The Emotionally Polarized Couple

Like many couples, Megan and Chris love each other, but they each admit to having communication problems. They recently had a second child and although they are overjoyed with their growing family, they are both handling the stress that accompanies it very differently. Megan describes feeling overwhelmed by taking care of two small children and all of the household responsibilities. She finds that she is increasingly irritable, she cries more easily than before, and often feels like she is failing to meet the growing demands of her family. Megan is hurt and angry that Chris is more distant than he used to be, but every time she asks him what’s wrong, he insists that everything is fine. Chris is frustrated that Megan is easily irritated since the birth of their second child and he doesn’t understand why she’s so weepy all of the time. He tries to say as little as possible because he doesn’t know what will “set her off” and make her start crying. When they try to talk, Chris offers suggestions to help Megan, but she only gets madder. He doesn’t want to make things worse, so he stays quiet. Chris and Megan are experiencing the stress that accompanies having a newborn, but the same breakdown in communication frequently emerges in couples, regardless of the stressor. Many men don’t know what to do with a woman’s heightened emotional response and they fear that if they “feed into” her emotions by offering her reassurance or validation, her emotional response will escalate. Men often mistakenly believe that if they jump in and fix the problem, if they point out the ways in which her feelings are illogical or irrational, or if they leave their partner alone, she will feel better. However, this approach has the opposite effect. She is looking to her partner to listen and to validate her feelings. She sees his suggestions as an insult; a clear indication that he believes she is incapable of handling things herself. She views his opinions of how she’s conducting herself as judgment and criticism. And finally, she views his distance as a rejection of her. All of these lead her to have an even larger emotional response and thus, perpetuate the polarization. There are some basic differences between the sexes when it comes to communicating. Generally speaking, men tend to turn inward when facing a challenging situation or when going through a difficult time. After he has figured out how to solve his problem or he has moved past his hardship, a man is more likely to discuss his experience. His partner may take this pattern to mean that he doesn’t feel close enough to her to want to...

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Moving Through Grief

Even though we are all confronted with loss throughout our lives, the grieving process is not something that is commonly discussed or taught in our culture. There is an expectation that we are supposed to stay strong and return to normal within a few days to a few weeks. Many of us believe that if we allow ourselves to fully give in to our grief, we will never be able to move beyond it and we will be stuck in our grief-stricken state forever. This is not the case. In fact, quite the opposite is true. When we give ourselves permission to feel how we feel (sad, hopeless, lost, confused, worried, angry, etc.) we actually move through the grieving process, as opposed to simply avoiding it. Grieving is a very healthy response to any type of loss; even life losses such as a divorce, a move, the end of a friendship, illness or any life transition. We cannot expect ourselves not to have feelings around these types of events. There is no magic formula for moving through the grieving process, but there are some things that can help. Some things to keep in mind: The mind-body connection. Loss reminds us that life is finite. The stillness that comes from being alone can feel uncomfortable. Rather than drowning out the stillness with noise, try embracing it. Quiet your mind for a few moments and allow yourself to observe the sensations in your own body. This simple practice can help to center you when it feels as if everything around you is falling apart. Get out in nature. Nature has a way of lending perspective. It nourishes us in a way that nothing else can, while gently reminding us of the cycle of life. In addition, getting exposure to natural light can help our overall mood. Even something as simple as taking a walk or going barefoot in the grass can soothe us during a difficult time. Exercise. Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers. The brain automatically releases more endorphins during grief to help us get through the initial phase of the loss. After about six weeks or more, the endorphin release wears off and we are left with more depressive symptoms. By exercising, we are tapping into the body’s natural healing system. Exercise can give us a clear focus as we become more in sync with our body. As we feel stronger, we begin to feel less helpless and more capable. A feeling of helplessness is a common experience after a loss. Grieving is not something we can intellectualize. In trying to do so, we only set ourselves up for prolonging the process rather than surrendering to it. Trusting the...

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Letting Go: When Things Don’t Go As Planned

