by Christa Marvenko-Athas | Aug 13, 2019 | couples counseling
It is always a delight when I have couples coming for therapy not because they are having problems but because they want to strengthen their relationship and learn how to best manage problems when they arise. However, I find most couples come to therapy when they are falling apart and at the point of using a last resort to try to stay together; these folks are in high levels of distress, and many feel like it will be impossible to reach their goal to “get back to the relationship they once had.”
I try to help these folks understand that their goal really needs to be to build a way of relating that wasn’t a part of their repertoire when life and partnership started to challenge them, and that it is possible to do that if they are both committed to the work.
What if we looked at couples counseling like we look at exercise; it’s good for you and important for one’s health. We all know why exercise is good for you. We read about it in our news feeds daily. And, like exercise, if you research the benefits of a healthy relationship you will also find:
- It’s good for your physical health
- It’s good for your mental health
- It promotes longevity
- It promotes a better sex life
- It helps you feel stronger and more resilient to take on stress and has many other benefits.
- IT TAKES COMMITMENT AND HARD WORK
The last point on the list is usually why many people don’t follow through on an exercise plan; other stuff becomes more important and needs the time and attention. For many people exercise isn’t so much fun and is more like a chore. Many will start an exercise plan when they receive not so great news from their doctor, or experience some sort of health problem or distress. The same can be true for couples work. It can be very difficult at times and the follow through can feel onerous; many people wait until there is a warning sign that something is going wrong before they take action to strengthen their relationship muscles, and some wait until someone mentions the D word, divorce.
Where do we find the motivation to do something that is so good for us but takes time, resources, and hard work? Perhaps if we really look deeper into some of the things that can be gained from the work.
For better or for worse, having a plan for the worse
If you knew that you could have a template and a practice to handle the conflict and challenges you inevitably will experience in your relationship, would you commit to working for it? If you also had a personal “coach” to help you stay focused and guide you with what you needed to do to have a strong and healthy partnership, would you commit to the work? Spending some time working in couples therapy can help you have a plan for when you inevitably meet the challenges of “the worse” part in a marriage and partnership. Each partner brings their own history along with its baggage to a partnership and marriage. Partners will trigger each other and stir up a conflict challenge. Many of these arguments get repeated and grow old but never get resolved. Being educated and coached on how to learn about your and your partners’ triggers, where they come from, and how to manage them can help you both feel like you are no longer having to repeat that same old tug of war over and over again. These repeated scuffles and upset take a great deal of time, energy and effort; in my practice I see repeated unhealthy cycles taking up far more time and energy than doing the proactive work of being a healthy partner.
Offers the experience, benefits, and feelings of real love
Couples typically describe when they met as “love at first sight” or having the experience of “fireworks” between them. Chemistry is something that certainly plays a role in people becoming attracted to one another, resulting in the desire to begin a relationship. The honeymoon period can be full of excitement and joy. This initial chemistry wears off after some time. We put our best foot forward and eventually it’s followed up by the other foot. This is the normal path for any relationship. I see many couples who believe this normal path is a message that they are falling out of love. The irony is that this is the exact place where true love begins. Working with a couples therapist can help a couple last beyond the initial brain chemistry that created the attraction. When we see and learn about our partner’s humanness, flaws and all, and learn how to share compassion, empathy, and understanding, we are then practicing true love. Being seen, heard, and understood is what we all desire and is a deep and rewarding place to be with your partner.
Gives the gift of deeper intimacy
When couples do the work of love they learn how to find and feel that sense of closeness most of us desire, emotional and physical. As I work with a couple to learn about what triggers them, how they trigger each other, and how we often use ineffective ways of coping with our triggers,
I coach them on and how to understand and practice heathy ways of communicating. Couples will often begin to share their vulnerability with one another and feel soothed by compassion and empathy. They literally move closer together on the couch as well as figuratively in intimacy. This often leads to more emotional and physical intimacy at home as they practice and feel this deeper level of connection.
Feeds your best support system
I work with couples on seeing each other as their best ally. Through exercises in healthy communication I like to help each partner see the other as their go-to support system, orbest team mate. If both people are contributing to a process of strengthening “the team” the better supported each partner will feel in times of distress. Couples are always describing wanting the other to have their back and the importance of feeling supported. Being a bolster of sorts is most important: we can talk out solutions to problems, vent, share feelings, or sometimes just feeling the physical support of your partners body next to yours in silence makes a world of difference in managing distress.
We can see the good in preparing for problems before they arise, find the strength in building a solid foundation to our relationships to experience the best of love and intimacy, find research to support it being very important to our physical and emotional health, and desire to have the richest connection to our partner. Like exercise, it takes commitment and work. The payoff can be bountiful.
by Christa Marvenko-Athas | Jul 8, 2019 | relationships
One of the presentations I frequently see when a couple comes for therapy is two people at odds stating they want to communicate better. Both typically feel stressed, upset, angry, and perhaps frightened that they seem to find themselves in conflict more often than not. Under that agenda is often an apparent but unspoken goal, which is that each partner wants the other to see things how they are seeing them, and once their partner sees they are right, then somehow everything will be better.
