Feeling Relationship Strain? Get Close Again
Rachel: Welcome to today’s webinar Feeling Relationship Strain? Get Close Again. We are very fortunate to have Dr. John Pelletier as our presenter. Dr. Pelletier has more than 30 years of public and private sector clinical and leadership experience in psychology, rehabilitation counseling, undergraduate and graduate education and disability determination. He currently serves as a physician advisor and quality assurance consultant at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
So without further delay, Dr. Pelletier, I will turn things over to you.
Dr. John Pelletier: Thank you Rachel and welcome to all of you listening in this afternoon! This presentation of only 30 minutes is attempting to handle a lot of really important material. It’s concerned with how we respond to strain in our relationships, especially to people most important to us; our partners, our spouses, and to some extent this presentation also has some relevance for other close and vital relationships as well.
We are solely going to be concerned with strain, but also how to prevent strains in relationships, and importantly near the end of our time we will be looking I hope for a practically at ways to build intimacy to rebuild relationships when we have I guess had some difficulty and I hope some of the information will be very practical and useful.
For some of you it may be a chance too just to reflect on where you are in your closest relationships; perhaps with your spouse or partner. What is going well for you? What you bring to it that helps to contribute to intimacy and closeness in your most valued relationship?
Also what problems are you having or have had and what can you do to maybe address those effectively, including the role of counseling, which we will look at briefly.
Let’s look at intimacy just for a moment and it’s something that we think of as closeness or openness, an affirmation within a relationship that usually develops over time. Clearly though sometimes we can -- as some of us know, falling in love seems to happen very fast, and time has a whole other meaning when that’s occurring.
But it’s not necessarily a time where we fully know the other person and that does evolve over a longer time span.
We are not just limiting it to sexual intimacy, but also to emotional intimacy, to intellectual intimacy, spiritual and physical intimacy. And when we think of being intimate with someone, you might be thinking of intimacy being characterized by a feeling of closeness, of familiarity, and warmth of affection.
And it’s sometimes thought of as a state of allowing the sharing of your personal self in a way that is physical, sexual, emotional, behavioral, and also in terms of your values and beliefs. But it’s when you can be open that way with someone else, it’s a special experience and perhaps all or many of you know that.
Okay, a number of you know; in fact, you all know, and I frankly also know that there are a lot of reasons for, not only a couple seek therapy, but for a common problems that people have in relationships.
One of them is certainly a lack of communication or communication problems. It’s sort of like lack of emotional support, which is kind of core to any relationship, and it’s an area where most of us have the most difficulty. It makes it hard perhaps to address some of the other issues, like sexual dissatisfaction, infidelity, either physical or emotional, financial issues or money management problems, and disagreements on how to raise or discipline children.
Here too are problems related to dealing with extended family, with parents, and with siblings and other relationships that can affect the couple very directly. So these are some of the reasons why perhaps some of you have sought help and I hope effectively.
The next slide concerns the benefits of couples counseling, and here we are looking at opportunities to learn to communicate more effectively and how to resolve conflict and solve problems productively, learning appropriate expression of often difficult things and disclosure of painful emotions.
I would make a point here that in relationships sometimes we can easily stuff disappointment or frustration with our partners, problems that we are having with them and not express that very directly to them.
And I am someone who learned not to complain as a kid. As a young person my father taught me not to complain, and I have had to learn to complain and I have encouraged in my marriage my wife to complain to me very directly, because if you don’t, things get stored up as resentments, they begin to create distance and walls between people. So it’s better to express a disappointment or a frustration, even if you are wrong and be open to that as well as you attempt to communicate with your partner.
So communication of painful material of difficult emotions is really important.
Learning how to state your needs clearly and openly within your relationship, that’s something we will look at very practically in a little while, we looked at ways to build intimacy.
Learning how to work through unresolved issues and learning how to negotiate for change within your relationship. It is challenging when we get married, for example, or come together with another person in an intimate way of not losing yourself and not forgetting that you bring your individual selves to these relationships. And there are things about ourselves that need attention, that need care.
It may be also that we have divergent interests and need perhaps for other friendships and relationships that give our lives meaning. It's important not to lose sight of that and at times not to just sort of collapse into a relationship in a way that results in losing your sense of self in the things that are also important to you, apart from the relationship itself.
Let’s look at communication for a moment. Some broad principles; first of all, on effective communication, which is the next slide, respect and courtesy. What more can I say, treating the other person with care, is someone you value and you want to care for, even when you are angry and frustrated.
So even if you are like me and you lose it, you get irritable and you act out of frustration sometimes, it's respectful to always go back and say, you know, I am sorry for the way I acted a little while ago. I was really irritated, really frustrated with what you were saying and I just had trouble dealing with it effectively, I am sorry. Just begin to reestablish that communication and that sense of care.
