Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) has proven to be effective at mending marriages and relationships. Dr. Sue Johnson, the developer of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, condenses twenty years of experience and wisdom into her book Hold Me Tight. I’ve been curious to learn more about this method of therapy, and finally picked up the book for myself. As a non-therapist, here are some helpful strategies that I learned from this book to stop the cycle of blame and resentment in a relationship and rebuild that trust and security.
Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy
Dr. Johnson shows what emotionally focused couples therapy can look and feel like through examples from seven couples. I found the conversations of each couple the most fascinating. We see the gradual process of couples learning to dig deeper, to not concern themselves with the argument on the surface but rather the emotions that are hidden beneath. Here are a few steps that I took away to start forming a deeper connection in romantic relationships.
Check In with Yourself, and Choose Each Other
When you find yourself getting overwhelmed or frustrated at your partner, take a moment to stop and reflect. This can be hard in the beginning. These patterns can be set in practice for months or years without realizing it. You’ll find yourself talking in terms of “me” vs. “you," and getting lost in defensive or critical statements. I have been victim to this pattern many times. Acknowledging the cycle of critique/defense is the first step to breaking it. Recognize that you are both on the same team, and that your partner is not the enemy. Take a step back and ask yourself, “What are we really arguing about?”
Own Up to Your Actions
The next step is to acknowledge your shortcomings. Be honest about what you are struggling with. This can let the other person know that you are invested in being on the same team, rather than who is “right” or “wrong." It is valuable to discuss how fights are triggered without judging each other. When you acknowledge your behavior, it allows your partner to safely go deeper.
Share Your Feelings
Clarifying and sharing your feelings is the core of great couples therapy. In the beginning, it can feel uncomfortable or even frightening. But sharing your feelings in a safe space will allow your partner to understand you better. It’s okay to admit that you feel angry or isolated. It is okay if the feelings are confusing. Try to communicate how you felt about your partner’s actions. “When you don’t do the dishes, I feel like you’re not hearing me. I feel like you don’t care about me.” That last sentence is the key. When you are upset that the dishes aren’t being done, it can come from a place of past hurt or insecurity. Together, you can work together to validate and provide support from common ground.
Even if you’re not currently in a monogamous, romantic relationship, this book is still deserving of a read. Everyone has important connections with others that need time and care to look after. I found myself relating to a lot of the patterns mentioned, even in my platonic relationships. The word that comes to mind when I think of Dr. Johnson’s message is simply: hopeful. You can feel how much hope and trust she has in any couple that walks through her door.
Start Couples Counseling in Ballard
Do you find yourself stuck in a cycle of conflict and miscommunication with your partner? At Thrive for the People, our licensed therapists can help you re-establish a strong, secure, loving bond in your relationship. Our therapists use Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy as their main approach to working with couples. Together they can help you and your partner create lasting change. If you’re feeling lost, and looking for additional support, schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation with us today.
Asking for what you want and need in a clear, direct, honest, and courageous way is one of the keys to healthy communication and relationship dynamics and yet one of the hardest things to do. I have struggled with it personally for a long time. Raised as an Asian American woman, being assertive felt counter to my upbringing and cultural values. Yet I have learned over time, as Dr. Brené Brown puts it, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.”
To be clear and direct can fit into my cultural values when I do it with thoughtfulness, skillfulness, kindness, and compassion. In this blog post, I will offer some effective strategies to ask for what you want in your relationship to maximize the chance that your partner will hear and understand you clearly and accurately. Let's first identify some of the myths of healthy communication.
Myths of Healthy Communication
Fears of Being Direct and Assertive
Some of the doubts and fears that often come up when we practice being direct, honest, and clear are:
Sound familiar? I have these thoughts running through my mind too. When these thoughts get too loud, instead of asking directly, I might hint at my needs, use criticism or passive aggressive behaviors to express my needs, tell myself that it is better not to depend on others, and/or bury my needs to the point that I cannot recognize them anymore. Instead of building a healthy relationship dynamic, I may end up unconsciously and unintentionally self-sabotaging my relationship.
