After a decade and a half of doing couples therapy, I have found some common themes that are worth sharing. First, couples that seem to do well in treatment and in their relationship are committed to the relationship. This means that they are invested and locked-in (self-imposed). Second, they are humble. This means they are willing to learn and be taught. We can’t expect to know everything about our spouse’s needs. The minute we believe that we do, we put ourselves in a position to get stuck in our marriage.
I once worked with a couple who were going through trust issues. There had been pornography use and an affair. They seemed to struggle finding a way to trust each other and repair the damage that had done. As they embraced humility, however, over time they found the connection and healing they were looking for. It took the husband admitting that he had a problem to pornography and seeing how he had hurt his wife. This is difficult to do and a necessary step in the process. It also took humility for the wife to want to try again with her husband. She had to learn a new way of connecting with him so that he felt taken care of as well.
My spouse cheated on me – what do I do now? If you are asking this question you are probably going through a gauntlet of emotions, thoughts and questions. Many couples come to my office seeking help to make sense of and hopefully heal from infidelity. There is a process that most couples go through – common experiences that I can share here. Usually, during the process of the disclosure (or discovery) of an affair, the spouse who was cheated on feels something many have called ‘betrayal trauma.’ I often share with couples in this situation a metaphor. Imagine, I tell her, that you are driving in a truck in a convoy through a war zone. Out of nowhere a rocket blasts your truck after being shot from a nearby building. It throws you out of the truck and into the dirt. After almost being killed in this situation, many would develop PTSD – or acute trauma. They would come home from the war zone and start the process of healing – perhaps with family or friends or trained professionals. They would talk about how unsafe it was in the war zone and how they almost died there. They would start to rebuild their sense of safety where they stood at that point – which is back in their home neighborhood, safe and sound. With infidelity, the trauma a spouse feels looks different. Imagine, I tell her again, that you have just been thrown from your truck after that rocket levels it. After picking yourself up, you then go to the building that the rocket was shot out of, climb the stairs to the top floor and find the person who shot it. You find this person and tell them, “I’m glad I found you. I need a hug from you. That was scary and I almost died – I’m glad you didn’t kill me.” The very person who almost killed them is the very person they go to for safety and reassurance and healing. This is what it is like to be the spouse of someone who is unfaithful. Going through this process is difficult and confusing. Betrayal trauma is something that needs to be understood and specifically addressed in order to heal.
Couples counseling, if done right, is ‘husband friendly’. Most couples come into therapy because the wife seeks help, sets up an appointment and convinces her husband to go with her. He often feels as if he is forced into the session and as if he is the bad guy. He might think that the therapist is going to be on his wife’s side and that together, his wife and the therapist, are going to tell him what he needs to change.
Effective couples counseling couldn’t be further from this scenario. In couple’s therapy, a therapist will see the problem as something the husband and wife can fight together. The problem isn’t the wife and it’s not the husband – it’s the way that they have been going about their relationship. This is something the couple can work on changing without blaming each other. Couples often fall into the trap of thinking that their spouse is to blame for their relationship issues. They believe that if their spouse would just stop (fill in the blank) that they would be happy and have no problems. Thinking this way leads to frustration and disappointment. It takes courage and honesty to look at yourself and what you can change to make your marriage work.
In couples therapy a seasoned therapist will ask questions about the couple’s relationship patterns, not about who’s fault it is that they are there. They will talk about how they are talking with each other, what they are talking about, what they are not talking about, etc. Understanding these relationship patterns is one of the first steps to effective counseling. As soon as the coupe can get on the same team to fight against these unhealthy patterns that they have slipped into as a partnership, then they can work on identifying their underlying emotional needs and potential injuries. This is where great work happens as partners identify and express their emotional need and positions in a way that invites healing, connection and safety.
Couples come into therapy years too late – according to research. I often hear of couples going to therapy after they have done so much damage to their relationship that it is difficult to repair. When couples call me to make an appointment for therapy they often tell me about their sad story about the last 10 years of a loveless, passionate-less, disconnected relationship. They long to get back to what they had when they first met. But after years of learning unhealthy habits to deal with relationship stress, it is a very long and steep road back.