This cartoon illustrates how couples often deal with conflict.
“How on earth are you not seeing this the way I am?”That is the typical reaction when confronted with an issue such as the “6 or 9” question above. Couples feel that presenting a good argument about why they see and feel something the way they do is the answer to solving their conflict; however, they can quickly admit that this approach has never worked for them.
Finding the answer to these types of disagreements won’t happen by continuously arguing your perspective, but it can happen if you are willing to view an issue from your partner’s perspective. Viewing from your partner’s perspective does not mean you agree with it; it means you want to understand why they see something the way they do. So what makes this so difficult for couples to do?
Most of us are not used to practicing communication in this way. Viewing an issue from your partner’s perspective, rather than arguing your case like an attorney, often feels like you are giving in, relinquishing power, losing. Problem- solving in a partnership and marriage is not about winning or losing, it’s about how to become an alliance when addressing conflict. If both partners can learn that swapping perspectives is not a sign of defeat but simply an attempt to understand, and an attempt to practice partnering, there is a better chance for a win/win scenario.
You have much more control over looking at someone else’s perspective rather than getting someone to look at yours. If both people in a partnership strive for this then both have the opportunity to feel heard and understood, even if not necessarily agreed with. So the next time you’re in a disagreement with your partner, change your question to, “How are you seeing this the way that you do?” Become an investigator of sorts; learn all the information you can about why your partner feels so strongly about a point. What fuels this fire for them? What other feelings do they have regarding the issue besides the initial anger, indignance, or frustration? Challenge yourself to become curious rather than migrating back to your own position. Try to avoid giving an opinion or jumping to a solution. Spend more time learning about each others’ thoughts and feelings. This way of communicating takes great endurance and loads of practice.
Challenge yourselves to better communication. This new approach to communicating takes practice, practice, practice. It is so important to create space and time to practice hearing and understanding one another no matter what the topic might be. Despite the fact that one of the most common goals I hear from couples starting therapy is to communicate better, I have found that one of the most difficult assignments for couples in therapy is to prioritize time for connecting through talking.
At the beginning of the therapy process I always give the assignment of making talking time. Tending to children, busyness, work and personal schedules, house projects, extended family obligations, tiredness and various other reasons are frequently cited by couples as obstacles to prioritizing time to talk. It seems almost impossible for couples to find time to connect and sort through feelings, issues, concerns, accomplishments, plans, goals and problems. Most default to addressing issues when they ignite and can no longer be ignored, and then the arguments and sides get presented.What if we think of a relationship like a garden, where we have a goal to grow a sustaining healthy crop. We set aside space, prepare the ground, add fertilizer, and plant seeds. With proper nurturing and attention, the garden will provide a healthy and colorful bounty. However, if we are consistently too busy to water the plants, forget to weed, or didn’t think to make sure there is enough sunlight, our bounty will shrivel and eventually die. This is also true of our partnerships.
How much time do you spend on arguments, or on being angry and frustrated with each other? I believe the time couples spend stuck in conflict is far more than the time it would take to schedule and engage in a regular talking time with your partner.
I often ask couples to start by setting aside 30 minutes at the same time each week. This time should not be while driving in the car, not during meals, and not when distracted by other things such as phones, computers or televisions. This 30 minutes should be devoted to sitting in a quiet space and talking with each other, with the same commitment to the “appointment” as one brings to a therapy session. In the beginning it can be helpful to structure the talking time, with each partner spending 2-3 minutes sharing thoughts, feelings, questions and ideas, or just free- associating while the other listens. Listening is not just about hearing what your partner is saying, it’s about understanding what your partner is saying even if you disagree. This talking time, practiced consistently, can then grow into using other therapy tools and strategies for sharing and problem solving.
Many couples often tell me this process feels awkward at first, since many couples are not accustomed to being focused on each other in this intimate way. Just like going to the gym and working new muscles, this exercise in connecting can feel unnatural and takes practice and consistency to grow. Once this talking time begins to yield productive problem-solving, couples often report that life seems less overwhelming because they feel the support of their partnership.
When couples reach the goal of making time to talk, they are growing a “relationship garden” that produces a sustaining bounty. When we search for facts and not faults, when we are brave enough to put down our defensiveness and strive to understand, we have the opportunity to not only learn about one another’s thoughts and feelings, but also to find common ground, gain intimacy, experience empathy, and build a path forward.
by Christa Marvenko-Athas | Apr 25, 2018 | Uncategorized
“How on earth are you not seeing this the way I am?”
That is the typical reaction when confronted with an issue such as the “6 or 9” question above. Finding the answer to these types of disagreements won’t happen by arguing your perspective, but it can happen if you are willing to view an issue from your partner’s perspective. So what makes this so difficult for couples to do?
Viewing an issue from your partner’s perspective, rather than arguing your case like an attorney, often feels like you are giving in, relinquishing power, losing. However, if both partners can learn that swapping perspectives is not a sign of defeat but simply an attempt to understand, then there is a better chance for a win/win scenario.