The skillful ways to ask for what you want and need maximizes the chance that the other person can hear it accurately and want to fulfill it. This way of asking is not demanding, intimidating, aggressive, critical, burdening, or obligatory. It is not setting ultimatums, escalating emotionally, using guilt and shame, or persuading the other person. When you are clear, direct, and confident in what you want, you give the other person the opportunity to come closer to yo, to understand you better, to step up into their higher self, and to care for you in ways that are meaningful to you. Below are the five strategies to ask for what you want in a healthy way that challenges the myths of healthy communication in a relationship. These strategies come from Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, Non-Violent Communication, and Interpersonal Effectiveness Skills.
1. Assume Good Intentions
Start the conversation by assuming good intentions about the other person. An unhelpful strategy to ask for what you want is to assume that the other person has not met your needs so far out of bad intention or not caring. In my work as an Emotionally Focused couples therapist, I often hear one partner say, “If they cared about me, they would have known to do x, y, or z.” By starting off this way, the listener is already on the defense about their intentions. Instead, try starting the conversation with the following:
2. Express Your Emotions
Expressing your emotions can help de-escalate and clarify miscommunication. The first step is to calm and soothe yourself and become clear about what you are feeling on the surface as well as at a deeper level. For instance, you might be feeling frustrated, resentful, bitter, and angry on the surface with your partner for not seeing your contribution or valuing your efforts. At a deeper level, there might be feelings of fear of rejection, fear of not being good enough, fear of abandonment, and feeling unseen, taken advantage of, and unworthy. Expressing both the surface emotions and the deeper emotions with vulnerability and authenticity can help to soften your partner and allow them to see the hurt inside that is in need of comfort, compassion, care, and protection.
3. Give Others the Gift of Caring for You
Reframe a request as a gift for your partner: a chance to see the map into your heart. Most likely, your partner wants to care for you and is looking for opportunities to express how much you mean to them. They will not be able to read your mind and they might need some help to understand you better. When your partner knows that something delights you, makes you feel loved and supported, it is setting them up for success to do that more often. Give them the opportunity to succeed with you by directly and gently letting them know what you like, what you would love to see more of, what brings you joy, and how you feel the most cared for. It is a privilege and a gift for your partner to be able to care and love you in the ways that matters to you.
4. Accept When They Say “No”
Sometimes you may hesitate to ask for what you want directly because you are afraid of rejection or being “too much” if the other person cannot fulfill your needs. You can decrease the stakes and risks of asking by identifying other ways to get your needs met. For example, if your partner is not available to listen to you right now and they say “no,” can you call a friend to talk instead? If your partner is not able to care for the children right now, can you hire a childcare provider instead? Feeling that you are empowered and have agency to meet your own needs makes it easier to accept a “no.” Just because your partner is not available or able to meet your request right now does not invalidate your need or want.
5. Express Gratitude When They Say “Yes”
Expressing gratitude and praise is the most effective way to increase the chance that a behavior will happen again. Humans are very responsive to positive reinforcement. When your partner gets instant feedback that what they did is on the right track, that it mattered to you, it had the intended response that they were hoping for, and that it made you happy, they are much more likely to do it again in the future. When your partner says “yes” to your request, delivers what you had asked for, spontaneously does something that makes you feel wonderful, let them know early and often that they are on the right path into your heart. Over time, your partner will internalize the feedback. When their behavior becomes a habit, you won’t have to express gratitude each and every time for them to continue doing what they know will make you happy and contribute to a healthy relationship.
Begin Couples Therapy in Our Ballard Office or Through Online Therapy
If the idea of working on these effective communication strategies feels taunting or overwhelming to do on your own, our competent and compassionate therapists can provide extra support and accountability through individual or couples counseling. We can help you dig deep into your current communication patterns, self-sabotaging behaviors, and stuck places in your relationship. We can guide you toward effective communication strategies to create more intimate, healthy, secure, and thriving relationships with your partner. Schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation with us today.
One of the topics that has been gaining more wide-spread attention lately is loneliness. Studies have found that loneliness can have detrimental effects on our health by impacting our healthy behaviors, cardiovascular system, stress hormones, and sleep patterns. Loneliness can impact our immune system, experience of pain, and ultimately, how long we live. Loneliness is an all too common experience in the U.S. and it is on the rise. The former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy called loneliness an epidemic. A study conducted by The Economist and the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) in 2018 found that 22% of Americans "always or often feel lonely, or lack companionship, or else feel left out or isolated." Given how many of us feel lonely and how damaging loneliness can be, I want to offer some strategies to combat loneliness and create deeper connections.
