-body and live life with a bit of a skip in their step.

If you’re someone who finds yourself treating your partner with less respect and kindness than you would like, you can do an upgrade. You can dedicate yourself to healing. You can commit to increasing the respect, kindness and consideration that you probably once treated your partner with. We all deserve to be in relationships that are safe, loving, intimate and friendly, and we can all learn to work through challenges with respect, openness and maturity. Of course it takes two, and you can only work on your end of the deal. But even if one person changes, the whole dynamic can improve.

And, like anything we want to improve, it takes work. You wouldn’t expect to get good at a sport, hobby, instrument or language without learning and practicing. The same goes for relationship and communication skills.

A few important side notes: Being nice doesn’t mean being phony. We all have feelings, moods, thoughts and needs. The upgrade I’m speaking of is about being respectful, no matter what you’re feeling. And if you slip and say or do something disrespectful, you clear it up as soon as possible, the same way you would clean up an accidental spill.

Additionally, if your relationship is unsafe — physically or emotionally — it might be time to get out or, at the very least, get professional help. But if you feel like you are with the one you love (and hopefully like) and you are ready to make some improvements in the way you treat your partner, here are some tips for you:

1. Nourish your relationship.
Just like our plants need food and water, our relationships do too. It’s way too easy in our fast-paced, plugged-in culture to take our significant other for granted, so it’s important to make regular efforts to initiate dates with your partner and plan some fun things to do together. It could be an activity you used to enjoy as a couple, or it could be something new and out of the box. I often ask partners to each write a list of things they might like to do as a couple—anything from a trip to going out for a cup of coffee or an evening walk. Then they trade lists, and each partner marks off the things on the other person’s list that sound good to them. Together they have a new list of fun ideas!

2. Be present when you are present.
Connecting is more than simply being in the same house, room or restaurant, though that’s a good start! It’s about being truly present, making eye contact and showing genuine interest in your partner. Try putting down your tablet, phone or remote control on a regular basis and really take the time to connect with your partner, even for a few minutes. Be sincere when you ask about their thoughts, feelings and experiences, and then really listen and respond from your heart.

3. Foster a balance between friendship and intimacy.
A loving relationship is about being good friends and being intimate. Many relationships begin with a spark of chemistry but fade over time without the foundation of a true friendship, while others may have a solid friendship but lack that romantic spark. See if you can foster a friendship with some kindness and play, and then make regular efforts to fan the flames of intimacy. You might have to abandon your usual mode of sweat pants and sitcoms, but it will hopefully be worth it!

4. Increase tolerance and acceptance.
It’s so easy to gather up resentments about the little things your partner does that bother you, so make working on tolerance, perspective and acceptance a daily practice. Being less judgmental also increases our own level of peace. Try to distinguish between behaviors you’d like to work on accepting and reasonable changes you’d like to request. For example, you might be able to accept the cap being left off the toothpaste, or it might be important enough to respectfully request that your honey try to remember to put it back on. And when your partner makes requests of you, see if you can consider honoring those as well.

5. Give what you’d like to get.
Most people want to be heard, understood, seen and validated. And unfortunately many people want their partner to go first. Since we have zero control over how our partner acts and hopefully some control over how we act, if we want things to change in our relationship, the best chance of success is to give what we would like to get. So if you want to be heard, try becoming a better listener and see what happens. If you want your partner to meet some of your needs, try meeting some of theirs. Of course this doesn’t guarantee anything. Some people won’t be able to meet our needs regardless of what we do, but it’s worth a try, especially if what you’ve been doing hasn’t been working.

6. Act with kindness and compassion.
Here’s some good news: Not only can being kinder and more compassionate improve your relationship, it can also improve your health! Strong emotions such as anger, resentment and hostility increase our stress hormones, causing an elevation in our heart rate and blood pressure, a tightening of our muscles and blood vessels and a shortening of breath.

On the flip side, being kind can set off a series of healthy reactions. According to Dr. David R. Hamilton, acts of kindness create an emotional warmth, which releases a hormone known as oxytocin. Oxytocin causes the release of nitric oxide, a chemical that dilates the blood vessels and so reduces blood pressure. Oxytocin is known as a “cardioprotective” hormone; it protects the heart by lowering blood pressure.

So besides the fact that kindness and compassion simply feel better, they are better for us too!

7. Assume that we are all doing the best we can.
It can be very tempting to look at what our partners are doing and think that we would be doing it differently, or that they should be doing it differently. But is that true? If you had the exact same personality characteristics, birth order, parenting and life circumstances as your partner, you would likely be doing things exactly as they are. Is it always what you’d like? Probably not. Is it always easy? Probably not. But then I’m sure we’re not always fulfilling our partners’ wildest dreams either.

Author Brené Brown shares how her husband, Steve, summed up compassion beautifully. When Brené asked Steve if people are doing the best they can, he answered, “I don’t know. I really don’t. All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is, and not what should or could be.” Brené goes on to say, “It doesn’t mean people were doing the best there was to do, but rather the best we can with the tools that are available to us.”

So, see if you can try on this approach. See what it would feel like to assume that your partner is doing the best they can with the tools they have been given.

8. When emotions are high, take a breather.
In general, the higher our stress level, the harder it is to think clearly, calmly and maturely. So sometimes, in order to keep the respect level high, we need to take a breather. If you feel like things are getting heated or a charged topic is on the table, practice asking for a breather—literally taking a time-out and literally taking some deep breaths. Some people find it helps to take a walk and get some fresh air when things heat up. Some find it helps to journal or listen to a mindfulness podcast or meditate or talk to an unbiased person who is skilled at listening and staying neutral. Do whatever you need to do to minimize potential damage and help yourself get grounded. Then you can return to clear, mature thinking and resume the conversation.

