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.

← Return to blog entries

8 Ways To Upgrade Your Relationship

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

It seems like it should be natural to treat our partners with love, consideration, and respect. Yet, for many people in long-term relationships, the warmth and kindness that were present in the early days of dating can fade over time.

Most people treat their partners with the utmost respect and kindness in the courting stage. The relationship probably wouldn’t have progressed if they hadn’t. Why do so many people present the best version of themselves early on, and over time, treat their beloved partners with disrespect, disregard, and sometimes even disdain?

In some cases, it’s simply because we haven’t been taught to treat our significant others with deep and daily respect. I call it passing the dysfunctional baton. We basically learn how to be in relationships from the relationships we witnessed as children. By the time we reach young adulthood, we pretty much have a master’s degree in relationships. Whether we like it or not, our parents were our professors. Depending on our parents’ communication skills, this may or may not be good news.

I’m in no way casting blame here. Our parents received their relationship education from their caregivers too. We all get what we get and what we get depends on circumstances that are beyond our control. What is in our control, if our role models were less than ideal, is that we can find new teachers. We can unlearn ineffective patterns and upgrade to healthier ones.

An additional source of relationship role modeling comes from the messages we absorb in the media. Most movies and tv shows depict couples in conflict. After all, drama sells. So even if your parents or early caregivers were loving and friendly to each other and 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 our inborn temperament. I call it our “breed.” Some of us are naturally light-hearted. Some of us tend to be a bit more serious. Others run more anxious. Some, more sad. Some of us are more sensitive. And some people are a bit rougher around the edges. On top of that, our life circumstances can enhance our natural breed or sometimes alter it.

If you find yourself treating your partner with less respect and kindness than you’d like, you can do an upgrade. You can commit to increasing the respect and consideration that you probably once treated your partner with. We all deserve to be in relationships that are safe, loving, intimate, and friendly. We can all learn to work through conflicts with respect, openness, and maturity.

On a side but essential note: If your relationship is unsafe (physically or emotionally), it might be time to get out or get professional help. But, if you feel like you are with the person you love (and hopefully like) and you’d like to make some improvements in the way you treat your partner, here are some tips for you. Hopefully your partner will do their part to be a respectful communicator also, but since we can only work on our side of the street, let’s take a look together.

Nourish Your Relationship

Just like plants need food and water, our relationships do too. It’s easy in our fast-paced, plugged-in culture to take our significant others for granted and let the relationship dry up. It’s important to make regular efforts to initiate dates and plan enjoyable things to do together. It could be an activity you used to enjoy together, or it could be something new and out of the usual routine. I encourage couples to each write a list of things they might like to do together. Then they trade lists and each partner marks off the things on the other person’s list that sound good to them. Then they have a new list of enjoyable activities they both agree on.

Be Present When You’re Present

Connecting is more than simply being in the same house, room, or restaurant, though that’s a good start. True connection is about being truly present, making eye contact, and showing genuine interest in your partner. Practice putting down your phone, tablet, book, or remote control on a regular basis and really take the time to connect with your partner. Sincerely ask about their thoughts, feelings, and experiences and then really listen and respond from your heart.

Balance Friendship and Intimacy

A loving relationship is about being good friends and being intimate. Many relationships begin with a spark of chemistry that can fade over time without the foundation of a true friendship. Others have a solid friendship, but they lack a romantic spark. It’s important to make regular efforts to foster a friendship with kindness and play, as well as fan the flames of intimacy.

Increase Tolerance and Acceptance

Many people gather a pile of resentments about the little things their partner does that bother them. This pile then blocks off our healthy heart connection. Working on tolerance, perspective, and acceptance makes for a wonderful practice. Try to distinguish between behaviors your partner does that you’d like to work on accepting vs. reasonable changes you’d like to request. You might be able to accept the cap being left off the toothpaste, or it might be important enough to respectfully request that your partner try to remember to put it back on. And when your partner makes requests of you, practice honoring those as best you can.

Give What You’d Like to Get

Most people want to be heard, understood, seen, and validated. 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’d like to get. For example, if you want to be heard, try being a really good listener and see what happens. Of course, the need-meeting needs to go both ways, but we can only start on our side of the relationship street.