You have much more “control” over looking at the other side rather than getting someone to look at yours. If both people in a partnership strive for this then both have the opportunity to feel heard and understood, even if not necessarily agreed with.
So the next time you’re in a disagreement with your partner, change your question to, “How are you seeing this the way that you do”? Become an investigator of sorts; learn all the information you can about why your partner feels so strongly about a point. What fuels this fire for them? What other feelings do they have regarding the issue besides the initial anger, indignance, or frustration? Challenge yourself to become curious rather than migrating back to your own position. Try to avoid giving an opinion or jumping to a solution. Spend more time learning about each others’ thoughts and feelings. This way of communicating takes great endurance and loads of practice. Challenge yourselves to better communication.
When we search for facts and not faults, when we are brave enough to put down our defensiveness and strive to understand, we have the opportunity to not only learn about one another’s thoughts and feelings, but also to find common ground, gain intimacy, experience empathy, and build a path forward.
by Christa Marvenko-Athas | Jan 16, 2018 | anxiety, relationships
We walk a spiral path as we progress through life. With each step we have the opportunity to gain wisdom from the one before it. With each step we can look inward and look out. We revisit our steps in this pattern, with the opportunity to see the same things from a different perspective. How open are we to looking? How fearless are we that we might see something that could change how we live our lives if we dare to be honest with ourselves?
Self-reflection and assessing its truth become the developmental task at hand when we reach midlife. “Thoroughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still, we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and ideals will serve us as hitherto. But, we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning—for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie” (1)
Carl Jung, the well-known Swiss Psychiatrist, is considered to be one of the founding fathers of modern psychology. Jung made great contributions to the understanding of human personality and development. He spoke of the importance of what happens at midlife and the need to let go of behaviors and beliefs that guided our first half of life, and look bravely into the unconscious to guide the second.
It seems many of us find we have created a life based on stereotypical shoulds, how one is supposed to live as a woman in our society. At midlife women begin to experience life change and possibly life changing feelings. Challenging questions and turbulent feelings come to the fore. If we react without contemplation and self-honesty we might see the behaviors of the stereotypical mid-life crisis: issues are acted out through impulsive decisions and behaviors, and feelings become manifested as symptoms and labeled as illness. Behaviors can become focused actions attempting to reclaim one’s youth. Feelings such as depression, anxiety, confusion, anger and resentment can come to dominate everyday life. These feelings can be viewed as illness and are often treated physically, when in reality they are a sign to go within. Typically the focus is on menopause, regulating hormones and diet, and looking for what is wrong and getting treatment. Instead, perhaps we can look at turbulent feelings at this stage in life as looking for something right.
Jung identifies two main developmental tasks of midlife transition: first, to seek and find the authentic self; second, to create a personal world where one can be that self. What happens if that authentic self and the world in which that self needs to thrive is very different from how the self currently exists? Jung explains in the first half of life we create a self based on what parents, peers, partners and society expects of us. We learn from the reactions of these significant others which parts of us are acceptable and which are not; the unacceptable parts get repressed in our unconscious. If we complete the task of which Jung speaks, if we go within and reclaim those repressed parts and parts of ourselves that we have never known, we may feel a state of crisis if the life we have made is in direct conflict with the one in which we come to see we belong.
In her poem “The Invitation” Oriah Mountain Dreamer writes:
“It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me
I want to know if you can
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.” (2)
One may think this is selfish talk and choices based on accepting this invitation could perhaps be hurtful to others in our lives. We may feel obligated and bound to continue living in the choices we made in the first half of our life. The truth is that others in our lives could indeed be hurt by our self-honesty and the changes that may come with our truth. However, how hurtful is it to others and ourselves to move through the world and our relationships acting out of a repressed self? Not only do we betray ourselves, we betray those around us when we do not live in our truth. Perhaps then the actual crisis of midlife is not as much fear of death and not having lived but rather fear of living before death.
Once aware, we are challenged with the choice of striving to live as our authentic self or denying our truth. Either choice can seem frightening. Perhaps frightening to the point of being petrified, unable to choose and stuck at the point of choice. Once we become aware we cannot truly become unaware. So perhaps we stay still at this point of choice until we are ready to move. Perhaps we look at taking up midlife as a process of processing rather than immediate radical change. We raise our consciousness and look honestly inward as a step.
Finding and living the authentic self is hard work. The key is a willingness to do the work of self-reflection. Soul searching can be pursued in many forms: personal journaling, participating in spiritual work, self-help and therapy groups, and traditional counseling and psychotherapy are all examples of resources to seek and find one’s authentic self.
If we are willing to do the hard work of looking at our truth we can move toward living an honest and fulfilling second half of life. We can look to each other for understanding, support, and validation as we risk journeying to our center and then back out into the world. If we dare to live an authentic life we have the opportunity to share the gift of genuine generativity with our selves and with others.
Jung, C. G. (1971). “The Stages of Life”, in The Portable Jung. New York : Viking Press
Oriah, (1999). The Invitation. New York: Harper Collins.