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Hate those nasty confrontations that only upset you? There’s a better way to handle conflict.

Last month I promised to write more about physiological self-soothing. Staying calm while in an emotional or heated conversation with those you love can be a very hard thing to do.

If you are having a problem calming yourself in order to talk rationally to your partner, it is best to stop the discussion and have an agreed upon hand signal or words like “ tornado watch,” “ flooding,” or “ I need a break” to acknowledge that you are feeling physiologically-flooded.  While in that defensive, panicky position, often the heart rate is elevated, the blood is pumping, you might be sweating.

That physical reaction is your body warning that you’re about to step into a dangerous situation. A spouse’s facial expression or tone of voice can be enough to sound the alarm.  All this can take just a second. Often  people tell me that when they walk in the door or call their spouse on the phone and hear tension or coldness, they start to feel pressure in their body. 

They start an internal dialogue that goes something like this: 

  • “This evening is not sounding good!”
  • “My spouse is angry, and I might be in trouble.”
  • “There is no rest or relaxation on the horizon for me this evening.”

At the onset of these difficult interactions, your amygdala, which is a very small almond-shaped neural structure in the brain, starts to fire, and you feel the “fight or flight” urge. But most importantly, there is a perceptual narrowing and focused attention on that word your spouse just said, or the irritable tone with which he or she started the conversation. Bottom line, you stop absorbing the information as you normally would, and the conversation is about to go out of control. 

What can you do to avoid a conflict that you and your spouse will regret?

First, name what is happening and the emotions you are feeling. That, in itself, is a powerful tool to calm yourself.  At times people tell me, “I can’t stop this, I can’t control my reactions.” That is a self-defeating way to look at the situation. In fact, emotions are chemicals, and they last in the brain for six seconds. Tell yourself you do have a choice to remain calm, compose yourself and collect your thoughts. 

Here are some other ways to keep cool in these combative situations: 

  • Focus on your breath. You want your breathing to be rhythmic and slow, not shallow or rapid. Try this meditative exercise: breathe in for the count of four, hold for the count of four, exhale for four.
  • Relax your muscles one at a time. Squeeze a muscle, hold for two seconds, then relax. Allow feelings of warmth to replace the tension.
  • Think of a favorite place, maybe a childhood home or a vacation spot that made you feel safe, calm and relaxed. Maybe you and your spouse remember a vacation where you both felt connected and close.
  •  Spend 20-30 minutes in that relaxed state. Research shows it takes about that long to truly relax.
  • Exercise is a good way to release tension. Try running, swimming or yoga.
  • When conflict knocks, try to remember how your body reacts.  For me, signs of stress are shortness of breath and pressure on my chest. It’s very helpful to learn you own physiological stress signals and to know which of these techniques offer relief.
  • After you feel calm, return to your spouse and try to have the conversation again. I’m confident you will have more success this time. And remember, it takes time and practice to learn to manage conflict, and physiological self-soothing is a tool to help you do just that.

Keep practicing. You will appreciate  the improvement in all your relationships.

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Stonewalling — another relationship poison

Stonewalling

When couples contact me, they sometimes say that they need help with their communication. When I meet with them, I often notice that they do an amazing job communicating with me,  colleagues or friends. 

But when it comes to this very important relationship with their love partner — some of these skills  seem to evade them and slip away. Why is that?

In this post I will try to shed some light on an important way couples disconnect from each other and end up stuck: Stonewalling.

Bill, for example, works in management, he motivates his team and communicates with them several times a day. But as Susie approached him today during our session, he felt his chest tighten and his breathing became shallow. 

Once Susie started talking about the ways he’d hurt her feelings, he looked down and away. He looked as if he didn’t care.

When I asked him to tell me what was going on inside,  he said he couldn’t really explain but that he felt like running away.

On the outside Bill looked frozen and uncaring, but on the inside he was struggling. He couldn’t sort out his feelings or describe them. 

When Susie is upset with him, the world seems to stop, and he stonewalls.

So how do we understand this change in communication skills and abilities?

We know people are really listening when they maintain eye contact, nod their heads, or say something like, “I see,” or “I hear you.” The basic message is, “I am listening, I am tracking, I am taking in the information.”

When we analyze videotapes of couples in conflict, however, we notice that one person seems to have arms folded, is looking away and down, is not showing any facial expressions. He or she looks like a stone wall and has exited the conversation. 

That, of course, makes it very hard and frustrating for the partner who is trying to connect.

