HOW TO NOT RUIN YOUR RELATIONSHIP IN QUARANTINE

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I remember reading a headline a few weeks (years??) ago that the divorce rate was increasing for Chinese couples post-coronavirus quarantine. And boy, do I get it. While some of us are cooped up alone and dealing with incredible loneliness (which is traumatic in itself), many of us are sequestered with our partners…all the time, every day, in a small space, during a time of incredible change, uncertainty, and anxiety. Gee, whatever could go wrong?

As I sit with my clients this week, I find myself often reviewing basic relationship skills, like how to communicate hurt, how to respond to a loved one's pain, and how to receive comfort. I'd like to share those tips with you now, in the hopes they will help your relationship be a source of strength and security in these troubled times. (And BTW, these tips apply to just about any important relationship — parent-child, close friend, or even your relationship with yourself!) An effective repair conversation with your partner is as easy* as 1-2-3:

Step 1. Notice what you're feeling and communicate it — vulnerably — to your partner. When something happens that makes you want to react — get critical, get defensive, pull away, shut down, nag, etc. — take a moment to slow down, check in, and ask yourself, "What am I feeling?" Anger can often be a cover for more vulnerable emotions. Honor that the anger is real and valid, but also ask yourself if you might be feeling a more tender emotion — are you feeling sad? Scared? Lonely? Inadequate? When you know what you're feeling and you can say it softly and vulnerably, it's time to share that with your person.

Step 2. When you receive your partner's feelings, your presence and care are the solution. So many of us respond to pain in our loved ones by inadvertently dismissing, minimizing, or intellectualizing. While we may have truly excellent advice to offer, it's important to remember that an activated brain can't take in any such guidance. We must first come alongside our loved ones and meet them at the emotional level vs. offering suggestions for change. In short, we must connect before we correct. We do this in 3 key ways:

a) Validation. I can totally see why that made you scared. I get it. I would feel that way, too, in your shoes.
b) Empathy. I'm so sad to know you're going through this. I feel such a pain in my heart hearing how alone you're feeling.
c) Undoing Aloneness. I'm here with you. We'll get through this together.

So, let's say your husband has just told you he felt really lonely this week when you were working a lot to keep your small business afloat. Instead of getting defensive or making suggestions for what he could do to manage the lonely feelings, try validating, empathizing, and undoing his aloneness. "Oh, sweetie, I can totally see why you've been feeling alone. I have been so busy and overwhelmed. I feel so sad knowing you're feeling like that. I'm so glad you're telling me. I'm here and I love you."

Step 3. Receive your partner's care. It's an often overlooked step, but a really important one. You're hurt, your partner is trying to repair with you — allow the repair! Notice any parts of you that want you to keep your guard up. Honor their fear that you'll be hurt again, but try to be open to a genuine effort at reconnecting. All relationships have bumps, especially when partners are stressed out (like, say, during a global pandemic). Offer as much grace as you possibly can to each other. As Maya Angelou once said, “Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.”

* Please-Don't-Sue-Me-Disclaimer: This is, in fact, not at all easy! It takes a lot of practice. Be sweet to yourself as you try to get better at this. I also highly recommend Ron Frederick's book, "Loving Like You Mean It." And of course, if you're continually struggling with any of these steps, please reach out to a therapist for help.

WALKING WITH ANGER

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One of my therapist colleagues just shared this awesome cartoon with me. It really captures the hilarious (and relatable!) gap between our aspirations of Zen-like chill and our frazzled, real-world execution when it comes to emotion regulation. Most of us strive to be good people, and sometimes our big emotions can just sweep in and thwart our best intentions.

As humbling as that message is, it's also so normalizing of those big feelings and of anger specifically. Anger is a core, very necessary emotion that helps us protect ourselves from the dangers in our world. It provides important data about our needs and gives us the oomph we need to advocate for those needs.

To make our anger most effective for us, we often work in therapy on owning and expressing our angry feelings while working not to lash out from our anger, i.e., to talk about feeling angry without acting it out, shutting it down, or using an intimidating tone or critical language with others. You know, unless they're walking too slowly in front of you…

I GET MEAN BECAUSE I LOVE YOU

Dr. Sue Johnson shared this fabulous song by Edie Brickell with us when she was in Davis last month. I just love how the song and the great illustrations explain the experience of the angry pursuer in relationships, how behind the anger there is so much sadness, loneliness, and longing for connection. Wanting that closeness but being too afraid to ask vulnerably for your needs to be met is such a painful, hard place to be in...and such a trap for this little mouse.

Edie Brickell, “I Get Mean.”

WHY "COMMUNICATION SKILLS" DON'T WORK

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For so long, behavioral psychologists have told distressed couples that they all they needed was better “communication skills.” The theory was that if people could just use “I” statements and use active listening, that their conflict would stop. According to new research by Ronald Rogge at the University of Rochester, this myth is busted. It’s not that couples don’t have these skills — they do — it’s that they can’t access them when they’re in conflict, when they’re panicking about the security of their attachment to their loved one. Or, as Sue Johnson explained, “distressed partners who constantly break all the rules of good communication in my couple sessions [can] show exquisitely honed listening and empathy skills with my receptionist.” This, of course, can be maddening for partners who wonder, “how come you can be so nice, generous, and emotionally present with this other person, but not me!?”

So, why do skills not work? Sue theorizes that practicing skills requires us to be up in our heads, thinking about the “steps” rather than feeling the beat of the emotional music. A husband may be saying the right things, but the emotional disconnect keeps it from being meaningful, keeps it from really soothing his distressed wife. Without being emotionally present, we might say soft things, but our face, our tone, our body language may still convey distance, anger, or other invulnerability to our partner. As Sue says, “We have to learn, in real interactions, how to send the heart messages that touch our loved one and move them to care.”

IT'S NOT ABOUT THE NAIL...

A couple therapy client of mine just shared this awesome video, sharing a place we so often get stuck as couples — "just listen to me, don't try to fix it!" — with a pretty hilarious twist.


It's Not About the Nail from Jason Headley on Vimeo.