9. Imagine the future if nothing changes in the present.
Change is hard for many of us. Perpetuating our habitual patterns is often the path of least resistance. Even if some of our habits are not even fun or fulfilling, they’re what we know and are used to, and we humans tend to be creatures of habit. If you have habitually been treating your partner in ways you aren’t proud of (and wouldn’t want to see on YouTube), you might find it helpful to think toward the future. I sometimes ask clients to imagine themselves in the distant future, having made no significant changes in their relationship. For some people, this is a pleasant image. But for many, it’s a sad one. They imagine feeling a deep sense of regret about not spending more quality time with their partner, listening more, slowing down more, criticizing less, appreciating more, being more kind.

A dear friend of mine works with people at the end of their lives. She has sat with many people on their deathbeds, and I once asked her if she noticed any themes among the dying. Were there common regrets? Common wishes? She said, “For sure, nobody ever said they wished they had worked more. And many people said they wished they had been kinder and loved their loved ones better.” She said if she could sum up what she most often heard, it was about love, simply loving the people you love—and letting them know it.

View on The Huffington Post

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5 Ways to Rekindle the Spark in Your Relationship

By Andrea Wachter, MFT and Steve J. Legallet, MFT

Do you remember the feelings you experienced when you first started dating your spouse or partner? Perhaps you felt excitement, attraction, and anticipation? Chances are you were exceptionally attentive, polite, and considerate with this exciting new person in your life. You likely made an extra effort to be on your best behavior. As the relationship has progressed, how well have you maintained those initial feelings and behaviors?

It is human nature to highly value a new love interest and to treat that person with great care and respect. Unfortunately, it is also human nature to become complacent and to take people for granted as time passes. Just as a child may excitedly treat a new toy as precious and valuable, only to lose interest and ignore it later, partners who have been together a long time may no longer treat each other as they did during the preliminary thrill of connecting. Once kids, careers, and life’s responsibilities are added to the mix, that initial level of loving kindness and respect can easily diminish.

The good news is that the spark of love, appreciation, and closeness can be reignited. It is possible to rediscover the special connection that brought you and your partner together in the first place. If you are in a long-term relationship that is starting to feel a bit stale or unsatisfying, here are some tips to help you rekindle the spark.

1. Remember and Re-experience — Remember those early days of dating, when your partner could do no wrong? You probably had butterflies of excitement at the mere thought of getting together. Perhaps you left your first few dates with the thrilling anticipation of seeing them again. If you did notice any less than favorable qualities, they were easy to overlook and probably overshadowed by all the things you liked. Unfortunately, over time, many people start focusing more on what they see as their companion’s flaws and shortcomings rather than the qualities they once found endearing.

As Marriage and Family Therapists, we have worked with many clients who have innocently fallen into that negative trap. What we have found is that most relationships can be greatly enhanced when partners consciously and regularly remember and re-experience the thoughts, feelings, and appreciation they once had for each other.

Try looking at your partner through new eyes. Consciously consider the things you like, love, and appreciate. Think about what you would miss about them if they were gone. Ask yourself: What attracted you to your partner in the first place? What were your early dates like? What were the qualities about this person that you found most loveable?

Recall the sweet times you have shared together and focus your attention on your partner’s positive qualities so you can re-experience the feelings that you felt in the early days of your relationship.

2. Listen Attentively — When you went on the first few dates with your partner, you probably did not have your face buried in an iPad or a cell phone. (Perhaps they weren’t even invented yet!) It is more likely that you paid close attention to him or her and acted in a manner that showed how much you truly cared about what they had to say. You probably wanted to know everything about them and listened carefully to what they shared about themselves. That loving attentiveness you once demonstrated and received can easily lessen as the years go by. Taking the time to intently listen to your partner can have a profoundly positive impact on closeness and connection.

If your partner initiates a conversation, whenever possible, stop what you are doing and make eye contact with this person you once adored. As they share their thoughts and feelings with you, truly focus on what they have to say. Remind yourself that since what they are saying feels important enough for them to share with you, they deserve your undivided attention. If the timing is not good for you, respectfully tell them, “I really want to hear what you have to say but I need a few minutes to (fill in the blank with your need) in order to be able to give you my full attention. Would that be okay?” Then be sure to keep your promise to return to the conversation and listen attentively.

3. Inquire Deeply — In the courting stage of relationships, people usually want to know more about each other. Granted, all the stories are new and hot off the press when you first meet, but even if you have been with someone for years, you can still remain genuinely open to wanting to hear more about their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Even if your partner is retelling a story that you have already heard, think about how many times you have repeatedly listened to a song or watched a movie. There is always something worthwhile to learn from your loved one’s experiences and thoughts.

Practice asking your partner about their day or seize the opportunity to inquire more deeply if they voluntarily share something about themselves. See if you can really listen to what they are saying and respect that what they are telling you matters to them, even if it might be about a subject that you do not personally relate to. Try asking a few follow-up questions about what they shared. The key is to be fully present with this person you care about and to give them your full attention as they share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Listen to them in the same respectful, attentive, considerate manner that you would like them to have with you.

4. Mind Your Manners — Take an honest look at the way you speak to your spouse or partner, particularly when you are frustrated, angry, tired, or depressed. Unfortunately, for many people, if they spoke to their friends the way they speak to their partners, they wouldn’t have too many friends left. The tone we use and the words we choose can have a profound impact, both positive and negative, on the quality of our relationship. So it’s extremely important that we manage our emotions, which requires self-awareness, self-control, commitment, and maturity.

