Navigating the Iceberg: Diving Deep to Re-Connect with Your Romantic Partner During Conflict

IMG_1567In working with couples and in navigating my own love life with all its heart swells and perils, I’ve found that conflicts between romantic partners are some of the most painful encounters we experience as adults. Hardly anything can derail our days or our lives more than being out of synch and in discord with our significant other.

Dr. Sue Johnson, the creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) wisely declares, “Conflict in romantic relationships is 90% protest at emotional disconnection.” Over the past 25 years, she’s pioneered EFT as an empirically backed method of assisting couples based on adult attachment theory – the theory that the attachment needs we are all born with do not go away just because we grow old enough to “take care of ourselves.” Rather, we continue to need emotional connection and responsiveness throughout our lives, primarily from our significant other.

When I work with couples, I’ve taken to calling it the “Iceberg of Disconnection” – the ability we have as couples to hyper-focus on the tip-top jutting out of the water and then continue bumping up against each other due to failure to note the fuller berg below. No blog post could possibly summarize the complexity of EFT or how to create deeply secure attachments. However, I will share my go-to approach based on EFT principles for how to dive below and potentially reconnect with your partner when the protests of disconnection arise. IMG_1569

  1. Stop the Conflict Long Enough to Consider Your Deeper Distress – How many times have you found your day unraveling due to conflict with your sig other about something “silly”? For instance, let’s take Claudia and Jeremy (*names and story fictionalized). Just the other night they got into a bitter argument about “Game of Thrones.” Now some might say that nothing could be more serious than if Daenerys Targaryen assumes the throne or not, but Claudia was far more interested in curling up in her partner’s arms for the night than hugging a cold pillow on the couch. The first step in reconnection is to take a step back and realize you’re not arguing about what you think you’re arguing about (at least not most of the time). Claudia was not angry that Jeremy was only minimally interested in GoT, and he was not distant because he believed she was over-invested. They could have argued all night about which stance toward the show was more “normal” and driven each other crazy. Instead, at some point (about the time she was huffing her pillow and blanket into the other room), she turned around and admitted, “I’m so sad right now.”
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  2. Name Your Protests for What They Are – Claudia was sad because she experienced Jeremy’s lack of interest in GoT as disconnection. That fantasy shows were a common way of connecting with her now deceased brother only added to the depth of her yearning not just for Jeremy’s physical presence but also his emotional presence during this TV event. When she was finally able to say, “I’m sad because I wanted to share this with you and it reminds me of my brother,” it totally changed the conversation. She was able to further explain, “When you put down people engrossed by a TV show it also puts down previous ways of connection that I’ve enjoyed.” Yes, she was angry. But she was also sad, feeling small in so many ways. Claudia needed to speak from her deeper truth in order to draw Jeremy into the connection she was so hungry for.
  3. Respond in Kind – When she got more real with him, Jeremy could have used it against her and continued with distant quips. But instead he allowed her vulnerability to draw out his own. He was able to admit, “When you become so absorbed in the show I feel left out because I just don’t enjoy it the way you do.” This further changed their conversation. From the depths of vulnerability the ice melts, and there’s safety to explore “softer” emotions like sadness, shame, fear, and yearning. There’s room to create connection. IMG_0286

Often when one member of a couple is nagging or yelling it is an attempt to say, “I feel your distance, please reconnect with me!” And when the other person is cold or withdrawn, it is a way of saying, “I am also upset about our disconnection and simply don’t know what to do.” The only way to move past your original disconnect is to be brave enough to name and share your deepest emotional truths with each other.

If you lack the language to speak about your truths or are uncertain about how to respond to your partner, please read Dr. Johnson’s book “Hold Me Tight” and consider the additional assistance of a couples therapist to help you create a deeply sustaining connection.

All content and images owned by Amanda Bowers.

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5 Tips for Effective Boundaries

IMG_0727What does someone mean when they say “good boundaries”? It’s a phrase that’s tossed around a lot, and yet most people assume their boundaries are “good” and others’ are “bad.” Who gets to be the expert here? If you back up and consider how boundaries are used in other contexts, it will help you understand how to use them relationally as well. Sometimes a boundary is something very rigid, such as an egg-shell. It clearly protects that which is inside and makes a firm demarcation between the inside and outside that is not easily crossed without destroying the boundary. Other times, boundaries are more diffuse. Think of a picket fence around a home – the fence clarifies property, but you can still see beyond it, and even open the gate to enter without harming the fence. Relational boundaries are no different. In some situations, more rigid boundaries are required to keep your stability, integrity, and safety in tact, while other times it makes sense to loosen your boundaries in order to allow for the vulnerability required to form deep connections with others.

What happens, though, is that many people find themselves interacting with the world from only one or the other vantage point without showing flexibility depending on the given relationship or situation at hand. We’ve all met those people who after knowing you for all of 5 minutes will share about their medical problems, their money woes, and ask you personal questions that would make a reality star blush. And then there are others who keep people at an emotional arm’s length, even those who they are supposedly close to, not knowing how to admit to all the complexities and flaws of being human.