Honesty, empathy. Empathy certainly means having an awareness and an attempt to understand how another person is feeling, including your impact on them of what you are saying, what you are doing, and how that's affecting them.
Taking ownership for your own behavior, your own words, for your own communication; we will look at that more directly shortly.
And being fair in conflict resolution. It’s not about winning; it’s about both people coming out feeling satisfied that they have addressed the problem in a way that is reciprocal and fair.
Let’s look for a moment at some aspects of communication that involve both the role of the sender and also the receiver. And these are obviously roles that we both occupy when we’re in communication with someone.
First of all, taking responsibility and using “I” statements in communication, really important. You might think for a moment about what it means to say, you know, I feel bad about what I did a little while ago and I would like to not get so defensive in the future. I mean, that kind of communication, not saying you did this or you made be crazy or here you go again, those kind of blaming statements.
So cultivating “I” language, and you can learn more about that just by googling it online. There is a lot of useful sites that give good practical information about how to develop these kinds of communications effectively.
Using clear language, really saying what you mean, and again, doing it in a way that's not blaming.
Understanding nonverbal behavior. Noticing the visual cues, the distance between you and your partner.
Notice voice tones, eye contact, posture.
Notice what that suggests about the other person's feelings. If they have kind of quieted down for a while or moved away in a way you are not used to, you might want to seek them out and ask them what's wrong or say that I am wondering if something is bothering you right now that you want to talk about, to invite communication about that.
Always respecting other people's perspectives and emotions, invalidating them.
Taking responsibility to ensure that the message you are giving to someone, that you are sending is understood.
Checking it out with people; even saying, I am not sure if you heard what I said accurately, is there something I need to say differently? Or just checking in with people about the accuracy of your communication as well as checking people's perceptions, their thoughts and feelings about it.
Avoiding absolutes. In situations, especially involving conflict, usually people are neither 100% correct or wrong, it is usually two sides to every story. And appreciating that is always important and trying to communicate in a way that doesn’t engender a defensive or an aggressive response. Again, being respectful, showing concern for the other person, listening actively are really important factors here.
Looking at the receiver’s role for a moment, listening effectively is probably one of the most challenging things that I know I do in my daily life. It’s really easy to get distracted, preoccupied. And not be really prepared to really attend effectively to someone who wants or needs to communicate with us directly. Taking responsibility again, avoiding assumptions, don’t you mind reading or imagine what you think people are thinking about you or what’s going on in their minds, better to check that out, better to say I have a hunch that may be you are upset with me right now but not necessarily saying that with any kind of certainty, avoiding interruptions, letting people complete sentences.
Something I don’t do sometimes. If my wife has complaints about me sometimes is that I interrupt her, I will finish this sentence. I will jump in before she has a chance to really explain what she is trying to communicate to me.
Again, understanding non-verbal behavior, paying attention to what’s not being said and asking clarifying questions if the sender’s message is not clear or understood. Always validating emotions of other – validating the thinking and emotions of the other person, and also respecting that they have every right to feel disappointment and that’s even -- or about it another situation that’s troubling them. Attempting to summarize what you have said or heard. Telling people that what I have heard from you is you are saying this or that, whatever, and always looking for common ground.
Let’s shift into what I hope will be some really useful material for thinking about how we can enhance and rebuild intimacy within our relationships. And also assessing obviously when it’s gone.
This next slide on Tips to Enhance and Rebuild Intimacy is actually built on some work by Gary Chapman who published in 1995 a book called ‘The Five Love Languages’ and while seemingly dated this book has continued to be high up on ‘The New York Times’ bestseller list in the non-fiction category. And as I get into some of his material, currently I found that it was actually very relevant, very current and also very helpful. As I was getting ready for his presentation I shared some of this with my wife and it engendered some really useful discussion about the different ways that we expressed, indeed love, and that relates to the different areas of – what we call, love language. And here we are concerned with how do we express it to others, what other people need from us, and always appreciating that love is something that’s expressed actively. It’s what we do for others, it’s what we call Love Language, and it helps us also to feel loved when it’s experienced coming from someone else.
The different areas of love language include words of affirmation, we are talking here of encouragement, kind words, compliments, validation, or physical touch, that feeling of not only sexual embrace but just a soft touch on one’s arm or shoulder, of being able to sit closely together when you are watching a movie or just communicating. Of having quality time which really speaks to undivided attention without interruptions.
I know yesterday I had a very busy day and my wife and I were both working from our home and she asked me if it might be a good time in the afternoon to go for a walk by the ocean which is not too far from us, and I saw how beautiful it was outside, and I knew I had work yet to do but I said yes to that, and I know today, this morning, my wife said that she experienced me as being present during that time we were away from the workplace if you will. But it does take efforts sometimes, an intention to do that. I am not always good at it.