Remember to stay tuned in to your own thoughts, feelings, and needs so that you are able to communicate respectfully when your emotions are triggered. Too often people use harsh words that can unwittingly do damage and echo in their partner’s ears for a long time. To prevent this from happening, it’s always a good idea to ask for a time out when things heat up. Try using these three words in a respectful tone: “I’ll be back” and then let your partner know that you simply need to take some time to calm down and sort out your thoughts. Unlike Arnold, you’re not issuing a violent threat; rather, you’re informing your partner that you will be back when you’ve cooled off, and you will then be able to finish the conversation in a more respectful manner.

5. Stoke the Fire — In our busy, task-oriented world, we too often put our relationship on the back burner and forget to keep the spark of love alive. Getting caught up in our daily rituals and routines, we may miss the opportunity to shake things up romantically with the one we love. It doesn’t have to be two weeks in Tahiti. It could be a special date night or a spontaneous dance in the living room with the lights turned low. The point is: keep the intimate connection alive.

Find things that you both enjoy doing and then make the time to do them together. Maybe it’s engaging in an activity that you both used to enjoy — or trying something new and “out of the box.” Leave your smart phones behind and discover a new hiking trail, restaurant, or club. Silence the phones and play a board game, read a sexy book out loud, or slow-dance. Leave a love note in an unsuspecting place, give your partner an unsolicited massage, light some candles in the bedroom and play a song from your dating days. Shake up your routine, be creative, be playful, be open and kind. Most important: be present. Look for opportunities to stoke the fire. The possibilities are endless.

Will recalling the good times, minding your manners, listening attentively, inquiring deeply, and shaking it up romantically really make a difference? Is it possible to rekindle the spark that originally brought you and your partner together? Try some of these tips… and see what happens!

View on The Huffington Post

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Two Simple Words to Improve Your Relationship

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

You have probably been hearing these words from your mother for years. You probably even say them to your own kids if you are a parent. They are about as common-sensible as basic hygiene and car tune-ups. Two simple words to improve your relationship: Be nice!

I remember many years ago, finishing up a particularly heated therapy session with a couple. My clients were getting ready to head out the door when the husband turned to me and said, “Can you give me a few words to keep in mind this coming week?” I said, “You bet I can… Be nice!”

It sounds so simple, I know. How hard should it be to be nice? Particularly to the people we most love? But unfortunately, many people are plagued with unresolved resentments and wounds, which can make the simple notion of minding our manners, anything but simple.

So how do we stop a pattern of bickering, arguing, fighting and feuding? Well, the first step is always desire. We have to want to stop. We have to be interested in and open to changing. We have to be willing to look at our own part instead of pointing out our partner’s part. We have to pause instead of go on autopilot in our communications. We have to be humble enough to ask for do-over’s when we pounce instead of pause. We have to want to listen and understand instead of just wanting to be heard and understood. We have to want to make peace instead of only wanting to make our point.

Having shared this philosophy with many clients over the last few decades, I have received a lot of really good questions on the matter and I thought I would share a few of these Q and As with you. May these dialogues help you find more peace in your partnership, less disputes in your day and more “carefronting” in your confronting!

Q: Are you saying I’m not supposed to get angry with my husband? It’s not realistic for me to be sweet and nice all the time.

A: Of course it’s not realistic for you to be sweet and nice all the time. The weather is not always sunny with a light breeze and neither are we. However, you can always be respectful and kind, even if you are angry. Your voice might not have the same tone as it would if you were talking about something light, but you can still be kind. And not only will that help you to be a better communicator, it will also help you get more of what I assume you are wanting… a loving relationship.

So even if you are really angry with your husband, if you approach him in a loving, non defensive manner, you are much more likely to be heard and come to a resolution which will then give you less to be angry about and give him less to react to, and so it goes.

Q: I ask my husband all the time to do stuff around the house and he says he will but then he doesn’t. It drives me nuts and it seems like the only way he does things is if I yell at him. I do everything he asks me to do and he still can’t manage to do a few simple chores.

A: While it might seem that yelling is an effective form of communication, what it is likely doing is undermining the tenderness and trust between the two of you. Yelling might even be contributing to some passive/aggressive behaviors on your husband’s part that could lead him to say “yes” but not follow through on his word.

How about sitting down with your husband and saying something like: “I am not sure what to do. You have agreed to (fill in the blank with the chore du jour) and yet you have not done it. I really don’t want to fight or nag but I am not sure what to do when you agree to do something and then you don’t do it. Do you have any suggestions?”

Then see if a respectful and mature dialogue ensues. (If it doesn’t, you might consider seeking some professional help from an individual or couples counselor.)

Also, you say that you do everything your husband asks you to do but my guess is that what he would really want the most from you would be for you to be nice to him. So ask yourself, if in addition to the household chores and other practical things you are doing for him, are you also being nice?

Q: Sometimes my wife and I are in the middle of a really important discussion and she just shuts down. She either gets totally silent and won’t say a word or she gets really mean and brings up a bunch of stuff from the past. I don’t know what to do when this happens.

A: It sounds like there are times when your wife hits what I call an emotional landmine. She may or may not even be aware of what is being triggered inside of her. Hopefully she is open to knowing and exploring her reactions but regardless of whether she is or not, you can still remain calm and kind on your end.

I recommend talking about this pattern when she is not shut down or explosive. (It’s much easier to dismantle a bomb when it is not exploding than when it has already gone off.) See if you can find a time that you are both calm and in agreement that it’s a good time to talk about this pattern. See if she is open to talking about what happens for her and what she thinks would be most helpful to her at those times. For some, it’s a comforting word or statement. For others, it’s a reminder that you are on their side and that you want to know what they are feeling and needing. Some people feel reassured by physical touch when they are triggered. Others want space and time.

