Marriage Seminar #4: Couple Culture

Studies show that couples who struggle early in their marriage, often have conflict over unmet assumptions. I hear struggles when young couples come to counseling, that suggest there were conversations that should have taken place, prior to the walk down the aisle, if the merger was to be without some tension:

I thought he would be the one to take out the trash.
I don’t think we should have separate bank accounts and my spouse thinks we should.
We used to do lots of fun things together and now we just stay home.
I thought we would have more sex.

Couple culture is like a marriage mission statement

I went to pre-marital counseling back in the day, with a church pastor…not a therapist. Let’s just say that it was not an amazing experience. In retrospect, the counseling was very focused on whether or not we were compatible and less about helping us to create a couple culture that would help us navigate through our early years.

Let’s be honest, if you are going to pre-marital counseling, you are going to get married regardless of being found compatible or not! What you really need is a discussion about techniques that can be used to create a dynamic within your marriage that allows each individual to have their own needs met, while they develop tools to meet the needs of their partner.

One simple tool that can be used to help create a couple culture is for each person to identify personal values that they want to be respected within the new couple dynamic. These values can be altruistic goals, career aspirations, personal hobbies, religious and political ideals, and any other idea…just generalities that define a life vision. The collaboration of these ideas should result in goal statements that look something like this:

We are a couple who ______________________.

Our home is a place where __________________ is important.

We want to become a couple that ___________________.

We do not want to be a couple that _______________________.

There are obviously a variety of statements that could be made here, but do you get the idea?

The second step is to take each statement and come up with a couple ways that each person can assist in making that statement come true.

I can help us become a couple who _________________ by _____________________. (Example: “I can help us become a couple that continues to date by planning an outing once a month.”)

A good thing to put in your back pocket is the idea that whatever your “couple culture” is, prior to expansion of the family with little ones, will be the start of your “family culture”. If you want to be a family that goes hiking, volunteers at the homeless shelter and shows respect to one another, that dynamic is best started when there are just two of you!

As always, let me know if I can help.

With love,

Sonia

Marriage Seminar #3: For you, for me or for us?

If you have been married any time at all, you know that there are moments in marriage that are very imbalanced. One person is out doing the other person by carrying the emotional weight of a stressful conflict or by doing the bulk of the supposedly shared responsibilities. There are a number of very good reasons for imbalance, the most obvious being that one person is going through a particularly stressful time, for whatever reason, and the other spouse has to pick up the slack.  However, there are also times when life does not necessitate an imbalance and one person gets sick and tired of doing most of the emotional or physical lifting, when they are married to another perfectly capable human being.  When couples end up on my couch, oftentimes that imbalance has gone on too long and some reorganizing has to be done to save the harmony of the home.

Much of the time, in conversations surrounding the “who-does-what”, it becomes very clear that  people do the tasks or take on the emotional burdens that make sense to them. For example, one spouse may not mind a little clutter around the house, while their honey may need things tidy at all times. So each time the neater spouse picks up something left out-of-place, they are making a mental checklist of their efforts and then slowly, like a crock pot, resentment is building.

A quick reframe that can be used in these situations is to ask yourself who you are actually doing this task for….yourself, your spouse or for the marriage!

Couples that live well together have usually figured out a system that works…each of them have areas of their shared life that fall within their “jurisdiction”. For example, regardless of my strong views on equality for women, it is best if I do the bulk of the laundry in our family and Mike tackles all things related to our cars. It is an area of our life that we are both comfortable with traditional roles. These are not the areas where conflict arises.

The areas of conflict for married folks, arises where there is expectation on one person’s part that the task should be performed by the other person OR the other partner is not pulling their weight. For example, I have the expectation that my husband should be able to get his socks in the hamper and he has the expectation that I will close the cupboard when I take a dish out. (We both have improved in these areas over the years, but honestly, the struggle is real.)

Of course, neither of the above scenarios should land us in counseling but you would be surprised, how if gone unchecked, numerous imbalances can lead to built up frustration between two people. I once had a family in counseling that literally talked about kitchen responsibilities in my office for a solid three months. Each person had different expectations of the part they should play and it lead to some intense conflict. Fortunately, we were able to reframe their approach to shared responsibility, not only in the kitchen, but in their interpersonal dynamic as well.

A healthy switch in viewpoint can sometimes change the whole dynamic.