Acts of service, preparing a meal, cleaning, running in errands, during laundry, things that demonstrate caring from the other person. Giving gifts in response to what is valued by the other person.
Gifts can be very symbolic and meaningful, and especially when done with some surprise can be very special as a way to communicate love to your partner.
What may be important here is you learn to understand what your own love language is and what your needs are and what your partner's needs and values are.
For example, if you are doing a lot of laundry and you think of it as being an act of love and your partner really needs affirmation, you can do all the laundry you want, it’s not going to necessarily be experienced as a loving act by your partner.
So seek to do things that matter to that other person, to your loved one, your spouse, your partner, and try to really have communication with them about different ways that they experience love from you that really matters. If you haven't done that, this is a wonderful exercise to engage in.
The next slide helps us to look at some of the activities that we can use to bring intimacy into our lives, to enhance it, to rebuild it, and the first is to find common interests and engage in the activity together.
Frankly, this may be where you started out in a relationship, doing things that you both enjoyed, and maybe through the stresses of work and distractions from sometimes other challenges or stress of raising children, lot of reasons why we can get away from engaging in those areas that give us a sense of togetherness.
Create a safe sanctuary or space for discussions.
Make appointments if you need to. If something is brewing or something is bothering you or something you want to talk about is important, ask for time to do that, and bring to that discussion an intention to really listen well and to share your ideas effectively.
And when communicating with your partner, put away technology. I recall a few years ago being out for Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant and observing another couple, and one of the parties was using their cellphone in a way that was clearly discomforting to his partner. And I just as a matter of practice don’t pull out my phone when I am trying to talk with someone, or especially in a restaurant or a setting like that.
So this requires efforts sometimes and it requires intention to get things out of our way so we can listen effectively.
Guard and prioritize the relationship, and that means saying yes perhaps to an opportunity to go for a walk or a hike or to do something together that’s meaningful.
Show your partner that you do care about the relationship that you hold together and commit time and effort to making it meaningful.
Importantly, don't let emotional disconnection last any longer than necessary and that goes back to what I was saying earlier about not complaining. If there is something on your mind, you need to think about how you can best express that. Not let it fester, not let it get turned into an unresolved resentment, because those resentments, as much as you think you might be letting it go, often don’t get released, they get stored and sometimes gets stored in the body that works against intimacy.
Arrange a specific time to discuss a problem and don’t let anything else interfere with it. Very, very vital to resolving problems effectively. Sometimes I know that when I ask for that time I do bring to that kind of encounter an intention to want to listen better and to want to care for my partner and to want to resolve whatever is going on effectively.
So initiating that kind of a meeting, if you will, communicates care for the relationship and often that, even if you are the one that’s done wrong or your partner has, it communicates a sense of caring for the relationship that really does matter.
I will share too a very common problem that I have had that I think many of you out there have and that’s when someone comes to you, especially your spouse or your partner and they are critical, they are sharing disappointment in you or about something you did, my knee jerk reaction historically has been to get defensive and to sort of launch into a counterattack without really taking in what my partner or my wife, if you will, is trying to say to me.
And when you do that you create a second problem. You have someone, first of all, trying to communicate a concern and when you get defensive, you create another problem for them, which is they have to deal with your defensiveness.
So to be able to drop that stance and to be able to be willing to communicate with someone who is sharing a concern about you, with you is to be able to first want to listen and understand what it is that they are saying, what it is that you have done or not doing that they want you to understand and to communicate that understanding effectively, that goes a long way to building intimacy.
And often you can move out of a place of conflict or disappointment to people feeling understood and cared about, and that's really what helps to build the relationship up again. Some of you have learned that through your counseling I hope and others of you may have just learned that through your life experience.
I have learned it with some difficulty over time and I still have to guard against the sort of natural tendency to get defensive, to defend myself and not be open.
I hope that some of this information today has been helpful and what we have attempted to try to cover here is to learn to identify our primary love language and also that of our partners and how that can lead to a happier and more fulfilling relationship. That couples can foster intimacy by spending quality time together, whether it's going on a hike or a walk or a concert, or going to a religious or spiritual event together, or engaging in some shared interest or hobby.
And for effective communication taking responsibility for what you are trying to convey. Using the “I” statements rather than the “you” statements, by taking responsibility for your feelings and not assuming how other people are thinking or feeling as well.
And also really trying to, as you are attempting to talk about problems, of being open, of listening attentively, not interrupting, not being defensive, really caring about the person who is trying to express their thoughts to you in a way that validates their thoughts and feelings and shows care for them personally and also for the relationship. These are things I hope that have been helpful to think about today.