See if your wife can get clear on what things might help bring her back to a present and mature state. If she is someone who needs a break from certain charged topics, perhaps you can let her know that would be fine, as long as she can let you know that in a respectful way and come back to it later for resolution.

Many people get flooded with emotions at various times and from various topics. They cannot always think clearly and quickly and sometimes regress to a less than mature state (some more than others, depending on their history and their unresolved wounds). Some people attempt to ignore their emotional wounds, some people act them out on others and some work on healing them. By initiating kind and curious discussions followed by safe and well kept agreements, it is possible to heal our wounds from the past rather than inflict them on others in the present.

If your wife is open to solutions and makes a request for those challenging moments, it’s important to remember that you can experiment and see how something works for a period of time. It doesn’t have to be written in stone. One couple I worked with made an agreement that when the wife raised her voice and became what her husband perceived as critical, he was going to give her a little hand signal that would help bring her back to being respectful. After a while, she realized that the hand signal was feeling contrived and she was ready to have him verbally ask for what he needed when things got heated. The main goal is that you both work as a team to heal your unresolved wounds rather than continually inflict them on each other.

Q: It seems like no matter how nice I am to my husband, he continues to be really mean and insulting. I am not sure what else I can do to make things better?

A: First of all, the practice of being nice is not only about how you treat your partner. It also needs to be applied toward yourself. While we are only responsible for our side of the street in a relationship, we also get to decide what street we want to live on. It is critical to differentiate between someone who has anger issues but is still a safe partner vs. someone whose anger is unsafe and/or abusive.

If your husband is insulting and mean and is unwilling to look at his part, change, or get help, it might not be a safe place for you to be. I would recommend you seek individual counseling to sort that out and/or couples therapy if he is open to it. Safety always comes first. If your husband is abusive, “Be Nice” becomes “Be Gone.”

Q: My wife accuses me of yelling at her all the time but I only yell when she doesn’t listen.

A: This is a very common pattern for many couples. One person doesn’t feel heard and then raises their voice in attempt to get heard. Then the other partner goes into their mode of defense–most commonly yelling back, shutting down, or a combo plate of the two.

I am sure it must be very frustrating to feel like your wife is not listening to you but unless you are willing to speak in a respectful manner, tone and volume, the chances are slim that she ever will.

Instead of trying to change her listening skills, how about changing your delivery and see what happens? The next time you feel like she is not hearing you, see if you can speak very kindly and respectfully; ask her if she would be wiling to really hear your point and tell her that you will then really try to hear hers. Then repeat daily or as needed!

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Speaking vs. Stuffing Your Truth

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

Most of us do not easily speak our truth. Our behavior is determined by years of conditioning. We are told, “Be nice and polite,” and “Don’t hurt anyone’s feelings.” We may be so bogged down with shoulds and shouldn’ts that we find it hard to identfy our true feelings and needs, much less respectfully and responsibly communicate them to others.

There are basically four options when it comes to speaking vs. stuffing your truth:

Option number one is to stuff our truth down — also known as passivity, and this can potentially lead to problems with substance abuse and/or feelings of depression.

Option number two is to blast our truth out — also known as aggression. This can be seen as violence, yelling, road rage, or even being sarcastic or mean.

Option three is a combo plate, which is known as passive-aggressive. It might seemkind, but it is really aggressive. For example, someone smiles and agrees to do something for you, but then makes sarcastic comments while they do it.

And option number four is assertiveness. This is when you express your truth safely and responsibly and from the heart.

Whether you are enraged, sad, hurt, terrified or in need, there is always (and I have never found an exception to this!) a way to say it with respect.

I was once coaching a client in speaking her truth to an intimidating neighbor. She got clear on what she wanted to say, and she even practiced with me a few times. The following week she came in and said, “I spoke my truth but it didn’t work. He was rude back to me.”

But the definition of it “working” has nothing to do with how the other person responds. Of course it’s great if they calmly hear you and then negotiate or apologize ’til you both feel clear, but that’s the ideal situation and will not always be the case. It takes two people speaking this language in order for that to happen. You can only be in charge of the language you speak.

So whether you speak your truth aloud, email it, text it, or write it down and send it in an envelope with a stamp on it, what matters most is that you honor it. The less you stuff down your truth, the less likely it will come blasting out unkindly and the less need you will have to keep it down in unhealthy ways like overeating, drug use, alcoholism, smoking, or excessive screen time.

Here are some tips to improve your truth-telling:

1. Ask yourself how you really feel and what you really want and need.

Sometimes we need to get quiet and sift through resentment, blame, defensiveness and made-up stories in order to get to the innocent truth inside of us. Even if the other person can’t give you what you ask for, you still benefit by improving your communication skills.

2. Ask the other person if it’s a good time to talk.

It’s always a good idea to check in with the other person if you are going to say something difficult and make sure it’s a good time for them, or to set up a time that works for you both.

3. Speak your truth, respectfully and non-judgmentally.

If you are used to stuffing your truth down, it might come out harshly at first. It takes practice to say what you mean but not in a mean way.

4. Be non-blaming and non-defensive.

Stay open to understanding their side as well. If you don’t get aggressive or defensive, it is really hard for things to escalate. They might not go smoothly and respectfully, but it will only turn into a full-blown war if you both participate in fighting. It’s a skill to take in feedback without crumbling, defending or blaming.

5. Stick to the facts rather than interpretations, assumptions and stories.

It’s so easy to make up stories about why someone did or said something. You might even try checking out your stories and find that there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for someone’s actions.

6. Use “I” statements.

Try to speak about how you feel. It’s very different when we say, “I feel hurt about what you said,” as opposed to, “You always speak to me that way.”