Step one: Ask yourself why the task or issue at hand is important. Who does this affect the most? Are you making something that is only important to you, everyone’s problem? Or is the task or idea being challenged something that has to be addressed, in order for your home to function properly? Set expectations and communicate time lines so that you avoid disappointment.

Step two: Realize that even though you have pledged to cleave as one, it doesn’t mean that you are going to share a brain. Don’t expect that your spouse knows what you think is the priority for household chores or child-rearing. Each of you were raised in different homes, by different parents. Blending those experiences takes numerous, ongoing conversations, to find a happy medium that you both are comfortable with.

Step three: Find ways to serve one another. Healthy marriages involve two people that WANT to help one another get through life. When I toss those wayward socks into the basket and Mike closes the cupboard, without making an issue of it, it should not feel like a big sacrifice. You are doing those tasks for harmony within your marriage! Also, remind yourself not just of the tasks your spouse doesn’t do, but what they do! You may even find that it is not as imbalanced as you thought.

Step four: Own up to the areas you fall short and work to improve. “It’s just the way I am” seems like an authentic, self-aware statement, but it does not usually promote positive feedback from the person you are going to spend the rest of your life with. For goodness sake, give them some hope that your relationship is going to improve with age!

While I purposefully used simple illustrations, I am aware that imbalance in relationship can run much deeper than who is mowing the lawn each week. If you sense there is an imbalance that is rocking your marriage, don’t wait until you are ready to leave your spouse to start the conversation!

As always, let me know if I can help.

With love,

Sonia

Marriage Seminar #2: Choose but choose wisely

A Counseling 101 method, utilized by marriage counselors everywhere, is a “recounting”, done by each spouse, or when they met and fell in love. It is a way to start the “troubled marriage counseling journey” on a positive note, rather than with a list of grievances. So many people have truly beautiful stories about their first encounter, their whirlwind romance, the way they could not get enough of one another. Sure…every once in a while, there is a relationship that is so far gone that one or the other can’t remember feeling love for their then-boyfriend or girlfriend…but generally speaking, people have fond memories of the time they shared prior to marriage.

In my experience, a common thread that emerges in the relationship narrative is a time where someone chose to ignore a red flag in the relationship dynamic or that they had specific assumptions that were never actually discussed. When couples push away important conversations (i.e., roles within marriage, thoughts on parenting, finances, ideas on ethics) or fail to address dynamics they wish were different (i.e. time spent together or with friends, date nights, the way you verbally and physically interact, in-law dynamics) in the courtship process, they deny themselves an opportunity to really know if they are making a wise choice for a lifelong commitment.

Let’s be honest. We are all flawed people. We all enter into relationships with pre-conceived ideas, cultural norms, and wishful thinking. Every single one of us was raised in a family that shaped us in a particular way, both for the good and the bad, and when we attempt to share our lives with another person, lots of that “stuff” collides… However, a marriage is different from any other relationship in that you share space, more time than you can imagine, trials, finances, maybe children, physical intimacy, and the pursuit of hopes and dreams. Good marriages find two people that sacrifice for one another, finish one another’s sentences and care about one another as much as they care for themselves. Bad marriages find two people who feel unheard, unfulfilled and stifled by their spouse. And while it is EASY to fall in love, to stay in love, there has to be a whole lot of trust and respect, not just physical attraction and positive feelings.

If you are in the process of choosing who you want to spend the rest of your life with and hoping they choose you back, ask yourself some of the following questions:

1. When we discuss important issues, do I feel that we share similar values that will be put to use as we share life, pursue long-term goals and raise a family together? Are our disagreements about finances, gender roles, parenting, or whatever else, close to an obvious compromise or will they require a huge sacrifice on one person’s part?

2. Are there behaviors or attitudes that I am hoping this person is going to give up when they are in a committed relationship with me? Do they know I have that expectation and are they in agreement? If they do not change, will that be a deal-breaker for me?

3. Does this person have characteristics that enable them to be the father/mother I am hoping for my children? Are there characteristics they exhibit that I am not comfortable with now and will not be able to tolerate longterm?

4. Do we agree on the place that spirituality will have in our future home?

5. Have we had a chance to do life activities together? Do we enjoy similar hobbies or topics of conversation? Are the things we connect on today, things we can connect on when our life circumstances change, or we have kids?