There are several signs that you and your partner might need counseling. I will offer a few here:
- You are fighting more than usual
- Your fights are not being resolved and are just ignored or purposefully set aside
- Arguments last longer than before
- Your sex life has become passionate-less
- You feel like you are living with a stranger
- There is a start to or increase in addictive behavior (i.e., pornography, substances, problematic eating)
- Depression or anxiety seem more present for you or for your spouse
- Your ability to perform daily tasks is weakening (as is your desire to do them)
Getting help from a professional, reading a book, talking with someone who has your best interest at heart can start you on the road back. Most couples, however, wait too long and do too much damage along the way. Start by reaching out to a professional or picking up a book such as Dr. John Gottman’s Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
It might seize you in the middle of the night, or perhaps at the beginning of a work meeting, or maybe while driving your kids to soccer practice. Wherever it happens, it can overwhelm you. Your mind won’t stop running. Your body is tense. Your heart is racing. You can’t breathe! You can’t relax and enjoy yourself. If you have ever felt a combination of these sensations, you have probably felt anxiety—a common experience among adults and adolescents. Whether you accept it or not, anxiety is part of a normal, healthy life. Diagnosable anxiety disorders, however, are different than normal, everyday anxieties. A hallmark characteristic of an anxiety disorder is excessive fear or anxiety about a real or perceived threat (DSM-V).
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), nearly 40 million people in the United States suffer from an anxiety disorder in a given year. That’s 18 percent of the population! Specific anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, selective mutism (failure to speak in social situations even when able to speak in other situations), specific phobias (fear of animals, objects, etc.), social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or agoraphobia (fear of having a panic attack or other embarrassing symptoms in locations such as public transportation, standing in a line, etc.). Some anxiety disorders, such as phobias and generalized anxiety disorder, most often begin in childhood around 11 years old and can continue into adulthood if left untreated. These two disorders are the most common anxiety disorders in adulthood according to SAMHSA.
Because of their belief that things will not change, or that they just need to get over it, many suffering with an anxiety disorder do not seek treatment. The good news is that anxiety is treatable! Your biology has a lot to do with an anxiety disorder; therefore, a first step in reducing anxiety includes dealing with the body’s physical response to stress.
Your body’s internal organ regulator, your autonomic nervous system (ANS), has two applicable parts of the solution. First is the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is in charge of your fight-or-flight responses. This part, for example, pumps up the mailman’s body so she can outrun that dog hiding in the bushes. Second is the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which aids in calming your body. This part helps her body deescalate after she has escaped that dog so she can return to delivering the mail as usual.
When you feel anxious, your SNS is engaged. To help calm your body in these moments, the key is to activate your PNS. The exercise outlined below (partially adopted from The Anxious Brain: The Neurobiological Basis of Anxiety Disorders and How to Effectively Treat Them) triggers this part of your ANS.
How to do it:
- Lie down, stand, or sit in a comfortable position. Make sure you are “grounded” by creating an open posture with both feet on the floor and your back against a chair or bed. If you are crying, in the fetal position, or hunched over, this technique is difficult to do.
- Breathe in deeply. Picture a water balloon being filled with water as you first fill up your abdomen with air and then your chest. Feel the warmth and the weight of the air as you breathe in.
- Breathe out with an elongated breath—longer than it took you to breathe in. Purse your lips as you breathe out. This will slow your breathing. Breathing out slowly will help activate the PNS, which helps calm your body—the whole purpose of this breathing technique.
- As you breathe in and out, focus on the physical sensations you experience. Focus on your feet touching the ground, your abdomen and lungs expanding and contracting, the feel of air rushing over your tongue and through your pursed lips. Notice how your head, arms and hands feel. Doing this will help you be present and in-the-moment.
- Practice! This is a skill that must be developed. Try doing it while you are at work, stopped at a traffic light, or at home. Do each cycle (breathing in and breathing out) ten times or more, as you learn to engage your PNS.
- If you feel dizzy, light headed or out of breath, do not continue this technique. If your breathing is restricted or obstructed there may be other issues to consider. Speak with a therapist or doctor about the appropriateness of this exercise for you. This technique is a good start to help reduce anxiety in the moment, but is most successful when done in conjunction with therapy.