Assume We’re All Doing Our Best

It can be tempting to look at what our partners are doing and think that we would do it differently, or that they should do it differently. But is that true? If you had the exact same personality characteristics, upbringing, and life circumstances as your partner, you’d likely be doing things exactly as they are. Is it always easy or what you’d like? Probably not. I’m sure we’re not always fulfilling our partners’ wildest dreams either. Assuming that our partners are doing the best they can with the tools they’ve been given can soften the hardness of expectations and resentments and pave the way for more acceptance and appreciation.

Take a Break When Emotions Are High

In general, the higher our stress level is, the harder it is to think clearly and respond maturely. If a topic becomes heated or charged between you and your partner, try 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. Some find it helps to journal, listen to a mindfulness meditation, or talk to an unbiased person who’s skilled at listening and remaining neutral. Do whatever you need to do to avoid saying something hurtful and to get grounded. Then you can return in a clear, mature state and resume the conversation.

If you do say something disrespectful, you can clean it up as soon as possible, the same way you’d clean up an accidental spill. The next best thing to being consistently respectful is sincerely apologizing when we slip up.

Flash Forward to the Future

Change can be hard. Even if some of our behaviors aren’t even fun or fulfilling, they’re familiar and we humans tend to be creatures of habit. If you’ve been treating your partner in ways you aren’t proud of (and wouldn’t want to see portrayed on YouTube), you might find it helpful to flash forward. Imagine yourself in the future having made no significant changes in your relationship. Does this bring up sadness or regret? Some people flash forward and imagine feeling deep regret about not spending more quality time with their partner, listening more, slowing down more, criticizing less, appreciating more, or being more kind.

A friend of mine works with people at the end of their lives. I once asked her if she noticed any themes among the dying. She said, “Many people wish they’d been kinder and more loving to their loved ones and spent more quality time.” She said she most often hears about love, loving the people you love—and letting them know it.

View on Psychology Today

← Return to blog entries

5 Ways to Rekindle the Spark in Your Relationship

By Andrea Wachter, MFT

Remember the feelings you experienced when you first started dating your spouse or partner? Perhaps you felt excitement, attraction, and anticipation? As the relationship has progressed, has it been difficult to maintain those initial feelings?

Once life’s responsibilities, careers, kids, and the passing of time are added to the mix, that initial spark can easily diminish if we don’t keep it stoked.

Fortunately, the spark of intimacy and closeness can be reignited. It is possible to rediscover the special connection that initially brought you and your partner together.

If you are in a long-term relationship that’s starting to feel a bit stale or unsatisfying, here are five tips to help you rekindle the spark.

1. Remember and Re-experience

Remember those early days of dating? You probably had butterflies of excitement at the mere thought of seeing your partner. 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.

If you’ve fallen into that negative trap, try looking at your partner through new eyes. It’s like upgrading your vision. Consciously notice the things you like, love, and appreciate about your partner. Think about what you would miss about them if they were gone.

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

2. Listen Attentively

When you went on the first few dates with your partner, you very likely didn’t have your face buried in your cell phone. (Perhaps they weren’t even invented yet!) You probably paid close attention and acted in a manner that showed how much you really cared about what your partner had to say. You probably wanted to know everything about them and listened carefully to what they shared.

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, connection, and intimacy.

If your partner initiates a conversation, whenever possible, stop what you’re doing and make eye contact with this person you once adored. As they share their thoughts and feelings, 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 isn’t good for you, respectfully tell them that you really want to hear what they have to say but you need a few minutes to (fill in the blank with your need) in order to be able to give them your full attention. 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’ve been with someone for years, you can still remain genuinely open to hearing their thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

Even if your partner is retelling a story that you’ve already heard, think about how many times you’ve repeatedly listened to a song or rewatched a favorite video, movie, or series. There’s 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, even if it’s about a topic you don’t personally relate to.

Try asking a few follow-up questions about what they shared. Give them your full attention and listen in the same attentive, considerate manner that you’d like them to have with you.

4. Remain Respectful

Take an honest look at the way you speak to your partner, particularly when you’re stressed, frustrated, angry, tired, or depressed. The tone we use and the words we choose can have a profound impact (both positive and negative) on the quality of our relationship. It’s extremely important that we manage our emotions. This requires self-awareness, self-control, commitment, and maturity.

Remember to stay tuned in to your own thoughts, feelings, and needs so that you’re able to communicate respectfully when strong emotions arise. Too often people use harsh words and tones that can unwittingly do damage and echo in their partner’s ears for a long time.