Acknowledge and Understand Your Feelings
One of the first steps in addressing loneliness is to identify when it is happening and what it is trying to tell you. Does loneliness feel like an ache in your heart, a coldness in your chest, a restlessness in your body, a tension in your shoulders, a craving for food or substances, a sense of boredom, or something different? For example, I feel a drop in my stomach when I am feeling lonely that makes me want to reach for comfort food or turn on an episode of my favorite Netflix show. Understanding that this is loneliness rather than true hunger or boredom helps me pause and acknowledge this feeling rather than automatically go for the things that will numb this feeling.
Once you've identify loneliness, ask yourself why you are feeling lonely. There could be many different reasons. This article by Gretchen Rubin, the author of The Happiness Project, outlines seven different reasons for loneliness. For example, we could be surrounded by friends and family and yet feel lonely because these relationships do not offer us the depth or intimacy that we crave. Take some time to reflect and ask yourself, "What is really missing in my life?"
Identify Relationships That are Meaningful
A recent study of 1,839 U.S. adults confirmed what we knew all along that the quality of relationships matters more than quantity. Therefore, it is important to know which relationships are meaningful and worthy of your investment. A meaningful relationship is one that makes you feel safe and secure to be fully yourself and be vulnerable, welcomes and holds your emotions, supports and challenges you to grow, has mutual respect and admiration, is reciprocal in the giving and receiving of care, and is dependable and committed. You will know you have a meaningful relationship or the potential for one when you feel accepted by this person without trying to be someone you are not, when you feel seen and understood by this person, when you look forward to spending quality time together, and when you leave interacting with this person feeling fuller and more satisfied.
In order to find and establish more meaningful relationships, you must be willing to be brave and risk being rejected and reject others who are not a good fit for you. In the process of searching for and developing these deeply fulfilling relationships, you could feel disappointed, hurt, even betrayed by opening yourself up to someone. Know that you are not alone in this process and that the reward is so very worth it. You can take small steps toward intimacy and connection by being gentle and kind toward yourself, making eye contact with a stranger, asking a friend about their past or something they are struggling with, listening and extending your empathy, sharing something vulnerable and true, asking someone to help you with a task, offering to help or care for someone or an animal, scheduling times to connect in-person, and offering physical contact (e.g., a hug).
How you do address feelings of loneliness in your life? Please share with me in the comment section below.
Counseling in Ballard
Are you looking for some extra help and support to overcome feelings of loneliness and create more meaningful relationships in your life? Counseling may be able to help. We are a team of compassionate and skilled therapists who help individuals and couples in the Seattle area with a wide range of mental health concerns at our Ballard counseling office. You can schedule a 15 minute phone consultation or contact us for more information.
In the last blog post, I talked about awareness and understanding of self-sabotaging behaviors in romantic relationships. In this blog post, I will focus on some things that you can do to begin to heal and repair this pattern of self-sabotage. The first step, as I mentioned in the last blog post, is to identify why you might be engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors. Understanding the why can help you recognize that this coping strategy is no longer needed or helpful in the present and therefore, it might make it easier to let it go. Here are a few more practices to consider on your healing journey to create satisfying, nourishing and long-lasting relationships:
Part of practicing self-compassion is recognizing that you are not alone in your relationship struggles. Many people have struggled with self-sabotaging behaviors and have felt confused, angry, or even disgusted with their behaviors and the impact they had on their partners. You are not alone, weird, or bad for struggling with self-sabotage in romantic relationships. Another part of self-compassion is to treat yourself the way that you would treat your closest friends and family members. We are often much more critical and harsh toward ourselves than we are toward others. It might be helpful to practice self-compassion by imagining what you might say to a friend who is struggling in the same way.
Own Your Stuff
One of the most difficult tasks in a relationship is to own our contributions to the relationship dynamic. It is easy to point fingers at our spouse or partner. It is tempting to place all the blame on them. Or, equally destructive, we can take on all the blame and absolve our spouse or partners of their responsibilities. It is much harder to take an objective position and see the relationship dynamic as a co-created problem to be solved by both partners. We can practice self-compassion while taking full responsibility for what we have done. Healing and repairing our self-sabotaging behaviors is an opportunity to learn something important about ourselves and our partners. We can ask our partners to work through this stuck place with us in order to create deeper intimacy in the relationship.