Marriage is risky business for sure. When you commit to spending a lifetime with someone, you are banking on them growing and maturing into a person that you will love as much in 30 years as you do now. The risk of that decision is minimized if you ask the hard questions and make some of the tough decisions when you are still in the crazy-about-you stage! And the benefits of choosing wisely are SO WORTH the effort!

As always, let me know if I can help.

With love,

Sonia

Recently, I read a book by Gary Thomas, a Christian writer, entitled The Sacred Search. While this book was written from a faith perspective (so it may not be for everyone), it has some very valuable lessons for people actively seeking to share their life with someone in a committed and mutually satisfying marriage. A general summary of the book would be that if you are looking for a longterm, healthy marriage, you must have a shared life vision and that while you definitely want to be attracted to your spouse and be able to have fun together, the conflicts that arise in marriage come from misconceptions about the other person, differences in life goals and inability to communicate and decision make. I will no doubt use a number of the concepts discussed in this book as I do pre-marital and marital counseling in the future.

Marriage Seminar #1: Let’s talk porn

As a member of the American Counseling Association, I am encouraged to stay educated on the latest statistical data surrounding human emotional dysfunction. Let’s just say that recently I have been reading a lot of articles about sex and I feel compelled to say a few things. 

Here are some facts. With the recent surge and availability of pornographic materials accessible via the internet, more and more couples and singles have found that their initial interest in porn is turning into an addiction to porn, or an inability to find sexual satisfaction outside the use of pornography.  If you had told me before graduate school how much I would be talking about sex in the counseling space, I would not have believed you. But because of the cultural norms of today and the availability of pornography, let’s just say I talk about sex A LOT. I would also like to add that I am very concerned that if this problem is not addressed, the repercussions are going to play out detrimentally in the marriage bed.

Just to give you a little statistical information, current estimates are suggesting that the AVERAGE age of the first exposure to pornography is 11. That is the fifth or sixth grade for most kids. This happens primarily because websites that target kids, purposefully choose domain names that are close to websites popular with kids. It also happens because parents of kids forget to clear their browsers or don’t want controls on their computers. Curious kids that click through the images are then stimulated by the images and often return to the images without a lot of understanding of what they are seeing, other than the physical response they experience as stimulating and rewarding. 

Fast forward to the prolonged use of pornography: Because porn is a supernormal experience of the real thing, the brain adjusts its release of dopamine (pleasure hormone stuff) to accommodate the images and subsequent pleasure. Unfortunately, if this goes on for a while, the person who continues to engage with pornography might find themselves depressed when they are at a “baseline” state, needing the visuals just to alleviate a bad mood. They also may find themselves unable to perform in real life “situations” because the stimulus and atmosphere do not compare to what they have experienced online. (I bet the manufacturers of Viagra love this!) But sadly, you can imagine what this does to a marriage relationship. No normal human being, with a job and a couple of kids can compete with enhanced sexual images that are being produced in an artificial environment. 

Like all addictions, it is important to understand that if a sexual addiction goes untreated, negative behaviors can escalate. Sexual addiction starts as needing artificial stimulation for a sexual experience but can manifest in later stages of addiction as compulsion….compulsive masturbation, anonymous sex, etc. (Of course, sex offenders are people whose sex addiction has gone WAY off the charts, but since I really don’t see people in my practice who fall into that range of addiction, I am going to keep it simple.)

Back to MARRIAGE! Sex in marriage is supposed to be more about intimacy and connection and a bit less about getting an itch scratched! When couples come for counseling and express that their sex life doesn’t exist without the use of pornography as stimulation, it is an indicator of dysfunction within their interpersonal relationship and the road to healing can be difficult. And because millennials have been “culturalized” to view porn, their marriages are suffering the most! Did you know that millennials of today have sex LESS than any previous generation because they find pornography an easier “outlet” to sexual satisfaction????? Hmmmmm….that is a whole discussion in itself.

So, what if couples worked on communication more and found ways to bring their excitement to the bedroom? And what if foreplay started with someone making coffee for the one they love in the AM and progressed through the day with encouragement and stimulating conversation? And what if the approach to sex was how to care for the individual you are in love with and less about checking a box? Is there a chance that marriages could be satisfying and worth hanging on to? Are you willing to give it a try?

As always, let me know if I can help.

With love,

Sonia

Panic Attacks: What are you doing to empower yourself?