Using “I” statements is not just about literally starting a sentence with the word “I.” It’s important to watch out for sneaking in a “you” statement disguised as an “I” statement! This can sound like, “I really feel like you are being an unreasonable jerk!”

7. Keep it brief .

Sometimes what we have to say gets lost if we use too many words. It helps to stay brief and allow the other person to respond before going on too long.

8. Stick to one subject at a time.

Many people have stifled their unresolved issues to the point that when we bring up something, they realize that they too have some things they want to throw into the mix. It can help to agree to get back to that later, but to resolve one issue at a time.

9. Allow the other person to have their response and feelings.

Allowing someone the freedom to respond the way they do can be very challenging. It doesn’t mean you can’t ask for what you want, but we are simply not in charge of how they respond.

10. Don’t take it personally.

Remind yourself that however the other person responds, it is not about you, even if you did something that made them mad or hurt. You could do the same exact thing to five different people and they would all respond based on their history and communication skills.

11. Keep speaking your truth.

No matter how the other person responds, even if they are defensive, aggressive or even passive, you can still continue speaking your truth, respectfully!

12. Own your part.

Be open to learning where you may have contributed to the conflict. Be open to apologizing. Sometimes, a simple misunderstanding can be cleared up in an instant if we are willing to say we are sorry.

13. Ask for what you want and need and be open to negotiating.

This may sound simple, but it’s not always easy for people to ask for what they want. Sometimes the other person will say yes, sometimes no, and sometimes we need to negotiate. In any case, you can continue to practice the language of respectful communication.

14. Accept that the other person’s needs and wants are as important as yours.

Most of us want the other person to see it our way. But when we truly care about someone, we need to know what they feel and need, even if it’s not the viewpoint we were hoping for.

So if it’s scary and hard and the other person’s response is unknown, why bother speaking up? One of the main reasons is that when we are stuffed with unresolved issues we often use substances over them, feel depressed over them and cannot get our needs met because of them. And it is not possible to have intimate and healthy relationships without there being some glitches. It’s just not real. It’s not real for it to be 70 degrees with a light breeze every day, and it’s not real for relationships to go smoothly all the time. There are going to be glitches and we can get better at dealing with them. The key is to look at your part without being a doormat, and to speak your truth without being aggressive.

Now, this doesn’t mean we must express our every thought. Sometimes we express what we are feeling to someone else who makes us feel safe, and not the person directly. Sometimes we are able to work through it and truly let it go, and sometimes we need to find a way to say it or to write it in order to be clear and resolved.

It can help, if you are new at this, to let the person know and ask them to please be patient with you. Fortunately we don’t have to do it perfectly, and we can always ask for a do-over or come back to something if we need to. That’s why we call it ongoing communication.

Therapist and author Dan Wile writes, “A fight is never more than a sentence away. By the same token, intimacy is never more than a sentence away.”

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Barnacled, Boundaried or Balanced: What’s Your Attachment Style?

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

“I dated her for a while, but she got way too clingy.”

“I was interested in him at first, but then he became needy and controlling.”

“I love my husband, but sometimes he’s so distant that I don’t know what’s going on with him.”

“I want things to work out with my girlfriend, but whenever I get too close, she withdraws.”

Do any of these statements sound familiar? In the psychotherapy world, they are all signs of unhealthy attachments. In the first two examples, the complaint is about someone getting overly attached while the latter two signify distancing or under-attachment.

We all learn how to form attachments in early childhood, which then lays the foundation for the types of attachments we will form in adulthood. If our caregivers were safe, present and reliable, we can explore the world, knowing we have a safe harbor to come back to. If our caregivers were unsafe or unreliable, we are much less likely to form healthy attachments with others.

For example, if we had a parent who was unavailable and distant, we might have a hard time getting close to people. On the other hand, we might react in the opposite extreme and become clingy and afraid of being abandoned by others. It’s also possible we might choose people who are as distant as our parent was.

Since we are complex human beings, there is no cut-and-dried formula for the attachment pattern we adopt. Having an overprotective parent may lead us to repeat their style and become overly dependent in our significant relationships. Or we might feel suffocated by our partner and react by becoming distant.

Essentially, we either parrot our parent’s style of attachment or respond in the opposite direction. But either way, if we did not have healthy and secure attachments as a child, we are less likely to form them as adults.

The good news is that we can unlearn unhealthy patterns and learn how to form healthy attachments. Not only is a healthy attachment much more satisfying, it can also help us heal from the wounds that our unhealthy attachments inflicted.

There are a number of different styles of attachment, but these are how I refer to the basic three:

Barnacled — I use this term to describe relationships that fall on the clingy side of the attachment spectrum. These are the relationships that country songs thrive on — the “I’m nothing without him,” “I’ll die without her” kind of stuff. In real life, it’s the “he hasn’t texted me back and it’s been an hour and I am going crazy” kind of attachment. Someone with a barnacled attachment cannot feel at peace unless their relationship is going absolutely smoothly. Unfortunately, people who are overly needy rarely feel peaceful because their partners tend to feel uncomfortable with their clinginess and react by distancing themselves.

Barnacled attachments are often created when a person’s early attachments to their parents were distant, avoidant, or inconsistent. As an adult, these individuals are terrified of being abandoned, rejected, or forgotten. So even though a person may logically acknowledge that their partner is probably just running late at work, the scenario running through their mind is usually of the “worst case” variety: I’m being left behind, cheated on, forgotten or lied to.

Boundaried — A boundaried attachment style is seen in the person who appears to be detached, cool, or evasive. People with boundaried attachments are hard to get close to and have difficulty sharing their thoughts and feelings with a partner. This style is often the result of a childhood in which one’s parent is overly dependent or overly controlling, but not always. Sometimes having a boundaried parent will create an adult who also has difficulty getting close to others. Boundaried individuals are usually terrified of being engulfed, swallowed up or controlled.