Anxiety disorders affect millions. Those who suffer with anxiety often feel there is no solution. But basic biology tells us differently. Activating our PNS through breathing techniques really does work—give it a try next time you feel anxiety creeping in. You might be surprised at how effective these simple breathing techniques can be!
Originally published on Utah Valley Health and Wellness Magazine
Written by Dr. Triston Morgan
Have we really cracked the code on love and romantic bonding? Perhaps. Scientists, poets, and lovers have long grappled with the question: “What makes romantic love work?” Through the work of Dr. Sue Johnson and the development of Emotionally Focused Therapy, it looks like we have an answer.
Through decades of research on the importance of emotional bonding and what it is like to feel disconnected, isolated, and alone, relationship researchers are starting to unravel the mystery of love and adult romantic bonding and how to mend loving ties. The truth is, we are all hard-wired to connect to one another. This drive to connect is infinitely stronger in family and romantic relationships. To be emotionally isolated is harsh on our brains. Loving connections offer us a safe haven to go to where we can maintain our emotional balance, deal with stress, and respond more lovingly to our romantic partners. Essentially, when those connections are secure and strong, love is safe; love flourishes.
Unfortunately, disconnections between couples do happen and frustration, sadness, and anger are all too common in marital relationships. When those secure and loving bonds are threatened, emotional “primal panic” and a cycle of negative interactions ensues. These wounds can be difficult to repair for couples when left to their own abilities, and therapy is often the last step before looking to end the relationship. Unfortunately, many well-meaning therapists utilize their individual-based, time-tested techniques and attempt to apply them to relational interactions, which usually has little effect in restoring their loving bonds. In addition, many therapeutic techniques focus on helping partners change behaviors or thoughts, or teaching them communication skills. The common result from these approaches and techniques is that they usually struggle to gain traction, and the couple leaves therapy with less hope than before.
But there is hope. Within the last 25 years, a substantial amount of research has emerged that gives hope to couples on the brink and helps them tune in to their underlying emotions, identify their negative patterns of interaction, repair their attachment, and eventually create new patterns of bonding and positive interactions. This model is Emotionally Focused Therapy.
Grounded in the theory of attachment, Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is an experiential, short term, structured, and tested model of therapy designed to help couples identify their negative communication patterns, interrupt this pattern, and create more positive, bonding, and secure emotional patterns. EFT does not see individuals as “sick” or unskilled, but rather “stuck in habitual ways of dealing with emotions with others in key moments.” As the title reflects, priority is given to emotion as a key organizer of inner experiences. EFT looks within the emotional experience of the couples and how they navigate their emotional connectedness. Dr. Sue Johnson has said, “The EFT therapist has a map. A map to relationships and how they work. A map to how they go wrong. And map to what is needed to put them right.”
A substantial body of research has shown promising results of the effectiveness of EFT. Research studies find that 70-75 percent of couples move from distress to recovery and approximately 90% show significant improvements. EFT is being used with many different kinds of couples in private practice, university training centers and hospital clinics, and many different cultural groups throughout the world. These distressed couples include partners suffering from disorders such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorders and chronic illness.
In my work with couples, EFT has resonated with them on many levels. No longer are couples focused on fights and long-standing disagreements about specific content or trying to change the other person. When couples go through the process of EFT, perpetual problems are framed as negative disconnections that are about protests by each partner for a more loving connection and emotional safety. EFT takes the blame out of conflict and resentment and moves to fighting together against a common enemy—the negative pattern. As couples progress through the stages and steps of EFT and begin to accesses deeper emotions that underlie their struggle for connection, a new interaction emerges as individual partners see and experience each other differently. When partners experience each other as more accessible, responsive, and engaged, old wounds and negative patterns are healed, and love and emotional safety thrives.
Originally published by Utah Valley Health and Wellness Magazine
Written by Dr. Jeremy Boden
As I work with individuals and couples, I like to educate them on how our brains and our bodies impact our relationships. Understanding the correlation between these elements seems easy enough, however, I often get the question, “How do I change my brain?” The answer to this question is a great starting point to create healing and allow new interactions to take place.