If really strong emotions get stirred up for you and you don’t think you can communicate respectfully and productively, consider taking some space to get clarity about your thoughts, feelings, and needs. You can let your partner know that you need some time to calm down and that you’ll be back when you’ve cooled off. Then you can resume the conversation in a respectful and mature manner.

5. Stoke the Fire

In our busy, plugged-in, 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, many people miss the opportunity to spice things up romantically with their partner.

You could plan a special date night or initiate a spontaneous slow dance in the living room. You could leave your smartphones at home and discover a new hiking trail or restaurant. Silence the phones and play a board game or reminisce about some wonderful memories. Put a love note in an unsuspecting place, give your partner an unsolicited massage, light a few candles in the bedroom and play a song from your dating days. Share fantasies, give a compliment, or express appreciation. Shake up your routines, be creative, be playful, be open, be kind.

Will recalling the good times, listening attentively, inquiring deeply, remaining respectful, and stoking the fire really rekindle the relationship spark? Give them a try and see what happens!

View on Psychology Today

← Return to blog entries

Two Simple Words to Improve Your Relationship

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

You’ve very likely heard these two words from your parents when you were growing up. If you’re a parent now, you may even say them to your own kids. They’re about as sensible as basic hygiene and car tune-ups.

“Be nice.”

I remember 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 week?” I said, “You bet I can: Be nice!”

It sounds so simple. How hard should it be to be nice, particularly to the people we love the most?

Unfortunately, many people are plagued with unresolved resentments and wounds which can make the simple notion of respectful communication anything but simple.

Additionally, many of us didn’t witness or receive respectful communication role-modeling as children, leaving us to fend for ourselves with the most important language skill that exists.

How do we stop the painful patterns of fighting and feuding? The first step is wanting to change. We have to be willing to look at our own part instead of consistently pointing out our partner’s part. We have to stay conscious during challenging communications instead of going on autopilot. We have to be humble enough to ask for do-over’s when we pounce instead of pause. We have to listen and try to 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.

Over the last few decades I’ve received a lot of questions from clients regarding the topic of kind communication so I thought I’d share a few of them with you. May these dialogues help you find more peace in your partnership, fewer disputes in your day, and more carefronting in your confronting.

Q: Are you saying I’m not supposed to get angry with my partner? 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 isn’t always sunny with a light breeze and neither are we. However, you can always be respectful, even if you’re angry. Not only will this help you be a better communicator in general, it will also help you get more of what I assume you want a loving relationship.

So, even if you’re really angry with your partner, if you communicate in a kind, non-defensive manner, you’re much more likely to be heard and come to a resolution which will then give you less to be angry about and give your partner less to react to.

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 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 like yelling is an effective form of communication, what it’s likely doing is undermining the tenderness and trust between the two of you. Yelling may 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 at a time that works for you both and saying something like this: “I’m not sure what to do. You’ve agreed to (fill in the blank with the chore du jour) and yet you haven’t done it. I really don’t want to fight or repeatedly remind you, but I’m not sure what to do when you agree to do something and then you don’t do it. Do you have any ideas?”

Then, see if a respectful and mature dialogue ensues.

Also, you say that you do everything your husband asks you to do, but my guess is that what he would want most would be for you to be nice to him. So, in addition to the household chores and other practical things you’re doing for him, can you set an intention to be kind and respectful?

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

A: It sounds like your wife hits what I call an emotional landmine. She may not even be aware of what’s being triggered inside of her. Hopefully, she’s open to exploring her reactions, but regardless of whether she is, you can still do your best to remain calm and kind.

Try talking about this pattern when she’s not shut down or explosive. Ask her what she thinks would be most helpful during those challenging moments. It might be a comforting statement or a reminder that you’re on her side and you want to know what she’s feeling and needing. Some people feel reassured by physical touch when they’re triggered. Others want space and time.

Hopefully, she’s able to make requests that work for you so as a team there can be safety and healing in the relationship.

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

A: The practice of being nice is not only about how you treat your partner. It also needs to be applied to yourself. While we’re only responsible for our side of the street in a relationship, we also get to decide what street we want to live on. It’s important to differentiate between someone who has anger issues, but is still a safe partner, and someone whose anger is unsafe.

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

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, then raises their voice in attempt to be heard. Then the other partner goes into defense mode: yelling back, shutting down, or both.