Confront Your Fears
We might struggle with self-sabotage in romantic relationships because we are afraid. Afraid of not being good enough, of not deserving of being treated with respect and love, of committing to someone long term, of being hurt again, of having someone really know us, of being authentic, of being vulnerable, of disappointing someone, or being abandoned, etc. Confronting our fears mean that we acknowledge what is scary and we make an intentional decision to move forward with our fears. We can take a risk with our heart knowing that nothing in a relationship is certain and that pain is a part of the self-discovery and growth process. We can take that leap of faith to really let our partners in and let ourselves love them fully, and in that process, love ourselves more fully as well. Instead of acting from a place of fear, we can practice acting from a place of love. Ask yourself, “What would I do differently if I loved my partner as an imperfect human being, independent of what they can do to satisfy me?” In addition, ask yourself, “What would I do differently if I loved myself as an imperfect human being who is deserving and worthy?"
Couples Counseling in Seattle, WA
Are you tired of sabotaging relationships by engaging in behaviors you know may drive the other person away? Do you feel ready to embark on this journey to let go of your old narrative but worry that you need a little extra support? Maybe you want the accountability of working with a therapist, or you've gotten stuck in the past when you've tried to change your behavior in relationships. Getting some extra help from a couples or marriage counselor or an individual therapist may give you the extra boost you need to break this old cycle.
Here at Thrive for the People, we have several exceptional licensed counselors and psychologists who specialize in working with relationship concerns. We can help you get to the core of what is preventing you from having a successful relationship. We help individuals and couples in the Seattle area with a wide range of mental health concerns at our Ballard counseling office and online. We offer couples & marriage counseling if you and your partner want to come to therapy together. Otherwise, we can also work with you on improving your relationship through individual counseling. Whichever area of your mental health you would like to improve, we look forward to hearing from you. You can schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation or contact us for more information.
I recently read this amazing piece in The New Yorker by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz. The article was "The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma." In this article, Díaz described how his early experiences of sexual abuse followed him throughout his life. He explained how they contributed to the destruction of many meaningful romantic relationships. He reflected on and owned up to his self-sabotaging behaviors as well as recognized that he was afraid of facing his trauma. Not only was he afraid that he had become broken and unlovable, but afraid to hope for something better. I felt both empathetic for his pain and validated by his naming of these experiences.
"Super ironic that I write and talk about intimacy all day long; it’s something I’ve always dreamed of and never had much luck achieving. After all, it’s hard to have love when you absolutely refuse to show yourself, when you’re locked behind a mask."
- Junot Díaz
Understanding Self-Sabotaging Behaviors
The root of self-sabotaging relationships is often fear and insecurities resulting from past traumas. These traumas can include difficult family dynamics where you experienced abuse, abandonment, enmeshment, over-involvement, or neglect. The topic of self-sabotage is so broad and complex that I am going to divide it up into several blog posts. In this blog post, I will focus on how to identify when you or your partner are self-sabotaging the relationship.
One way to identify self-sabotaging behaviors is that they are misaligned with your values, characters, and beliefs. For example, after fights with my partner, I often wondered, "Where did all that anger come from?" I am not generally an angry person nor do I want to be one. These behaviors can leave you filled with regrets because of the shame and guilt for acting in ways that do not reflect the best of you. Remember that this self-sabotaging pattern is not the whole of who you are.
You might be using self-sabotaging behaviors to help avoid more pain and protect you from future disappointments. This gripping, suffocating, and intangible fear of failure, pain, abandonment, inadequacy makes so much sense when we see it through the lens of trauma. Self-sabotaging relationships can be an effective coping strategy. If you never get too close in a relationship, you will not be hurt. Yet, the outcome of self-sabotaging behaviors is often more painful when you use these behaviors to keep yourself away from the very person that you want to be close to.
Self-Sabotaging Behaviors in Relationships Can Include:
Díaz self-sabotaged his relationships by having affairs with other people.
Also, I want to point out that self-sabotaging behaviors can vary on a spectrum. They may be behaviors ranging from we-all-do-this-sometime to abusive. If your behaviors are abusive, it's time to seek help from a mental health professional.