Our brains are wired for connection. Each interaction we have either strengthens or weakens the connections in our brains, thus influencing the relationships with those around us. The ability to allow one or two more heartbeats before reacting or responding to one’s partner is the ultimate goal. The better you are able to emotionally regulate (by allowing more heartbeats before reacting), the more positive your interactions with others can be.
There are many ways you can impact emotion regulation and the ability to create new experiences that improve relationship interactions. Some are easier than others, and some have been targeted to help with other areas of life. I’d like to highlight two very important ways to help increase heart rate variability and improve cognitive functioning so you are better prepared the next time you might want to fly off the handle. They are exercise and sleep.
Everyone knows that exercise is good for physical health, but it also has great implications for mental health and relationship health. Increased exercise impacts the way your heart pumps blood. Long-term exercise increases your heart’s efficiency in pumping blood to the body. It doesn’t have to work so hard, and this increases heart rate variability, or the amount of time in between heart beats in a given minute. Increased heart rate variability means more regulation (more parasympathetic, or calming, influences) on the heart, and thus, more flexibility in emotional responses. This means that you have more capacity to keep the breaks on when your fight or flight response is triggered, allowing you more time to thinking critically, solve problems, or socially engage before flying off the handle and reacting to environmental stimuli.
Additionally, exercise increases the volume of the prefrontal cortex—the area in the brain associated with learning and memory. Exercise also stimulates the growth of cells by releasing chemicals in the brain. These new cells are then cleaned, solidified, and bonded together to create new memories for individuals.
We have all heard that sleep is important and should be a priority. Sleep does a lot of thing for us—it helps with creativity, remembering physical tasks, and making decisions. Sleep also does two important things in the brain: creates and consolidates memories and clears out toxins. As neurons fire together (and therefore wire together), sleep helps to connect recent memories with earlier memories. This allows individuals to remember how they reacted in past situations, and react differently next time if they desire a different outcome.
Cleaning out toxins in the brain increases attention and memory, helps individuals think clearly, and even impacts the regulation of insulin. Not getting enough sleep inhibits the ability to clear out the toxins, which can be harmful to the connections that are trying to take place in the brain. Sleeping allows us the opportunity to create new and improved experiences each day.
There are many ways individuals can have more influence on emotional responses. These are only two, but by changing our brains and our physiology in the body, we are prepping ourselves for better interactions. Being mindful of how we can impact the physiology of our bodies allows us more control over how we interact with those around us. We increase our capacity to engage more positively and be more satisfied in our relationships.
Originally published by Utah Valley Health and Wellness
Written by Dr. Kayla Mennenga
A couple I once worked with in therapy some time ago—let’s call them Kevin and Gloria—seemed to have a lot going for them: Kevin had a good job and Gloria was active in her community, and they were raising four healthy kids. They reported, however, that as family pressures had built up they had felt a growing distance from each other, and each time they tried to talk about their individual or family challenges, criticism and defensiveness soon followed, and one or both of them would get hurt or angry while nothing was resolved.
Through therapy, they learned how to create a safe space for each other to open up and go a bit deeper. A big breakthrough came when Kevin started sharing about intense criticism he had felt as a child. He talked about his fear of his own children going through the same thing. This helped explain why he felt so strongly about a particular issue. Gloria then shared her own experiences as a mother, comparing herself to other mothers, and her fear of failing to live up to expectations. This helped Kevin better understand the challenges Gloria faced every day.
Although they still disagreed on many issues (and probably always will), they deeply understood each other. They felt a desire to support each other, and suddenly some of the issues didn’t seem so big anymore. Each expressed a feeling of relief, like a weight being lifted off of their shoulders, and more confidence in their relationship.
One of the main goals of relationship therapy is to help couples (1) open up and (2) learn to be ok about the messy details of their own and each other’s lives. Trying to be perfect, individually or as a couple, can add a lot of pressure, which can turn a couple against each other and create a cycle of fighting and withdrawing that hurts the relationship. If, in the middle of all of this mess, both partners can learn to really listen to each other and just be there for each other, things will get much better. To do this, we need to listen, and open up.
Have you ever tried to talk to someone about something you are struggling with, only to have them ignore what you said and start rattling off all of the pressures they are facing? How useful was that? But how often does this happen to partners under stress! It can be hard to listen to your partner’s troubles when your mind is so full of your own, but when two people are both trying to be heard, it means neither of them are listening.