Research done by psychologist John Gottman has shown that among heterosexual couples having communication problems,  85 percent of the men are stonewallers.

Does this mean that stonewalling is a male characteristic then? Is it biology? No. Gottman studied same sex couples as well,  and he found that lesbians stonewall, too.  

So stonewalling is not about biology but a role that partners take on in their relationship. And while they are in that defensive, panicky position, their heart rate is elevated, their blood is pumping, they are sweating. And they are having this internal dialogue:

  • “Just do not say anything about it…it will make it worse.”
  • “This women has the memory of an elephant. She forgets nothing.”
  • “Soon I can say I need to go to my hair appointment; she can’t touch me then””
  • “There is no way to win this.”

When we perceive danger, our body gets ready to fight or flee.  And that makes sense when there is real danger. But when we are talking about finances, or why we forgot to stop at the cleaners, or why we said that thing that came across as hurtful or mean, that impulse to shut down, the need to run, gets in the way of connecting effectively.

So how do we stop stonewalling?

  • Rather than avoiding the issue by tuning out and turning away, make a commitment to slow down and listen. 
  • Admit what you’re doing. Name it. Tell your partner, “I know I am not with you right now; I know I am wanting to shut you out right now.”
  • Acknowledge that it is a frustrating for her right now; she knows she can’t really reach you.
  • Interrupt the internal dialogue of self-righteousness, “I don’t have to take this,” “I can’t believe she treats me like that,” “If only she stops this bickering we will be fine.”
  • Practice physiological self-soothing, such as deep slow rhythmic breathing, listening to soothing music, going on a walk.

Next blog I will write in more length about self-soothing.

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Contempt — the relationship poison

When Bill greeted his wife at the end of the day, he could predict  how the rest of the evening was going to go.

Her voice was low-pitched and tense, and he knew she was upset with him for some reason.

Anticipating an attack,  he reacted defensively. He barely looked at her and stomped away to change his clothes. 

In earlier blogs we’ve talked about destructive conversation patterns that are traps for many couples. First comes criticism. Then comes defensiveness. The third step in this toxic downward spiral is contempt.

If that sounds like a relationship killer, it is.

Let’s go back to Bill and Susie:

She was angry before Bill even walked in the door. Now, when he seemed to pull away from her, she was madder still. 

She rolled her eyes. She muttered to herself, “Here we go again. He can’t be trusted. He hates it when I get angry, and he doesn’t even ask  why. ” 

When Bill  reappeared and asked what they were having for dinner, she let him have it. She called him “a self-centered jerk” who worried only about himself. If he cared about her, he’d be home on time. At the very least, he could have called if he was going to be late. 

Bill’s fears were confirmed. Susie had only contempt for his efforts to be a good employee. To avoid further conflict, he retreated to his study to check his email. He thought to himself, “I can’t take this stress.”

Susie, meanwhile, was in the kitchen, stirring chicken that was over-cooked and drying out. “What is happening to us?” she wondered. “How can we get out of this rut?”

Susie & Bill found themselves in this spot frequently. They couldn’t resolve their conflicts because they treated each other with contempt. 

What does contempt look like?

  • Name-calling and other verbal insults. “You are a jerk.” “You’re just like your mother.” “That’s the stupidest and most ridiculous statement I’ve ever heard.” “Thanks a lot, Einstein.” It’s reaching for anything that you know will really hurt your partner. 
  • Non-verbal responses that relay your feelings even better than words. Maybe you roll your eyes or allow a look of total disgust or  turn your back on your partner and walk away. 
  • Acting superior. “I read this book about your behavior.”  It’s insinuating that you have a better taste, are a better partner, are better educated —and couldn’t possibly be at fault.

My best advice — stop.  Contempt is poisonous, and it will destroy your relationship.

To break the pattern, focus on the opposite of contempt,  which it appreciation. It will take practice, though, to change from a destructive habit to a constructive one.

Here are some tips: 

In the past, you were looking for things to criticize. Now focus on the things your partner does right. For example, “Dinner was really fun last night. Thanks for washing the dishes.” Or,  “I loved that you took time with our child to go shopping for my birthday.”  Or, “Thanks for picking up the clothes at the cleaners. It saved me a trip.” Or, “That outfit looks really sharp.”

Remember that softening your reaction is a choice, and you can make your point more eloquently if you show your partner respect and caring. Be sincere and conversational — not mocking or superior — when you express your need to be heard.