Sometimes the reasons behind the behaviors are deep in our subconscious. So deep, we may not be aware that we are self-sabotaging relationships. Thus, one of the first steps in addressing self-sabotaging behaviors is identifying them.
Am I Self-Sabotaging Relationships?
First ask yourself, "Is my reaction to my partner out of proportion to the current situation?"
In the book "Getting the Love You Want," Dr. Harville Hendrix talked about the differences between our "old brain" and "new brain." Our "old brain" consists of the limbic system and the brain stem. It regulates our basic bodily functions and the fight/flight/freeze mechanisms. The old brain is always on the alert for safety and danger. The important note about the old brain is that it works without an awareness of time. This is why when past wounds become triggered, it feels like the wound is happening right now.
In contrast, the "new brain" (the cerebral cortex) can:
If your reaction to your partner is out of proportion to the situation, that's a good sign that some of your past wounds may be triggered. Thus, you may be acting out of your old brain without realizing it. For example, you might be very jealous of your partner spending time with friends and family. These reactions are to past trauma rather than the present moment. These reactions come from deeper fears. If unacknowledged and unaddressed, they can lead to further self-sabotaging relationships.
Then ask yourself, "Is my behavior bringing me closer to my partner or pushing them away in the long term?"
When we become triggered or reactive in our relationship, we can feel, act, and think ways that push our partner further away. When we become triggered, it is easier to express emotions like anger and frustration. It becomes much harder to express vulnerable and tender emotions such as fear, sadness, and loneliness. For example, my partner came home later than expected one evening from having dinner with a friend who was visiting town.
I was seething with anger and gave him the silent treatment. Instead of expressing vulnerable fears of abandonment or sadness, I went straight to the protective emotion of anger. The anger only pushed him further away, which was the opposite of what I wanted. Sometimes self-sabotaging behaviors can bring our partner closer in the short term. Yet, it is still harmful to the relationship in the long term. Similarly, avoiding conflict may create harmony in the relationship in the short term. But, unresolved issues might resurface later and create more damage to the relationship.
Finally ask yourself, "Does my behavior align with my values?"
Often, our self-sabotaging behaviors become misaligned with our values, characters, and beliefs. For example, after fights with my partner, I often wondered, "Where did all that anger come from?" I am not generally an angry person nor do I want to be one. These behaviors can leave us with regret because of the shame and guilt for acting in ways that aren't ourselves. The shame and guilt may be a good sign that you might be self-sabotaging relationships. Yet, try not to get stuck in the muck of shame and guilt. Remember that this self-sabotaging part of you is only that, a part of you. It is not the whole of who you are.
We all have our reasons for why we engage in self-sabotaging relationships. So, it may be helpful in the healing process to understand your "why." To do so, you can read some great books on family dynamics and trauma. You can check our Recommended Reading page for some suggestions. Also, talk to your partner, friends, and family to get feedback on your behaviors. Or, seek help from a therapist to uncover past wounds that may be driving the behaviors.
Begin Trauma Treatment in Our Ballard Office or Via Online Therapy
You do not have to go through the pain of self-sabotaging relationships. You can overcome past trauma with the help of a caring therapist at our Ballard, NW-based therapy practice. If what you've read here resonates and you live in the Seattle area, we encourage you to contact us today. We can schedule a free 15-minute phone consult and begin exploring how psychotherapy can help you on your journey toward healing. To start your therapy journey, follow these simple steps.
Other Services Offered at Thrive For the People
Trauma treatment is not the only service we offer at Thrive For The People. We understand you are unique. So, you might not have only one issue you are struggling with that fits neatly under trauma treatment. Thus, we offer a variety of counseling services at our Ballard counseling clinic. Each of our counselors takes a holistic approach to your mental health using techniques from various evidence-based counseling approaches to help you create lasting change and thrive with challenges.
We created this blog to share information about living a healthy, happy, and fulfilling life. We are constantly learning new things and making mistakes along the way. This blog is our way of chronicling our discoveries, musing, and lessons learned as people and professionals. We invite you to come along on our journey of self reflection, discovery, and thriving with challenges. We also hope to exchange wisdom and enlightenment from you, our readers.
The information provided in this blog is not a substitute for professional mental health treatment.