Listen to your partner. Set aside, for a moment, your own issues and give them as much space as they need. You will disagree with some of what they say, I can almost guarantee it, but this isn’t the time for resolution or debate, this is the time to show your partner you care and that you want to understand them. After all, the best research we have says that 70% of all relationship differences are never resolved anyway, so let’s stop beating our heads against the wall, and start listening with the intent to understand. The goal is just to listen, not to resolve.
Opening up is more than just sharing our complaints and opinions. Sometimes we will need to do a bit of self-exploration first. Maybe when your partner arrived home late without texting and you were angry, underneath that was the memory of your own father arriving home late or not at all, and the hurt you felt associated with that. The anger will push your partner away, but the painful memory may help him or her connect with you and want to support you.
There may be many other secrets or hidden thoughts, feelings or memories you hold back from your partner out of embarrassment or fear of rejection. However, consider the power of feeling loved for who you are, even though there are some parts of you you’re not especially happy about. When we stop holding back the messy parts of ourselves, we are showing trust for our partner’s capacity to love us unconditionally.
Made Strong Through Weakness
Strong relationships aren’t created by perfect people—they become strong when we are willing to drag all of our imperfections out into the open and say, “Here I am, in all of my mess, can you still love me and stick with me?” This is the glue that holds a relationship together, even in the hard times: needing someone, and feeling needed at the same time.
Written by: Sam Ryland, LCSW
Originally published on Utah Valley Health and Wellness
This is a pretty mundane example of the type of things married people argue about. It seems like a pretty simple matter on the surface. The discussion was about doing chores. So why did I feel cornered? Why did something as simple as cleaning the kitchen make me feel so much anxiety? This argument was about more than simply cleaning the kitchen. I felt torn between two demands of great importance: my career or my wife’s good will. I keenly felt the burden of my family’s future resting on my shoulders, and what seemed like an endless to-do list. How could I stop working on that to do something as trivial as cleaning? What good was a clean kitchen if we were drowning in student loan debt? But not cleaning the kitchen meant the evaporation of marital bliss. How could I focus on my work with an upset wife on my mind? Either way, I was in trouble.
Any fly on the wall seeing our argument probably would have thought the issue was as simple as a lazy husband not wanting to do chores. But as in almost every argument, there was something deeper going on below the surface. To my wife, this was not merely a matter of having a clean kitchen. For her, it was about peace of mind. Coming home to a messy house after a hard day adds more stress. When the house is messy, it makes her mind feel chaotic and disordered too. Not only that, but a dirty house reminds her of the instability of growing up with a father who had bipolar disorder and refused to take his medicine. The issue of cleaning the kitchen was proxy for some deeper concerns. For me it was about earning enough to take care of my wife and to prepare for children. For my wife it was about feeling safety and peace in her own home.
Arguments can draw a couple closer together, or they can drive a wedge between them. What makes the difference? That question has a few answers, but one of the big things is whether we ever get to the deeper meanings under the surface of the fight. If we stay on the surface, we may have conclusion, but we won’t have resolution; whether I did the cleaning or not, I would have had stress and felt disconnected from my wife. That’s because what I needed, and what every person needs, is to know and feel that their partner understands and respects them. The reason we had an argument had nothing to do with cleaning at all, it was really about her basic need for safety, and my basic need for competence. We couldn’t fix the problem until we acknowledged the source of our strong emotions and what the fight was really about.
The moment we feel understood by our partner, we can think clearly, and then it’s easy to do problem solving. Next time you’re arguing and feeling upset, ask yourself about the deeper issue behind the disagreement. Find out from your partner what their position means to them. Empathize with their thoughts and feelings, and see how much easier it is to resolve arguments.
Originally published on Utah Valley Health and Wellness
Written by: Kenneth Jeppesen, LAMFT, MMFT
Kenneth is a therapist at the American Fork Center for Couples and Families and is a licensed associate marriage and family therapist. He enjoys helping individuals and couples find peace and happiness and spends the rest of his time learning about everything!
Come see Kenneth Jeppesen present on how to improve your marriage. He will present on John Gottman’s 40 years of marital research at the Orem Utah library on July 13th and August 17th.