Life is full of opportunities to turn towards your partner with hugs and words of affection and appreciation. Such simple gestures can stop the downward spiral and allow your love to grow and blossom.

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Being defensive in your relationship is natural, but it can be toxic

defensive

So many arguments seem to start at the end of a long, hard day. Can you relate to what I hear so often in my office?

A couple is sitting around the dinner table, and the husband is telling an involved story about work. Then the wife interrupts.

Wife: “It is unbelievable how you never ask me about my day. Since you’ve been home, all we’ve talked about is you. Don’t you see anything wrong with this picture?”

Husband: “You didn’t ask me about my day, either, I just wanted to share with you. You think you’re perfect, but you’re not. You can’t even balance the checkbook.”

Do you see what is happening? The husband is getting defensive. He’s trying to protect himself from his wife’s attack. He has even counter-attacked by bringing up the checkbook.

Husband: “Maybe I forgot to ask you about your day, but I do a very good job of making a living and keeping up with our finances. I also gave our son a bath, and I took him to the dentist the other day. Is that not enough? Why don’t you appreciate me?”

People get defensive in one of two ways: They act like innocent victims or they counter-attack. The counter attack is the classic definition of defensiveness; according to Webster’s:  resisting or being ready to resist an attack.

To stop the negative spiral that can damage even the best relationships, try these suggestions:

  1. Take responsibility for the problem.
  2. Accept feedback even if a partner’s tone sounds critical.
  3. Listen to the complaint and remain open-minded. Say, for example, “Aha! Good point. I didn’t notice that I didn’t ask about your day.”
  4. Ask questions. You might say, for example, “What do you mean? What are your concerns?”
  5. Or, “Maybe you are right. I’m so stressed by work right now that I forgot to check on you.”

I know it is hard not to react defensively, especially when you are feeling attacked by a person who is very important to you. It’s even harder when that person is your partner, and he or she keeps pointing out flaws and acts more like an adversary than a friend. During these arguments, you’re likely to react physically as well as emotionally. Maybe your heart rate increases, you might start sweating, perhaps you’d rather be anywhere but having this fight or talking about your relationship.

Nevertheless, the pattern of criticizing, then reacting defensively, is toxic.

Breaking this bad habit or being defensive, and learning to take responsibility for your words and actions, may be the most important skill you can bring to any relationship.

Next month: We’ll see what happens when you can’t get out of the “criticize and defend” rut.

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Are you criticizing or complaining? The difference can mean your marriage.

criticizing or complaining

It’s painful when you and your partner find yourselves having the same argument over and over, and you can practically feel the distance growing between you.

Before I tell you ways to get out of this rut, let me share what I hear in my office almost daily:

Wife: “You are never on time. You say you will be home at 6 p.m. to help with the kids and have dinner with us, but it is 7:30 and you’re still not here. You only think  of yourself! Always!”

Husband: “I tried to leave on time but my boss gave me a last-minute assignment that had to be done. And I did come home on time last week, I also stopped at the grocery store and got milk. And by the way, why would I want to come home if this is how I am going to be received?”

Wife: “I hate that I can never tell you how I feel”.

Husband: “You are right about that because everything you say is negative!” 

Wife: “And you are selfish! And uncaring! And insensitive!”

Therapist John Gottman describes this pattern — the constant criticism by one partner, and the responding defensiveness by the other — as a predictor of distress and divorce.

How can this couple stop these destructive conversations and actually solve their problem?

Let’s take a look:

The wife wasn’t trying to be mean to her husband. But by the words and tone she used, she did sound as if she were attacking her husband’’s character. After all, she said he was selfish, uncaring and insensitive.  The husband responded the way most of us do when we feel attacked. We’re defensive.

At times we all get angry and find fault. But here is a better way to voice your concerns.

The antidote to criticism is complaining.

There’s a big difference, even if the two words are sometimes used interchangeably. Complaining can have positive results if you follow a few simple rules.

When complaining, use “I” statements as in, “I feel hurt,” or, “I miss you.”  Don’t make blanket statements as in,  “You’re always late.” Or, “You  never think about me.” Describe the situation. And state your needs.

Here’s the wife complaining, not criticizing: “I feel upset every time I have to wait for you. I wish you were here with us.  It’s not just that I need your help, I’m much happier when we’re together. So, when something comes up at work, please call me to let me know.”