Personally, I have had one panic attack in my life. It was a horrible experience. It occurred when my father was hospitalized near the end of his life, my husband was out of work, I was in my last semester of grad school and I got my breast cancer diagnosis. I remember feeling like I was suffocating and needed to lay down, which occurred more like a faint than sitting down gracefully to catch my breath. I knew to put my head between my knees and regulate my breathing but honestly, I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it out alive. I have to say I am grateful for the experience, as it has given me a point of reference for the clients I serve that have ongoing, debilitating occurrences. 

Having a panic attack can make you feel like you are going to die.

Panic attacks come on fast. There is a general feeling of being overwhelmed that leads to a temporary paralysis both mentally and physically. Often the person experiencing a panic attack feels a shortness of breath. People report thinking that they were dying, feeling cold, losing feeling in a limb or rapid heartbeat. If you, or someone you love, experience panic attacks, there are many strategies that you can put to practice that can help you get to “the other side”.

Here are some of the basics:

1.  Breathe: deep, not shallow, inhales with slow exhales, head between your knees if needed.

2.   Identify the “triggers”: Know the situations, or people, that cause you to feel overwhelmed and plan for those experiences in advance.

3.   Calm yourself ahead of time: Meditation, prayer, quiet time, yoga, long walks are all good ways to spend time processing life, making stressful situations more manageable.

4.   Write the script: Once you know the triggers, practice the scenarios through imagery to give yourself confidence. Remind yourself how you have survived in the past and that whatever you are encountering is temporary. 

5.   Identify your support system: Trusted friends, support animals, mentors or professional counselors should be used to provide accountability and for traumatic moments where you need to be “talked off the cliff”.

As always, let me know if I can help.

With love,

Sonia 

Empaths: Boundaries are always going to be an issue for you

I will never forget my first reading of Drs. Cloud and Townsend’s book Boundaries. I was in my early thirties and had never understood the part I played in my boundary-less life.  The unrealistic expectation that my people-pleasing ways would bring relationship and that if I was just “nice enough”, people would respond positively, had lead to some pretty difficult disappointments. So being given permission, from a faith-based perspective, to advocate for myself was freedom I had never experienced!

I wish I could say that all it took was that one read-through to cure me of my rejection based wounds. But as anyone who has done extensive counseling for “woundedness” that stems from a fear of rejection, it is not that easy. Being a natural Empath, I struggle with over-identifying with other people and therefore lose sight of what my needs are until I am feeling really taken advantage of!….Can you identify with this?

As our greatest struggles often become our passion, I find myself counseling people who are also high on empathy and low on advocating for self. My clients need encouragement to stand strong with spouses, bosses, children, and friends. A problem that can become a hurdle is that the energy that it takes for an empath to stand up for his or herself, even once, can leave them exhausted and then they fall right back into that line of thinking where they assume others will see them, hear them and then respond with the same level of commitment. 

I realized recently that boundary work is always a work in progress for the hardcore Empath. Here are three guidelines to use when navigating relationships:

  1. In relationships meant to be reciprocal, if you do not have expectations on the table, you will feel misunderstood and eventually will get burned. Setting expectations is important no matter how secure you understand the relationship to be. Assuming that you will be valued and respected is what gets empaths in trouble! Learning phrases like, “I have been more than happy to help but going forward, I have some expectations as well” and “I enjoy working toward our shared goals but not at the cost of my own”, will alert the person not as high on the empath scale that they are close to crossing a line with you.
  2. Mirror the level of commitment you are getting in return and there is less chance of feeling used in a relationship. High-level Empaths tend to work harder when they sense the other person pulling away, leading to an even greater investment and more to be disappointed about. 
  3. All information is good information. When you learn that the other party has less of an investment in the relationship than you do, don’t let that feed your rejection-minded tendencies. It is important to embrace being your own greatest advocate!  You can choose to protect yourself rather than get punched in the gut and no one will think less of you!

As a general rule, Empaths tend to want to help and encourage. They share easily and have a Mi Casa Es Su Casa mindset. What they do not often want to admit is that they expect reciprocal actions. This is where that Su Casa mindset stuff is really important because those who are not so Empathy-leaning are surprised when they are asked for a reciprocal response that was not spelled out for them. 

Living emotionally healthy lives is a lot of hard work. Keep swimming!

Sonia