Balanced — This is a healthy form of attachment in which partners are able to be close and loving while at the same time maintain a sense of self. There is no need for either partner to be clingy or distant because each knows that they are okay with or without the other person’s approval. And each can tolerate difficult times without falling apart emotionally. A key component to having this type of relationship is being able to express one’s feelings and needs and to allow the other person to express theirs. Both people are able to find a balance between their own needs and their partner’s, between time for themselves and togetherness as a couple.

When two people are aware of their attachment styles and what triggers their emotional responses, they can then work toward healing from past wounds and creating a more healthy attachment.

Tips for Creating Balanced Attachments:

Awareness — The first step is identifying your attachment style and being open to change and growth. We cannot change any unconscious pattern until we first become conscious of it. So begin by asking yourself which attachment style you most often see yourself expressing. Start noticing what triggers your responses, and become aware of those times when you are acting out from a wounded place.

Healthy Detachment — If you are more of a Barnacled Attacher, see if you can give yourself the reassurance that you seek from others. Try writing yourself a letter containing exactly what you wish your partner or others would say to you and read it to yourself every day. Become aware of how you feel when you are anxious or lonely. Learn to put words to those feelings and write about them or talk to someone you feel safe with.

Healthy Connecting — If you are a Boundaried Attacher, see if you can take an occasional risk and share what you are feeling or needing from your loved one. Learn to identify what you are feeling when you have the need to distance yourself, and try saying it out loud, rather than just reacting and silently pulling away.

Most of us have been taught that our partner is supposed to meet all of our needs, but in truth our parents were supposed to do that so that we could then come to an adult relationship whole and healthy. Since many of our parents were raised in wounded attachments, many of us are learning from scratch how to create a healthy one. With awareness, maturity, guidance, and a willingness to change, we can grow beyond a legacy of overly distant or overly clingy attachments. We can learn to create and enjoy respectful, open and loving relationships.

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What To Do When Your Partner is Thinking of Leaving

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

It seems to me in our great grandparents and grandparents’ era, people seemed to stay together no matter what. In today’s fast moving, perfectionistic world, people seem quick to leave no matter what. In my therapy practice, I often help ambivalent clients differentiate between deal-breakers and deal-makers. Should they stay or should they go? And of course, we talk about the grass needing maintenance on the other side of the fence as well.

If your partner is thinking of leaving you, here are some tips to help you navigate this painful chapter.

Know That It’s Not All Your Fault: Despite what your partner may say, the fact that they are thinking of leaving you is not all your fault! I am sure you have some relationship patterns to change — we all do — but the fact that they are considering giving up on the relationship is not (and I repeat not) all about you.

Your partner may have issues with some of the things you do, but a healthy and committed partner tells you about them respectfully, remains open to working on them and decides which issues are essential to change and which ones they can live with and accept.

Do look at your part in the relationship struggles. It doesn’t mean you are a bad person. It simply means you are a teachable person who is willing to grow and change. Over time you will find out if your partner is willing to grow and change as well.

Stay In the Moment: The natural tendency in a life crisis like this is to fret about the future. But you never know what may happen. I have seen couples make it and thrive after infidelity. I have seen partners who didn’t think they could survive a break up be the ones to make the final decision to leave and end up happier. The bottom line is that you have no idea how this is all going to turn out. Just do what’s right in front of you and when the time comes to make a decision, in that moment, you will know.

Much like reeling in a fishing line, we all need to learn how to reel our ever so creative and active minds back to the present moment. The stories and scenarios we create seem so real, they actually cause us to have feelings about things that haven’t even happened. Catch yourself when you can and reel yourself back to actual — factual — reality.

Don’t Make Any Major Decisions: Don’t even buy a new washer and dryer right now! The only thing you need to do is your basic self-care and necessary responsibilities. Continuously ask yourself, “What do I need to do to take care of myself and my children?” When enough time, tears and tantrums pass, you will be clear about what to do. Making a decision from the place you and your partner are in right now is likely to be reactive, rather than rational.

Unless your partner is abusive and/or an addict (and unwilling to work on it), I recommend that you give this process enough time to make sure you are a making a well thought out decision.

There is nowhere to go that will be magically easy or bring permanent happiness. Unless you are both perfectly clear that the relationship is over, or there is abuse (in which case it should be), this relationship might be worth waiting for. The decision will unfold and become clear over time.

Don’t Be Your Partner’s Therapist: Your partner may be confused and in a lot of pain right now, but you are not the best person for them to sort this out with. You both need safe, objective, loving and forthright people to support each of your very different needs. It’s not good for you to be constantly hearing every detail of your partner’s ambivalence about the relationship and it’s not good for them to be hearing the daily details of your emotional pain.

If it feels productive and important for you to hear some of your partner’s grievances, and you can still maintain your sense of self, then do that. However, if you feel like you are turning into a therapist or a punching bag, it is best for you to set some limits.

Don’t Turn to Addictions for Comfort: Many people want to turn to addictive habits for comfort at a time like this. And while they do provide short-term relief, they will surely lead to long-term grief.

Are you numbing your feelings with drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, shopping, gambling, food, diets, purging, or obsessing on your appearance? Are you excessively exercising, or using your TV or computer until you’re zoned out? Are you preoccupied with another relationship? Even depression can be a way to numb out and avoid painful emotions.

The truth is that it’s hard to feel emotional pain and it’s hard to feel the consequences of addictive habits intended to avoid emotional pain. However, only one will lead you out and through while the other is a dead-end road of anesthetization. Once you find the right kind of support and build a tolerance for feeling difficult emotions, you will see that all feelings eventually pass. You can learn to receive comfort externally from others and internally from yourself.

