Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Couple Trouble? Day 3 - Rediscover and Reconnect!

For the past several weeks, we have been discussing Couple Trouble -What Is At The Root Of It? and You Mean, "I" Have To Change?  If you have not read the previous two blogs, please do so! Today's blog will make more sense and the exercises will be more meaningful. Once both partners have finished the Life Messages Exercise - completing all five sections - you are ready to Rediscover and Reconnect with one another. Let's get started.

Share Life Messages

First, set aside an hour when both partners are available to meet. Make sure there are no interruptions or distractions.  Kids need to be put to bed or safely occupied. Put away all technology and/or work commitments!  Find a quiet comfortable place to meet and sit, facing each other. Bring your Life Messages Exercises to share with your partner.
Secondly, follow the steps in the Empathic Reflective Listening Exercise.  One partner begins while the other listens.There is no interrupting, for any reason.The first partner shares for about 20 minutes; the second partner responds for about 10 minutes.Then, the roles are reversed. It is helpful to set a timer to keep the exercise on track and so that each partner has time to participate in the exercise. However, as you get comfortable with this exercise, if there comes a time when one partner needs more time, adjust accordingly. Being mindful of the needs of one another, even within this exercise, is another way to demonstrate your empathy for your partner.

Empathic Reflective Listening Exercise

Step One:  Partner One begins by sharing his/her life messages. Start with the age, move to the life messages and from whom, then describe how you felt or feel, and what you did or do to feel better. Take your time. Don't rush through this.  Go into more detail or description if you are moved to do so. Examples or stories may come to mind that you feel like sharing. Don't hold them in. Don't worry about how much of your Life Messages Exercise  you complete. You will continue doing this exercise on a weekly basis, so again, go slowly and voice your truths. This is so important. This is the time when your partner will rediscover you and what is at your core. When the timer goes off, finish your thoughts and give yourself time to calm any emotions.

Step Two: Partner Two - your hard work begins here!  Hopefully, you were listening, I mean really listening!!  Your job is to  paraphrase what your partner said!  You are NOT going to problem solve, analyze, critique, or judge!!  You are going to reflect back with empathy and compassion what you heard your partner say, taking into account how your partner was feeling. This is a time for you to reconnect with your partner by being completely present for your partner. 

A Really Good Listener?
A few sentences starters that will help you are: What I thought I heard you say was... What I am seeing and hearing is...   It sounds like you were really hurting when.... I had no idea how....am I hearing that right? Remember, Partner Two, this is NOT about you - it's about your partner!  So, keep your thoughts, your focus, and your feelings on your partner!! Partner One, if your  partner did not hear something accurately or if he/she missed something important, you may interject and clarify, but wait until your partner has shared and make sure you are not being critical or judgmental as you explain yourself further. This should not take more than about 10 minutes. However, make sure both of you are ready to move on.

Step Three:  Partners switch roles.  One partner shares the Life Messages Exercise while the other partner practices Reflective Empathic Listening. Again, be mindful of the time, but also take  more time if there are painful issues that require a slower pace.  

I would really recommend setting aside 1 1/2 hours for this exercise if you can because I think couples need time to cuddle and hold one another during and after this exercise. With an incredible amount of emotion surfacing, there is healing in learning to sit with that emotion - quietly and closely. When your session comes to a close, set a time for the next one.  I strongly suggest meeting at least once a week to continue growing the process of rediscovering and reconnecting.

When I think back to our couple, Jen and Jacob (from the previous blogs), I recall how committed they were to implementing the Empathic Reflective Listening Exercise. Not only were they eager to participate in session, but they faithfully incorporated the exercise into their weekly routine. As Jen and Jacob listened to each other and developed a deeper understanding of one another,their attitudes and their behaviors towards one another shifted. As our sessions continued, with their mutual re-framing and reconnection in place, I witnessed both Jen and Jacob distance themselves further and further from their couple trouble and discover a re-newed desire to please each other.

Remember, the beauty of this exercise is reminding ourselves that one partner is NOT responsible for filling the voids or mending the wounds of his/her partner. 
At the same time, with an increased awareness and deeper understanding of our partner's life experiences, we are then able to re-connect through compassionate communication with one another and  from an empathic re-framing of one another.  

Before we conclude, I want to leave you with one easy but effective exercise that is great to use for reconnecting, especially if you don't have a lot of time and if you are feeling frustrated with one an other! Let's take a look at Feel, Why...Need!

Feel, Why...Need Exercise!

1. Signal respectfully to your partner that you need to do the Feel, Why...Need Exercise. Use "I" statements; be concise and clear. For example: I need a few minutes to talk. Would it work for you right now to do our Feel, Why...Need Exercise?
2. Both agree to stop and take a few minutes to communicate, or set a time for later that is agreed to by both partners.
3. The Partner initiating the talk fills is the blanks.....

I am feeling _______________ because _______________________.  I need ________________.

Example:  I am feeling over-whelmed because I have to pick the kids up everyday after school. I need to problem-solve some ways to deal with this. 

Depending on schedules, many times the issue is dealt with presently. Other times, couples set aside another time to work on the issue.  Both work well, but commitments need to be honored when scheduling a new time for discussion. Also, a helpful hint for the I need part. Be very specific in what you need so your partner can help! Do you  need him/her to listen, to problem-solve, to fix, to analyze, to help with, etc. Don't expect your partner to mind-read; clearly verbalize it!

Also, this exercise is Not meant to share deeply felt anger, resentments, etc.  In fact, this exercise is effective in keeping short accounts with one another and Not letting things fester! For more serious issues, use the Feel, Why...Need Exercise but integrate it into the Empathic Reflective Listening structure.