Do you hear the difference? The wife has expressed her frustration, but she’s also told her husband that she misses him, and she’s given him a path to succeed. The situation is no longer hopeless.  In my next blog entry I will focus on defensiveness and its antidote. Stay tuned!

With love,

Liliane

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Things you can do every day to strengthen your relationship

strengthen your relationship

There is a Pablo Neruda poem that begins:

“What’s wrong with you, with us, what’s happening to us?” 

I hear those same questions, those same doubts expressed regularly in my office.

It’s only human to wonder, what is love really? And if I haven’t found it with my spouse, will I ever find it?

Over the past 30 years,  in a quest for answers to those very questions, I have made the study of relationships my life’s work.

Here are just a few things you can do to strengthen your relationship that I have learned along the path:

  • We long to know we matter to each other, but even more importantly, we want to be that chosen one. Show your partner every day in words and actions: I choose you. I want you to be mine.
  • When your partner is talking to you, make sure you pause, turn around, look and listen. 
  • Remember your body language reveals more than your words.
  • You might be the only person your partner can talk to about his or her true feelings. Honor that.
  • When you are reunited, take the time to practice the rituals of re-connection. That could mean something as simple as a lingering kiss or a hug or a question. “How was your day?” 
  • At bedtime, hold each other. What could be sweeter? 
  • And yes, say yes to sex. We all need physical as well as emotional intimacy.

Thank you for tuning into my new blog, and in the next few weeks and months, I’ll look forward to addressing your relationship issues. Just drop me a line and let me know what you’d like to read about.

Love,

Liliane

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Keeping the Love Alive on Great Day Houston

Keeping the Love Alive

Keeping the Love Alive

Liliane talks about a couple things that can help keep the love alive on Great Day Houston. Specifically about talking about expectations in beginning of the relationship and remembering to ask questions and spend time with your spouse.

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Conflict Resolution in Marriage

Conflict Resolution

Let’s face it. Every couple in a committed relationship will argue at one point or another.

Having disagreements is a normal part of any relationship. In fact, it can actually bring about greater intimacy if both couples can overcome these hurdles through dialogue and compromise.

The real challenge is not to let those disagreements turn into conflict gridlock. Understanding what it means is the first step to unlocking it in your marriage.

Lisa and Bob met after they were recruited to work for a large accounting firm. She was struck by his quick wit and intelligence, and he couldn’t resit her bright blue eyes. They spent long hours together at work, but couldn’t wait to see each other for dinner, drinks or weekend getaways.

“I was totally crazy about him,” said Lisa. “We spent long hours talking bout our hope and dreams for the future, and I knew this was a man I could spend my life with.”

Married for five years, the couple recently had a son. And like many couples, the stress of a two-career household and childcare issues had this once happy couple far from wedded bliss.

Read the rest of the article that was originally published in the Houston Family Magazine.

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Real tips for real parents who really want to throw in the baby towel!

Real tips for real parents

Bob and Lisa have just hung up the phone after talking with the doctor’s office. They are both elated! They just had the good news confirmed: Lisa is indeed pregnant. After a few years of struggling with fertility issues, their baby is now on the way.

Lisa told me that she had never received so much attention from family, friends and even strangers as when she was pregnant.

“People are so kind and interested,” she said. “They want to know the due date, the sex of the baby, and what names we have chosen.” She added it was a great opportunity to connect with others especially around such a happy event.

Bob had also been so happy and excited to share this very special moment of becoming a father. He attended childbirth classes and helped decorate the baby’s room.

After months of planning, the big day arrived and the couple joyfully welcomed their new baby. Despite their exhaustion, they felt so happy and connected; they were now a family of three. It was their dream come true.

But, as any new parent knows, there is no “baby instruction manual” that arrives with their little bundle of joy. And that bundle of joy requires a new skill set that stymies every parent.

How do you take care of the baby? How do you bathe, feed, and comfort? How do you start shaping baby’s behavior? What does it mean to be good parents? These were among the many questions that Bob and Lisa struggled with answering.

As the days went by Lisa and Bob were feeling more and more exhausted, sleep deprived, and lonely. Outside attention seemed to fade away. When Bob returned to work, Lisa felt isolated, struggling to take care of her baby. By the time Bob made it home at the end of the day, she was often so exhausted and had very little energy left to spare. They started to fight over small things. Both were deeply disappointed that what should have been a time of great joy was becoming a time of bickering and hostility.

Read the rest of the article that was originally published in the Houston Family Magazine.

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