Death is ultimately what many people fear, but we all experience other losses throughout our lives. Loss comes in many forms: our loved one dies and we are left with painful feelings in their absence, we go through a divorce and are left to navigate our lives without the partner we thought we would have, our children grow up and move away from us, or we identify ourselves with our job and one day it’s just gone. People understand the grieving process when it comes to death and typically rally around in support of the loved one who has been left behind. However, life losses can feel every bit as painful because many of us feel alone in our experience. We are taught not to burden others with our troubles or that we need to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Perhaps we receive criticism or judgment for the loss. We may even blame ourselves for whatever has happened. All of these things tend to make us feel more isolated and can exacerbate our sense of loss.   Grieving is a natural process that happens whenever we have an attachment to someone or something and it does not work out the way we want it to. Often we’ve become attached to the idea of something…that a person will always be there, that people will meet our expectations or that we will achieve certain benchmarks of success, for example. When it doesn’t work out the way we had hoped, we are forced to let go of the idea to which we had become so attached. The more attached we are to the outcome, the harder this is, especially if we’ve grown accustomed to identifying ourselves by it. Letting go of our expectations is a painful process and we can experience a wide range of emotions from anger, fear, and sadness to hope and acceptance. Grieving is not a straight line, and most of us bounce back and forth with our emotions as we wrestle with the issue at hand. When we accept this, and give ourselves permission to feel the way that we feel, we work our way through the struggle and naturally begin to let go.   Anxiety often arises out of fear of some future event; typically that we feel is out of our control. Life experience teaches us that there are many things that fall into this category. We know this for a fact intellectually, but work hard to avoid the emotional feelings associated with loss of control. Feeling helpless, like we don’t have the power to change something we are experiencing, is extremely uncomfortable. To deal with this discomfort we come up with various ways to...

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Relationships That Hurt Part II

Are you in a relationship with an abuser?   Abuse is not something that typically comes up in casual conversation. In fact, most people go to great lengths to keep it private. However, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner (1). In addition, nearly half of all women and men in the United States have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime (2). These alarming statistics are clear indications that this is an issue that needs to be discussed. Aside from the early warning signs of an abuser, there are some questions to ask yourself if you suspect you might be in an abusive and/or controlling relationship. There are some common patterns in any type of abusive relationship, and taking a few minutes to ask yourself some basic questions may be an important step in identifying whether or not there is an unhealthy pattern in your relationship. Being in an emotionally, verbally, or physically abusive relationship can be confusing and isolating. Remember that if something doesn’t feel right intuitively or if you constantly feel hurt by your partner’s actions, it means something is wrong. Pay attention.   Are the words consistent with the actions? Focus on the actions, not the words. Abusers are good with words. They are often charming, winning, and very good at twisting things around so that they are never to blame. Most of us mean what we say. Our actions are consistent with our words. This is not true of an abuser. It is easy to be led astray when you focus solely on the words and believe them to be true. The real issue at hand will not be addressed, and you will be left feeling confused and in the wrong. If you are able, try tuning out the words, and instead, focus your attention solely on your partner’s actions. What do his/her behaviors tell you? Someone may apologize all day long, but if they seem cavalier and like they don’t care that you are hurting, or they continue to behave in the same hurtful way after you’ve told them how it makes you feel, there is a problem. Their words are not consistent with their actions.   Is your partner empathetic? If your partner seems completely unconcerned by your suffering, it means that he/she does not have enough empathy for you, and likely, anyone else. A lack of empathy is common in almost all abusers, otherwise they wouldn’t abuse! If an abuser had empathy for their partner, they would feel badly about inflicting pain, and would stop...

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Relationships That Hurt Part I

Understanding Abuse, Misconceptions, and Warning Signs   “He’s not abusive, he would never hit me.” These are words I hear often in my practice. Women describe controlling or abusive behavior in their relationship and then follow up with something about how their partner would never cross that obvious line between verbal, emotional, or psychological abuse and physical abuse. Often these women will describe horrific, demeaning, and belittling behaviors from their partner, but shudder when I label it abuse. This article is not just for women who are in a physically abusive relationship. Please do not be turned off by the word abuse and think it automatically doesn’t apply to you if you have not been battered. Abuse is not a cut and dry issue, and often relationships that don’t feel right are confusing. It is imperative that women know what is acceptable treatment and what is not. Abuse is improper treatment, or mistreatment. The patterns of any type of abuse are similar. When I use the term “abuse,” I am referring to all types of abuse: verbal, emotional, psychological and physical. I have never seen a physically abusive relationship that was not also verbally, emotionally, and psychologically abusive as well. There is a common misconception that abused women come from abusive families and that they are just going back to what is familiar. Often these women think that what they’ve experienced in their childhood is normal and they don’t know that there is an alternative. Sadly this is true for many women. However, there are many women who’ve had perfectly happy childhoods and unknowingly walk into an abusive relationship. These women are often confused and don’t understand what has led to such a hurtful relationship. In many cases, the woman has no idea why she feels so bad in the relationship, because she can’t quite put her finger on it. Her partner may be perfectly charming to everyone else, making it all the more confusing to her. She may doubt her own sanity since everyone else thinks he’s fabulous. He may be gregarious, shy, ambitious, or laid back. He may have money and power, or not. Abusers come in every shape and size, which makes it all the more difficult to spot one early in a relationship. However, there are some classic warning signs that are important to pay attention to if your relationship isn’t feeling right. In his book, Why Does He Do That?, Lundy Bancroft highlights early warning signs of an abuser. -He speaks disrespectfully about his former partners -He is disrespectful toward you -He does favors for you that you don’t want or makes you feel uncomfortable -He is controlling -He is possessive -Nothing is ever...

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