I’m sure it must be very frustrating to feel like your wife isn’t listening, but unless you’re willing to speak in a respectful manner, tone, and volume, the chances are slim that she will.

Instead of trying to change her listening skills, how about changing your delivery and seeing what happens? The next time you feel like she’s not hearing you, try speaking very respectfully, like you would to an employer or a dear friend. Ask her if she’d be willing to take turns. One of you shares your thoughts, feelings, and needs and the other one really tries to listen and understand. Then you switch and repeat daily or as needed.

View on Psychology Today

← Return to blog entries

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.”

View on The Huffington Post

← Return to blog entries

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.

View on The Huffington Post

← Return to blog entries

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? But what about the partner they are thinking of leaving?

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

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 and live with and accept.

Do look at your part in the relationship struggles. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It simply means you are a teachable person who’s willing to grow and change. Over time, you will see 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 want to predict the future. The truth is, anything can happen. I’ve seen couples survive (and thrive) after infidelity. I’ve seen people who didn’t think they could survive a breakup be the ones to make the final decision to leave, and end up happier. The bottom line is 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 that they actually cause us to have feelings about things that haven’t even happened. So, begin to catch yourself as often as possible and reel yourself back to actual, factual reality.

Don’t Make Any Major Decisions

I’m talking, don’t even buy a new washer/dryer right now! The only thing you need to do is your basic self-care and necessary responsibilities. When enough time and tears 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 get help), 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’re both totally 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, 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’s best for you to set some limits.

Avoid Turning to Excessive Habits for Comfort

Many people turn to excessive substances or behaviors at a time like this. While they do provide short-term relief, they generally lead to long-term grief.

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

The truth is it’s hard to feel emotional pain and it’s hard to feel the consequences of excessive habits that are 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 offer yourself compassion and receive comfort from other supportive people.

Don’t Lose Yourself

When a person is at risk of being left, their basic sense of value is can feel 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.

But, in spite of countless poems and country-western songs, love is not enough. It takes shared values, commitment, maturity, spirituality, communication, and grit (from both people!) 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 partner’s wants, needs, and feelings, and begin to regain your own sense of self. 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’s essential that you also begin (when you’re ready), to use this time as an opportunity to find things that fulfill you. Not only will this help you now but it will also create hope for your 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 overly dependent.

Pursuing joy might mean reestablishing activities you used to be passionate about and got away from. It may mean cultivating some new interests. Is there anything 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, reconnecting with an old friend, you name it. It’s critical that you find, have, 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.

← Return to blog entries

How to Stop an Argument in Its Tracks

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

Fortunately, my husband and I don’t argue very often. I think that’s partly because we’re both psychotherapists who’ve had a lot of training in communication skills. It’s also because neither of us has any problem saying we’re wrong about something, nor do we have any difficulty apologizing when it’s called for. We also both really want to live in an atmosphere of peace. When stuff does come up between us, we’re both motivated to resolve it as soon as possible, and for the most part, we know how.

That being typed, there have been some bumps in the road; times where one or both of us doesn’t feel understood or like we’re getting what we want or need. It‘s during these challenging times that I’ve reached for a tool I’ve found extremely helpful. A tool that’s become tried and true for me and my husband, as well as many of my clients and students.

It goes like this:

First, you press pause on the conversation. Time out. In a respectful manner, you ask for a break to gather your thoughts and feelings.

Next, you write (or type) two letters. The first letter is from your partner to yourself. So, in my case, I write as if my husband is writing to me. I write everything I wish he would say. I pile it on. This letter is exactly what I’d want to hear regarding the tangle we’ve been in.

Whether you can actually imagine your partner saying or writing the words you long to hear is not as important as you getting clear on what you’d love to hear and giving these sentiments to yourself.

You don’t necessarily need to share this letter with your partner, though you certainly can. When I’ve done this exercise, I haven’t always shared my letter with my husband. Usually, just writing it and clarifying what I want to hear softens something inside of me. I remember one time when I did share my wish-list letter with him and the guy actually sent it back to me with a heart emoji and his signature at the bottom. A keeper, I know.

The second letter is from you to your partner. Here, you step into your partner’s shoes. You really tune into how you think they must be feeling about the conflict you’ve been dealing with. You drop your story, defenses, and convictions, and you genuinely try to understand your partner’s side of the street.