Don’t Lose Yourself: When a person is at risk of being left, their basic sense of value is extremely threatened. The natural tendency is to wait, like an innocent puppy, to see if its owner is going to come back. What once may have been an equal playing field between partners can turn into a one-way power play, with all the power in the hands of the person considering leaving. Who would want to be left? Who would want to be potentially rejected by someone you love?

But love, in spite of countless poems and country-western songs, is not enough. It takes shared values, commitment, maturity, spirituality, communication and grit (from both partners!) to make a long-term relationship live a long and healthy life.

While it is important to stay open to working on relationship issues if your partner is willing to respectfully discuss them, it is equally essential that you stop putting all your focus on your partners wants, needs and feelings and begin to regain your own sense of power. You were (hopefully) okay before you met your partner, and if the relationship ends, you can be okay again.

Your partner may be unsure about the relationship, but what are you unsure about? What do you want? What are you unwilling to live with? What do you need to be different if the two of you were to stay together?

Pursue What Brings You Joy: In addition to dealing with moment-to-moment self-care during a life crisis, it is essential that you also begin, when you are ready, to use this time as an opportunity to find things that fulfill you. Not only will this help you in the present, but it will create hope for the future. And as a bonus, people who feel joy and do things they feel passionate about are much more attractive to their partners than people who are chronically depressed and overly dependent.

This may mean reestablishing things you used to be passionate about and got away from. It may mean cultivating some new interests. What did you used to love that you gave up when you met your partner? What have you always dreamed of doing but never had the time or courage to do?

Whether it’s a meditation or yoga class, a book club, a hiking or biking group, a new sport you’ve never tried, a craft, music lessons, or reconnecting with an old friend, it is critical that you find, have and/or rekindle the things that bring you joy. When we give up important parts of ourselves for a relationship and the relationship is at risk, our stability is at risk as well. When we are filled up and living a full life that we love, we may still need to grieve and face the unknown, but we will not have forsaken ourselves in the process. You might be feeling abandoned by your partner right now but you do not have to abandon yourself.

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How to Stop an Argument in Its Tracks

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

I think it’s fair to say that the most common reason people argue is due to poor communication skills. While we were all taught many different subjects in school, healthy communicating generally wasn’t one of them. There are many styles of communication, but for the sake of simplicity, I will break it down into two general categories: closed and open. Or, speaking a little more clinically: defended and undefended.

Here’s an example of open, undefended communication, hot off the press: I recently shared some feelings of upset with my husband. Having been around the relational block a time or two, I know there are a lot of ways he could have responded. But what he did say completely melted my heart. He spoke six little words that had a very big impact. It was a simple sentence and I could tell it was sincere. He said, “I totally understand how you feel.” Wow, I thought, keep that one in your back pocket — it’s quite the crowd pleaser!

Most of us have not been taught how to speak or listen in effective and healthy ways. (There are no bad guys here. Our parents and their parents were not taught either so we are all in this communication boat together!)

If you would like some help with your communication skills, here are some tips to stop an argument in its tracks:

Tips for the speaker:
Say what you mean, but don’t say it mean. No matter what you are feeling (including anger), there is always a way to say it with respect. Speaking respectfully means making a decision to speak from your heart, rather than speaking from anger, fear, shame or whatever you happen to be feeling at the time. It means you don’t verbally attack, criticize or judge the other person. Instead, you speak with kindness, love and respect. Speaking from the heart does not guarantee that the listener will follow suit but it sure increases the chances that they might. And, even if the listener does not respond respectfully, by speaking kindly, from your heart, you are improving your own healthy communication skills and preventing an escalation of the conflict on your end. (The only end we are in charge of!)

When you have some intense feelings and thoughts to share with someone, try asking them first if it’s a good time to talk.

If you are really angry, and it’s possible to hold off, wait till you have calmed down a bit before you attempt to talk about it.

Speak from your heart in a respectful and non-judgmental manner and try not to assume you already know their motives.

Do your best to stay current in your relationships by addressing problems as they arise so that resentments don’t pile up.

When voicing your complaints, stick to one subject rather than bringing in a history of unresolved issues.

If you say or do something you regret, try to genuinely apologize and ask for a do-over. Then try it again in a more loving and respectful manner.

Make reasonable, specific requests for change. Be clear on what you are asking for. For example, “I’d like it if you made more of an effort to be on time.” Or, “I’m wondering if you can turn the computer off while we talk about this?”

After you respectfully speak your truth, make room to hear the other person’s side as well. (More on this one in a minute!)

Remind yourself that even healthy relationships have bumps in the road and that getting through conflicts can make a relationship stronger.

Remember that there is more to this relationship than this difficult time and try not to let one incident color your love and view of the other person.

Tips as a listener:
Try this CURE to improve your listening skills- Use the following acronym to assist you when someone speaks to you about their thoughts and feelings.

Curious — be open to additional understanding of what caused the conflict.

Undefended — accept the other person’s feelings and don’t blame them or defend yourself.

Respectful — speak kindly, even if you are very upset.

Empathic — stay sensitive to the other person’s feelings and really try to understand them.

As the listener, when someone shares their unpleasant feelings, it’s easy to become defensive, closed and stuck in our own point of view. The healthy alternative is to stay open to hearing their side and understanding their perspective. It’s about getting into the empathic position of wanting to understand what someone else is going through rather than the defensive position of explaining what we are going through. And the good news is that when both people are practicing healthy, respectful communication then they both end up feeling heard and understood! Talk about a win/win!