Your Love Will Strengthen!
In closing, it is comforting to note that couples do not experience couple trouble by chance. Two unique individuals with diverse experiences created over a lifetime must work hard and commit every day to rediscover and reconnect with one another. As you do, your love will re-surface and it will strengthen. Life will feel lighter and brighter...again.

For additional exercises, please consider a copy of
Betrayal-Proof Your Relationship: What Couples Need To Know and Do


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Couple Trouble? Day 2 - You Mean, "I" Have To Change?

Last time, we discussed an extremely important cause when it comes to Couple Trouble. Please go back and read Couple Trouble? What's At The Root Of It? This will give you a better understanding of today's blog. And, please complete the exercise on life messages. However, before we move on, I want to answer a really good question that was asked by a reader!
Painful Life Messages

Holli, aren't most of the problems that couples have - like arguments, personality conflicts, opposing needs or priorities, personal or relational stresses, parenting disagreements, and even unhealthy behaviors such as addictions or obsessions - a manifestation (an outcome) of each partner's painful life messages?  

In my opinion, yes (*see note below). In fact, aside from genetic predispositions and/or from organic pathology or psychosis or excluding life-altering events or diagnoses, I believe that most couples find themselves in trouble because of their innate integration of their maladaptive life messages into their own lives and into their relationships. As I mentioned last time, we ALL have these life messages and we ALL carry them with us into adulthood. I want to go back to our couple from last time - Jacob and Jen - but before we do, I want to discuss one more very important piece to the Life Messages Exercise that I left out deliberately until now. There is a 5th column:

Age     Life Messages     From Whom     How I Felt/Feel         What I Did/Do To Feel Better

With each life message that we recall or that spontaneously surfaces that was or is difficult or painful, we each turn to something or someone, take refuge in a behavior, thought, or feeling and/or even take on a different persona in order to cope. Or, we may resort to a myriad of healthy or unhealthy coping mechanisms. This is natural.  Let's take a look at Jacob and Jen.

When Jen tells Jacob that he is selfish and self-centered, his life messages kick in:  I'm never enough... I am nothing. And then Jacob does what he did when he was belittled and berated by his alcoholic father - he shuts down emotionally, he stays out with his band even later and longer, and he pulls away to protect himself. This in turn hurts Jen further. And when Jacob tells Jen that he's doing the best he can and that he can never satisfy her, Jen's life  messages surface: I'm not lovable...I disappoint everyone. And then Jen too does what she did when her mother was emotionally absent and when Jen was blamed for her mother's unhappiness - she buries her pain, she focuses her attention on taking care of her children, and she silently contemplates how to leave Jacob. 

This is important. Our unhealthy life messages are like triggers waiting to go off. When our partners say or do something that immediately takes us back to those tender and vulnerable beliefs about ourselves that we held when we we children, we immediately respond or react in the same or similar ways we did in our youth in order to protect ourselves.  And, for most of us, those coping strategies may have served us well (or at least allowed us to survive) when we were children, but they do not serve us well as adults and they do not lend themselves to healthy relationships.

Connecting The Dots of Brokenness
Before we look at some healing strategies, it is really important to fill out that last column in the Life Messages Exercises.  By identifying what our individual coping mechanisms were and are - what we did and do to make ourselves feel better or at the very least to soothe our pain - we are connecting the dots of our brokenness. We begin to understand that our pain has a beginning and it has had a long life. We learn that we can heal that brokenness now by taking responsibility for owning our shattered beliefs about ourselves and tending to them. You see, it is unrealistic to expect our partner to fill our voids or mend our wounds or rewrite our life messages for us. And, it is unhealthy. At the same time, as we learn about ourselves and are able to communicate that understanding to our partners, couples begin to reconnect from an empathic re-framing of one another and they are able to start the renewal process of the relationship.

I know it can happen. I've seen it time and time again. Couples came into counseling after injuring one another repeatedly and thought there was no hope. And then, when they took the time to self-examine, to identify their life messages, and to take responsibility for their individual recovering, the hurting stopped and the healing began. I will never forget the look in Jen's eyes while Jacob was describing how he felt when his alcoholic father verbally and emotionally abused him. I remember the tears coming down Jen's face when Jacob shared his life messages and how little he thought of himself, as a boy and now as a man. And, I see in my mind how Jacob softened as Jen described her difficult childhood, her loneliness, and her longing for someone to love her. I recall how he tenderly took Jen's hands in his as she voiced her life messages of not being lovable and being blamed for others' unhappiness, as a little girl and now as a woman. I remember that I, too, was moved as both Jacob and Jen...
Revealing Truths

 told their truths, 
claimed them, 
  honoring themselves and their relationship in the process.  

Next time, we will discuss healing strategies further, but for now take your time, but do spend time on the Life Messages Exercise - What I did and do to feel better. If you have not completed the first four parts, please do so. In this last column, write down any thoughts, behaviors, or feelings that you adopted and that you still utilize in order to cope. Is there something (hobbies, interests, sports, faith, etc.) or someone you turned to that helped you or hurt you further? Is there something (drugs, alcohol, self-destructive behaviors) that you used or engaged in, or some place - healthy or unhealthy - that you frequented in order to escape. Again, this part of the exercise can be difficult. Breathe and take breaks when needed. Return to it when you are ready.

Tell your truths.
Claim them.
Honor them and you. 

  * Note - There are individuals who do not fall into the range of healthy functionality that I am discussing here. Because of numerous factors (some of which are mentioned), the degree of mental illness or psychosis far exceeds the intrusive nature of maladaptive life messages and should be treated with more serious professionally guided interventions.

Next time, Couple Trouble #3:  Rediscover and Reconnect!

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