I usually share this letter with my husband. Who doesn’t want to be showered with genuine understanding and empathy? If I decide not to share the actual letter, my attitude adjustment from writing it always shines through once we reconvene, so the benefits are reaped either way.

That’s it. Time out. Two letters from the heart. One from your partner to you stating exactly what you want to hear. Next, from you to your partner with some genuine empathy.

Getting clear on what you’d love to hear from your partner and giving those words to yourself is an empowering process that enables us to soften our own hearts.

Tuning into your partner’s feelings with a sincere desire to understand them can melt whatever defenses or wounds may have arisen between you.

I have seen this powerful two-step process transform a tangled web of emotions and unmet needs into a clear path of compassion, clarity, and resolution. I hope you’ll give it a try.

View on Psychology Today

← Return to blog entries

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

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

Do you ever have those moments when someone says something that renders you speechless? Your brain gets flooded, your tongue gets tied, and you simply don’t know what to say?

Perhaps later you think of what you could have said or wish you’d said. Or maybe you get support from someone else who suggests what might have been a respectful and helpful comeback. You may wonder, Why didn’t I think of that?

Many people feel like a deer in headlights when someone says something that feels hurtful or out of left field. With no prepared comeback, we may be speechless.

Much like learning any new language, it takes preparation and practice to learn and become fluent in the language of assertive, respectful communication.

The following statements and questions can help you become better prepared for those challenging conversational moments. As you read through the list, if one or more statements resonate for you, consider jotting them down to keep in your back (or front) pocket for future use.

  • Why do you ask that?
  • What are you hoping to have happen right now?
  • I’ll have to get back to you on that.
  • I need to take some time to think about it.
  • That’s not going to work for me.
  • Ouch. That feels hurtful. I need a minute.
  • I know I agreed to do that, but I changed my mind. I’m very sorry.
  • I understand that’s how you feel. I’m hoping you can try to understand how I feel too.
  • 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 disrespectful.
  • What you have to say is important to me but it’s getting lost in the way you are saying it.
  • I’m wondering if you’d be willing to lower your voice because I really want to hear what you have to say, but I can’t think clearly with how our conversation is going right now.
  • If you can’t lower your voice, I’m going to have to take a break from this conversation even though I really want to hear what you have to say.
  • I feel a lot of strong emotions about what you just said and I don’t want to react harshly, so I’d like to take some time before I respond.
  • I’m curious what your intention is in saying that.
  • I will totally take a look at that.
  • This feels really hard for me to say, but I need to tell you that __________.
  • I’m making up a story about what you’re thinking. Can I check it out with you and see if it’s true?
  • I’m so sorry that felt hurtful. That was truly not my intention.
  • I have a request to make. If you can do it, that’s great. If you can’t, that’s okay too. I’m just going to ask.
  • I know you love me and I don’t think you’re intending to be hurtful, but when you say ____________ to me, it feels hurtful and I would appreciate it if you’d try to stop saying that.
  • I really need you to stop commenting on my ______________.
  • I would really appreciate it if you would stop ______________.
  • I’m not sure what to do at this point because I’ve 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’m hoping you are willing to hear me out.
  • I’m not sure how to respond. Give me a minute, please.
  • Can we make time to talk?
  • I realize I’ve been holding something inside for a while that I’d like to tell you. I needed to take the time to figure out how to say it in a respectful way.
  • I have something challenging to say and I’m wondering if you’d 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’m wondering if there’s a way I could have worded it that would have made it easier for you to hear?
  • I don’t necessarily need you to agree or understand what I’m saying, but I’d really appreciate it if you would try to accept it.
  • It seems from your response that I may not have communicated clearly or that you may have misunderstood what I said (or did). I’d like to try again if you’re open to it.
  • That really makes sense to me that you 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 try never to do or say that again.
  • Thank you for telling me what you feel and need. I will never 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’m wondering if I can express something and ask you to listen until I am totally finished?
  • I wonder if you could say something about what I just shared before we switch topics?
  • When you say (or do) _____________ I feel ______________ (preferably one word here, i.e., sad, angry, frustrated, hurt, concerned, etc.) and I would prefer it if you would _____________.
  • This is scary for me to say, so I’m hoping you can really listen and not 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 do you need in order for this to feel complete?

If you find yourself in a heated conversation or the recipient of a statement that clouds your thinking, may one or more of these one-liners see you through.

View on Psychology Today

← Return to blog entries