When someone shares their feelings with you, do your best to fully listen to them and try to understand their position until they really feel heard.

Remember that what they are sharing is really about their beliefs, feelings and experiences.

Try to keep the spotlight on the speaker and really stick to the subject they are talking about until it is complete. Don’t use this as a time to bring up your complaints about them. If you have unresolved issues, make a promise to yourself to bring them up at a later date.

Ask questions and inquire more about their experience, feelings and needs rather than rushing to get to your side of the story. (This can be challenging but can really increase the chances of a productive outcome.)

Give the speaker your undivided attention with good eye contact and respectful facial expressions.

Give others time to fully express themselves, including pauses and time for them to have their emotions and gather their thoughts.

Ask them what they are wanting and needing from you. Then let them know if you can do what they are requesting. If not, be kind in your explanation of why you can’t and consider a compromise or counter-proposal.

Do your very best to stay open to looking at your part in the problem. (This one is hard but it really helps melt resentments when we can honestly understand, apologize or own our part in a conflict.)

Once the speaker feels heard, focus on negotiating solutions and finding a common ground that you can both agree on. (Sometimes the resolution itself comes from fully hearing someone out and no further solution is needed!)

So the next time you have an urge to say something in a rude or caustic manner, try stating your feelings in a kind and respectful way and see what happens. (And, for bonus points, try keeping it up no matter how the other person responds!) Then, the next time someone tells you something that is difficult to hear, try responding in an open, non-defensive manner. Consider sentences like: “I will take a look at that,” “Thank you for letting me know,” or “It makes sense that you feel that way.”

If you are someone who finds yourself in too many argumentative conversations, give some of these tips a try. You will be amazed at how easy it is to stop an argument in its tracks.

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What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

In a recent blog, I wrote about speaking your truth when you are upset with someone, rather than stuffing it down or blasting it out. To that end, I wanted to share some practical one-liners for those times when you are caught off-guard. Many of us feel like a deer in headlights when someone says something insulting, hurtful, or presumptuous, and we have no comeback prepared. Like learning any new language, the language of assertive yet respectful communication takes practice. So here are some ideas for you:

  • What makes you ask that?
  • What makes you say that?
  • I’ll have to get back to you on that.
  • I need to take some time and think about it.
  • That’s not going to work for me.
  • Ouch.
  • That hurts.
  • I know I agreed to do that, but I changed my mind. I’m very sorry.
  • I understand that’s how you feel. And this is how I feel.
  • It’s okay if we disagree.
  • What do you need from me right now?
  • It’s okay for you to be mad, but it’s not okay for you to be mean.
  • I am wondering if you would be willing to lower your voice because it is upsetting me and I really want to hear what you have to say.
  • If you can’t lower your voice, I am going to have to take a break from this conversation even though I really do want to hear what you have to say.
  • I feel a lot of strong emotions over what you just said, and I don’t want to react harshly, so I would like to take some time before I respond.
  • I am curious: What is your intention in saying that?
  • I will totally take a look at that.
  • This feels awkward but I need to tell you that __________________.
  • I am making up a story about what you are thinking. Can I check it out with you and see if it’s true?
  • I want to hear what you have to say but the way you are saying it is scaring me.
  • What you have to say is important to me but it’s getting lost in the way you are saying it.
  • I am so sorry that I hurt your feelings. That was truly not my intention.
  • I have a request to make. If you can do it, that’s great and if you can’t, that’s fine too. I am just going to ask.
  • I know you love me and I don’t think you are intending to be hurtful, so I need to tell you that when you say ____________to me, it is very hurtful and I would so appreciate it if you would try to stop.
  • I would really appreciate it if you would stop commenting on my ______________.
  • I would really appreciate it if you would stop _____________________.
  • I am not sure what to do at this point because I have asked you to stop ___________ and you continue to do it, so something needs to change here.
  • I need to ask for a change in the way we talk or are with each other and I am hoping you are willing to hear me out.
  • I am not sure how to respond to that. Give me a minute if you would.
  • I realize I have been holding something inside for a while that I would like to tell you. I needed to take the time to figure out how to say it in a responsible way.
  • I have something hard to say and I am wondering if you would be willing to just listen and hear me out?
  • I have something to tell you that feels really hard to say. What I would most appreciate from you after I tell you is ____________________.
  • I am wondering if there is a way that I could have worded that that would have made it easier for you to hear?
  • I don’t necessarily need you to agree or understand what I am saying but I would really appreciate it if you would try to accept it.
  • It seems like from your response that I may not have communicated clearly or that you may have misunderstood what I said (or did) I would like to try again if you are up for it.
  • That really makes sense to me how you would feel that way.
  • Thank you for telling me your perspective on what happened. I really want to try to understand how you feel.
  • Thank you for telling me what you feel and need. I will, to the best of my ability, try never to do or say that again.
  • Thank you for telling me what you feel and need. I will never to do or say that again.
  • That makes me very uncomfortable and I need to ask you to stop.
  • I want us both to be able to share our thoughts and feelings, but in order to do that, we need to take turns. Do you want to go first or second?
  • I wasn’t done speaking yet. Can I continue?
  • I am wondering if I can express something and just ask you to listen until I am totally finished?
  • When you say (or do) _____________ I feel ______________ (preferably one word here, for example: sad, angry, hurt, judged, etc.) and I would very much prefer it if you _____________.
  • This is scary for me to say, so I am hoping you can really hear me and try not to judge me or give me any advice.
  • I know we already spoke about _________ but it doesn’t feel complete to me. Would you be open to talking about it some more?
  • I wish I had said that differently. Can I get a do-over?
  • What are you wanting to have happen right now?
  • What do you need in order for this to feel complete?

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