This post will speak more to the former. If you are one of those people who often finds yourself in the thick of relational drama, whose to-do list for others is a mile long, who repeatedly puts yourself in positions where you are taken advantage of, and who sometimes can’t even distinguish which emotions belong to you or others, then this post is for you. Let’s look at some tips for firming up your boundaries!

1) It’s ok to say no. For many people, especially women, the idea of saying no feels terrible. However, “no” is actually a primary purpose of a boundary. “No” says you can’t cross this line, because what’s on the other side belongs to me (be it my space, my time, even my body). Thus, it is incredibly important to practice saying no. Some tips for doing so:
a) Don’t be pushed to give an answer immediately
b) Remind yourself that saying yes to this means saying no to something else – check in with yourself about what you’re giving up to say yes (is it your exercise or creative time, time with your children or spouse, your sense of self-respect, etc.)
c) Be short and sweet with your reply. “No, I can’t do that” is sufficient, it doesn’t require a laundry list of reasons, or any apologies
d) Be open to compromise. Maybe this is something you really want to say yes to or it’s your turn to return a favor – see if there are ways to meet in the middle with someone rather than giving of yourself entirely on someone else’s terms

IMG_07542) Choose your inner circles wisely. It feels so good to meet a new friend or colleague and form a super quick bond. There’s that magical sense of this person just gets me. And those types of quick, lasting relationships do exist! If you have one or more of them, be grateful. But don’t forget that time is also a teller of all secrets. And that it’s over time, with ever-deepening disclosures and need for support, that you come to know you can trust someone. That co-worker you spoke with so openly at lunch the other day may not guard your confidence as closely as his/her own desires to advance. And your new neighbor may pull away when he learns you’re under water on your mortgage. Or conversely, that neat person who was so open and interesting to talk with at first, may now be calling you daily with her “crisis du jour” and you didn’t mean to sign on to be her confidant. I’m not asking you to have people jump through unreasonable hoops, but it is important to make sure those closest to you have earned, not just been given, your trust. And earned trust takes time.

3) Helping versus needing to be needed. We all love people who are naturally compassionate and helpful, who step in to offer a word of kindness or support without immediate expectation for reciprocation. These are the people in our lives who appear to enjoy being kind. These are our saints. However, it’s really important to distinguish for yourself if you like to be helpful or need to be needed. Some people don’t know who they are or what to do with themselves if they are not always in a helping role – if this is you, watch out! There is a fine line between being a saint and a martyr. You may be on the fast track for emptiness and sky-rocketing resentment. If you find yourself constantly in the middle of other people’s crises, being called on in excess to the point that you are angry, or noting to yourself that you are the only one who can do something or the only one who gives of yourself, then it may be time to take a hard look at how you can do more for yourself and let others do more for themselves. If this is a deeply ingrained pattern, the help of a therapist may be valuable.

 4) Two halves don’t make a whole, but two wholes make a great life. Many of us have bought into the romantic notion that another person can “complete” us (thanks, Jerry McGuire!). That where you are strong, he/she is weak, where you are practical, he/she is adventurous, etc. That you are somehow empty and less real without the constant attention and affection of another person. This is such a compelling story because it is basically the story of a newborn and a mother – and we never stop yearning to recreate it. However, between two adults, this story can be very dangerous. By depending on each other too much, by feeling ill at ease when apart even for short periods of time, by cutting off from other parts of yourself and your life, you and your partner risk losing the deep connection, passion, and vitality that makes a couple relationship so worthwhile. Challenge yourself to be a whole all on your own! Develop your personal hobbies, passions, and goals. Some of these you may do together, but some of them should be yours alone. This keeps you both going out into the world and coming back to share what you’ve learned and get excited about it together, rather than closing off the world into the little bubble you both live in that eventually either becomes stagnant or pops. IMG_0750

5) Kids need parents to be parents not friends. As a therapist I’ve worked with a lot of families, and one of the common problems that leads a family into my office is that the parents – albeit well-meaning – do not know how to let their kids be upset or dislike them. They are intent on seeming “cool” and being a kid’s friend. I’m certainly not advocating running your home like a military compound without the warmth and nurture and play that kids need to thrive! But kids also need limits. And they need to test your limits and know those limits are real. I often speak of the 3 C’s to parenting: clear expectations, clear rewards/consequences, and consistency in enforcement. I promise if your kid gets mad at you, it’s won’t last. And once an adult, your child will be so grateful to have grown up in a home where he/she learned that gentle and firm are not mutually exclusive concepts.

If some of these tips seem daunting, don’t be too hard on yourself! One could probably write a whole blog post (or book!) about each topic. Just take a deep breath, connect to your present moment, and ask yourself how you can embrace this moment with the balance the moment calls for. If you find it overwhelming to consider, you may seek the advice of a mental health professional.

All content owned by Amanda Bowers.